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"Always Singing One Note" — A Vernacular Bible: The Cost of Bringing the Bible to England
Stephen Vaughan was an English merchant commissioned by Thomas Cromwell, the king's adviser, to find William Tyndale and inform him that King Henry VIII desired him to come back to England out of hiding on the continent. In a letter to Cromwell from Vaughan dated June 19, 1531, Vaughan wrote about Tyndale (1494–1536) these simple words: "I find him always singing one note." That one note was this: Will the King of England give his official endorsement to a vernacular Bible for all his English subjects? If not, Tyndale would not come. If so, Tyndale would give himself up to the king and never write another book.
This was the driving passion of his life — to see the Bible translated from the Greek and Hebrew into ordinary English available for every person in England to read.
Whatever It Costs
Henry VIII was angry with Tyndale for believing and promoting Martin Luther's Reformation teachings. In particular, he was angry because of Tyndale's book An Answer unto Sir Thomas More's Dialogue. Thomas More (famous today for his book Utopia and as portrayed in the movie A Man for All Seasons) was the Lord Chancellor who helped Henry VIII write his repudiation of Luther called Defense of the Seven Sacraments. Thomas More was thoroughly Roman Catholic and radically anti-Reformation, anti-Luther, and anti-Tyndale. So Tyndale had come under excoriating criticism by Thomas More. In fact, More had a "near-rabid hatred" for Tyndale and published three long responses to him totaling nearly three-quarters of a million words.
But in spite of this high-court anger against Tyndale, the king's message to Tyndale, carried by Vaughan, was mercy: "The king's royal majesty is ... inclined to mercy, pity, and compassion."
The thirty-seven-year-old Tyndale was moved to tears by this offer of mercy. He had been in exile away from his homeland for seven years. But then he sounded his "one note" again: Will the king authorize a vernacular English Bible from the original languages? Vaughan gives us Tyndale's words from May 1531:
I assure you, if it would stand with the King's most gracious pleasure to grant only a bare text of the Scripture [that is, without explanatory notes] to be put forth among his people, like as is put forth among the subjects of the emperor in these parts, and of other Christian princes, be it of the translation of what person soever shall please his Majesty, I shall immediately make faithful promise never to write more, nor abide two days in these parts after the same: but immediately to repair unto his realm, and there most humbly submit myself at the feet of his royal majesty, offering my body to suffer what pain or torture, yea, what death his grace will, so this be obtained. Until that time, I will abide the asperity of all chances, whatsoever shall come, and endure my life in as many pains as it is able to bear and suffer.
In other words, Tyndale would give himself up to the king on one condition — that the king authorize an English Bible translated from the Greek and Hebrew in the common language of the people.
The king refused. And Tyndale never went to his homeland again. Instead, if the king and the Roman Catholic Church would not provide a printed Bible in English for the common man to read, Tyndale would, even if it cost him his life — which it did five years later.
As I Live, the Plowboy Will Know His Bible
When he was twenty-eight years old in 1522, he was serving as a tutor in the home of John Walsh in Gloucestershire, England, spending most of his time studying Erasmus' Greek New Testament that had been printed just six years before in 1516.
We should pause here and make clear what an incendiary thing this Greek New Testament was in history. David Daniell describes the magnitude of this event:
This was the first time that the Greek New Testament had been printed. It is no exaggeration to say that it set fire to Europe. Luther [1483–1546] translated it into his famous German version of 1522. In a few years there appeared translations from the Greek into most European vernaculars. They were the true basis of the popular reformation.
Every day William Tyndale was seeing these Reformation truths more clearly in the Greek New Testament as an ordained Catholic priest. Increasingly, he was making himself suspect in this Catholic house of John Walsh. Learned men would come for dinner, and Tyndale would discuss the things he was seeing in the New Testament. John Foxe tells us that one day an exasperated Catholic scholar at dinner with Tyndale said, "We were better be without God's law than the pope's."
In response Tyndale spoke his famous words, "I defy the Pope and all his laws. ... If God spare my life ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plow, shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost."
The One-Note Crescendo
Four years later Tyndale finished the English translation of the Greek New Testament in Worms, Germany, and began to smuggle it into England in bales of cloth. He had grown up in Gloucestershire, the cloth-working county, and now we see what that turn of providence was about. By October 1526, the book had been banned by Bishop Tunstall in London, but the print run had been at least three thousand. And the books were getting to the people. Over the next eight years, five pirated editions were printed as well.
In 1534, Tyndale published a revised New Testament, having learned Hebrew in the meantime, probably in Germany, which helped him better understand the connections between the Old and New Testaments. Daniell calls this 1534 New Testament "the glory of his life's work." If Tyndale was "always singing one note," this was the crescendo of the song of his life — the finished and refined New Testament in English.
