Williams Tyndale: The Experiential Outworking of Sola Scriptura

The Experiential Outworking of Sola Scriptura

Spiritual Darkness had spread over the land of England. The sacred Scriptures were hidden and kept inaccessible to the layman. Only those in the clerical office could read and interpret the Scriptures. Consequently, the people then, were in total submission and dependence on the Church of England for the Scriptures. Ironically, even though there were thousands of priest in England, not one could from the Lord’s Prayer translate a single clause into English. All biblical knowledge had been seemingly extinguished form the land leaving the people in a cloud of spiritual darkness.[1]

In the midst of this darkness God raised up faithful men such as the John Wycliffe, the morning star of the Protestant Reformation, who translated the whole Bible into English from the Latin Vulgate. The Lollards and Wycliffe himself against the laws of the land distributed these Bibles across the land. Many of these men were put to death and deemed as heretics because of doing such things. Parliament in 1401 passed a law, De haeretico comburendo, which legalized the burning of heretics at the stake.  In 1408, archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Arundell wrote Oxford’s constitution which forbid translating the Bible into English unless the bishops of the English church gave permission to do so.  Moreover, even teaching the Bible in English was worthy of death. An example of this is seen when the Lollards in 1519 were burned at the stake because they taught their children the Lord’s prayer in English.[2]

During this same time, the Protestant Reformation had begun, and the combustion of truth that came forth from Wittenberg and Zurich could not be contained from flashing across the English Channel. Though talk of the Reformation had reached England during this time, even the halls of Oxford, the Reformation cry of sola scriptura would not be sufficient to bring the English people out of spiritual darkness for they needed the sacred Scriptures translated into their native tongue in order to read it for themselves.[3] Reformation can only come through the knowledge of the Scriptures.

Thus, it is in the midst of this great hour of darkness that God raised up William Tyndale to be the ensign of commitment to sola scriptura. Tyndale considered the accessibility and comprehension of the Scriptures more important than his own life. Tyndale was a skilled scholar and linguist that far surpassed the Englishmen of his time. He was fluent in eight languages which included Greek and Hebrew.[4] Any understanding of Hebrew in England during this time was abysmal. This all the more speaks of Tyndale’s intellect. Perhaps no man since Tyndale’s time has had such an unwavering commitment to Scripture and an equally incredible linguistic ability.[5]

Tyndale was born in 1494 and was executed as a heretic in 1536.  Tyndale’s mission caused him to be a fugitive from his own country and ultimately caused him to be executed as a heretic, but for Tyndale, bringing the knowledge of the Scriptures in English back to the common plowboy, was well worth his own life.  Tyndale’s experiential outworking of sola scriptura through his translation of the Bible into English released the sacred Scriptures from bondage and brought reformation to England.

 

Tyndale’s Mission

Tyndale’s life will be evaluated using two avenues of approach. The first, will focus on the the large scope of Tyndale’s mission, work, and travel, while the second, will focus on the results of Tyndale’s mission. Also, the second approach will address Tyndale’s contribution and impact upon England and Christendom as a whole.

 

Foundations for the Mission

 

Early on, through divine providence, Tyndale received the necessary academic training that would equip him for his mission in the future. However, during these foundational years, the roots of Tyndale’s formation as a man for this divine mission ran much deeper than mere intellectual head knowledge. Tyndale was being shaped spiritually. At the age of twelve Tyndale enrolled at Oxford’s Magdalen School in 1506. This school would give Tyndale a bedrock understanding of Latin that would help serve him in his future undergraduate degree.[6]

Two years later, Tyndale enrolled in an undergraduate degree and completed his Bachelors of Arts on July 4, 1512. Though Tyndale by this point had proven himself to be a very skilled classical scholar, he desired to continue on at Oxford for a master’s degree.  Tyndale was ordained into the priesthood while at Oxford, though he never entered into that vocation. He spent a total of ten years studying at Oxford, but amazingly enough, it was not until his eighth or ninth year when he finally was authorized to study theology. However, this theology was not even rooted in the Scriptures, rather it was purely speculative theology with its roots in the Greek philosophers.[7] I is reported that in spite of such restrictions, Tyndale, while a student at Oxford, taught other students secretly the knowledge of the Scriptures from Greek.[8] Later, in Tyndale’s writings, he reflects back on his time at Oxford with great displeasure since he had been so isolated from the Scriptures and theology.  Oxford’s policy was to not allow a student the privilege to study theology until after attaining both a BA and MA. Thus, the student at that point would have been heavily indoctrinated with years of scholasticism before being able to study theology.[9]

