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Who was William Tyndale? (Reformation Day 2021)

Who was William Tyndale? (Reformation Day 2021)

By Tim Chester

When Tyndale was born in the final decade of the fifteenth century it was still illegal to translate the Bible into English. Facing the danger with great determination, Tyndale's vision was clear — that every ploughboy in England would have the Scriptures in his own language. By April 1531, William Tyndale was the most wanted man in Europe. Back in London his translation of the New Testament was being publicly burned. People found with a copy were tortured. In 1530 Tyndale published a translation of the Pentateuch. Each book had its own Prologue, a few marginal notes and, in the case of Exodus, a dozen pictures. According to Foxe, Tyndale’s first draft of the Pentateuch in English was lost in a shipwreck and he was forced to begin again.19 Genesis and Numbers were printed in one typeface and the rest in another, which suggests it was printed in segments, perhaps so it could readily be smuggled into England, where it was then assembled.

In August 1536 Tyndale was tried. There was a long list of charges against him which began:

First, he had maintained that faith alone justifies.

Second, he maintained that to believe in the forgiveness of sins and to embrace the mercy offered in the Gospel was enough for salvation.

Third, he averred that human traditions cannot bind the conscience, except where their neglect might occasion scandal.

Fourth, he denied the freedom of the will.

Fifth, he denied that there is any purgatory.

Sixth, he affirmed that neither the Virgin nor the Saints pray for us in their own person.

Tyndale was condemned as a heretic and, at some point in early October, executed.

In 1611, seventy-five years after Tyndale’s death, the Authorized Version of the Bible was published, having been commissioned by King James I. The King James Version, as it is known in the United States, became the standard English version of the Bible for the next 350 years. It has shaped our language, literature and culture, and carried the gospel around the world.

Some ninety percent of the Authorized Version is Tyndale’s work. As a result, Tyndale has influenced our language more than anyone else, even William Shakespeare. Words and phrases that he created regularly appear in common language. Prior to Tyndale, for example, the construction ‘the noun of the noun’ was rare. One could only say something like ‘the road’s end’, but his translation of the Hebrew form created expressions like ‘the birds of the air’ and ‘the fish of the sea.’

Melvyn Bragg lists some of the words and phrases that entered the English language from the pen of Tyndale:

‘let there be light’

‘fell flat on his face’

‘let my people go’

‘the apple of his eye’

‘a man after his own heart’

‘signs of the times’

‘ye of little faith’

‘the meek shall inherit the earth’

‘fisherman’

‘under the sun’

‘to rise and shine’

‘the land of the living’

‘sour grapes’

‘sea-shore’

‘two-edged’

‘it came to pass’

‘from time to time’

Hundreds of other examples could be cited. But Tyndale’s interest in translating the Bible was never simply as a scholarly challenge or a literary project. He was concerned with releasing ordinary Christians from the bondage of false teaching. He described the Bible as the touchstone that enables us to distinguish between false doctrine and true doctrine (1:398). ‘The scripture is a light, and sheweth us the true way, both what to do and what to hope for; and a defence from all error, and a comfort in adversity’ (1:399). He advises us: ‘think that every syllable pertaineth to thine own self, and suck out the pith of the scripture, and arm thyself against all assaults’ (1:400).

The Bible for Tyndale was more even than the touchstone of truth and the defence against error. It is above all the means God uses to lead us to faith in the saving work of Christ. Tyndale saw the Bible as ‘an intimate book.’ He writes:

The scripture is that wherewith God draweth us unto him … The scriptures spring out of God, and flow unto Christ, and were given to lead us to Christ. Thou must therefore go along by the scripture as by a line, until thou come at Christ, which is the way’s end and resting-place (1:317).

Imagine being lost in a dense wood. Whatever direction you take, you find yourself repeatedly coming back to where you began. Then you come across a river — the river flows from a source and you know that following the river upstream will lead you back to that source. The Scripture, says Tyndale, flows from God and following it will bring us back to God. Or imagine one of those stories in which someone is led into a labyrinth, but un-spools a ball of string so they can find their way back out. Scripture is like that string. The difference is that God himself has laid out the line for us in his Word. If we follow the line of Scripture it leads us to safety and rest. And that resting place is Christ.

This blog post was extracted and adapted from Tim Chester’s Bitesize Biographies set, available for pre-order here.

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