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  • Stephen Wiebe

William Tyndale

There are many men and women who, throughout history, have given themselves selflessly and sacrificially to the cause of Jesus Christ. From the list compiled in Hebrews 11, we have many examples of godly people who, through faith, were able to accomplish amazing things in Christ. There could be a list compiled of men and women in more recent times as well who were used to wonderful ends by Jesus, and that list would not be any less amazing. From that list we look at one man, William Tyndale.

Born in Gloucestershire, Tyndale came from a family of wool merchants and landowners. The family was well off enough that he could be educated at Oxford and, later on, at Cambridge. During his time there, Tyndale was surprised to find that studying theology did not involve reading the Bible. In fact, the Church at large greatly ignored the Bible with many of its clergy ignorant of the Scriptures. Tyndale, being a God fearing man, studied Scripture and began teaching fellow students what he learned.

Tyndale enrolled at Oxford in 1505 at the age of eleven, and grew up at the university. By the age of 21, he received a Master’s degree and had become a very gifted linguist. Of the eight languages he learned—Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Spanish, French, Italian, English, German—he spoke all so proficiently that each was thought to be his native tongue.

In about 1520, Tyndale became a tutor to the children of Sir John Walsh. It was around this time that he saw the need for an English Bible in the hands of anyone who wanted to read it. It frustrated him to see clergymen, who had access to the Latin Vulgate, not understand what they read, and those that did, seemingly indifferent to the truths contained therein. To have access to Scripture as the clergy and not appreciate it while the common folk, who wished to read it, couldn't because of the language it was written in, prompted Tyndale to action. One such clergyman stated, “We are better to be without God's laws than the Pope's.” Angered, William Tyndale replied “I defy the Pope and all his laws. If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause the boy that drives the plow to know more of Scripture than you!”

This was the start of a consuming pursuit for which he would later be put to death. In 1523 he applied for money from the bishop of London to translate the New Testament but was denied, and only by inquiring further, realized that all of England's churches were opposed to the idea. It was a capital crime in that time to translate the Latin Vulgate into English, and Church authorities publicly burned one woman and six men for teaching their children English versions of the Lord's Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the Apostles Creed.

Travelling Europe, he found a positive reception in Worms, Germany where he could begin his work. (Ironically, it was in Worms that Martin Luther stood trial for his reformist works, and was pressured to recant). In 1525, he released an English New Testament which he had translated from the Greek. It was quickly smuggled into England. King Henry VIII, the English Cardinal Wolsey, and Councillor Sir Thomas More, rejected it angrily, relegating it to the work of an anti-Christ. King Henry's Authorities tried to buy up all copies (the money, ironically, funded further work by Tyndale) and schemed to capture Tyndale. During this time, Tyndale moved into hiding in Antwerp where he was relatively free of English and Holy Roman Empire (and Catholic) agents for nine years to work on revising his New Testament translation and begin translating the Old Testament. He did this all the while evading capture with the help of friends.

Besides translating, he sought to expand the Kingdom of Christ. “My part be not in Christ if mine heart be not to follow and live according as I teach.” On Mondays he visited with other religiously persecuted from England. Saturdays he helped the poor on Antwerp's streets, and Sundays he dined with merchants in their homes, reading Scripture before and after dinner. All other days were devoted to writing books, tracts, and translating Greek and Hebrew New and Old Testaments into English.

It is not known if English or Continental authorities concocted the plan to capture him, but it is known that a desperate man named Henry Phillips, a man that had gambled his father's wealth away and needed a chance to restore that wealth, carried out the plan. Befriending Tyndale over meals, walks, and discussions, Phillips led Tyndale into a trap where he was captured. Immediately whisked away to the Castle of Vilvorde (Netherlands), prison of the Low Countries, Tyndale actually had many months to await sentencing for charges of heresy. While there, he implored the king for his notes, Hebrew texts, and warm blankets, and receiving all, enabled him to further study the Scripture.

At last in early August 1536, he was condemned as a heretic, stripped of his priestly title, and delivered for punishment. Execution was carried out Friday October 6 under a cross in the middle of the town square of Habsburg, Netherlands. He refused his opportunity to recant and was given a moment to pray in which he implored God “Lord, open the King of England's eyes!” Then, being bound to the cross, he was strangled by chain. Gunpowder was added to pile of logs and brush which was then set ablaze. God honoured that prayer, because within the next year, the King authorized a publication of the Bible in English, hoping to thwart the power of the church.

There is a brief report of his death found in a letter from an English agent to Lord Cromwell. He wrote, “They speak much of the patient sufferance of Master Tyndale at the time of his execution.”

We have much to be grateful for in the work of William Tyndale. Because of his work we are able to hold a reliable English Bible in our hand translated from the original languages. In fact, up to 80% of the NRSV Bible is the work of Tyndale and 90% of the authorized King James Version is the work of Tyndale. His translation and flowing use of English out of Hebrew and Greek text was found to be reliable and desirable in these translations.

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love I gain nothing. So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.” 1 Corinthians 13:1-3, 13

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