William Tyndale – “This one thing I do”

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The Life of William Tyndale

As a Student

Tyndale’s date of birth is unknown but is likely to have been in the period 1491-1494. At some point in the first decade of the sixteenth century, he went to study at Oxford, at Magdalen Hall which later evolved into the present Hertford College. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1512. Three years later, he was both ordained priest in London and awarded his Master of Arts degree at Oxford. The next few years were something of a mystery. Even though he was ordained, there was no record of him holding any appointment as a priest. It was also noted at that time, it was during the period of John Wycliffe’s work – translation of the Bible from the Latin Vulgate, whom he had a group of followers called the “lollards”. No printing was available then. (This was during King Henry’s reign before he wanted a divorce).

Away from the Academy and Church

John Foxe, a dear friend of Tyndale, managed to obtain a detailed account of the years of Tyndale’s life from 1522 to 1524. Foxe recalls that Tyndale was employed by a Gloucestershire man, Sir John Walsh, at his home of Little Sodbury Manor. Walsh was a notable local figure with several young children, the eldest probably no more than four years of age, to whom it was mentioned that Tyndale acted as their tutor. The role was probably no onerous task and was a way in which the young man could carry on with his studies. In this period, many scholars who did not hold university appointments looked to well-off patrons to give them material support. John Walsh was just the first of several patrons Tyndale was to attract over the following years.

It was unclear at what point William Tyndale began to find his own thinking – moving away from certain respects from the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church, nor do we know when he conceived the great vision of an English Bible. Certainly, whilst he was at Little Sodbury if not before, Tyndale was of the belief that the scriptures must be made available to the English people in their own language. At this point the Bible was read in church in Latin – the scholarly and ecclesiastical language of Europe, so meaning nothing to the average worshipper. Tyndale’s single-minded pursuit of his objective determined so much of the remainder of his life. He found himself in conflict with churchmen in Gloucestershire, which an abstract of the conversation was,

“We had better be without God’s laws than the Pope’s.”, to which Tyndale responded: “I defy the Pope, and all his laws; and if God spares my life, ere many years, I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost!”

He decided upon a move to London in the hope that the bishop, Cuthbert Tunstall, would give him a position in his household to replace the patronage of John Walsh and allow him to begin the translation of the Bible which he fervently desired to accomplish.

However, shortly after arriving in London in 1523, Tyndale was approached by a London merchant who had heard him preach and who was obviously impressed by what he heard. Humphrey Monmouth gave Tyndale board and lodging in his house where the young scholar continued his studies to which he was described, in Olden English, ‘lyke a good priest, studying bothe nyght and day’. Not long after, Monmouth was to fall under suspicion as a result of him taking William Tyndale into his house for those six months.

In London, Tyndale was in a good position to assess whether he might hope for any support in his work towards an English Bible. As the months passed, it became increasingly clear to him that the official attitude in England was, at the best, indifferent to such a project. The association of a Bible in the vulgate tongue with John Wycliffe back in the fourteenth century and his followers, the Lollards, who were regarded as heretics, made for a more negative attitude towards translation in England than was commonly the case in mainland Europe. In 1524, Tyndale decided that the pursuit of his goal might be best undertaken abroad, and so he left London with a little financial backing from Monmouth and other sympathetic merchants who were in the textile industry.

Life of Fleeing

Over the next ten years, Tyndale moved from place to place according to where the needs of his work or security demanded. He may have spent a period at Wittenburg with Martin Luther. By 1525, he had completed his translation of the New Testament and was in Cologne supervising its printing. In an essentially Catholic city, this was a dangerous enterprise. It was reckoned that careless talk in the print shop gave the game away. Tyndale took what was already printed and fled to Worms. The few pages that had been printed were mainly the gospel of St. Matthew and are known as the ‘Cologne Fragment’. It was in Worms in 1526 that the complete text of the New Testament was printed, and the first New Testament in English was to be mass-produced using the printing press rather than being laboriously handwritten.

In these years, it is not always clear where Tyndale was living and working. He certainly spent some time in Antwerp, but at other periods his whereabouts were unknown. Once his translations of the New Testament began to enter England, William Tyndale was no longer an obscure scholar. He was now of concern to the authorities. His translation was burnt at St. Paul’s Cross, similarly to Luther’s writings five years earlier. Attempts were made to persuade him to return to England. Whether it was so that the king might use his talents or simply burn him was not clear. Tyndale suspected the latter and so was wary of doing the king’s command. He always maintained that he was loyal to the king but suspected that if he returned, the bishops would persuade King Henry to treat him badly. He also wanted from King Henry an assurance – to allow the use of the English Bible.

