As we continue tracing events leading to the production of our King James Bible we will follow the remarkable effect that Erasmus’ Greek text had in opening scholars’ minds to clearer Bible teaching, which resulted in driving the Reformation. Through reading and thinking upon the Bible men gained its scriptural and intellectual force to openly challenge and expose the false teachings and traditions of the Roman Catholic Church

Martin Luther boldly makes his challenge

The Reformation and its effects in England gained momentum through the young Augustinian monk, Martin Luther. As a monk Luther was obsessed with the struggle of his sinfulness and guilt and the need therefore as a Catholic to confess his sins to his priest. The priest would pronounce absolution and then prescribe the necessary acts of penance he must perform. This could include, among other things, prayers repeated ad nauseam or a pilgrimage to some shrine.

Luther, a capable student who gained his doctorate in 1512 in Wittenberg, began to preach on the book of Romans. Using Erasmus’ Greek text published in 1516, he realised that a person is justified by faith and not by works of penance as prescribed by the Catholic Church. This was a monumental shift in intellectual perspective for one who had been an Augustinian monk. His grasp of the scriptural teaching that “the Just shall live by Faith” was further strengthened by his study of the Greek text. There he came to the astounding realisation that the Latin Vulgate was wrong when it translated the Greek as “do penance” instead of “repent”. For example the Vulgate read: “Do penance, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ” (Acts 2:38).

While he was reflecting on these newfound Bible truths a challenge arose outside Wittenberg. Pope Leo X had made Tetzel, a Dominican preacher, the Commissioner of Indulgences for all Germany in 1517, and now he appeared at Wittenberg selling these indulgences, so granting a reduction in the time Catholics would spend in the flames of purgatory. Upon hearing this Luther took the bold step of writing 95 articles questioning the validity of the sale of ‘papal indulgences’, and posted them on the door of the Wittenberg Church on Halloween, October 1517. Soon copies were made and circulated as far afield as Basle, Switzerland. The die had now been cast, so Luther was forced to look deeper into the issue. The obvious question arose, ‘If the Pope could forgive sins, then why did he collect fees for doing so?’

Luther’s actions caused him to be called to account for his teachings. In his debate at the Diet of Worms in 1521, presided over by the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, he was asked to denounce his writings. His reply was bold and firm: “I am bound by the scriptures I have quoted and my conscience is captive to the word of God”. Henry VIII also felt compelled to answer Luther’s ‘apostasy’. He wrote defending the sacramental nature of marriage and the supremacy of the Pope. For his efforts the Pope gave Henry the title ‘Defender of the Faith’, a title which was taken from him nine years later when he broke his relationship with the Pope and Rome over his divorce of Catherine, his first wife.

The storm spreads

Luther’s challenge of these fundamentals of Catholic Church tradition and teaching brought a tide of support for him throughout Germany and other parts of Europe. Luther left Worms under an edict of condemnation as a heretic, which meant his life was now in great danger, as anyone supporting the Pope would feel he was doing the Church a service by killing him. Luther was captured by a group of ‘bandits’ (his supporters) who took him for safe keeping to the Wartburg Castle. It was there in 1522 that Luther translated the Bible into the common German language. In doing this he gave the German people the essential tool to now scripturally examine and identify the heresy of the Catholic apostasy. The “sword of the spirit” which he gave them was sadly soon to turn to a literal sword as the warfare turned from one of words to one of bloodshed and death, as subsequent history testifies.

Before leaving Luther we should note one other step he initiated that had an important effect upon those motivated by the Reformation. He saw the value of hymns for the congregations to assist in implanting the Scripture’s teachings into their minds. This was quite a leap forward in worship to that of the mass in Catholicism. He wrote a number of hymns himself, some still well known. As the Reformation moved to England so did this practice of hymn writing for praise, and to remember the teachings of the Reformation. The Wesley brothers, the founders of the Methodists, wrote over 6000 hymns to support their preaching campaigns.

Tyndale monument – the Bible in English

It is a sad fact but there is more knowledge about Shakespeare than Tyndale, though Tyndale’s monumental work has affected the English speaking world far more than Shakespeare’s. Tyndale was born in the Welsh town of Stinchcombe around 1495 and completed his Master of Arts at Oxford in 1515, and then continued his studies at Cambridge for another six or seven years. It was here that he was influenced by Erasmus’ Greek studies. Bible study was still shrouded in the ‘sacred’ Latin text of the Vulgate and the traditional interpretations by the Church. Here is Tyndale’s view of the “apostles of ignorance” in that period: “In the Universities they have ordained that no man shall look at the scripture, until he be noselled [nursed or trained] in heathen learning eight or nine years, and armed with false principles; with which he is clean shut out of the understanding of scripture … And when he taketh first degree, he is sworn that he shall hold none opinions condemned by the Church; but what such opinions be, that he shall not know. And then, when they be admitted to study divinity, because thescripture is locked up with such false expositions, and with false principles of natural philosophy, that they cannot enter in, they go about the outside, and dispute all their lives about words and vain opinions, pertaining as much unto the healing of a man’s heel, as health of his soul.”

