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Roots of the Reformation: William Tyndale

Updated on December 18, 2019
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Barry is the founder and director of Expositors International Ministry and dean of Bible Expositors Seminary, Philippines.

William Tyndale lived from 1494 to 1536. He started his studies in Oxford England at the age of 12 and completed his Master’s degree in 1515. Later he studied at Cambridge where he eventually became a professor of Greek. He spoke several languages and was able to read the Bible in both Hebrew and Greek. In fact, it was while he was reading Erasmus’ Greek New Testament that he became convinced of justification by faith alone. In time, he came to be influenced by other Reformers and their teachings. By 1520, he was already drawing criticism from some in the Roman Catholic Church for his preaching and teachings.

There was a time when Tyndale got into an argument with a Roman Catholic who had defended the Pope. The man said that the church would be better off without the law of God than without the law of the Pope. This infuriated Tyndale, who 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!”

Tyndale believed that the people of England needed to be able to read the Bible for themselves.

“I had perceived by experience, how that it was impossible to stablish the lay people in any truth, except the scripture were plainly laid before their eyes in their mother tongue, that they might see the process, order, and meaning of the text.”~ William Tyndale (Preface to The Pentateuch, 1530)

In 1523, Tyndale came to London to work on an English translation of the Bible. It is important to note that in 1408, the Roman Catholic Church had banned any unauthorized translations of the Bible. This ban was partially in response to the work of Wycliffe. Feeling the pressure of persecution, Tyndale left London. With the help of supporting merchants, he traveled to Worms (now, modern Germany). He continued his work there, while in hiding.

By 1525, portions of his translation were being smuggled back into England. Now Tyndale was a wanted man. In 1530, he wrote an article in opposition to the divorce of Henry VIII. British nobles had written to Pope Clement VII, that same year, requesting that the Pope grant the king a divorce from Queen Catherine. Despite having 6 children, only one daughter survived infancy. It was Henry’s desire for a male heir, or so he claimed, that caused him to break with the Roman Catholic Church and establish the Anglican Church. At the time though, King Henry was furious with Tyndale and all others who criticized him regarding his desire to marry Anne Boleyn.

Feeling the possibility of arrest, Tyndale moved to Antwerp to continue his work. It is unclear who initiated the betrayal of Tyndale, but he was eventually tricked and arrested. Henry Phillips was a convicted criminal who had befriended Tyndale. Tyndale was known to host dinners in his home, where he would read from his English translation. One day, Philips convenience Tyndale to leave his hiding place and to follow him. Tyndale was delivered to soldiers who placed him under arrest for the charge of heresy. He spent 500 days imprisoned before he was strangled and simultaneous burnt at the stake.

Irony

In 1532, Henry VIII secretly married Anne Boleyn. A year later, their marriage was made public. Through a series of decrees, Henry eventually removed himself and England from the Roman Catholic Church. Once a staunch adversary of the Reformation, and with the blood of Tyndale still on his hands, the King became a key figure in the Reformation. The motivations, as well as the theological understanding of Henry VIII, are questionable but he was wise enough to know that he needed allies. An English Bible would cement Henry VIII as a true protestant, bring him recognition from other reformers and gain him the support he needed in England.

The Great Bible

Very little is known about Miles Coverdale. Most historians believe he met Tyndale in 1529 in Hamburg, Germany and had assisted Tyndale in translating parts of the Old Testament. Using Tyndale’s work as the basis, and being influenced by the works of Erasmus, the New Latin Bible of Pagninus, as well as the works of Luther and Zwingli, Coverdale produced The Great Bible. It was the first complete Bible in English and the first English Bible to be published in England.

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