Prologue: William Tyndale—The Father of the English BibleRelated Media
“Lord, open the king of England’s eyes.”
Those were his last words. This was his last prayer.
The date is October 6, 1536. The location is the town of Vilvoorde, near Brussels in Belgium. The occasion is the execution of William Tyndale, age 42. One historian re-enacts the scene for us.
The sun had barely risen above the horizon when he arrived at the open space, and looked out over the crowd of onlookers eagerly jostling for a good view. A circle of stakes enclosed the place of the execution, and in the center was a large pillar of wood in the form of a cross and as tall as a man.
A strong chain hung from the top, and a noose of hemp was threaded through a hole in the upright. The attorney and the great doctors arrived first and seated themselves in state nearby. The prisoner was brought in and a final appeal was made that he should recant.
Tyndale was immovable, his keen eyes gazing toward the common people. A silence fell over the crowd as they watched the prisoner’s lean form and thin, tired face; his lips moved with a final impassioned prayer that echoed around the place of execution, “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes.”
His feet were bound to the stake, the iron chain fastened around his neck, and the hemp noose was placed at his throat. Only the Anabaptists and lapsed heretics were burnt alive. Tyndale was spared that ordeal.
Piles of brushwood and logs were heaped around him. The executioner came up behind the stake and with all his force snapped down upon the noose. Within seconds Tyndale was strangled.
The attorney stepped forward, placed a lighted torch to the tinder, and the great men and commoners sat back to watch the fire burn. Not until the charred form hung limply on the chain did an officer break out the staple of the chain with his halbert, allowing the body to fall into the glowing heat of the fire; more brushwood was piled on top and, while the commoners marveled “at the patient sufferance of Master Tyndale at the time of his execution,” according to Foxe, the attorney and the doctors of Louvain moved off to begin their day’s work, never imagining that within months at least part of the plea in Tyndale’s dying prayer would be answered affirmatively.1
Who was this Tyndale and what had he done to warrant such violence?
He was faithful unto death. But why such injustice? What exactly was his crime? Was it worth it? What good did he really do? His life and times tell us the story.
Tyndale’s Life and Times
“If God spares my life, ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plow shall know more of the Scriptures than thou dost.”
Nothing more clearly defines the life and work of Tyndale than these words, spoken before he left England to undertake his life’s work. Shocked by the ignorance of both the clergy and laity, he became convinced that only if the Scriptures were available to them in English would the people be established in the truth. The Bible of his day was in Latin, one thousand years old. Few understood it, read it or had access to it. The only English translation available was the hand-copied Wycliffe Bible that was secretly distributed by the Lollards, followers of the fourteenth-century John Wycliffe. But it had never been printed, and, having been translated only from the Latin Vulgate, it was inaccurate in many ways.
Herein lies Tyndale’s greatest contribution. He profoundly influenced our history, becoming a major player in the great English Reformation. The English rapidly became a “people of the Book.” That book was the Bible, translated, printed and distributed by Tyndale in the language of the people. We are enormously in his debt.
It is generally believed that it was about 1494 when William was born to a Tyndale family in Gloucestershire, near the Welsh border.
Our first hard facts locate him in Magdalen Hall, attached to Magdalen College of Oxford University, where he studied languages and theology, obtaining both his B.A. (1512) and M.A. (1515) before moving to Cambridge to continue his studies. It was here that his Protestant convictions were strengthened. He may well have participated in the lively discussions at The White Horse, the famous pub where Luther’s theses of 1517 and subsequent articles were studied and debated. His name is associated here with Ridley, Cranmer and Coverdale—all Cambridge men.
Dissatisfied with the teaching of theology at the universities, he left that world in 1521 and became a tutor in the household of Sir John Walsh at Little Sodbury Manor, near Bath. It was here that Tyndale was shocked by the biblical ignorance of the clergy. To one such cleric he declared, “If God spare my life, ere many years pass, I will cause a boy that driveth the plow shall know more of the Scriptures than thou dost.”
Tyndale was beginning to clearly feel the call of God upon him to translate the Scriptures into English and distribute them to the common people.
This, however, was against the law. Because of the church’s perceived threat from the Lollards, in 1408 the church banned the translation of the Bible into English.
It was a crime punishable by death. One day in 1519 the church authorities publicly burned a woman and six men for nothing more than teaching their children English versions of the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments and the Apostle’s Creed. In search of ecclesiastical approval, Tyndale obtained an interview with the bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall, but received no encouragement at all. Tyndale concluded, “[N]ot only was there no room in my lord of London’s palace to translate the New Testament, but there was no place to do it in all of England.”
