A few weeks ago I put some thoughts together on William Tyndale, a translator of the Bible into English. As many start to read through the Bible this year, I thought that people might benefit from learning about the cost for the wonderful translations of the Bible that we have.
KJV, ESV, NIV, NLT, HCSB, TLB, and (dare I say) MSG. Most or all of those terms probably bring to mind different translations of the Bible. Some decades ago, people may be bewildered by all those options, but it would not be a foreign concept to have the Bible in English. Rewind some 500 years and it was not only a foreign concept, but a scandalous one. The only abbreviations you might have had were VUL for the Latin Vulgate and NIO for Erasmus’ Greek New Testament. William Tyndale longed to change that, and gave his life to it. He, like Moses, was allowed a glimpse of the promised land of the English Bible being widely disseminated, but never lived to see the fruits. Nevertheless, English-speaking Protestantism owes a great deal to Tyndale’s life of sacrifice, made relevant by a love for God’s word, a knowledge of God’s word, and an application of God’s word.
Many of the Reformers knew the power of the word of God to change lives. Martin Luther demanded that the Mass be given in Germany. Zwingli and Calvin also held their services in the vernacular. All of them gave amazing Bible-filled sermons and wrote Bible-filled books in their respective languages. While they all faced opposition for their work in one way or another, they eventually received the backing of local rulers to continue their work. Tyndale was not as fortunate.
While trying to gain support for his goal in England, Tyndale found some sympathetic ears, but no one was willing to risk their lives to help bring the Bible into English. This led him to him having to be in hiding throughout the rest of his life. Why would he be ready to go against many of the leaders of his day, risk his life, and destroy, for the most part, his hopes of a secure life? It was because he loved the word of God. As John Foxe put it, he “refused no travail nor diligence, how, by all means possible, to reduce his brethren and countrymen of England to the same taste and understanding of God’s holy Word and verity, which the Lord had endued him withal” (John Foxe, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, 141).
One great experience in studying the Reformers is that many of them are very human. They are accessible. Many can sympathize with Luther’s fear and guilt or read Calvin’s Institutes and feel as though the man knew their very soul. Tyndale is no acception to the rule and is perhaps one of the easiest to connect to. He had a great education, but never too prestigious of a role. He wrote for the people, as evidenced by his famous goal to even have the plowboys able to read the Scriptures. He knew that the word was living and active and belonged in everyone’s hands, to help them understand the Gospel and protect them from those who would twist it.
His love for the word strengthened his resolve against the abuses he saw within the church of his day. He discovered these abuses through reading the Bible (in languages he spent years studying) and wanted his fellow countrymen to be able to read and understand the same Scriptures. Then the priests’ riddles would be confounded and their idolatries found out (John Foxe, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, 141). The Church of Rome believed that a country armed with God’s Word in their own language would be a recipe for heresy on a grand scale. Tyndale believed it would be a remedy for heresy.
Finally, the love he had for the Scriptures transferred into a love for others. As previously noted, he desired that the people of England be free of the abuses of the church of his day. He knew that they thirsted for the word in their mother tongue and wanted them to be assured that they could be saved. They needed such freedom by coming to know that they had only one mediator to vouch for them before the Father (Tyndale, Works of the English Reformers,289). The books and letters that came from his pen (which he took away time from his precious translation projects to write!) were concerned with issues that people cared about deeply. They answered the human soul’s deepest longings. They came through love from a knowledge of the heart and of the word.
Indeed, that love of the word naturally flowed from a knowledge of it. Though it is not known exactly when he started reading the Bible, it does seem that whenever his heart was opened to receive it, he received a passion that changed his life forever (George, Theology of the Reformers, 333). It is evident from his writings that he devoured Scripture. He quoted it with ease and cross-referenced it, never being afraid to refute someone’s misunderstanding or a verse. It was no shallow understanding of the word, either, but one based in traditional exegesis, seeking the plain meaning of the text (George, Theology of the Reformers, 348).
Along those lines, his exegesis was much different from many of the priests of his day. That is largely due to the fact that he sought the plain meaning of the text, instead of letting traditional understandings based on practices passed down and the decisions of councils keep the word in subjection. Traditions and councils may often be correct, but they cannot be accepted simply because they claim to be authoritative. They must be submissive to the word of God. Tyndale did the dirty work of comparing Scripture to tradition and seeing what practices should stay and what should go. The word is the Sword of the Spirit, according to the Apostle Paul, and Master Tyndale knew how to wield that sword. When he found issues, he did not swerve away from using verses from all over the Bible to lead people to the truth.
That same truth can be seen in the first words that he ever had published – the words of the Gospel (or glad tidings) as explained in the preface to the first translation of the New Testament. He wanted the citizens of England to know that Christ died and that his blood spoke for them if they trusted in him, and there was nothing that the law or works could do to save them. Grace and love are available to all (Tyndale, Tyndale’s Prefaces). He knew that such a Gospel had been obscured throughout the land, and that people were in bondage to fear they had no need of being in bondage to. This was all part of this man’s goal in translating the Scriptures so that knowledge of it may abound.
Tyndale was also a wise man, despite his lack of credentials. The knowledge that he had from God’s word was the fuel his life’s ambition. He was able to deduce that the Bible was inherently meant to be translated. He could see that from the beginning of the church, lingual and cultural boundaries were being crossed and that when Paul said in Romans there needed to be a preacher, the preacher needed to be able to communicate with the people being preached to. He argued from the example of Jerome, an early church father, who translated the Bible into his own tongue, Latin (which was, in fact, less similar to Greek than English!) (Tyndale, Works of the English Reformers,188). Because of all this, he could not leave the knowledge of the word to himself in order to build up his treasuries. He was one of those saints of whom this world was not worthy. He knew what God called him to and applied it with zeal.
