This week I found myself at a loss as to what I should do concerning one of the people who showed up to our doors asking for assistance. She was a sweet tiny little woman who spoke little to no English whatsoever. I slowly but surely discerned she was searching for a class where she could learn the English language; she only spoke Vietnamese. Sadly, I had no idea how to help her, how to assist her, and most importantly, I had no idea how to communicate with her. It took a significant amount of time even to gather what she was looking for, and what her purpose for being there was. Unfortunately, I had no understanding of the Vietnamese language, no one at the building held an understanding of the language, and I found myself as hopelessly helpless as the sweet lady in front of me.
She then showed me her phone, which at first, was as incommunicative as her speech with all the words being in Vietnamese. After trying to see what she was attempting to point out to me, I realized that she had a Bible app pulled up and was trying to ask if she could learn the Bible here. Her request was so incredibly genuine, but I had no chance of ever helping her understand the Scriptures if we did not even have the communicable abilities to discover each other’s names. I gave her some information about the church, about our worship times, and I even gave her some materials where she might find the truth; however, every single piece of that information was written in English, and probably proved to be useless. As the day moved on and progressed, I could not help but feel saddened by the knowledge that someone could not understand the Gospel simply because of a language barrier.
This made me think about the many Bibles I have in my office; there are about a dozen on one shelf. What if these Bibles I have in my possession were not in a language I could understand? What if just like I struggled with the sweet Vietnamese lady, I had no ability to discern, understand, or receive communication from the Word of God? This may not be something you have thought about before, because we all have more access to the Bible now than ever before. There are paper copies, electronic copies, software, apps, and more outlets than ever before in the history of mankind when it comes to access to the Word of God. Today, I want to rewind back to the time where there was no translation of the Bible into English, and the people who attempted to translate it into English were put to death.
In the mid 14thcentury A.D., there was no complete translation of the Bible into English. Congregants and believers in God had one primary Bible they “learned” from, the Latin Vulgate. Leaders in the Roman Catholic Church were the only ones who understood Latin, and therefore the members had to take their priest or bishop’s word for it. In those days, Bibles were chained to the pulpits for multiple reasons, but one reason is probably so that the members would not gain access to the truth that the Catholic Church was attempting to hide them from. This lead to the Catholic Church being able to teach whatever they wanted; however they wanted. It also lead to the descent of reliance on God’s Word and the ascent of reliance on man’s. There were many who sought to translate the Vulgate into English, but just like those who hold on to the King James Version as the end-all-be-all, the Catholic Church desired to hold on to the Vulgate as the only acceptable version of the Bible.
John Wycliffe was born around the year 1320 and studied at Oxford University with an emphasis on Biblical studies. There, he learned both the Latin and Greek languages. With this knowledge, he began to compare what the Scriptures said to what the Catholic Church said, and he found the blatant compromises in doctrine. This discovery lead to his desire to translate the Bible into English (the common language) so that everyone could understand the truth God intended. Wycliffe then set out on a journey to translate the Latin Vulgate into English, and after a slight scare with the Black Death, he completed the “Wycliffe Bible” in 1384. Sadly, he died shortly after that same year from a stroke, something he experienced multiple times in his life.
The Catholic Church burned with indignation, and they could not believe Wycliffe would challenge their authority. They also could not believe that he would translate the Bible into a language regular people could understand so that they could see for themselves for the first time, how vastly in opposition the Bible was with the Catholic Church. In 1411, an Archbishop named Arundel wrote a letter to the Pope stating, “This pestilent and wretched John Wycliffe, of cursed memory, that son of the old serpent endeavored by every means to attack the very faith and sacred doctrine of the Holy Church, devising to fill up the measure of his malice the expedient of a new translation of the Scriptures into the mother tongue.” Four years later in 1415, the Catholic Church deemed Wycliffe a heretic, and they burned all of his works and attempted to destroy all the copies of his translation. Not only did they burn his life works, but they also dug up his corpse and burned it. The Catholic Church failed in its attempt to rid the world of an English translation, and Wycliffe’s mission continued.
William Tyndale was born in 1494, and also attended Oxford University as well as Cambridge University. By the time Tyndale was active, the printing press had been invented which opened the door for Tyndale and others to mass produce their works. Tyndale was a scholar in his time with the knowledge of eight languages. He, like Wycliffe, believed people should have the right to read the Bible in their own language and to search the Scriptures for themselves to see what it really said. King Henry VIII of England along with the Catholic Church and the Pope disagreed vehemently with Tyndale and commanded that he not translate the New Testament into English, afraid that the people would see how much error was in their theology. Tyndale decided to do it anyway. He once said to a clergyman, “I defy the Pope and all his laws, and if God spare my life, ere many years, I will cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scriptures than thou dost.”
Tyndale accomplished that very goal publishing an entire New Testament translation in 1526 and had a revised edition by 1536. Contrary to Wycliffe’s work, Tyndale’s translation was from the original Greek, which was not widely available in Wycliffe’s time but had now been made available through the printing press. Tyndale’s translation was vastly more accurate to the original intent than Wycliffe’s because it did not have the limitation of being a translation of a translation. On September 26, 1536, Tyndale was strangled, then burned at stake for translating the Bible into English. Both Wycliffe and Tyndale, though separated by over one-hundred fifty-two years, succumbed to the same fate at the hands of people seeking to keep God’s Word at their own terms. Though they were persecuted before and even after death, their legacy lives on in the homes of millions upon millions of people who benefit from their life’s work and sacrifice.
The question I want to ask today is, do you understand what you hold in your hand? Think about the thousands of individuals in Wycliffe and Tyndale’s time that had NO access to the Word of God, and even if they did have access to it in their own language, they likely would be put to death for it. Even with the knowledge that their lives were on the line, they sacrificed everything so that they might study and learn from God’s Word. Thank God for Wycliffe, Tyndale, and all the others responsible for the English translation of the Bible. Without them, I would be just as lost and confused as the sweet little Vietnamese woman who walked away empty-handed, with material written in a language we could not understand.
-Ben Hogan, Minister of Evangelism