The Light That Scattered Roman Darkness
Many who have written on the English Bible have treated Tyndale’s greatness as a translator, but of this greatness the martyr was, in a sense, unconscious. The finesse of linguistics was not his concern, rather as Mozley says, ‘The first thing with him is to render the meaning of the sacred text into pure and direct “English”.’ Yet, as is always the case, when a man rises to spiritual heights his natural abilities are also developed to their finest point, and it is the highest tribute to Tyndale’s text (including the improvements of his second edition of 1534) that the translators of the Authorized Version more than eighty years later retained something like ninety per cent of his New Testament. Few readers of the English Bible are aware of this, and we read long familiar words like ‘passover’, ‘scapegoat’, ‘mercy-seat’ and phrases like the ‘longsuffering and tender mercies of God’, without realizing that such words did not exist in the English language until they were coined by the prince of English translators.
Between 1525 and 1528 only a short Prologue to the Epistle to the Romans appeared from the Reformer’s pen (1526), but he was working night and day at Worms, breaking down the difficulties of the Hebrew language (a language untaught at the English Universities when Tyndale was there) and also preparing the books which were to press home the message and application of the New Testament. The first of these, The Parable of the Wicked Mammon appeared in May, 1528, and contained a fervent exposition of the doctrine that we are made righteous before God solely through faith in Christ. Faith, wrought by the Spirit, unites the sinner to Christ so that, in Tyndale’s graphic words:
Christ is thine, and all his deeds are thy deeds. Christ is in thee, and thou in him, knit together inseparably. Neither canst thou be damned, except Christ be damned with thee: neither can Christ be saved, except thou be saved with him.
This was followed in the same year by the largest of his original works, The Obedience of a Christian Man. In taking up this latter subject, which deals with the relationship between the Christian and those who hold superior authority through the nature of their positions – whether they be parents, masters, or kings – Tyndale rightly estimated what was to become in England a crucial issue for many years ahead. He had already unashamedly arrived at winning the sympathies of the common man and in so doing he had exposed himself to the charge of stirring unrest and disobedience between subjects and their rulers. Just as the blame of the Peasants’ War of 1524-5 was laid at Luther’s door in Germany, so Tyndale was accused in England of being ‘a breaker of the king’s peace, and a traitor’. To meet this accusation he expounds that ‘the powers that be are ordained of God’ and that ‘all rulers, whether parents, husbands, masters, landlords, therefore wield an authority from God, and must be obeyed.’ At the head of all stands the king, who has no superior. But this does not mean, as we shall later see, that the civil realm is to be equated with the spiritual. As the Word of God guides the Christian in his obedience in temporal affairs so it does respecting the church of Christ; and therefore, if we find in this sphere authorities which are not in accord with Scripture demanding obedience, then such men are to be shunned, not obeyed. This conclusion, as Tyndale was aware, had tremendous implications; for by encouraging Christians to recognize it he knew that he was giving counsel which might lead many to the fires of martyrdom. The Preface to The Obedience sounds this note as he exhorts his fellow countrymen, who were already taking their lives in their hands by reading the New Testament, to ‘be bold in the Lord, and comfort thy soul’.
Christ is with us unto the world’s end. Let his little flock be bold therefore: for if God be on our side, what matter maketh it who be against us, be they bishops, cardinals, popes, or whatsoever names they will? ... We are called, not to dispute, as the pope’s disciples do, but to die with Christ, that we may live with him, and to suffer with him, that we may reign with him.
Prior to 1528 Tyndale had been very sparing in any criticisms of the ecclesiastical powers. The notes which accompanied the Cologne fragment of 1525 were marked by their moderation. Erasmus himself had written stronger things. But in three years events had occurred which placed the professing Church in a more solemn light than Tyndale had yet seen it. Tunstall had publicly burnt the New Testament in London; Wolsey had scattered the little group at Cambridge – Bilney only escaping with his life in 1527 after a sad recantation. The Antwerp printer, Christopher van Endhoven, had been arrested for issuing another edition of Tyndale’s New Testament. Thomas Carter’s secret ring for distributing prohibited books had been smashed early in 1528 at Oxford, where four of the reformers died through their imprisonment in the cellars of Christ Church before the summer had passed.
