When parents ask me what they should do to raise their children to be the sort of people that change the world I tell them that they
ought to frequently read Christian biographies to their children. I know the profound impact Christian biography had in my own life; early and often my parents had me read the stories of Hudson Taylor, Jim and Elisabeth Elliot, William Carey, Amy Carmichael, and many others and this cast a vision for the blessedness of following and honoring God. Obviously, this isn’t the only thing parents should do, but it is one very important thing; give your children a template for how they ought to live as they grow into adulthood.
Well, biographies have simply become a constant companion for me along the way of life, and I usually read through a couple every year. I must say that “William Tyndale” by David Daniell was certainly the most scholastically intense biography I’ve ever read (and as a result it took me about 2 years to get all the way through this one). I’m not a fast reader, but I’m not slow either; so this one is certainly not for the faint of heart, or the small of vocabulary, or short of attention span!
If I were awarding stars I would award this one: 5 stars for scholarly depth, 3.5 stars for readability, and 5 stars for inspirational and convicting content. Daniell certainly shows painstaking thoroughness in tracing the uncertain beginnings of Tyndale, as well as elaborate on the educational and spiritual climate of his generation. It is apparent that anyone who delves into the world of Tyndale will need to be prepared to do their homework; the man was a genius and an incredible wordsmith and Daniell does a wonderful job of introducing his readers to the scholastic culture of Tyndall’s day.
This was, for me at least, one of the most profound and convicting aspect of this book, the fact that the educational structure of Tyndale’s day (built upon the classical model of education) was remarkably superior to ours. It has introduced me to a whole new world of educational structure that I intend to pursue for myself and my children. An educational system that trains students to think logically and then write and speak forcefully. It rewarded intellectual robustness and punished slovenly minds. Tyndale was known in Europe for knowing seven languages as if he were a native of those languages. Such a mind is the result of tender nurture and rigorous exercise!
Daniell could have made this volume more accessible to the lay reader; however, because of the towering height of Tyndale’s genius and work, it is as if Daniell endeavors to raise his readers to the highest level possible in understanding and appreciating not only Tyndale as a man of God, but as a thinker, Reformer, Bible translator, and contender of true Christianity. Tyndale came to prominence during the turbulent years of the early 1500s. He emerged from an obscure and seemingly humble childhood, and as he came of age it is clear that he was dissatisfied with the spiritual apathy and unfaithfulness to the Word of God of the Roman Catholic Church. He said of his time at Oxford (where he studied): “In the universities they have ordained that no man shall look in the Scripture until he be noselled [nursed] in heathen learning eight or nine years and armed with false principles with which he is clean shut out of the understanding of scripture”. It grieved him to see that men being prepared for the ministry were not taught Christ’s Word, but rather men’s opinions and philosophies! He recognized that when these scholars were finally allowed to access the Word they then “dispute all their lives about words and vain opinions, pertaining as much unto the healing of a man’s heel, as health of his soul.”
For Tyndale, this was unacceptable and it set him on a trajectory of seeing his infamous “plough boy” reading and knowing the Scriptures. The first step on this path was his mastering classical Greek while at Cambridge; a Cambridge which had recently come under the massive sway and influence of Erasmus. I have not the time here, but there is such a fascinating contrast between Tyndale and Erasmus that is worthy of a book of its own; I wrote on this a while back, here. For now, I’ll leave you with Daniell’s comment on the contrast between two men with incredible minds: “The activity of Christ in the Gospels, his special work of salvation so strongly detailed there and in the Epistles of Paul, is largely missing [from Erasmus’ writing]. Christologically, where Luther thunders, Erasmus makes a sweet sound: what to Tyndale was an impregnable stronghold feels in [Erasmus’ work] like a summer pavilion.”
