Jeremy Sarber
Disciple of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, Reformed Baptist, funeral home chaplain, and host of Sunday Tapes. All glory be to Christ.

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They Still Speak

William Tyndale’s contribution to the Reformation

We owe both our Bibles and, in large part, our language to William Tyndale. He was God’s instrument in bringing the English-speaking world out of the darkness.

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Earlier this week, I went through the entire house to count the number of Bibles we own. I counted a total of twenty-four, not including digital or audio Bibles. We own multiple translations. They are bound in various materials. They are different sizes. Some have the text laid out on the page in two columns. Some have one column. We even have some Bibles with blank pages, so we can take notes as we read.

If I count digital and audio Bibles, thanks to the Internet, I can access any translation I want. I hardly need those physical copies of the Bible that contain cross-references and study notes because those resources and many more are available with a quick search on my computer or phone. Thanks to modern technology, I am never without the Word of God.

This is what we refer to as an embarrassment of riches. Yet, if you believe the surveys that are frequently taken, we live in a time when biblical literacy is decreasing at an alarming rate. In this country, most families own a Bible. At the very least, they have access to the Bible. But owning a Bible and reading the Bible are two very different things. As Charles Spurgeon once remarked, “I venture to say that the bulk of Christians spend more time in reading the newspaper than they do reading the Word of God.”

It’s easy enough to glance at the Bible in your hand or the stack of Bibles sitting on your shelf at home and think nothing of them. The Bible is commonplace today. As I said, no one is ever far from a Bible. If you want it, the Word of God is probably in your pocket right now. It’s with you everywhere you go. But do we take advantage of this historically rare precious gift? Do we appreciate our embarrassment of riches as we should?

Escaping the darkness

Over the past few weeks, both Augustine and Martin Luther have shown us that Scripture is what causes light to shine through the darkness. It was the Word of God that pulled Augustine away from his sin and away from his false ideas about God and pointed him to the true God and his Son, Jesus Christ. It was the Word of God that convinced Luther his own righteousness would never be enough to save his soul. It was the Word of God that revealed God’s sovereignty to both men. It was the Word of God that persuaded both men of God’s saving grace. And it was the Word of God that ultimately launched the Protestant Reformation.

Take away the Bible, and the truth disappears, the gospel vanishes, and darkness swallows up the people.

That was the state of the world prior to the Reformation. It was reminiscent of the days of King Manasseh. You may remember that Manasseh was terribly wicked, and his fifty-year reign plunged Judah into a terrible darkness. The Bible says, “Manasseh shed very much innocent blood, till he had filled Jerusalem from one end to another, besides the sin that he made Judah to sin so that they did what was evil in the sight of the LORD” (2Ki 21:16).

It wasn’t until King Josiah took the throne that Hilkiah the high priest comes running in, shouting, “I have found the Book of the Law in the house of the LORD” (2Ki 22:8). He then reads it to Josiah, and when the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his clothes (2Ki 22:11). The light shines through the darkness, the nation repents, and Josiah implements major reforms throughout Judah.

If not for Martin Luther and others rediscovering the Word of God, the Reformation would have never taken place. The gospel would have remained obscured by medieval church traditions. The people would have remained in bondage to legalism. And if the modern church loses its wonder at and appreciation for the Word of God, we will soon find ourselves back in that dreadful darkness.

Today, I want to examine the life of a man who is largely responsible for putting the Bible back into the hands of laypeople. Specifically, he gave the Bible to the entire English-speaking world. While Luther is credited with being the father of the Reformation, this man was the father of the English Reformation. Most of Luther’s immediate impact was limited to the German people. This man carried the Word of God as well as the Reformation to the English-speaking world. In many respects, this man did more to give us the Bible and the Reformation than Luther. One could certainly argue that this man had an even greater impact on the world than Luther.

The Luther Bible

Before we talk about this man, though, I want to follow Martin Luther’s story a bit further. I told you about Luther’s trial at the Diet of Worms, where he was told to recant everything he’d written against church tradition. He, of course, refused. He emphatically declared, “I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound. Here I stand; I can do no other. God help me. Amen.”

The authorities at the diet wanted to execute Luther on the spot, but Emperor Charles was a man of his word. He promised Luther safe passage to and from the diet, so he let Luther go. Luther, however, knew it was only a matter of time before someone would find and attempt to kill him. Frederick the Wise knew this as well, so he sent some of his men to get Luther and hide him away in one of his castles. Since it was illegal for him to aid a heretic, he told his men, “Take to him to one of my castles, but don’t tell me which one.” Plausible deniability.

