William Tyndale: Christian, Translator, Martyr

by Jefferson David Tant

William Tyndale (1494-1536) was a Reformation leader in England. He was born near Gloucester and has the distinction of being the first man to print the New Testament in English from the original Greek. (John Wycliffe had done a Latin to English translation in 1382). He was fluent in eight languages and did his translation from Greek in 1526. He has been called the "Architect of the English Language," as, like Shakespeare, many of his phrases are used in our language today.

Having taken advantage of Gutenberg's invention of the movable-type press to give the people the Bible in the common language, he earned the wrath of both the Catholic Church and later of Henry VIII, the King of England, who made himself head of the Church of England when he broke away from the Catholic Church in a dispute with Pope Clement VII. (The Pope had refused to grant Henry a divorce from Catherine of Aragon so he could marry Anne Boleyn.) Translating and distributing the Bible in the common language was illegal, and punishable by death. Religious authorities did not want common people to be able to read the Bible and discover the distortions of the truth by the established churches.

Tyndale graduated from Oxford University in 1515 with a Master's Degree at age 21. Some have tried to make him a disciple of Martin Luther, but he stated that he had never "been federated with Luther." His translation contained notes on his views rejecting Luther's justification by faith alone. Through his study of the Scriptures, he came to see the error of Luther's position on this and other matters, as well as other erroneous doctrines that were associated with many in the Protestant Reformation.

He was ordained into the Catholic Priesthood in 1521. After Oxford, he attended Cambridge University, where some students began meeting together for Bible study. In a discussion with a Catholic priest, he was told, "We are better to be without God's laws than the Pope's". Tyndale was incensed by this and replied, "I defy the Pope and all his laws. If God spare my life ere many years, I will cause the boy that drives the plow to know more of the scriptures than you!"

Early historians associate Tyndale with the Anabaptists. This was a name given in derision. Those who opposed infant baptism as taught by the established church insisted that immersion by believers was what the Bible taught. As most had been "baptized" as infants, they needed to be baptized again when they came to understand Bible teaching. "Ana" is a preposition meaning "again," thus they were called Ana-baptists, or "again-baptists."

In time, as Tyndale's faith matured, he became associated with Christians. "It is easily established that he was involved with the churches of Christ in England, particularly those meeting at Bow Lane." (Traces of the Kingdom, Keith Sisman, p.284). Such churches were illegal, and they often met in secret. Many members were arrested and mistreated. Some died in prison from starvation. His brother John was arrested and charged in 1530 for distributing William's Bible translation. Others who assisted Tyndale, and even financed his efforts, were involved in smuggling the Bibles and were arrested and prosecuted for this.

When his translation first appeared, the Bishop of London, Tunstall, hired Augustine Packington to buy up all the copies, so he could burn them. It is interesting that Tyndale realized there were some corrections that needed to be made, but he was out of funds to do the revision and subsequent printing. He was quite happy to sell all the copies he had, which provided him with funds for the revised edition. As the new edition was distributed, the bishop called Packington to ask what was going on. Packington then suggested that so long as printing presses were around, the Bibles would keep coming. He then advised the bishop to buy all the printing presses. That ended the attempt to buy all the Bibles.

Tyndale was arrested and tried for heresy and condemned to die. He was confined to prison for some 500 days under horrible conditions. On October 6, 1536, he was strangled and then burned at the stake for the high crime of translating God's word into English. This sentence was instigated by agents of King Henry VIII and allies in the Church of England. Tyndale's last words before he was strangled were "Lord, open the King of England's eyes." His prayer was granted, within a year, translations by Miles Coverdale and someone named Matthew were granted licenses. Both translations were based on Tyndale's work.

What a great debt we owe to those who have gone before us. Many have suffered and died for their faith, even as they did in the first century. It was particularly interesting to me to learn that one of these martyrs, the one who opened the Word of God in the common language of the people, was evidently a brother in Christ.

Sources: Traces of the Kingdom, and Wikipedia.

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