Introductory Note: This is a large research paper on William Tyndale, probably the most important man in the history of the English language, largely because of his translation of the Bible from the original languages into a beautiful and poetic English. This essay will be in five parts and the bibliography will be available at the end. I attempted to write this in a readable format, so that anyone, no matter how much background or interest in this subject should be able to understand and enjoy the biography of this man (and the times he lived in).
The Focus and Drive of William Tyndale (Introduction)
Most Westerners are aware of the Reformation that occurred in the 1500’s, and most have their own opinion on its purpose and success, or conversely on its intolerance and damage to society. Yet time has served as a severe gap to cut off our understanding of that era; it is not as straight-forward to understand as one would like, instead it must have been a very volatile and difficult time for all involved. Lutherans were giving shouts from the North in Germany, and the Pope was hurriedly doing all he could through his army of clergy to suppress Martin Luther and others like him. Accusations were flying in Italy and France (especially with John Calvin coming to the scene later in Switzerland), books of incredible depth and acuteness were being made available through Gutenberg’s press, and the whole society of Europe was in a general sense of confusion.
One error that can be made today in trying to understand the Reformation is to only look at its three main characters: Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the Pope (various ones). There were thousands of men and women fighting for the truth across Europe, both sides equally zealous many times, and even equally violent. But one cannot attempt to understand the Reformation as a complete unit without understanding its pieces. The purpose here, therefore, is to understand the players involved in the English Reformation as a part of the whole Reformation, and William Tyndale in particular. The goal is to grasp his driving passion and examine his influence on our modern culture’s foundations, specifically through his translation of the Bible into common English.
Perhaps one can best understand the English Reformation in a nutshell through an illustration. There is a boy that has fallen into a large mud pit and it has sucked him in so that the stench, slime, and putrid black mud have taken all of him but his arms and head. The boy’s father, knowing and seeing the danger, did not impede the boy from entering the pit, and when his son fell in, made little effort to save him lest the father lose his life as well. He is also much too occupied with other urgent things and monetary necessities. Several friends of this father come beside him and look on in horror and serve to chastise the father for his lack of care. They devise brilliant plans to pull this boy out, and take the time to make pulleys and ramps to get the boy out, unharmed and with little danger to themselves. But then suddenly a stranger comes, and rushes to the aid of the boy. He realizes that time is short and that the boy, while these plans are being made, is still sinking in the mire. He kneels on the bank of this filthy mess and takes this boy by the arms. The man pulls like a madman, with all his energy, crying out to God to save this boy. The father screams in response and tells this strange man that he is about to rip the arms off of his son, and the friends stop their work and look on in amusement. The father pulls the intruder away from his son and scolds him violently, telling him to leave. Yet by now the son has his torso free and may be able to power through the mud to the edge of the bank.
This may be too simple of an illustration, too clandestine to be true or accurate, but it sheds light on the historical episode that took place during the English Reformation. In explanation of the illustration, the boy is the lay man, the common ordinary churchgoer in England in the early 1500’s. His father is the Pope, but more specifically the clergy in England. The Church did not impede the slipping of its people into immorality, nor did it help them know the God who could save them. It would give them crumbs, barely using Scripture and using tradition as a lazy excuse for not showing people a living God. Even the clergy itself was caught up in immorality and the importance of selling indulgences. The friends of the Church were open-minded, those who saw the problems in the Church and pointed them out, even in offensive and brash ways. This would allude specifically to Desiderius Erasmus, the Dutch reformer who was a large influence on the thinking in England during this time. Another would be Thomas More, a close friend to Erasmus. They both saw the brokenness of the church, and had the opportunity given to them to help. And they did help, but in word only. They explained the problems in the Church, attacked the general laziness and immorality of the clergy, and Erasmus even called for the Bible to be made available to all people. But of what use are arguments without action? It is like siege weapons without soldiers, pulleys without men to operate them.
