Maybe I never said it out loud, and I certainly wouldn’t have let any of my friends hear me say it, but I wanted more than the Bible seemed to offer. Thus I loved hearing supposed prophecies in church, devoured books on “Christian” psychology and hungered for God to speak to me personally.
Truthfully, I don’t believe my unspoken dissatisfaction with the Bible was atypical.
Whether evangelicals admit it or not, many of them want something beyond Scripture to guide their decision making or to help them better experience God. Having spent most of my Christian life in that camp, I very much understand that perspective. People who long for something that feels more personal than Scripture often genuinely love the Lord and want to be close to Him.
I believe, however, that Christians in the 16th Century would struggle to understand why evangelicals in our day and age feel such dissatisfaction with the Bible. For centuries, the Roman Catholic Church kept Scripture away from the common people, insisting that only priests and official Roman Catholic teaching could interpret it. Essentially, medieval people had absolutely no access to the Lord unless their parish priest miraculously went against Rome by teaching Scripture accurately.
God faithfully provided men like Martin Luther and William Tyndale to translate the Bible from its original Greek and Hebrew into European languages so that people could read it for themselves. As you might imagine, however, Rome wasn’t exactly thrilled by the prospect of people having such access to God’s Word.
In order to demonstrate the intensity of Rome’s opposition to Bible translation, I want to remind you of the price William Tyndale paid for engaging in translation work.
Tyndale (b. 1494 – d. 1536) was an accomplished linguist, with impeccable credentials for any sort of translation work. As he grew in his exposure to the writings of Erasmus (a Roman Catholic who made the Greek New Testament available) and Martin Luther, he developed a desire to translate the Bible from its original Greek and Hebrew into English.
Although such a translation would have been technically legal in England in the 16th Century, Catholic condemnation of the practice stemming from the struggle with Wycliffe two-and-a-half centuries earlier resulted in a law that such translation work could only take place under a bishop’s patronage. Obediently, Tyndale approached Bishop Cuthbert Turnstall, who had actually worked with Erasmus on his Greek New Testament. Turnstall flatly refused Tyndale’s request.
Tyndale believed that Scripture should be available to common Englishmen, rather than left to a Roman Catholic clergy that added their own doctrines to it and therefore amassed enormous political and ecclesiastical power. So he fled to Europe, where he lived incognito while he produced the forbidden translation.
Living in Brussels, Tyndale and his supporters smuggled English translations of the New Testament in bales of cotton that were shipped to England. Of course, this activity definitely violated English law. Tyndale knew that, if he was captured, he would face the death penalty. But he willingly took that risk, continuing to translate the Old Testament as he smuggled copies of the New Testament back to England.
In 1530, Tyndale wrote a pamphlet opposing King Henry VIII’s plan to divorce Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn. While Tyndale most assuredly was correct in denouncing the king’s actions as unbiblical, I’m baffled as to why he would do something that would obviously intensify England’s resolve to capture and execute him. As a result of the pamphlet, someone high in the king’s court engaged a profligate named Henry Philips to befriend Tyndale and ultimately deliver him to English authorities.
After an 18-month imprisonment, Tyndale was executed by strangulation (because his executioners respected him and wanted to spare him the 30-minute agony of being burned alive) and then burned at the stake. His last words were “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes!”
Was God’s Word worth such suffering and sacrifice? The indifference many professing Christians show it today makes it seem like William Tyndale would have done better to pursue an academic career, privately studying the Bible for himself. But Tyndale burned with a passion to get the Bible into the hands of every day people. He gave his life so that English speaking men and women could hear God’s voice through the pages of Scripture.
As professing Christians in our century clamor for more than they think Scripture offers, the 16th Century Reformers call us back to the power of God’s Word to speak to us. We study the Reformation in order that we might treasure the restoration of God’s Word to His people. The martyrdom of people like William Tyndale demands that we stop despising Scripture by seeking “something more.”