I defy the Pope and all his laws; and if God spares my life, ere many years, I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost.
These strong words were once uttered by William Tyndale, born around 1490 in Dursley, Gloucestershire. Tyndale is best known for being the first to translate the Scriptures from the original Hebrew and Greek, into a modern european language – English in his case. His translation was also the first to take advantage of the modern invention of printing, allowing it to be distributed widely, to the enlightenment of some, and anger of others.
Tyndale was first educated at Oxford, under a family name of Hychyns. You might wonder if there’s some distant tie to popular British author and atheist Christopher Hitchens, but that connection remains to be seen. A gifted student, he became fluent in French, Greek, Hebrew, German, Italian, Latin, and Spanish. It’s interesting to note that while he did study theology, among other things, scripture was not a part of the curriculum.
Tyndale’s great conviction was that the way to God is through His Holy Word, and that Scripture should be available even to common people. He came to see Biblical translation as his special calling, and sought permission from the Church to begin a translation into English. Though he was denied, he was unstoppable. He spent time studying privately in London, supported by a successful cloth merchant (remind you of Lydia?). He then headed for Germany, first Hamburg, then Wittenberg, working on his translation the entire time. By 1526 it was published and began distribution.
The Church was furious! Copies were smuggled into England and Scotland, and the Church seized as many as possible in order to have public burnings of these Scriptures. Can you imagine? The Church publicly condemned Tyndale, as a heretic, and sought to arrest him. It appears the Church unwittingly helped him as well. By buying as many copies as possible to burn, the Church unwittingly offered desperately needed financial support to Tyndale, for producing improved and corrected editions. And Thomas More was his archenemy. Among his charming words, he announced that “searching for errors in Tyndale’s bible is like searching for water in the sea.”
Meanwhile, Tyndale went into hiding, and continued to write. His The Practyse of Prelates denounced Henry VIII’s divorce as a violation of scriptural law, thereby making him extremely popular with the monarchy as well. Unfortunately, after some years, he was betrayed in Antwerp by Henry Philips, a young man with a large gambling debt (remind you of Judas?). Tyndale was held in the castle of Vilvoorde, near Brussels, for over a year. He faced two charges – spreading the heresy that sinners are justified by faith, and spreading the heresy that embracing the mercy of the Gospel in faith is enough for salvation. On October 6, 1536, he was finally convicted, and put to death. The Church compassionately strangled him before setting his body on fire at the stake. And 4 years later, the King approved Tyndale’s translation for printing and distribution. His final words before death were “Lord! Open the King of England’s eyes!” (remind you of Christ’s forgiveness from Luke’s cross?)
How can William Tyndale be an inspiration for us now? Everybody, hold up your bibles. What translations do you have? What made you choose them? Did you pick one that helped make the Scriptures easier for you to understand? Thank William for that. He risked arrest and death for his conviction of putting God’s Word right in your own hands, in a way that you could understand. He wanted you and me to have God’s Word, to treasure it, to learn from it, and to know the Good News of salvation that God promises to us in our faith. Think of William Tyndale each time you say:
- “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”
- “seek and you shall find”
- “ask and it shall be given you”
- “judge not that you be judged”
- and my favorite – “filthy lucre”
Almighty God, You planted in the heart of Your servant William Tyndale a consuming passion to bring the Scriptures to people in their own language, risking his life so that we could have faith. You blessed him with a special gift of language that continues to bless us here and now, and his work of faith strengthens us in our own lives. Reveal Your dreams for us as we read and study the Scriptures, and hear them calling us to repentance and life. As we journey together, growing together and learning together, show us how to dream Your dreams for the world. We pray this through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.