Protestant Profiles #7: William Tyndale

William Tyndale (c. 1494-1536)

 

Born: Gloucestershire (near the town of Dursley), England
Role: Scholar, Bible Translator, Early English Reformer
Emphases: Bible in English; justification by faith; translation of key biblical ecclesiastical terms in line with original NT context, rather than with Catholic terms (eg; ‘overseer’ instead of ‘bishop’; ‘elder’ instead of ‘priest’; ‘congregation’ instead of ‘church’ etc;)
Protested against: veneration of saints/Mary, papacy, purgatory

In 1523, a young English scholar travelled to London to seek the endorsement of the city’s bishop to undertake perhaps the most important translation project in the history of the English language. William Tyndale, aged in his late 20s-early 30s was convinced of the need to produce an English version of the Holy Scriptures, which would be the first to be translated from the original biblical languages and the first ever to be mass-printed using the printing press.

His mission to ensure that the Bible was available to all literate English men and women was born out of a desire to see the knowledge of the Lord and access to the truths of gospel spread throughout society. The refusal of the English Catholic hierarchy to support his project was born out of their desire to ensure the Church remained in control of what the English knew about God and His Word.

Tyndale was heavily influenced by Luther and the Protestant Reformation on the European continent – a fact that is evident throughout his translation work and other writings. The English bishops were strongly determined to suppress Luther’s ideas and prevent them from gaining traction in the British Isles and preventing the Scriptures from being translated into the common language was one way the Catholic Church could contain the theological uprising they were trying to put down.

And so, Tyndale translated the New Testament into English from Greek: not in England, but as an exile of sorts in Germany. His New Testament translation was completed after around a year of work and began to be distributed illegally throughout England in 1526. Over the next decade, Tyndale continued to revise his work, in an effort to make it as accurate a translation as possible, and collaborated with others such as Miles Coverdale to work towards a complete translation of the Bible, with the Old Testament based on the best available Hebrew text.

The intensity of Tyndale’s passion to get a Bible people could read into the hands of his countrymen was matched only by the passionate hatred of those who wanted to stop his work. He was abducted by officers working for King Henry VIII while walking in Antwerp with a treacherous friend who had deliberately betrayed him. After being imprisoned for well over a year, he was trialled – essentially on charges of being a Protestant – and then executed by strangulation followed by the burning of his corpse, in October 1536. Tyndale’s last words were reportedly, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes!”

Tyndale’s legacy in the English-speaking Christian world is hard to overstate. Amongst Anglophones he is at least as significant as Luther and Calvin to the understanding of Christianity we enjoy today. This is because his Bible translation work is the textual foundation for the most influential of all English Bibles – the Authorised Version published in 1611 under the reign of King James I. Even popular English translations of the last 50 years, including the NIV and ESV are indebted to Tyndale’s work in so many ways.

As evangelical Christians, we must always esteem the matchless sacrifice of Jesus Christ – to make atonement for our sins – as unique, supreme and incomparable. Yet as people who love the Bible (and yet in some ways take it for granted) we would do well to remember that someone seeking to faithfully follow the Lord Jesus died so that we could have God’s Word in a language we could understand. While in one sense Tyndale’s death does not benefit us spiritually whatsoever – in God’s providence this man lived and died a martyr of the faith in his quest to make sure people like you and I could read and understand the Gospel for ourselves.

You can read a sample of Tyndale’s translation work here (John’s Gospel).
For a more substantial biography of his life and ministry, see here.

Sources

Tyndale’s Betrayal and Execution – Christian History
“William Tyndale” Wikipedia
ANS Lane, “TYNDALE, William” Dictionary of Evangelical Biography

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