If, in the Communion of the Saints, William Tyndale knows of the celebrations surrounding the 500th anniversary of his birth he might be forgiven for smiling wryly. Indeed he might be surprised that he is commemorated at all. He was hardly popular in his lifetime and died a painful death in the prime of life. Although he has been honoured by some as one of the great English Reformers, reaction to him over the years has, in general, ranged from outright hostility to that of grudging admiration. Even in popular evangelical piety he has come a poor second to the great heroes like Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley. The irony is that here, in Lambeth Palace, at a lecture given by the Archbishop of Canterbury, no less, we come to honour him tonight for his unique contribution to the religious and literary life of our nation.
Lambeth has a minor but, nevertheless, an important role in the history of the English Reformation. It was to this place that Erasmus, the great translator of the scriptures and catalyst of Reformation, came as a guest of Archbishop Warham seeking a wealthy patron. Here too Thomas More, fated to become Tyndale's most hostile and able literary adversary, worked as a page boy in his youth. Here, in 1529, a Commission sat under the chairmanship of William Warham which condemned Tyndale's translation - a condemnation which contributed to the process that led to his death a few years later. Here, just a few yards away from where we sit, there is a small prison in what is known as Lollard's Tower, reminding us of the cost some were prepared to pay in seeking to study the Bible in the vernacular. Here too Cranmer did much of his work on the Prayer Book and also sought to promote the widespread reading of the Bible in English.
Those people and events form part of the background to this lecture tonight as, on the eve of his festival, we honour the life and work of this great Englishman. He was a man of faith, of outstanding learning, and of remarkable single-mindedness, courage and stubbornness. It was these qualities that were honed to an awesome degree to produce what we all now know to be one of our country's greatest treasures - the Bible in English. The recent acquisition by the British Library of the only extant complete copy of Tyndale's 1526 Worms Bible for a mere one million pounds has reminded many of his great legacy to us. Works of art, regularly auctioned these days in Sotheby's and Christie's for millions of pounds, bear no comparison in terms of their long-term influence on society with that book - a book which, though it came to birth in an England which is gone forever, still exercises considerable influence on our language and thought structures even today.
Indeed, we cannot travel to the England of some five hundred years ago without noticing many marked differences from the England we know nowadays. It is a land in which there is gross ignorance; illiteracy is the rule and not the exception. It is a land dominated by a Church which owned at least one quarter of the nation's wealth. It was a nation in which the ratio of clergy to laity was something like I to 125. Theology was still the queen of sciences and academics were in the main clergy. If we left the safe confines of our time capsule and began to penetrate the towns and cities, we might become aware that a questioning spirit was in the air. New learning and new questions were being explored by both humanists and reformers. The clergy were criticised by many, whether fairly or not, both for their lifestyles and for their lack of education. Above all the discovery of the printing press just a few years before was bringing about a revolution which would mould the modern era.
It was into this time of unrest, questioning and discovery that William Tyndale was born. That birth took place in Gloucestershire, perhaps in October 1494, and probably in the village of North Nibley, near Slimbridge. Details of his early years, his education, his family background and the other influences on him remain unknown, and probably unknowable.
Indeed, we have to wait eighteen years before reliable facts become available. In the registers of Magdalen College Oxford we discover that William Tyndale took his BA on July 4th 1512. Doubtless Oxford played an immense role in shaping the impressionable mind of this young man, who probably began studying at the University at the age of 12. But here again we are frustrated by our lack of knowledge. No records exist giving the names of his tutors or providing details of the courses he studied. We can only conjecture that it was at Oxford that Tyndale's enquiring mind first began to explore the dangerous ideas which were to lead initially to his life's work and eventually to his death. But when he first opened his mind and heart to the new learning we simply do not know. Much later in The Practice of Prelates (1530) he scoffed with contempt at the Oxford of his youth, condemning it for its dry scholasticism and the way it inoculated people against scripture. He wrote: ‘And in the universities they have ordained that no man shall look in the scriptures until he be nursed in heathen learning in eight or nine years and armed with false principles with which he is clean shut out of the understanding of scripture.’
