Given that there is often a larger focus on the Protestant Reformation during the month of October, we have explored the topic of Calvin and psalm singing and the life of Guido de Bres. However, another important figure was William Tyndale. Much can and has been said about him, but let’s think through Tyndale and Scripture. Up until this point in Europe, the Old and New Testament was largely in Latin. It was against the law to put it into the common language of the people. By 1520 only a few had ventured to translate the Bible into English, like the John Wycliffe. The problem with his translation was that it was taken from the Latin Vulgate. It was not a translation from the original Hebrew and Greek. William Tyndale would change that. In 1523, he fled England due to the push back he received for translation endeavors. He made his way to Hamburg and then Cologne because he was a hunted man.
While in Cologne he found a printer named Peter Quentell, who was willing to print his English translation. Upon Tyndale’s completion of it, Quentell began to do so, but this was a dangerous business. Tyndale was on the Church’s most wanted list, and vernacular Scriptures were a serious no-no, especially in the Pope’s backyard, like Cologne. However, for most printers, money was their deity, and much could be had from printing Reformation literature, particularly the New Testament. It was worth it for Quentell, given that it is estimated the 3,000 copies he would publish would cost a total of 125 lbs. Tyndale could survive well on 10 lbs a year. Quentell would make a killing off this work.
Soon after publication began, just as Matthew 1-21 were finishing, the venture was uncovered by English spies pretending to be Protestants. They had the printing house surrounded and then everything destroyed. Tyndale barely escaped with his life, taking with him as much as he could of his translation. From there, he made his way to Wittenberg. So that by the end of 1526, thousands of English New Testaments were ready to be sold.
Tyndale said of church leaders, “They have taken away the key of knowledge and beggared the people.” In his NT translation, he was giving that key back. The church, he insisted, would rather people read “histories and fables of love and wantonness … what will corrupt the mind.” What they needed was the remedy for their souls. With his translation, Tyndale sought to give them the medicine of the Gospel found in the Scriptures. Interestingly though, Tyndale didn’t include his name on his translation. It didn’t have a title which read—The Tyndale Study Bible. He was convicted his good works should be done secretly, content with the fact that God saw him and that was enough. To Tyndale, this wasn’t his word; it was God’s. He simply rendered it in English, so it could read it.
It is often wondered, “How many could read it? How many knew how to read?” It is estimated that somewhere around 60% of Londoners were literate. In the countryside it was less. Nonetheless, many could and would read Tyndale’s work. Before his translation, most saw the Scriptures as secondary in authority to the church. It was viewed as remote and inaccessible. It was hidden behind the Latin language, with its ablative cases and 4th declensions. It was guarded by a clerical superiority over the laity. However, Tyndale’s translation changed that. It made the Bible readable. Not only because it was written in English, but it was done simply, without compromising the Bible’s glory. Tyndale’s word choice had a loveliness to it that did not diminish the Scripture’s majesty. He made it memorable, without diluting truths that cannot be fully comprehended (think the attributes of God).
Regarding the Beatitudes John Wycliffe’s translation from the Latin reads, “Blessed be poor men in spirit, for the kingdom of heavens is theirs. Blessed be mild men, for they shall wield the earth. Blessed be they that mourn, for they shall be comforted.” Compare this to Tyndale’s, which was from the Greek, “Blessed are the poor in spirit; for theirs is the kingdom of God. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.” It’s readable, easy, and catchy. Tyndale wanted to produce a translation that people could digest. He also wanted to make sure that his translation communicated good theology. For example, he translated the Greek word presbuteros as ‘elder,’ rather than the common reference as ‘priest.’ The Greek word agape he made ‘love’ rather than ‘charity,’ to shift the focus away from acts of charity.
Tyndale wanted the Bible to be readable, but above all he wanted it to be faithful. If William Tyndale were alive today, knowing that there are multiple translations of the Bible in English, many of them consistent with the original languages, and that we have easy access to them, what do you think he would say to the church? Tolle Lege! Pick up and read. Morning and evening, personally, familially, and corporately, soak yourself in the Word. You have something most Christians didn’t, prior to the 1500s—The Bible in your own language. Use it, then, and study it; receive its preaching. In fact, as Tyndale himself said, “Think that every syllable pertaineth to thine own self, suck out the nourishment of the Scripture and arm thyself against all assaults with it.” If you want to read more about William Tyndale, there’s an accessible biography on him by David Teems. You can also read Tyndale’s two-volume works published by Banner of Truth. In addition, there’s a good movie on Tyndale linked here. May his life and labor spur us on to learn and love the Scriptures.—Pastor Clif