William Tyndale – Minister of the Word of God
The British Library recently paid over £1M for the only extant complete copy of the first edition (1526) of Tyndale's New Testament. Library officials consider this most important acquisition in the Library's 240-year history significant for the spread and development of the English language as well as for Christianity. Much current celebration of Tyndale's birth (which took place according to modern consensus about the year 1494) focuses on the influence upon the English language of the memorable phraseology of his translation of the Bible. Prof. Daniell pays tribute to the unsurpassed ability of this remarkable scholar 'to work as a translator with the sounds and rhythms as well as the senses of English to create unforgettable words, phrases, paragraphs and chapters' which still live in modern speech. Daniell recognises that 'at the centre of it all for him was his root in the deepest heart of New Testament theology'. His priorities were the spread of the gospel amongst the people and the Reformation of an apostate Church by means of a faithful vernacular translation of the Word of God.
John Foxe described him as 'the apostle of England in this our latter age'. The English Church shared the degeneracy of doctrine and morals universally characteristic of Romanism, fostered by ignorance of the Word of God. Reformation did not come through humanists' recall of scholars to the sources, or churchmen's attempts to improve moral standards, or King Henry's political conflict with the pope, though these contributed, but through propagation of the Word of God. Wycliffe, who died in 1384, distinguished himself from other early critics of the Church by applying the principle that the Bible is superior to the Church and her traditions and so rejecting doctrines and practices inconsistent with Scripture. The Lollard movement associated with him could still be traced in England at the Reformation. Manuscript copies of Lollard translations from the Latin Bible were circulating secretly when Tyndale's printed pocket-sized translation of the New Testament appeared and set ablaze the English Reformation.
The Word Discovered and Preached
Tyndale's exciting life story can only be outlined here. Son of upwardly mobile farming people at Stinchcombe, near Dursley, between Gloucester and Bristol, he graduated M.A. from Magdalen Hall (later Hertford College), Oxford, in 1515, and pursued post-graduate studies at Cambridge. It can only be assumed that he was drawn to Cambridge by the stress on Greek language (in which a lectureship was instituted in 1518) and by the existence there of a group of young scholars of Lutheran persuasion. Later friends and helpers in translation, John Rogers, Miles Coverdale and John Frith, were Cambridge men. He returned to his native parts in 1521 as tutor to two under-seven-year-old sons of the Walsh family at Little Sodbury Manor. The personal reasons for a master of at least eight ancient and modern languages taking employment as a domestic tutor are unknown. In God's providence he had opportunity to pursue his studies and to discover the ignorance and antagonism to the truth which characterised the high-ranking clergy who visited the manor. His appeals to Scripture in his debates with them were met by refusal to subject the word of Church and pope to the Word of God. He was convinced that the papacy was Antichrist and that reformation would not be wrought in the Church and people would not be persuaded of the truth unless the Scriptures were published in English so that they could 'see the process, order and meaning of the text'. He also saw that the clergy feared the Scriptures more than a thousand books.
He ventured to preach in surrounding villages and in the open air at Bristol. His view of preaching is recorded in a letter to his friend John Frith:
Expound the law truly, and open the veil of Moses to condemn all flesh and prove all men sinners, and that all deeds under the law, before mercy have taken away the condemnation thereof, are sin and damnable: and then as a faithful minister set abroach (let flow out) the mercy of our Lord Jesus, and let the wounded consciences drink of the water of life. And then shall your preaching be with power and not as the doctrine of the hypocrites; and the Spirit of God shall work with you and all consciences shall bear record unto you and feel that it is so. And all doctrine that casts a mist on those two, to shadow and hide them, I mean the law of God and the mercy of Christ, that do you resist with all your power.
Again: God works with His Word and in His Word. And as His Word is preached, faith roots herself in the hearts of the elect, and as faith enters, and the Word of God is believed, the power of God looses the heart from the captivity and bondage under sin, and knits and couples him to God, and to the will of God. Faith alters him, changes him wholly, fashions and forges him anew, gives him power to love, and to do that which before was impossible for him either to love or to do, and turns him unto a new nature, so that he loves that which he before hated, and hates that which he before loved.
His examination before the Chancellor of the Diocese for preaching heresy persuaded him of the threat to his liberty and life and to his plan for a translation of Scripture which would give the ploughboy more biblical learning than the prelate. In 1523 he moved to London hoping that the scholarly Bishop Tunstall would make use of his episcopal prerogative and patronise his projected English Bible. When the bishop, a friend and admirer of Erasmus, excused himself, Tyndale realised that the Bible could not be translated or printed in England. After six months lodging with Humphrey Monmouth, a prominent London draper captivated by Tyndale's occasional preaching in St Dunstan's in the West, his freedom was increasingly precarious and he took advice and moved to Wittenberg.