Why such opposition? One historian writes:
The church would never permit a complete printed New Testament in English from the Greek, because in that New Testament can be found neither the Seven Sacraments nor the doctrine of purgatory, two chief sources of the church’s power.2
Tyndale left England never to return.
In April, 1524, Tyndale left England never to return. Supported by a group of wealthy London cloth merchants, he travelled to the Continent to engage in his work of translation.
Arriving in Hamburg, Germany, he worked on the New Testament, which was ready for printing the next year. The printing began in Cologne, only to be stopped by a police raid prompted by anti-reform church authorities. Fortunately Tyndale had been warned of the raid and fled just in time with the pages he had printed. A few fragments were left behind and confiscated. Only one copy of this incomplete edition has survived.
In 1526 Tyndale moved to Worms, a more secure and friendly city. Here the first complete New Testament in English was published. Of the 6,000 copies printed, only two have survived. One has been purchased by the British Library for one million pounds.
Getting the illegal New Testament into the hands of the English people was the next challenge. Fortunately there existed an established underground system for smuggling in censored books. They were shipped to England, hidden by dock workers in the cargo of English merchants who were sympathetic with the Reformation, then distributed in England by those merchants.
It is not surprising that so few copies survived. Church authorities did all they could to eradicate them. In 1526 the Bishop of London preached against the translation and had copies burned at St. Paul’s Cathedral. In the following year the Bishop of London, encouraged by Augustine Packington, a friend of Tyndale’s, bought copies of the New Testament and had them burned. Unknown to him, the substantial sums he paid provided Tyndale with funding to produce a better, more numerous second edition of his New Testament!
In 1530 Tyndale’s translation of the Pentateuch was printed at Antwerp in Belgium, where he had settled, a centre like Cologne, which was a great port city with thriving trade lines to England. Here he continued his translation of the Old Testament and made several revisions of his New Testament. It also provided greater security for him . . . but only for a time.
Tyndale’s Arrest and Trial
“Here thou hast (most dear reader) the new testament or covenant made with us of God in Christ’s blood.”
Tyndale’s Revised New Testament, 1534
For security reasons, in 1534 Tyndale moved into the home of Thomas Poyntz, a relative of Lady Walsh of Little Sodbury, an Englishman who kept a house of English merchants. Here Tyndale completed his most significant revision of the New Testament (1534). It is the New Testament as English readers and speakers have known it until the last few decades of the twentieth century.
While staying in Poyntz’s home he befriended Henry Philips, an Oxford graduate who had fallen into extreme disgrace and poverty, then living in neighbouring Louvain. Louvain was a strong centre of Roman Catholicism and very antagonistic to the Reformation. Why did Philips now have sufficient money to enable him to live comfortably? Someone in London had paid him handsomely to carry out a secret operation of betrayal. He was to become like Judas, betraying his close friend.
En route to dinner together one day, Philips pointed with his finger over Tyndale’s head, indicating to officers planted at the entrance to Poyntz’s house whom they should arrest. Tyndale was imprisoned in the secure castle of Vilvoorde, six miles north of Brussels, eighteen miles from Antwerp, where he remained until his death.
In the following 450 days, evidence was gathered and charges were laid. For Tyndale those were long days of interrogation about his life, his beliefs and especially about his books and letters. Finally a formal accusation was prepared. Before seventeen commissioners Tyndale was charged with heresy, not agreeing with the Holy Roman Emperor.
In trapping Tyndale, his enemies had their biggest catch. He was a first class scholar, the prominent interpreter of Luther’s ideas to the English and the major player in spreading the “heresy” of Lutheranism in London and across the entire country.
The decisive moment had come.
The Biblical truths he had lived by for a dozen years of dangerous exile in poverty, which had driven his work of translating and writing with absolute dedication and total integrity . . . were not a matter of legal quibbles in an irregular court in a local spot in the Low Countries, but of Scripture itself, the Word of God Himself.3 (emphasis added)
The issue at stake was a familiar one: salvation by faith alone, as Tyndale, Luther and the apostle Paul maintained, or salvation by works, as the Church of Rome insisted. Rather than acknowledge his “error,” as he was expected to do, Tyndale dared to defend himself and was seen as unrepentant.
