Friday, September 20, 2013


I've been reading a biography of William Tyndale, (Book of Fire by Brian Moynahan) that I picked up cheap at the Half Price Bookstore.  Though I was already familiar with his story and his place in the history of England and the English Church, I took the opportunity of getting a fresh look.  Tyndale was a man used by God to bring many to Himself and to change history.

Tyndale was a 16th century scholar and one of the first to translate the entire Bible, Old and New Testaments into the English language.  He had an advantage over his predecessors such as John Wycliffe, in that there was a new technology available -- the printing press.

But William Tyndale was an outlaw -- a wanted man who would eventually pay with his life for his "crimes."  He was a smuggler.  His English Bibles were outlawed in his native country.  He had to have them printed in continental Europe and taken by whatever means available into England where they were received as contraband, almost as illegal drugs would be received today.

Some background:  The Roman Catholic Church in England, as in most of Europe, had held absolute control over everyone for 1,000 years.  It was in league with the government and did not allow for dissent.  The Bible of the Church was the Latin Vulgate -- a translation a thousand years old -- and unreadable not only by the illiterate masses, but even by many in the priesthood.  And apparently the Church hierarchy liked it that way.  The Church of the middle ages had developed into a complex hierarchy, a priestly system that controlled the people and kept them in ignorance of the simplicity of the gospel of Christ and bound to a complex religious scheme.  Very few knew or understood what the New Testament actually taught.

However, a few in England, as well as in other parts of Europe, had begun to dissent from standard Church teaching and practice and recognized there was something better.  Before Tyndale's day, John Wycliffe and others had opened up minds to the Scripture.  In Bohemia, John Huss had followed Wycliffe and brought the Bible to the people of his nation.  And, of course, by the time Tyndale appeared on the scene, Germany had split over the teachings of Martin Luther.

These revolutionary events occurred because people -- common people -- were reading the Bible for themselves.  And the disagreements were not over minor points.  What people were discovering was that salvation was not through a church system but through simple faith in Jesus Christ and His death on the cross.

But Tyndale's Bible not only showed the people of England the simplicity of salvation, it posed a threat to the powers-that-be.  Even the words that he used were revolutionary.  For instance:

He translated the Greek EKKLESIA as "congregation" rather than "church," in a sense transferring authority from the hierarchy to the people.

PRESBUTEROS became "elder" or "senior," instead of "priest," again striking at the hierarchy.

METANOEĊŒ became simply "repent," rather than "do penance" threatening what Moynahan refers to as the "huge vested interest in the lucrative penitential industry of pardons and indulgences" (page 72).

I believe that the great threat that the reading of the Bible had toward the church of Tyndale's day was not only or even necessarily doctrinal -- a disagreement over how one could be saved -- but a threat to the very power structures of the church.  If the Church did not hold sway over the people by being dispensers of salvation, it lost its base of power.  The personal powers and wealth of priests, bishops, even the pope, were threatened.  So Church and state united to suppress the English Bible.

But the gospel spread in Roman Catholic England, as it had in the pagan Roman Empire in the first centuries, as it has in Atheist China in the last 75 years, as it often does when the authorities attempt to stifle it.

Within a few decades, the power of the Roman Catholic Church in England was broken.  However, the "Church" was still in power, united with the state; only now it was the Church of England.  Later English history records the back and forth movements of the church, depending on the religious background or preference of whoever was in power.  Catholics, Anglicans, Puritans, all took their turns at power, with wars and slaughters following.  And, of course, all of this spilled over into the New World.

Though I can rejoice over the "triumph" of Tyndale's gospel in England, is this what it's all about?  There are those in America today who claim to be followers of Christ who seem to think so.  They bemoan America's "slide into Sodom"'; they fear the "secularization" of America.  They want to see America "return to its Christian values."  They attach themselves to political dreams and would outlaw, or at least restrict (their ideas of) improper behavior.  But history has demonstrated over and over that the closer the church's well being is tied to political power -- secular or religious -- the weaker its spiritual power.

I am not concerned that the American church of today will ever attempt to bring back the tactics of the English church of Tyndale's day.  We've come a bit far since then.  And I have little fear that my faith and practice will become against the law.  I do fear, however, that there are those in the church who would exchange the gospel and its practice for power and control.

Jesus told his disciples, "The kings of the nations lord it over them, and those in authority are called benefactors.  But it's not so with you ..." (Luke 22:25, 26a).  When will we understand this?  When will we get back to the radical Christianity of Tyndale?  Or of Jesus?

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