William Tyndale by Melvyn Bragg: Review

Ash Cunningham 09 Oct 18

“I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost.” (p.20)

Said in zealous anger by William Tyndale to a clergyman who revelled in his own ignorance of the Bible, this promise was made in a context so different to our own that it is hard to relay just how unrealistic it must have sounded. The Bible was not available in English, and even if it were, the language of the working class was a dense patois in relation to how scholars such as Tyndale spoke. These issues notwithstanding, one thing remains: no ploughboy could read.

How then, could such a promise be kept?

                           

Melvyn Bragg makes no secret of his admiration for Tyndale from the off, and one might be forgiven for suspecting at times that this veneration was earned by achievement for the sake of the gospel so much as for the sake of English Literature. The book both starts and ends with ardent comment on the extensive (one might say ‘catholic’) effects upon history and literature accredited to Tyndale’s Bible. Bragg will not be maligned without defence, though, and at points loses his historical thread to wax lyrical about the abiding virtue of the doctrine of Grace over and above the avarice and malfeasance abuse of the Roman Catholic Church against whom Tyndale declared war:

”Uproot all these cheating and footling tricks and bribes of salvation. Your soul is not in the hands of this bejewelled and strangulating infestation of lies at the false heart of Roman politics. It is in the clear simplicity of grace. Through grace, through faith in God, through belief in this, you will be saved at the last...Be free. Speak directly to your God in faith and he will listen and you will be saved.” (p.14)

Though this was Bragg seemingly adopting the persona of Tyndale, that level of fervour is rarely feigned. 

This biography also draws attention to present dangers within the Church and society. In addition to the widespread corruption of the Roman Church, Bragg elucidates on other societal triggers... and nothing triggers Tyndale more than anti-intellectualism: we hear about the clergy’s aversion to study and the tolerating of this by their overseers - in some places the majority of clergy could not repeat the 10 commandments and many didn’t know even where in the Bible they could be found (p.8)

Bragg does not linger on Tyndale’s early years - I was treated to a single mention of my old school where Tyndale was sent, but it is omitted that we also produced Thomas More who conspired to murder him - (both had houses named after them: talk of anti-intellectualism in preference for reputation...). It is made evident, though that Tyndale’s talent for linguistics and passion for Scripture were developed early - indeed, Bragg suggests that anything outside of the Scriptures was deemed to be without value to the Church.

Bragg follows Tyndale out of school, out of various teaching positions, and, sadly, out of England as he was forced into exile in pursuit of his goal of the ploughboy’s Bible. We follow him up to his betrayal and murder, but do not leave him there. Bragg quite rightly follows Tyndale’s work right up to this present day - you will never know how much you owe to this man... but you’ll come much closer to knowing once you have read this book.

I will give one last spoiler before you order it - how did Tyndale make it so that an illiterate ploughboy could know more of the Scripture than a clergyman? Certainly, Tyndale’s legacy contributed to the eventually ubiquitous education in Britain, but even before that... Tyndale translated in such a way that the working class man could memorise easily. To demonstrate the accessibility of Tyndale’s Bible, Bragg gives us a side by side with a literal translation of Luther’s account of the Sermon on the Mount.

Luther’s reads, ‘When he the people saw, ascended he up a mountain and sat  himself and his disciples stepped to him and he opened his mouth and taught them, and said “Blessed are they that spiritually poor are because the heavenly Kingdom is theirs.’

Tyndale’s, however, many readers probably already know, with a little prompting: ‘Seeing the crowd, he went up into a mountain and when he was set, his disciples came unto him and he opened his mouth and taught them, saying “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of heaven.’

If doubt remains as to the success of Tyndale’s mission, visit a random clergyman in England, then visit a random crofter on the Isle of Lewis and test their biblical literacy. Chances are, it’s a fair fight.

Thumbnail William Tyndale can be bought here, to the benefit of any aspiring historical theologian. This is not a devotional book, and I cannot vouch for the personal beliefs of the author - but it is a truly faithful history of a man so in love with the Lord and his Word that personal study will no doubt turn your heart to praise as it did mine.