He was formally condemned as a heretic, degraded from the priesthood and handed over to the secular authorities for punishment—that is, burning at the stake. Each of these three phases were public events.
The condemnation for heresy included the public reading of the articles Tyndale had written declaring salvation by faith alone. In so doing, he demonstrated his disagreement with the Church of Rome.
The degradation of the priest followed a few days later:
... the prisoner was led on to a high platform, on which the bishops were prominent, in his priestly vestments. The anointing oil was symbolically scraped from his hands, the bread and wine of the Mass placed there and removed, and the vestments ceremonially stripped away.4
Two months later he was publicly executed, not by being burned alive, a terrible death often reserved for baser criminals, but by being strangled at the stake, after which his body was burned.
It is not without significance that the passion and purpose of his life was at the heart of his last spoken words before he was strangled: “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes.”
One year earlier, Miles Coverdale, Tyndale’s friend, published the first ever complete printed edition of the Bible in English. For political reasons, Tyndale’s name did not appear in it, though the translation was nearly seventy percent composed of Tyndale’s work. God had already begun to answer Tyndale’s last prayer.
Less than a year after Tyndale’s martyrdom, King Henry VIII gave official approval of this Bible, and by 1539 every parish in England was required to make a copy of the English Bible available to all its people. Assured that the edition was free from heresies, Henry proclaimed, “Well, if there be no heresies in it, then let it be spread abroad among all the people!” Tyndale had won!5
I beseeche you therefore brethren by the mercifulness of God, that ye make youre bodyes a quicke sacrifise, holy and acceptable unto God, which is youre resonable servynge off God. And fassion note youre selves lyke unto this worlde. But be ye chaunged [in youre shape] by the renuynge of youre wittes that ye may fele what thynge that good, that aceptable and perfaicte will of God is. (Rom. 12:1-2, 1526 edition)
William Tyndale was many things, but first and foremost this man of God was a translator. This was his supreme gift. The consuming passion of his life was to provide a clear and accurate translation of the Scriptures in English for the common people to own and read. His greatest contribution then was his translation of Scripture for the first time, from the original Greek and Hebrew into English, and then printing it in pocket volumes for everyone to own.
His university education prepared him for this timely task. His skill in seven languages that he spoke like a native (Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Spanish, English and French) plus familiarity with German equipped him for his scholarly work. He had two working criteria: it had to be accurate and it had to make sense. In contrast to previous and subsequent versions, Tyndale is clear. He worked hard to speak the language of the people in a crisp, vivid, understandable style. “Fluent ease of expression in simple colloquial English are the conspicuous features of Tyndale’s style.”6
His New Testament translations include the Cologne Fragment (1525), The Worms New Testament (1526) and The Revised New Testament (1534). His Old Testament work resulted in three separate sections: The Pentateuch (1530), Jonah (1531) and selected passages from the Old Testament that were appointed to be read as epistles in the liturgy (1534), appended to his New Testament. There is tradition and evidence that he also translated Joshua to 2 Chronicles as found in Matthews Bible of 1537.
The English Bible officially approved by Henry VIII within two years after Tyndale’s death was nearly seventy percent composed of Tyndale’s work. Ninety percent of his wording appeared in the King James Version published nearly 100 years later (1611). Seventy-five percent of his wording appeared in the Revised Standard Version of 1952.
C. H. Williams helps us understand the magnitude of Tyndale’s influence when he writes,
Tyndale’s translations, together with the finest passages of his original writings, went into the making of modern English prose. Milton, Bunyan and a long list of later English writers were steeped in the language of the Authorized Version and in consequence, whether they knew it or not, they were debtors to the translator of the first New Testament. The ease with which the language of the Authorized Version became merged into the English heritage had paradoxical results. The sphere of Tyndale’s influence was widened, but at the same time he was robbed of the recognition he deserved.... He found his surest triumph in the ascendancy of the 1611 text.7
Tyndale’s influence as a translator was great but it was not immediate. His Reformation writings, however, “were more immediately influential in marshalling Protestant opinion in England.”8
His influence came from both his own personal writings and his interpretation of Luther’s ideas to English readers. The authorities recognized the threat of these materials immediately and banned them in England by royal proclamation.
Tyndale’s first such work was the Prologue to the Epistle to the Romans, probably printed in Worms (1525). One quarter is Tyndale’s; the remainder is Luther’s. As expected, the subject is an exposition of justification by faith. It found a ready sale in England but was loudly denounced by Sir Thomas More and the authorities.