The Very First New Testament in English from the Greek
For the first time ever in history, the Greek New Testament was translated into English. And for the first time ever, the New Testament in English was available in a printed form. Before Tyndale, there were only handwritten manuscripts of the Bible in English. These manuscripts we owe to the work and inspiration of John Wycliffe and the Lollards from a hundred and thirty years earlier. For a thousand years, the only translation of the Greek and Hebrew Bible was the Latin Vulgate, and few people could understand it, even if they had access to it.
Before he was martyred in 1536, Tyndale had translated into clear, common English not only the New Testament but also the Pentateuch, Joshua to 2 Chronicles, and Jonah. All this material became the basis of the Great Bible issued by Miles Coverdale in England in 1539 and the basis for the Geneva Bible published in 1557 — "the Bible of the nation," which sold over a million copies between 1560 and 1640.
Under God, Tyndale Gave Us Our English Bible
We do not get a clear sense of Tyndale's achievement without some comparisons. We think of the dominant King James Version as giving us the pervasive language of the English Bible. But Daniell clarifies the situation:
William Tyndale gave us our English Bible. The sages assembled by King James to prepare the Authorized Version of 1611, so often praised for unlikely corporate inspiration, took over Tyndale's work. Nine-tenths of the Authorized Version's New Testament is Tyndale's. The same is true of the first half of the Old Testament, which was as far as he was able to get before he was executed outside Brussels in 1536.
Here is a sampling of the English phrases we owe to Tyndale:
"Let there be light." (Genesis 1:3)
"Am I my brother's keeper?" (Genesis 4:9)
"The LORD bless thee and keep thee. The LORD make his face to shine upon thee and be merciful unto thee. The LORD lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace." (Numbers 6:24–26)
"There were shepherds abiding in the field." (Luke 2:8)
"Blessed are they that mourn for they shall be comforted." (Matthew 5:4)
"Our Father, which art in heaven, hallowed be thy name." (Matthew 6:9)
"The signs of the times" (Matthew 16:3)
"The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak." (Matthew 26:41)
"He went out ... and wept bitterly." (Matthew 26:75)
"In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God." (John 1:1)
"In him we live, move and have our being." (Acts 17:28)
"A law unto themselves" (Romans 2:14)
"Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels" (1 Corinthians 13:1)
"Fight the good fight." (1 Timothy 6:12)
According to Daniell, "The list of such near-proverbial phrases is endless." Five hundred years after his great work, "newspaper headlines still quote Tyndale, though unknowingly, and he has reached more people than even Shakespeare."
He Gave Us New Prose — and a Reformation
Luther's translation of 1522 is often praised for "having given a language to the emerging German nation." Daniell claims the same for Tyndale in English:
In his Bible translations, Tyndale's conscious use of everyday words, without inversions, in a neutral word-order, and his wonderful ear for rhythmic patterns, gave to English not only a Bible language, but a new prose. England was blessed as a nation in that the language of its principal book, as the Bible in English rapidly became, was the fountain from which flowed the lucidity, suppleness and expressive range of the greatest prose thereafter.
His craftsmanship with the English language amounted to genius.
He translated two-thirds of the Bible so well that his translations endured until today. This was not merely a literary phenomenon; it was a spiritual explosion. Tyndale's Bible and writings were the kindling that set the Reformation on fire in England.
Two Ways to Die to Bear Fruit for God
The question arises: How did William Tyndale accomplish this historic achievement? We can answer this in Tyndale's case by remembering two ways that a pastor or any spiritual leader must die in order to bear fruit for God (John 12:24; Romans 7:4). On the one hand, we must die to the notion that we do not have to think hard or work hard to achieve spiritual goals. On the other hand, we must die to the notion that our thinking and our working are decisive in achieving spiritual goals.
Paul said in 2 Timothy 2:7, "Think over what I say, for the Lord will give you understanding in everything." First, think. Work. Don't bypass the hard work of thinking about apostolic truth. But second, remember this: "The Lord will give you understanding." You work. He gives. If he withholds, all our working is in vain. But he ordains that we use our minds and that we work in achieving spiritual ends. So Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:10, "I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me." The key to spiritual achievement is to work hard, and to know and believe and be happy that God's sovereign grace is the decisive cause of all the good that comes.
How Erasmus and Tyndale Were Alike
The way these two truths come together in Tyndale's life explains how he could accomplish what he did. And one of the best ways to see it is to compare him with Erasmus, the Roman Catholic humanist scholar who was famous for his books Enchiridion and The Praise of Folly and for his printed Greek New Testament.
Erasmus was twenty-eight years older than Tyndale, but they both died in 1536 — Tyndale martyred by the Roman Catholic Church, Erasmus a respected member of that church. Erasmus had spent time in Oxford and Cambridge, but we don't know if he and Tyndale ever met.
On the surface, one sees remarkable similarities between Tyndale and Erasmus. Both were great linguists. Erasmus was a Latin scholar and produced the first printed Greek New Testament. Tyndale knew eight languages: Latin, Greek, German, French, Hebrew, Spanish, Italian, and English. Both men loved the natural power of language and were part of a rebirth of interest in the way language works.