The peril Tyndale was in had greatly increased. Wolsey had three agents searching for him during 1528 as well as enlisting the aid of the Regent of the Low Countries. It is hardly surprising therefore that both his books printed that year carried the name of a non-existent printer, ‘Hans Lufft’, and a false place name, ‘Marburg’, being in fact printed by John Hoochstraton at Antwerp. As the printers were working in a foreign tongue Tyndale had to supervise the work – a difficult thing for a hidden fugitive, as a little note in The Mammon suggests: ‘Be not offended, most dear reader, that divers things are overseen through negligence in this little treatise. For verily the chance was such, that I marvel that it is so well as it is.’
Facts like these explain why in The Obedience, Tyndale began to analyse more distinctly the state of the great ecclesiastical institution bearing the name of Christ in England. He thus proceeds from the Christian’s duty to kings and magistrates to the second half of the work containing, in language of extraordinary power, a denunciation of Antichrist. He had already warned his readers in the Preface to The Mammon:
The Jews look for Christ, and he is come fifteen hundred years ago, and they not aware: we also have looked for Antichrist, and he hath reigned as long, and we not aware: and that because either of us looked carnally for him, and not in the places where we ought to have sought.
He was now to expand what he meant; indeed by dealing with Christian obedience he could avoid it no longer, for if it is lawful to obey masters and landlords, why not bishops and clergy? Both groups, it was claimed, were officers of the king, and therefore obedience was surely due to the ecclesiastical powers as much as to civil authorities. To Tyndale, this claim was but a pretext to cover up what the Church feared to see exposed:
But now’, say our bishops, ‘because the truth is come too far abroad, and the lay-people begin to smell our wiles, it is best to oppress them with craft secretly, and to tame them in prison. Yea, let us find the means to have them in the king’s prison, and to make treason of such doctrine.
Burning with indignation at the way the truth of the gospel had been handled since the publication of the New Testament, Tyndale piles argument upon argument to show that obeying such ecclesiastical powers is nothing else than supporting Antichrist. And conscious that this might be far from apparent to all his readers – for ‘antichrist will be ever the best Christian man’, he brings everything to the touchstone of ‘open and manifest Scripture’. Starting with the principle that obedience is to be given in spiritual concerns only to that which is testified by God’s Word, he shows how this serves to distinguish man’s imaginations and inventions from that which is divinely ordained. Thus from Timothy 3, he expounds the true marks and duties of a bishop, or elder, by which the reader may judge in what light they should view the existing practices of the clergy:
Bishops and priests that preach not, or that preach aught save God’s word, are none of Christ’s, nor of his anointing; but servants of the beast, whose mark they bear, whose word they preach, whose law they maintain clean against God’s law ... Behold the monsters, how they are disguised with mitres, crosiers, and hats, with crosses, pillars, and pole-axes, and with three crowns. What names have they? My lord prior, my lord abbot, my lord bishop, my lord archbishop, cardinal, and legates if it please your fatherhood; if it please your lordship, if it please your grace; if it please your holiness; and innumerable such like...
If they minister their offices truly, it is a sign that Christ’s Spirit is in them; if not, that the devil is in them.
In this way he goes on to declare that the existing hierarchy, though they claimed to be the possessors of spiritual authority, had in reality none at all. They will ask us, Tyndale says,
Whence hast thou thine authority?’ The old Pharisees had the Scripture in captivity likewise, and asked Christ, ‘By what authority doest thou these things?’ As who should say ‘We are Pharisees, and thou art none of our order, nor hast authority of us.’ Christ asked them another question, and so will I do our hypocrites. ‘Who sent you? God? Nay, he that is sent of God speaketh God’s word. Now speak ye not God’s word, nor anything save your own laws, made clean contrary unto God’s word. Christ’s apostles preached Christ, and not themselves. He that is of the truth preached the truth. Now ye preach nothing but lies, and therefore are of the devil, the father of all lies, and of him are ye sent.