Armed with his MA, Tyndale departed from Oxford in 1516 for Cambridge. What took him there remains a mystery. Professor Daniell's recently published biography makes several interesting conjectures. He is probably right to favour the thesis that Tyndale went there for what he terms ‘scriptural reasons’, though I would prefer to say ‘doctrinal reasons’, for Cambridge was associated with Lutheranism in a way that Oxford was not. Clearly Tyndale had already been influenced by the waves of new teaching coming from the Continent; clearly he was now so imbued with the faith that inspired Luther that he wanted and needed to know more of. Even so we know nothing of his conversion except that he was a converted man.
Though some will reject his theology, there can be no gainsaying that it was in his religious convictions that we find the real Tyndale and the dynamic that shaped his destiny. It is here too that we discover the source of his genius as a literary giant. Extol though we may the brilliance of his English and the purity of his translation we shall only touch the outer fringes of the man and his work if we ignore his deep religious beliefs. He was a man who had been touched by God and now burned with the zeal of the missionary.
At Cambridge Tyndale was to encounter many of the people, later friends, who were to play crucial roles in his remarkable story. There was ‘good Master Bilney’ who preached the first Reformation sermon in St Edmund's Church in 1525. But there were also John Frith, George Joye, William Roye and many others. As Daniell points out, Cambridge seemed to supply his friends whilst Oxford provided his enemies. It is important, in considering the lives of these men, to note that the clamour for ‘Reformation’ did not come from outside the Church but from within it. All the Reformers were men and women firmly rooted in orthodox Christianity. Luther himself had been an Augustinian monk; at some point Tyndale himself had been ordained Priest. Knowing the man and his deep love for God, this was no insincere vocation, as even Thomas More testified. It was not faithlessness that led him to challenge the Church; it was faith that led him to challenge her to reform herself in the light of scripture.
As so often in human affairs it was the mocking laugh of a cultured man which had been the prelude to Reformation. The laughter had been that of Erasmus, the scholar from Rotterdam, who had taught in Cambridge a few years before Tyndale arrived there. It has been said with some justice that Erasmus ‘laid the egg that Luther hatched.’
He, along with people like Thomas More, was in no doubt that reform was necessary. What is more, like Tyndale himself, he believed that one key to true reformation lay in the wider accessibility of the scriptures. His Greek New Testament, and the new Latin translation he made from it, were both to be significant in this European-wide process. To use his own picturesque language, his intention was to wake up the intelligence and to show that the words had real sense and were not mere sounds like ‘the dronings of a barrel organ.’ In Erasmus’ commentary on the text of the gospels we can sense his desire for Reformation. Here he is, commenting on Matthew 23.27 and the reference there to ‘whitened sepulchres’: ‘What would Jerome say could he see the Virgin's milk exhibited for money, with as much honour paid to it as to the consecrated body of Christ; the miraculous oil; the portions of the true cross. Here we have the hood of St Francis, there our Lady's petticoat or St Anne's comb, or St Thomas of Canterbury's shoes.’ The effect of Erasmus' translation, in the words of J A Froude, was to be ‘a spiritual earthquake.’
We cannot doubt that in Cambridge Tyndale studied Erasmus' Greek text in great detail. Heart spoke to heart; scholar to scholar. Erasmus' Paraklesis, his word for the New Testament, was intended to open the minds of people to God's word. Even though we should mark that his own translation was in Latin, Erasmus' great longing was for the Bible to be in the common language of the people. He wrote: ‘I would that even the lowliest women read the gospels and the Pauline epistles... would that as a result, the farmer sing some portion of them at the plow, the weaver hum some parts of them to the movement of his shuttle.’ Surely here is the inspiration for Tyndale's oft-quoted words to a learned cleric: ‘If God spare my life ere many years, I will cause a boy that drives the plough shall know more of the scriptures than thou dost.’
