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Tyndale's Heresy

by Matthew A. C. Newsome

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    Document Information

  • Description:
    This is an examination of William Tyndale's translation of the Bible (1525) and the reason why he was condemned for heresy.
  • Larger Work:
    This Rock
  • Pages: 18 – 19
  • Publisher & Date:
    Catholic Answers, Inc., San Diego, CA, December 2002

The new edition of the New International Version (NIV) Bible came out this year. Why is it newsworthy? Because this is the "Inclusive Language Edition," and conservative Protestants everywhere are up in arms. I read of the NIV Inclusive Language Edition while visiting family in Greenville, South Carolina. On Sunday February 24, 2002, the Greenville News ran an article by Deb Richardson-Moore. She wrote that the business of biblical translation can be dangerous, citing as evidence William Tyndale, whom she wrote "was burned at the stake for the heresy of translating the Greek New Testament into English in 1525." She reported that today he's known as "the father of the English Bible."

Phrasing it this way makes it sound as if the heresy Tyndale was condemned for was the act of translating the Bible into English. This is a common mistake and often repeated. In fact, when doing a bit of research for this article, I came across several web sites on Tyndale that said just this. One stated, "Translating the Bible was considered a heresy" (our-world. CompuServe.com/homepages/geoff_whiley/tyndale.htm). Another proclaimed that in 1408 a law was enacted that forbade the translation of the Bible into English and also made reading the Bible illegal (britannia.com/bios/tyndale.html).

Of course, anyone familiar with the history of the Catholic Church, which for 2,000 years has been preserving and protecting the word of God, recognizes how ludicrous this is. It was is only by the authority of the Catholic Church, which collected the various books of Scripture in the fourth century, that we have a Christian Bible at all. And it is only because of the Church that the Bible survived and was taught for the many centuries before the printing press made it widely available. All Christians everywhere owe it a great debt for that.

So what was the real reason William Tyndale was condemned? Was translating the Bible into English illegal? The answer is no. The law that was passed in 1408 was in reaction to another infamous translator, John Wycliff. Wycliff had produced a translation of the Bible that was corrupt and full of heresy. It was not an accurate rendering of sacred Scripture.

Both the Church and the secular authorities condemned it and did their best to prevent it from being used to teach false doctrine and morals. Because of the scandal it caused, the Synod of Oxford passed a law in 1408 that prevented any unauthorized translation of the Bible into English and also forbade the reading of such unauthorized translations.

It is a fact usually ignored by Protestant historians that many English versions of Scripture existed before Wycliff, and these were authorized and perfectly legal (see Where We Got the Bible by Henry Graham, chapter 11, "Vernacular Scriptures Before Wycliff"). Also legal would be any future authorized translations. And certainly reading these translations was not only legal but encouraged. All this law did was prevent any private individual from publishing his own translation of Scripture without the approval of the Church.

Which, as it turns out, is just what William Tyndale did. Tyndale was an English priest of no great fame who desperately desired to make his own English translation of the Bible. The Church denied him for several reasons.

First, it saw no real need for a new English translation of Scripture at that time. In fact, booksellers were having a hard time selling the print editions of the Bible that they already had. Laws had to be enacted to force people to buy them.

Second, we must remember that this was a time of great strife and confusion for the Church in Europe. The Reformation had turned the continent into a volatile place. So far, England had managed to remain relatively unscathed, and the Church wanted to keep it that way. It was thought that adding a new English translation would only add confusion and distraction where focus was needed.

Lastly, if the Church had decided to provide a new English translation of Scripture, Tyndale would not have been the man chosen to do it. He was known as only a mediocre scholar and had gained a reputation as a priest of unorthodox opinions and a violent temper. He was infamous for insulting the clergy, from the pope down to the friars and monks, and had a genuine contempt for Church authority. In fact, he was first tried for heresy in 1522, three years before his translation of the New Testament was printed. His own bishop in London would not support him in this cause.

Finding no support for his translation from his bishop, he left England and went to Worms, where he fell under the influence of Martin Luther. There in 1525 he produced a translation of the New Testament that was swarming with textual corruption. He willfully mistranslated entire passages of sacred Scripture in order to condemn orthodox Catholic doctrine and support the new Lutheran ideas. The bishop of London claimed that he could count over 2,000 errors in the volume (and this was just the New Testament).

And we must remember that this was not merely a translation of Scripture. His text included a prologue and notes that were so full of contempt for the Catholic Church and the clergy that no one could mistake his obvious agenda and prejudice. Did the Catholic Church condemn this version of the Bible? Of course it did.

The secular authorities condemned it as well. Anglicans are among the many today who laud Tyndale as the "father of the English Bible." But it was their own founder, King Henry VIII, who in 1531 declared that, "the translation of the Scripture corrupted by William Tyndale should be utterly expelled, rejected, and put away out of the hands of the people."

So troublesome did Tyndale's Bible prove to be that in 1543 — after his break with Rome — Henry VIII again decreed that "all manner of books of the Old and New Testament in English, being of the crafty, false, and untrue translation of Tyndale . . . shall be clearly and utterly abolished, extinguished, and forbidden to be kept or used in this realm."

Ultimately, it was the secular authorities who proved to be the end for Tyndale. He was arrested and tried (and sentenced to die) in the court of the Holy Roman Emperor in 1536. His translation of the Bible was heretical because it contained heretical ideas — not because the act of translation was heretical in and of itself. In fact, the Catholic Church would produce a translation of the Bible into English a few years later (the Douay-Rheims version, whose New Testament was released in 1582 and whose Old Testament was released in 1609).

When discussing the history of biblical translations, it is common for people to toss around names like Tyndale and Wycliff. But the full story is seldom given. This present case of a gender-inclusive edition of the Bible is a wonderful opportunity for Fundamentalists to reflect and realize that the reason they don't approve of this new translation is the same reason that the Catholic Church did not approve of Tyndale's or Wycliff'ss. These were corrupt translations, made with an agenda, and not accurate renderings of sacred Scripture.

Here at least Fundamentalists and Catholics are in ready agreement: Don't mess with the word of God.

Matthew Newsome, a convert to Catholicism since Easter 2000, runs an apologetics web site, Turris Fortis http://albanach.org/ apologetics. He writes from Sylva, North Carolina, where he lives with his wife and daughter and teaches RCIA.

©2002 by Catholic Answers, Inc.

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