Here William Tyndale was called into action, and in little more than a decade he successfully, though with great danger and detriment to himself, reformed the Church in England. He reached out to the lay people and gave them what they craved, what they unknowingly needed—the Bible translated properly and completely in their own language, and accessible to all of them. But he had gone too far in the Church’s estimation and his zeal was seen as heresy, with his humility being seen as pride and insolence. Such is the cost of truth, and Tyndale saw the cost and was willing: “By this we know love, that [Christ] laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (I John 3:16-18, ESV).
Tyndale influenced Europe in the 1520’s, as part of a wildfire that was breaking across it at a sizzling rate. The Crusades were past and had left a ghastly shadow on the subsequent decades, and the Catholic Church was quickly becoming archaic, two-faced, and corrupt. Men of God were needed, and men of God arose; with them a dangerous battle cry. Desiderius Erasmus, a brilliant Dutch reformer, sought to softly reform the Church of these problems. He lit a small candle, but did not know this would accidentally fall and light the veil on fire—this veil was the Church’s desperate attempts to keep the lay people from reading Scripture, and Erasmus’ work lit the whole shroud ablaze. The accident in our finite view that he was responsible for, was putting together a compilation of the Greek New Testament, his Novum Instrumentum that was printed in 1516 (Daniell, Tyndale 59). Inspired by this translation, Martin Luther was ignited to give his life for God and in defense of the Scripture, by God’s providence he was able to publish his September Testament in common German from the Greek in 1522, a year after the Pope excommunicated him (McGrath 215).
Erasmus’ Greek New Testament, many will argue, was the greatest source of the Reformation because it gave people true leverage to oppose the Papacy’s corruption (Daniell, Tyndale 62). While most countries in Europe by now had the Bible accessible to them in their common tongue and from a good source, England had none but poorly handmade copies translated from Latin, dating back to the time of John Wycliffe. At this point the country was one of the weakest links of Europe, held back by political tensions and persecution (92-3). England almost seemed uninterested in any form of Reformation, with its so-called reformers being more interested in pointing out the problems in the Church and laughing at those caught by them, than to attempt to fix them. Such a man was Thomas More, and Erasmus unfortunately followed suit many times; this can be seen in their works, Utopia and The Praise of Folly, respectively (69). Little did they know, and most of the Island for that matter, that it would become the hot-bed for a fierce Reformation. It was predicted in the work of John Wycliffe, empowered and built upon William Tyndale’s Bible, and put into practice by theologians and visionaries such as Thomas Cranmer and John Owen.
The issue at hand will deal mainly with the influences upon William Tyndale and, in form, the unparalleled influences by him in the English Reformation. John D. Long states of him: “If the highest heavenly reward has been or will be bestowed upon William Tyndale, the reward, in my opinion has been or will be well placed…Reading about him has left me in strong admiration of him” (81-2). It can be said that Tyndale single-handedly turned the tide in England, tirelessly working, with only one goal in mind—getting the Bible into common English for all people to read. This drove him, to the point of exhaustion, in “always singing [this] same note” as a friend once described him (Daniell, Tyndale 217).
The heart of William Tyndale’s drive can be clearly seen in this famous exchange that he had at the dinner table, while working as a tutor in London in 1522. John Fox outlined it as follows:
Master Tyndale happened to be in the company of a certain divine [priest], recounted for a learned man, and, in communing and disputing with him, he drove him to that issue [the importance of Scripture], that the said great doctor burst out into these blasphemous words, “We were better to be without God’s laws than the pope’s.” Master Tyndale, hearing this, full of godly zeal, and not bearing that blasphemous saying, replied, “I defy the pope, and all his laws;” and added, [“]if God spared [me] life, ere many years [I] would cause a boy that driveth a plough to know more of the Scripture than [you do.”] (178)
As will be seen, William Tyndale’s relentless desire was to let every Englishman read the Scripture and apply it without the excess help, confusion, and warping by the clergy; all the while forsaking his life and humbly giving the utmost glory to God.