Ad Fontes - Tyndale and the English Reformation: #Refo500atDET

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William Tyndale, from Foxe's Book of Martyrs
Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons
"And God said, Let there be light, and there was light" (Genesis 1)
"And God shall wipe away all tears from there eyes" (Revelation 7)
"With God all things are possible" (Matthew 19)
"Be not weary in well doing" (2 Thessalonians 3)
"Am I my brother’s keeper" (Genesis 4)
"Ye are the salt of the earth" (Matthew 5)
"The signs of the times" (Matthew 16)
"They made light of it" (Matthew 22)
"Eat, drink, and be merry" (Luke 12)
"The powers that be" (Romans 13)
"Filthy lucre" (1 Timothy 3)
"The patience of Job" (James 5)

Such phrases from the Authorized version – and countless others – are woven into our cultural and literary DNA (or at least they used to be). Many such quotes will be familiar to people who've never opened a Bible. But very few people, indeed, could trace them to their original source and few would guess they were the work of one translator and literary craftsman – William Tyndale. “William Tyndale gave us our English Bible,” claims David Daniell (p. 1).

Before Tyndale, the only vernacular Bibles available in England were translations of the Latin Vulgate -- for example, the infamous ones produced by the Oxford renegade, John Wycliffe. For more than a century, though, these contraband Bibles – meticulously hand copied – had circulated underground among communities of these Wycliffites (known colloquially as the "Lollards"), who by the 16th century risked imprisonment or even death at the stake as heretics. Still, despite such efforts at suppression, pockets of Lollard sentiment continued to exert influence right into the 16th century. The demand for Lollard Bibles set the stage for the subsequent black market demand for Tyndale New Testaments and his theological treatises.

In some sense, Tyndale stood broadly within that longstanding tradition of English religious radicalism, but he also was unique. For generations, Lollard Bibles – or portions of the Bible – had been meticulously hand copied and passed among adherents. Gutenberg's revolutionary invention of movable type raised the profile of the heresy industry to a an entirely new level, and Tyndale was the first English Bible translator to really benefit from that revolution. Tyndale produced the first mass printed Bibles in English. In so doing, he altered not only the print medium but also the very textual basis of the English Bible, for he was the first translator to go behind the Vulgate to the original languages. He was a prodigy with languages, absorbing them much like undergrads absorb new kinds of pizza. He is reported to have mastered eight languages: English (of course), German, Italian, French, Spanish, Latin and – most crucially ancient Greek and Hebrew (a Gentile Hebrew scholar was a rare bird, indeed in the early 16th century).

The watershed event for 16th century translations of the New Testament was the publication of Erasmus' critical editions of the New Testament, from 1516-1522. With Erasmus and Greek fluency in tow, Tyndale published the first English vernacular New Testament rooted in the original biblical language. Within several years, he attained a mastery of Hebrew that enabled him to translate the Pentateuch, Jonah, and the historical books from Joshua through Chronicles. These translations formed the backbone of the Authorized Version of 1611. Showing heroic determination, Tyndale managed to produce all these biblical translations while living abroad in exile, often penniless, raided by local authorities, hounded and hunted by no less formidable an adversary than Sir Thomas More.

Not merely a translator, though, Tyndale was also was a theologian in his own right, one of the most vigorous and most consistent advocates of the freshly sprouted evangelical ideas from the Continent among the early English Reformers. He translated, edited and modified Luther's biblical prefaces, and wrote several of his own when he disagreed with the interpretation of the Wittenberg reformer – for example, Tyndale had a much more positive assessment of the Epistle of James and the book of Hebrews than did Luther.

Tyndale was a seminal political theologian as well, and contributed to the Erastian character of what would become the English Protestant church. More radically than even Luther, he defended submission to godly princes as a Christian's duty in his most famous treatise, The Obedience of the Christian Man, a text commended to Henry VIII by Anne Boleyn.

Nonetheless, Tyndale alienated potentially powerful allies by refusing to condone the annulment of Henry's first marriage to Catherine of Aragon. He propounded the Lutheran distinction between law and gospel as the hermeneutical key to interpreting scripture, and he defended the evangelical doctrine that sinners are justified through faith solely through the merits of Jesus Christ. Like other humanists and Reformers of his day, he attacked ecclesiastical abuses of power and promoted the prerogatives of the laity to challenge clerical and academic authorities through a direct appeal to scripture.

Above all, Tyndale lived and died for his vocation to make the saving message of the Bible, as he understood it, available and comprehensible to commoners and laypeople. An early biographer of Tyndale, the Protestant hagiographer John Foxe, records an incident when a young Tyndale, still living in his native Gloucestershire, debates a local divine about biblical interpretation. Tyndale exclaimed:
If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of scripture than thou dost.
Making good on that goal, he published his second edition New Testament in an easily portable size.

