William Tyndale

c. 1495 - 1536

 

 

Introduction:

It is not well-known that William Tyndale is one of the most important men in English history.  He is known as the Father of the English Reformation.  He is also known as the first to translate the Scriptures into English from Hebrew and Greek - his work having the greatest influence on subsequent English Bibles -- and the English language itself.  It is judged that Tyndale's translation formed the basis for 85% to 90% of the 1611 King James text of the Bible which became most influential in subsequent English life and culture. 

 

(It should be noted that John Wycliffe (1324-1384), sometimes known as the "Morning Star of the Reformation," was the first to translate the Bible into English; however, his translation was from the Latin Vulgate - not from the original languages.  As in the case of William Tyndale, Wycliffe {who was also trained at Oxford} was appalled at the unbiblical, traditional teaching emanating from the Church hierarchy, and he dearly desired the people would come to understand biblical doctrine by reading the Scriptures for themselves.  Few had access to the Latin Vulgate - translated from Hebrew and Greek into Latin by Jerome - AD 382-405.  Church authorities were so angered by Wycliffe's translation that forty years after his death his bones were exhumed, burned and scattered - all because he dared to translate the Bible into English!  Whenever there has been significant reformation of the Church, it has always been due to biblical dissemination in the vernacular.  Whenever the Church returns to its roots, the Scriptures, there is always new life throughout its branches.)  

 

It is said that William Tyndale taught England to read and Shakespeare to write.  An exhibit co-sponsored by the British Library and the Library of Congress asserted:  "Contrary to what history teaches about Chaucer being the father of the English Language, this mantle belongs to William Tyndale, whose work was read by ten thousand times as many people as Chaucer."  His New Testament printed in 1526 (the first English book printed with Gutenberg's moveable-type press) was "the most important printed book in the English language," according to the British Library.  Only two copies of his original printed New Testament survive, and more than one million pounds was paid for one of those copies by the British Library -- understanding its paramount significance.

 

Indicative of his academic genius, Tyndale received his M.A. from Oxford, Magdalen Hall, in 1515 at age twenty-one - apt in eight languages - Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Spanish, French, Italian, English and German.  He later received his theological training at Cambridge and was ordained to the priesthood c.1521. Quite possibly there was no one in all England prepared so thoroughly  by God for the monumental task of giving English-speaking people the priceless gift of his Word.  Authorities in England were so violently opposed to his work, he was forced to leave for the continent about 1524.  It was there his translation was completed and printed -- then secretly shipped back to England in every way imaginable.  As he was running from Church authorities and Henry VIII on the continent, his language ability stood him in good stead as he was forced to flee from place to place.   

 

Tyndale's English Bible translation desperately needed to reform the Church:

There is no doubt God raised up reformers like William Tyndale because the established Church was hardly recognizable as Christian: it had slipped so low into unbiblical tradition - scarcely bearing any resemblance to a New Testament Church.  No European institution was more wealthy or powerful.  Huge landholdings were ruled by the ecclesiastical hierarchy who lived luxuriously.  Almost everything the church dispensed through its ecclesiastical functions brought more money into its coffers, and both the common people and the nobility were obliged to pay church taxes.  Ecclesiastical positions were offered to the highest bidder, and salvation was merchandized by means of such devices as indulgences.  "When a coin into the coinbox rings, a soul from Purgatory soon will spring." became a common saying as indulgences were hawked throughout Europe.  Various church projects such as Saint Peter's Cathedral and papal wars were financed by such shameless promotions.  How could the Church have degenerated to such depths?  It was simply because the established Church had departed from its true authority - the Scriptures - and had restricted the Bible from general use.

 

Scripture compared to reality in the established Church:

William Tyndale knew the clear teachings of Jesus: "For God so loved the world that He gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal lifel." (John 3:16)  He knew there was no way salvation could be merchandized, ceremonialized or traditionalized, but this is what he saw in the established Church.  "Jesus called them together and said, 'You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.  Not so with you.  Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave - just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.'" (Matthew 20:25-28)  He knew the politically powerful and wealthy Church of his day bore no resemblance to Christ's description of his true disciples.  It demanded service from the people rather than serving them.  "Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal.  But store up for yourselves treasure in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal.  For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also."  "No one can serve two masters.  Either he will be devoted to the one and despise the other.  You cannot serve both God and Money." (Matthew 6:19-21,24)  He observed this was not the way Church leaders were operating: in fact, their constant greed for gold demonstrated just the opposite!  The established Church was in fact storing up treasures on earth!

