William Tyndale’s Legacy
During his life (1494-1536), William Tyndale was greatly hated by the Roman Catholic establishment. Sir Thomas More, the Chancellor of England, described him as ‘that beast and hell-hound of the devil’s kennel’. King Henry VIII denounced his ‘venomous and pestiferous works, erroneous and seditious opinions’. His judicial murder in Vilvorde, Belgium, in October 1536, at the age of 42, was viewed by the Catholic hierarchy as a suitable end for an arch-heretic. There was no end to their hatred for him.
Not everyone was hostile to him, however. Some of the scholars of his day respected his learning. Here was a man who could speak seven languages so fluently that it was impossible to tell from which country he came. Others respected him for his translation work and his theological writings. Tyndale earned the respect of many.
The modern assessment of Tyndale in both evangelical and scholarly circles recognises that the Roman Catholic fear of him was not misplaced. It has been claimed in the modern world that William Tyndale was the Reformation in England, that without his activities the English Reformation would never have occurred.
Even those who would find this assertion an over-statement readily acknowledge Tyndale as unquestionably the most remarkable figure among the first generation of English Protestants.
Perhaps one of the most appropriate tributes to the significance of Tyndale is the existence today in Vilvorde, Belgium, the town in which he was executed, of a Protestant Church called the William Tyndale Church of Vilvorde and the William Tyndale museum which also has been established. He who was so reviled in life is honoured five hundred years later.
Why was William Tyndale so important? How did his work affect the many generations of Christians and others in English society who followed him?
1. Since Tyndale the English people have had the Bible available to them
Years before Tyndale was born, John Wycliffe had produced a translation of the Bible based on the Latin text revered by the Roman Catholic Church. This work was completed about 1382 and revised in 1388. This Bible was produced because Wycliffe believed that every man had the right to read the Bible for himself. Wycliffe teachings and Bible were treasured by his disciples, the Bollards, but were totally opposed by the Roman Catholic establishment.
Relentless persecution followed the Bollards throughout the fifteenth century. In 1401 the burning of heretics was legalised. In 1408 a law was passed forbidding any translation of the Bible into English unless authorised by the bishops.
The Lollards clung tenaciously to Wycliffe translation, although its possession led many to suffering and death, but there was no widespread use of the Bible in English in fifteenth-century England. The Catholic Church in Germany allowed twenty translations of the Bible between 1466 and 1522. The Catholic Church in France permitted two translations of the Bible between 1477 and 1521. The English Church allowed no translations and stigmatised the possession of a Bible in English as an heretical act.
Faced with a Church that would not allow the Bible in English and a nation which did not possess a translation made from the Hebrew and Greek, Tyndale vowed to his clerical opponents, ‘If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plow shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost.’
Working outside England, first at Cologne and then at Worms, Tyndale had his New Testament translated and, by March 1526, the English New Testament began to flood into England. Each one cost three shillings two pence, a week’s wages for a skilled labourer, but demand outstripped supply.
The Roman Catholic King, Church, and clergy did all within their power to suppress Tyndale’s New Testament, yet such was the demand for the Bible in English that in September 1538 (eleven years after the first New Testaments arrived) the King and his Government issued a decree that a copy of the Bible in Latin and in English had to be placed by every parson in the choir area of every church for every man that will to look and read thereon. The Bible permitted was not Tyndale’s Bible in name but the Coverdale Bible and the Matthew Bible. However, in substance it was Tyndale’s work.
Once these Bibles gained circulation in England, the possession of an English Bible by English people was irreversible.
Nor was Tyndale’s influence reduced by the passing of time. Ninety per cent of the New Testament of the 1611 King James Version is the translation of William Tyndale.
Under God, the modern English-speaking Christian owes his possession of an English Bible to a man born at the end of the fifteenth century.
2. Tyndale restored the authority of Scripture in the church
In Tyndale’s day, the Roman Catholic Church was the ultimate authority. She declared what God had revealed. She had to be obeyed. She determined what true doctrine, true morals, and true ceremonies were.
Modern Catholicism is no different. One of its modern catechisms asks:
How are you to know what God has revealed?’
I am to know what God has revealed by the testimony, teaching and authority of the Catholic Church.
Can the Church err in what she teaches?
The Church cannot err in what she teaches as to faith or morals, for she is our infallible guide in both.