When and how Tyndale came under the saving influence of the truth is unknown. His writings amply evidence his experience of grace through the Word applied by the Spirit, as does his concern that others might possess that Word. In his answer to More he wrote:
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.
To provide this Word he risked his life as preacher in England and translator on the Continent.
The Word Provided
Much of Tyndale's initial translation from Erasmus' 1522 Greek New Testament was probably completed at Wittenberg during his months there. Using Latin and German texts for comparison, he pioneered English translation from the original. His policy was determined by the conviction that the Word of God is the supreme authority and should be made available to all in a faithful translation:
I never altered one syllable of God's Word against my conscience, nor would this day, if all that is in the earth, whether it be pleasure, honour or riches, might be given me.
After spending time secretly in Hamburg and having his first attempts to print his work at Cologne thwarted by John Cochlaeus, an ardent enemy of reform, who secured orders for the seizure of the printed paper and of Tyndale, he fled with his manuscripts to Worms where his first English New Testament was printed in 1526 by Peter Schoeffer. Wheat shipped from the Continent during famine in England provided a hiding place for the first of perhaps 6,000 copies of the New Testament. A smaller, more easily smuggled edition, was printed at Antwerp. Customs officials, bishops' sermons and threats, burning of Bibles and books and, later, their readers, did not prevent poor people from clubbing together to purchase copies or from gathering in secret around those who could read.
Tyndale moved around to escape detection by agents of the English government. His movements can be traced at Wittenberg, Cologne, Worms, Marburg, Hamburg and Antwerp, where he lived with the English merchants whose residence enjoyed almost diplomatic status. Protected and financed by merchants, he continued developing linguistic skills, acquiring Hebrew, revising his New Testament, translating the Pentateuch and other parts of the Old Testament. By the summer of 1530 the Pentateuch, printed at 'Marburg by Hans Luft' (alias Jan Hoochstraten at Antwerp), was circulating in England. Jonah followed in 1531. A revised edition of the New Testament appeared in 1534, containing 4,000 mostly small changes from the 1526 edition, prologues to most of the books, cross references and marginal notes.
Unknown to him, the political situation in England changed to the extent that in the year of Tyndale's death Injunctions ordered that the Bible in English should be provided in every church. No translation was yet available for that purpose, but the following year, 1537, Henry VIII determined that the Bible to be provided should be that of 'Thomas Matthew'. The name was a pseudonym. It was in fact Tyndale's own work completed by John Rogers. The major and most memorable part of the 1611 Authorised Version of the Bible (perhaps up to 90% in books which he translated) is deeply indebted to Tyndale.
He gave England the Bible that men might be led to Christ and holiness and could personally test the doctrine and practice of the Church. The 'bare Word' led multitudes to the knowledge of justification by faith. Substitution of biblically true translations — 'elder', 'congregation', love' and 'repentance' — for words which had acquired a Roman content — 'priest', 'church', 'charity' and 'penance' — undermined the anti-christian system more than any human comment.
Knowing the weakness of man he had retired and hidden himself to allow the Word from Heaven to act by itself.D'Aubigné
The Word Interpreted and Applied
Tyndale wrote biblical prologues, commentaries and expositions (e.g. of Matthew 5-7 and 1 John), and doctrinal and controversial works.
In The Parable of the Wicked Mammon Tyndale biblically interprets the parable of the unjust steward (Luke 16), and other passages often urged against the doctrine of justification by faith, gives a true account of the doctrine, and explains the Scriptures which teach it. The Obedience of a Christian Man, a work intended to encourage those suffering for the faith, sets out the supremacy of Scripture in the Church (and in home and workplace) and of the king in the State, showing that popery undermines both. In The Practice of Prelates, he opposes Henry's divorce of Catherine, traces the rise of the papacy and exposes the practices by which its usurped supremacy was maintained and defended, particularly in England.
In 1531 he produced an Answer to Sir Thomas More's Dialogue touching the pestilent Sect of Luther and Tyndale. While More's Utopia theoretically advocated liberty of opinion he used his authority as Lord Chancellor to suppress the evangelical movement: 'Heretics be kept but for the fire, first here and after in hell'. The fact that More was an Erasmian, whom Tyndale suspected of acting against his conscience for monetary gain, and that he was the ablest English writer defending the infallibility of the Church, may account for the untypically sharp tone of his Answer to More.
