7 Heroes of the Faith Part 3: William Tyndale

BIBLE WARS

In the ongoing conflict between the protestant reformers and the Roman Catholic Church of the 15th and 16thcenturies, the fiercest battle centred around the translation of the Bible. While the institutional church certainly remained intractable and resolute in its defence of many other points of contention such as the selling of indulgence certificates, the veneration of Mary and the saints, the infallibility of the Pope, superstitious beliefs about relics, and the church’s various doctrines regarding forgiveness, the mass and the priesthood, the conflict surrounding these issues paled into insignificance compared to the furore that erupted over the translation of the Bible.

The desire of the protestant reformers to translate the Bible into the vernacular language of the common people struck at the very heart of the institutional church’s grasp on power. The Latin Vulgate – the authorised Latin translation of the Bible which had been in place for centuries – ensured that the common people did not have access to scriptures in their own language and had to rely on the church to tell them what to believe. Indeed, this was the deliberate intention of the church, which forbade common people to possess a Bible – even the authorised Latin one. For example, the Council of Toulouse, in 1229, declared:

“We prohibit laymen possessing copies of the Old and New Testament … We forbid them most severely to have the above books in the popular vernacular. The lords of the districts shall carefully seek out these heretics in dwellings, hovels, and forests, and even their underground retreats shall be entirely wiped out.”

This historical description of people in possession of vernacular Bibles as “heretics” is shocking to our modern sensibilities and must surely be a source of embarrassment to the Roman Catholic Church today. The reason for this extreme position in the middle ages was the belief, reinforced by a succession of Popes, that the Holy Scriptures – even the authorised Latin Vulgate – were too complex for ordinary people to understand. Thus, the Council of Trent (1545-1564) placed the Bible – even the authorised Latin Vulgate – on its list of prohibited books for common people and forbade any person to read the Bible without a license from a Roman Catholic bishop or inquisitor. The Council added these words:

“That if anyone shall dare to read or keep in his possession that book, without such a license, he shall not receive absolution till he has given it up to his ordinary (priest).”

This opposition to common people reading the Bible persisted well into the 19th and early 20th centuries. For instance, Pope Pius VII (1800-1823) denounced Bible Societies which sought to place Bibles in the hands of ordinary people. He declared:

“It is evidence from experience, that the holy Scriptures, when circulated in the vulgar tongue, have, through the temerity of men, produced more harm than benefit.”[1]

Similarly, Pope Gregory XVI (1831-1846) railed against “the publication, distribution, reading, and possession of books of the holy Scriptures translated into the vulgar tongue.”[2]

Pope Leo XII called the vernacular translations of the Bible the “Gospel of the Devil” in an encyclical letter of 1824. In January 1850, he also condemned Bible Societies and admitted the fact that the distribution of Scripture has “long been condemned by the holy chair.”[3] He also declared:

“As it has been clearly shown by experience that, if the holy Bible in the vernacular is generally permitted without any distinction, more harm than utility is thereby caused…”[4]

Underlying this longstanding opposition to the wide circulation of the Bible among the common people was (and still is) the strongly held belief that the Pope, by virtue of his supposed infallible authority, is the only person who has the ability and authority to correctly interpret the Bible. Thus, the authorised Catechism of the Catholic Church, endorsed by the Second Vatican Council in 1965 states:

“The task of interpreting the Word of God authentically has been entrusted solely to the Magesterium of the Church, that is, to the Pope and to the bishops in communion with him.” (CCC 100)

This has been the strongly held view of the Roman Catholic church since the publication of the Latin Vulgate in 382 AD and it explains why the proposed translation of the Bible into vernacular languages by the Protestant reformers in the 15th and 16th centuries was met with such hostile and vehement opposition.

Thus, the common people’s lack of access to the Bible was the means by which the church maintained control over them. The superstitious belefs, corrupt practices and questionable doctrines that had been introduced by a succession of Popes over many centuries (and which we examined in some detail in the previous chapter) only gained traction because of the ignorance of the common people. The largely unschooled and biblically illiterate populace knew no better, and so they unquestioningly accepted the proclamations of the institutional church. By seeking to place vernacular Bibles into the hands of ordinary people, the reformers actions posed a serious and unacceptable threat to the institutional church’s power and authority.

