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Reformation Sunday: a Note Concerning William Tyndale


 2nd Timothy 2:9; 3:10-17       Deuteronomy 6:1-9     Psalm 19:7-10     Mark 12:18 -27


I: — We read scripture in church every Sunday. We don’t read McClean’s magazine or Chatelaine. Why not? Instead of scripture why don’t we read something that everyone finds edifying, something from Reader’s Digest or Good Housekeeping or even a story of courage and persistence from Sports Illustrated? Why don’t we?

Let’s think about something else. There are biblical expressions that are so very familiar to us that we know them as well as we know our own name. What’s more, they are all written in simple words, chiefly one or two syllables only. “My sin is more than I can bear.” (Eight words, one syllable each.)   “Blessed are the peacemakers.” “I will arise and go to my father.” “Freely have ye received; freely give.” “O ye of little faith.” Who wrote all these expressions? How did they come to be embedded in our bloodstream? For how long have they been current in everyday English?


II: — William Tyndale wasn’t someone who made trouble for the sake of making trouble. Neither did he have a personality as prickly as a porcupine. Neither did he relish controversy, confrontation and strife. As much as he wanted to avoid hostility and live at peace he couldn’t. At some point he became embroiled with many of England ’s “Who’s Who” of the Sixteenth Century. Anne Boleyn, one of Henry VIII’s many wives, flaunted her promiscuity – and Tyndale called her on it. Thomas Wolsey, cardinal of the church and sworn to celibacy, fathered at least two illegitimate children – and drew Tyndale’s fire. Thomas More, known to us through the play about him, A Man for All Seasons, advanced arguments that Tyndale believed to contradict the kingdom of God and imperil the salvation of men and women – and Tyndale rebutted him.

William Tyndale graduated from Oxford University in 1515, and then moved over to Cambridge to pursue graduate studies, Cambridge at that time being a hotbed of Lutheran theology and Reformation ferment. As he was seized by the truth and power of that gospel which scripture uniquely attests, Tyndale became aware of his vocation: God was calling him to be a translator. He was to put into common English a translation of the bible that the public could read readily and profit from profoundly. Such a translation was needed desperately, for England was sunk in the most abysmal ignorance of scripture, and deprived therefore of the faith and obedience and comfort that the gospel alone supplies. The clergy were ignorant too. Worse, the clergy didn’t care. Tyndale vowed that if his life were spared he would see that a farmhand knew more scripture than did a contemptuous clergyman.

The church, however, didn’t agree with him. The church’s hierarchy had banned any translation of scripture into the English tongue in hope of prolonging the ignorance of the people and thereby prolonging the church’s tyranny over them. Tyndale wanted only a quiet, safe corner of England where he could begin his work. There was no such corner. He would have to leave the country. In 1524 he sailed for Germany . He would never see England again.

Soon his translation of the New Testament was underway in Hamburg . A sympathetic printer in Cologne printed the pages as fast as he could decipher Tyndale’s handwriting. Ecclesiastical spies were everywhere, however, and in no time the printing press was raided. Tipped off ahead of time, Tyndale escaped with what he could carry.

Next stop was Worms , the German city where Luther had debated vigorously only four years earlier and where the German Reformer had confessed, “Here I stand, I can do nothing else. God help me.” In Worms Tyndale managed to complete his New Testament translation. Six thousand copies were printed. Only two have survived, since English bishops confiscated them as fast as copies were ferreted back into England . In 1526 the bishop of London piled up the copies he had accumulated and burnt them all, the bonfire adding point to the bishop’s sermon in which he had slandered Tyndale.

Worms was too dangerous a place in which to work, and in 1534 Tyndale moved to Antwerp , where English merchants living in the Belgian city told him they would protect him. (By now he had virtually completed his translation of the entire bible.) Then in May 1535 a young Englishman in Antwerp who needed large sums of money to pay off huge gambling debts betrayed Tyndale to Belgian authorities. Immediately Tyndale was jailed in a prison modelled after the infamous Bastille of Paris. The cell remained damp, dark and cold throughout the Belgian winter. Tyndale had been in prison for eighteen months already when his trial began.

The long list of charges was read out. The first two charges – one, he had maintained that sinners are justified or set right with God by faith; and two, to embrace in faith the mercy offered in the gospel was sufficient for salvation – these two charges alone indicate how blind and bitter his anti-gospel enemies were.

In August 1536 he was found guilty and condemned as a heretic. Labelling him “heretic” was an attempt at humiliating him publicly and breaking him psychologically. But he didn’t break. Whereupon he was assigned another two months in prison. Then he was taken to a public square and asked to recant. So far from recanting he cried out, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.” Immediately the executioner strangled him and ignited the firewood at his feet.

