The Lord Gave the Word – Commemorating the 400th Anniversary of the King James Version (4) William Tyndale’s Establishment of the English Bible Text (1)


Although the Protestant Reformed Churches have their theological and ecclesiastical roots in the rich loam soil of the Dutch Reformed tradition, we form a part of Christ’s English-speaking church. It is in that tongue that we must needs have our heavenly Father speak to us.

That being said, all who are able and willing must learn Dutch as well!

To have the Lord speak to us in English is vital to our souls! Is it not? In order that we might have covenant fellowship with our covenant Father, we must understand him when he utters his voice. God must not only speak in language which our stupidity can comprehend, but in a language which our minds might understand and our hearts apprehend. God gave his Word to the prophets and apostles in Hebrew and Greek. Those languages most of our people do not understand. We must have God’s Word in English! So our Father, ever mindful of our weakness, has bestowed upon us the King James Version (KJV), whose 400th anniversary we commemorate this year. But the father of the KJV was not King James I of England. Nor was it John Wycliffe, “the morning star,” who began the process of translating Holy Writ into English. The father of the English Bible and of its culmination in the KJV of 1611 was William Tyndale, among the greatest of the English Reformers, brilliant linguist and scholar, and martyr for the faith of Jesus.

“To Establish the Lay-People in the Truth”

William Tyndale was born in the early 1490s in the region of Gloucestershire, England to parents who had prospered through farming. The Lollard legacy of John Wycliffe—“Wycliffe’s dust” of the poem given in the last article—still prevailed in those days, even as the land lay under the ban of Archbishop Arundel’s “Constitutions of Oxford,” forbidding any translation of Scripture or parts of Scripture into the English tongue and outlawing any reading of the Wycliffite Bible. And these were no idle prohibitions! Men caught distributing Wycliffite Bibles or any other of Wycliffe’s writings burned at the stake, along with their books. Parents who taught their children the Lord’s Prayer in English perished in the flames. An elderly noblewoman and her maid were arrested and imprisoned for reading a copy of the Scriptures in English. And even a bishop of the city of Chichester, Dr. Reginald Pecock, was accused of heresy, imprisoned, and forced to give up his office for seeking to better understand the beliefs of the Lollards (the more effectively to refute them!), and then using citations from the English Bible—and not the Latin Vulgate—to argue against them. Truly, the darkness of the pre-Wycliffe centuries had again descended upon England!

Nevertheless, I use the word “prevailed” deliberately to describe the continuance of Lollardy because, despite all the huffing and puffing of Romish authorities, the light of the true gospel lit by Wycliffe continued to burn. Tyndale doubtless had some contact with the doctrines and Bible of Wycliffe in his early years. This contact planted the seed in his heart that would eventually come to maturity in Tyndale’s own shining work of bringing the Bible into English straight from the Hebrew and Greek. But the time for this seed to flower was not yet. God first brought him to the lion’s mouth, as it were, so that he might see how desperately the church in his mother country needed God’s Word in its own language. Like John Wycliffe, Tyndale entered Oxford University in his mid-teens, studied theology, and became an ordained priest in the Roman Catholic Church. And, again like Wycliffe, he saw at Oxford the apostate, superstitious, and ignorant nature of the Romish Church rise before him in all its hideous infamy.

In 1515, Tyndale transferred to Cambridge University for the primary reason that he wanted to read Scripture in one of its original languages. The great Dutch scholar, Desidarius Erasmus, was in the midst of a stint of lecturing and studying at Cambridge. Erasmus had pored over the best of the Greek manuscripts of the Holy Scriptures which fugitive monks from the Byzantine Empire had carried westward as they fled the Muslim conquest of the great eastern city of Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul, Turkey) in 1453. He used these Greek texts as the basis of his own, more accurate Latin translation of the Bible, and published this new Latin translation and the Greek text that was its basis in one volume at Cambridge in 1516. Erasmus entitled this book the Novum Instrumentum, or, in English, The New Utensil. His desire was that the Greek text would be the “new utensil” used for more accurate translation of Holy Writ, not only into Latin, but into all the tongues of Europe and beyond. Wrote Erasmus in his preface to the Novum Instrumentum:

I totally dissent from those who are unwilling that the Sacred Scriptures, translated into the vulgar [common] tongue, should be read by private individuals…and I wish that [the Sacred Scriptures] were translated into all languages of all peoples, that they might be used and known, not merely by the Scotch and Irish, but also by the Turks and Saracens. I wish that the husbandman may sing parts of them at his plough; that the weaver may warble them at his shuttle; that the traveler may with their narratives beguile the weariness of the way.[1]

Sometime while he was at Cambridge, Tyndale converted from Romanism to the faith of the Reformation. Luther’s powerful tracts against the false doctrine—at the root of which was that damnable, God-dishonoring, and Christ-blaspheming heresy of salvation by grace and works, or Semi-Pelagianism—and corruption of life in Romish Church were smuggled into England and read by Tyndale. No doubt these included Luther’s “Address to the German Nobility” and “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church” (both published in 1520). In these two blasts, Luther argued that if the people were to be established in the true faith and freed from the superstitions, idolatries, and horrors of Rome, they must have, after preaching of the pure gospel and the right administration of the two sacraments, the Holy Scriptures in their own tongue. Luther himself supplied this need for his countrymen with a German translation of the New Testament (1522), then the Old (1523). “To be occupied with God’s Word,” declared Luther, “helps against the world, the flesh, and the Devil, and all bad thoughts. This is the true holy water with which to exorcise the Devil.”[2]