Much like Athanasius during his years of exile, Luther did not let the time go to waste. Between 1521 and 1522, he translated the New Testament into German. Eventually, he would translate the Old Testament as well, but that wouldn’t come for another twelve years. This Bible became known as the Luther Bible, and while it wasn’t the first German Bible—there were at least a dozen before it—it was the first German Bible translated from Greek.

Bible translation history

Before I go any further, perhaps it would be helpful to know some of the history of Bible translations. Hang on tight. This will be a rather quick overview of Bible history.

By the year AD 90, all sixty-six books of the Bible had been written. In AD 315, we have the first record of all sixty-six books being recognized as part of God’s inspired Word. In AD 382, a priest by the name of Jerome produced the Latin Vulgate, a Latin translation of the Bible that would become the most popular version of the Bible for more than a thousand years.

By AD 500, the Bible had been translated into more than five hundred languages. Even so, the Catholic Church declares Latin to be the only acceptable language for the Bible in AD 600. That doesn’t stop people from translating the Bible into other languages, but it does give you a sense of the Latin Vulgate’s past significance.

We’ll actually come back to this issue because the Catholic Church eventually makes somewhat arbitrary exceptions to the rule. Some translations were permitted. Others were not.

The first English translation was produced in AD 995. Technically, it was an Anglo-Saxon translation, so it wasn’t quite the English we know today. The Wycliffe Bible of 1384 came a little closer to English we’d actually recognize.

Erasmus’s New Testament

Jumping ahead to the 16th century—roughly 1516, which was just one year before Luther nailed his Ninety-five theses to the church in Wittenberg—a Catholic priest by the name of Erasmus decides to do the unthinkable. He plans to create a new and better Latin version of the Bible. His mantra was “to the source.” In other words, he wanted to retranslate the Greek manuscripts into Latin. Why Greek? Greek was the original language of the New Testament.

Like all manuscripts, the Latin Vulgate was hand-copied for years. Gutenberg didn’t invent the printing press for more than a thousand years after Jerome first produced the Latin Vulgate. As a result, it contained all of the inevitable mistakes you would expect. Erasmus believed it was time to start over with a new translation.

There was just one overwhelming problem with Erasmus’s plan. For many people, the Latin Vulgate was not just a Bible; it was the Bible. It was the only Bible. You probably know as well as I do what happens when you mess with a person’s traditions, especially traditions related to the Bible. People were not happy with him. They found every reason to criticize him and his efforts.

Erasmus, however, proceeded anyhow. He studied a handful of Greek manuscripts at home before traveling to Switzerland to study a few more. Unfortunately, he found only six or seven manuscripts of the later Byzantine family of manuscripts. He didn’t have any of the earlier Alexandrian manuscripts. In fact, he did not even have a complete New Testament. As convoluted as it sounds, he was forced to take parts of the Latin Vulgate and translate them back to Greek before compiling all the manuscripts into a complete New Testament.

Keep in mind that Erasmus’s goal was not to create a new Greek Bible. His aim was to improve the Latin Vulgate. Basically, he was comparing the Vulgate with a few Greek manuscripts and correcting the Vulgate when he found differences. Not having a complete New Testament in Greek wasn’t the end of the world. He just trusted the Vulgate in those places where the Greek manuscripts lacked, which is why his text was sixty percent identical to the Latin Vulgate.

Erasmus finished his first edition rather quickly. He later admitted that it was “hurried out headlong” and “precipitated rather than edited.” In other words, it was rough. Surprisingly, though, the Catholic Church approved it upon the condition he revises it in a few places, which he did five times.

Pressured to make changes

Let me go just a bit further in the story of Erasmus’s work on the Bible. I don’t know that it’s absolutely necessary, but it is relevant background information. Plus, I really enjoy Bible history, so please indulge me for a moment.

As I said before, Erasmus was sharply criticized for his work. In those places where his Bible differed from the Latin Vulgate, people got upset and questioned him. Perhaps the most famous example is 1 John 5:7, 8. Let me read those verses from Erasmas’s first and second editions—an English translation, anyhow. “For there are three that testify: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree” (1Jn 5:7, 8).

I’ll now read the same verses from his third edition:

For there are three that testify in heaven: the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit, and these three are one. And there are three that testify on earth: the Spirit and the water and the blood; and these three agree. (1 John 5:7, 8)

In his first two editions, Erasmus was missing that seemingly vital clause: “the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit.” When people attacked him for it, he responded, “If a single manuscript had come into my hands, in which stood what we read [in the Latin Vulgate], then I would certainly have used it.” In other words, that phrase was not found in even the later Byzantine manuscripts.

