Essay / Misc.

The Gospell Entyseth Draweth and Sheweth

Tyndale on the Lords Prayer William Tyndale (1492-1536) changed the world with a revolutionary Bible translation that moved straight from the original languages into English with no Latin middle-man. The very words of Scripture were thus unleashed to conduct their own sovereign interrogation of the sixteenth century church: Are you hearers and doers of the word? Aside from the theological earthquake this brought about, there was also a tremor in linguistics: bringing the English language directly under the influence of Old Testament Hebrew and New Testament Greek, he was one of the major forces to give the English language its expressive range and cadences, as the best Tyndale biography argues. In addition to his epochal work as a translator, Tyndale was a powerful theologian, the author of a number of doctrinal and practical treatises suffused with biblical insight.

A real gem, one of his smaller pieces has just been published in the Southwestern Journal of Theology, along with an introduction and commentary by Malcolm Yarnell. (The whole article is available in .pdf form here). It is a treatise on the Lord’s Prayer, and there are several remarkable things about it. Tyndale writes a meaty introduction, and then he puts forth the theology of the Lord’s Prayer in the form of a dialogue between the sinner who prays the prayer, and the God who hears it. As the prayer is put on the lips of this character named “synner” (that’s 16th century orthography for “sinner”), each word takes on gravity and profundity. So the synner says to God:

Oure father which arte in heven
what a greate space ys betwen the and us:
How therefore shall we thy children here on erth
baneshed and exiled from the in this vale of misery and wretchedness
come home to the in to oure naturall countre?

It is an extended gloss on the two words, “Father” and “heaven,” dwelling especially on the great distance implied in the Father’s location in heaven: there is “greate space betwen” the Father’s home far away in “oure naturall countre” and the current location of the Father’s children here in this “vale of misery and wretchedness.” As Tyndale works on this theme of distance, he seems to be casting the sinner in the role of the prodigal son, far from his father’s house, wasting his substance in the far country.

That alone is worth the price of admission. But then, as Tyndale unfolds the treatise on the Lord’s prayer, a surprising thing happens: God replies! Responding to the synner who has called on him as Father, God says:

The child honoureth hys hys father
and the servaunt hys master.
Yf I be youre father where ys myne honouore.
Yf I be youre lorde where ys my feare. Malachias i.
For my name thorowe you and by youre meanes ys blasphemen rayld apon and evyll spoken of. Esiaias lii.

It is a stinging rebuke, and enough to wake up anybody who sleepily mumbles their way through a Lord’s prayer. God is postively standoffish here. He pushes back, and demands from the synner much greater clarity, a much starker confrontation than the opening address suggested. And the synner replieth:

Alas O father that ys trueth.
we knowledge oure synne and treaspace
nevertheless yet be thou a merciful father
and deale not wyth us according to oure deservynges
neither judge us by the rigorousness off thi lawe
but geve us grace that we maye so lyve
that thy holy name maye be alowed and sanctified in us.
And kepe oure hertes
that we nether do speake
no
that we not once thynke or purpose any thinge
but that which is to thyne honoure and prayse
and above all thinges make thy name and honoure to be soughte of us and not oure awne name and vayne glory.
And off thi myghty power bringe to passe in us
that we maye love and feare the as a sonne hys father.

The whole prayer continues in this vein, and it becomes apparent that the exercise, especially God’s stern and sustained rebuke, constitutes an educational process for the synner. He repeatedly starts his sentences with “Alas that ys trueth,” and always casts himself on God’s mercy rather than his own deservynges. He asks that God would bringe to passe in him, by his own myghty power, a proper filial reponse: “that we maye love and feare the as a sonne hys father.”

God keeps pushing back, response after response. The next sentence is:

How can myne honoure and name be ahalowed amonge you
when your hertes and thoughtes are all wayes enclined to evyll…

–as if God were saying, “What gives you the right to wish for my name to be hallowed?” And so on with God’s will being done, and his kingdom coming on earth as in heaven. JUST WHO DO YOU THINK YOU ARE, to be asking these things in prayer when your hertes and thoughtes are all wayes enclined to evyll?

It is an odd, arresting treatise on prayer. In the introduction, Tyndale explains what he is doing. The synner prays, but “God answereth by the lawe, as though he wolde putt hym from hys desyre.” But the point of this law-speech (“Why do you call me Father if you do not behave like a son?”) is not to exact filial behavior or pressure the synner into acting as righteously as Jesus. It is to make the synner see the greatness of his need: “Marke this well and take it for a sure conclusion. when god commaundeth us in the lawe to do any thinge he commaundeth not therefore that we are able to do yt but to bryng us un to the knowledge of oureselves that we might se what we are and in what miserable state we are in and knowe our lack that thereby we shuld torne to god and to knowlege our wretchednes un to hym and to desyre him that of his mercy he wold make us that he biddeth us be…”

Tyndale’s theology, with a few anglo modifications, is Luther in English. So he uses the law to drive the synner to the gospell, which functions altogether differently: “The gospell entyseth draweth and sheweth from whence to fetche helpe and coupleth us to God thorowe fayth.” Faith grasps the gospell, and only faith can pray. “Prayar ys the effecte and worke off fayth,” but “they never praye which fele not the workynge of the lawe in their hertes.”

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