The debt we owe to William Tyndale

“Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.” (John 12:24)

“’This is the covenant I will make with the people of Israel
    after that time,’ declares the Lord.
‘I will put my law in their minds
    and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
    and they will be my people.
No longer will they teach their neighbor,
    or say to one another, “Know the Lord,”
because they will all know me,
    from the least of them to the greatest,’
declares the Lord.”
(Jeremiah 31:33-34)

When I visited the Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC out of curiosity about a year ago, I was surprised to see an exhibit on the so-called Slave Bible. It was published in 1807 and used by British missionaries to educate and convert African slaves in the West Indies.

It was notable for what it omitted: references to the deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery and Galatians 3:28, which includes the phrase “neither bond nor free,” for example. It did emphasize, however, the commands about servants being obedient to their masters.

Since the Bible itself says, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (Jn 8:32), this was about control. You can’t be truly free if you don’t have access to the truth that frees you.

While William Tyndale (1494-1536) was single-minded about publishing an English translation of the Bible that had been available only in Latin for 1200 years, it was why the Bible had to be in the language of the people that is so important.

It was also about control. To translate the Scriptures into English was illegal and heretical; the punishment was death. The same year Tyndale crossed the Channel to Germany where he thought there would be printers amenable to publishing his project, a man was burned at the stake in England for possessing a scrap of paper with the Lord’s prayer in English.

Latin was the language of scholars and churchmen and it unified the Holy Roman Empire that dominated western Europe. But if you didn’t know Latin the Bible was a closed book to you except for the bits and pieces handed out by priests and bishops.

Abuses like the sale of indulgences that Luther railed against could go unchecked because no one knew any better—except for churchmen, who benefitted from the “whole counsel of God” being carefully guarded from curious eyes and minds.

So while he was chaplain and tutor to the children of Sir John Walsh in Gloucestershire, Tyndale became indignant when a visiting priest said, “We were better without God’s law than the Pope’s.”

Tyndale replied, “I defy the Pope and all his laws and if God spare my life ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost.”

Or as the Lord declared, in describing his new covenant, “They will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest.”

Even today, when study Bibles or our favorite authors or Bible teachers are often our mediators, this is a more radical notion than most realize. In Tyndale’s time it was revolutionary.

And men like Henry VIII knew it. Henry appointed his chancellor Sir Thomas More to attack Tyndale, who was enemy to both Church and State. As in his attacks on Martin Luther, More was vicious and vulgar.

But then Tyndale published a sermon, The Obedience of a Christian Man, and a copy found its way to Anne Boleyn, for whom Henry VIII was desperate to divorce Catherine of Aragon. Tyndale asserted that the King rather than the Pope was the supreme authority in the realm.

For the moment, he was in favor with the King. But when Tyndale wrote The Practice of Prelates, which contradicted Henry’s interpretation of a passage in Leviticus he was relying on to obtain a divorce, the tract was burned in bonfires.

Nevertheless, More’s successor, Thomas Cromwell tried to lure Tyndale, who was in Antwerp for protection, back to England. He may have thought he would be easier to control in the country rather than out.

Tyndale had one condition: the publication of the Bible in English, for which he promised his loyalty to the King. The message was relayed back to Henry. He never answered.

It was an Englishman, Henry Phillips, who promised the Emperor Charles V, nephew of the queen Henry discarded, that he could find and deliver prominent Protestants to him. He posed as a friend to Tyndale, then led him into a trap where he was arrested.

Tyndale spent 16 months in prison. He was stripped of his position as a priest. In October 1536 he was strangled before being burned at the stake.  

His last words reportedly were a prayer: “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes!” Within four years, four English translations were published under the King’s authority and disseminated in England, all based on Tyndale’s work.

Analyses of the text reveal that nearly 95% of the King James Version New Testament, and more than 80% of the five books of Moses (the Pentateuch, as far as he got), are from William Tyndale. The King James Bible is the bestselling book in history.

I probably wouldn’t be writing this, and you wouldn’t be reading it, without the determination of Tyndale to make the word of God available to everyone. And this was 500 years ago, when the notion of a non-cleric handling, teaching or discoursing on the word was unheard of.

Now we can all examine and know the truth that sets us free–and blog about it. With a few clicks, I can pull up a couple dozen English translations of the same verse while sipping my coffee. The verse printed on your coffee mug is in English, not Latin.

In William Tyndale: Man With a Mission (available on Prime Video), one of his biographers, Dr. David Daniell, says bluntly, “The English Bible was made in blood.” Jesus said a kernel of wheat which dies produces many seeds. Tyndale produced millions.

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