CHRIST IS THE CAUSE why I love you, why I am ready to do the uttermost of my power for you, and why I pray for you. And as long as the cause abides, so long lasts the effect: even as it is always day so long as the sun shines. Do therefore the worst you can to me, take away my goods, take away my good name; yet as long as Christ remains in my heart, so long I love you not a whit less, and so long are you as dear to me as my own soul, and so long am I ready to do you good for your evil, and so long I pray for you with all my heart: for Christ desires it of me, and has deserved it of me.
—THE OBEDIENCE OF A CHRISTIAN MAN, 1528
WILLIAM TYNDALE fascinates, and at many levels, some we are not even aware of. We speak English as he heard it, when our common language took a major leap from the late Middle Ages. Tyndale is what we love about Shakespeare. Born around 1494, or thereabouts, in Gloucestershire, England, in the Cotswolds, near the border of Wales, little is known about his family or his life before entering Oxford, perhaps at twelve. He received both a Bachelor's and Master's Degree by the time he was twenty. Though he spoke eight languages, when he left England (to translate an English bible), he knew no Hebrew (it wasn't taught at Oxford or Cambridge at the time). Once he landed on the continent, it is thought he went to Cologne, to Hamburg, perhaps Wittenberg, then Antwerp, but again, we have little
choice but to fill in the gaps with a well-informed historical imagination. What we do know is that Tyndale produced the first English New Testament from the Greek in 1526. In this magnificent little book, for the first time we are introduced to memorable phrases like:
Give us this day our daily bread
For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory for ever
In him we live and move and have our being
Behold, the lamb of God
I am the way, the truth, and the life
Fight the good fight
For my yoke is easy and my burden is light
Behold, I stand at the door and knock.
Seek, and ye shall find
Tyndale was an outlaw working on an outlawed book. Sir Thomas More, particularly, wanted nothing more for than Tyndale to burn for his efforts. Once he left England, Tyndale lived only twelve more years. And they were twelve outrageously productive years. He was put to death in 1536, after spending 500 days in a dungeon. While on the continent, and while in continuous flight, he somehow managed not only to complete two editions to the New Testament, but learned Hebrew—possibly in Wittenberg. Again, we do not know. But he managed, before his death, to translate 2/3 of the Old Testament, from Genesis to II Chronicles, and what he referred to as The Story of the Prophet Jonas (Book of Jonah). We hear, from Tyndale's OT, again, a sound familiar to our ears:
In the beginning God created heaven and earth. The earth was void and empty, and darkness was upon the deep, and the spirit of God moved upon the water. Then God said: let there be light and there was light. (GENESIS 1)
And they heard the voice of the Lord as he walked in the garden in the cool of the day. (Genesis 3)
And the Lord said unto Cain: where is Abel they brother? And he said: I cannot tell, am I my brother’s keeper? (GENESIS 4)
The Lord bless thee and keep thee.
The Lord make his face shine upon thee and be merciful unto thee.
The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace. (NUMBERS 6)
Entreat me not to leave thee,
and to return from after thee,
for whither thou goest, I will go,
and where thou dwellest, there I will dwell:
thy people are my people, and thy God is my God.
where thou diest, I will die, and there will be buried. (RUTH 1)
Though we have always given credit to the King James Bible for the Scripture many of us grew up on, and given it generation after generation of applause, the credit rightly goes to William Tyndale. I admit my devotion to the man is rather shameless. The following entry from GODSPEED: VOICES OF THE REFORMATION, is based on one of my favorite lines from Tyndale. For what he suffered, for the unconquerable thing in him, for his matchless contribution to both the English language and English spirituality, and for how untrumpeted he remains, how underprized, he has first chair in this devotional, even above Luther. This one line of text captures Tyndale like few can.
ENTER WILLIAM TYNDALE
Histories are fun. They feed a curiosity we all have to understand our roots. But it is relevance that makes histories truly worth our time. The common Englishman or Englishwoman in the Middle Ages was not allowed (by law and often by penalty of death) to read or own a vernacular scripture (the Bible in their own language), and the only church they were allowed to attend was the Roman Catholic Church, which co-ruled all Western governments. The Roman Church was the government of governments. The services were in Latin, another way the Church leadership maintained control. With its lovely polish and the dark mood of its music, many believers thought of the Mass as a form of magic.
Enter William Tyndale. Imagine that one man offers God to them in a language they can understand. God sounds like they do. It is no less than emancipation. It revolutionized culture. And they devoured the Word. They were wild for it. It is little wonder that a generation following Tyndale saw the rise of the English stage (1570s), then another generation later, William Shakespeare. Indeed, with the dismantling of the Roman Church in England, the theater took the place of Roman worship (in its way), including the high tone of the Mass we detect in Shakespeare's English.
Tyndale was accused of always being about his "one note," that is, a vernacular scripture. I, for one, am grateful. For twelve years he perfected the New Testament, and almost gave us a complete Old Testament. By intrigue and a long hunt, Tyndale was eventually captured and placed in a dungeon in Vilvorde, near Brussels, Belgium. After a long and tedious trial, he was executed by strangulation then burned at the stake. It has been said that his last words were, "Lord, open the King of England's eyes." This may or may not be factual. It doesn't matter. His ashes were thrown into the nearby Zenne River, according to the custom of the Roman Catholic Church. Burning someone at the stake was not about punishment. It was about erasing the earth of their memory (a metaphor that never really worked).
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