 

Church tradition had totally covered over biblical truth - the very truth Tyndale wanted to get into the hands of the people.  By making church tradition superior to biblical teaching,    Pope Boniface VIII declared in his AD 1302 Unam Sanctum: "Now, therefore, we declare, say, determine and pronounce that for every human creature it is necessary for salvation to be subject to the authority of the Roman Pontiff."  Tyndale knew this authority belonged only to Christ himself.  "For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus." (I Timothy 2:5)  It was Pope Innocent III, 1160-1216, however, who was truly outlandish in his arrogance and pride:  "In the same way for the firmament of the universal Church, which is spoken of as heaven, He appointed two great dignitaries; the greater to bear rule over souls (these being, as it were, days), the lesser to bear rule over bodies (those being, as it were, nights).  These dignitaries were the pontifical authority and the royal power.  Furthermore, the moon derives her light from the sun, and is in truth inferior to the sun in both size and quality, in position as well as effect.  In the same way the royal power derives its dignity from the pontifical authority: …."  

 

It appears that Popes Boniface VIII and Innocent III - and many others in the Church hierarchy - failed to read and heed what the Apostle Peter wrote:  "To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder, a witness of Christ's sufferings and one who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God's flock that is under your care, serving as overseerers - not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not greedy for money, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.  And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away." (I Peter 5:1-4, bold print mine)  It truly saddened William Tyndale to see the Church of Christ malfunctioning in clear disobedience to the Word of God.  If  the Apostle Peter had lived to see the day of Boniface VIII and Innocent III he wouldn't have recognized the Church at all!  He would have been thoroughly disgusted and shocked!

 

In fact, once as Tyndale was disputing with another priest about Church authority, this clergyman presented him with the standard position: "We are better to be without God's laws than the Pope's."  He replied: "If God spare my life ere many years, I will cause the boy that drives the plow to know more of the Scriptures than you."  William Tyndale was true to his word as he dedicated his entire life to providing the Bible in English to his countrymen.  He was convinced the Bible must be the bedrock on which the believer bases his authority: "Scripture derives its authority from Him who sent it.  Would you know the reason why men believe in Scripture?  It is Scripture.  It is itself the instrument which outwardly leads men to believe, whilst inwardly, the Spirit of God Himself, speaking through Scripture, gives faith to His children."   This was William Tyndale's lifelong conviction.

 

On another occasion Tyndale boldly stated: "By what right doth the pope forbid God to speak in the English tongue?  Why should not the Sermons of the Apostles, preached no doubt in the mother-tongue of those who heard them, be now written in the mother-tongue of those who read them."  Tyndale believed authority in the Church is ultimately derived from the authority of Scripture itself.  

 

If anything drove William Tyndale to disseminate the Bible to his English countrymen, it was the deplorable moral state of Church leadership which had become increasingly secular over the centuries.  Following Pope Innocent VIII, (1484-1492), few thought the papacy could sink any lower since Innocent VIII freely practiced simony, greed for gold, lust for women and rampant nepotism for his eight children - openly acknowledged by him.  The absolute nadir, however, was reached by Pope Alexander VI, (1492-1502), of the infamous Borgia family.  He followed in the descending footsteps of Innocent VIII - but a thousand times worse - adding murder and orgies to the shameful behavior of his predecessor.  Having the most wealth and influence of three cardinals seeking the papacy, Alexander VI was able to bribe more successfully and thus become pope.  Hugely wealthy and powerful, Alexander was able to buy increasing influence forging marriages with foreign nobility for his seven children from various mistresses - acquiring additional landholdings and influence through this dynasticism.  By means of papal wars, he gained even more power and land.  If he wanted the property of any cardinal, nobleman or official, he only had to find some accusation against him, imprison him and/or murder him, and all the confiscated wealth was his.  This he did with impunity.  Always wanting more money, Alexander VI once created the positions of twelve new cardinals worth 120,000 ducats to his treasury, and at the same time by selling these positions he gained important influence in the Sacred College.  Such was the brazen simony of Alexander VI.  His son, Cesare, turned out to be at least as ruthless as he.  It was Cesare who inspired Machiavelli to write The Prince - a book universally known for its description of evil political power.   

 

William Tyndale was very much aware of this terrible tragedy - this shameful soiling of the name of Christ and his Church.  Even more he wanted the trumpet call of God's Word to sound across the land - calling his beloved Church back to repentance and reform.  Tyndale knew God's rule for church leadership: "Here is a trustworthy saying: If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task.  Now the overseer must be above reproach, the husband of but one wife, temporate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money.  He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect.  (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God's church?)  He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil.  He must also have a good reputation with outsiders, so that he will not fall into disgrace and into the devil's trap." (I Timothy 2:1-7)  Tyndale knew the people of England would not tolerate the abuses existent in the established Church once they knew what the Bible had to say about true Church leadership.  He certainly hoped his beloved Church would be reformed after reading and understanding the Word of God he translated, but that did not happen.  Those in power had too much to lose, and they were far more interested in their own welfare than the welfare of God's Church.  Their unbiblical traditions would be exposed to the clear searchlight of God's Word if the Bible were widely read, and they would consequently lose the power, wealth and prestige they so tightly gripped.