The response of the late-medieval church was swift and violent. At the command of successive Popes, vernacular Bibles were rounded up and burned. Those who refused to hand over their Bibles or tried to hide them were arrested. Translators were excommunicated and condemned as heretics. Many of them were burned at the stake or beheaded. The Pope’s soldiers would suddenly descend on towns and villages, ransacking homes and destroying property in their quest to eradicate vernacular Bibles from the land. This was all-out war because the church’s hold over the common people was at stake.

This was the world into which William Tyndale was born. And, as we are about to see, the English Bibles that we hold in our hands today owe much to his bravery and dedication.

GOD’S CRUSADER

William Tyndale was to England what Martin Luther was to Germany and Europe. In fact it was Luther’s bold and defiant translation of the Bible into German that inspired Tyndale to do the same for the English language.

William Tyndale (1490 – 1536) is often referred to as the greatest of the English reformers. He studied at both Cambridge and Oxford Universities, gaining several degrees and becoming a master in Greek, Hebrew and Latin, as well as being fluent in French and Spanish. It was during his years at Cambridge that his study of the Bible led to a renaissance within his own heart and a growing passion to bring the message of the Bible to the common people.

In 1521 he was ordained as a priest and stationed at a small church in Old Sodbury. He began preaching in the surrounding towns and villages, as well as on Bristol Green, where his powerful sermons began attracting large crowds. His preaching of the gospel of grace soon attracted the ire of local priests and bishops, who regarded his emphasis on the individual’s direct relationship with God through Jesus, our only high priest, as a direct threat to the church’s hold over people. The idea that forgiveness could be received directly from Jesus without the intervention of human priests who pronounced absolution through confession and penance was considered to be heretical and an attack upon the authority of the church. Tyndale’s methodology of employing his own translation of the Greek text of the New Testament in his sermons, rather than merely regurgitating the often-flawed Latin translation that was endorsed by the church, was also seen as defiant and unlawful.

The institutional church placed great pressure on Tyndale to cease his reference to the original Geek texts in his sermons and only quote the church’s authorised Latin version, claiming that it is the church that had given the Bible to the world and only the church could interpret it. In response to this pressure, Tyndale levelled the following accusation at the Bishops and the hierarchy of the institutional church:

“Do you know who taught the eagles to find their prey? Well, that same God teaches His hungry children to find their Father in His word. Far from having given us the Scriptures, it is you who have hidden them from us; it is you who burn those who teach them, and if you could, you would burn the Scriptures themselves.”[5]

Tyndale’s preaching aroused great interest among the common people, for they had never heard the gospel of grace explained so clearly. But often, as soon as Tyndale finished a sermon and left the field or village green where he had preached, other clergy immediately moved in and contradicted his preaching, telling the people to disregard everything he had said. Thus we find Tyndale lamenting:

“What is to be done? While I am sowing in one place, the enemy ravages the field I have just left. I cannot be everywhere. Oh! if Christians possessed the Holy Scriptures in their own tongue, they could of themselves withstand these sophists. Without the Bible it is impossible to establish the laity in the truth.”[6]

A desire to make the Bible available to the common people in their own language began to grip Tyndale. This idea was vehemently opposed by the church hierarchy. On one occasion, one prominent Catholic theologian, in a debate with Tyndale, stated, “It would be better to be without God’s Laws than the Pope’s Laws”.[7]This reflected the official stance that the Pope’s decrees were held in greater reverence than the raw statements of the Bible. Tyndale responded to this outrageous viewpoint, making this statement which remains one of the most quoted catchcries from reformation history:

“I defy the Pope and all his laws! And if God spares my life, before many more years I will cause a boy that drives the plough to know more of the Scriptures than you do!”[8]

Inspired by Martin Luther’s translation of the Bible into German, Tyndale began his work of translation into English in earnest. Prior to this, John Wycliffe and his associates had produced an English Bible, but it was severely limited on three counts. Firstly, Wycliffe had only translated from the Latin version, which contained many errors. Secondly, it had never been printed and mass produced; it was only copied by hand and was therefore very costly and only found its way into the hands of a few wealthy people. Thirdly, the church had banned Wycliffe’s Bible and, as a result, very few people dared to procure it for themselves.