Where does that phrase come from? We know that it appears in the Latin Vulgate. We know that it appears in the margin notes of a few later manuscripts. It does not appear, however, in any Greek text of 1 John until the 14th century. Most manuscripts that include it are from after the time of Erasmus.

My best guess is that it originated in the Catholic Church during the 4th century, made its way into the Latin Vulgate, and eventually embedded itself in Christian culture. Regardless, Erasmus must have felt pressure to include it, so he added it to his third edition with the annotation, “I have restored the text … so as not to give anyone an occasion for slander.”

I’ve spent all this time talking about Erasmus because it illustrates the medieval church’s attitude toward Bible translations. While it’s a complete myth to say the Roman Catholic Church outlawed all translations of the Bible, church authorities were often nervous about them. When the Council of Trent met in 1546, they couldn’t reach a consensus, so they didn’t prohibit or encourage new translations. Whenever translations were outlawed, it was almost always based on who did the translation or how the Bible was translated. Sometimes it was a prohibition limited to one nation or region. Erasmus, for instance, was allowed to retranslate the New Testament, but he was also pressured to make changes.

Once again, Luther produced his German translation of the New Testament in 1522. His source text was Erasmus’s Greek New Testament. Even so, his translation work was not approved by church authorities for all of the reasons you would expect. At the Diet of Worms, Luther was condemned as a heretic. According to the church, he did not have the rightful authority to publish a new Bible.

John Wycliffe

What about the English-speaking world? Luther didn’t know English, so he couldn’t produce a Bible for those people. In hindsight, we understand just how important England and other English-speaking places would become. What about their Reformation? What about getting the Bible to them during this time of darkness?

In the fourteenth century, John Wycliffe attempted to do just that. He wanted to translate the Latin Vulgate into the common vernacular of English-speaking people. He was, by the way, a Catholic priest, not a Protestant Reformer. In fact, he died in 1384, nearly a hundred years before Martin Luther was born. We don’t know how much of the New Testament he completed before his death because his followers continued his work. It’s possible he personally translated the entire New Testament. We just don’t know.

To make a long story short, Wycliffe became a Reformer long before the Reformation. He spoke out against the church and the papacy. He preached the authority of Scripture. Then, at the age of fifty-six, a stroke took his life. Following his death, the church forbade any unauthorized people from translating the Bible into English. They also declared Wycliffe a heretic, dug up his body forty-four years after his death, and burned it. From that time forward, anyone caught translating the Bible into English would be declared a heretic.

That’s all background information. Let’s now consider the life and ministry of William Tyndale.

William Tyndale goes to Oxford

William Tyndale was born in 1494, making him one of Martin Luther’s contemporaries. His family lived in a rural part of western England. His father was a landowning farmer who was relatively successful, which allowed him to send his son to the most prestigious university in England—Oxford.

At the age of twelve, Tyndale began his studies at Oxford. He spent the first two years studying grammar, arithmetic, geometry, and so on. He proved to be an excellent student, specifically in his language classes, and he graduated with a bachelor of arts in 1512 at the age of eighteen. He then went on to pursue his master’s degree.

During his time at Oxford, Tyndale was ordained into the priesthood. Strangely enough, however, he never entered a monastery, and even stranger, he was never given an opportunity to study the Bible. Instead, his theological studies were limited to speculative theology. You may remember that Luther spoke out about this kind of “scholastic” theology where men study Aristotle and Greek philosophy rather than the Bible. Tyndale shared his distaste. He would later say:

In the universities, they have ordained that no man shall look on the Scripture until he be [nursed] in heathen learning eight or nine years, and armed with false principles with which he is clean shut out of the understanding of the Scripture. … The Scripture is locked up with … false expositions, and with false principles of natural philosophy.

Under this system, you can imagine what happens when a man finally has an opportunity to read the Bible. Chances are, he’ll read it filters in front of his eyes. By the time he can consult Scripture, he’s been thoroughly indoctrinated.

Tyndale goes to Cambridge

In 1515 at the age of twenty, Tyndale graduated as an Oxford-trained linguist. In other words, he knew language. In 1519, he moved to Cambridge to continue his studies. By the way, Cambridge was where Erasmus had previously taught. By the time Tyndale arrived, though, Erasmus was traveling around Europe, compiling his manuscripts for his translation of the New Testament.

Little did anyone know at the time, Cambridge was becoming a hub for future Reformers. The writings of Martin Luther were circulating among both professors and students. Lots of people were intrigued by the things Luther was saying. Many became convinced he was right, and Tyndale was one of them.