 

Terrible persecution awaited those who translated, read and obeyed the Scriptures - those who deeply desired to reform the Church for the sake of Christ their Lord:

Jesus' parable of the tenants found in Matthew 21:33-45 was applied directly by him to the chief priests and Pharisees, but it also describes exactly what the established Church did to those who wished to reform it.  "Listen to another parable: There was a landowner who planted a vineyard and put a wall around it, dug a winepress in it and built a watchtower.  Then he rented the vineyard to some farmers and went away on a journey.  When the harvest time approached, he sent his servants to the tenants to collect his fruit.  The tenants seized his servants; they beat one, killed another, and stoned a third.  Then he sent other servants to them, more than the first time, and the tenants treated them the same way.  Last of all, he sent his son to them, 'They will respect my son,' he said.  But when the tenants saw the son, they said to each other, "This is the son.  Come, let's kill him and take his inheritance."  So they took him and threw him out of the vineyard and killed him."  Our Lord was recounting the sad story of Israel as it had so often strayed from the Word of God given through patriarchs and prophets - following instead foreign gods and idols - with all the attendant corruption.  So what did Israel's leaders do?  Instead of listening to the prophets' message, they killed the messengers!  That was exactly what the established Church did to reformers - its choicest servants like William Tyndale.  It killed the messengers rather than heeding the Word of God which would have been the means to heal its deep-seated corruption.

 

Certainly one of the darkest blots on the established Church was the persecution, torture and murder of tens of thousands of those who read the Scriptures and wanted to reform the Church.  History records the horrible St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre starting on August 24, 1572, when the slaughter began with French Protestant (Huguenot) leader Admiral Gaspard de Coligny and continued for months cutting down as many as 70,000 innocents.  France never recovered from this terrible loss of its best and brightest servants of God.  Meanwhile, history records that Pope Gregory XIII rejoiced when he heard the news.

 

Surely the most brutal and sadistic of all persecutions of reformers (along with Jews and Moors) was the Spanish Inquisition - instituted by Sixtus IV and first carried out by Ferdinand and Isabella beginning in 1478.  By the time this unimaginable bloodletting ended in 1834, tens of thousands of innocents were tortured and murdered by the most hideous means.

 

With the reign of Mary I (1553-1558), better-known as "Bloody Mary," the established Church in England struck down those who loved it enough to want it reformed.  Among the 300 or so martyrs burned at the stake during her reign were John Rogers (also known as Thomas Matthews), collaborator with Tyndale in Bible translation, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, Bishop of Worcester Hugh Latimer and Bishop of London, Nicholas Ridley.  As Latimer and Ridley were burned at the stake on October 16, 1555, Latimer encouraged Ridley with these memorable words, "Be of good comfort, Master Ridley, and play the man; we shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out."  This candle still burns today in the hearts of Bible-believing Christians in England and around the world.

 

The persecution and martyrdom of William Tyndale

What was Tyndale's crime for which he was sentenced by the established Church?  It was that for which he is highly honored today as one of the greatest Englishmen who ever lived - his Bible translation from Hebrew and Greek into English.  Also, he was sentenced to death because he believed and preached what the Bible teaches about salvation by faith alone: "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast.  For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." (Ephesians 2:8-10)  The established Church thought this was heresy and condemned the doctrine of salvation by faith alone in the Councils of Trent (1545-1563) - another case of Church tradition being substituted for biblical truth.

 

In the year 1535 William Tyndale was arrested in Belgium and imprisoned inhumanly in a Vilvoorden dungeon for 500 days - a castle-like prison about six miles from Brussels.  He was made to beg for his needs - patches for his clothes, candles etc.- and especially his study materials for translation.  His trial for "heresy" and "treason" was ridiculously unfair - but that was to be expected when the established Church determined it was a crime to translate the Scriptures!  Before he was strangled and burned at the stake on October 6, 1536,  Tyndale's last words were this prayer, "Lord, open the King of England's eyes."  From first to last, his one goal was to place the Word of God in the hands of the people - or at least to have it read in English so commoners could understand it.  Little did he know how soon God would powerfully answer his prayer.

