William Tyndale and "Solo" Scriptura


While John Wycliffe is known to be the first one to translate the Bible into the English language, the great Protestant Reformer William Tyndale is seen as the father of the English Bible on account of his tireless effort and ultimate sacrifice in getting the Bible into the hands of the common man. In fact, not only did William Tyndale shape the English language even more than William Shakespeare, but eighty-four percent of the King James Version of the Bible is actually a word-for-word copy of Tyndale's work![1]

Once, while speaking with a Roman Catholic priest, the priest had the audacity to tell Tyndale that they would be better off without God's Law than without the Pope's law. Tyndale replied, "I defy the Pope and all his laws; if God spares my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that drives the plough to know more of the Scriptures than you."[2] For Tyndale, providing a personal Bible to the average farmhand was priority number one, and we truly cannot thank God enough for using this man to accomplish such a noble task.

With that said, even the Apostle Peter confessed that there are some things in Scripture that are hard to understand, distorted by those who are untaught, ultimately to their own destruction (cf. 2 Pet. 3:16). Was the plowboy meant to learn his Bible in isolation, as so many of us try to do today?

The Work of William Tyndale

In Tyndale’s day and age of sixteenth-century England, Roman Catholicism was the state religion that exercised unmatched control over the lives of the average person. By claiming the ability to pronounce salvation on babies through baptism, as well as offering supposed merit for the dead in Purgatory, Catholic priests positioned themselves as having power over lay people essentially from the time of their birth until well after their death.[3] Bound under this heavy, cradle-to-grave yoke of Roman Catholicism and its false gospel, the average person found himself making pilgrimages to relics, collecting "holy" trinkets such as beads and shoes, and offering money for indulgences (all of which are religious practices that have nothing in common with Christianity). The Catholic Church was the ultimate authority and the people unwittingly submitted.

Looking at the situation with our modern, Protestant eyes, we might wonder how this was possible. After all, if people simply opened up their own Bibles wouldn’t they have quickly discovered that the spiritual oppression of Roman Catholicism stood in total contradiction to what the Bible actually says? The phrase "their own Bibles" is where we reveal our own anachronistic naiveté. The average layperson simply did not have "his own Bible." The reality is that the Roman Catholic church was able to maintain its power by restricting the Bible’s translation to Latin—a language unknown and inaccessible to the common person—so much so that those found in possession of a Bible in their own native tongue would be punished.

With the Scriptures solely in the hands of the clergy, the Roman Catholic Church secured its authority. They held the proverbial keys to the Bible, which granted them the ability to teach only what they wanted to teach, in the way they wanted to teach it, with no one to hold them accountable. But William Tyndale, recognizing the gross impropriety of the entire religious system, was confident that the Bible could be understood by more than just clergy—and he was right. Thus, Tyndale set out to get the Bible into the hands of the average layperson, dedicating his life to the sole pursuit of translating the Bible into English. His own words describe what motivated him: "It was impossible to establish the lay people in any truth, except the Scripture were plainly laid before their eyes in their mother tongue."[4]

By living as an outlaw, taking on the illegal work of Bible translation, Tyndale ultimately gave his life in order to achieve his goal. By the time of his gruesome execution in 1536, the English Bible (developed in large part from Tyndale’s own translation) was in circulation for the common man, and today we continue to be recipients of his grand accomplishment.[5]

"Solo" Scriptura

Since we as English-speaking people now have the Bible in our common tongue, there is greater level of culpability for those of us who neglect faithful study of the Word. Tyndale left us with the greatest treasure any man could possess—the Word of God in an accessible language. So it is not only our privilege, but also our responsibility, to devote ourselves to the reading and studying of the Word. And yet, the one thing that we must always remember is that we still need help in accurately interpreting the Word. There is a reason Christ has given gifted men to the church for help in understanding and explaining Scripture (cf. Eph. 4:11).

Even plowboys need pastors.

Individual Bibles are a wonderful blessing, and we owe a great debt to Wycliffe, Tyndale, and others, but at the same time we must never forget the importance of the local pastor who has the time-tested wisdom and training in rightly handling God’s Word (cf. 1 Tim. 3:2, 2 Tim. 2:15). Because a vast majority of us own personal Bibles, there is often an underlying assumption that the vast majority of us can automatically interpret our personal Bibles correctly. This simply isn’t true. Even plowboys need pastors.

Make no mistake: there is much that can be gleaned from Scripture with little to no training, and the Roman Catholic idea that unrestricted access to the Bible will lead to theological anarchy is completely unfounded. After all, the doctrine of Sola Scriptura (that Scripture is the sole, infallible, authoritative, and sufficient guide for salvation and Christian living) actually provides spiritual unity among true Christians.

Instead, the real danger is "Solo" Scriptura—interpreting Scripture without help from anybody.

Sure, some people do this intentionally: "Just me and my KJV under a tree." But I doubt that's a majority. More than likely, there are many believers who would testify to some level of frustration, and desire for help, in trying to understand Scripture. Yet, as we look at much of modern-day preaching, the problem is obvious: it’s difficult to learn how to study the Bible properly when you don’t see it modeled by your pastor on a Sunday morning. Rather than sitting under the soul-stirring stimulant of expository preaching, in which the Bible is explained verse by verse with doctrinal depth and appropriate application, many congregants sit under the soul-starving sedative of topical preaching. They wallow in their own ignorance, much like the Ethiopian eunich (cf. Acts 8:30-31), hoping someone will help. It's Solo Scriptura whether they like it or not.

And truth be told, the Protestant pastor who uses the English Bible for his own purposes (rather than expositing it for his people) is just like the Catholic priest who used the Latin Bible for his own purposes. If one of the great sins of the Roman Catholic Church was the obscuring of God’s Word by keeping it in Latin, the great sin of the Protestant church is the obscuring of God’s Word by preaching it topically. Both approaches leave the average layperson spiritually handicapped. Both have created barriers that hinder believers from a deep and comprehensive knowledge of the things of God.

Of course, this has a trickle-down effect to it as well: just as the average pastor in a typical modern church professes love for a book he doesn't actually teach, so too do many parents give their children Bibles to try to learn on their own. In all honesty, it grieves me to no end knowing that many children in so-called Christian homes will memorize the names of books of the Bible that they will ultimately never be taught. Solo Scriptura, son.

True Enlightenment

The Protestant Reformation was ultimately the product of men who were enlightened out of the darkness of Roman Catholicism and truly began to understand Scripture for what it was. And we owe a great debt to men like William Tyndale who suffered exceedingly in order to bring us the Word in our native tongue. But the reason for such great enlightenment from the Reformation is actually twofold: not only was the Bible finally released to the common man, but because of expository preaching, the Bible was finally unleashed to the common man. Rather than being left to themselves to study a Bible which was newly available in their own language (as much of a blessing as that was), Protestants of the past were also blessed by committed and trustworthy expositors.

With the beginning of a new year, it's good and right that many plowboys are beginning Bible reading plans. But I'm afraid few pastors are beginning Bible teaching plans. I wonder what Tyndale would say about this.


[1] Steven J. Lawson, The Daring Mission of William Tyndale (Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2015), 94.

[2] Joseph H. Miller, After 400 Years of the King James Version Of The Bible: A Plow-Boy Speaks, (Bloomington, IN: AuthorHouse, 2011), 146.

[3] R. Ward Holder, Crisis and Renewal: The Era of the Reformations, (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), 57.

[4] Steven J Lawson, The Daring Mission of William Tyndale (Sanford, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2015), 8.

[5] Ibid., 26.