Souls at stake: Tyndale, the Bible and the 21st century


By Sister Beatrice Garnett

The Adult Learning programme (formerly St Paul’s Forum) at St Paul’s is always attractive, varied, and appealing to all sorts of men and women. On 24 October, I arrived, I thought, in plenty of time for doors opening at 6pm to listen to a talk given by Melvyn Bragg and Dr Jane Williams.

I was impressed to see a queue, more so when it turned out to be around the churchyard, behind the cathedral and out of sight.  We all got in, not far short of 2,000 people and soon applause was rippling back to greet the two speakers.  Each spoke for about twenty minutes, noticeably appreciating and deferring to each other. A few notes follow.  

Melvyn Bragg (English broadcaster, author and parliamentarian) told us about the life, times, death, and over-riding aims, of William Tyndale. His New Testament (NT) translation ended up being publicly burnt, 3000 of them, at St Pauls Cross in 1526.  The burning of books was then followed by the burning of people as London became a “citadel of torture”.  In 1536 Tyndale was finally burnt at the stake as “the most dangerous man in Europe”.  He was put to death for his vision and profound belief that all should have access to the Bible in their own language. He was described as the one who challenged the Pope and the use of Latin, leading to what was seen as a challenge to the established church.  He was fearless and a “genius of translation” with a consequent unplanned influence on the English language greater than that of Shakespeare.  Finally we were told that 93% of the King James Bible NT came from Tyndale’s translation.  His phrases include: fight the good fight, cast the first stone, and two sparrows sold for a farthing.

He came from the West Country with a background in the wool trade and was aware of weaknesses among the small town clergy of his time.  He had a good education with a profound attraction to scripture from an early age. By the time he was in his 20’s he had the reputation “Always the scriptures”.  He went back to studying Greek, avoided Latin, used the word congregation instead of church and elder instead of bishop – preferences that were undone as quickly as possible after his execution.

In a time of low literacy levels he preached to the people, expecting his translation to be read aloud, discussed and explained in congregations where everyone was to hear the preaching of Jesus.  He used common speech, modern style and changed contemporary “Duty to believe” into “Liberty to think”.

However, on the continent Luther was already changing and terrifying both church and state.  Tyndale was regarded as a monster and in a climate of mass hysteria Thomas More was ordered to hunt him down for being guilty of treason. He escaped abroad, his Bible was printed, pocket size, in Belgium and sent over in bales of wool.  Tyndale himself was constantly on the move, in disguise, even now nobody knows what he really looked like. He was finally tracked down, outside Brussels, betrayed, imprisoned and burnt to death. 

Dr Jane Williams (Assistant Dean and lecturer in Systemic Theology at King’s College, London and visiting Lecturer in Theology at King’s College London) concentrated on the Bible as gift, as a witness to the reality of God in our own image, yet in a sense imposed on us. The Bible stops us, it is not our idea, why these books when there were other collections, other sources? We do not pick and choose; used responsibly the Bible draws us into the company of others – the same points could be made about the church.  Each person brings something of themselves to bible study and as we read we become a part of the story.  There are obvious dangers of forming our own faith.  William Tyndale could not have foreseen our world, he saw the Bible as God’s book for God’s people to be accessed in the congregation through the liturgy.

Secondly, Dr Williams asked, “Are there things worth dying for?  Was it worth it?”  Tyndale had no way of knowing that others would take up his work, but for him the Bible is too important to be in the hands of a few.  “What is worth dying for?  What will we kill for?”  Dying and killing are not much of a muchness.  There is a sorry history of Christian tyranny (might is right) but Jesus did not impose his will by force.  There must be things worth dying for.  What would we die for?  The book that William Tyndale died for, does it matter enough to us - in our time? We cannot afford to leave it to chance.  Difficulty is also opportunity.

We then moved on to questions, with many picking up on the idea of “Liberty to think”. “Have we forgotten this?”  Dr Williams gave her belief that thinking is a corporate exercise, and there is no getting around it and avoiding responsibility.  Liberty to think is also liberty to engage with others, argue, pray, serve, form ourselves as Christ-like people.  Melvyn Bragg told us the Bible became a political document enabling thinking for yourself, against others, “yet liberty comes with a thousand confusions”.

Two groups of questions took up canonisation, saints and also, sympathetically handled, the role of Thomas More.  Melvyn Bragg saw Thomas More as a brilliant and complicated man, whose reaction to William Tyndale had not been taken into account.  Dr Jane Williams said: “Killing for faith is never going to serve faith”, the question was “What do you mean by a saint?” Tyndale doesn’t need to be a saint, he would prefer that we read the Bible. 

Questions then became more personal and both speakers answered briefly about how they became interested in Tyndale.  Then it was asked how can we apply this knowledge to the present church?  How can we call people back?  There is not just one answer.  We tend to be terrified of variety.  Dr Williams emphasised that for Tyndale the Bible had shaped his life, he had to live it. It must do the same for us and stop the rumour of God disappearing from this world.  

The evening ended to long applause and a lot of book signing, with queues for everything including viewing the very small and precious original of Tyndale’s New Testament.