No knowledge, or even love, of the Scriptures would be complete without the application of it. As the Apostle James (who wrote one of Tyndale’s favorite books) said, faith without works is dead. You need to believe the core tenants of the faith, and you aren’t the starter nor finisher of that faith, but that faith means nothing without it working itself out. Even so with the word. No matter how much you believe it, it needs to have an impact on your life. Tyndale, though he was never able to apply it in the context of a local church of his own like Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin did, did apply the word that he translated in a tremendous amount of situations.
One of the most evident applications was the main work of William Tyndale, itself – translating a good portion of the Bible. He heeded the call to preach the Gospel to all nations and saw it’s natural application in Britain. The Scripture bound his conscience and convinced him that he needed to use his unique giftings to translate the Bible. The Lord’s word did not come back void after calling William to this duty.
As previously noted in the preface to his first New Testament, the word of the Gospel was very integral to his theology. In the beginning of his work on the Parable of the Wicked Mammon, Tyndale’s understanding of justification by faith alone, through grace alone, through Christ alone, to the glory of God alone, was clearly evident in how he argued. It was a bastion that he stood on and was not willing to back down (Tyndale, Works of the English Reformers,83-84). He desired to see his readers transformed by the Gospel and to see how deep the riches of Christ were. There was no other way for him, because he took the Bible seriously. He was willing to take up his cross daily and did not neglect to tell others of the burdens that they would have to bear.
Tyndale truly exemplified the sharpness of the command to carry the cross. He was on the run and, like Paul, facing danger from many sides (2 Corinthians 11:26). He could have taken the comforts of the life of a priest in England rather than suffer with God’s people. There were a number of ways he could have made his life easier, but he knew the way that God had planned for his children often involved trials. In his preface to The Obedience of a Christian Man, Tyndale wrote, “Mark this also, if God send thee to the sea, and promise to go with thee, and to bring thee safe to land, he will raise up a tempest against thee, to prove whether thou wilt abide by his word, and that thou mayest feel thy faith and perceive his goodness: for if it were always fair weather… thy faith should be but a presumption…” (Tyndale, Works of the English Reformers,170). The fact that he was suffering did not stop him from doing what he felt God calling him to do. He realized that although God sometimes used storms to bring his people back on the right path, such as with Jonah (the only prophet Tyndale translated), he also used them strengthen and sanctify his elect, as with the disciples and Paul. Tyndale applied the whole Bible to life, even if it meant he would have to face tribulation.
Another way Tyndale applied the Scriptures can be seen in his eagerness to show love to his neighbor. He was not only willing to help when a need arose, but actively sought out people who needed aid (George, Theology of the Reformers, 371). The thought of a man who was so often in danger caring about others’ needs is astounding, especially when we today often cringe at the idea of giving up a couple hours of our free time to help out at a shelter. The word that he loved informed him of the love God had for him, which led to love for others, which then flooded over into action. He did not simply care about the spiritual need, but also the physical need. This showed his concern for applying the words he took so much time to translate.
Finally, Tyndale was willing to make perhaps the most difficult application of Scripture. He was willing to die for the faith. On multiple occasions he took stances on the Bible that brought the anger of powerful people, including Sir Thomas More, King Henry VIII, and even the Emperor of Germany! Many people searched for him as he hid throughout Germany. He ran for some ten years, but was eventually betrayed by a man named Henry Phillips, put on trial, and sentenced to death. His reaction to the whole ordeal is not known, but the way he died showed that to him, to die was gain.
And great gain it was! Soon after his death, many advances for the Gospel were made throughout England and across the world. First of all, he is with his Lord right now. The solace of every one of God’s elect is that they are with Christ, “which thing is best of all…” as Tyndale put it (Philippians 1:23). Though the driving goal throughout his life was translating the Scriptures into English, the ultimate goal was always Christ, sharing in his sufferings and then sharing in his resurrection. Tyndale ran the race, despite the challenges he faced that threatened him. He trusted God to guard the good deposit, and his testimony has encouraged many over the years to seek after Christ.
An additional dividend from his work was found in his very imprisonment. According to Foxe, Tyndale led several people to the Lord during his imprisonment (John Foxe, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, 152). Such a report echoes the life of Paul, who rejoiced in his imprisonment because of the opportunities he received to share the Gospel. It is encouraging to hear of his resolve to preach the truth about Christ even in distress, and of the Lord working amazing wonders out of tragedies.
Finally, the English Bible quickly became available across the country after his death. “Lord! open the king of England’s eyes,” is what he is said to have exclaimed as he died (John Foxe, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, 152). Whether or not King Henry’s eyes were truly opened is not known, but it is known that by 1538 it was required that every church in England have a Bible in English, a Bible which drew heavily from Tyndale’s translation (Ryan Reeves, Henry VII, The Reformation, and the First Authorized Bible). Though that only put the English Bible in church (not in homes), it was a huge advancement. The precedent that Tyndale set of being willing to die for following Christ has lead to the Bible being available, at least in some form, in 3,384 languages across the globe! To go from around three available languages before the Reformation to what is available today is nothing short of amazing. Christians should rejoice in these words by Lynn DeShazo:
Martyr’s blood stains each page
They have died for this faith
Hear them cry through the years
Heed these words and hold them dear
The life of William Tyndale was one of significance because it magnified God through his love, knowledge, and application of his word. Tyndale outwardly wasted a perfectly good, comfortable life so that his country could read the Scriptures themselves. Though his translation is not commonly read anymore, he has had a huge legacy for Bible translation. In a way, many English-speaking Protestants today could be called disciples of Tyndale, for though he is dead, yet he still speaks.
As we work together to read all of God’s word this year, let us encourage each with stories like these that show how valuable the ability to read the Bible in our own language is.