The Parable of the Wicked Mammon was his next venture (1528). The theme is an exposition of the parable of the unjust steward (Luke 16). His deeper interest in this exposition is once again the doctrine of justification by faith alone.
In 1528 The Obedience of the Christian Man was published, the largest and most important of his writings. It is a defence of the need to study the Bible—all hope for the reformation of the church depends upon an awareness of the errors in Roman theology and practice. “In his insistence on the layman’s right to read and interpret the Scriptures for himself, Tyndale was putting before his English readers the most radical challenge made in Reformation thought.”9
Here Tyndale argues that Christians have the duty of obedience to cruel authorities, except where loyalty to God is concerned.
Despite it being illegal to possess a copy of this book, Lady Ann Boleyn possessed a copy and passed it on to King Henry VIII, who loved it and said, “This book is for me and all kings to read.”
The Practice of the Prelates was the last of these writings (1530). “It is the most remarkable, and easily the most bitter of his polemical writings.”10Tyndale’s persecution has had its effect. His frustration is evident. It must be read against the dark background of the events in England during those years—Henry VIII’s determination to force a papal decision on the legality of his first marriage. The writing contains “the first outpouring of Tyndale’s pent-up thoughts about the Church of Rome, its claims to privilege, its teachings and the actions of its ministers.”11
Tyndale’s tumultuous life was punctuated by violent literary clashes with Sir Thomas More, the lord chancellor, commissioned by the king and the church to refute William Tyndale’s arguments and to discredit his character.
Tyndale attacked the institutions of the Church of Rome, concentrating his attention on the errors and shortcomings of the clergy. Sir Thomas More responded with a personal attack on Tyndale’s character. The battle intensified and deteriorated over the years (1529-1533) and yielded such writings as Mores “Dialogue Concerning Heresies” (1529), Tyndale’s “Answer To More” (1531), “Mores Confutation” (1532-1533) and his “Apology” (1533).
For Sir Thomas More, the Roman Catholic Church was the true, infallible church. A heretic was anyone who opposed the church, its representatives and its teachings. Any such heretics he had burned at the stake. For Tyndale, the true and final authority was Scripture, and any person or group denying this was in league with Antichrist. It was this conviction that brought him to his violent death, but drove the movement we know as the Great English Reformation.
The starting point of Tyndale’s religious thinking was his convictions that the Scriptures were both authoritative and adequate. Though to many evangelicals today these seem so elementary, in his day it was simply radical, opposing the humanism of Erasmus and the traditionalism of the church.
He attacked the long established Roman method of Bible exegesis. It was based on the assumption that most sentences in the Bible could be interpreted in four senses. These were the literal sense, which explains the historical content of the text; the tropological sense, which teaches what we ought to do; the allegorical sense, which reveals the metaphorical implications of the text in order to explain matters of faith; and lastly there was the anagogical sense which dealt with the spiritual or mystical interpretation of the text. Tyndale accepted the literal sense of Scripture.12
This was absolutely decisive in determining the course of his life. Once he had made this decision about the authority and interpretation of the Bible, the die was cast. There could be no compromise. His break with Rome was inevitable. His death was certain.
Luther’s influence on Tyndales theology was significant indeed. Perhaps at Cambridge he had received his first exposure to Lutheranism. Certainly his stay in Wittenberg would have provided him many opportunities for direct contact with Luther and his doctrine. Luther’s influence is evident in Tyndales teaching of justification by faith alone and of the eucharist as a memorial— not a sacrifice. His Brief Declaration (1533) clearly presents his position.
More recent research, seeking to trace the origins of Puritan thought and theory, has led some scholars back to William Tyndale “in whose writings they found the germ of ideas which would later form the basis of Puritan theology.”13
While opinions vary on the quality of Tyndales theology, he was an important leader among those who shaped the thinking of the English Reformation.
The Political and Social Conscience
Though Tyndales primary interests were in the realm of Bible translation and church reformation, by the nature of his times he was compelled to express his position on the great political and social issues of his day.
Were the reformers actually responsible for the unrest that was undermining the secular authorities in Europe, as was charged by church leaders? Tyndale answered this accusation in 1528 in The Obedience of a Christian Man. Here he argued that the doctrine of the reformers did not condone political unrest, but rather called for obedience to civil authorities, except where obedience to God is concerned. He maintained that the unrest and evils could actually be traced to the Roman church.
