In Praise of the English Bible
In the Anglican Book of Homilies, the first sermon is entitled, A Fruitful Exhortation to the Reading and Knowledge of Holy Scripture. It begins with simplicity, clarity and power: “Unto a Christian man, there can be nothing either more necessary or profitable than the knowledge of Holy Scripture, forasmuch as in it is contained God’s true Word, setting forth his glory and also man’s duty.”
I’ve been reflecting on these words as we approach the 504th anniversary of the Reformation. Are my own Scriptural reading habits as robust as they could be? Does the devotional life within my parish really reflect the belief that there is nothing “more necessary or profitable” than a deep familiarity with the Bible? I know that we have Bibles in our pews and Bibles on our bookshelves, but are they read, marked and inwardly digested? And if they are, do those of us who read and study the Scriptures honor and cherish the courage, devotion and sacrifice that has placed the Bible in our hands?
There are many ways, of course, to tell the story of the English Bible, but the classic tale begins with a priest and theologian named John Wycliffe (1324-1384). Wycliffe was a student of the Latin translation of the Bible, but the more he read the more he doubted that the teachings of the New Testament were being honored in the Church. His radical treatise De veritate sacrae scripturae broke with the settled theology of his day and argued for the sufficiency and primacy of Holy Scripture. Soon, glosses and translations of the Latin Bible into the vernacular began to circulate in England, and these writings quickly became associated with the preaching and teaching of Wycliffe. By the 1370’s, Wycliffe and his followers were being denounced as “lollards” or “mutterers” because of their intense focus on reading, memorizing and proclaiming the Bible in English.
Wycliffe was lucky. Despite ecclesiastical hearings and a papal condemnation, he retained his freedom and ministry, dying of a stroke in his parsonage in 1384. His followers, however, were not so lucky. By 1410, owning or copying a “Lollard Bible” was condemned by both Church and Crown, and espousing Lollard beliefs warranted persecution as a heretic. In 1425, even Wycliffe himself was condemned posthumously, and his body was dug up, burned and thrown in a river. Nevertheless, Wycliffe’s ideas continued to spread, and the Lollards continued to preach, teach and transcribe copies of Biblical books into English.
By the end of the century, the Lollard movement was on the wane, but in 1494 William Tyndale was born. Like Wycliffe, Tyndale was ordained as a priest and trained as a scholar of the Latin Bible. He too became convinced that the Church he served had drifted from her proper Scriptural moorings, and so he began a project to translate the entire New Testament into English, working not from the Latin manuscripts as Wycliffe and his followers had done, but translating directly from manuscripts written in Greek.
By this time, however, copying and circulating the Bible in English had become highly dangerous and subversive work. The same year Tyndale began translating his New Testament, a young man from Norwich was burned publicly for heresy for the “crime” of owning a copy of the Lord’s Prayer in English. Tyndale finished his New Testament and had it printed abroad in 1526, but he was forced to flee to Antwerp in order to continue his work on the Old Testament. Tragically, Tyndale was betrayed by an acquaintance in Antwerp and arrested, tried and convicted of heresy. On October 6, 1536 he was strangled to death and his body was burned publicly for daring to translate the Bible into English.
Thankfully, Tyndale’s death did not stop his New Testament from being printed, sold and read. In fact, printings rapidly increased. Soon after Tyndale’s execution, Miles Coverdale completed his translation work on the Old Testament and full copies of the English Bible began to be printed, circulated and sold (illegally) in England. Although it has become somewhat standard in historical scholarship to think of England’s Reformation as a “top down” affair imposed by clergy, this view underestimates the well-documented desire among the English laity to hear and understand the Bible for themselves. Tyndale did not impose his Bible on lay people; rather, he tapped into their own spiritual yearning for a direct and personal understanding of the Word of God.
Consider, for example, Rawlins White, an illiterate Cardiff fisherman, who sent his son to school during the reign of King Edward so that he could learn to read and write in English. The boy would read a portion of the Bible to his father each night after supper, and his father would commit what he heard to memory with such attention and accuracy that he could cite chapter and verse number. Another man, John Maundrel, purchased his own New Testament and carried it with him everywhere he went, even though he was illiterate. When he met anyone who could read, he would bring out his New Testament and implore them to read him a portion of “the Good Book,” which he would duly memorize. Even more astounding is the testimony of Joan Waste, a blind woman from Derby who made her living sewing. She saved her meager earnings and bought herself a copy of the New Testament, which she had friends read aloud to her. It was reported that Joan could recite entire chapters of the Gospels by heart.
Like Wycliffe and Tyndale, these common men and women yearned to read and understand the Bible, and although it is almost unthinkable to us, each of them paid a terrible price for their devotion and fidelity. They were all arrested, tried and burned alive for the heresy of reading and possessing an English Bible.
In the end, if we are to honor their devotion and sacrifice, we must honor the Scriptures for which they died. The Bible is not like any other book. It is God’s “true and lively Word” spoken to us and for us. The more intimately we come to know the Bible, the more emphatically it becomes our book. It becomes our frame of reference and defines our vision of what is possible. It shapes our hopes, our desires and yes, even our loves. This is possible because God’s glory is indeed manifest throughout its pages. The Bible is the story of God interwoven with the story of us all, and it is the greatest story that can ever be told.
This is what John Wycliffe knew, and this is what William Tyndale, Rawlins White, John Maundrel and Joan Waste died for. When we read the Word of God, we encounter God as He has revealed Himself to be. To know God in this way empowers us to live new ways. The larger the Bible looms in our imagination, the more skeptical we become of the Spirit of the Age and the Ruler of this World, and the more willing we become to live and die as Children of God. In this way, the Bible gifts us with spiritual vision. It pushes us to examine ourselves and our world anew. And it reminds us that the real gap, the real separation, that ought to concern us as followers of Jesus Christ is not the separation between culture and the life of the Church, but the separation between the life of the Church and the Word of God.
So, let us read. And as we give ourselves ever more faithfully to the words of Scripture, may the Word Himself dwell ever more abundantly in us.