John Foxe called William Tyndale a “faithful minister of Christ” with a mind “singularly addicted” to the Scripture. Tyndale was an educated (and for that matter, brilliant) English priest of the sixteenth century. He was skilled in seven languages, including Greek and Hebrew. And he was driven by Christ. The defining belief of his life – his contribution to the Kingdom – was that all men and women should have a Bible available to them in their mother tongue. This belief came to him in large part from Desiderius Erasmus, his mentor, who said:
Christ desires his mysteries to be published abroad as widely as possible. I would that [the Gospels and the epistles of Paul] were translated into all languages, of all Christian people, and that they might be read and known.
In his late twenties, Tyndale served as a tutor in the home of John Walsh. While he was there, he often debated over dinner with his host’s various learned guests. Foxe relates an instance when a “learned” but “blasphemous” man told him, “We were better to be without God’s law than the pope’s.” Tyndale bristled and replied:
I defy the pope, and all his laws; and if God spares me life, before many years I will cause a plowboy to know more of the Scripture than you do.
And to that end, Tyndale devoted his life and death. A year or so after this encounter, he approached the Bishop of London and requested permission to translate the Bible into English. He was refused. He inquired in other places and quickly came to believe that his work would not be welcome if it were done in England. He moved to Cologne and began work translating scripture, but the local authorities got wind of it and stopped it. Next he moved to Worms and there completed the New Testament in English, which he then had smuggled back to England hidden in cloth.
Tyndale moved again, to Antwerp, and hid there for several years. There he worked on the Old Testament and revised the New. He received an official request from King Henry VIII to return to England and face his charges of heresy. Tyndale responded with an ultimatum: he would gladly return, if the king would only allow a vernacular Bible to the people of England – all people, regardless of education, class, gender, race, or anything else. King Henry promised mercy if Tyndale would only return. Tyndale responded:
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, not 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 [translation] be obtained.
In 1535, Tyndale’s friend Henry Phillips betrayed him to authorities. Tyndale was taken to the Castle of Villevorde, outside Brussels, and held there. His trial took over a year. He was finally executed as a heretic late in 1536. At the very end, he was offered a chance to recant. He refused. He was then offered a moment to pray. He did, saying:
Lord, open the King of England’s eyes.
And then the executioner strangled him and lit his body on fire.
Tyndale’s translation is a masterpiece. The vast majority of the wording in the King James Version (which came about in 1611, half a century later, though it’s often erroneously treated as the first English Bible) is taken almost verbatim from Tyndale. Many phrases still prevalent in our modern lexicon, like “my brother’s keeper,” “fight the good fight,” and “let there be light,” have their origin in the Tyndale Bible. Many claimed, at least initially, that the translation was full of errors and bad theology. Tyndale’s defense was:
I call God to record against the day we shall appear before our Lord Jesus, that I never altered one syllable of God’s Word against my conscience, nor would do this day, if all that is in earth, whether it be honor, pleasure, or riches, might be given me.