Tyndale’s work, however, couldn’t be choked off and burnt up. His work thrived. Eventually the King of England approved Tyndale’s translation, and by 1539 every parish church in England was required to have a copy on hand for parishioners to read.

Tyndale’s translation underlies the King James Version of the bible. Its importance in English-speaking lands can’t be exaggerated. A gospel-outlook came to permeate the British nation, its people, its policies, and its literature. Indeed, the King James Version is precisely what Northrop Frye labelled “The Great Code,” the great code being the key to unlocking the treasures of English literature. Without a knowledge of the bible, Frye insisted, the would-be student of English literature doesn’t even begin. More importantly, however, the translation of the bible into the English tongue became the means whereby the gospel took hold of millions.

Tyndale’s promise – “If I am spared I shall see that the common person knows more of God’s Word, God’s Truth and God’s Way than a contemptuous clergy” – was fulfilled. In the history of the English-speaking peoples Tyndale’s work is without peer.


II: — Why did Tyndale do it? Was he a ranting bible-thumper akin to the “thumpers” who turn you off as readily as they do me? He was nothing like this. Did he believe something bizarre about the bible, akin to what Joseph Smith claimed for the original gold plates of the Book of Mormon? Joseph Smith, the father of Mormonism, maintained that he was sitting under a tree when there fell at his feet the gold plates inscribed with the Book of Mormon. Tyndale believed nothing like this about scripture.

Then why was he willing to sacrifice himself for the book? Because he knew two things: one, he knew that intimate acquaintance with Jesus Christ matters above everything else; two, he knew that scripture is essential to our gaining such intimacy with our Lord.   Concerning Tyndale himself there was nothing fanatical, silly or unbalanced.


And so scripture is read in church every Sunday, and Christians have traditionally read it every day. To be sure Christians don’t read scripture and nothing else. (This would be fanaticism.) We do read much else with profit. Yet however edifying other books may be they don’t supplant scripture. Why not? Because scripture remains the normative witness to God’s presence and God’s work. “Normative” means “the standard,” “the measure,” “the yardstick,” “the benchmark.” “Normative” means first in importance and the measure of everything else that claims to be important.

If scripture is this, if scripture is normative and the measure of everything in Christian faith and conduct, then how does scripture work? How does it function?


In your mind’s eye, in your imagination, I want you go back to the days of our Lord’s earthly ministry. I want you to think of yourself as one more ordinary man or woman living in Palestine in the year 30. There’s nothing unusual or extraordinary or peculiar about you at all. You’ve heard about this fellow Jesus of Nazareth. You’ve heard that he’s attracting crowds wherever he goes. You’ve heard that he just might be worth hearing. The next time he’s in your village you decide to show up. Now you are one more curious bystander, one of dozens in a crowd, listening to the young man from Nazareth as he speaks to any and all who will hear him.

At first he strikes you as merely one more itinerant preacher, and you’ve already heard lots of them since Palestine has all sorts of them. Still, as you continue listening to him you find that his teaching seems better than most. It strikes a chord within you. It has the “ring of truth” about it. Little by little your scepticism evaporates. While you don’t say anything out loud (only hecklers do this) you do find yourself silently saying “Yes” to yourself. “Yes, he’s right. Yes, I never thought of that before. Yes, what he says is true.” No one is twisting your arm in all this; you are inwardly constrained to say “yes” at the same time as you own it freely.

Then something more happens. Up to this point you’ve blended safely into the crowd, hearing what everyone else is hearing and remaining anonymous like everyone else. Suddenly the Nazarene looks right at you. At first you glance around you and behind you, thinking he’s looking at you by mistake. But no, he’s looking right at you. At the same time he speaks to you. Specifically, he invites you to become his follower. Many people have become followers already. You know this, even though you went to hear him not ready to be a follower yourself. But now he’s asking you. For reasons that you’ll never get anyone else to understand because you can’t fully understand them yourself, you step out from the crowd and step into his company as you join yourself to those who are followers already. A few people look at you quizzically? So what. One or two snicker? You don’t even hear them. All you know is that you are now persuaded of one matter: life in the company of Jesus Christ promises to be better than life not in his company.

Day by day your life now unfolds in Christ’s company. As it does you gain more than you ever imagined. You gain iron-fast assurance concerning him, but also iron-fast assurance concerning his words, his promises, his way, his Spirit. He calls more people into his company; the band swells of those who are possessed of like conviction, like experience, like contentment.


