From Heretic to Hero
For those of you who are old enough to remember who he was, I’d like to begin this morning by quoting the Oklahoma cowboy philosopher, Will Rogers. Among all sorts of other commonsense quips there was this one: “We can’t all be heroes because someone has to sit on the curb and clap as they go by.” When somebody wrote the closing chapters of a New Testament book called Hebrews , he invited us to sit on the curb while he marched past us a whole platoon of heroes — all examples of what it means to show extraordinary courage in being loyal to what we believe, in spite of suffering or even death.
If he were still compiling his list, the author of that biblical book would surely have included the man I wish to honor this morning — a man to whom everyone who reads the Bible owes an incalculable debt. His name was William Tyndale and he was born half a millenium ago in Cloucestershire, England, in a small village where the Cotswold hills slope down to the valley of the Severn river. About 3 years ago his life was celebrated in England on the 500th anniversary of his birth, and again in Wash-ington, D. C. at the Library of Congress, but it was not the kind of festival to attract popular interest so not many of us knew anything about it. I still believe in heroes and the inspiration they can give, so this morning I present the life of a great man who gave us a gift most of us simply take for granted.
William Tyndale was lucky enough to be born into a good family that was eager and able to give him an excellent education. Already proficient in Latin when he entered Oxford’s Magdalen College, he graduated at 18 (about the time most of us finish high school), and he completed a Master’s degree in philosophy three years later. I feel a little extra closeness to Tyndale because of all the Oxford colleges Magdalen has been my favorite ever since the two years I lived in that wonderful city and hung around Magdalen more than any of the others. It’s a beautiful place on the banks of the Cherwell, with the punting boats moored by the bridge, the lovely meadows close by, and the exquisite bell tower that was finished just before Tyndale arrived there 500 years ago.
Where one goes to school can be tremendously important, and in Tyndale’s time Magdalen College was the leading English center for what was called the “new learning,” spreading across Europe from northern Italy and based on the importance of knowing the best of Latin and Greek literature. A great faculty had gathered at Magdalen: William Grocyn to teach excellent Greek, John Colet to share his vast knowledge of the epistles of Paul — men of such stature that even the greatest scholar of his time, Erasmus, came for a while to be around them. Our young William Tyndale was being prepared for one of the greatest contributions ever made to the English-speaking world.
According to our chief source of information about Tyndale, he went on to Cambridge when he left Oxford. There is no other record of that residence but it seems likely enough. Erasmus had been there teaching Greek, and the university was becoming known as a center of interest in the revolutionary ideas of Martin Luther. Within just a few years the ideas that led to Congregationalism would be coming out of that university. His biography is sketchy, but at some point Tyndale was ordained to priesthood in the Roman Catholic Church and came back to his old neighborhood in Gloucestershire to tutor the children of a distinguished family, a job that gave him time to study and to become known as one of the most brilliant preachers around.
Sir John Walsh, head of the great manor house where Tyndale tutored the Walsh children, liked to have church dignitaries come for a visit and long talks. But his religious ideas were quite liberal for the time and the heated discussions about church reform prompted Tyndale to go back of the Latin Bible everybody used and begin to study the New Testament in its original Greek language — an eye-opening experience that convinced him the church he was serving at the time had drifted a long way from first century Christian theology and practice. Erasmus had already argued in one of his books that the Bible should be made available to all people in their native languages but the church was vehemently opposed, arguing that only a priesthood trained in Latin could be safely trusted to interpret Scripture properly. I don’t want to go by this too quickly. Please take a moment to think what it was like in those days when if you did not know Latin (and most people didn’t) the Bible was a closed book.
We don’t know the exact moment when Tyndale realized it was his mission in life to translate the Bible into English from Greek and Hebrew, and print it in a book anyone could own and understand, but once he made that dangerous decision he began immediately to be in serious trouble. He became more and more confrontational as his church put pressure on him to give up the idea. One day when a certain learned man warned him against disobeying the church’s ban on Bibles in the vernacular, Tyndale responded defiantly that if God spared his life, he would soon make it possible for a farmboy to know more scripture than many of the princes of the church.
Tyndale soon realized that he could best work on an English version in London, but he needed to be licensed by a high church official so he went to Bishop Tunstall of London, who prompty snubbed him. Tyndale stuck around the city for a year, studying, listening to sermons, preaching himself on Fleet Street, until he met a rich merchant named Monmouth, who became a supporter. By this time Tyndale knew there was no place in England to do his work, so with money from Monmouth he sailed for Germany. Some say he went straight to Wittenberg to be with the arch-heretic Martin Luther. Wittenberg, after all, had the finest of Europe’s Greek and Hebrew scholars, and Luther felt that the German people should have a New Testament in their own tongue and not in the Latin that only priests could read.
Luther’s ideas, of course, were anathema back in England, where Lutheranism was seen as subversive, bound to cause anarchy, even civil war. The EnglishCardinal, Wolsey, fanned the flames of this fear, and Lutheran books, probably including a copy of Luther’s German Bible, were burned in Cambridge and twice in London. Tyndale probably knew this, but he had worked long and hard on his English New Testament and so he went stubbornly on to Cologne to oversee the printing of his translation. An informant found out what he was doing and got word back to Cardinal Wolsey and the English king, Henry 8th. Someone ordered a raid on the German printing press, but Tyndale managed to escape — just barely — with an assistant and whatever manuscripts they could save.