After Tyndale graduated from Oxford with a masters of arts as a highly trained linguist, in 1519, he then went to Cambridge to study.  Some historians seem to think that Tyndale received another degree from there, but the data is unclear. What is known is that Cambridge was the bastion for protestant teaching. Martin Luther’s work was both accessible at Cambridge and was being circulated across campus to professors and students alike. Indeed, it was in 1520 when a small group of Cambridge scholars began to meet on the campus of King’s College at the White Horse Inn to discuss the theology of the protestant reformers.[10] The men in this group would eventually become some of the key figures in England’s reformation, and many of them would become protestant martyrs. It was believed that William Tyndale was apart of this group while at Cambridge.[11]

In 1521, Tyndale stepped away from the Academy to think further on the truths of the Reformation and to more fully contemplate the Greek New Testament. Thus, Tyndale took at job in Gloucestershire working for the wealthy family of Sir. John Walsh.  Primarily, Tyndale’s was the tutor for the children, but he also fulfilled roles as the private chaplain and personal secretary for Sir. Walsh. During this time Tyndale also traveled and preached throughout England when an opportunity arose.[12] Due to his employer’s social status, Tyndale often found himself at the dinner table with Catholic priests. It was in these moments that Tyndale was confronted with the biblical ignorance of these clergymen. One particular occasion the priest proclaimed how it was better to go without God’s law rather than the Pope’s. Tyndale’s response was, “I defy the pope and all his laws…if God spared him life, ere many ears he would cause a boy that drives the plough to know more of the Scripture than he does.”[13] Tyndale’s commitment to sola scriptura made him fearless even in front of the most prominent clergy men. Tyndale was convinced of the necessity of getting the knowledge of the Scriptures into the hands of the people in their common tongue.

Finally, after all that time of preparation, Tyndale went to London in 1523 to obtain authorization to translate and publish the English Bible. Tyndale needed approval from a higher authority because to translate any part of Scripture on one’s own authority was worthy of death and condemnation as a heretic.  Tyndale upon arriving to London setup a meeting with Tunstall, the bishop of London. However, Tunstall refused to authorize such a task in fear of turmoil and upheaval in England.[14] In the midst of a no, Tyndale found a divine yes and all the more reason that England was in dire need of an English Bible. With firm resolution and conviction, Tyndale departed from England, never to return, in order to begin his epic work which would shake the nation of England.

 

The Printing Press on Fire

From the age of thirty on, Tyndale would live life as a fugitive as he translated the Bible illegally. But for the next twelve years in the midst of opposition and ship wrecks, the printing press would be on fire as Tyndale worked diligently with great vigor to translate the Scriptures and write a few theological works along the way.

In the spring of 1524 he left England and arrived in Hamburg Germany.  While in Germany, Tyndale went to Wittenberg to sit under Martin Luther for some time.  It was here in the great reformer’s city that Tyndale began his translation work of the New Testament from Greek to English. Certainly, Philip Melanchthon’s skill of the Greek language proved to be an invaluable aid to Tyndale. From Wittenberg with his amanuensis, Tyndale in 1525 traveled to Cologne to compile his translation work.[15]

In Cologne, Tyndale used the printing house of Peter Quentell. Unfortunately, the printing only made it to the twenty-second chapter of Matthew because of the drunk loose lips of a print worker. The authorities heard about Tyndale’s operation and tried to breach and seize Tyndale. Both Tyndale, and William Roye, his amanuensis, fled with the translation work to the Rhine of Worms.[16]

The city of Worms proved to be a very hospitable spot for Tyndale and Roye. It was there that Tyndale finally finished and printed his first compete translation of the Greek New Testament into English in 1526. This was the first Bible ever translated from the original Greek language into English. Right away, the Bible’s were smuggled into England to be dispersed amongst the people. The English, finally, had the knowledge of God’s Word in the palm of their hand in their native common tongue.[17]

Twice, the opposition arose in this time to end Tyndale’s mission. The first time in 1526, they confiscated all Tyndale Bibles and declared that possession or distribution of said Bible was a serious crime. Tunstall, the bishop of London who previously denied Tyndale’s mission, preached a message against the Tyndale Bible and burned several copies in public. Then, in 1527, the archbishop of Canterbury devised a plan to buy up all the copies of Tyndale’s Bible so that they could no longer be distributed. However, this plan back fired for the money from the sale of the Bibles was used to create a revised second edition.[18] This seems to be a divine echo of the situation Joseph was in with his brothers in Genesis 50:20.

