Professor Don Westblade
February 12, 2006
William Tyndale’s contribution to Puritanism
Tyndale’s life reads like the script to an action/adventure movie. A young man longs to place commoners on equal footing with a powerful elite who suppress the truth kill all dissidents. As this young man works toward this end, government and religious agents nip at his heels while he seeks to free his brethren from oppression and avoid capture. Tyndale braved all these experiences in his quest to translate the Holy Scriptures into the tongue of the English plowboy and weaver. He wanted them to see for themselves God’s truth and be freed from reliance upon their priests for biblical instruction. As will be demonstrated by this paper, Tyndale’s contributions made possible the Reformation in England and the Puritan movement. This is not to say that his efforts are the most significant among reformers, only that without them, the reformers would not have had the broad basis in England in which their message took root.
When faced with a church official proud of his unfamiliarity in the Bible, Tyndale responded by saying “If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth a plow to know more of the Scripture than thou dost.” This motivation drove Tyndale to live a life on the run, banished from his homeland and ended by martyrdom. Against false doctrines Tyndale desired people to wield the Scriptures; he writes “get thee to God’s word, and thereby try all doctrine, and against that receive nothing; neither any exposition contrary unto the open texts, neither contrary to the general articles of the faith, neither contrary to the living and practicing of Christ and his Apostles.” (Williams 92) Tyndale knew that only by placing God’s Word in the hand of commoners could the misdirection by the clergy be fixed.
Tyndale, though, was not the first person to translate the Bible into English. John Wycliffe produced a copy of the Bible in English based off of Jerome’s Latin Vulgate in 1382, and his disciple John Purvey produced another later version in 1396. With Erasmus having compiled and then released a Greek New Testament in 1516, the door stood wide open for biblical translations from the original language, though as J.F. Mozeley notes, “Erasmus’ Greek text was not a very good one, being taken from late manuscripts, and in some places was inferior to the Vulgate,” Mozeley continues however, commenting, “a translator will better catch the spirit of his author and enter into his meaning, if he meet him in his original dress and not through an interpreter.” (81) Wycliffe translated English into a stilted, often word-for-word transliteration of the Latin; and moreover, his “Lollardite” Bibles were not produced on a scale large enough to sweep the nation with reform. With the 1440 invention of the printing press, Tyndale was able to print six thousand copies of his first New Testament on his first printing alone. The stage stood ready for the reformation to jump the channel, and Tyndale took the challenge head on.
The English renegade’s translation provided the bulk of the work for most subsequent translations, including the King James Bible, in which “some 90 percent of his words were absorbed into the King James Version.” (George) Even the so called “Great Bible” licensed by King Henry paid great homage to Tyndale; “When Miles Coverdale revised Matthew’s Bible of 1537 for the seven folio editions of the Great Bible from 1539 to 1541, it was Tyndale’s translation supported by Cranmer and Cromwell.” (Anderson) Though one can hardly know whether another translator would have stepped up to create an English translation from the Greek, the fact is that Tyndale’s translations, and other translations based upon his work set the ground for the reformation in England to the extent that Donald Smeeton, in his article “William Tyndale’s Suggestions for a Protestant Missiology,” can say “The publication of his English New Testament (1525) not only marked the beginning of the English Reformation but some would even argue that this date has better claim to mark the end of the Middle Ages than the year 1485 which is usually given in textbooks.” Similarily, M. M. Knappen says Tyndale “was an important, if not the most important, cause of the English Reformation.”
Though Tyndale clearly made God’s Word available to England and provided a spark for the tinder of the Reformation, he also presaged later Puritan thought in his own insights into covenant theology. Tyndale saw God’s covenants as the only proper way to understand the Scriptures. “‘The right way, yea, the only way, to understand the scripture unto salvation’, declared William Tyndale, is to seek in it, “chiefly and above all, the covenants made between God and us.’ For the Henrician heresiarch, the key to the reforming of England was the bible in translation, and the key to the bible was the idea of covenant.” (McGiffert) Tyndale wrote commentaries to scripture in the margins of his works and also in the introductions, where he spells out God’s use of covenants in relationship to His people; “Our mind, intent, and affection or zeal, are blind; and all that we do of them is damned of God and for that cause hath God made a testament between him and us, wherein is contained both what he would have us to do, and what he would have us to ask of him. See therefore that thou do nothing to please God withal, but that he commandeth; neither ask any thing of him, but that he hath promised thee.” Commenting on this excerpt, Jens G. Moller writes, “We see that though Tyndale knows, with the Reformers, that man and man’s works are nothing in the eyes of God, he yet manages to maintain moral obligation by means of the covenant which contains God’s commandments.” Michael McGiffert says that “Tyndale introduced this figure of the Christian as bold and trusting child in Mammon where he remarked that ‘the scripture speaketh as a father doth to his young son, Do this or that, and then I will love thee; yet the father loveth the son first, and studieth with all his power and wit to overcome his child with love and with kindness, to make him do that which is comely, honest, and good…’” In concluding his article, McGiffert notes that because Tyndale’s works were always outlawed, and because the later reprints of his works were devoid of their covenant notes, that “it appears that the spirit of his covenant theology had little direct influence on English religious thought. Tyndale’s teaching was specific to his time; his importance was less that of a progenitor than of a participant in the crisis of trust that marked his moment at the dawning of the modern age.”
As many authors have noted, Tyndale was at least one of many factors in bringing about the English Reformation. His work in translating the Bible set the stage for many in England to discover God’s Word for themselves and latch onto the first plank of the Reformation, sola scriptura. Sola scriptura is necessarily the first step, because without dependence upon scripture alone, sola fide cannot be authoritatively affirmed. A martyr for the faith and cornerstone in the course of the English Reformation, William Tyndale stands, as Marvin Anderson has labeled him, a “Martyr for All Seasons.”
Anderson, Marvin W. “William Tyndale (d 1536): a martyr for all seasons.”
Sixteenth Century Journal 17 no 3 Fall 1986, p 331-352.
George, Timothy, “The Translator's Tale: Celebrating the five-hundredth birthday of William Tyndale, the father of the English Bible.”
Christianity Today 38 O 24 1994, p 36-38
Ginsberg, David “Ploughboys versus prelates: Tyndale and More and the politics of biblical translation.”
Sixteenth Century Journal 19 no 1 1988, p 45-61
Glebe MŅller, Jens “Beginnings of Puritan covenant theology.”
Journal of Ecclesiastical History 14 no 1 Ap 1963, p 46-67.
Knappen, M M “William Tindale: first English Puritan”
Church History 5 no 3 S 1936, p 201-215.
McGiffert, Michael “William Tyndale's conception of covenant.”
Journal of Ecclesiastical History 32 no 2 Ap 1981, p 167-184.
Mozeley, J.F. William Tyndale
Westport, Conn.; Greenwood Press, 1971
Smeeton, Donald Dean “William Tyndale's suggestions for a Protestant Missiology.”
Missiology 14 no 2 Ap 1986, p 173-184.
Williams, C.H. William Tyndale
London; Nelson and Sons, 1969