Tyndale knew full well the dangers of returning. He was engaged in a fiercely written dialogue with Sir Thomas More – the Lord Chancellor and pursuer of heretics, who made his views of Tyndale’s theology very clear. In England, men who were sympathetic to Tyndale’s ideas, were involved in book smuggling and distribution, and had been with him on the Continent, were being burnt at Smithfield. Even his old patron Humphrey Monmouth was taken in for questioning about his support of Tyndale. To be associated with Tyndale or his writings was now dangerous. It was no surprise that the man himself thought it wisest to remain ‘in the parts beyond the seas’.

From late 1529 Tyndale was back in Antwerp. From here the following year the first part of his Old Testament translation from the Hebrew began to be taken into England, the five books of the Pentateuch, the only part of the Old Testament to be published in his lifetime.

The Capture of Tyndale

The future for which William Tyndale no doubt hoped at this time was a lifetime of study, translating, revising, writing, and preaching. However, this expectation might have been but for the arrival of the mysterious figure of Henry Phillips.

John Foxe’s account of the events associated with Henry Phillips made clear that his sudden appearance was unexplained and, to a large extent, remained so when Foxe was collecting material for his book some twenty and more years later. It was suggested that his source, Thomas Poyntz, was never able to make full sense of Phillips, although he probably had more opportunity than anybody to observe the man and his actions. But one thing was certain, that Phillips engineered the arrest of Tyndale, and later of Poyntz. On the other hand, his motives and means, and whether he acted alone or with others, were matters which have yet to be explained.

In December 1534 this young Englishman is recorded as having matriculated at the University of Leuven, well known for attracting Englishmen of a conservative religious disposition. By now Tyndale was living with the Poyntz family and, if Foxe is correct, he brought Phillips to the house after having met him at the homes of various other merchants to which he had been invited to dine. As well as sharing some meals with the Poyntz family it appears that on occasion he may have stayed overnight. He impressed Tyndale but not Poyntz.

In the spring of 1535, Phillips engineered the arrest of Tyndale from Poyntz’s house and his incarceration in Vilvoorde Castle near Brussels. Despite the strenuous efforts of Thomas Poyntz, Tyndale languished in that prison until he was taken out, strangled, and burned, in the autumn of 1536. And before he died, Tyndale said in his dying breath, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes”. Truly, after a few years, King Henry separated from the Roman Catholic, triggering the exponential increase of reformed Christians in England for years to come.

This one thing I do – William Tyndale (Philippians 3:13)

Thirst for God’s Word

“More to be desired are they than gold, yea, than much fine gold: sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.” Psalm 18:10

Tyndale’s life was nothing less of the love for God’s word. His entire life was driven by the studying of God’s Word and the translation of God’s word so that the Word of God could be made available to the common man. For over 10 years Tyndale spent his life fleeing and writing and preaching the Word of God.

“All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.” 2 Timothy 3:16-17

However, the importance, the “thirst”, the need for God’s Word was heavily and clearly seen driven by Paul into the heart of Timothy in 2 Timothy 4. He says, “Preach the word…”

During the life of Tyndale and in that time and age, it was clear to see how deprived the people were of the Word of God. Imagine taking a step back and imagine the scarcity of the Word of God in the common language, not in writing or in books but rather just by word of mouth. God’s Word was filtered, it was changed and hidden by the authority of the church, but rather preaching was done in line with the church’s customs and teachings. Such included transubstantiation, indulgence, etc. The people were desperate to know more about God, more about His Word which was reserved for those deemed worthy by the church only. That was the thirst that they had.

Tyndale knew that the heart of every man needs the Word of God; the farmer, the traders, milkmaids and, plowboys alike. Just like in Acts 2, the Pentecost, the Word of God reached the ears of many, of all different tongues where Peter said,

“… Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.” Acts 2:38

Tyndale had a thirst for God’s Word, and he saw that the Word of God was truly sweeter also than the honey and the honeycomb. In Tyndale’s time, people were burned on the stake for having the Lord’s prayer scribbled in English. But yet in this time of poor knowledge, God still shone a light into their souls.

Now a question to us believers, with all our privilege, our knowledge, our contentment that we have: how much do we thirst for God’s Word? Must something be removed before we realised our need for it?