Now at this point, a question mark appears in Tyndale’s timeline because little information is given between Tyndale’s first New Testament edition in 1526 finished in Worms and The Parable of the Wicked Mammon written in Antwerp in 1528. It is clear that Tyndale did eventually go to Antwerp, but the exact timing is obscure. Here in Antwerp he does write his first theological treatise, The Parable of the Wicked Mammon. This work focused on the truth that faith is more important than works. Essentially, Tydale was echoing and exalting the protestant cry of soli fide, justification by faith alone.[19] During his time at Antwerp, his opponents continued to try and capture him.

Tyndale, continued to elude his opponents, and this time he did so by retreating to Marburg. Here he wrote The Obedience of a Christian Man (1528). Astoundingly enough, as Tyndale is on the run for his life from the authorities for doing no wrong, Tyndale writes in this work for every Christian to submit to every authority. Also, while in Marburg, Tyndale continued to polish his Hebrew.[20] Again, his opponents made another attempt to return him to England, but Tyndale remained hidden. Then, to conceal his position, he went to Antwerp (modern day Belgium) in 1529.

Antwerp was a prime city to do his work because of the plethora of printing houses and more direct shipping route to England. It was here that Tyndale completed translating the Pentateuch from Hebrew to English. The main hunt for Tyndale was underway again, and thus, it was too dangerous for Tyndale to remain in a large city such as Antwerp so he boarded a boat to sail to to the mouth of the Elbe River in Germany. Sadly, the ship wrecked, and all of Tyndale’s books and translation of the Pentateuch were lost.[21] For most, such a tremendous amount of hard work lost would have caused extreme despair even to the point of being mentally paralyzed from continuing the work, but for Tyndale, though the loss was devastating, the eternal weight of what he was seeking to accomplish far out weighted the work of restarting much of his Old Testament Hebrew translation.

 

Finishing Well

After such a devastating loss, Tyndale finally arrived in Hamburg, and a family very sympathetic to the cause of the reformation, the Emerson family, housed Tyndale during this time. Hamburg is where Tyndale was reunited with his old Cambridge classmate Miles Coverdale, who would latter finish translating the Coverdale Bible. With Coverdale’s assistance, Tyndale returned to restoring what had been lost in the ship wretch, namely the translation of the Pentateuch. This work took Tyndale ten month , and he finally finished it in December of 1529.[22]

The five books of Moses were published in Antwerp. Tyndale intended to translate all of the Old Testament.  During this time, another verbal attack was thrown at Tyndale. Thomas Moore, one of the King’s minions, was commissioned by the church and the king to assassinate Tyndale. Moore published a work entitled A Dialogue Concerning Heresies, and in this work, Moore accused Tyndale of being “the captain of English heretics,” “a new Judas,” and many more imaginative names.[23]  Moore’s claim was that anyone who rejected the teachings of Rome was a heretic.

Tyndale’s response was that trust must be placed in the sacred Scriptures alone not the church for the Scriptures are infallible and the church is not. Tyndale went further to say that any trust short of this is of the spirit of the antichrist which 1 John speaks of.[24] The fiery darts continued to be hurled by the enemy, but Tyndale’s responses remained consistent. Tyndale argued that the clarity of Scripture disarmed the need for the leadership of the church to teach the people their man-made traditions.[25]

Now, the chaplain of the house Tyndale was staying in at Antwerp was John Rogers. Tyndale taught and convinced Rogers of Reformed doctrines. Rogers would go on to translate and finish his own English Bible in 1537, the Matthew Bible. Roger’s Bible was a compilation of Tyndale and Coverdale’s work. This Bible contained Tyndale’s New Testament, Pentateuch, Historical Books, and Jonah, and the remaining portion of the Old Testament was taken from Coverdale’s Bible. Rogers would go on also to be the first martyr under “Bloody Mary’s” reign.[26]

