William Tyndale, born c. 1493 in Gloucestershire, England helped to shape and shake the English speaking world into Reformation. The church historian Carl Trueman summarizes, “Tyndale spent most of his adult life on the run. He was the sixteenth century equivalent of a subversive or a terrorist as far as the English authorities were concerned.” (Trueman “The Geneva Bible”) After Luther, the Roman Church did not want to take any more chances on the Reformation breaking out.. Tyndale had to be stopped at all costs. His rich contributions extend to the present day.
Tyndale trained at Oxford and taught at Cambridge. He, like many other leading intellectuals and humanists of the day met and pitched ideas off of each other at the White Horse Inn outside of the university. It was through these engaging discussions that Tyndale eventually started to think about how a bible may be translated into English not just from the Latin Vulgate, but from the earlier manuscripts of the Greek New Testament that Erasmus had produced. It consumed his every thought, and it would not be long before he would have to flee the country to the Holy Roman Empire to put it together.
The English Roman Church authorities had had enough with an English version of the bible. The last attempt had been John Wycliffe whose sponsored editions had created the Lollard controversy which created an underground movement of lay preachers that subverted the authority of the church. (Trueman, “19. Calvin IV”) Tyndale defends his project of translating the bible into English against the Roman Church in his, “The Obedience of a Christian Man” saying:
“They will suffer no man to know God’s word, but burn it, and make heresy of it: yea, and because the people begin to smell their falsehood, they make it treason to the king, and breaking of the king’s peace, to have so much as their Pater Noster in English. And instead of God’s law, they bind with their own law: and instead of God’s promises, they loose and justify with pardons and ceremonies, which they themselves have imagined for their own profit. … let any man eat flesh but on a Saturday, or break any other tradition of theirs, and he shall be bound, and not loosed, till he have paid the uttermost farthing, either with shame most vile, or death most cruel. But hate thy neighbour as much as thou wilt, and thou shalt have no rebuke of them; yea, rob him, murder him, and then come to them and welcome.”
Tyndale’s biting sarcasm and highly critical attitude toward the Roman church did not find welcome with church authorities. Church historian David Calhoun states just how risky a task Tyndale set for himself. Calhoun relates, “His goal was that the simple people of England would be able to know and love the Bible. That sounds like a wonderful thing for Tyndale to want to do, but it was still dangerous to do such a thing. Thomas More and others set out to oppose Tyndale. They believed that if he started translating the Bible, then he would start writing notes about it, which would sound just like Luther. Then the Protestant movement would overcome England. “ (“Lighting a Candle: The English Reformation”) The Reformation coming to England was exactly what Tyndale campaigned for. It would cost him his life.
Tyndale completed his translation of the New Testament into English in 1525 while abroad in Cologne. A network had developed between reformers that helped to disseminate his works, especially among those English reformers who had fled to places like Geneva, Switzerland and elsewhere. Legend has it that Tyndale met Luther and further developed his theology in Wittenberg, however I have not come across any confirmation of this story. Regardless, what we do know is that Tyndale eventually moved into the city of Antwerp in what is now Belgium. Here, he met Henry Phillips who betrayed Tyndale into the hands of the authorities. As he spent his last days jailed in the Vilvoorde Castle, Tyndale’s bibles spread to England and other parts of Europe like wildfire. The authorities in Antwerp, on behalf of the Roman Church, strangled Tyndale and burned him at the stake on October 6, 1536. According to Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, Tyndale made his last prayer aloud, “Lord! Open the King of England’s eyes!” Protestantism was on the horizon in England.
William Tyndale’s legacy is directly attached to his English translation of the Bible. Tyndale’s Greek and Hebrew based bible served as a foundation of the 1611 Authorized Version (or King James Version) of the bible. Even though there were many translators, according to Calhoun, “90% of it came from one man, Tyndale, who by himself in trying times translated the Bible into English.” The earlier English language Geneva Bible of 1560 also relied heavily on Tyndale’s work. His contribution to the Reformation sent shock-waves through Europe and the world today through the continued reprinting of his work.
Calhoun, David. “Lighting a Candle: The English Reformation.” Transcript. Covenant Theological Seminary. Web.
Trueman, Carl. “19. Calvin IV.” Audio Lecture. The Reformation. Westminster Theological Seminary. 29 Sept. 2014. Web.
Trueman, Carl. “The Geneva Bible.” Transcript. Union University. 12 March 2003. Web.
Tyndale, William. “The Obedience of a Christian Man.” Quote. Hail&Fire. Web.
“William Tyndale | Biography – English Scholar.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Web. 6 Oct. 2015.