Sufficiency of God’s Word

Tyndale spent 10 years running, translating, and printing the Word of God for the masses. He firmly believed in the phrase translated from Latin “Scripture is its own interpreter”. Throughout his years, Tyndale believed that through the Bible, the Spirit convicts the sinner of his/her sin, imparts the gift of faith, and conveys its intended meaning to those who approach it with humility and prayer. This faith is through the reading and understanding of God’s Word. He fought on his firm belief in the authority of God’s Word. Not man, not the papacy, only God. Through God’s Word, he also knew that Salvation is only through Christ alone. With much of the Roman Catholic preaching deviating from what truly was taught in the Word of God, Tyndale made a clear stand. This was his drive to translating the Word of God into the common language. Tyndale did it so well such that large sections of the JJV was taken almost verbatim from Tyndale’s translation.

“The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple. The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes.” Psalm 19:7-8

“Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away.” Matt 24:35

“All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness: That the man of God may be perfect, throughly furnished unto all good works.” 2 Timothy 3:16-17

Paul too knew the sufficiency of God’s Word. He stood fast and contended for the faith. It is not a “too good to be true” message being preached here but the need to approach the throne of grace in humility and human shame knowing our unworthiness that many of those who were against Paul, and against Tyndale, could not bring themselves to see. We recall what Tyndale said once again,

“We had better be without God’s laws than the Pope’s.”, to which Tyndale responded: “I defy the Pope, and all his laws; and if God spares my life, ere many years, I will cause the boy that driveth the plow to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost!”

Peter also wrote, 

“Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” 2 Peter 1:20-21

Just as how the Bible is the embodiment of God’s Word and His Truth, there can be no other place outside the Word of God that holds anything different or extraordinary of God’s attributes. The churches of Asia minor had this issue of strange doctrines. Tyndale in his time had the Papacy, which taught many things that were unbiblical, such as the sale of indulgences, and redemption not solely through the atoning work of Christ.

But let us ask ourselves, what has constantly tempted us away from the notion that God’s word is sufficient? Well, it is the things of the world! The illusion to keep up with the times of the world so that God’s Word can be effective, the need for all the bells and whistles so that people can be enticed to come to church, the over-reliance on the great wealth of sermons or internet podcasts we can listen on the go that we can forgo the plain-ol’ reading of the Bible ourselves, rather than the simple but deep doctrines that claim to hold great weight to Salvation.

How then should we firmly, not only just believe, but rather live out the sufficiency of God’s Word?

Focus on God’s Word

“Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:13-14

Tyndale was a man that frankly, if we took away the work of his translation of the Bible and look closely at his background, we can see a few things. He was a man that was from a middle-class family, as brilliant as he is, he graduated with a master’s degree, was ordained, but never took up the priestly role in the church. He had no family, no wife, no children. He was in no way renowned in the academic and religious world if not for his work on the Bible translation. He knew 7 languages but outside the work of God, no one would have known. He lived a life of a fugitive, a vagabond.

“This one thing I do…”

But Tyndale had a singular focus, which was Christ. When we see Paul’s life, we are reminded of his missionary journey, his singular focus on preaching God’s Word. We think of his shipwreck, his constant running away.

“Of the Jews five times received I forty stripes save one. Thrice was I beaten with rods, once was I stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I have been in the deep; In journeyings often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils by mine own countrymen, in perils by the heathen, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils among false brethren; In weariness and painfulness, in watchings often, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness. Beside those things that are without, that which cometh upon me daily, the care of all the churches. Who is weak, and I am not weak? who is offended, and I burn not? If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities.” 2 Corinthians 11:24-30

Paul was brought to the point where he had to unwillingly vindicate himself to prove his office. But was his point just to show his stripes? Or to boast a little? No. His point was to turn the Corinthians to Christ. It is not about him. Because

“If I must needs glory, I will glory of the things which concern mine infirmities.”

Like Solomon’s words as well,

“Vanity of vanities, saith the Preacher, vanity of vanities; all is vanity. What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth for ever.” Ecclesiastes 1:1-4

Tyndale knew that his life had one goal – which was to translate the Bible to the common English language. The burden that God has placed in his heart had equipped him with the ability to do so. We remember Tyndale’s final words, he said, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes” so that the Bible translated into English could be openly spread to the masses.