For example, Erasmus wrote a book called De copia that Tyndale no doubt used as a student at Oxford. It helped students increase their abilities to exploit the "copious" potential of language. This was hugely influential in the early 1500s in England and was used to train students in the infinite possibilities of varied verbal expression. The aim was to keep language from sinking down to mere jargon and worn-out slang and uncreative, unimaginative, prosaic, colorless, boring speech.
One practice lesson for students from De copia was to give "no fewer than one hundred fifty ways of saying 'Your letter has delighted me very much.'" The point was to force students to "use of all the verbal muscles in order to avoid any hint of flabbiness." It is not surprising that this is the kind of educational world that gave rise to William Shakespeare (who was born in 1564). Shakespeare is renowned for his unparalleled use of copiousness in language. One critic wrote, "Without Erasmus, no Shakespeare."
So both Erasmus and Tyndale were educated in an atmosphere of conscious craftsmanship. That is, they both believed in hard work to say things clearly and creatively and compellingly when they spoke for Christ.
Not only that, but they both believed the Bible should be translated into the vernacular of every language. Erasmus wrote in the preface to his Greek New Testament,
Christ wishes his mysteries to be published as widely as possible. I would wish even all women to read the gospel and the epistles of St. Paul, and I wish that they were translated into all languages of all Christian people, that they might be read and known, not merely by the Scotch and the Irish, but even by the Turks and the Saracens. I wish that the husbandman may sing parts of them at his plow, that the weaver may warble them at his shuttle, that the traveler may with their narratives beguile the weariness of the way.
Tyndale could not have said it better.
Both were concerned with the corruption and abuses in the Catholic Church, and both wrote about Christ and the Christian life. Tyndale even translated Erasmus' Enchiridion, a kind of spiritual handbook for the Christian life — what Erasmus called philosophia Christi.
From a Lightning Bug to a Lightning Bolt
But there was a massive difference between these men, and it had directly to do with the other half of the paradox mentioned above, namely, that we must die not just to intellectual and linguistic laziness, but also to human presumption — human self-exaltation and self-sufficiency. Erasmus and Luther had clashed in the 1520s over the freedom of the will — Erasmus defending human self-determination and Luther arguing for the depravity and bondage of the will. Tyndale was firmly with Luther here.
Our will is locked and knit faster under the will of the devil than could an hundred thousand chains bind a man unto a post. Because ... [by] nature we are evil, therefore we both think and do evil, and are under vengeance under the law, convict to eternal damnation by the law, and are contrary to the will of God in all our will and in all things consent to the will of the fiend.
It is not possible for a natural man to consent to the law, that it should be good, or that God should be righteous which maketh the law.
This view of human sinfulness set the stage for Tyndale's grasp of the glory of God's sovereign grace in the gospel. Erasmus — and Thomas More with him — did not see the depth of the human condition (their own condition) and so did not see the glory and explosive power of what the reformers saw in the New Testament. What the reformers like Tyndale and Luther saw was not a philosophia Christi but the massive work of God in the death and resurrection of Christ to save hopelessly enslaved and hell-bound sinners.
Erasmus does not live or write in this realm of horrible condition and gracious blood-bought salvation. He has the appearance of reform in the Enchiridion, but something is missing. To walk from Erasmus into Tyndale is to move (to paraphrase Mark Twain) from a lightning bug to a lightning bolt.
Daniell puts it like this:
Something in the Enchiridion is missing. ... It is a masterpiece of humanist piety. ... [But] the activity of Christ in the Gospels, his special work of salvation so strongly detailed there and in the epistles of Paul, is largely missing. Christologically, where Luther thunders, Erasmus makes a sweet sound: what to Tyndale was an impregnable stronghold feels in the Enchiridion like a summer pavilion.
Where Luther and Tyndale were blood-earnest about our dreadful human condition and the glory of salvation in Christ, Erasmus and Thomas More joked and bantered. When Luther published his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517, Erasmus sent a copy of them to More — along with a "jocular letter including the anti-papal games, and witty satirical diatribes against abuses within the church, which both of them loved to make."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Filling Up the Afflictions of Christ"
Copyright © 2009 Desiring God Foundation.
Excerpted by permission of Good News Publishers.
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Table of Contents
INTRODUCTION Tears of Blood to Bless the World,
CHAPTER ONE William Tyndale "Always Singing One Note" — A Vernacular Bible: The Cost of Bringing the Bible to England,
CHAPTER TWO John G. Paton "You Will Be Eaten by Cannibals!": Courage in the Face of Fierce Opposition,
CHAPTER THREE Adoniram Judson "How Few There Are Who Die So Hard": The Cost of Bringing Christ to Burma,
CONCLUSION This Momentary Affliction for Eternal Glory,
Index of Scriptures,
Index of Persons,
Index of Subjects,
A NOTE ON RESOURCES,
Desiring God Ministries,