Two years later, in The Practice of Prelates, he explored in depth the relation of the church and state, an issue created by Henry VIII’s determination to pursue the annulment of his marriage to Catherine. Here he also addressed various social issues, each from a strong biblical perspective such as the importance of vocation, the relationship between servant and master, the role of landlords and the problem of riches.
Through his writings Tyndale engaged his culture and addressed the pressing evils from a Christian perspective.
A Man for Our Times
Like Abel of old, through Tyndales obedience, scholarship, character and sacrifice, “though he is dead, he still speaks” (Heb. 11:4).
Tyndale was a biblicist. In matters of faith and practice the Scriptures were his first and final authority. His personal faith rested entirely upon the Word of God. It was his faith in the power of the teachings of the Bible to regenerate sinners, reform the church and transform society that nurtured his passion and motivated his life. Today, when philosophy, psychology and sociology seem to dominate, we need to catch again his heartbeat and settled conviction for the trustworthiness, authority and sufficiency of Scripture.
He was also a student and scholar. God used his years of diligent study, careful research, insightful reflection, critical and constructive writing to further the work of God’s kingdom. Today Tyndale stands as a model for Christians, young and old, of discipline, excellence, integrity and courage, when mediocrity is too often the standard.
He was a man of virtuous character. The case can be made that the closer his opponents came to know him, the deeper their respect grew for his character. Even the procurator-general spoke of him as “learned, godly and good.” At a time when education and giftedness get top grades, we need once again to restore character, as seen in Tyndale, to its priority.
He was persecuted and martyred. He started well, he ran well and he finished well. He was faithful unto death. What he stood for incited fierce opposition and intense resistance, but he stood! Today we seem to have enshrined, as our fourth inalienable right, the right to be free from suffering, conflict, opposition and pain. Tyndale’s life declares again that such circumstances are not only part of our calling, but often the crucible that serves to refine and release our distinctive gifts.
And finally, Tyndale’s story also reminds us that Christians who set no limits on their dedication can have massive, positive influence on the powerful forces in control of societies. This is seen in the fact that Tyndale, who was once seen as the public’s enemy, is today heralded as one of its greatest benefactors, and that the Bible in English is a recognized bestseller every year.14
And yet the Tyndale tale is not an isolated story. He was one of a mighty army of spiritual giants who participated in the remarkable drama of how we got our Bible. His is only one frame, especially enlarged in this prologue to commemorate the name change of Ontario Bible College and Ontario Theological Seminary to Tyndale College & Seminary, and to introduce him to a generation that needs to meet him and know him. May his life leave its mark on each of our students, staff and faculty. May we leave his mark on our generation.
The chapters that follow are devoted to the larger picture, stage by stage, of how we got this wonderful treasure we call the Bible.
Curtis, A. K. “William Tyndale.” Christian History, Vol. VI, No.4, Issue 16, pp. 2-35.
Daniell, David. William Tyndale, A Biography. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1994.
Douglas, J. D. (ed.). The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1974.
Galli, Mark (ed.). “How We Got Our Bible.” Christian History, Vol. XIII, No.3, Issue 43, pp. 2-4l.
Tenney, Merrill C. The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible. 5 Vols. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1975.
Williams, C. H. William Tyndale. London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd., 1969.
1 Brian Edwards, “Tyndale’s Betrayal and Death,” Church History, Volume VI, No.4, Issue 16, p. 15.
2 David Daniell, William Tyndale, A Biography (Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 1994), p. 100.
3 Ibid., p. 376.
4 Ibid., p. 374.
5 In this summary of Tyndale’s life and times, arrest and trial, I am indebted to Tony Lane, professor of Bible at London Bible College, London, England, in “A Man For All People: Introducing William Tyndale,” Church History, Volume VI, No.4, Issue 16, pp.6-9, and Brian Edwards, minister in Surrey, England, in “Tyndale’s Betrayal and Death,” Church History, Volume VT, No. 4, Issue 16, pp. 12-15.
6 C. H. Williams, William Tyndale (London: Thomas Nelson & Sons Ltd., 1969), p. 80.
7 Ibid., pp. 81, 82.
8 Ibid, p. 84.
9 Ibid, p. 92.
10 Ibid, p. 93.
11 Ibid, p. 94.
12 Ibid, p. 127.
13 Ibid, p. 130.
14 A. K. Curtis, “From The Publisher,” Church History, Volume VI, No.4, Issue 16, p. 2.