William Tyndale (c. 1494 –. 6th October 1536) was an English scholar who became a leading figure in the Protestant Reformation. He came from Gloucestershire, and the followers of John Wycliffe, the Lollards had been strong in that area, and this is likely to have played an influence on his formation and independence of mind. His lasting reputation is as a translator of the Bible into English, in which he was influenced by the works of Erasmus and Martin Luther.
Tyndale’s translation was the first English Bible to draw directly from Hebrew and Greek texts, the first English translation to take advantage of the printing press, and the first of the English Bibles of the Reformation. At a time when unauthorised biblical translation was forbidden, and none other was provided, his work cause offence by such translations as “overseers” for bishops, and “congregation” for ekklesia, church. It was taken to be a direct challenge to the authority of the Roman Church, and to the laws of England.
A copy of Tyndale’s work The Obedience of a Christian Man (1528), fell into the hand of King Henry VIII, and as it could be said to argue that the king of a country should be the head of that country’s church rather than the pope, the king found this of use. However in 1530, Tyndale wrote The Practyse of Prelates, opposing the process of Henry’s annulment his marriage to Queen Katharine on the grounds that it contravened Scripture. Fleeing England, Tyndale sought refuge in the Flemish territory of the Catholic Emperor Charles V. However agents from England followed him. Henry VIII to the end of his reign persecuted those who departed from the received doctrines of the Catholic Faith, and Tyndale was regarded as a heretic. In 1535, Tyndale was arrested and jailed in the castle of Vilvoorde outside Brussels for over a year. In 1536, he was convicted of heresy and executed by strangulation, after which his body was burnt at the stake. His dying prayer was that the King of England’s eyes would be opened; this prayer seemed to be fulfilled just one year later with Henry’s authorisation of the Matthew Bible, which was largely Tyndale’s own work, with missing sections translated by John Rogers and Miles Coverdale.
Tyndale’s influence on subsequent translations of the scriptures into English was profound. In 1611, scholars who produced the authorised King James Bible drew significantly from Tyndale’s original work and the other translations that descended from his. One estimate suggests that the New Testament in the King James Version is 83% Tyndale’s words and the Old Testament 76%.
In translating the Bible, Tyndale introduced new words into the English language; many were subsequently used in the King James Bible, such as ‘ Passover’ and ‘scapegoat.’
As well as individual words, Tyndale also coined such familiar phrases as:
- my brother’s keeper
- knock and it shall be opened unto you
- a moment in time
- seek and ye shall find
- ask and it shall be given you
- judge not that ye be not judged
- let there be light
- the powers that be
- the salt of the earth
- a law unto themselves
- it came to pass
- the signs of the times
- filthy lucre
- the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak
- live, move and have our being
A short passage from Tyndale’s “The Obedience of a Christian Man.”
Let it not make thee despair, neither yet discourage thee, O reader, that it is forbidden thee in pain of life and goods, or that it is made breaking of the king’s peace, or treason unto his highness, to read the word of they soul’s heath; but much rather 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 ?
They tell you that scripture ought not to be in the mother tongue, but that is only because they fear the light, and desire to lead you blindfold and in captivity… They say that laymen would interpret it each after his own way. Why then do the curates not teach people the right way ? The scripture would be a basis for such teaching and a test of it.
We do not wish to abolish teaching and to make every man his own master; but if the curates will not teach the gospel, the layman must have the scripture and read it for himself, taking God for his teacher.
Looking back from the perspective of the Church and the churches today, we may admire William Tyndale’s honesty and steadfastness , his scholarship and determination to provide the scriptures in English. At the same time we can see the dangers of which his opponents such as Thomas More were aware – that the Church would become divided and fragmented by each reader of the scriptures being their own authority regarding its interpretation, and each local church setting itself up as an independent congregation. Undoubtedly the Protestant reformation led not just to division but to further fragmentation. And not only fragmentation of the Church, but destruction of much that was beautiful in parish churches. I have recently attended a “zoom meeting” with clergy from rural parts of the diocese of Exeter, which reported on church architecture and the extent of the destruction of art and sculpture in the times of the Reformation and the Commonwealth.
I am much attracted by the philosopher Hegel’s theory of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. If we take the medieval Catholic church as the thesis and the reaction of the radical Reformation as the antithesis, perhaps there is something in the Anglican via media that provides a synthesis, retaining both the essentials of the old Catholic structure while accommodating many of the insights of the reformers.
And we can be thankful that within the ecumenical movement today, Christians of different church traditions are able to engage with each other and to learn from one another. We have a lot for which to be thankful.
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Acknowledgments : Wikipedia, “John Tyndale”; ‘The Cloud of Witnesses’ companion to the ASB, 1982 for the passage from Tyndale’s writing.