Influenced no doubt by the exciting heady and disturbing notions of Cambridge, Tyndale moved once again. He left the intellectual life of the university town for the sleepy village .of Little Sodbury where he became tutor to the two boys of Sir John and Lady Walsh. There his great work was formed within him as the quietness and space of the manor house gave him room to study and translate the text of the New Testament. However, he was not entirely a recluse. Every week he travelled thirteen miles to Bristol to preach in the open air to the crowds who gathered on College Green, close to the present Cathedral. He attracted controversy, not only through his preaching, but also through his disputations with learned men around Sir John's hospitable table as he challenged their teachings from the viewpoint of scripture. We can see something of the influence of Erasmus on him by his translation into English of Erasmus' famous Enchiridion militis Christiani, a spiritual handbook, which he presented to the Walsh family as a gift.
A few years in Little Sodbury was enough to prepare him for the next step - to set about getting the Bible to the common people of the land. As Daniell points out, England had been very slow to have a Bible freely available in the vernacular when compared with the rest of Europe. The need for a translation of the Bible was apparent to many but little had been done about it officially. Tyndale himself required a patron not only wealthy enough to sustain the enterprise but also with the authority to give permission for the task. In 1525 he approached Cuthbert Tunstall, Bishop of London. Tunstall was a learned, cultured and gentle man who had already assisted Erasmus with the second edition of his Greek New Testament ten years earlier. It seemed a reasonable thing to approach such an enlightened man, yet, for whatever reason, he refused his help.
In Tunstall's turning away of this eager and brilliant young man we have one of those great tragedies of history. Just twelve years later, Henry VIII was to give permission for the complete Bible in English to be made available in every parish in this country. The irony was that this version, known as Matthew's Bible was based largely on Tyndale's translation. What then was it that prompted Tunstall, the liberal scholar, to spurn Tyndale with the words that ‘his house was full' adding that he believed Tyndale would easily find a position elsewhere?
The reason for this rebuff must be found in the sensitive church politics of the day and Tunstall's place within them. Such was the fear of Lutheranism, which had resulted in the burning of Lutheran Bibles, that Tunstall could not risk the spread of dangerous heresy; no doubt too he had been told that the young Tyndale harboured dangerous ideas. It is easy to appreciate Tunstall's caution and his unwillingness to embrace a potential viper to his breast. Even so, in principle, Tunstall himself could hardly have objected to an accurate translation of the scriptures being made in the tongue of the people. But when tied into a theology of ‘justification by grace through faith in Christ’, the Bishop of London would have been in no doubt that more was at stake than a simple matter of an English version of the Bible.
At this point we can conclude this narrative of Tyndale's career. From that point on it seems there a was a degree of inevitability about his eventual martyrdom. He left for the Continent and published first the New Testament and then set about the Old Testament. The story of this part of his life has many of the ingredients of a ‘B' movie as he was pursued by unscrupulous enemies, drawn into an unhelpful debate with one of the greatest men of the age, Sir Thomas More, and eventually betrayed by a friend. His gruesome death was as heroic as his life.
What then was the legacy he bequeathed to subsequent generations?
Supremely, of course, he gave us the Bible in English. As J C Dickinson makes clear, three things were necessary to produce a substantial Bible reading public. First, a dramatic fall in the price of books; second, greater literacy and interest in learning; third, the stranglehold of Latin had to be broken. The printing press led to the first and Tyndale was one of the first to see the potential market for cheap pocket-sized editions. As the sixteenth century progressed so did the desire for greater knowledge. But it was Tyndale who was to spearhead the third, namely, breaking the monopoly of Latin and replacing it with English as the written language of the people.
He was, of course, ideally equipped to take on the challenge. His outstanding command of languages was admired by his contemporaries. Buschius, one of the scholars who contributed to the Epistolae Obscurorum Virorum referred to him as ‘an Englishman who is so skilful in seven tongues, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, English, French that whichever he speaks you think it is his native tongue.’ It is odd that he did not add German as well.
