1494 - 1536
I: -- He was not someone who made trouble for the sake of
making trouble. Neither did he have a personality as prickly as a porcupine. He didn't
relish controversy, confrontation and strife. Nonetheless, he was unable to avoid it. 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 notorious
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 theological arguments which Tyndale believed to contradict the kingdom of God and
imperil the salvation of men and women -- and Tyndale rebutted him bravely.
William Tyndale graduated from Oxford University in 1515, and
then moved over to Cambridge to pursue graduate studies, Cambridge being at that time a
hotbed of Lutheran theology and Reformation ferment. As he was seized by that gospel which
scripture uniquely attests, Tyndale became aware that his vocation was that of translator;
he was to put into common English a translation of the bible which the public could read
readily and profit from profoundly. There was enormous need for him and his vocation, as
England was sunk in the most abysmal ignorance of scripture. Worse, the clergy didn't
care. Tyndale vowed that if his life were spared he would see that a farmhand knew more of
scripture than a contemptuous clergyman.
But of course his life would have to be spared. The church's
hierarchy, after all, had banned any translation of scripture into the English tongue in
hope of prolonging the church's tyranny over the people. 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 under way in
Hamburg. A sympathetic printer in Cologne printed the pages as fast as he cold 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 only what he
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 sermon in which he had slandered Tyndale.
Worms too was a dangerous 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 a large sum of money
quickly to pay off huge gambling debts betrayed Tyndale to Belgian authorities.
Immediately he was jailed in a prison modelled after the infamous Bastille of Paris. The
cell was damp, dark and cold throughout the Belgian winter. He had been in prison for
eighteen months when his trial began. The long list of charges was read out. The first two
charges -- one, that he had maintained that sinners are justified or set right with God by
faith, and two, that to embrace in faith the mercy offered in the gospel was sufficient
for salvation -- these two charges alone indicate how bitter and blind his anti-gospel
In August, 1536, he was found guilty and condemned as a heretic
-- a public humiliation aimed at breaking him psychologically. But he did not break.
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 the firewood at his feet was ignited.
His work, however, could not be choked off and burned up. His
work thrived. Eventually the King of England did approve Tyndale's translation, and
by 1539 every parish church 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 cannot be exaggerated. A gospel-outlook came to penetrate the
British nation, its people, its policies, and its literature. Indeed, the King James
Version is precisely what Northrop Frye came to label "The Great Code", the key
to unlocking the treasures of English literature, without which key the would-be student
can only remain mystified and ignorant. 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 was fulfilled. He was spared long enough
to see the common person know more of God's Word, God's Truth and God's Way than a
contemptuous clergy. In the history of the English-speaking peoples Tyndale's work is
II:(A) -- Why did Tyndale do it? Was he a ranting
bible-thumper akin to the ranting bible-thumpers who put you off as readily as they do me?
There is no evidence that T. was anything like this. Did he then 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 descended to his feet the gold plates inscribed with the Book of
Mormon. There isn't a person in this room who believes that that, or anything like it,
happened. Neither did T. believe anything like it about scripture.
Then why was he willing to make the sacrifice he did -- himself?
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 knowledge of our Lord. Concerning T. himself there was nothing fanatical, silly, or
Since a preacher's work is done under the public eye as the work
of few others is done under the public eye, the preacher's weaknesses, pet peeves,
idiosyncrasies, hobby horses and neuroticisms cannot be hidden. Many of you have known me
for a decade. And therefore my oddities are more evident to you than they are even to me.
Nevertheless, I don't think I appear like a ranting bible-thumper. Neither, I trust, do I
appear to be fanatical, silly or unbalanced; I am like T. in this respect. Like him too in
another respect: I agree that intimate acquaintance with Jesus Christ matters above
everything else, and that scripture is essential to this engagement.
(B) -- And so scripture is read in church every Sunday, and I
read it at home every day. Once in a while someone asks me why we don't set scripture
aside in public worship and read something edifying; specifically, something that is
religiously edifying. To be sure, there is much that is religiously edifying and could
therefore be read with profit: the prayers of Peter Marshall, a biography of Mother
Teresa, a history of the Reformation, the poetry of Madeleine L'Engle. The material is
inexhaustible. Yet however edifying these edifying discourses may be, they do not supplant
scripture. Why not? Because the role of scripture as witness to God's presence and
activity is unique, irreplaceable, and essential.
