Testament Readings: Amos 8:11-12; Isaiah 52:7; 2 Kings 22:8-13
Testament Reading: Mark 8:34-38
And he called the
people unto him, with his disciples also, and said unto them: Whosoever
will follow me, let him forsake himself, and take up his cross, and
follow me. For whosoever will save his life, shall lose it. But
whosoever shall lose his life for my sake and the gospel's, the same
shall save it. What shall it profit a man, if he should win all the
world, and lose his own soul? or else what shall a man give, to redeem
his soul again? Whosoever therefore shall be ashamed of me and of my
words, among this adventurous and sinful generation: of him shall the
son of man be ashamed, when he cometh in the glory of his father with
the holy angels. [Tyndale’s translation, 1534]
is Reformation Sunday. It was also four hundred fifty five years ago this
month that William Tyndale, an Anglican priest, was strangled at the stake
and then burnt. Tyndale is one of those of whom the Bible says that being
dead he yet speaketh. For one thing, as I've already implied, he died a
martyr to his faith.
For another, he was the
first to translate the Bible into the English language. In fact you and I
are very familiar with his work, since over eighty per cent of his
translation was taken over into the King James Bible and on into the RSV.
He once told a prominent churchman about his plan of translating scripture
into the vernacular and added the comment, "If God spare my life, ere many
years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more scripture
than thou doest."
Tyndale would be rightly
venerated for either of these feats, his martyrdom or his translation, but
as it happens there was a connection between the two. You see, the
ecclesiastical establishment was not at all of the opinion that the Bible
ought to become available to the rank-and-file Christian. After all, who
knew what this accursed multitude might do with it if the knowledge of
good and evil were made available to them?
So both Henry the Eighth,
he for whom the Reformation was just a complicated way of getting a
divorce, and Cardinal Wolsey, tried to stop his work, and finally he was
betrayed and judicially murdered. But not before he had managed to
translate the New Testament and much of the Old into English.
I believe that issues are
raised by the work and the fate of William Tyndale, issues worthy of
consideration any Sunday, indeed any day at all, but which fairly scream
aloud for treatment on Reformation Sunday.
These issues are as
central to the Reformation in their way as were the three great Latin
battle cries Sola Fide! Sola Gratiae! Sola Scriptura! Faith
alone! Grace alone! Scripture alone!
First, the issue for
which Tyndale died. Why were the ecclesiastical and the secular princes in
league to dam up the free flow of the Bible? Were they a clique of
gibbering Satanists fresh off the set of the "Geraldo" program? Was their
goal to prevent spiritual growth and existential encounter with the words
of Christ? Did they get together and decide, "It would be better for
people not to know the promises of God, the rebukes of the Prophets, the
stories of salvation. Let's keep them in the dark!"
I cannot believe those
were their thoughts. No, rather I would bet that their concern was a
solicitous one, the warm and tender concern of the shepherd for the sheep.
The trouble was, it was the concern of the Grand Inquisitor. The
presupposition was that people are only troubled by knowledge, not helped.
The assumption was that
the people might not be trusted, any more than a physician might trust a
sick man to choose something from the pharmacy at random. No, the
knowledge must be doled out by experts. To give a man a Bible and tell
him, "Here, you have the same access to the truth as the Pope does" is to
make every man his own Pope, only nowhere near as educated as the official
And the result? The
Church correctly saw what would happen. A little knowledge is a dangerous
thing, and this is equally true of a little knowledge of the Bible. And
one may have memorized the whole Bible and yet have very little knowledge
of it. The Catholic Church in effect warned Luther, the translator of the
Bible into German, that once every dullard and fanatic had his own Bible,
unchartable chaos would result! And it did! The dizzying variety of
Protestant sects is the result! Jimmy Swaggart is the result! Jim Jones is
the result! Opening the covers of the Bible was opening Pandora's box!
In many ways I sympathize
with that custodial, proprietorial view of the Bible. I cringe when I see
what the ignorant dogmatist does with his Bible, how he has forewarned and
forearmed people against an accurate knowledge of the Bible by plying them
with some untenable, unhistorical sectarian reading of it. I will make
bold to say that I do not respect many peoples' reading of the Bible, no
matter how much they cherish it, and no matter how much I respect them as
persons. They are simply not in a position to know what the text means and
how to find out. They do not know the arcane art of interpreting an
ancient document from an alien culture.
But Tyndale was right and
his persecutors were wrong. The problem is that one simply cannot leave
the truth to the "experts"! It is too important for that! Of course that
is not to say that ignorance is somehow better, an amazing attitude one
often finds among ignorant Bible readers. No, the alternative is to begin
becoming an expert yourself!
The truth has to be pried
out from the fingers of those who jealously guard it, so that others may
have a look. If you don't feel you can trust the elite who have a
stranglehold on the truth, then the price that must be paid is to let the
fanatics have the truth, too, no matter what they do with it, so that the
rest of us can have a chance to make a better judgment of our own.
Have you followed the
strange story of the Dead Sea Scrolls? Approximately a quarter of the
Scrolls have been jealously guarded by a small elite of scholars for 35
years! The original research team wanted the luxury of writing their
definitive commentaries before the texts saw the light of day. They wanted
to have the last word before anybody else could say their first
Finally the rest of the
scholarly community could stand it no more and demanded free access to the
manuscripts. Even after a media barrage the Israeli government only agreed
to let the material out in a slow trickle. But then, thank God, a few
scholars decided the "authorities" had forfeited any rightful authority,
so they managed to obtain bootleg texts and made them available.
