Sunday, 29 November -0001 19:00

William Tyndale: The Apostle to England, 1490?-1536 (2)

Written by Rev. Laurens Roth
Tyndale Heads for the Continent
When Tyndale left England and sailed for Germany he was poor in material things. Yet he would soon be sending the Word of Life to his native country. The words beneath his portrait in Hereford College, Oxford, aptly describe his courage and purpose: That light, o'er all thy darkness, Rome, In triumph might arise, An exile freely I become, Freely a sacrifice.

Tyndale arrived in Hamburg, Germany in 1524, almost three years after Luther's German translation of the New Testament had come off the press. Initially, 5,000 copies had been printed which were sold in two months and during the next 14 years another 250,000 copies of his work were distributed. However, these German copies were of no use to England.

By the late spring, Tyndale had moved to Wittenberg to find a printer. Although there is no record of the two Reformers meeting here, historians believe it would have been incredible for them not to meet each other. We may be certain that the Englishman's whereabouts had to be kept in strictest confidence since he did not have the protection of Elector, Frederick the Wise, as Luther did.

In the spring of 1525, the printing of the first 3,000 New Testaments in English began in the city of Cologne. It consisted of quartos with a prologue with some marginal notes and references. But in the midst of printing, the printer was stopped by the senate of Cologne. The enemies of reform had discovered the printing. Tyndale escaped to the town of Worms with his manuscripts and all the pages printed thus far.

By March of 1526, two English editions of the New Testament were headed for England, stowed among goods from the European continent. Tyndale was very happy that his mission had been accomplished. He knew that the unction of the Holy Spirit alone could enable the people of England to understand these sacred words. While his prayers followed God's Word, he is supposed to have spoken the following words:

The scribes and the Pharisees had thrust up the sword of the Word
of God in a scabbard or a sheath of glosses, and therein they
have knit it so fast, that it could neither pierce nor cut. Now O
God, draw this sharp sword from the scabbard. Strike, wound, cut
asunder the soul and the flesh, so that man being divided in two,
and set at variance with himself, may be in peace with Thee to
all eternity!

The Word of God, which in 1516 had been presented to scholars by Erasmus, now in 1526 was passed on to the ordinary people of England by Tyndale. And so the word of God was spread to parsonages and monastic cells; but particularly in shops and cottages, where crowds of people were studying the New Testament.

Undoubtedly, the perspicuity (clearness) of the Scriptures themselves enabled the readers to profit from them by the operation of the Holy Spirit. However, Tyndale's marginal notes and prologue also did much to avoid possible misunderstandings. For example, in seeking to clarify what a "New Testament" actually is, Tyndale remarked in his prologue that Christ commanded His disciples before His death to publish all over the world His last will, which is to give all His goods unto all that repent and believe. He bequeaths to them His righteousness to blot out their sins, His salvation to overcome their condemnation. That is why this document is called the Testament of Jesus Christ. In a marginal note concerning the difference between Law and Gospel, the Reformer wrote these words: ÒThey are two keys; the law is the key which shuts up men to condemnation, while the Gospel is the key which opens the door and lets them out. Or, if you like, they are two salves [or ointments]. The law, sharp and biting, driveth out the disease and killeth it; while the Gospel, soothing and soft, softens the wound and brings life.Ó

By 1529 Tyndale was busy translating the first five Books of Moses of the Old Testament in Marburg, Germany. The following year, the first installment was printed and sent into circulation. In his address to his fellow countrymen in his prologue to Genesis, Tyndale wrote the following: ÒAs thou readest, think that every syllable pertaineth to thine own self, and suck out the pith of the Scripture.Ó Tyndale wrote the following remarks about the book of Leviticus: ÒThe ceremonies of the Law stood the Israelites in the same stead as the sacraments do us. We are not saved by the power of the sacrifice or the deed itself, but by virtue of faith in the promise, whereof the sacrifice or ceremony was a token or a sign.Ó

However, the man who dared to address England in language which was contrary to the teaching of the Middle Ages and the established church, must be put to death. These were the sentiments of Chancellor Wolsey and Henry VIII. A man by the name of John West was sent to Antwerp to find their dreaded enemy. He was unable to ascertain Tyndale's whereabouts, although he passed through Marburg quite often as he went from Cologne to Frankfort.