So dear Christian, how focused are we on God’s word and His Work? Have the things of the world in our peripheral vision become the focus of our sight? Our work, our passion, our success, our own lives? How much of it is focused on God? The reformers came into the picture not because they discovered the truth but rather because the people had forgotten the truth. Truth be told, there is really nothing new under the sun. Sin, the works of the devil, temptations of the world, these may take a different form but, the truth still stands, which is what the reformers’ lives constantly remind us of.

Here’s a story that I would like to share to you.

Two teenagers asked their father if they could go to the theatre to watch a movie that all their friends had seen. After reading some reviews about the movie on the internet, he denied their request.

“Aw dad, why not?” they complained. “It’s rated PG-13, and we’re both older than thirteen!”

Dad replied: “Because that movie contains nudity and portrays immorality—which is something that God hates—as being normal and acceptable behaviour.”

“But dad, those are just very small parts of the movie! That’s what our friends who’ve seen it have told us. The movie is two hours long and those scenes are just a few minutes of the total film! It’s based on a true story and good triumphs over evil, and there are other redeeming themes like courage and self-sacrifice. Even the Christian movie review websites say that!” said the teenagers.

The Dad replied, “My answer is ‘no,’ and that is my final answer. You are welcome to stay home tonight, invite some of your friends over, and watch one of the good videos we have in our home collection. But you will not go and watch that film. End of discussion.”

The two teenagers walked dejectedly into the family room and slumped down on the couch. As they sulked, they were surprised to hear their father preparing something in the kitchen. They soon recognized the wonderful aroma of brownies baking in the oven, and one of the teenagers said to the other, “Dad must be feeling guilty, and now he’s going to try to make it up to us with some fresh brownies! Maybe we can soften him with lots of praise when he brings them out to us and persuade him to let us go to that movie after all.”

The teens were not disappointed. Soon their father appeared with a plate of warm brownies which he offered to his kids. They each took one. Then their father said, “Before you eat, I want to tell you something: I love you both so very much.”

The teenagers smiled at each other with knowing glances. Dad was softening.

“That is why I’ve made these brownies with the very best ingredients. I’ve made them from scratch. Most of the ingredients are even organic. The best organic flour. The best free-range eggs. The best organic sugar. Premium vanilla and chocolate.”

The brownies looked mouth-watering, and the teens began to become a little impatient with their dad’s long speech.

“But I want to be perfectly honest with you. There is one ingredient I added that is not usually found in brownies. I got that ingredient from our own back yard. But you needn’t worry because I only added the tiniest bit of that ingredient to your brownies. The amount of the portion is practically insignificant. So, go ahead, take a bite and let me know what you think.”

“Dad, would you mind telling us what that mystery ingredient is before we eat?”

“Why? The portion I added was so small. Just a teaspoonful. You won’t even taste it.”

“Come on, dad, just tell us what that ingredient is.”

“Don’t worry! It’s organic, just like the other ingredients.”


“Well, OK, if you insist. That secret ingredient is organic…dog poop.”

Both teens instantly dropped their brownies back on the plate and began inspecting their fingers with horror.

“DAD! Why did you do that? You’ve tortured us by making us smell those brownies cooking for the last half hour, and now you tell us that you added dog poop! We can’t eat these brownies!” they shouted.

“Why not? The amount of dog poop is very small compared to the rest of the ingredients! It won’t hurt you. It’s been cooked right along with the other ingredients. You won’t even taste it. It has the same consistency as the brownies as well. Go ahead and eat!”

“No, Dad…NEVER!”

Dad smiled. “And that is the same reason I won’t allow you to go watch that movie. You won’t tolerate a little dog poop in your brownies, so why should you tolerate a little immorality in your movies? We pray that God will not lead us unto temptation, so how can we in good conscience entertain ourselves with something that will imprint a sinful image in our minds that will lead us into temptation long after we first see it?”


At the end of the day, the reformers lived a life that is consistent with the need for the thirst for God’s Word, the sufficiency of God’s Word, and a focus on God’s Word. They lived a life that is different, persecuted, and tortured because they cling firmly to the cross and the Word of God. If we have to summarise one point about the reformers, it would be the understanding that their lives are owned by Christ alone, just like what Job and Paul said,

“Wherefore I abhor myself, and repent in dust and ashes” Job 42:6

“For to live is Christ to die is gain.” Philippians 1:21

Beloved, let us then examine ourselves and reflect,
Have we lost the focus on God’s Work and Word? What is God’s will for us individually as Christian? Have we truly lived a life for Christ?

“The need for the word of God be made available”

Historical Background – William Tyndale