Tyndale, along with Luther, did not accept that the Church was an infallible teacher. He believed that the Bible was the infallible teacher and that it judged and determined the teaching, morals, and ceremonies of the Church.
When the people had no Bible, they had no way of testing whether the Roman Catholic Church was the true church. When Tyndale gave them the Bible they asked the question and, in their thousands, concluded that the Pope’s church was not Christ’s Church.
In Acts 17:11, the Bereans are commended for testing the teaching of the Apostle Paul by comparing it to the Scriptures to see if he was speaking the truth. The Roman Catholic Church had removed this possibility of testing her teachings and claims. Tyndale restored the possibility and freed us from bondage to the dogmatic assertions of a deceiving Church. The English nation owes him an incalculable debt.
3. Tyndale restored the individual’s liberty of private interpretation
When the Roman Catholic Church claimed to be the infallible guide to faith and morals, she arrogated to herself the right to be the sole interpreter of Scripture. Her priests alone could say what the Bible meant. Those who had not studied the truth as her priests had should not meddle with it or seek to interpret it. A passive acceptance of the Church’s interpretation was required.
The Catholic King Henry VIII was, therefore, horrified to find that the Bible he had been persuaded to have published was a common matter of discussion and dispute among ordinary people. He lamented that the ‘most precious jewel, the word of God, is disputed, rhymed, sung and jangled in every alehouse and tavern’. Tyndale’s ploughman was reading, discussing, and interpreting the Bible with his friends but without his priest!
Even among young men from Catholic families, the role of the priest was being downgraded. One such, Robert Plumpton, wrote to his mother in 1536, ‘As for the understanding of it, doubt not, for God will give knowledge to whom he will give knowledge of the Scriptures, as soon to a shepherd as to a priest, if he ask knowledge of God faithfully.’
For young Robert Plumpton, understanding of the Scriptures was a gift of God given to those who sincerely sought it from God. It was not the priest who was needed but the illumination of the Spirit.
Tyndale gave to subsequent generations of Christians the truth that the meaning of Scripture does not come to us through the priest but through the prayerful seeking of God for light upon his Word. Tyndale restored the Christian’s liberty to study the Word of God for himself.
Are we using this privilege? Are we approaching God’s Word with the submissive humility required?
4. Tyndale gave great emphasis to the doctrine of justification by faith alone
Tyndale was not the first man to preach justification by faith alone in England, but by his prologues to the biblical books, his marginal notes to his New Testament, and his written works, he was the chief vehicle for the promotion of this truth in England.
For the Roman Catholic Church faith was merely an assent to her teachings. This ‘faith’ was first received by baptism. It had to be constantly restored and renewed by confession and priestly absolution. It had to be accompanied by good works, hope, and love. Faith is just one element in a long list of acts leading to salvation.
For Tyndale, however, there was to be no reliance on faith or good works, hope or love, confession or absolution, or anything else. All our reliance for salvation is on Christ alone. All reliance upon personal merit or activities goes. Our whole trust is in Christ’s merits. We are saved by Christ alone or not at all. Tyndale’s connection with Luther in this matter is clear. Tyndale’s Prologue to the Book of Romans is largely a translation of Luther’s comments on this book. Tyndale’s commitment to this truth was unwavering. As he sat in prison for one year, one hundred and thirty-five days, awaiting execution, cold and ill, and for the most part in darkness, he took the opportunity of those hours when it was light enough to see, to pen his treatise Faith alone justifies before God.
The proclamation of justification by faith alone has resulted in the eternal salvation of innumerable people in this land since Tyndale’s day. The best tribute we could pay to the memory of William Tyndale would be to trust in the Lord Jesus Christ alone for salvation.
5. Tyndale laid the foundation for the Puritan commitment to godly living
The truth of justification by faith alone, when properly understood, has never been an enemy of godly living. The justified contribute nothing to their salvation but they have a life to live to the praise of God in response to, and as a consequence of, being saved.
From 1530 onwards, Tyndale emphasised the twin truths of justification by faith alone and the demonstration of the justification by obedience to God’s moral law. This dual emphasis on justification by faith and sanctification by law was to prove foundational and central to Christian thinking in England from the mid-sixteenth century to the end of the seventeenth century. It was to be one of the dominant themes of English Puritanism and to become a significant part of the English Reformed tradition.
Tyndale’s role in asserting that we are not saved from sin to serve sin, but from sin to obey God, laid the foundation for the Puritan passion for God and godliness. Tyndale established the idea that the justified man is to live his life before man unto the glory of God, and that God is glorified by obedience to his law. In this respect, Tyndale has correctly been called the first of the Puritans.