After Jesus is put to death and then raised from the dead none of this is lost. The ascension of our Lord doesn’t mean that those who knew him so very intimately are now left with aching emptiness and devastating disillusionment. On the contrary those who kept company with him in the days of his earthly ministry still do. To say he’s ascended isn’t to say he’s gone missing, absent now. To say he’s ascended is to say he’s now available to everyone, available on a scale that wasn’t possible in the days when he couldn’t be found in Bethany if he happened to be in Jerusalem.

Nevertheless there is one crucial difference in the manner in which Jesus Christ is known following his ascension. In the days of his earthly ministry Jesus spoke for himself. Following his resurrection and ascension, however, Christian spokespersons preach in his name, always and everywhere pointing to him. They are not he, and they don’t pretend to be he. These spokespersons are never to be confused with their Lord. They merely point to him. They are witnesses.

And then something wonderful happens. As these spokespersons point to him, bear witness to him, God owns their witness and his Spirit invigorates it. As God honours the witness borne to his Son, Jesus Christ ceases to be merely someone pointed to. As he is pointed to he himself comes forth; he looms up and speaks, calls, convinces, commissions exactly as he did in the days of his flesh. As God the Father honours the human witness borne to the Son, Jesus Christ ceases to be merely someone spoken about. Now he becomes the speaking, acting, compelling one himself.

At this point people in Rome and Corinth and Ephesus, people who had no chance of meeting Jesus in the days of his earthly ministry simply because he never travelled to those cities; these people now meet him and know him and love him and walk his way with him as surely as did those who saw him in Bethany and Jerusalem years earlier.

Let me repeat. The apostles are not our Lord. The apostles are spokespersons for our Lord who point to him. They don’t point to themselves. Like John the Baptist they point away from themselves to him. They are witnesses. And by the mysterious yet real work of God their witness to him becomes the means whereby he imparts himself afresh. Those who have been listening to the apostles, mulling over what Peter, James and John have to say, are startled as they realize that the one about whom Peter, James and John have been speaking; this one is now in their midst, is speaking to them himself. Suddenly they know themselves invited, summoned even, to the same intimacy and obedience, comfort and contentment that Peter, James and John have known for years. In other words, the distinction between hearing about Jesus Christ and meeting him; this distinction has fallen away. For this reason Jesus announces, “Whoever hears the apostles hears me; and whoever rejects them rejects me.” (Luke 10:16)

But of course apostles don’t live forever. As it becomes obvious that history will continue to unfold after the apostles have breathed their last breath, their testimony is written down. Written now, it is treasured. Their testimony written will henceforth function in exactly the same way as it used to function spoken. In other words, as the apostolic testimony written is owned and invigorated by God, people today who read it for themselves or hear it expounded in church find themselves acquainted with the selfsame Jesus Christ.

The bible isn’t a book of biology or astronomy. It is the testimony, the witness, of prophets and apostles to Jesus Christ. Christ is a person; the bible is a book, a thing. Person and thing are categorically distinct. At the same time, while knowledge of the book and intimate acquaintance with the person of Christ are distinct, they can never be separated. Perhaps at this point we should introduce, on Reformation Sunday, our old friend Martin Luther. Luther used to say, “Scripture is the manger in which the Christ child is laid.” On the one hand, nobody confuses a manger of straw with a human being. On the other hand, said wise old Martin, if you want to apprehend the child you have to go to the manger, since the manger happens to be the only place where this child can be found.

The manger is made of straw; unimpressive. The manger is untidy and may even be somewhat smelly. But the child it holds is the one who will go to hell and back for us and therefore the one to whom we must cling in life and in death. Plainly, to disdain the manger is to forfeit the child. To ignore scripture is to pass up intimate acquaintance with our Lord Jesus Christ.


Towards the end of his life the apostle Paul wrote young Timothy, hoping to encourage him in the work of the ministry. He reminded Timothy of what Timothy knew already; namely, Paul was in prison on account of the gospel. “I’m chained like a criminal,” wrote Paul, “but the word of God isn’t chained.”

Indeed it isn’t. Tyndale may have been imprisoned, strangled, and burnt. But the word of God can’t be confined or choked lifeless or burnt to ashes. It remains free, unfettered.

The shape of English life subsequent to Tyndale is unimaginable without his English translation of the bible. More important, our life in Christ – yours and mine – is impossible without scripture, for this book, the normative witness to Jesus Christ, ever remains the manger in which child is laid.


                                                                                            Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                                                         
Reformation Sunday 2004