But skill in linguistics is not enough to make a skilled translator. What made Tyndale so remarkable was the quality of his translation. He benefited, of course, from the pioneering work done both by Erasmus on the Greek text and Luther in his German translation but, although Tyndale made considerable use of them, his translation remains distinctively his own. What he produced, at prodigious speed, was not only a translation that was a work of scholarship but also a marvellous piece of written English. Working from the Greek his aim was to give a homely, immediate text that would speak to the English heart and mind. Tyndale's passion was for scripture to speak to the soul. It was therefore incumbent to make the Bible intelligent for people. His knowledge of ordinary people and his ear for the cadences of language enabled him, like Shakespeare some several decades later, to produce a prose that was beautiful, poetic and vigorous. Listen for a few minutes to three passages, one from the Old Testament and two from the New, that show something of the richness of this his tour de force. They are taken from Professor Daniell's versions.
Then Moses and the children of Israel sang this song unto the Lord and said: Let us sing unto the Lord, for he is become glorious, the horse and him that rode upon him hath he overthrown in the sea. The Lord is my strength and my song, and is become my salvation. He is my God and I will glorify him, he is my father's God and I will lift him up on high. The Lord is a man of war, Jehovah is his name: Pharao's chariots and his host hath he cast into the sea. His jolly captains are drowned in the Red sea, the deep waters have covered them: they sank to the bottom as a stone. Thine hand Lord is glorious in power, thine hand Lord hath all to-dashed the enemy. And with thy great glory hast thou destroyed thine adversaries, thou sentest forth thy wrath and it consumed them: even as stubble. With the breath of thine anger the water gathered together and the floods stood still as a rock, and the deep water congealed together in the midst of the sea. The enemy said, I will follow and overtake thee and will divide the spoil: I will satisfy my lust upon them: I will draw my sword and mine hand shall destroy them. Thou blewest with thy breath and the sea covered them, and they sank as lead in the mighty waters. Who is like unto thee O Lord among gods: who is like thee so glorious in holiness, fearful, laudable and that showest wonders? Exodus 15:1-11.
And there were in the same region shepherds abiding in the field and watching their flock by night. And lo: the angel of the Lord stood hard by them, and the brightness of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid. But the angel said unto them: Be not afraid. For behold, I bring you tidings of great joy that shall come to all the people: for unto you is born this day in the city of David, a saviour which is Christ the Lord. And take this for a sign: ye shall find the child swaddled and laid in a manger. And straightaway there was with the angel a multitude of heavenly soldiers, lauding God and saying: Glory to God on high, and peace on earth: and unto men rejoicing. And it fortuned, as soon as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another: let us go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing that is happened which the Lord hath shewed unto us. Luke 2:8-15.
In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God: and the word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by it, and without it, was made nothing, that was made. In it was life, and the life was the light of men, and the light shineth in the darkness, but the darkness comprehendeth it not. There was a man sent from God whose name was John. The same came as a witness to bear witness of the light, that all men through him might believe. He was not that light: but to bear witness of the light. That was a true light, which lighteth all men that came into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made by him: and yet the world knew him not. He came among his own and his own received him not. But as many as received him, to them he gave power to be the sons of God in that they believed on his name: which were horn, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh, nor yet of the will of man: but of God. And the word was made flesh and dwelt among us, and we saw the glory of it, as the glory of the only begotten son of the father, which word was full of grace and verity. John 1:1-14.
Hearing those passages helps us to understand Tyndale's statement that scripture ‘maketh a man's heart glad and maketh him sing, dance and leap for joy.’
It was part of his genius too to invent new words when there was no adequate English equivalent available. Take for instance the concept of ‘reconciliation’. It was Tyndale who, having dismissed the other options available, coined the word ‘Atonement’ to do justice to the great act of God in making us ‘at one’ with him.
The question remains, however, as to the extent to which theological considerations dictated, and at times distorted, the quality of his translation. His dispute with Thomas More centred precisely on this area. It was More who was asked by Tunstall to take up the cudgels against Lutheranism and particularly against Tyndale. A G Dickens says of this episode: ‘On both sides there looms not only a closed mind, a refusal to admit any legitimate difference of doctrinal viewpoint, but a personal uncharity so bitter that it seems to blunt the weapons of both.’ And yet if any one emerges with credit from this war of words it is surely Tyndale. His rhetoric, style and arguments are mild when compared to the savagery with which More launched attack after attack. The latter's reproaches are usually unfair and at times demonstrably untrue.