As mentioned earlier, the move of scholars from the East after the fall of Constantinople brought a revolutionary spirit in thinking and learning. This had a serious implication on Bible study. No longer were the traditional theological interpretations accepted without question, but now the Bible was carefully examined using Greek texts to assist in finding the intended meaning of what was written.

Tyndale’s fate is cast

One day in 1522, the same year that Luther’s German translation was published and widely distributed in Germany, a priest visiting Little Sodbury openly attacked Tyndale’s beliefs. Tyndale replied: “If God spare my life, before very long I shall cause a plough boy to know the scriptures better than you do!” This was not an idle boast. Tyndale thereby committed himself to openly exposing the errors and falsehood of the Church, knowing that the way to achieve this was to have the Bible readily available in the language of all, including the plough boy. However in determining such a course he was acutely aware he was also committing himself ultimately to death as a heretic if the law was not changed.

The Constitutions of Oxford of 1408, which we have mentioned earlier in considering Wycliffe, forbade the translation of the Bible into English. Tyndale sought permission from the Bishop in London to be permitted to translate the Bible into English but he was firmly forbidden. Neither Bishop Tunstall nor Cardinal Wolsey would make any attempt to authorise the reading or translating of any Bible other than the Latin Vulgate. The only way forward was for him to go to the Continent and the safest place was in the area of Luther and his followers.

He arrived in Hamburg in the midst of Luther’s reformation in May 1524. No longer were indulgences sold openly, discontented priests and nuns left their religious orders and the Mass gave way to the Lord’s Supper for those following the Reformation. People were reading the Bible in German and discussing it openly. What an injection of enthusiasm this gave to Tyndale with his aim to have the Bible readily available in English in his home country! Tyndale’s efforts to translate the New Testament and have it printed were fraught with danger and he was forced to move rapidly from several locations, until finally in 1526 in Worms his finished translation was printed and sent by merchants into England who supported Tyndale’s work. Though many copies were confiscated or purchased under direction of Tunstall and burnt, a greater number were smuggled in and distributed throughout England. Tyndale had fulfilled his goal – the plough boy, and everyone else had the opportunity to read the word of God in their mother tongue.

Tyndale’s translation principles

Some words in Tyndale’s translation that brought condemnation from the Church were his use of “congregation” not “church”, “elder” not “priest”, “repent” not “do penance”, and “love” not “charity”. These words had a specific association with Catholic tradition and teaching, and Tyndale’s translation was challenging them in these basic areas. Tyndale did not consider translation as just an academic exercise – to him it was a matter of conscientious service before God. His words were: “I call God to record against the day we shall appear before our Lord Jesus Christ to give a reckoning of our doings, that I never altered one syllable of God’s word against my conscience.”

Having completed the New Testament in English, Tyndale started work on the Old Testament and by 1530 he had completed the Pentateuch and Psalms. He also wrote and published several works that again were seen as a direct challenge to the teaching and practice of the Church. The only way for the Church to deal with this enemy was to apprehend him, have him judged a heretic and then burnt. In 1535 the inevitable happened: Tyndale was betrayed by his friend Henry Philips, kidnapped by the king’s officers and imprisoned in Vilvorde, a suburb of modern Brussels. He was now in the hands of Charles V, King of Spain and the Holy Roman Emperor. Charles was in no mood to hear pleas from England for leniency towards Tyndale, as Henry VIII had recently divorced Charles’ aunt, Catherine, and broken with the Pope and the Catholic Church. In August 1536 Tyndale was found guilty of heresy and on 6th October the man who affected the greatest reformation in England through his translation of the New Testament and sections of the Old was tied to a stake, strangled and then burnt. Tyndale’s final words were, “Lord, open the King of England’s eyes”.

This prayer was answered within a very short time, when in 1537 The Matthew’s Bible (Matthews was a pseudonym for John Rogers who translated and compiled it) was authorized by Henry VIII. At last England had a Bible that one could read without fear of persecution. Then in 1539 another Authorised Version, The Great Bible, was made available. Coverdale, who had been closely involved in following Tyndale’s work, was asked to compile this translation, which he did by using much of Tyndale’s work. This Great Bible was to be placed in all churches – now belonging to the Church of England. The King’s decree of 1541 reads: “A proclamation, ordered by the King’s majesty, with the advice of his honorable council for the Bible of the largest and greatest volume, to be had in every church … Where, by Injunctions set forth by the authority of the King’s royal majesty, Supreme head of the Church of this his realm of England.”

