William Tyndale – Lord, open the King of England’s eyes

William Tyndale:
“Lord, open the King of England’s eyes”

I’m afraid I am rather out of my depth with this task: I am not able to condense Tyndale’s life into a brief summary, but I would like to try to give a small glimpse into the circumstances in which Tyndale translated the New Testament and half the Old, into English, and more importantly, what motivated him to do it.

Little is known of William Tyndale’s early life, but it is very probable that he was born in the year 1494, somewhere around Dursley, on the western edge of the Cotswold hills, about half-way between Bristol and Gloucester. To my mind, it is very interesting to note that the three martyrs who are the subjects of our studies: Cranmer, Latimer and Tyndale, and who played some of the most significant roles in our English Reformation, were born within only five years of each other.

From grammar school in Wotton-under-Edge, Tyndale was sent to Magdalen School in Oxford, at age 12; to receive the grounding in Latin that was necessary for undergraduate studies in those days. He obtained the Bachelor of Arts degree at the age of 18, and his Master’s at 21. He was a very able scholar, but was scornful of his experience of theology in Oxford. Going up to Oxford in the 1500’s was like joining the freemasons: in “The Practice of Prelates” he would later write, of the experience of a new entrant:

“And at his first coming unto university he is sworn that he shall not defame the university, whatsoever he seeth. And when he taketh first degree, he is sworn that he shall hold none opinion condemned by the church: but what such opinions be, that he shall not know.”

Scripture was studied at Oxford, but only after years of brainwashing ensured that almost nothing of value could be derived from it. Theology could not be read until the candidate had completed the secular indoctrination of the entire Arts course first. Tyndale writes:

“And in the universities they have ordained that no man shall look in the Scripture until he be noselled in heathen learning eight or nine years and armed with false principles with which he is clean shut out of the understanding of scripture.”

This system of instructing the priesthood ensured that Romish heresies were perpetuated by an eisegetical treatment of God’s Word that would serve to guarantee that God’s glory be as obscured as possible, and that the light of the Gospel be obfuscated and all blessing denied to the student. This evil that Tyndale rails against would later necessitate the formulation of our Twentieth Article. It is certain that had Tyndale lived long enough to assent to that article, he would have done so.

Tyndale held that these methods were responsible for the continuing pettiness and ineffectualness of the clergy. He writes:

“And then when they be admitted to study divinity, because the scripture is locked up with such false expositions, and with false principles of natural philosophy, that they cannot enter in, they go about the outside, and dispute all their lives about words and vain opinions, pertaining as much unto the healing of a man’s heel, as health of his soul: provided yet alway, lest God give his singular grace unto any person, that none may preach except he be admitted of the bishops.”

But in spite of his acute dissatisfaction with the place, Tyndale persevered at Oxford and was most likely ordained in 1521, at the age of 27. In this same year Luther was excommunicated by Pope Leo X at the Diet of Worms and King Henry VIII won the title of “Defender of the Faith” with his aggressive Defense of the Seven Sacraments. There is no doubt that Tyndale would have been well able to gauge the spiritual climate in England at that time, and yet for three years further he maintained the hope that he might find support in this country to translate the New Testament.

Shortly after his ordination Tyndale took up an appointment as tutor to the two young boys of Sir John Walsh, a long-standing friend of Henry VIII, and twice High Sheriff of Gloucestershire. Although he was hired as a tutor, not as a chaplain, Tyndale’s vocation at this time was public preaching, often in the open air, in and around Bristol, some fifteen miles from his master’s house. Tyndale’s preaching was biblical and zealous; and inevitably attracted the scornful and abusive attention of the local clerics. Clergy at this time, as would be expected from what we know of their training, were characterised by their ignorance of Scripture and their wanton neglect of their flock. The last significant attack against their criminal abuses had been a hundred and fifty years before, under Wycliffe. Although Lollardy was never completely quashed, it did not succeed in giving English priests scruples, generally. Tyndale was not slow to register this; it appalled and distressed him that the condition of men and the health of their souls should be dependent solely on the slothful and apathetic offerings of their incompetent and unregenerate priests.

Notwithstanding the sufferings and spiritual poverty our forefathers had to endure, we can thank God for our own sakes that the Church in that time was so afflicted, for this was the catalyst that gave impetus to Tyndale’s resolve. Had the priests in his day been conscientious in their role and preached the life-giving truth of the Gospel to those in their cure, Tyndale may have been less forcibly aware of the need to give the ordinary people the Bible in their own tongue. As it was, being so moved with compassion for the miserable state of his countrymen, he was precipitated into action, and would thereafter spend the remainder of his life endeavouring to disperse the dark clouds of Rome, that the light of the glorious Gospel of Christ might shine unto them, and unto us today.

