William Tyndale and Sola Scriptura

William Tyndale’s English translation of the New Testament, first published in 1526, was met with sharp disapproval in England

Translating “congregation” instead of “church,” “superior” instead of “priest,” and “repentance” instead of “penance” was to have potentially huge consequences on the Church’s doctrine. For example, penance implied an action performed by the sinner for the remission of his or her sins, but repentance could simply be an admission of guilt and turning of the heart. It would have dismantled many of the Church’s “remedies” for sin, such as confession to a priest, pilgrimages, and indulgences. Tyndale stood by his translation.

 

William Tyndale’s English translation of the New Testament, first published in 1526, was met with sharp disapproval in England – not only because it was common knowledge that Scriptures should not be placed in the hands of the uneducated masses, but also because of the translation itself.

Translating “congregation” instead of “church,” “superior” instead of “priest,” and “repentance” instead of “penance” was to have potentially huge consequences on the Church’s doctrine. For example, penance implied an action performed by the sinner for the remission of his or her sins, but repentance could simply be an admission of guilt and turning of the heartIt would have dismantled many of the Church’s “remedies” for sin, such as confession to a priest, pilgrimages, and indulgences.

Tyndale stood by his translation. He had an excellent knowledge of both Greek and the Scriptures, and knew enough of the history of the church to see how these “remedies” had developed throughout time in response to a felt need.

Tyndale’s Early Life

William Tyndale was born in Gloucestershire, England, probably in 1494, to a large and influential family. He graduated at Magdalen College, Oxford with a BA in 1512 and MA in 1515, when he was also ordained priest. He was appalled to discover that his studies of theology didn’t include Scripture. Most likely, he supplemented his studies with Erasmus’s new Latin translation of the New Testament, which was published together with the original Greek.

Tyndale continued to preach while working as tutor for the children of a noble family. His preaching, with a strong emphasis on scripture for the people, was well accepted by many but also strongly opposed by some – so much that Tyndale was suspected of heresy. This only strengthened his desire to print the New Testament in English. In 1523, Tyndale was in London, where he stayed for almost a year, preaching and looking for support of his project. When he realized that his efforts were in vain, he left for Germany, supported by a few cloth merchants in London (who later got in trouble for that).

Tyndale the Translator

Tyndale moved to Wittenberg and enrolled in the university. By 1525, he had translated the New Testament into English and was looking for a publisher. The first publisher who accepted the task, Peter Quentel, had to stop when his workshop was raided by opponents of this work. Tyndale fled to Worms, where the translation was finally published in 1526, and began to be smuggled back into England on merchant ships. There, the ecclesiastical authorities sought to have it burned.

Over the next ten years, Tyndale made at least two revisions to his translation of the New Testament and – after learning Hebrew (which was virtually unknown in England) – he began translating the Old Testament, completing Genesis to Deuteronomy, and the book of Jonah. At the same time, he wrote a long series of polemical treatises arguing the claims of reformed theology – particularly sola fide, sola Scriptura, and the precedence of God’s calling over our faith. These pamphlets were also smuggled into England.

Tyndale’s most influential book outside his Bible translations, The Obedience of a Christian Man, came in October 1528. Enemies were asserting that the reformers throughout Europe were encouraging sedition and teaching treason. Tyndale wrote to declare for the first time the two fundamental principles of the English reformers: the supreme authority of scripture in the church, and the supreme authority of the king in the state. These pamphlets were widely read and immediately banned.

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