Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 27 November 2011

27 November 2011 at 10:00 am

The Reverend Andrew Tremlett, Canon in Residence

Throughout 2011, people in the English-speaking world have been celebrating what has become known as the King James Bible. So-called because it was initiated by King James I at the Hampton Court Conference of 1604. The work of translation was carried out by 3 Companies, one of which met here in Westminster Abbey, completing the translation 400 years ago in 1611.

In this sermon series I have been exploring some of the precursors to this epic achievement and asking how it came into being. I’ve considered the impact of printing as a new technology, as well as the rise of English as a language in its own right. Last week, I talked about the importance of Erasmus of Rotterdam in preparing a text of the New Testament, which Luther was then able to use in his first German translation.

What then of England – how did we get our first Bibles in English?

Today’s sermon is essentially the story of William Tyndale, known to many simply as a name and no more, but to those who benefited from his work – and his sacrifice – surely worth more than the meagre memorial in the South Quire Aisle of this Abbey.

Born in Gloucestershire, 1494 seems the most likely year of his birth, the year in which Christopher Columbus sighted Jamaica. A gifted linguist by any standard – he became fluent in French, Greek, Hebrew, German, Italian, Latin, and Spanish.

After school in Oxford, he attended Magdalen Hall, now Hertford College, and reacted strongly against nit-picking scholasticism. He railed that the Oxford authorities: “ordained that no man shall look in this Scripture until he be ‘nooselled’ in heathen learning 8 or 9 years and armed with false principles with which he is clean shut out of the understanding of Scripture”.

In other words, the Church and University conspired, as he saw it, to ensure that it was not possible simply to read Scripture – you had to do so in Latin (itself a translation) and even then Scripture had to be interpreted in accordance with not just the beliefs, but the practices of the Church.

In an absolute explosion of anger against a fellow-cleric who asserted that “We had better be without God's laws than the Pope's", Tyndale replied: “I defie the Pope and all his lawes. If God spare my life, ere many yeares I wyl cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture, than he doust.”

It is difficult to capture now the power of that statement: against him was the weight of law, which had forbidden the translation of the Bible into English for a century. Against him was the force of the Church in England, who regarded the Latin text of the Bible as a means of controlling who was authorised to interpret Scripture. Against him was Crown of the day, which kept a long memory of the Peasants’ Revolt and saw Tyndale’s cause as a revolutionary step.

Tyndale faced opposition on every side: in 1523 he moved here to London hoping to gain support for his new venture of translating the Bible and approached Cuthbert Tunstall, the Bishop of London. Tunstall was a classicist, a humanist, praised by Erasmus and Thomas More, but he was also a pragmatist and could see in Tyndale’s proposition only trouble for himself and for the Church.

Out of frustration or despair, Tyndale left for the Continent and between May 1524 and July 1525 translated the New Testament, using Erasmus’ 1516 text we heard about last week. Intriguingly, just a few years after Luther had nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, one “Guillelmus Daltici ex Anglia” appears on the University matriculation list.

His first attempt at printing ended in near-disaster: Peter Quentell, whose printing house he was using, was also the printer to an arch-opponent of Luther, who took a dim view of the enterprise, and Tyndale had to flee!

By 1526 the New Testament was translated into English – though anonymously to protect Tyndale. The key thing was the nature of the translation – Tyndale didn’t just want word-for-word, but rather he wanted to get behind the text, to open up the meaning in plain English. Critically, he felt at liberty to alter any part of the translation “that has not attained the very sense of the tongue, or meaning of the Scripture, or has not given the right English word”. In Matthew, the Greek word εκκλησια – ecclesiastical – he translated as ‘congregation’ rather then ‘Church’. So it was the congregation – the gathered group of believers in any locality - which decided on matters faith and discipline, and not the Church as an institutional body. Again πρεσβυτερος was rendered as ‘elder’ or ‘senior’, rather than the more familiar ‘priest’

But above all it was the beauty of his turn of phrase which secured Tyndale’s place as the master of translators. So many phrases were coined that we still use today:

• Romans 13: ‘the powers that be’ 

 • Genesis 4: ‘my brother’s keeper’ 

 • Matthew 5: ‘the salt of the earth’ 

 • Romans 2: ‘a law unto themselves’ 

 And some words were created where none existed in English – ‘scapegoat’ for the goat bearing the sins of the Jews released into the desert. ‘Atonement’ signified the reconciliation of God and humankind through putting them ‘at one’, literally, the ‘at-one-ment’. 

Over the next 7 years, the situation in England became volatile and fluid. The trickle of Protestant books from the Continent became a flood – so much so that Thomas More publicly burned hundreds of them in the Steelyard in London, the traditional German quarter of the capital. Bishop Tunstall took out an injunction against selling Lutheran books and summoned book-sellers around St Paul’s to hear a tirade against the 2,000 errors he had found in Tyndale’s translation.

Unsurprisingly, Tyndale was placed alongside Luther as an enemy of the status quo but by 1534 his response was to re-issue the New Testament with some 5,000 alterations. Now living in Anterwerp, Tyndale was famously betrayed to the Holy Roman Empire, strangled and burnt at the stake – at the very time that Henry VIII had broken from Rome and was being petitioned by his own new Church of England for an English translation: “that the Holy Scripture should be translated into the Vulgar English tongue by certain good and learned me, to be nominated by His Majesty, and should be delivered to the people for their instruction”.

This is a story of vision, determination, courage, perseverance, as well as technical skill and literary imagination. But above all it is about the providence of God working through an individual’s life to bring about change not only among those who read his translation, but among those who incorporated so much of it into the King James’ Bible we have celebrated this year. Indeed, most studies indicate that 80% - 90% of Tyndale’s work found its was into the King James Bible.

As in previous weeks, however, I want to end not by looking to the past, but by asking you to consider the present. The life and times of Tyndale were terrible and turbulent, but from these grew a movement of strength and energy which challenged and revitalised not just the Church but impacted wider society. Can we see the hand of God at work in our own day – through the fall of Communism, the rise of the Far East, the growth of Christianity on the African continent, and even in the Arab Spring?

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