Henry VIII and the Church of England

The quotation above shows that Henry VIII was in 1541 the Supreme Head of the Church of England. The cause of this transition from the Roman Catholic Church to the Church of England is awell known historical fact. Henry was troubled. His Spanish wife, Catherine, had born him only a surviving daughter, Mary, who later became Queen Mary – other sons born to them died at birth. Henry concluded that the dispensation given by the Pope for him to marry Catherine, his dead brother’s wife, was therefore doctrinally wrong – the Pope had erred and Henry was being punished for marrying her. He put this matter to theologians and it became a topic of discussion in theological circles in England and Europe. However, no matter how Henry ‘virtuously’ tried to present his deep concern on this biblical question, the fact remained that he was at the same time having a relationship with Anne Boleyn, a lady in waiting. In 1531 Henry separated from Catherine after desperately trying to have the marriage annulled by the Pope. When this failed, Henry went ahead with his marriage to Anne in 1533, and so was excommunicated by the Pope. Henry was equal to the challenge of excommunication and so had The Act of Supremacy passed in 1534, giving him the position of Head of the Church in England.

His marriage to Anne was short lived, ending in her being beheaded in 1536. Anne did produce a daughter, Elizabeth, who became Elizabeth I some years later. On the death of Anne, Henry promptly married Jane Seymour who produced for Henry the son he longed for, Edward VI, but sadly she died some days after the birth. We need not be concerned with the following three wives of Henry as they have little to do with the way we finally came to have the King James Bible.

The Counter Reformation

With the Reformation rapidly sweeping ahead in Europe and England, the Catholic Church realised it needed to take some serious steps to halt the erosion of the Church’s position. The Council of Trent was called in 1545 with the aim of addressing some of the Church’s problem areas that needed reform, but also to address the issues facing the Church created by the Protestants, as Luther and all others who protested against the Church were called. Obviously the main threat to the Church was the Bible in the language of the people. The decree that the Church alone had the ability to understand and determine what the Bible meant would not now be accepted by any who had a Bible and were intelligently reading and seeking to know God’s ways.

The Council of Trent did little to halt the Protestant move of the Reformation. More was needed than a Church Statement from a Council, and this came with Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits or The Society of Jesus. Loyola lived in Spain and after a serious injury as a soldier he turned to religion and in 1534, applying his military discipline principles, established The Society of Jesus. Loyola was known as the Superior General of the Order. This Jesuit Order still has as its head a Superior General today, to whom all must be obedient, while he himself is totally subservient to the Pope. This quotation from Loyola shows the military discipline that he instilled in the Order: “That we may be altogether of the same mind and in conformity with the Church herself, if she shall have defined anything to be black which appears to our eyes to be white, we ought in like manner to pronounce it to be black.” (Ignatius Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, Rule 13 Henry Bettenson, ed). In other words he was saying, ‘Don’t question a superior’s decision – just do it!’

We will see the fanaticism and violence of the Jesuits when we look at events just prior to the time when the King James Bible was printed.

New prophecy interpretation needed to answer the Protestants

It was one thing to have an Order dedicated to strengthening the Church and publicising its supposed virtues and claims. But more was needed to answer the biblical challenge that Protestants of the Reformation were throwing at the Church. With the Bible readily available, serious readers realised from the prophecies of Daniel and Revelation and Paul’s teaching in 2 Thessalonians that an apostate religious system would develop out of the Roman Empire. These prophecies clearly identified the rise of the Roman Catholic Church as the Antichrist and Harlot of Revelation that all true saints needed to keep separate from. How was the Church to answer these obvious conclusions that were reached by genuine Bible students? The Jesuits understood the urgent need to formulate an answer which would sound plausible to those worried by the Protestant interpretation. The Jesuit Ribera of Salamanca, Spain, developed the solution. His theory brushed aside the application of the prophecies relating to the existing Church of Rome by making the prophecies relate to a future time. He leapt over the immense era of papal dominance in European history, crowding Antichrist into a small fragment of time in the still distant future. It is consequently often called ‘the gap theory’. Protestants of the era were not swayed by this false view put forward by Ribera, but unfortunately today many have been duped by it, looking for the future Antichrist just as the Jesuits proposed.

Summary of the period

We have just considered one of the most challenging periods in the history of the Catholic Church. Two men in particular, Luther and Tyndale, stood firm by their conscience and shook the foundation pillars of that great and corrupt edifice of blasphemy. They dared to translate the Bible so that men and women with “honest and good hearts” could read the Word of God, understand it and try to live by its teachings. They also saw clearly that the Catholic Church was none other than the apostate harlot of Daniel, Revelation and 2 Thessalonians. We need to keep impressing on those younger in the Truth, the simple and clear meaning of these prophecies, reminding them and ourselves that this wretched system is held in utter loathing by our God and His beloved Son. Soon – very soon – she and all those with her mark of identification will be swept away in fire unquenchable. In these last days let none of us be deceived or intoxicated by her evil and subtle ways!

In our next article we shall concentrate on the events from Henry’s son Edward VI to James I. The tapestry of events in these 60 years shows the remarkable way the Hand of God moved England to withdraw from Catholicism as a nation, but more importantly it produced a Bible authorised by the King for all in England, and ultimately the English speaking world, to read. Do we appreciate this wonderful blessing given to us through the providence of our God, and at the cost of the lives of many determined and courageous men? A simple test – have we read our Bible today?

“Blessed is the man whose delight is in the law of the Lord; and in his law doth he meditate day and night.”