Continuing to describe Tyndale’s second time at Antwerp, it was here that Tyndale finished his greatest work, the second edition of his New Testament in 1534. Just eight short years after his first edition, Tyndale made over five thousand edits. Such a numerous amount of edits in the second edition was due to Tyndale’s great increase of understanding in Greek since the first edition. This edition contained a prologue at the start of each book, cross references, and explanatory notes. Another and final edition would follow in the winter of the same year, but by far the second edition is Tyndale’s masterpiece. By the beginning of 1535 Tyndale’s grasp of Hebrew had matured greatly, and so he embarked on translating the Historical Books.[27]

Tyndale’s second stay in Antwerp proved to be his most profitable and prolific time as a translator. However, all of this was about to come to an end as Henry Phillips, blackmailed by a high cleric in the church, deceived Tyndale. Phillips infiltrated Tyndale’s inner circle, and then, gave Tyndale the Judas kiss which led him right into his captor’s hands. The fugitive for over a decade was finally apprehended. The providence of God caused Tyndale’s translation of the Historical Books to escape from being confiscated. Most claim that is was Rogers who gathered and guarded Tyndale’s work.[28]

In Prison Tyndale was held for over a year in the castle of Vilvoorde, which was an impenetrable fortress, while waiting for his trial. Even during this time Tyndale wrote Faith Alone Justifies Before God. In a letter from prison Tyndale spoke of the brutal prison conditions, but his one plea in his letter was that they would permit him to have his Hebrew Bible, Hebrew Grammar, and Hebrew Dictionary to pass time as he studied.[29] It is said by John Foxe that Tyndale while in prison converted the keeper, his daughter, and other members of the keeper’s household.[30] The damp, dark, and drafty prison cell could not extinguish Tyndale’s blaze for the gospel.

In Tyndale’s trial he was accused of numerous offences, one namely being that he preached justification by faith alone, but the outcome of the trial was him being declared as a heretic and sentenced to death. Before death, in a public service Tyndale would be symbolically stripped of his priesthood. Tyndale would, then, have his hands cut symbolically displaying the stripping or losing of his priesthood. Then, the Mass would be placed in his hands and removed as well. Last, they would strip him of his priestly vestments and hand him over for death.[31]

Death finally came for Tyndale on October 6, 1536. He was hung, and then incinerated by an explosion of gunpowder. In Tyndale’s final moments the last words he spoke were, “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes.”[32] Tyndale’s dying prayer was answered. In that same year of his death an unknown English Bible was disbursed through England. The Coverdale Bible in 1535 and the Matthew Bible in 1537 were printed.

Also, less than a year after his death Oliver Cromwell and Thomas Crammer archbishop of Canterbury, part of the White Horse Inn, convinced Henry the VIII to approve the publication of an official English Bible for the people of England. Then, in 1538 the King decreed that a Latin and an English Bible was to be placed in every church across England.[33] J.H. Merle d’ Aubigne comments that following Tyndale’s death was a flood of English Bibles across the land of England, and Aubigne compares this flood to a raging river that is constantly bringing new waters to the sea.[34] Truly Tyndale’s bold claim came to pass, the plowboy now had access to the Scriptures in which he could read, study, live, and proclaim them.

 

The Results of the Mission

Before Tyndale, there had been a few English Bibles dispersed such as the Wycliffe Bible. However, none were translated from the original languages of the Bible. The striking point of contrast between the previous English Bibles and Tyndale’s was that Tyndale worked from the original languages and sought diligently to give the readers something that was clear and new.[35] There is no doubt that the result of Tyndale’s mission was reformation spiritually and linguistically.

 

English Reformation

Tyndale’s translation of the Scriptures into English is seen as the instrumental cause of the English Reformation. Reformation cannot occur without sola scriptura, and solas scriptura cannot be lived out without knowledge of the Word of God. True reformation always flows from the Word of God. This, then, is why Tyndale has been marked as the father of the English Reformation.[36] Aubigne calls Tyndale, “the mighty mainspring of the English Reformation.”[37] Tyndale was “the heart of the Reformation in England,” Tyndale biographer Brian Edwards exclaims.[38] Reformation is rooted in knowledge, and knowledge comes from God through the Scriptures. Without an accurate English Bible, the English Reformation would have never occurred. Tyndale gave the people an accurate translation of the Scriptures in their own tongue.