The Last Years of Tyndale's Life
Tyndale spent approximately the last five years of his life in Antwerp where he made a complete revision of his New Testament. Corrections and word changes were made to improve the sense of the text. In 90% of the cases, this 1534 edition was apparently the same as the 1611 version, which would be authorized by King James. This is evidence of how meticulous and scholarly Tyndale's work was. By 1536, only ten years after Tyndale had seen his first New Testament go to the press in Worms, the whole New Testament was printed in England. Times were changing. Henry VIII was freeing himself from Rome for the sake of political expediency, but it was then that the blow fell upon Tyndale's life.

Tyndale's Death
King Henry's marriage to Anne Boleyn was favourable to the cause of reform at first because the new queen was very open to the teaching of God's Word. Later, however, it brought about adverse circumstances. King Henry was determined to have the supreme power over the ecclesiastical affairs of his kingdom, thereby also increasing his personal wealth. While Henry VIII sought to stem the cause of reform by imprisoning those sympathetic to this new religion, his new wife sought to support the Reformers who had been forced to live in hiding. But the queen was beheaded In May of 1536, the same year that Tyndale died a martyr's death. But Tyndale's imprisonment and subsequent death were not due to the king or the queen's actions.

Although Henry VIII's design was to cut off the English churches from Roman hierarchy, he cannot be regarded as a friend of the Reformation. The Roman Catholic Church also began to see the damage, which the call to reform in England was doing to their cause. If they could stem the flow of writings into England, they would be in a better position to retain control of the churches. Bishop Gardiner of Winchester and his allies resumed the search for Tyndale with the purpose of silencing him forever. Without going into a lot of detail concerning this plot, we simply record here that two men were hired. The leading one, Phillips, gained Tyndale's confidence by posing as an advocate of reform; but as Judas turned against Christ, this man and his accomplice had the Reformer arrested.

Tyndale was imprisoned in castle Vilvorde, north of Brussels, where for one year and 135 days he was forced to live in a damp dungeon cell with hardly enough to live. Representatives of the Church of Rome tried to get him to recant, but God's servant remained faithful, suffering martyrdom on October 6, 1536 by strangulation at the stake. Immediately after his death, his body was burned. The last words Tyndale is said to have uttered while on the scaffold were: ÒLord, open the King of England's eyes!Ó

The Significance of Tyndale's Life
Although William Tyndale is not widely known for his writings, as Luther and Calvin were, nevertheless he earned the designation of Òthe Apostle to England.Ó It was not due so much to his preaching, but that God used him as an instrument to bring the Holy Scriptures to the common people. We cannot fathom the significance of this great blessing, for it is the Word of God, alone which is able to make man wise unto salvation. ÒSearch the Scriptures,Ó the Lord Jesus said, Òfor they testify of me.Ó

It is remarkable that two notable events occurred during the year of Tyndale's death. A complete Bible was published in the English language using Tyndale's 1534 edition of the New Testament as well as all that he had translated of the Old Testament--the Pentateuch to the end of First Chronicles. Very remarkably, Henry VIII endorsed this Bible in 1538 to be published and circulated throughout his realm. Truly, the saying of Proverbs 21:1 applies: ÒThe king's heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water; He turneth it whithersoever He will.Ó Moreover, Tyndale's final prayer was answered when King Henry actually endorsed the printing of God's Word.

In the second place, while one brightly burning emblem of God's grace was dying, another was being raised up about 400 miles to the south in the person of John Calvin, who in that year issued his first edition of The Institutes of the Christian Religion. We see that the King of the Church rules and that ChristÕs promise is true: ÒI will build My Church and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.Ó May we too, be or become living members of that Church.

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