 

Nothing could stop the tsunami of God's Word begun by the earthquake of       William Tyndale's translation of the Bible into English:

Three short years after his prayer, King Henry VIII decreed that a copy of the 1539 Coverdale "Great" Bible be placed prominently in every parish church.  Actually it was his Secretary and Vicar General, Sir Thomas Cromwell, who directed the clergy to provide: "…one book of the Bible of the largest volume in English, and the same set up in some convenient place with the said church that ye have care of, whereas your parishioners may most commodiously resort to the same and read it."  Most of its text was the work of Tyndale - Miles Coverdale and John Rogers having collaborated with him for several years.  This Bible was indeed "great" -- standing some fourteen inches tall!  Now the Word of God would be read in the hearing of all who came to worship within the entire realm of England - and would be available for anyone to read!  What a marvelous answer to Tyndale's prayer!  All subsequent English editions of the Bible were highly dependent on William Tyndale's seminal translation - the Geneva Bible, the Bishops Bible, the King James Bible etc.  All English-speaking people owe William Tyndale a deep debt of gratitude - a truly hallowed martyr who sacrificed his life to provide us the most priceless treasure we could ever receive - the gift of God's eternal Word in our language!

 

What was the effect of Tyndale's work on the established Church in coming years?:

Unbelievably, up until the 1900's papal encyclicals prohibited circulation of the Bible in the vernacular, and Bible Societies were condemned!  The Roman Church still wanted control over the Bible -- its translation and its distribution.  Typical of papal decrees is the following excerpt from papal encyclical, Inter Praecipuas (On Biblical Societies) by Pope Gregory XVI, May 8, 1844: "Among the special schemes with which non-Catholics plot against the adherents of Catholic truth to turn their minds away from the faith, the biblical societies are prominent.  They were first established in England and have spread far and wide so that We see them as an army on the march, conspiring to publish in great numbers copies of the divine Scripture.  These are translated into all kinds of vernacular languages for dissemination without discrimination among both Christians and infidels."

 

Incredibly the Roman Church strayed so far from the Word of God it forgot the Great Commission of our Lord Jesus Christ - the reason why Bible societies (and all obedient servants of Jesus Christ) are anxious to give the Bible to both "Christians and infidels:"  "All authority in heaven and earth has been given to Me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  And surely I am with you always, to the end of the age." (Matthew 28:18-20)  How would all nations know everything Jesus commanded unless they could have the Word of God in their hands - and in their language?

 

Another typical encyclical excerpt was decreed by Pope Leo XIII, Apostolic Constitution Officiorum ac Munerum, January 25, 1897: "All versions of the Holy Bible, in any vernacular language, made by non-Catholics are prohibited; and especially those published by Bible societies, which have been more than once condemned by the Roman Pontiffs, because in them the wise laws of the Church concerning the publication of the sacred books are entirely disregarded."  Sadly, 400 years after the martyrdom of William Tyndale, the Roman Church was still condemning Bible translation and dissemination - wanting total domination over the whole process.

 

But the story does not end there.  To his credit, Pope John XXIII was bold enough to recognize the value of Bible reading and study by the laity.  In one stroke at the time of Vatican II he reversed centuries of papal prohibitions which ruled the Roman Church up to that time in history.  Brendan Byrne, S.J., a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission, wrote in his "Scripture and Vatican II: A Very Incomplete Journey," these astounding words:  "Officially, then, with the blessing of the Council, the path was set for the furthering of the biblical revival in the Catholic Church.  Reversing centuries of reaction to the Protestant campaign for the scriptural empowerment of believers, Vatican II insisted that the Bible was the treasure and possession of the entire Church and encouraged its study and reading on the part of all the faithful."

 

Conclusion:

Tradition dies hard, but thankfully it can die!  As the Scriptures are read and applied to life and doctrine, hopefully there will be other traditions which will be seen as contrary to plain biblical teaching.  If the Bible is allowed to speak for itself in the Roman Church, traditions which have usurped biblical doctrine will begin to fall by the wayside - such as transubstantiation, baptismal regeneration, papal infallibility, apostolic succession, purgatory, veneration of Mary and the saints, pastoral celibacy, priesthood, salvation on the basis of faith plus works etc.  All of these traditions have brought great harm to the Church over the centuries simply because sola scriptura has not been the principal factor guiding Roman Church leadership.  Once something other than Scripture is allowed to determine truth, then all kinds of unbiblical practices become acceptable.  This is true not only for the Roman Church - but for any religious organization.

 

William Tyndale firmly believed the Bible to be its own best interpreter.  He was convinced that every believer has the God-given freedom to privately study the Scriptures in his own tongue  - trusting the Holy Spirit to lead into all truth - without any outside control or coercion to accept any doctrine or interpretation of which he is not convinced. William Tyndale has bequeathed us a most precious heritage we dare not take lightly.

 

 

"But as for you , continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.  All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work." (II Timothy 3:14-17, bold print mine)