Let us take, for example, More's charge that Tyndale's translation was so poor that it was impossible even to attempt to amend it.
In particular he noted several instances where he believed that it was gravely at fault. He mocked Tyndale's replacement of ‘priest’ by ‘presbyter’ or ‘senior’ and of ‘church’ by ‘congregation’. Later scholarship, however, has given support to the accuracy of Tyndale's interpretation. In these two cases a strong argument can be made for ‘presbyter’ because the word ‘priest’ is never used for a minister in the New Testament, whilst ‘congregation’ approaches most nearly the Hebrew ‘qahal’ from which the Greek word ‘ecclesia’ is derived. Again, Tyndale himself was willing to change his translation where accuracy demanded that he should. The differences between the 1526 and 1534 editions of his New Testament point to a lively mind devoted to the cause of making his translation as true to the original as he could. More's objections seem very hollow in view of these facts.
In fact Tyndale's translation combined a remarkable sensitivity to the richness and cadences of the English language with an impressive knowledge of both Greek and Hebrew that has enabled it to stand the test of time. Passionately convinced of the power of the word of God, his theology does not drag him into interpreting scripture for his own ends. Whilst no one would argue that his translation is perfect, when we recognise that Tyndale did not have access to modern textual and philological tools which have made modern translators' lives so much easier, we can only marvel at his ability.
But all this is not to say that Tyndale was in any sense dispassionate about doctrine. Although, as I have said, we do not know when or how the doctrine of ‘justification by faith alone’ came alive to him, there can be no doubt that it did, and that it played a major role in shaping his life and thought. This too is part of his legacy to us.
On one level we are only too well aware of the negative effects of the arguments that raged over this and other central Reformation doctrines. The splitting asunder of the Christian Church in the sixteenth century, and the multitude of further divisions that have happened since then, are diametrically opposed to the unity that Christ prayed for and longed that his followers would show. In reflecting on these our reaction, from whichever tradition we come, should be one of penitence rather than of reasoned justification.
What is more in some crucial areas of theology the level of division was often not as great as many have argued. Recent work by the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission, whether in looking at Justification or at Eucharistic theology, has shown that these divides are bridgeable given a willingness by both sides to listen and to seek to understand each other. Moreover such a reconciliation of views has always been possible though too often the acrimony of the debates has obscured the real issues involved. It was as long ago as 1956 that Hans Kung published his magisterial Justification of Faith in which he argued that the theology of Karl Rahner was compatible with the teaching of the Council of Trent.
But on another level Tyndale reminds us of the importance there can be to the individual of discovering the grace of God for him or herself. In recent years historians of the calibre of J J Scarisbrick, Christopher Haigh and Eamon Duffy have made us reassess radically some of the crude portrayals of English life in England both prior to the Reformation and also during the turbulent years of the 16th century. By concentrating on what was happening in ordinary parishes, and on the experiences of ordinary people, they have shown that there was much more vitality in the religious life of fifteenth century England than the likes of Simon Fish would have led us to believe. There was also far more continuity at a local level than could have been guessed merely from studying governmental decrees.
Nevertheless, by concentrating on these strands of evidence there is a danger of misunderstanding the degree to which the discovery of some of the central doctrines of the Reformation changed people's lives. No account of that period will be complete that neglects the excitement people like Tyndale found in discovering the grace of God for themselves both through reading scripture and by listening to the preached word. As a group they may have been small in number initially, but by the end of the sixteenth century they represented a considerable force. The religious map of England had been changed. As Eamon Duffy writes ‘By the end of 1570, whatever the instincts and nostalgia of their seniors, a generation was growing up which had known nothing else, which believed the Pope to be Antichrist, the Mass a mummery, which did not look back to the Catholic past as their own, but another country, another world.’
