The Apostle of England


A Brief Sketch of William Tyndale



From its earliest days, the Church has relied on the act of translation to pass on and preserve the Word of God. From the insular Semitic consonants of the Lord’s Apostles, the Gospel of Jesus Christ was reworked into the transnational dialects of the Greek Koine and spread to God’s people beyond Judea. It later moved into the imperial majuscules of the Holy Roman Latin of Western Europe, where it stayed, a prisoner of a calcified ecclesiology, until the Protestant Reformation twelve-hundred years later. In Great Britain, it was the reformer and gifted linguist1 William Tyndale (c.1492-1536) who, in translating the New Testament directly from Greek to English, liberated it from the Latin fetters of the clerics and made it available to even the ploughboys of England.2




Prior to his early matriculation at Magdalen Hall, Oxford, and his leaving there to attend and graduate from Cambridge,3 there are few details of Tyndale’s early life that are known for certain.4 Mozley puts much of this dearth of exact biographical information down to Tyndale’s own reluctance to record them for “fear of endangering his friends.”5 Even events during his university years are shrouded in uncertainty, like the location and date of his ordination that must be presumed to have occurred at that time.6

However, in assaying his character in those years, we are on much surer ground. Tyndale was by all accounts a man of “spotless life and good repute”7 who “always turned his scholarship to religious ends.”8 Even his most vociferous critic, the venerable Sir Thomas More, informed of the pre-exiled Tyndale’s university reputation, conceded that he was “a man of sober and honest living, [who] looked and preached holily.”9 Yet, unbeknownst to More, he was also “a trenchant and formidable antagonist and no respecter of persons.”10

Historian Mark Noll places Tyndale in the “age of Luther…Calvin… Elizabeth I, Erasmus of Rotterdam…Menno Simons…and many more,”11 whilst describing the fifteen hundreds as “an important century in the history of Christianity.”12 It was through this century the twin cyclones of humanism and the Reformation roiled, spinning the handles of the newly invented printing presses, and churning up the ordered, mediaeval topography of European Christendom.

Across the Channel, England fared no better. Early in this tumultuous century, she came under the Catholic Tudor reign of the “essentially conservative,”13 Luther-hating Henry VIII. This was one more gust of change blowing over an ecclesiastical landscape that had already been battered for “one hundred and fifty years”14 by the steady Lollard storm that formed in the wake of John Wycliffe.15 Opposing these forces had fashioned the Roman Church in England into the defensive, debauched and all too often dim-witted hireling that Tyndale encountered and quickly came to despise. It was a Church that had retreated behind the pompous ramparts of ritual, where “[r]eligion was divorced from the life of holiness.”16

The Church’s retreat meant that both the churchman and church-goer were blind to the “wide gulf [that] yawned between the religion of the day and that of the New Testament.”17 The clergy, to prop up the current doctrine, were instructed to “wrest the text from its true meaning.”18 The laity was at the clergy’s mercy because it “could not read the Latin bible.” Therefore Tyndale, at the age of twenty-eight, realising “that it was impossible to stablish the lay people in any truth, except the scripture were plainly laid before their eyes in their mother tongue,”19 resolved to translate the New Testament into English.20

About a year later, in 1524, failing to secure clerical permission to side-step the Papal ban on vulgar translations, Tyndale was convinced that his mission could only be successfully accomplished in the more lax, Reformation-friendly cities of Europe.21 Ironically, it was in Germany that Tyndale made his great contribution to English-speaking Christianity. It was there he “pioneered English Bible translations from the original languages,”22 by publishing, in 1526, the first ever English New Testament translated from the original Greek.23

Tyndale's "fyrst Chapter of the Gospell off Sancte Jhon"

Although he published many reformed theological works and commentaries over the next decade, and even translated the entire Hebrew Pentateuch,24 it was Tyndale’s 1526 New Testament that secured his name in the roll of Christian heroes. The style of Tyndale’s New Testament “was lucid, crisp and concise, and above all appealed to ordinary people for its down-to-earth character.”25 It was “so carefully and well done,”26 so singularly astute in its rendering, that it “served as the basis for almost all subsequent English versions up to the twentieth century.”27 Like the “koine of the first century Mediterranean,”28 here, at last, were the words and works of our Lord Jesus Christ written down in the “common spoken language of England.”29

