The Serious Life of William Tyndale / Ron Hale

April 10, 2014

by Ron F. Hale


Seriousness is the first step toward a life of significance.  

More and more people can’t get serious because of mind-numbing substance abuse or chasing the silliness of this world. While “having a good time” is a high priority of so many Americans—such soul-shallowness accelerates our moral decay as a principled people.

James Emery White reminds us of a letter written by John Adams to Thomas Jefferson at the sunset of their lives, as Adams reckons, “you and I have lived in serious times.”[1] These men lived serious lives and America is a better nation for their purposefulness.

William Tyndale was a serious soul! As a newly ordained priest, Tyndale expressed his frustration to an older priest at the lack of biblical knowledge among the clergy. The older priest verbally chastised Tyndale’s forthrightness. Tyndale passionately replied, “If God spares my life, before many years pass I will make it possible for a boy behind the plow to know more Scripture than you do.”[2]

Tyndale was serious about translating the Holy Scriptures into the English language; however, he was denied permission for printing an authorized English version. To proceed ahead with his dream would be deemed unlawful. This would be serious business in England as King Henry VIII was in the process of cutting the Roman Catholic cord of papal authority in England and instituting the Anglicana Ecclesia, or the Church of England. In 1534, the Act of Supremacy declared, “The king’s majesty justly and rightly is and ought to be and shall be reputed the only head in earth of the Church of England.”[3]

The pope had once bestowed on Henry the title “Defender of the Faith” as he attacked Luther’s reforms. In his paper entitled “A Defense of the Seven Sacraments,” King Henry called Luther a “poisonous serpent” and a “wolf of hell.”[4] Therefore, Catholic dogma would remain intact under Henry with minor changes.   

While John Wyclif[5] had caused no small stir years before by translating the Latin Bible (Vulgate) into English, Tyndale would use the original languages of Greek and Hebrew to translate Scriptures into the English of the common man. In doing so, important changes like the Latin rendering “do penance” would be changed to “repent” or “repentance.”[6] Tyndale had studied the Greek edition of the New Testament published by Erasmus and discovered the truths of justification by faith and the priesthood of all believers. He realized that the English people were in spiritual darkness, following errors and superstition, because of ignorance of the Scriptures.[7]

After his studies at Oxford and Cambridge, Tyndale fled England to begin work on his unlicensed translation. Avoiding spies and opponents of the Reformation, Tyndale worked in several different cities until he finally printed his New Testament in 1525. It was the first translation of the New Testament from the original Greek into English. Actually it was the first Greek book in history to be translated into English.[8]  

Working with a group of merchants who were smuggling the works of Luther into England, they helped Tyndale smuggle his fresh copies into his homeland. King Henry VIII, Cardinal Wolsey, and Sir Thomas More were furious at this unlicensed translation. Thomas More wrote a work attacking Tyndale’s translation as a mistranslation full of heresy. Agents were dispersed across the Continent to find Tyndale. In 1534, Tyndale was betrayed by a false friend near Brussels, arrested by imperial forces, and thrown into prison.[9]

After 17 languishing months in prison, early in the month of October, 1536, Tyndale was led to the stake where he would be chained and burned. A final appeal was made for him to recant. His feet were bound to the stake, the iron chain fastened around his neck, and the hemp noose was place at his throat. Only the Anabaptists and heretics were burnt alive.  His last prayer was, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.” Tyndale was quickly strangled, and the pile of brushwood, torched.[10] 

Tyndale’s last prayer would be answered in the next couple of years, as the separate works of Miles Coverdale and John Rogers eventually became an authorized version called the “Great Bible.” Both men built off the foundation that Tyndale laid in translating the Bible from the original languages into English.  

SØren Kierkegaard told a story of a clown rushing on stage to announce a fire backstage. Thinking it part of the show, the people laughed and applauded the clown as he made his serious plea. Kierkegaard concludes, “So I think the world will come to an end amid general applause from all the wits, who believe it is a joke.”[11] 

You and I live in serious times—Lord, open our eyes!

© Ron F. Hale, March 20, 2014  

[1] James Emery White, Serious Times: Making You Life Matter in an Urgent Day, (Downers Grover: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 9.
[2] Bruce L. Shelly and revised by R. L. Hatchett, Church History in Plain Language (Fourth Edition), Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2013), 279.
[3] Ibid. 277.
[4] Ibid. 278.
[5] Also spelled: Wycliffe, Wycliff, Wiclef, Wicliffe,and Wickliffe.
[6] Ibid. 279.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[11] James Emery White, Serious Times: Making You Life Matter In An Urgent Day, (Downers Grover: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 69.