The Scrolls have always
been controversial. People have always suspected that scholars were
suppressing them because of some shocking revelations about the origins of
Christianity. I find that unlikely, but after all, who knows? There is one
new text called "The Son of God"! Perhaps there was knowledge in
those Scrolls that the select team just didn't feel the public was ready
for without some scholarly sugar-coating. Soon we ought to know, one way
or the other.
In all this I see an
exact analogy to the situation Tyndale faced. In his day only the Latin,
Greek, and Hebrew-reading clerics had access to the scriptures. The elite
judged it better that way. After all, suppose the laity were to be able to
read it for themselves and begin to notice certain discrepancies between
Biblical mandates and current church practices? Without the proper
schooling in harmonization, allegorization, and theological
rationalization, they might fly off the handle and begin to question
Mother Church! And then their salvation might be endangered! It's not nice
to fool with Mother Church!
The Church was like the
Dead Sea Scroll team. Tyndale was like the rebel scholars who'd had enough
and decided to make the secret texts available to the public, let the
chips fall where they might! Tyndale must have calculated it was worth the
risk: that the plough boy should know first-hand the challenge and the
comfort of the Word of God was worth risking the possibility of a Thomas
Muntzer or a Charles Manson, with their deadly exegeses.
And in deciding to make
this trade, Tyndale himself joined the goodly fellowship of the Prophets.
After all, hadn't he taken history in his hand when he took up the pen and
began to translate? Hadn't he decided to end the famine of the Word of
God, just as the prophet Elijah had put an end to the 3-year drought in
God had said to him, to
Miles Coverdale, to Martin Luther, and to other pioneer translators what
he had said to Jeremiah: "I appointed you a prophet to the nations!
Behold, I have put my words in your mouth. See, I have set you this day
over nations and kingdoms, to pluck up and to break down, to destroy and
overthrow, to build and to plant." (1:5, 9b-10)
If you read the Bible not
in the original languages, but in the King James, Revised Standard, or New
American Standard Versions, what you take to heart as God's Word are in
large measure the words of William Tyndale! He has truly become for you
one of the sacred authors!
By making the Bible
available, he changed the history of Christianity. And his calculus of
freedom has also led to the opposition of censorship. It is the same
trade-off. In America we believe that we must remain free to question the
official version of the truth. But if Ralph Nader is to be free to
question it, equally must the Ku Klux Klan be free to question it! If we
are to be free to hear Martin Scorcese's heretical gospel, we must also
endure Al Sharpton's and Jimmy Swaggart's!
Tyndale, then, had
effectively become a prophet. What other word would you use for it? What
word is more appropriate for one who, like Hilkiah, discovers the hidden
book of the Law of God and promulgates it afresh?
I hope you don't think
that I am trivializing when I say that you, too, may don the prophetic
mantle any time you have occasion to bring to light any forgotten truth,
to bring it to the light of day when consciences have suppressed it, when
culture has forgotten it, when current tastes do not want to hear it.
Surely Tyndale and Luther
were prophets fully as much as Isaiah and Jeremiah and changed history as
much or more! Thirty years ago, at the Second Vatican Council, the
Catholic Church itself decided Tyndale had been right and encouraged Bible
reading among the laity.
When the Word of God goes
forth, whoever sends it flying is a prophet! And it might as well be you!
Do not obstruct the passage of the truth by false humility. You need not
be worthy of the task. The Word of God is worthy enough!
But what happens to
prophets? They have a nasty way of being persecuted, the more severely the
greater the waves they make. One might even gauge the impact of one's
prophecy by the magnitude of the hostility one evokes! Tyndale had touched
And this raises the last
issue I want you to consider. We know what the prophet Tyndale died for.
What would you consider as more important than your life? I hope
there is something more important to you than your life. The Psalmist
said, "Thy loving-kindness is better than life!" Jesus said that no own
who did not hold his own life as worthless by contrast was worthy to
follow him. What is worth more to you than your life? Your answer will
reveal much. It will not reveal whether you have courage. I am not asking
whether in the event you would have the courage of Tyndale or of Thomas
More, or of those three who gave their lives to protest the coup in the
Soviet Union. I just want to know what you think you ought
to do in that situation.
That will tell us what
your life is about. Whatever you see as more important than your
life certainly should have a lot to do with the direction of your
life, with your priorities. I mean, if a thing is theoretically
important enough to die for, certainly it is important enough to
There are some obvious
items on the list. Of course you would die for your spouse or your
children. In a second. You would most likely die to defend your country,
or the principle of a free society.
Would you die for your
faith? For the name of Jesus Christ? Or when it came down to that, would
you suddenly get very sophisticated and decide that you needn't be tied
down to any religious confession in particular, but could be religious in
Would you die to preserve
the Bible if there should come a day when, as the Emperor Diocletian's
troops did, a government tries to destroy all Christian books?
Would you die to protect
the Mona Lisa from a vandal? I would not, but an artist might well die for
the Mona Lisa. And I would praise him for it, though I would not see it as
my calling. I have seriously wondered if I would die to protect the last
surviving copy of Strauss's The Life of Jesus Critically Examined
or Bultmann's History of the Synoptic Tradition. They are monuments
of Biblical scholarship, and to lose them would set back the understanding
of the Bible. Would I? I don't know. All I know is that if I knew someone
else had died to keep them available to me, I would be eternally grateful.
You are enjoying the
legacy of William Tyndale whenever you read the versions of the Bible
which he shaped. But just as surely you are carrying on his tradition
whenever you act on the belief that knowledge must not be suppressed
regardless of the risk. Insofar as you allow yourself to be a conduit of a
truth others would suppress, you are a prophet like Tyndale, on however
small a scale.
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