Even those whom Christopher Haigh somewhat cursorily dismisses as ‘parish anglicans' had been caught up in these changes. They now heard the Bible read in English. They worshipped in the vernacular. The near monopoly of the clergy in spiritual matters had been broken. Faith, in a very real sense, had been democratised. Anglicanism was emerging not merely, as some portray it, as an uneasy amalgam that is neither Catholic nor Reformed, but rather, as a distinctive, vibrant entity that was, and remains, both Catholic and Reformed.
Central to this development was the debate over where authority lies in the formation of our understanding of God. Tyndale was, of course, by no means the only person to raise that question in the period, nor was he the most significant of the many involved in the debate. Yet his contribution must not go unacknowledged. His arguments with More ranged precisely over this area. Where ultimately is the bedrock of the faith to be found? In the magisterium of the Church or in Scripture? If such a juxtaposition seems unduly .crude then that is because it is how Tyndale perceived it. It needed the debates of the following decades, coupled with the genius of Richard Hooker, to give birth to the distinctively Anglican position in which Scripture, Tradition and Reason all have their part to play, whilst resting on the cornerstone of Scripture.
Such then is something of his legacy to us but, if the time capsule could be put into reverse what, I wonder, would he think of England today? For the man who desired that the ploughboy should know and love scripture also cried as he was dying: ‘Lord, open the King of England's eyes!’ What might he make of Church and nation today?
His joy that the Bible is readily available and still a best seller would be over-shadowed by the neglect of the word. He would be thrilled to learn, as I did when I visited China just a few weeks ago, that eight million copies of the Bible in Chinese have been published since 1986 and that demand is increasing. He would be modestly delighted too to know that the English version behind the Chinese one draws heavily on his own translation. His pleasure would, however, be muted by the alarming and increasing ignorance of scripture by today's ‘ploughboys’ and ‘ploughgirls’ in the England he knew and loved. The great epics of Old and New Testaments are not heard as frequently in our schools and homes as they used to he. Numerous phrases and sayings coined by Tyndale which became part of the common parlance for many generations are now rarely spoken in public life. The resultant impoverishment for our nation is incalculable.
The Church cannot be complacent either. Tyndale was a ‘gospel man’ whose passion for God and his view that scripture is a mirror that reveals the salvation that is to come was the driving force of his life and the inspiration of his translation. Our lukewarmness, our doubts and fears, our lack of commitment to scripture would depress and dismay him. Five hundred years on, this single-minded and courageous man calls us back to a living faith which is worth dying for. The kind of faith very much alive in places where Christians still suffer and die for their Lord.
It would be interesting too to see his reaction to the burgeoning industry of information technology and the flickering images of screen and video. In his own day he seized the opportunities presented by a new technology to inflame the hearts and lives of men and women, boys and girls. Just as the success of Tyndale's translation would have been impossible without the printing press and the commercial interests of booksellers, so the entrepreneurial Tyndale might see in our own day and age ample opportunities to harness these new skills and abilities for the glory of God. In saying that I dissent from those who say that he would have nothing to do with these innovations as a matter of principle. Linked as he is forever to the printed word, Tyndale's theology took him first and foremost to the Word made flesh who is perceived and known in a variety of ways. All ways of ‘incarnating’ the truth of Christ would be for Tyndale legitimate ways of making Christ known. Tyndale's challenge to the Church today would surely he to take the tools of the world and to use them to the glory of God.
Tomorrow we celebrate his feast day. I am delighted that my predecessor Lord Runcie will be the preacher at St Paul's; elsewhere we have already benefited from Lord Coggan's Gresham Lecture. To have three Archbishops of Canterbury paying him homage would strike William Tyndale as strange indeed but, despite his somewhat cantankerous nature, it is difficult to better J F Mozley's estimate of him as a ‘great Englishman and a great Christian man.’ Tonight in Lambeth Palace, the place that gave him such a hard time so long ago, we salute him as an incomparable translator and scholar — a giant among men.