In 1520, three years after Luther published his Ninety-five Theses, a group of Cambridge scholars began meeting together on a regular basis to discuss Luther’s theology. If you want to know why more than a few Reformed men today like to sit around and discuss the Bible while drinking beer, this may very well be it. This group would meet in a local pub called the White Horse Inn, and out of this pub would come the English Reformation. Nearly half of these men would give their lives for the cause.

In 1521, Tyndale wanted a break from academics and returned home. He worked as a tutor and private chaplain, studied the Greek New Testament, and preached regularly at a local church. It was during this time that he grew unsettled regarding the spiritual condition of England. He became convinced that England could never be evangelized with a Latin Bible. He said, “It was impossible to establish the lay people in any truth, except the Scripture were laid before their eyes in their mother tongue.”

Meanwhile, Tyndale is becoming increasingly Reformed in his theology. He’s studying the Bible. His convictions are growing. In fact, he gets himself into some trouble for openly debating the true nature of the gospel. He’s never formally charged with anything, but the authorities do warn him, and he’s certainly setting himself up for bigger problems down the road.

One night, Tyndale’s having dinner with a group of local priests. He becomes so troubled by their ignorance of the Bible that he can’t help himself. He gets into a heated debate with them. One priest finally says, “We had better be without God’s law than the pope’s.” Tyndale was appalled and replied, “I defy the pope and all his laws.” He then said if God spared his life, he would do everything he could to make sure the “boy that drives the plow [would] know more of the Scripture than [the pope] does.”

Evidently, Tyndale had been reading Erasmus. In the preface to Erasmus’s New Testament, he wrote, “I would to God that the plowman would sing a text of Scripture at his plow and that the weaver would hum them to the tune of his shuttle.”

The plowboy, of course, represents the average person. From this moment on, the predominant pursuit of Tyndale’s life would be translating the Bible into common English vernacular and getting it into the hands of the plowboy.

The Tyndale Bible

The first step for Tyndale was traveling to London in 1523 to obtain official permission. He arranged a meeting with the bishop of London because this particular bishop had worked closely with Erasmus, and Tyndale believed he might be sympathetic to the cause. The problem was Tyndale’s reputation preceded him. The fear was that a Bible produced by a Protestant would cause the same kind of upheaval in England as Luther caused in Germany, so the bishop said no.

Tyndale didn’t give up, and by the providence of God, a wealthy cloth merchant heard him preach one day in London. This man offered to underwrite all of Tyndale’s expenses as he worked on his translation of the Bible. This was clearly a godsend, but Tyndale still had a problem. As he would later write, “There was no place to do it in all England.” The English church was against it. The English crown was against it. Funded or not, the project wouldn’t get very far if every authority was trying to stop him.

In the spring of 1524, at the age of thirty, Tyndale leaves England to find a safer place to work. Notice I said safer place. He would never be completely safe because he was, after all, working in clear violation of long-established law. Everything about his Bible translation would be illegal, which is why he would never return to England again.

Later that year, Tyndale arrived in Hamburg, Germany. He then continued on to Wittenberg to meet and possibly learn from none other than Martin Luther himself. By this time, Luther was an undeniable and unapologetic Reformer. More importantly, this is where Tyndale began his translation of the New Testament. He would complete it a year later in the city of Cologne.

In Cologne, Tyndale found someone willing to secretly print his New Testament, but they didn’t get very far. One of the print workers had a little too much to drink one night and said a little too much about the project in the presence of the wrong person. This person happened to be a staunch opponent of the Reformation and quickly arranged a raid on the print shop. Tyndale was forced to flee.

In 1526, Tyndale arrived in the more Protestant-friendly town of Worms, the same place where Luther stood trial just five years before, and he found himself another printer. The first shipment of Bibles was ready for delivery later that year. They hid them in bales of cotton and shipped them to German cloth merchants in England who, then, passed them along to a secret Protestant society known as the Christian Brethren. These Bibles were sold to a lot of eager people throughout England.

Tyndale faces opposition

Unfortunately, unsurprisingly, it didn’t take long for church officials to find out about the Tyndale Bible. The bishop of London and the Archbishop of Canterbury confiscated every copy they could find. Bishop Tunstall in London also preached a fiery sermon against the Tyndale Bible and even burned copies of it as a public warning.

The following year, in 1527, the archbishop of Canterbury, William Warham, started a Bible buyback program. If people brought him copies of the Tyndale Bible, he’d pay them. He thought this would be a sure way to collect as many of the Bibles as possible, so he could turn around and destroy them. But his plan backfired. People sent the money back to Tyndale to be used for even larger print runs of the Bible. As Joseph once told his brother, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good” (Ge 50:20).