I want you to imagine yourself a curious by-stander, one of
dozens in a crowd, listening to Jesus in the days of his trampings-about in Palestine. As
he speaks you find that his teaching has the "ring of truth" about it. Your
scepticism and doubt are dispelled. You are inwardly compelled to say "yes" at
the same time as you own it freely. Then as the Nazarene invites you to become a disciple
you step ahead, ignoring snickers and sneers as well as quizzical looks and sidelong
glances. As your life unfolds in the company of Jesus Christ all that you gain from his
proximity goes so deep in you that you are now possessed of ironfast assurance concerning
him, his truth, his promises, his way, and his future (which, of course now has everything
to do with your future). He calls other people into his company; the band swells of those
who are possessed of like experience, like conviction and like satisfaction.
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 is ascended is not to say he is absent; to say he is ascended, rather, is to say
that he is 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.
Nonetheless there is one crucial difference in the manner in
which Jesus Christ is known following his ascension. Following his resurrection and
ascension Christian spokespersons preach in his name, always and everywhere pointing to
him. They are not he. They are never confused with their Lord. They merely
point to him. They are witnesses.
And then something wonderful happens. As they point to him, as
they bear witness to him, God owns their witness and his Spirit invigorates it. As witness
to Jesus Christ is honoured by God, Jesus himself ceases to be merely someone pointed to;
now he himself comes forth and speaks, calls, persuades and commissions exactly as he did
in the days of his flesh. As witness to him is honoured by God, he ceases to be merely
someone spoken about, and instead becomes the speaking, acting, impelling one himself. Now
people without number in Rome and Corinth and Ephesus, people who had no chance of meeting
him in the days of his earthly ministry simply because he never travelled to those cities;
these people now meet him and know him and walk the God-appointed way with him as surely
as did those who saw him in Bethany and Jerusalem years earlier.
Let me repeat. The apostles are spokespersons for our Lord who
point to him. They do not point to themselves. Like John the Baptist they point away from
themselves to him. They are witnesses. And by the hidden work of God their witness to
him becomes the means whereby he imparts himself afresh. Those who have been
listening to the apostles, assessing what Peter, Paul and John have to say, are startled
as they realize that the issue is much bigger. Far more is at stake. They now know
themselves invited, summoned even, to the same intimacy, self-forgetfulness and obedience
that Peter, Paul and John have known for years. In other words, the distinction between hearing
about Jesus Christ and meeting him has fallen away.
But Christian spokespersons or apostles do not live for ever. As
it becomes obvious that history will continue to unfold after the apostles have breathed
their last breath, their testimony written is treasured. Their testimony written
now functions 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, men and women
who read it find themselves acquainted with the selfsame Jesus Christ.
The bible is not a book of biology or astronomy or
chronicle-exactness. It is the prophetic-apostolic testimony to Jesus Christ. He
and it are categorically distinct, never to be confused. At the same time,
knowledge of it and knowledge of him can never be separated, for he has chosen to
use the witness to him as the means whereby he gives himself to us, speaks to us,
and convinces us of his will for us and his way with us.
If you wanted to explore the heavens, the truth and wonder of the
stars, you would get yourself a telescope. You would not waste time debating whether
you should have a telescope; far less would you waste time on whether the telescope should
be black or brown, handsome or ugly. Above all, you would never look at the
telescope hour after hour, complaining that you had looked at it for so long and still
knew nothing about the stars. You would look through it. In looking through
it you would demonstrate that you understood how it functioned. And your hunger for
knowledge of the heavens would be met. Scripture is not something we look at. To
look at it is to be left with nothing more than another book about antiquity. We
are to look through it. Insofar as we look through it the nameless longing
we all have will be met, just because our Lord himself will be ours.
I know why Tyndale did what he did, why he had to do it. I
trust that you know too.
Victor A. Shepherd
December 01, 1991