BOOK OF FIRE: William Tyndale, Thomas More and the Bloody Birth of the English Bible
Written by: Brian Moynahan
Reviewed by: Sunita Arthur Selvaraj
Most of us use our Bibles nearly everyday and yet have very little insight into the complicated and violent history behind the origin of the English Bible. William Tyndale, was one of the earliest translators of the English Bible. He remains anonymous due to a deliberate effort by people in power to erase him from history. This book tells the story of what that was done.
Moynahan begins his book without the usual introduction. Instead, the first pages assault the reader with a rather horrific preface titled, “On The Burning of Heretics.” Ironically, this is the story of how John Wycliffe’s body (which was buried because he was not burnt at the stake) was dug up and burnt in order to give Wycliffe the stamp of a heretic. William Tyndale too was ultimately burnt at the stake.
William Tyndale was born and raised at a time when Europe was going through one of the most turbulent times in its history. The main establishment of the Roman Catholic Church was facing what it saw as a rising tide of opposition – the Reformation. Martin Luther was making waves throughout Roman Catholic Europe because of his rather radical ideas and writings. England had its own Reformation which then gave birth to the Church of England and the English Bible.
Oxford is where Tyndale’s life encountered a major turning point. Academic life at Magdalen College exposed the extreme bias against the English language which was considered so low-brow that it was not even worth writing down. God’s languages were Hebrew, Greek and Latin. But Tyndale loved the English language which he described as “our mother tongue.” Tyndale felt bored and stifled at Magdalen, especially because he also loved studying theology. But Magdalen provided him with all the linguistic skills to become the excellent translator that he eventually turns out to be. Not only did he receive his bachelor’s degree but continued on for another three years to complete his master’s.
Tyndale then moves to Cambridge where he seems to have become more radicalised due to the influence of the Lollards. These were a group of Christians who were followers of John Wycliffe. Wycliffe and the Lollards were precursors of the Protestant movement in England. They stressed the importance of Scripture as the only source of Christian doctrine. The influence of Wycliffe and the Lollards definitely sparked a flame in Tyndale. This flame was further fanned in Tyndale when, during his time at Cambridge, Martin Luther nailed the 95 theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. This is when Tyndale, eerily, as Moynahan puts it, takes “his own steps to the stake.”
William Tyndale’s primary passion in life was to translate the Bible into the English language. What drove this unquenchable flame in his heart? He wrote of being embraced by the light of “Evangelion (that we call the gospel) … a Greek word and signifieth good, merry, glad and joyful tidings, that maketh a man’s heart glad and maketh him sing and dance and leap for joy…” To translate this Evangelion was an act of “affection and rapture.”
England is well aware of Tyndale’s project as King Henry VIII, the great heretic hunter, had a sophisticated spy network whose sole mission was to hunt down and catch those who were engaged in this kind of work. King Henry despised Martin Luther and did not want his ideas to spread in England. But Tyndale was doing more than translation work. He was also writing other works, especially addressing those who were opposing him. The person in-charge of leading the spy network was Thomas More. More’s primary duty was to find proof of Tyndale as a heretic and a traitor and that his works were seditious. But Henry does win in the end. His agents chase down and ultimately catch Tyndale. Tyndale’s own words provided proof that his works were indeed seditious, that he was a heretic and worst of all, he was a traitor to King Henry and England. Tyndale is finally executed in the town of Vilvoorde, Belgium, the details of which are truly horrific.
This is not an easy book to read as it does not shy away from highlighting the extent to which the Church, at that time, was willing to kill those who were opposed to her. But this book is also brilliant at really focusing on the main point, which is the extent to which men and women were willing to die for the sake of the Gospel. Persecution takes on an entirely different meaning when we look at the life of William Tyndale.
Brian Moynahan does a brilliant job of using extensive historical sources to support his narrative. And yet, at no point does this book feel like one is merely reading a historical text. Although we are not privy to any personal reflections from the author, the reader definitely gets the impression that Moynahan’s main task in writing this book is to get his readers to at once be awed by William Tyndale’s courage but also be shocked at how his life ended.
What can we modern Christians and readers of the English Bible take away from Tyndale’s extraordinary life? Do we admire his steely resolve to set his face determinedly towards death? Or do we chastise him for his rather tactless and overt criticism of those who were opposed to him? Was he over the top? After all, the Bible would eventually have been translated into English, right? Whatever one may conclude from reading about William Tyndale’s life, I for one am extremely grateful for his love of his mother tongue. I am grateful for his translation work. My heart is torn to pieces at how he was hounded and killed. I look forward to meeting him in heaven. Praise the Lord for William Tyndale!
“I defy the Pope and all his laws. . . . If God spare my life ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough, shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost.” – William Tyndale
About Sunita Arthur Selvaraj
Sunita is Senior Lecturer at the Center for American Education at Sunway University. She teaches courses in the area of the liberal arts and the social sciences which include Philosophy, World Religions, etc. She is a huge fan of Reformation history. She is utterly fascinated at how God has used and is still using different languages to reach people with His Gospel.