Nor was this all that Tyndale dealt with in The Obedience of a Christian Man. Though he now regarded the hierarchy of bishops as a fundamental evil, the issue was much wider: it concerned the substitution of man’s wisdom for God’s revealed will in the whole ecclesiastical realm – in the mode of training men for the ministry, and in the practices, vestments 1and ceremonies which were the accepted patterns of religious life and worship. Tyndale attacked these things, not in the pettiness of a man trying to find fault in everything, but because he saw that the purity of the gospel would never prevail until the corruptions were removed which had gradually driven out the truth. Take, for example, his comments on the service of Confirmation. He commences, as usual, by affirming that we can only expect spiritual blessing to be attached to the practice if we are so warranted by Scripture:
If Confirmation have a promise, then it justifieth as far as the promise extendeth. If it have no promise, then is it not of God, as the bishops be not ... After that the bishops had left preaching, then reigned they this dumb ceremony of Confirmation, to have somewhat at the least way, whereby they might reign over their dioceses ... They will say that the Holy Ghost is given through such ceremonies. If God had so promised, so should it be; but Paul saith, (Gal. 3) that the Spirit is received through preaching of the faith. ‘And (Acts 10) while Peter preached the faith, the Holy Ghost fell on Cornelius and on his household...’
Other ceremonies likewise hide the gospel from the people:
They preach also, that the wagging of the bishop’s hand over us blesseth us, and putteth away our sins. Are these works not against Christ? How can they do more shame unto Christ’s blood? For if the wagging of the bishop’s hand over me be so precious a thing in the sight of God that I am thereby blessed, how then am I full ‘blessed with all spiritual blessing in Christ’? as Paul saith, Eph.1. Or if my sins be full done away in Christ, how remaineth there any to be done away by such fantasies? The apostles knew no ways to put away sin, or to bless us, but by preaching Christ. Paul saith, Gal. 2, ‘If righteousness come by the law, then Christ died in vain.’ So dispute I here: If blessing come by the wagging of the bishop’s hand, then died Christ in vain, and his death blesseth us not.
This was plain speaking and it is not surprising that the year 1529, which followed, was a hard one for the translator. He was now clearly recognized as the most able and formidable leader of the movement which had made little progress in England prior to his translation of the New Testament four years before. The circulation of the exile’s books, says Foxe, ‘as they wrought great and singular profit to the godly, so the ungodly began to stir with no small ado; like as at the birth of Christ, Herod was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.’ Since leaving Worms, Tyndale had probably stayed mainly around the port of Antwerp, situated at the mouth of the Scheldt, the place which offered him good printing, contacts with sympathetic fellow-countrymen resident in the city, and an easy supply route to England. But the proximity to England also made it a place of danger. In 1528 the house of Richard Harman, a supplier of Tyndale’s New Testaments, had been searched in Antwerp, and in the summer of 1529 Tunstall himself visited the city. By the latter date, however, Tyndale had gone. Early in the year, being ready to start the printing of his translation of the Pentateuch, he had sailed for Hamburg. The voyage proved a severe trial, for in the ship-wreck of his vessel off the coast of Holland, he lost ‘all his books, writings, and copies’, so when at length he reached the hospitable home of Margaret Van Emmerson in Hamburg at the end of March, it was not to put in hand his first Old Testament translation but only to start the work afresh. With plague ravaging the town that summer, Tyndale remained at this labour till December, when he returned to Antwerp. Without any loss of time his former printer, Hoochstraten, had the title page of Genesis printed by 17 January 1530. The remaining books of Moses quickly followed and were soon among the other books which came ‘thick and threefold into England’. This commencement on the Old Testament revealed how finely Tyndale had accomplished what no one else had yet attempted, the translation of Hebrew into vivid and living English. Moreover to each book of the Pentateuch the reformer had added a prologue, and these prologues are among the best of his comments on the Word of God. In handling Scripture Tyndale never descended to the level of a mere scholar; he translated and commented out of his own experience. ‘As thou readest’, he says in the Prologue to Genesis, ‘think that every syllable pertaineth to thine own self and suck the pith of the Scripture.’ He points out the benefit to us of the history of men like Adam, Noah and Abraham:
Consider how God sendeth forth Abraham out of his own country into a strange land, full of wicked people, and gave him but a bare promise with him, that he would bless him and defend him. Abraham believed, and that word saved and delivered him in all perils: so that we see how that man’s life is not maintained by bread only, as Christ saith, but much rather by believing the promises of God.