John Tyndale’s translation, however, went back to the source itself, the Greek texts, made available to him via the recently published work of the biblical scholar, Erasmus. This meant that he was able to produce a translation of the New Testament that was much more accurate. Tyndale also planned to mass produce his English translation via the newly invented printing press.

The institutional church, however, upon learning of Tyndale’s new translation project, mounted increasing opposition against him. Indeed, he was persecuted to such an extent that he was forced to move his base of operations from rural England to London, where he sought to hide in the heart of the crowded metropolis. But the church pursued him there, locating him and continuing to oppose his work. A rising furore erupted, encompassing the ire of the majority of priests and bishops within the church.

Eventually, the Chancellor of England called a council of clergy and church officials to discuss Tyndale’s heretical actions in translating the Bible into the common language. The council officially denounced and condemned Tyndale, ordering him to cease his translation, upon threat of excommunication and arrest.

Tyndale was forced to flee from England to the Continent, finding refuge in Germany where he continued his work of translation. But even there, the long arm of the English church eventually found him. As new sections of his English New Testament were translated and began to be printed, the English church discovered his work and placed pressure on the local authorities to ban his work. Twice his work was stopped and local authorities ordered that the printing of his work cease. But as one city banned his printing, Tyndale simply moved to another and continued his work.

Finally, after being forced to leave two cities, Tyndale arrived in the German city of Worms, where Martin Luther had stood trial for similar reasons a few years earlier. In that city, Tyndale was able to complete his translation of the New Testament without further hindrance and, finally, he was able to print thousands of copies which were then distributed around the world.

TYNDALE’S SACRIFICE

Unable to stop the printing of these Bibles, the English church desperately sought to ban their import into England. The various ports were heavily guarded and ships were searched. But Tyndale’s supporters were undaunted. By various means, his newly translated English Bible was secretly imported and distributed widely throughout Britain, hidden in bales of hay and boxes of goods. On one occasion, the Bishop of Durham, a fierce opponent of Tyndale’s English Bible, bought a whole consignment of them from an English bookseller and destroyed them all, thinking that this would help to eradicate the pestilence from England. But on the contrary, the money that he paid for these Bibles funded the printing of a new and updated edition which eventually found its way into England in even greater numbers. In fact, when Tyndale was eventually arrested (as we shall soon see), he was ordered to provide the names of those who had financed the printing of his Bibles. Tyndale facetiously replied that the Bishop of Durham had done more than any other person to support his work of translation!

In England, Tyndale’s New Testament Bible was condemned by Cardinal Wolsey who ordered that copies be rounded up and burned. At one point a great bonfire was lit outside St Paul’s cathedral, consuming many hundreds or even thousands of the new Bibles.

Meanwhile, on the Continent, Tyndale’s life was increasingly in danger. He was forced to flee from city to city as the increasingly irate emissaries of the English church sought his arrest. He fled from Cologne to Hamburg, to Worms, to Strasbourg, to Marburg, and to Antwerp in an attempt to avoid capture. In 1524 he reached Wittenberg in Saxony, where the Reformation had made great progress. There he finally met Luther and was inspired by his strong faith and courage.

During this time, Tyndale also published several other books and pamphlets explaining the gospel clearly and pointing out the errors of the institutional church’s doctrine. The result of Tyndale’s translation of the Bible and the dissemination of his other writings was a remarkable and growing awakening within Britain. People whose understanding of salvation had long been obfuscated by rituals, traditions and superstitious beliefs gradually had their eyes opened to the liberating message of the gospel of grace. As people were finally able to read the Bible for themselves, they discovered within its pages a message that was often in stark contrast to the doctrines and practices of the institutional church.