We, the heirs of Tyndale’s legacy, only truly honour him when we share his insistence that the justified man is to be the godly man, that he who is saved from his disobedience is to demonstrate it by his obedience.
6. Tyndale established the Puritan approach to interpreting Scripture
In this matter too, Tyndale was the first of the Puritans, or, at least their grandfather! In his doctrinal treatises he set out five significant keys to the interpretation of Scripture that were mediated to the later Puritans through their leader, William Perkins.
- Firstly, the law has to be interpreted spiritually. It is not merely concerned with actions but with the motives of the heart. Everything that does not proceed from the heart and is not done out of sincere love is damnable sin. The Puritan concern to reveal the heart and its motives by the convicting preaching of the law is rooted in Tyndale’s first emphasis.
- Secondly, the gospel promises salvation to the repentant as an act of divine mercy and as a consequence of the merits of Christ alone. So the Puritan emphasis on salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, because of Christ alone is emphasised in Tyndale. Tyndale referred to the law and the gospel, command and promise as the two keys which open all the Scriptures to us, the two themes above all other themes.
- Thirdly, Tyndale saw the Bible as full of examples of God’s dealings with godly men. The trials of the godly, their comforts and their preservation by God were written for our learning.
- Fourthly, he saw a second type of example, that of the ungodly. The Scriptures record God’s long-suffering towards them, their judicial hardening, and their ultimate destruction. Puritan sermons are particularly notable for their use of biblical illustration. Every principle is clothed in an example, good or bad. Every precept is enforced by an illustration from the historical portions of Scripture. The Puritans practised to the fullest degree what Tyndale preached on this matter.
- Fifthly, Tyndale agreed with Luther as to the importance of the Epistle to the Romans. He described it as ‘a light and way unto the whole Scripture’. William Perkins built on this foundation by asserting that a knowledge of Romans and the Gospel of John was the key to the entire Bible.
Several generations of preachers owed their approach to the interpretation of Scripture to Tyndale’s guidance. These emphases are just as valid today as then. What amazing insight this man had to Scripture!
7. Tyndale encouraged the idea of individual disobedience to tyrants
It is ironic that Tyndale’s most influential book, apart from his New Testament, was The Obedience of the Christian Man published in 1528. In it he argued that subjects, servants, wives, and children should give loyal obedience to their kings, masters, husbands, and parents. He also required priests and popes to be subject to kings. The effect of the book was to place the king over all his subjects and require them to show him loyal obedience. This book delighted Henry VIII.
However, Tyndale’s actions spoke louder than his words. The English bishops would not patronise his translation work. The English clergy were accusing him of heresy. England was not, therefore, a suitable context for his work and so he broke the King’s law by leaving England without permission in 1524.
From 1524 until his death in 1536 everything he did he did as a fugitive from the King’s law, being sought by the King’s agents. Every book he wrote, even The Obedience of the Christian Man, he wrote illegally. Every one of his books read in England, including his New Testament, was smuggled into the country and read illegally.
Tyndale’s actions modified his published teaching. His actions taught that the king was to be obeyed except where he required men to act against their religious convictions. The king’s will was the highest human authority, but God’s will was a higher authority.
By his actions, therefore, Tyndale established an authority above that of the king, the authority of God. The Christian man was to allow no-one and nothing to hinder his obedience to God. He must do what he believed to be right whatever the consequences.
Tyndale’s actions had an immense influence over Protestant thinking and practice. Tudor and Stuart monarchs longed to rule as absolute monarchs, their word to be unquestionably obeyed, supreme in both church and state. Tyndale’s disobedience began a shift in Protestant thinking. Monarchs could be disobeyed. Rebellion could be legitimate. When the state sets itself to oppose what God commands, we must obey God rather than men.
The momentous events of the Puritan Age and the Great Rebellion or English Civil War are rooted in a rejection of Tyndale’s teaching of total obedience to the state and an acceptance of his practice of disobeying the state where the state opposes God. Tyndale’s practice is needed again in the modern world. We need to remember that the state has no authority to control our consciences, nor to interfere in our churches, nor to require us to acquiesce in its legalisation of sin. If Tyndale had waited for the permission of the king and the clergy to do his work the English Reformation would never have happened.
