Introductory Note: This section will now cover William Tyndale himself, as a compilation of the information available on his life. Since this information is limited, time was taken earlier to look at the lives of Erasmus, Luther, and King Henry VIII to try and get a better picture of Tyndale’s time period and the gravity of his accomplishments. This part will cover his education, and the last section will cover his tragic end and his lasting legacy. Enjoy!
Tyndale’s Education and Grasp of Original Languages
At the outset it must be stated that very little is actually known about Tyndale, because many sources have been found to not be very reputable or accurate. Some are also quite unreadable, because of poor English and the fact that they have not been well-preserved. David Daniell does a very good job in his biography of William Tyndale in working through the sources and picking out the truth among the hyperbole. It is not that there are no biographies on his life, but that many that have been written were done so with poor research and not for scholarly readership. As opposed to this, many regard Daniell as the most knowledgeable resource on Tyndale today, and he in turn states that one of the best resources available may be Fox’s Book of Martyrs. The goal is, that with these two working together (among a few other sources), one can perhaps reach a good and accurate portrayal of who Tyndale really was (1-6).
It is Daniell that gives a short, yet accurate overview of Tyndale’s life, in his introduction to Tyndale’s The Obedience of a Christian Man. He states, though it is debatable, that William was born in 1494 at Gloucestershire. The town is still there today in Southern England, some fifty miles Northeast of Cardiff, the capital of Wales. The first actual legal record on Tyndale comes at eighteen, when he got his BA through Magdalen Hall in July of 1512 and his MA shortly after (Daniell, Tyndale 22).
It is Tyndale’s education that is especially enlightening. He may have spent even a dozen years at Oxford (likely starting in 1506 at age twelve) and from there he went to Cambridge for a short time. What is sure is that by 1516 he was already attending Magdalen Hall, where Erasmus was accustomed to study in his home away from home, as he preferred to live in France (but was originally from Holland). It was at Magdalen Hall that Tyndale was ignited with the dawning of a passion that would carry him to his death, but without what shaped him in Oxford, he never would have gone on to be the man he is in history (Daniell, Tyndale 23-4). By God’s sovereignty, even poor training at Oxford was used for greater good.
Daniell explains that it was precisely starting at Oxford where Tyndale mastered (at least began to) the Latin, English, Greek, German, French, Spanish, Italian, and later the Hebrew language. Truly mastered is the very best word for this, for Tyndale proved to be nothing short of a genius, and it would prove crucial in his work on translating Scripture into the common tongue. At Oxford, Tyndale also learned classic rhetoric and logic training, based largely off of Aristotle and Cicero. Two other skills were also developed during and after this time: his business experience in London and preaching experience (Daniell, Tyndale 18). Although Oxford enabled him to learn a great deal and prepare him for his future as a translator, “Tyndale was scornful of his experience of theology in Oxford, which could not be studied until the whole arts course [largely Aristotle], MA on top of BA, had been taken. A student could not get to it, [Tyndale] wrote, until he had been brainwashed by years of statutory immersion in scholasticism” (37).
God’s providence is clearly seen in the life of William Tyndale in many ways. His being from Gloucestershire helped him understand international trade, since it was home to the wool and cloth shipping of the country. Tyndale would later use his connections in the trading industry to ship Bibles into England from Cologne, Worms, and Antwerp (Daniell, Tyndale 14-5). But it was his genius for language learning that set him apart from most men in history.
It is said he knew seven languages so well it was almost as if he had been native in them (14). The most important of these languages was, in this order, English, Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and German. His knowing English may seem unnecessary to put first, but that would be a misunderstanding of the time. The truth is that English was a very distorted and archaic language at the time. If anyone wanted to write anything of value, it would be in Latin. Thomas More, for example, never translated his greatest work, Utopia, into English. It would be seen as unscholarly to write in common English. In fact, the best known writer of any lasting fame before Tyndale was Chaucer, and not even all English people could understand him (19).
When Tyndale began to write, therefore, he wrote like no man had ever written in English before. While he used the proverbial form of writing accustomed to the day, he mastered it and gave it rhythm and meter (Daniell, Tyndale 18). His writing was incredibly clear and well-worked so that it sounded like music, enabling it to be easily memorized (92). Daniell goes on to point out that Tyndale was an absolute genius, making English readable to all for the first time; meaning a Londoner and a Scott could both read a pamphlet and understand it. This was an amazing feat, almost impossible, like trying to write so as Argentines and Brazilians could understand the same work. This is because the dialects of the day were very different from each other and full of strange idioms and strong accents. More than this, there was very little in writing for the ordinary man, as most was still in Latin (16).
During Tyndale’s time, England was falling behind spiritually, and even though the country was more and more against the Catholic Church, that does not mean it wanted to be Protestant. Actually, Germany was much more receptive to Luther and Switzerland to Calvin than England ever was to Tyndale. Yet ironically, it was later England that led the way in Protestant history through the Puritans (Daniell, Tyndale 20). As stated before, the gauge for a country’s spiritual growth was the people’s ability to read the Bible. Germany, even before Luther, had over a dozen decent translations, starting in 1466. The French had an accurate one by 1474, and the Spanish by 1500 (92). The influence of the Bible gained the most strength with Luther’s September Testament, but the influence stopped at the English Channel, largely because the country’s leaders feared Lutheranism (93-4). Another important factor is that it was actually illegal and heretical to translate the Bible into English, as defined by the “Constitutions of Oxford” in 1408 (57).
The next most important languages that Tyndale knew were Greek and Hebrew. Many will say, especially Catholic Revisionists, that England already had a Bible so there was no need for Tyndale to risk his life for it. But it begs the question of why England would hate Tyndale, and why the Roman Church would hate the Reformers? Scripture accurately translated from the original languages served to undercut the very legs of the Catholic Church. If the people knew the Bible, how were they to defend the Sacraments (the seven ways by which a human can receive grace that leads towards eternal life), most of which were proved wrong by Scripture? It was massively to the Church’s benefit to keep the people from reading or understanding the Bible itself (Daniell, Tyndale 100).
It is true though, England did have most of the Bible in English (although illegal), and other writings filled with Scripture to help the people. David Daniell, in his biography on Tyndale, speaks to great length about this, and a few things are worth noting here. The Lollards, those who had followed the teaching of John Wycliffe in the 1300’s, had put together large portions of the Scripture. The translation, though, had been made from the Latin, and it was inaccurate and very unclear. It was actually because of this work that the “Constitutions of Oxford,” as stated earlier, had come into effect (57). While the Catholic Church, which was the dominating force in England, opposed the Bible from being translated, it did allow devotion and instructional books based on Scripture. But of course, the books had to be approved, following the dogma of the Catholic Churches. People did not simply read and interpret the text themselves; this was already done for them.
Catholic Revisionists often point to Nicholas Love’s Mirror, saying that in it the entire Gospels had been translated and made available for common use. Such an argument is illogical and also simply not factual. The book had a mere outline of the Gospels, and half of it was given to the crucifixion; most of this being fictional writing about the maternal (by Mary) contemplation. Such people, who argue against these facts, miss the point that the Catholic Church had as its main agenda: to keep the Bible out of the hands of the laymen (Daniell, Tyndale 100). This is exactly why Tyndale was so crucial and why he was so hated. It was the main drive of Tyndale, explains John Piper, to get the Bible into the vernacular (common language) so that all men could read the Gospel, understand, and be saved through it. To take away the mediators between man and God, as human priests desired to be, and be brought by Christ instead, through the Scriptures (I Peter 3:18 and Luke 6:47-8).