After Tyndale finished the first printed New Testament in English at Worms, Germany, copies of it were smuggled out in bales of cloth carried in boats down the Rhine and across to English ports. Suddenly, for the first time ever, any literate person could study at home the full teachings of Christ and the apostles — at least until officials from the church came to seize them. Bishop Tunstall, the man who had refused to help Tyndale in London, presided at St. Paul’s cathedral one day as copies of Tyndale’s English Bible were publicly burned. From an original printing of 3000 copies, some say 6000, only one complete copy survives. All the rest were either read to pieces, hidden and lost, or destroyed by the church. The British Library owns that single copy, having bought it from the Bristol Baptisat College three years ago for $l million. If it surprises you that Tyndale’s excellent translation was almost totally destroyed by the church itself, I remind you that when the Revised Standard Version of the Bible was printed in 1952, many churches in the United States held ceremonial burnings, including one I know about in Wichita. This version, now widely accepted, was thrown into a bonfire mainly because when renowned scholars from many denominations translated a single word more accurately they made it a little harder for conservative Christians to support an important item of their faith.
Tyndale got no royalty checks for his labors, no Pulitzer Prize, none of the fame or perks that go with historic achievement. What he got was constant persecution, and as a result he began to write sharply against abuses in the church. You must try to understand the Catholic position at the time: that what Scripture said was secondary in importance to church practice, because that practice had been handed down secretly in an unwritten code from Christ himself. Tyndale was seen as one who supported the view of reformers like Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and others that Scripture came first, a doctrine that threatened the church. Centuries later, the Catholic church would sponsor some of the best of our English translations, but in those turbulent faroff days it was sure a readable Bible in every family would destroy the church. Catholics, I’m sure, are as embarrassed by some things that happened long ago as we Congregationalists are embarrassed about the witch trials we conducted in Salem.
Sir Thomas More, whom we have adored as “the man for all seasons,” was so passionately loyal to his church that he attacked Tyndale with incredible venom, saying the Church could not possibly make even the slightest mistake, and that Tyndale was a “hell-hound in the kennel of the devil” and “a new Judas….worse than Sodom and Gomorrwah” and a man discharging “a filthy foam of blasphemies out of his brutish beastly mouth.” That gives you an idea of Tyndale’s reputation back in England. About this time, an English merchant talked with Tyndale in a field outside Antwerp and sent back Tyndale’s courteous and gentle reponse: “If it would stand with the king’s most gracious pleasure to grant only a bare text of the scripture [no commentary in the margins that might upset the Establishment, just the bare text] to be set forth among his people, like as is put forth among the subjects of the emperor in these parts….I shall immediately make faithful promise never to write more…..”
But Tyndale by now was viewed as a fullblown heretic, and it was not long before a secret agent won his trust and then betrayed him to those who wanted his work of translation to stop. He was put in prison for nearly a year and a half in a dungeon outside Brussels. The only surviving document in his own handwriting is a letter written in Latin from his cold, damp cell as winter approached. Chilled to the bone, he asks for some warmer clothes and then adds this extraordinary sentence: “But most of all, I beg and beseech…..to have the Hebrew Bible, Hebrew grammar and Hebrew dictionary that I may pass the time in study.” What happened within a few more days was that he was put on trial for heresy before powerful theologians, handed over from them to the state, and on the morning of October 6, 1536, before a group of church dignitaries he was ceremonially strangled and then burned. So died a man whobelieved with all his heart that the Bible belonged to everybody, not just a favored few.
You may be thinking right now, “Well, if not Tyndale, then somebody, by and by, would have given us a Bible in English,” and that is true, but Tyndale did something no one else may have had the skills to do. He used the English language, just coming into its own, with extraordinary range and power, and played a critical role in its development. He was so fine a stylist that succeeding English Bibles owed an immense debt to him. Not long ago a Brigham Young University student did a computer analysis of Tyndale’s Bible and the famous King James Version of 1611, and determined that 83% of the King James is “Tyndale exactly.” To put it another way, when we praise the King James as the most eloquent English version ever printed, we are praising William Tyndale who died without ever knowing how great his influence would be.
If I seem to exaggerate the importance of style, let me remind you of the power of certain words. How memorable would it have been if General MacArthur had said “See ya later” instead of that imperial declaration: “I shall return”? Or if Martin Luther King had said, “It occurs to me to hope that in some future time…” instead of the unfrogettable rhetoric of those words sounded over and over like a great bell: “I have a dream that one day….” You see, there is not just one way to say something….and there is not just one way to translate a sentence from Greek or Hebrew into English. William Tyndale was so wondrous a wordsmith in the history of our language that he composed phrases still as familiar to us as our own breath — words of grace and beauty, simplicity and directness. Another man might have said, “Release my people that they may continue on their way.” Tyndale wrote, Let my people go. Still another translator might have had Jesus say, “Make a request, and what you desire shall be granted“; Tyndale wrote, “Ask and it shall be given you.” And the memorable phrases happen not just once. On page after page they come: Am I my brother’s keeper?…..Fight the good fight….O Death, where is thy sting?……..Let not your hearts be troubled …. and the simple perfection ofLet there be light. We have them all, courtesy of William Tyndale.
I hope you can join me this morning in being thankful for the genius of a man whose words still speak so directly to the human heart, and who literally gave his life so we could read them.