It was because he was personally living upon these same promises that Tyndale did not sink under the troubles of a year like 1529.
Tyndale’s next two books were not translations but polemical works in which are to be found some of the most forceful and vehement passages in Christian literature. They were his treatise, The Practice of Prelates (1530), and his Answer unto Sir Thomas More’s Dialogue (1531). Some writers on Tyndale have expressed regret that he allowed himself to be diverted from pressing forward with translation at this time, for his publication of the Pentateuch in 1530 was to prove his last work to be issued in his lifetime on the Old Testament (except for his slender Jonah in 1531); and it was not in fact till 1534 – when his years of freedom were almost gone – that Tyndale returned to what was specifically the work of a translator with the publication of his revised New Testament.
But such a judgment errs in not sufficiently recognising that Tyndale’s work was wider than that of a translator only: he was a reformer and if we had been without these two works we should have lacked material vital to any assessment of the policy which Tyndale was formulating to bring about what one hostile writer calls ‘an ecclesiastical revolution of a highly dangerous character’. Already in his Obedience of a Christian Man, Tyndale had laid an indictment against the bishops, but in his Practice of Prelates he gives us an historical résumé of the whole rise of the system of hierarchy and prelacy; and while his main concern is with the practical corruptions of episcopacy, he also makes it clear that it is not the character of the existing bishops only which is condemned by the Word of God. The system itself is condemned because the Scripture knows nothing of a class of ‘bishops’ distinct from elders:
The apostles, following and obeying the rule, doctrine, and commandment of our Saviour Jesus Christ, their master, ordained in his kingdom and congregation two officers; one called, after the Greek word, bishop, in English an overseer: which same was called priest after the Greek, elder in English ... Another officer they chose, and called him deacon after the Greek, a minister in English, to minister the alms of the people unto the poor and needy.
In other words, according to Scripture, there is only one office in the church to which belongs the spiritual oversight and ministry of the Word, and the occupiers of this office are described by the interchangeable terms, bishop or elder.2The office was of such a character at the beginning ‘that no man coveted and that no man durst take upon him, save he only which loved Christ better than his own life’. But with spiritual decay and the increase of material possessions a different spirit arose – pride, covetousness and a readiness to imitate a worldly form of government – so the bishops began to elevate their authority by distinguishing themselves from a lower office ‘which they called priests and kept the name of bishop unto themselves’. This transformation of the office of bishop from its primitive simplicity did not end here; even amongst the bishops there developed the possibility of rising higher – men asked what a bishopric was worth and were ready to leave a worse one for a better – until at length one succeeded in climbing ‘up above all his fellow-bishops, and brought them under his feet’. Thus the abandonment of the New Testament ‘bishop’, who was a preacher of the Word, serving with fellow elders holding the same office in each congregation, led to the full-blown hierarchy who usurped the scriptural title and had the Pope at their head. To the objection that such inequality and superiority is necessary in the church in order that authority may be enforced, Tyndale responds:
The world, truly, can see no other way to rule than with violence: for there no man abstaineth from evil, but for fear; because the love of righteousness is not written in their hearts. And therefore the pope’s kingdom is of the world: for there one sort are your grace, your holiness, your fatherhood; another, my lord bishop, my lord abbot, my lord prior; another, master doctor, father, bachelor, master parson, master vicar, and at the last cometh in simple Sir John. And every man reigneth over other with might ... But in the kingdom of God it is contrary. For the Spirit that bringeth them thither maketh them willing, and giveth them lust unto the law of God; and love compelleth them to work, and love maketh every man’s good, and all that he can do, common unto his neighbour’s need ... So now thou seest that in the kingdom of Christ, and in his church or congregation, and in his councils, the ruler is the Scripture, approved through the miracles of the Holy Ghost, and men be servants only; and Christ is the head, and we all brethren. And when we call men our heads, that we do not because they be shorn or shaven, or because of their names, parson, vicar, bishop, pope; but only because of the word which they preach. If they err from the word, then may whomsoever God moveth his heart, play Paul, and correct him. If he will not obey the Scripture, then have his brethren authority by the Scripture to put him down, and to send him out of Christ’s church among the heretics, which prefer their false doctrine above the true word of Christ.3
Besides this general survey of prelacy and popery, Tyndale’s Practice of Prelates contains his convictions on a major contemporary issue, the proposed divorce between Henry and Catherine of Aragon who had been his wife since 1509. So far Henry’s ministers had failed to secure the divorce – hence Wolsey’s fall from office in 1529 – but it was evident that the way was being prepared for the execution of Henry’s will and the main source of opposition in England, namely the clergy, were already being weakened as the king gave leave to Parliament to execute reforms which were against clerical interests. It is a fact which has surprised subsequent Protestant writers, that Tyndale resolutely opposed the royal divorce and expressed no enthusiasm for the reforms which were being initiated by Parliament.
Tyndale’s Answer to More was a work forced on him by the publication of More’s Dialogue in 1529. The latter was a clever attack on ‘the pestilent sect of Luther and Tyndale’ by a man renowned both for his literary brilliance and his attachment to the ‘holy Church’. It is significant that More singled out Tyndale and although he affects to treat the translator as one of the ‘wretches of no reputation, neither cardinals nor bishops, nor yet great beneficed men’, nevertheless he had opened a controversy which led him to write in five years a thousand or more folio pages. Tyndale wrote only one answer to this verbal onslaught and, although it is the largest of the reformer’s books, it only runs to 210 pages in the Parker Society edition of his Works. The Answer to More probably gives us the clearest insight into Tyndale’s theological position; it shows us what truths were uppermost in his mind and why they were uppermost, while his handling of such main themes as the nature of the church and the authority of Scripture enable us to understand what good reason More had of complaining of English martyrs that ‘Tyndale’s books maketh them heretics’.
As Tyndale’s life drew to its close we can catch glimpses of how much his influence linked together the men who looked to him as a spiritual leader. Miles Coverdale was working with Tyndale in 1529; so too was John Frith who apparently at Cambridge had first met Tyndale, ‘through whose instructions’, says Foxe, ‘he first received into his heart the seed of the gospel and sincere godliness’. Frith, having survived imprisonment in Oxford in 1528, escaped from England to become the reformer’s closest companion. John Lambert was also at Antwerp for a year or more with Tyndale before he was arrested and taken to England; another Cambridge graduate, Richard Bayfield, acted as a carrier of Tyndale’s books between Flanders and England. Almost all this circle of friends suffered martyrdom – only Coverdale surviving to die a natural death at the ripe old age of eighty-one in Elizabethan times. In 1530 Thomas Hitton, a friend of Tyndale’s, went to the stake at Maidstone. In 1531 Thomas Bilney was caught in Norwich, having given Tyndale’s New Testament and his Obedience of a Christian Man to an anchoress. Bilney died in the flames in August, followed by Bayfield in December, and in the latter month a leather-seller named Tewkesbury, who had been converted by Tyndale’s New Testament and Mammon, also died in Smithfield. Tyndale had been used to put iron into these men’s souls.