7. Tyndale encouraged the freeing of human thought
During the early Medieval period, known to us as ‘The Dark Ages’, the Church held an effective control over all areas of human life. Education, science, and art were under her supervision.
During the fifteenth century, however, the Renaissance occurred bringing with it new approaches in thinking. A great interest developed in going beyond the Medieval period back to Greece and Rome. Interest grew in Hebrew and Greek. A whole movement developed devoted to the study of ancient human writings (‘humanism’).
These ‘humanists’ were usually highly educated scholars. They were interested in original sources of information. With regard to the Bible, they wanted it in its original language for study. Roman Catholic humanists were at the forefront of studying the Hebrew and Greek Bible. For some this led to conversion to Christ and to the ‘Protestant’ doctrines being proclaimed by Martin Luther. For others it led to an opening up of a whole new approach to study where individual scholars could make up their own minds and have their own opinions without being told what to think by the Church.
At the beginning of the English Reformation, most of the people converted to Christ and liberated to think for themselves were scholars, priests, and university students.
Tyndale’s New Testament, however, could be read by and to the common people. In 1543 the king was alarmed to find the Bible widely read by the unprivileged classes, women, artificers, apprentices, journeymen, serving men, husbandmen, and labourers. He tried to limit its reading to only noblemen, gentlemen, substantial merchants, and gentlewomen. But, of course, it was too late.
The ordinary people had been taught by Tyndale’s Bible and God’s Word was addressed to them. They could read, understand, interpret, and discuss it. They also had minds, opinions, and points of view.
If the common man could have an opinion on religion, why not on education, science, art, politics? Tyndale’s Bible gave to the common man a sense of his own right to think for himself. When the Civil War came in the next century, many radical, free-thinking groups had arisen and the ordinary man could no longer be treated just as a Medieval serf.
The common people heard Jesus gladly. They received the New Testament in English gladly too. The English people became the people of the Book and more confident to think their own thoughts without having to be told what to think.
9. Tyndale taught men the dignity of labour
In a class-ridden society where everyone was expected to know his place, the position of the working man in Tudor England was not an enviable one. In some senses he had a little more freedom than the Medieval serf but was less protected from economic factors than the serf had been. The vast majority of the English population lived in grinding poverty as a subservient under-class.
The important people in Tudor England were the kings, the landed gentry, the clergy, and the increasingly significant merchant class. The peasants were merely peasants, tools to be used, but without intrinsic value.
Tyndale, along with other Protestant leaders, found within the Scriptures a different view of man. God had made man to work, not to be idle. Each man had his God-given calling, his particular role to fulfil, his God-given work to do. Some were called to rule, others to preach. Some were called to work in the fields, others in the home.
Whatever calling a person had, however significant or insignificant in the eyes of men, as long as that person accepted his calling and sought to fulfil it in a way that would please God, it was work acceptable to God. Tyndale believed that the washing of dishes and the preaching of the Word were both legitimate callings, each having their own dignity and their own value in the sight of God.
This view of the dignity of labour, all labour, when properly received from God and done for him, meant that the working man no longer had to view himself as a tool for the use of his superiors but as a servant of God doing the daily round and common task to his glory.
Tyndale’s teaching strikes at the pride and the pomposity of the important people. It makes ordinary men and women know that God values them too and calls them to serve him, with the gifts he has given them and in the role he has assigned to them.
10. Tyndale had an enduring effect on English language and literature
No one can deny the immense effect that the King James Version has had on the literature and language of the English people. Yet most of its New Testament rests on Tyndale’s work.
Tyndale has been called a prophet of the English language. He seems to have had a unique insight into its structure and knew the exact phrases to coin in order to make it readable and memorable. His English remained standard English for several centuries. His work stood the test of time.
Whatever degree of satisfaction some may feel in modern versions of the Bible, the cry can still be heard, ‘If only we had a Tyndale, then we would have a really good modern translation.’ That this should be heard five hundred years after his birth is an immense testimony to his unique contribution to the English Reformation, the English Bible, and indeed, the whole course of English history.
William Tyndale was a gift of God to this nation. The foundations of our Protestant faith, and our religious, political and social liberties were laid by him. We would do well to hold firmly to what he gave us, to keep the Holy Bible at the heart of our faith, to trust in Christ alone for salvation, and to maintain our Christian liberties over and against all who would deny them to us. Tyndale’s heirs need Tyndale’s courage, Tyndale’s Bible, and, above all, Tyndale’s Saviour.