By Chip Thornton
William Tyndale was taken to a high platform in public view. Bishops flanked him, robed in their priestly vestments. Anointing oil, symbolically, was scraped from his hands. The Lord’s Supper was placed before him and then quickly removed, tauntingly. Tyndale was wearing priestly vestments. They were stripped away from his body. Finally, he was handed over to the hangman. In his last moments, he cried-out, “Lord! Open the king of England’s eyes.” They strangled him above a pyre of brush. He was burned. Gunpowder had been placed in the brush. His body was mutilated by the explosions. All for what? What was his crime? He translated the NT into the English language.
Tyndale, the Man
William Tyndale was brilliant. He was fluent in 8 languages: Hebrew, Greek, Latin, German, French, Spanish, Italian, and of course, English. He was, first and foremost, a translator, but he was much more than that: A defender of gospel truth, a parser of words, a coiner of terms, a pitcher of phrases, a genius in language, a man of steely conviction. He was God’s English wordsmith. He not only gave us the Bible in our language. He “gave us a Bible language.”
He coined a litany of now-famous phrases:
Let there be light.
Am I my brother’s keeper?
The salt of the earth.
Fight the good fight.
Let not your heart be troubled.
A city that is set on a hill.
As sheep having no shepherd.
Ask and it shall be given.
Twinkling of an eye.
He invented English words never before used: scapegoat, Passover, atonement, etc. His gift for language was magnificent, so much so that 90% of the King James Version Bible comes from Tyndale, directly transposed.
He lived in exile for 12 years while translating the New Testament into English. Copies were smuggled into his England for common people to read for the first time ever. Ultimately, he was betrayed by a spy posing as a friend, held in confinement, and executed savagely. But he gave us something we will cherish to our dying day: He gave us the New Testament in our own language.
Tyndale, the Reformer
Masterful in his gift of human languages, Tyndale used his uparalleled translation abilities to contribute his part to the Protestant Reformation. David Daniell’s extraordinary book, William Tyndale, documents it in detail. Four carefully chosen words, in particular, dealt a crushing blow to the Roman Catholic stronghold on all matters of faith and
ekklesia: Tyndale translated the word as “congregation” rather than “church.”
The Roman Catholic Church had—for centuries–held that ekklesia referred to the church as a hierarchal institution which exalted the priesthood (and the Pope) and reduced common people to lesser status in the Kingdom of God. Tyndale’s term, “congregation,” was intentional. It rightly conveyed the original meaning: that all persons
in God’s Kingdom are equal. That one word crumbled the wall that had been built between
the priesthood and the common people.
presbyter: Tyndale translated the word as “elder” rather than “priest.”
The Roman Catholic Church frowned at this word. They preferred the term, “priest,” in order to uphold the authority of the priesthood over common people. Tyndale rendered it “elder,” which meant a leader of a congregation. He knew that “priest” is a different word in Greek (hiereus). This was another scriptural blow to church tradition. Church tradition granted priests (and the Pope) unscriptural powers and authority.
metanoia: Tyndale translated the word as “repent” rather than “do penance.”
The Roman Catholic Church winced at this as well, since “repent” means: a change of mind resulting in a change of heart. “Do penance” refers to punishments imposed by a priest after confession (sometimes including donations to the church treasury). In this word, Tyndale issued another decisive blow to both (1) the authority of the priests and (2) the church treasury.
agape: Tyndale translated the word as “love” rather than “charity.”
The Roman Catholic Church recoiled at this. “Charity” has a particular meaning of “doing good works.” “Love,” on the other hand, has a meaning of self-sacrifice without expecting anything in return. Tyndale recognized that—wrapped up in the original meaning of this word— was a vast theological difference: The difference between salvation by faith alone in Christ alone (Protestantism) and salvation by our own works (Catholicism).
A man named Thomas More—hired by the Roman Catholic Church—wrote vigorously against Tyndale. Nevertheless, Tyndale had cracked the foundation. Common people began reading the New Testament, for the first time, in their own language . . . and they acted with righteous indignation. They realized they had been kept in darkness, for centuries, from the light of Holy Scripture. A movement swept through England which already was sweeping through Europe: The Protestant Reformation. This reformation spawned denominations we know today as Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Lutherans, and many others who are having an enormous impact on societies all over the world. Tyndale, in God’s sovereign providence, was strangled to death and burned at the stake through a coordinated and orchestrated effort of the Roman Catholic Church and the civil authorities.
All for something simple: An English translation of the New Testament.
Four simple words . . . but four words that changed the world forever.
Oh, yes, remember Tyndale!
Chip Thornton is pastor of FBC Springville in Alabama.