This leads me to discuss the man, Tyndale himself. His scholastic accomplishment and prowess is impressive, but it is that he was described by John Foxe as a “constant martyr of Christ” which makes him an inspiration and conviction to those who would learn what a life of godliness and perseverance should be. His translation of the New Testament, and much of the Old Testament (which ultimately gave us the King James Bible), was fueled by a very deliberate goal: to take the original language and bring it into English in such a way that it, above all, made sense. However, his goal of making the text clear and plain does not mean he gave us clunkiness; instead he gave us a masterpiece of how beautiful the English language is and maintained the musicality of this tongue.
He labored through English politics, Church opposition, teaching himself Hebrew, enduring exile, setback and shipwreck, learning from Luther and yet standing on his own, all to give to us the Bible in English. It was illegal to do, but he endured manifold difficulties to give us this immense gift. All the while, even in his famous debate with Thomas More (who wrote 750,000 words of attack on Tyndale and his work), he carried the reputation of being a man of honor, humility, generous to the poor, and pure in his lifestyle. Even his enemies could find nothing at fault in him, except it be that he refused to cease translation of the Bible into English.
The Lord Jesus was the ultimate focus for Tyndale’s life and work. Tyndale once proclaimed in his book “The Wicked Mammon” that “[Jesus’] blood is stronger than all the sins and wickedness of the whole world […] and thereunto [one] must commit thyself […] or else perisheth thou though thou has a thousand holy candles about thee, a hundred tons of holy water, a ship-flu of pardons, a cloth sack full of friars’ coats and all the ceremonies in the world and all the good works, deservings and merits of all the men in the world, be they or were they never so holy.” The point? Man’s righteousness and good works are filthy rags and cannot save; in Christ alone is salvation found!
We need more “Tyndales”. Men who are found, as he was described: “always singing one note”. That note of bringing the Word of God to every man, woman and child, whether prince or plough-boy. We also need to return to the educational model which nurtured Tyndale’s intellect. But it must be classical education that revolves around Christ Jesus and not Plato. Philosophies and heathen writers have their place, but it isn’t the center; Tyndale gave us the Bible in English, and would exhort us to make sure that we keep Christ central in our life, family, education, work, and ministry!
In early October 1536, Tyndale showed how far he was willing to go in order to bring the Word of God into English: he was unjustly strangled and then burned at the stake as a heretic. His final words a prayer, “Lord! Open the King of England’s eyes!” Such a prayer shows that this man’s aim was not long life, prosperity, fame, fortune, or influence; rather, it was that God would move the heart of the king to allow English speaking men and women to read the Word of God for themselves, in their own tongue! For Tyndale, this was not merely because he thought of the Scriptures as great literature which all should read, but that they “scatter Roman darkness by this light!” His aim was the proclamation of the Gospel, which is the power of God unto Salvation. Even as he sat betrayed in a prison cell, awaiting his execution, he makes it clear that he is willing to suffer imprisonment and death, all to see the Gospel advanced!
John Foxe tells us that “such was the power of his doctrine, and the sincerity of his life, that during the time of his imprisonment, (which endured a year and half), it is said, he converted his keeper, the keeper’s daughter, and others of his household”. One of his enemies even commented that he was “learned, godly, and good”. Also, the final document we have from Tyndale, a letter written during his imprisonment, shows a humility, gentleness towards his captors, and even a contentment with his sufferings; he simply requests warmer clothes to endure the winter in his German prison, a few other comforts, and interestingly a Hebrew Bible, grammar and dictionary in order to pass his hours in “study”.
This study likely would have been the completion of the entire Old Testament into English, with Tyndale’s masterful grasp of Hebrew. It indeed is a sad loss, but in God’s wisdom, this loss pales in comparison with what was gained by his unjust imprisonment and execution. Indeed, a righteous man to the end, we see his prayers and life’s effort blessed by God years later. God honors those who honor Him. In Tyndale’s case, he honored his Lord and Master even unto death; one friend describing Tyndale’s final days this way: “through it all, his [Tyndale’s] chief thought is for the gospel”. This is the sort of man we need once more; a man who labors hard and long for the Gospel cause, and dies valiantly, trusting God, even unto death. I highly commend to you this biography, if nothing else to open your eyes to see the great gift we have in our English Bible!