The impact of Tyndale’s translation cannot be overstated. The enormous threat that the Scripture in English represented to both the Church and the crown can be gauged by the rage it produced in the King and his chaplain, Cardinal Wolsey.30 In his Testament, Tyndale purposely undermined the ecclesiastical order by, among other things, correctly translating the Greek ecclesia as “congregation,” not church, and presbyteros as “senior” (changed to “elder” in subsequent editions), instead of “priest.”31 In his excellent study of the making of the King James Bible (KJV), author Adam Nicolson comments on these subversive translation choices:
The entire meaning of the Reformation hinges on these differences. A presbyter, an elder, has no ancient priestly significance; he is not the conduit of God’s grace, he does not interfere with the direct relationship of each soul to God, nor, in Luther’s famous phrase, with the priesthood of all believers. If presbyter is what the scripture says, what need is there of bishops and archbishops? And if ecclesia means not church but congregation, what relevance to God can there be in the elaborate and expensive superstructure of an established church and the grotesque indulgences of its officers?32
Those uncomfortably accurate translations were reworded to reflect the ecclesiastical editorial policy of the 1611 KJV, but when other questions arose as to the best way to “translate the original languages, eight of ten times, [the KJV translators] agreed that Tyndale had it best to begin with.”33 In fact, Fee tells us that the KJV “is estimated to be about ninety percent Tyndale.”34

Tyndale was eventually betrayed, arrested and then martyred in 1536. His was a short life, but his contribution to Christianity proved timeless. His inspired and tireless dedication to his mission of making the Word of God available to all his countrymen, in as faithful a translation of the ancient texts as he could possibly produce, helped to change his nation’s religion, and thereby, the religion of future nations. Armed with English Bibles that owed their existence to Tyndale’s work, the Protestant missionaries of the 18th and 19th centuries continued the Great Commission into the four corners of the world. Truly Tyndale earned the right to be called “the Apostle of England.”35









Footnotes:


1. “William Tyndale could speak seven languages and was proficient in ancient Hebrew and Greek.” Mark Galli and Ted Olsen, “Introduction,” 131 Christians Everyone Should Know (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 2000), 348.

2. Tyndale, in an argument with “a learned man,” is reported to have said, “If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the scripture than thou dost.” S. L. Greenslade, The Work of William Tindale (London: Blackie & Son Limited, 1938), 7.

3. David Daniell, William Tyndale: A Biography (New Haven: Yale Nota Bene, 2001), 49.

4. Ibid., 22.

5. J. F. Mozley, William Tyndale (London: S.P.C.K., 1937), 8.

6. Ibid., 18.

7. Ibid., 19.

8. Ibid., 18.

9. Ibid., 19.

10. Ibid., 27.

11. Mark A. Noll, Turning Points: Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity, 2nd Ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2000), 157.

12. Ibid.

13. Justo L. González, The Story of Christianity, Vol. II: The Reformation to the Present Day, Revised and Updated Edition (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2006), 92.

14. Donald D. Smeeton, Lollard Themes in the Reformation Theology of William Tyndale (Kirksville: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, Inc., 1986), 252.

15. Smeeton posits that Tyndale’s theology found a ready audience due to its similarity to the Lollard message. “[O]ne might say that what Wyclif [sic] planted, the Lollards tended, but the harvest awaited Tyndale’s labor in the field. Ibid.

16. Mozley, Tyndale, 10.

17. Ibid., 32-33.

18. Ibid., 33.

19. From the preface of Tyndale’s 1530 Pentateuch, cited by Mozley. Ibid., 35.

20. Ibid., 33.

21. Daniell, Tyndale, 102.

22. J. D. Douglas, Earle E. Cairns, and James E. Ruark, The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1978), 990.

23. In 1534 it was “thoroughly and carefully revised” and reissued. In all Tyndale made some 4,000 corrections. Mozley, Tyndale, 287.

24. Douglas, TNIDCC, 990.

25. Ibid.

26. Gordon Fee, How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), Kindle edition, loc., 2239.

27. Ibid.

28. “Koine” (Κοινη) is Greek for “common.” Italics in original. Daniell, Tyndale, 135.

29. Ibid.

30. Galli, 131 Christians, 349.

31. Adam Nicolson, God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible (New York: Harper Perennial, 2003), 75.

32. Italics in original. Ibid.

33. Galli, 131 Christians, 349.

34. Fee, How to Choose a Translation, loc., 2239.

35. Translated from the Latin on the bottom panel of a portrait of Tyndale that hangs in the dining-room of Hertford College, Oxford. Daniell, Tyndale, plate 4.




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