Tyndale ultimately would succeed at his pedagogical goal of transforming English religion by making the Bible widely available. At the time of his death in 1536, the tide was turning in England – somewhat – in favor of the evangelical. King Henry and Parliament had severed the English church from Rome. Powerful men in the realm, such as Thomas Cramner and Thomas Cromwell were promoting the cause of a vernacular English Bible. Tyndale's cause was being vindicated, but for him personally, it all came too late to avert his destiny as a martyr.

A Scholar on the Run

Little of Tyndale's biography is known. He was born around 1494 in Gloucester near the Welsh border in an area known as the Vale of Berkley. He studied at Magdalen College in Oxford, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1512, followed by a master's in 1515. Afterward, Tyndale also studied at Cambridge, though very little is known of his academic career there. He returned to his native west country, where he lived with the family of Sir John Walsh as a tutor. The young Tyndale soon got in trouble by tormenting local priests with proof-texts from the scriptures, from the Latin Vulgate. It is clear that by the early 1520s, he had developed sympathies with nascent Reform movements, for he clearly stated his view that the words of scripture trump the decrees of the pope. Sometime during this period he seems to have clarified his life's vocation to be translating the Bible into the language of the common people.

Tyndale moved to London, where he sought (unsuccessfully) the patronage of Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall. Tyndale had become familiar with the work of Erasmus and had already translated into English the humanist scholar's treatise, Enchiridion militis Christiani (Handbook of the Christian Soldier), and Tunstall was a close friend of Erasmus. Tyndale was rebuffed by the bishop; indeed, Tunstall would later be a key opponent of Tyndale's, seeking to buy up and destroy all copies of the young scholar's New Testaments before they were smuggled into England. A cloth merchant named Henry Monmouth gave Tyndale shelter and support. (Cloth merchants would play a key role in the importation of illegal evangelical books and Bible translations). Having decided that living in England was not conducive to the Bible translation profession – a fact that the naïve Tyndale might have discerned if he had had any political sense or more historical awareness – he set sail for Germany, landing in Hamburg in 1524. He would never return to England but would live out his life as an expatriate.

Tyndale moved about Germany, possibly spending time in Wittenberg. It is quite possible that he met Luther, but it remains uncertain. Foxe believed that the two Reformers met. He began work on his New Testament in Cologne in 1525, but had to flee after authorities raided his operation. He published the first complete printed version of the New Testament in English in 1526. Bishop Tunstall, far from being a supporter of Tyndale's project, worked actively to suppress the distribution of New Testaments in England. His strategy to cut off the export of Bibles at the point of supply backfired, however. He sought to buy up all the copies and destroy them, but through a middle man, Tyndale received the funds which he used to continue his work of translation and revision.

Eventually, Tyndale settled in among English merchants in Antwerp, which was a major site of trade and book printing. He used this time, in part, to correct the first print run his New Testament, which had many mistakes. He published a second edition of the text in 1534. In the meantime, he also had begun translating the Old Testament. His edition of the Pentateuch came out in Antwerp in 1530. Tyndale's mastery of the Hebrew was exceptional for his time. He translated the prophet Jonah in 1531. Tyndale also translated without ever publishing the historical books of the Hebrew Bible from Joshua to Chronicles.

While living in Antwerp, Tyndale was betrayed and kidnapped by the Englishman Henry Phillips. Scholars can only speculate who was instigating this plot and funding Phillips – two leading candidates were John Stokesley, bishop of London beginning in 1530 (see Daniell); another view is that it was Thomas More, by this time himself disgraced and facing his own eventual execution (for this view, see Moynahan). At any rate, Tyndale was imprisoned for 18 months in the dank Vilvorde castle near Brussells. In the meantime the balance of power in England had shifted toward Protestantism, and Thomas Cromwell commissioned an emissary to seek Tyndale's release, to no avail. He was examined for charges of heresy and convicted by the religious authorities, having refused the offer of representation, and committed to the secular authorities for punishment. He was strangled and burned at the stake on October 6, 1536. According to Foxe's account, his final words were, ""Lord! open the king of England's eyes."

Note: This post is adapted from a talk I gave in 2012 at a conference on the King James Bible hosted by The Massachusetts Center for Interdisciplinary Renaissance Studies, at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. You can learn more about this superb organization here.

Works Cited:

Daniell, David. William Tyndale: A Biography (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994).

Foxe, John. Foxe's Book of Martyrs: A History of the Lives, Sufferings and Triumphant Deaths of the Early Christian and the Protestant Martyrs (

Moynahan, Brian. God's Bestseller: William Tyndale, Thomas More, and the Writing of the English Bible: A Story of Martyrdom and Betrayal (St. Martin's Press, 2003).

"William Tyndale — A Lasting Influence" (



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