In 1529, Tyndale moved to the Netherlands to begin his translation of the Old Testament, as he had only produced an English New Testament prior to this. Meanwhile, Sir Thomas More had become Lord Chancellor of England and issued a series of scathing denunciations of Tyndale’s English translation, claiming that the longstanding teaching of the church should be held in higher regard than the Bible. A series of publications and counter-publications volleyed back and forth between More and Tyndale which became the classic controversy of the English Reformation.

By 1531, Sir Thomas More and the English Bishops had had enough of Tyndale’s championing of the English Bible. Having burnt thousands of his Bibles, they now decided that Tyndale, himself, should be burned at the stake. Mounting pressure was placed upon the rulers of Europe to deliver Tyndale for trial, but they refused. King Henry VIII (King of England) joined in denouncing Tyndale, calling for his arrest and execution, and urging King Charles V (the Holy Roman Emperor, King of Spain and Archduke of Austria and Netherlands) to hand over Tyndale. Charles refused and Tyndale sought refuge in the home of an English Merchant in Antwerp.

Sadly, however, Tyndale was lured from the house under false pretences and arrested by agents of Roman Catholic Church in Europe who were working with the English church in tracking him down. He was imprisoned and held in squalid conditions for seventeen months in a dungeon in Vilvorde, near Brussels. Finally, on October 6, 1536, Tyndale was convicted of heresy and sentenced to death. He was chained to a stake outside the castle walls where he was strangled to death and then his body was burnt at the stake.

It is difficult for us today to comprehend the furore that erupted over the translation of the Bible into English and the malice that was directed towards Tyndale for being its chief architect. The English church relentlessly pursued him to his death and, for several years afterward, continued its attempt to wipe his English Bible from existence. Tyndale’s English Bible, written in the language of the common people and widely distributed by means of the printing press, was the greatest threat to the church’s power that it had ever faced. And because of that, they killed him.

What is most remarkable about William Tyndale’s story, however, is that he knew that he would eventually forfeit his life for this cause. Over the last few years of his life, he regularly admitted to friends and supporters that he believed he would almost certainly be eventually executed for his translation work – yet he continued anyway. He made a conscious decision to give up his life for the cause of putting an English Bible into the hands of the common people.

Tyndale’s incredibly courageous conviction is reflected in his last words, uttered seconds before his death by strangulation and faithfully recorded for us by his supporters. Significantly, he did not rant and rail against his oppressors. He did not use his final moments to condemn the Bishops who had plotted against him and the King who had denounced him. Instead, he simply prayed:

“Lord, open the eyes of the King of England.”

His last thought and prayer was not for his own welfare, but that God would change King Henry’s heart and cause him to allow the printing and distribution of English Bibles.

It was a prayer that was answered soon after. One year later, King Henry changed his mind and issued a royal decree allowing the public reading of the Bible, including Tyndale’s English translation. Five years later, a revised edition of Tyndale’s English Bible reached the desk of King Henry who, when he read it, ordered that every church in the kingdom should be provided with a copy. The dam had broken. The floodgates were opened. And it came to pass, just as Tyndale had predicted, that “before many more years I will cause a boy that drives the plough to know more of the Scriptures than you [priests] do!”[9]

Today, we hold our English Bibles so lightly and unthinkingly in our hands, taking for granted our freedom and ability to read the scriptures in our own language. But the privilege we now enjoy so easily was only made possible by the courage and commitment of people such as William Tyndale who literally gave up their lives to put these Bibles into our hands.

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[1] https://www.reddit.com/r/TrueChristian/comments/15ikc6d/why_did_the_medieval_catholic_church_forbid_the/

[2] IBID

[3] IBID

[4] Great Encyclical Letters of Leo XIII, pp. 412-413.

[5] Quoted in Merle D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, b. 18, ch. 4.

[6] Quoted in Ibid., b. 18, ch. 4.” –The Great Controversy, pp. 245, 246.

[7] Anderson, Annals of the English Bible, p. 19.” –The Great Controversy, p. 246.

[8] Anderson, Annals of the English Bible, p. 19.” –The Great Controversy, p. 246.

[9] Anderson, Annals of the English Bible, p. 19.” –The Great Controversy, p. 246.