Inevitably, the debate about indulgences raised by Martin Luther’s protest rapidly became one about the personal understanding of Scripture, over against the church’s claim to be Scripture’s final and authoritative interpreter.
The debate became furious and could not be contained within Germany, but widened, helped by the widespread use of Latin in scholarly circles across western Europe.
In many respects, England, the southern half of an off-shore island with a language not generally known among its neighbours, did not appear to be promising soil for Luther’s new teaching.
England was not a powerful force in Continental politics. Its young king, Henry VIII, was a loyal son of the church, and Thomas Wolsey his chief minister had recently been appointed a cardinal and was known to be coveting the papacy itself. The English hierarchy was firmly opposed to the ‘Lutheran heresy’.
The anti-heresy laws were stringent and, since 1401, had imposed death by burning as the penalty. Unusually, even for a Catholic nation, translation of the Bible into English was strictly forbidden and mere possession of a Bible could be enough for a charge of heresy.
These stringent laws were part of a drive against Lollardy, a movement which had arisen under the inspiration and leadership of John Wyclif in the late fourteenth century.
Lollardy was an attempt to promote a more biblical religion, over against a worldly and political church. Although this movement began in the university of Oxford where Wyclif had been a don, it had been crushed there and soon lost its aristocratic support, becoming a Bible study movement among the humbler classes, where, despite vicious persecution, it was never entirely stamped out.
In addition, in the last few years, there had been an upsurge of anti-clericalism in London, perhaps exacerbated by the arrogance of Cardinal Wolsey. But neither Lollardy nor anti-clericalism had been powerful enough to constitute a serious challenge to the power of the church.
A major change though was about to take place. By 1520, Lutheran literature was being smuggled into the country. There were important commercial links between England and the north German ports and, under cover of lawful trade, ‘heretical’ books were coming in.
These teachings were being discussed in London, and also among students at Oxford and Cambridge. At Cambridge, unofficial meetings in the White Horse Inn were significant enough for the inn to be nicknamed ‘Little Germany’.
John Foxe, who reported these unofficial meetings, is rather vague as to dates, but certainly there was a holocaust of Lutheran literature at Cambridge at the end of 1520, and an even greater one during May 1521 in London presided over by Cardinal Wolsey.
The situation was becoming serious enough to involve the king himself. He produced an anti-Lutheran book in defence of the Roman teaching on the seven sacraments. This was published in English, German and Latin. His effort gained the king the title ‘Defender of the Faith’ from Pope Leo X, a title still acknowledged by the initials ‘FD’ (Fidei Defensor) on United Kingdom coinage.
Henry VIII and his courtiers encouraged the revival of classical studies, known as the Renaissance, with its emphasis on original sources (ad fontes). These studies were already widespread on the European mainland.
Desiderius Erasmus, Europe’s most eminent Greek scholar spent two short periods teaching at Cambridge. New interest in Greek with access to early manuscripts promoted the study of the Scriptures in Greek and Latin, for which a landmark event was the publication of Erasmus’s printed text of the Greek New Testament in 1516.
Against this background, we must consider William Tyndale. A Gloucestershire man, who studied at Oxford and possibly Cambridge, he became a private tutor in the household of Sir John Walsh at Little Sodbury. We do not know when or under what circumstances he became an evangelical believer, but his duties at Sodbury were light and he had the opportunity to pursue his Greek studies and his understanding of the New Testament deepened.
Appalled by the ignorance of the priests and their rigid adherence to unbiblical traditions, he took opportunities to preach and his fresh approach gained him a following, but inevitably aroused the hostility of many of his peers.
Like Wyclif, a century and a half earlier, he concluded that the desperate need of the country was a new translation of the Scriptures. Copies of the old Lollard Bibles existed in manuscript, but in such dated English that they were of little help in a country that needed exposure for the first time to the Word of God.
Despairing of patronage in England and, already under suspicion, he accepted voluntary exile and, in the face of many setbacks, proceeded to translate and print his translation abroad. His first, anonymously produced New Testament began to be smuggled into England in 1526.
By this time he was a hunted man, moving from place to place, answering critics, of whom one of the most virulent was Sir Thomas More, Lord Chancellor of England and regarded as a patron of Renaissance studies.
Tyndale continued producing introductions or prologues to the various books of the Bible, as well as expositions of Reformation doctrine, but at the heart of his work was further biblical translation.
A revision of the New Testament appeared in 1534; books of the Old Testament followed, some of which were not published until after his martyrdom in 1536. Tyndale was betrayed to government agents in the Netherlands by a fellow Englishman. His last words were ‘Lord, open the King of England’s eyes’.
This prayer was answered in an unexpected way. Henry VIII never accepted the teachings of the Reformation, but his own quarrel with the pope led to England’s separation from Roman jurisdiction in 1534, when Parliament declared Henry to be supreme head of the Church of England.
This dispute had developed in the 1520s, when Henry wanted to break his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, claiming that he had unlawfully married his brother’s widow. Henry’s agents were working hard to obtain theological support for the king’s claims and approached Tyndale.
But Tyndale was persuaded on scriptural grounds that the king’s case was not valid and published his conclusions in writing. On this issue he differed from many who were to become leaders of the English Reformation. Tyndale taught that the Christian owed obedience to the state in all things lawful, but must not deny the plain truth of Scripture.
Henry never forgave Tyndale, but when his minister Thomas Cromwell, together with Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, persuaded Henry to license an English Bible the result was largely Tyndale’s translation. This remained true for subsequent revisions, including the Authorised Version of 1611.
The last years of the reign of Henry VIII were some of the strangest in the story of the Reformation. By 1534 Henry had broken the connection with the papacy. Short of funds and fearful of foreign invasion, he closed all the monasteries, confiscating their extensive properties.
There were precedents: Cardinal Wolsey and the conservative Bishop Fisher of Rochester had done the same, on a much more limited scale, to raise money to found colleges at the universities. Henry claimed to be acting in the national interest, and certainly the monasteries’ leaders tended to head the resistance to his changes.
He demanded support from all important officials for the dissolution of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and for his changes in the church. Thomas More and Bishop Fisher refused to support these changes and were executed, as were many lesser known figures.
At the same time, Henry was maintaining loyalty to traditional Roman doctrine and ceremonial. The old laws against heresy remained on the statute book and a number of Protestant went to the stake.
Henry died in 1547 and was succeeded by his nine-year-old son — Edward VI — a precocious but delicate boy surrounded by men sympathetic to the Reformation. These were the men most trusted by Henry to safeguard Edward’s succession.
Some were close to Edward’s mother Jane Seymour, who had died at the young prince’s birth. In her life time, Jane had shown signs of sympathy to reform. Others included the Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and also the young king’s uncle, Edward Seymour.
Under these men, the old laws against heresy were swept away and there was gospel preaching and church services, free from many of the defects of the old services. In the providence of God, a Bible-loving people had already been nurtured and, although there was still much to do, a good foundation for the Reformation in England had been laid.
Dr Robert W. Oliver was, for many years, pastor of the Old Baptist Chapel, Bradford on Avon, Wiltshire, and lecturer in church history and historical theology at the London Seminary.