 

English Bible

Not only is Tyndale the father of the English Reformation, but he is also the Father of the English Bible. As already mentioned above, two of the most prominent Bibles after Tyndale’s death were the Coverdale and Matthew Bible. Both Bibles relied heavily, if not on the majority, of Tyndale New and Old Testament translations. Both Rogers and Coverdale worked with and were influenced heavily by Tyndale.

Furthermore, nine-tenths of the New Testament in the 1611 King James Version was Tyndale’s work. Also, half of the Old Testament in the King James Version was Tyndale’s as well. Therefore, the translators of the King James Version merely took over and finished Tyndale’s work for him. Tyndale, truly, did give the world the English Bible.[39]

 

Modern English

Moreover, Tyndale was the prophet of modern English. The word choice and phraseology of Tyndale’s translation was foreign to the English of his day. However, such catchy phrases that are in the Scriptures are a result of Tyndale’s careful and plain translation from the original language. Tyndale was concerned with being understood. In other words, clarity in his translation was just as critical as accuracy. Tyndale wanted the common man to be able to read the Scriptures.[40] Tyndale translated with simple yet direct forms of English that displayed harmony and dignity. Tyndale did more than give the West the Bible in English. Tyndale’s awareness of the common tongue and use of rhythm gave the West a Bible language.[41] The common language of modern English today was unique and ingenious for Tyndale’s day.

 

Conclusion

After darkness came light. Tyndale was a man separated before time began for a divine mission. Though the spiritual climate was dark upon Tyndale’s entrance into the world, the spiritual climate radically changed upon Tyndale’s exit from the world. Tyndale was a man that had an unquenchable zeal for the Scriptures and the Gospel of truth, and that zeal led him to death so that his countrymen may have the knowledge of the Scriptures before them. Truly, Tyndale’s life displayed his commitment to sola scriptura. Thus, Tyndale’s experiential outworking of sola scriptura through his translation of the Bible into English released the sacred Scriptures from bondage and brought reformation to England.


[1] Steve Lawson, The Daring Mission of William Tyndale (Orlando: Reformation Trust, 2015), xviii.

[2] Ibid., xix.

[3] Ibid., xix-xx.

[4] David Daniell, William Tyndale: A Biography (Yale University Press: New Haven & London, 1994), 2.

[5] Lawson, xx.

[6] Daniell, 27.

[7] Lawson, 5.

[8] Danielle, 59.

[9] Ibid., 37. Tyndale wrote on this matter in The Practice of Prelates of 1530 says, “And in the universities they have ordained that no man shall look in the Scripture until he be noselled [nursed] in heathen learning eight or nine years and armed with false principles with which he is clean shut out of the understanding of Scripture.”

[10] The Cambridge scholars’ group was nicknamed, “Little Germany.”

[11] Lawson, 6-7.

[12] Ibid., 7-8.

[13] Ibid. 8. This statement is an echo of what Erasmus wrote in his preface to his Greek New Testament.

[14] Daniell, 86.

[15] Lawson, 11-12.

[16] Daniell, 109.

[17] Ibid., 115-116.

[18] Lawson, 13-14.

[19] Daniell, 156.

[20] Lawson, 15-16.

[21] Ibid., 16-17.

[22] Lawson, 17.

[23] Ibid., 17-18.

[24] Ibid., 18.

[25] Ibid., 20.

[26] Ibid., 21.

[27] Ibid., 21-22.

[28] Ibid., 22-23.

[29] Ibid., 23-24.

[30] John Foxe, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs (Nashville, Tenn.: Thomas Nelson, 2000), 127.

[31] Lawson, 24-25.

[32] Foxe, 83.

[33] Lawson, 26-27.

[34] J.H. Merle d’ Aubigne, The Reformation of England (1866-78; repr., Edinburgh, Scotland: Banner of Truth, 1994), 2:349.

[35] Daniell, 57-58.

[36] Lawson, 1.

[37] Aubigne, 1:167.

[38] Brian Edwards, God’s Outlaw: The Story of William Tyndale and the English Bible (Darlington, England: Evangelical, 1976, 1999), 170.

[39] Daniell, 1.

[40] Lawson, 3.

[41] Ibid., 115-116.

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