Despite persistent efforts to find a commission for his work of translation, finally, by April, 1524 he resigned himself to the fact that he would need to go elsewhere to take up this work. In the Prologue to his Pentateuch he would write:

“I… understood at the last that there was no room in my Lord of London’s palace to translate the New Testament, but also that there was no place to do it in all England, as experience doth now openly declare.”

He managed to obtain a little money from Henry Monmouth, who would later spend some time imprisoned, for his sympathies and aid of Tyndale’s illegal cause. Tyndale left London for Cologne where he would be able to find a printer who was willing to co-operate with him. Tyndale knew, however, that by leaving London, he was still by no means out of danger.

For a man to devote himself to a work that would incur such wrath against himself, to put himself into deadly peril and forego the comfort and security of a dependable livelihood, as I see it: such a man must either be foolish, stubborn or mad; or, otherwise, called by God to do it. William Tyndale, when poised to begin his great work of translating the New Testament into English, was under no illusion; it was clear that to press ahead with this commission would very probably mean living the rest of his life on the run, evading the Romish authorities, and enduring all manner of setbacks and discouragements. Yet, conscious of all this, he did not flinch from it.

Men who are foolish or stubborn do not receive such unequivocal praise as Tyndale does. Sir Thomas More, who vehemently opposed Tyndale’s aims and convictions, described him as

“a man of right good living, studious and well learned in scripture, and in divers places in England was very well liked and did great good with preaching.”

Such an observation from an avowed enemy is a convincing testimony to Tyndale’s virtuous disposition. However, though it is true that in certain quarters he was well liked, what is more certain still is that he was widely hated and resented. In a letter to Frith in 1531 shortly before Frith’s martyrdom, Tyndale would confide:

“God hath made me evil-favoured in this world, and without grace in the sight of men…”

Tyndale was not a man-pleaser: in answering this great calling, he knew he was signing his own death warrant. The unreformed Church forbade the translation of the Scriptures into the vulgar tongue. Despite the many vernacular translations throughout Europe, under the Constitutions of Oxford, English translations remained illegal. It is likely that this was due in part to the irrepressible energy of Cardinal Wolsey, that miniature-pope and formidable arch-enemy of the Gospel. Also, the unquenchable activities of the Lollards in promulgating the Scriptures translated from the Vulgate would have ensured that their vociferous enemies within the Establishment would not lack the motivation to oppose them through the law.

A modern person may wonder how the sixteenth century English Church, while still under Rome’s rule, justified its suppression of the Scriptures, as if they had been something dangerous and seditious. The Roman Church held, and indeed still holds, that the Magisterium is the authoritative teacher of the Church; that God has entrusted revelation to the Roman Catholic bishops, and that the Magisterium alone has the ability and the right to interpret Scripture. The arguments voiced much earlier by Henry de Knighton against Wycliffe’s translation of the Vulgate into English, around the year 1380, summarise Rome’s stance; he says:

“Christ delivered his Gospel to the clergy and doctors of the church, that they might administer to the laity and to weaker persons, according to the state of the times and the wants of men.”

In publishing the Scriptures, de Knighton argues that:

“… the Gospel pearl is cast abroad, and trodden under foot of swine, and that which was before precious to both clergy and laity is rendered, as it were, common jest to both.”

De Knighton is loyally upholding canon that had become law in 1229, whereby the interpretation of the Bible was forbidden to the laity. By Tyndale’s time Rome’s arguments were unchanged. In the preface to the Roman Catholic English translation of the Vulgate, two centuries after Wycliffe, we read:

“We must not imagine that in the primitive Church… the translated Bibles into the vulgar tongues, were in the hands of every husbandman, artificer, prentice, boys, girls, mistress, maid, man… No, in those better times men were neither so ill, nor so curious of themselves, so to abuse the blessed book of Christ… The poor ploughman, could then in labouring the ground, sing the hymns and psalms either in known or unknown languages, as they heard them in the holy Church, though they could neither read nor know the sense, meaning and mysteries of the same…”

It is understandable that Rome should feel themselves so threatened by Scripture’s propagation, for it is their conviction that Scripture and Tradition together are the Church’s supreme rule of faith, and it is their practice that where these two are in disagreement it is Scripture that must give way, while Tradition stands unchallenged. For Tyndale, however, nothing could stand in the way of Scripture’s truth. Scripture alone must be the rule of faith. Tyndale’s eyes had been opened to, as he put it:

“… the words of health, and of eternal life: by the which (if we repent and believe them) we are born anew, created afresh and enjoy the fruits of the blood of Christ. Which blood… hath purchased life, love, favour, grace, blessing, and whatever is promised in the scriptures…”

It was simply impossible for Tyndale to assent to Rome’s premises: his attitude to Scripture was founded on Scripture itself. When dealing with the reasons that impelled him to translate the New Testament from its original Greek into English and a form of English that would be understood by “a boy that driveth the plough”, Tyndale is almost dismissive, inferring that such reasons should be obvious. In his Cologne Prologue to his English New Testament, he states:

“The causes that moved me to translate, I thought better that other should imagine than that I should rehearse them. Moreover I supposed it superfluous, for who is so blind to ask why light should be showed to them that walk in darkness, where they cannot but stumble, and where to stumble is the danger of eternal damnation?”

