I’ve just listened again today, during a long run, to John Piper’s biography on William Tyndale, ‘Always singing one note – a vernacular Bible’. You can read or download it here or watch it here.
The following is a 2,000 word precis of Piper’s 7,600 word talk (including references) which is in turn is largely based on David Daniell’s, William Tyndale: A Biography.
So take your pick, depending on how much time you have.
2017 marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, which started with Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the Wittenberg church door in 1517.
But the father of the Reformation in England was William Tyndale, who produced the first English translation of the Bible from the original Greek and Hebrew.
At 28 years old in 1522, as a young Catholic priest, he spent most of his time studying Erasmus’ Greek New Testament which had just been printed six years before in 1516.
This was the first time that the Greek New Testament had been printed and it is no exaggeration to say that it set fire to Europe. Martin Luther translated it into his famous German version of 1522. In a few years there appeared translations from the Greek into most European vernaculars and these provided the basis of the popular reformation.
John Foxe tells us that one day an exasperated Catholic scholar at dinner with Tyndale said, ‘We were better be without God’s law than the pope’s.’
In response Tyndale spoke his famous words, ‘I defy the Pope and all his laws. . . . If God spare my life ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plow, shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost.’
Four years later Tyndale finished the English translation of the Greek New Testament in Worms, Germany, and began to smuggle it into England in bails of cloth. By October of 1526 the book had been banned by Bishop Tunstall in London, but the print run was at least 3,000.
For the first time ever in history, the Greek New Testament was translated into English. And for the first time ever the New Testament in English was available in a printed form.
Before Tyndale there were only hand-written manuscripts of the Bible in English. These manuscripts we owe to the work and inspiration of John Wyclif and the Lollards from 130 years earlier but these were based on Jerome’s Latin Vulgate.
Before he was martyred in 1536 Tyndale had translated into clear, common English not only the New Testament but also the Pentateuch, Joshua to 2 Chronicles, and Jonah.
All this material became the basis of the Great Bible issued by Miles Coverdale in England in 1539 and the basis for the Geneva Bible published in 1557—‘the Bible of the nation,’ which sold over a million copies between 1560 and 1640.
The sages assembled by King James to prepare the Authorized Version of 1611, so often praised for unlikely corporate inspiration, took over Tyndale’s work. Nine-tenths of the Authorized Version’s New Testament is Tyndale’s. The same is true of the first half of the Old Testament, which was as far as he was able to get before he was executed outside Brussels in 1536. Probably 70% of our ESV is Tyndale.
Here are some of the English phrases we owe to Tyndale:
‘Let there be light’ (Genesis 1:3).
‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ (Genesis 4:9)
‘The Lord bless thee and keep thee. The Lord make his face to shine upon thee and be merciful unto thee. The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace’ (Numbers 6:24-26).
‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God’ (John 1:1).
‘There were shepherds abiding in the field’ (Luke 2:8).
‘Blessed are they that mourn for they shall be comforted’ (Matthew 5:4).
‘Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name’ (Matthew 6:9).
‘The signs of the times’ (Matthew 16:3)
‘The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak’ (Matthew 26:41).
‘He went out . . . and wept bitterly’ (Matthew 26:75).
‘A law unto themselves’ (Romans 2:14)
‘In him we live, move and have our being’ (Acts 17:28).
‘Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels’ (1 Corinthians 13:1)
‘Fight the good fight’ (1 Timothy 6:12).
Five hundred years after his great work newspaper headlines still quote Tyndale, though unknowingly, and he has reached more people than even Shakespeare.
Luther’s translation of 1522 is often praised for ‘having given a language to the emerging German nation.’ But the same is true for Tyndale in English.
This was not merely a literary phenomenon; it was a spiritual explosion. Tyndale’s Bible and writings were the kindling that set the Reformation on fire in England.
Erasmus was twenty-eight years older than Tyndale, but they both died in 1536—Tyndale martyred by the Roman Catholic Church, Erasmus a respected member of that church. Erasmus had spent time in Oxford and Cambridge, but we don’t know if he and Tyndale ever met.
On the surface, one sees remarkable similarities between Tyndale and Erasmus. Both were great linguists. Erasmus was a Latin scholar and produced the first printed Greek New Testament. Tyndale knew eight languages: Latin, Greek, German, French, Hebrew, Spanish, Italian, and English. Both men loved the natural power of language and were part of a rebirth of interest in the way language works and both believed the Bible should be translated into the vernacular of every language.
Tyndale’s view of human sinfulness set the stage for his grasp of the glory of God’s sovereign grace in the gospel. Erasmus did not see the depth of the human condition, and so did not see the glory and explosive power of what the reformers saw in the New Testament.
Where Luther and Tyndale were blood-earnest about our dreadful human condition and the glory of salvation in Christ, Erasmus and Thomas More joked and bantered. When Luther published his 95 theses in 1517, Erasmus sent a copy of them to More—along with a ‘jocular letter including the anti-papal games, and witty satirical diatribes against abuses within the church, which both of them loved to make.’