He has been described as 'a master of the true canons of Biblical interpretation' (F. F. Bruce). The prevailing allegorical method of interpretation opened the door to error and made men dependent on experts. A self-consistent Bible interprets itself. Scripture has one sense, not four.
Mark the plain and manifest places of the scriptures, and in doubtful places see thou add no interpretation contrary to them.
Prayerful subjection to Scripture meant that, though indebted to Erasmus and Luther, his thinking developed independently, along Calvinistic lines. Constant immersion in Scripture and dependence upon the Spirit for enlightenment put him ahead of contemporary English Reformers in the clarity and strength of his biblical convictions.
His aim as expositor was 'as far forth as God shall lend me grace, to bring the Scripture unto the right sense, and to dig again the wells of Abraham, and to purge and cleanse them of the earth of worldly wisdom wherewith these Philistines have stopped them'.
His faithfulness to Biblical principles of interpretation, his personal experience of grace, his pastoral concern to let the truth of God speak to fellow sinners, make his writings fresh, useful and sometimes simply profound. There is abiding relevance in his interpretation of the parable of the unjust steward, his experimental expositions of law and grace and faith and works and the relation between them, his key to the harmony of Paul and James, his exposure of the dependence of Roman ritual and power upon a popular acceptance that salvation is by works.
He had his views on the Protestant controversy over Christ's presence in the Lord's Supper and on the state of the redeemed between death and resurrection, but he was for 'avoiding high questions that pass the common capacity'. His emphases are clear. Human guilt and depravity render sinners dependent for salvation on God's gracious election, redemption and regeneration. Through Scripture the Spirit convinces a sinner of the holiness of the law, the inability of a hater of God to keep His law, and the just condemnation of the law breaker. He leads him in penitence and faith to Christ who only is his resting place and peace. Love and obedience are the inevitable fruits and evidences of this God-given faith.
The Word Practised
Throughout his manifold labours Tyndale was exposed to danger and setback. Shipwrecked off the coast of Holland en route from Antwerp to Hamburg he lost his completed manuscripts of the Pentateuch, his money and the time and energy he had put into the work. He was pursued by English agents seeking to abduct him or persuade local authorities to arrest and extradite him. Works about to be published were on occasion discovered and destroyed. Editions of Scripture (some of them faulty) were published without warrant and attributed to him. Frith, Coverdale and Rogers encouraged him greatly in his work but he had assistants whose association was prejudicial.
For a time efforts were made by Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell to entice him to England to help them write against the civil claims of the pope though they would not give free access to the Bible. In May 1535, when he felt safe among friends in Antwerp, he was kidnapped by Henry Phillips, a spiteful, fortune-seeking Englishman who had gambled and lost money stolen from his own father but had ingratiated himself with Tyndale. Imprisoned in Vilvorde Castle near Brussels, the Reformer was strangled and burnt in October 1536 by the imperial authorities for the heresy of teaching salvation by grace and faith and denying free will, purgatory and the mediation of Mary and saints. At the stake his prayer was: 'Lord, open the King of England's eyes'.
Throughout all changes he lived a consistent godly life, walking in the light of the Word which he died to communicate to others.
My part be not in Christ if mine heart be not to follow and live according as I teach, and also if mine heart weep not night and day for mine own sin and other men's indifferently.
Thomas More confessed that in his youth Tyndale was esteemed godly. In Antwerp he spent two days weekly ministering to the spiritual and temporal needs of the poor. In prison he continued his biblical studies. When he sought permission to send for warmer clothes his strongest appeal was for a lamp, his Hebrew Bible, grammar and dictionary. His warm testimony and consistent Christian life were blessed to the conversion of the gaoler and his daughter.
An English-speaking Christendom increasingly engulfed in darkness needs the 'bare Word' and the biblical preaching which Tyndale died to secure. A study of his principles and emphases might help modern evangelicalism to recover lost direction. Salutary lessons can be learned for today from the method and doctrine which God blessed to bring England out of the spiritual darkness of the Middle Ages.
- William Tyndale. A Biography, Robert Demaus, revised by Richard Lovett (London 1904); William Tyndale, J. E Mozley (London 1937);
- The Work of William Tyndale, ed. G. E. Duffield, preface by E F. Bruce (Sutton Courtenay Press, 1964);
- William Tyndale. Select Works (Focus Christian Ministries, Lewe, 1986);
- God's Outlaw: The Story of William Tyndale and the English Bible, Brian H. Edwards (Evangelical Press 1976, 1988);
- William Tyndale. A Biography, D. Daniell (Yale University Press, 1994).