For those of us to whom, by His grace, God has shown the light of His Gospel through His word, it may be superfluous to ask what is the necessity of the Scriptures being available to all men in their own tongue. But in the context of their persistent opposition from Antichrist and his followers, both in Tyndale’s lifetime and, to some extent, today also, the reasons are very relevant – what is the value of a letter of correspondence if the recipient cannot be sure if it is to himself that the letter is addressed? Likewise with Scripture, it is necessary to establish the readership for whom it was intended, before those in need can confidently, and with gratitude, take hold of the promises and blessings contained in it. To this end others did come forward to answer this question.

William Whitaker, Regius Professor of Divinity at Cambridge during Elizabeth I’s reign, devoted much attention to the reasons for a vernacular Bible, in his “Disputation on Holy Scripture.” Latimer dealt with the question in his sermons. Cranmer succinctly summarised the matter in his Preface to the Great Bible of 1539, at least two-thirds of which was Tyndale’s work of translation. We may be sure that the arguments advanced by these great leaders of the Reformation in England, for the Scriptures in English, constituted Tyndale’s reasons for translating them; for they are all reasoned exegetically in line with the Reformation doctrine expressed in Article XX, whose substance it is clear that Tyndale held to.

Sixteen years after Tyndale’s death, Latimer attributed Tyndale’s work to God’s providence:

“Truly,” he preached “we are much bound to God that He hath set out this His will in our natural mother tongue, in English, I say, so that now you may not only hear it, but also read it yourselves; which thing is a great comfort to every Christian heart.”

Latimer then goes on to demonstrate that the Reformation, then making such swift progress, was directly and indispensably attributable to Tyndale’s sacrifice:

“For now you can no more be deceived, as you have been in times past, when we did bear you in hand that Popery was the Word of God: which falsehood we could not have brought to pass if the Word of God, the Bible, had been abroad in the common tongue: for then you might have perceived yourselves our falsehood and blindness. This I speak to that end, to move you to thankfulness towards him who so lovingly provideth all things necessary to our salvation.”

The case for Scripture’s availability to all is stated very plainly by these Reformers, by the authority of the Scriptures themselves: Whitaker argues that “God hath commanded all to read the Scriptures: therefore all are bound to read the Scriptures”. In support of this he cites, amongst other proofs, Romans 15:4:

“For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.”

Paul makes it clear that this epistle is addressed:

“To all that be in Rome, beloved of God, called to be saints…”

at the beginning of his letter. It is not addressed exclusively to the “clergy and doctors of the church”.

Secondly, Whitaker states:

“The people should not be deprived of those arms by which they are to be protected against Satan.”

With reference to Ephesians 6:17, Latimer asks:

“How could the lay people have that sword, how could they fight with the devil, when all things were in Latin, so that they could not understand it? Therefore, how needful it is for every man to have God’s Word… only with God’s Word shall we avoid and chase the devil, and with nothing else.”

In publishing the Scriptures in English, Tyndale was equipping the Church with the necessary understanding to flush out all residual vestiges of Popish superstition and empty ritual. Not only were the laity enabled to now know the Scriptures, but it is certain that although the clergy should have studied the Scriptures in Latin, according to Church precepts, having them in English ensured their knowledge was vastly increased.

As knowledge of the Scriptures increased, minds were renewed and many were converted. Falsehood become progressively more clearly evident for what it really was. The process was not immediate. It took thirteen years, after Tyndale’s martyrdom, before English replaced Latin in English church services, and the concept of the Lord’s Supper as a sacrifice was removed by the Act of Uniformity. But we would do well to keep in mind that Reformation could only come to pass when the light, whose only source is God’s Word, was enabled to shine into the otherwise impenetrable darkness that was England in the early sixteenth century.

Tyndale, though unquestionably able and extraordinarily gifted, was, above all else, a man of great faith. And it is we who are reaping the rewards of his faithfulness and obedience.

Seconds before he was strangled, and his corpse burnt outside Vilvorde in Belgium, on the 6th October, 1536, he concluded his work with this prayer:

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

God answered. Within three years the King relented; Miles Coverdale, who had completed the remainder of the Old Testament, which Tyndale was denied by his death, was permitted to publish England’s first Authorised Version, the Great Bible of 1539.

This was enough. The great dam that Rome had built to stop up the flow of Gospel blessing, the waters of life, had been pierced. Now this flow would become a raging torrent. It would be unstoppable now; within a few short years a change would come upon England such as no man could ever imagine.

Let us thank God for raising up Tyndale, and pray that we never cease being grateful for

“This book, which is the Word of God, the most precious jewel, the most holy relic that remaineth upon earth.” (Thomas Cranmer).

Amen.