Tyndale’s convictions that such a vernacular translation was also needed for England, and his desire to fulfill that need were sharpened through controversy. In 1521, he accepted a position as tutor, chaplain, and sometimes preacher at the household of Sir John Walsh at Little Sudbury Manor. Sir John was a prominent man in society and in the government of King Henry VIII, and Romish clergymen, hungry for good reputation among men and greedy for belly-cheer, frequented his rich table. Tyndale was also often at table by virtue of his high position in the household and there, to the amusement and admiration of Sir John Walsh and the confounding of the clerics, he exposed the shameful ignorance of these pretended ministers of Christ. Perhaps with the lyrical preface of Erasmus ringing in his memory, Tyndale sharply stopped the mouth of one cleric who declared that England “had better be without God’s laws than [without] the pope’s” in this way: “I defy the pope and all his laws! If God spare my life, ere many years pass, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scriptures than thou dost!”[3]

From that day forth, Tyndale set out to render the Bible into English. Not as Wycliffe and his associates had done—from the Latin Vulgate—but from the Scriptures’ original languages: Hebrew and Greek. He would later write: “I perceived that it was impossible to establish the lay-people in the truth, except the Scripture were plainly laid before them in their mother tongue, that they might see the process, order, and meaning of the text.”[4] And thus Tyndale’s toil for the English text of the Bible began in earnest.

The Beginning of Tyndale’s Toil

The “Constitutions of Oxford” did provide one avenue—and one avenue only—through which a vernacular text of the Bible might be made, the only avenue through which everything from Bible translation to new taxation laws had had to pass for centuries: approval by the Romish Church hierarchy. The translator’s endeavor and text needed the approval of a bishop. Tyndale well knew of this provision and so in 1523 left the household of Sir John Walsh, reluctant indeed as he was to leave and they to see him depart, and journeyed to London to acquire the permission of the most powerful cleric in the English Church after the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of London. Oversight of the flock of England’s capital city was at this time the responsibility of Cuthbert Tunstall. Tunstall was a scholar in his own right, a friend of Erasmus, and “in favor of cautious church reform.”[5]

If we had given this description of Bishop Tunstall to Tyndale as he made his way to London, we would have emphasized the word “cautious.” For Cuthbert Tunstall had recently returned from a diplomatic assignment to Germany on behalf of Henry VIII and there he had witnessed, to his shock and alarm, the wild-fire-like spread of the Reformation doctrines of Luther. No doubt, the discerning Tunstall pegged as the primary cause for the rapid dissemination of Lutheranism, after preaching, Luther’s newly-published German translation of the Bible. Therefore, when Tyndale, awkward and uncomfortable in the presence of so high a churchman as the Bishop of London, but nevertheless clear and zealous in this proposals, arrived at Tunstall’s palace and requested permission to make an English translation of the Bible, to do for England what Luther had done for Germany, Tunstall denied Tyndale permission, refused him a place in his house, and warned him to be “cautious” in his actions. In this action of Tunstall, powerful as he was in the English Church, we might see the church “shaking off the dust of its feet” at Tyndale, that is, rejecting him as an outcast and an enemy. Indeed, Tunstall would later show himself Tyndale’s bitterest foe.

But if the Church of England (which was not yet the true “Anglican” church it would become after Tyndale’s death) shook the dust off its collective feet at Tyndale, God gave Tyndale wider attention among the lay people, whom he so desired to “establish in the truth.” Tyndale was not silent while he was in London, either before or after his audience with Tunstall. As often as he was able, he preached at the Church of St. Dunstan-in-the-West, a place near to St. Paul’s Cathedral in the heart of London. And God used his preaching to bring Tyndale to the recognition of Lord Humphrey Monmouth. Monmouth was not only a powerful merchant and a member of London’s city council, he was also deeply involved in and committed to the spread of Lutheranism in England. His fleet of merchant ships carried concealed in their cargoes of wool and grain hundreds of copies of Luther’s works, which he caused to be disseminated as widely,and secretively, as possible—and with considerable success, under the blessing of God. Lord Monmouth offered Tyndale money and rooms in his London mansion in which to study, and if possible, to begin the work of translating the Bible into English. From Monmouth’s residence, Tyndale “was able to observe the activities of political prelates and fashionable preachers, as well as the secret meetings of Lollards and Lutherans.”[6] The judgment which he passed on this woeful scene was damning, and, for Tyndale, decisive for showing him the path he must go. Said Tyndale:

I marked the course of the world, and heard our praters (I would say our preachers), how they boasted themselves and their high authority; and beheld the pomp of our prelates, and how busy they were, as they yet are, to set peace and unity in the world (though it be not possible for them that walk in darkness to continue long in peace, for they cannot either but stumble or clash themselves at one thing or another that shall unquiet all together), …and understood at the last not only that there was no room at my lord of London’s palace [Monmouth’s residence] to translate the New Testament, but also that there was no place to do it in all England…[7]

“No place to do it in all England.” Thus submitting to this observation, given him of Jehovah, Tyndale gave his thanks and bade farewell to Lord Monmouth and to his homeland and set sail in 1524, to carry out his work of translating God’s Word into English outside of the nation which he was seeking to “establish in the truth.” He would never return.