William Tyndale and Sola Scriptura

William Tyndale’s English translation of the New Testament, first published in 1526, was met with sharp disapproval in England – not only because it was common knowledge that Scriptures should not be placed in the hands of the uneducated masses, but also because of the translation itself.

            Translating “congregation” instead of “church,” “superior” instead of “priest,” and “repentance” instead of “penance” was to have potentially huge consequences on the Church’s doctrine. For example, penance implied an action performed by the sinner for the remission of his or her sins, but repentance could simply be an admission of guilt and turning of the heart. It would have dismantled many of the Church’s “remedies” for sin, such as confession to a priest, pilgrimages, and indulgences.

            Tyndale stood by his translation. He had an excellent knowledge of both Greek and the Scriptures, and knew enough of the history of the church to see how these “remedies” had developed throughout time in response to a felt need.


Tyndale’s Early Life

William Tyndale was born in Gloucestershire, England, probably in 1494, to a large and influential family. He graduated at Magdalen College, Oxford with a BA in 1512 and MA in 1515, when he was also ordained priest. He was appalled to discover that his studies of theology didn’t include Scripture. Most likely, he supplemented his studies with Erasmus’s new Latin translation of the New Testament, which was published together with the original Greek.

            Tyndale continued to preach while working as tutor for the children of a noble family. His preaching, with a strong emphasis on scripture for the people, was well accepted by many but also strongly opposed by some – so much that Tyndale was suspected of heresy. This only strengthened his desire to print the New Testament in English. In 1523, Tyndale was in London, where he stayed for almost a year, preaching and looking for support of his project. When he realized that his efforts were in vain, he left for Germany, supported by a few cloth merchants in London (who later got in trouble for that).


Tyndale the Translator

            Tyndale moved to Wittenberg and enrolled in the university. By 1525, he had translated the New Testament into English and was looking for a publisher. The first publisher who accepted the task, Peter Quentel, had to stop when his workshop was raided by opponents of this work. Tyndale fled to Worms, where the translation was finally published in 1526, and began to be smuggled back into England on merchant ships. There, the ecclesiastical authorities sought to have it burned.

            Over the next ten years, Tyndale made at least two revisions to his translation of the New Testament and – after learning Hebrew (which was virtually unknown in England) – he began translating the Old Testament, completing Genesis to Deuteronomy, and the book of Jonah. At the same time, he wrote a long series of polemical treatises arguing the claims of reformed theology – particularly sola fide, sola Scriptura, and the precedence of God’s calling over our faith. These pamphlets were also smuggled into England.

            Tyndale's most influential book outside his Bible translations, The Obedience of a Christian Man, came in October 1528. Enemies were asserting that the reformers throughout Europe were encouraging sedition and teaching treason. Tyndale wrote to declare for the first time the two fundamental principles of the English reformers: the supreme authority of scripture in the church, and the supreme authority of the king in the state. These pamphlets were widely read and immediately banned.


 Tyndale and Thomas More

            Thomas More, councilor for King Henry VIII, was zealous in his critique of Tyndale. A large portion of his Dialogue Concerning Heresies (1529) was devoted to Tyndale’s translation of the Bible and some of Tyndale’s teachings. Tyndale replied point by point with An Answer unto Sir Thomas More's ‘Dialogue.’ In his view, the church’s opposition to his translation showed much more than a simple desire for accuracy. “There be secret pangs that pinch the very hearts of them,” he said, “whereof they dare not complain. The sickness, that maketh them so impatient, is that they have lost their juggling terms. For the doctors and preachers were wont to make many divisions, distinctions, and sorts of grace ; gratis data, gratum faciens, prceveniens, and subsequens. And with confession they juggled; and so made the people, as oft as they spake of it, understand shrift in the ear[1]; whereof the scripture maketh no mention: no, it is clean against the scripture, as they use it and preach it; and unto God an abomination.”[2]

            These “juggling terms” included Purgatory, which Rome based mostly on a reading of 1 Corinthians 3:15. It was such a flimsy interpretation that even Peter Martyr Vermigli, while he was still a committed Roman Catholic priest, had to admit it was forced. More presented other verses to prove the existence of Purgatory, but they were all strained deductions which were easily rebuttable.

            “For since God in His righteousness will not leave sin unpunished and in His goodness will not perpetually punish the sin after the person’s repentance, it follows there must be temporal punishment. And now since the person often dies before undergoing such punishment . . . a very child, almost, can see the conclusion: that the punishment remaining due and undone at death is to be endured and sustained afterward.”

            A Lutheran or Reformed Christian would have taken the first sentence, and finished it with “it follows there must be a divine Savior who can take the punishment for our sins.” More’s replies shows how far the gospel had been removed from the consciousness of Christians.

            Not much has changed. As recently as 1987, Pope Benedict XVI commented on critics of the Purgatory by saying, “This biblicism has scarcely anything to do with the Catholic understanding, according to which the Bible must be read with the church and her faith. My view is that if Purgatory didn’t exist, we should have to invent it … because few things are as immediate, as human, and as widespread – at all times and in all cultures – as prayer for one’s own departed dear ones.”[3] Once again, felt needs come before a strict adherence to the Bible.


Tyndale’s Death

In 1535, just when Tyndale was nourishing hopes to finish his translation of the Old Testament, he was betrayed by a young Englishman who had pretended to be interested in the work of Bible translation. In reality, he had agreed to betray Tyndale for cash. After persuading Tyndale to leave the house, he led him straight into an ambush prepared by English officers. All of Tyndale’s property was confiscated. Thankfully, his later translations were safe in another place.

            Tyndale was taken to the castle of Vilvorde, outside Brussels, where he was imprisoned for sixteen months and condemned as a heretic in August 1536. In October, he was led to an open space outside the castle where he was strangled and then burnt at the stake. His last words, cried with a loud voice, were “O Lord, open the King of England’s eyes!”

            His prayer was answered only three years later, in 1539, when King Henry VIII allowed the printing of the “Great Bible” – the first authorized Bible in the English language. The first page of the book shows Henry while he assigns, with the visible blessing of God on high, Bibles to the clergy who in turn distribute it to the laity.

[1] Auricular confession

[2] Tyndale, William, An Answer unto Sir Thomas More's ‘Dialogue,’ Cambridge, University Press, 1850, p. 22.

[3] Ratzinger, Joseph, and Messori, Vittorio, The Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church, Ignatius Press, 1987, p. 146.


Simonetta Carr