Tyndale’s opponents got increasingly aggressive as time passed. In 1528, for instance, a group of bounty hunters was sent into Europe to track down Tyndale, but they couldn’t find him. Later that year, others were sent, but they came up short as well. He successfully evaded them each time because he wouldn’t remain in one place. He would move his entire operation to a different city and start his next print run with an entirely new printer.

Meanwhile, Tyndale continued to revise and improve his New Testament. He also managed to write a few theological works and complete a translation of the first five books of the Old Testament. Tragically, though, during one of his moves in 1529, he was involved in a shipwreck and lost all of his writings as well as his translation of the Old Testament. But this didn’t stop him. He went right back to work translating the Old Testament again.

By late 1530, the authorities in England decided to try a different strategy. Thomas Cromwell, an advisor to King Henry VIII, offered Tyndale a salary and promised him safe passage back to England. Surprisingly, Tyndale said, “Sure. I just have one condition. I realize it won’t be me, but I will return to England only if you promise to commission someone to translate the Bible into English. I’ll stop my own translation work. I’ll stop writing. You can throw me in prison. But first, I want to see an English translation of the Bible in the hands of plow boy.” Cromwell refused, of course.

The martyrdom of William Tyndale

For the sake of time, I’ll skip ahead about five years. In 1535, a man by the name of Henry Phillips got himself into some trouble. He’s indebted to some creditors, so his father gives him money to pay his debts. Instead of paying his debts, however, he gambles his father’s money and loses all of it. Somehow church authorities in London are aware of his predicament and enlist his help. He’s offered a large sum of money to find Tyndale, befriend him, then betray him.

The plan works. Phillips manages to track Tyndale down, earn his trust, and lead him into a narrow alley where soldiers are waiting to arrest him. After twelve years, Tyndale is finally captured and taken to a castle in Brussels. He’s thrown into a cold, damp dungeon. During the harsh winter of 1535, he writes, “I suffer greatly from cold in the head, and am afflicted by a perpetual [discharge], which is much increased in this cell. … My overcoat is worn out; my shirts are also worn out.” He also begs for a lamp because he’s forced to sit in the dark after the sun goes down.

After five hundred days or so, Tyndale finally gets his day in court, but his trial, by all accounts, was a mockery of justice. The authorities accused him of a long list of offensives. They said he taught justification by faith. They said he taught that the human will is bound by sin. They said he taught that there is no purgatory. Of course, he did believe and teach these things but not in contradiction to Scripture. Regardless, they deemed Tyndale an enemy of both church and state and condemned him as a heretic.

Tyndale was officially and publicly excommunicated and stripped of his priesthood. They made him stand before a crowd of spectators as they forced him to kneel. They scraped his hands with sharp glass to symbolize the loss of his privileges. They put the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper into his hands, then took them away again. They put on his priestly robes, then stripped them off. He was given the death penalty and forced back into the dungeon, where priests and monks would come by to mock and harass him.

On October 6, 1536, Tyndale was paraded through the town to a place where a large cross was erected. Chains hung from the cross, and a pile of wood was positioned at the base. The guards bound his feet to the bottom of the cross, and a chain was fixed around his neck, holding him tight to the cross. Gunpowder was sprinkled over the wood pile. Once he was in place, Tyndale looked into the sky and cried out, “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes.”

Tyndale’s executioner then pulled tight on the chain around his neck, strangling him. The crowd watched as he suffocated and died. Then, the executioner lit the gunpowder with a torch, and Tyndale’s body was blown up.

Tyndale’s answered prayer

You should know that God did answer Tyndale’s final prayer. Less than a year after his death, Henry VIII was presented with an English Bible, largely based on Tyndale’s work, and he said, “If there be no heresies in it, then let it be spread abroad among all the people!” By the end of 1538, he issued a decree that an English Bible be placed in every church in England.

You should also know that it wasn’t only Tyndale’s mission that succeeded. The work he produced also prevailed. Today, we think of the King James Version of the Bible as the most influential piece of literature to have ever existed in the English language, and rightfully so, but did you know that eighty, possibly ninety percent of the King James’s New Testament and parts of the Old Testament are identical to Tyndale’s Bible? For all of the credit we give to the King James Version for shaping both the culture and the English language itself, William Tyndale actually deserves most of that credit.

As you may know, many of the great English translations today are direct descendants of the King James Bible—the Revised Standard Version, the New American Standard, the New King James, the English Standard Version, and so on. And again, the King James Bible is an immediate descendent of the Tyndale Bible. Whether we use one of these translations or not, we still owe God our praise for calling William Tyndale into service and giving Tyndale the passion he did. We owe both our Bibles and, in large part, our language to Tyndale. He was God’s instrument in bringing the English-speaking world out of the darkness.