What drove Tyndale to sing ‘one note’ all his life – that the Bible might be available in the English vernacular for the common man - was the rock-solid conviction that all humans were in bondage to sin, blind, dead, damned, and helpless, and that God had acted in Christ to provide salvation by grace through faith.
This massive dose of bondage to sin and deliverance by blood-bought sovereign grace is missing in Erasmus. This is why there is an elitist lightness to his religion—just like there is to so much of evangelicalism today. Hell and sin and atonement and sovereign grace were not weighty realities for him. But for Tyndale they were everything. And in the middle of these great realities was the doctrine of justification by faith alone. This is why the Bible had to be translated, and ultimately this is why Tyndale was martyred.
This is the answer to how William Tyndale accomplished what he did in translating the New Testament and writing books that set England on fire with the reformed faith.
It is almost incomprehensible to us how viciously opposed the Roman Catholic Church was to the translation of the Scriptures into English. John Wyclif and his followers called ‘Lollards’ had spread written manuscripts of English translations from the Latin in the late 1300s. In 1401 Parliament passed the law de Haeretico Comburendo—‘on the burning of heretics’—to make heresy punishable by burning people alive at the stake. The Bible translators were in view.
This statute meant that you could be burned alive by the Catholic Church for simply reading the Bible in English. John Foxe records . . . seven Lollards burned at Coventry in 1519 for teaching their children the Lord’s Prayer in English.
Tyndale hoped to escape this condemnation by getting official authorization for his translation in 1524. But he found just the opposite and had to escape from London to the continent where he did all his translating and writing for the next twelve years. He lived as a fugitive the entire time until his death near Brussels in 1536.
He watched a rising tide of persecution and felt the pain of seeing young men burned alive who were converted by reading his translation and his books. His closest friend, John Frith, was arrested in London and tried by Thomas More and burned alive July 4, 1531, at the age of 28.
Why this extraordinary hostility against the English New Testament?
There were surface reasons and deeper reasons why the church opposed an English Bible. The surface reasons were that the English language is rude and unworthy of the exalted language of God’s word; and when one translates, errors can creep in, so it is safer not to translate; moreover, if the Bible is in English, then each man will become his own interpreter, and many will go astray into heresy and be condemned; and it was church tradition that only priests are given the divine grace to understand the Scriptures; and what’s more, there is a special sacramental value to the Latin service in which people cannot understand, but grace is given. Such were the kinds of things being said on the surface.
But there were deeper reasons why the church opposed the English Bible: one doctrinal and one ecclesiastical. The church realized that they would not be able to sustain certain doctrines biblically because the people would see that they are not in the Bible. And the church realized that their power and control over the people, and even over the state, would be lost if certain doctrines were exposed as unbiblical—especially the priesthood and purgatory and penance.
Thomas More’s criticism of Tyndale boils down mainly to the way Tyndale translated five words. He translated presbuteros as elder instead of priest. He translated ekklesia as congregation instead of church. He translated metanoeoas repent instead of do penance. He translated exomologeo as acknowledge or admit instead of confess. And he translated agape as love rather than charity.
These words undercut the entire sacramental structure of the thousand year church throughout Europe, Asia and North Africa. It was the Greek New Testament that was doing the undercutting.
And with the doctrinal undermining of these ecclesiastical pillars of priesthood and penance and confession, the pervasive power and control of the church collapsed. England would not be a Catholic nation. The reformed faith would flourish there in due time.
What did it cost William Tyndale under these hostile circumstances to stay faithful to his calling as a translator of the Bible and a writer of the reformed faith?
He fled his homeland in 1524 and was killed in 1536. He gives us some glimpse of those twelve years as a fugitive in Germany and the Netherlands in one of the very few personal descriptions we have from Stephen Vaughan’s letter in 1531. He refers to:
‘. . . my pains . . . my poverty . . . my exile out of mine natural country, and bitter absence from my friends . . . my hunger, my thirst, my cold, the great danger wherewith I am everywhere encompassed, and finally . . . innumerable other hard and sharp fightings which I endure.’
All these sufferings came to a climax on May 21, 1535, in the midst of Tyndale’s great Old Testament translation labors, when he was betrayed by an Englishman, Henry Philips. He was imprisoned, formally condemned as a heretic and degraded from the priesthood. Then in Brussels on 6 October he was tied to the stake and then strangled by the executioner, then afterward consumed in the fire.
Foxe reports that his last words were, ‘Lord! Open the King of England’s eyes!’ Tyndale was forty-two years old, never married and never buried.
Tyndale’s wrote to his best friend, John Frith, in a letter just before he was burned alive for believing and speaking the truth of Scripture:
‘Your cause is Christ’s gospel, a light that must be fed with the blood of faith. . . . If when we be buffeted for well-doing, we suffer patiently and endure, that is thankful with God; for to that end we are called. For Christ also suffered for us, leaving us an example that we should follow his steps, who did no sin. Hereby have we perceived love that he laid down his life for us: therefore we ought to be able to lay down our lives for the brethren. . . . Let not your body faint. If the pain be above your strength, remember: “Whatsoever ye shall ask in my name, I will give it you.” And pray to our Father in that name, and he will ease your pain, or shorten it. . . . Amen.’