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Tyndale at Stake


Old Testament Readings: Amos 8:11-12; Isaiah 52:7; 2 Kings 22:8-13

New 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]

This 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 Pope.

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 word.

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 Israel?

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 a nerve!

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 live for!

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 general?

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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