But the greatest personal loss to Tyndale was the martyrdom of John Frith in 1533, after he had been captured while visiting England. Frith’s outstanding abilities and graciousness of character were well known amongst his contemporaries. In 1531 Henry had attempted to detach him from Tyndale with an invitation to return to England, and later, after Frith’s arrest, there were not lacking those who hoped that the youthful reformer would give way sufficiently to save his life. These were vain hopes. Frith replied to Sir Thomas More, ‘I assure you I neither will nor can cease to speak; for the word of God boileth in my body like a fervent fire and will needs have an issue.’ Tyndale sent one last letter to Frith, his best earthly friend, just before he was to burned alive for believing and speaking the truth of Scripture. In it exhorted and encouraged Christ’s martyr with these words:
Your cause is Christ’s gospel, a light that must be fed with the blood of faith ... If when we be buffeted for well-doing, we suffer patiently and endure, that is thankful with God; for to that end we are called. For Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example that we should follow his steps, who did no sin. Hereby have we perceived love that he laid down his life for us: therefore we ought to be able to lay down our lives for the brethren ... Let not your body faint. If the pain be above your strength, remember: ‘Whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, I will give it you.’ And pray to our Father in that name, and he will ease your pain, or shorten it.
Though persecution was thus thinning the small circle around Tyndale, one notable addition occurred soon after this. Until October 1531, a priest by the name of John Rogers had held a living in London, carrying out the usual services required by Popery; but on becoming a chaplain to the English merchants at Antwerp, ‘it chanced him there’, says Foxe, ‘to fall in company with that worthy servant and martyr of God, William Tyndale, and with Miles Coverdale ... In conferring with them the Scriptures, he came to great knowledge in the gospel of God, insomuch that he cast off the heavy yoke of popery and joined himself with them two.’
Tyndale’s work was now almost over. He had survived the attempts of the king’s agent Sir Thomas Elyot to apprehend him in 1532. He had also escaped in 1533 after citizens in Antwerp, who were loyal to the Papacy, had given information to the Chancellor of Brabant against a certain printer, along with a promise that ‘this printer will also show you a great heretic and doctor, who for his heresy has been driven out of England.’ Having completed a third revision of his New Testament and having carried forward in manuscript his work on the Old as far as Chronicles, Tyndale fell to the treachery of a fellow Englishman in May 1535. The man, supported by the reformer’s enemies in England, emulated Judas in obtaining Tyndale’s friendship only to betray him suddenly into the hands of the authorities. Without a moment’s warning, Tyndale was apprehended at the gateway of the friendly home of Thomas Poyntz and translated to the darkness of the castle at Vilvorde. Speaking of God’s word to Joseph, he had written five years earlier, ‘Those promises accompanied him always, and went down with him even into the deep dungeon, and brought him up again, and never forsook him, till all that was promised was fulfilled.’ When Tyndale was seized, with only the clothes in which he stood, he knew what it was to be cast solely on the promises of God. He had indeed long anticipated this moment and the reader might almost be pardoned if he imagined that some of Tyndale’s writings, written years before, had issued from within the walls of Vilvorde. Take, for example, part of his comment on Matthew 5:9, published in his Exposition of Matthew Chapters 5 to 7:
Well, though iniquity so highly prevail, and the truth, for which thou diest, be so low kept under, and be not once known before the world, insomuch that it seemeth rather to be hindered by thy death than furthered, (which is of all griefs the greatest,) yet let not thine heart fail thee, neither despair, as though God had forsaken thee, or loved thee not: but comfort thyself with old ensamples, how God hath suffered all his old friends to be so entreated, and also his only and dear son Jesus; whose ensample, above all other, set before thine eyes, because thou art sure he was beloved above all other, that thou doubt not but thou art beloved also, and so much the more beloved, the more thou art like to the image of his ensample in suffering.
Tyndale spent sixteen months in captivity, until early in October, 1536, he was strangled and burnt probably close to the south gate of the town of Vilvorde. Perhaps his enemies expected that after the desolation of such a death in a foreign land the reforming movement in England would never be the same again, but the Word of the Lord was at last ‘open and manifest’, and with its reading many were henceforth to be inspired by the man whose example Milton may best describe:
Among the faithless, faithful only he
Among innumerable false, unmov’d,
Unshaken, unseduc’d, unterrify’d,
His loyalty he kept, his love, his zeal;
Nor number, nor example, with him wrought
To swerve from truth, or change his constant mind