In this post from our series on the study of church, we take a minor detour to look at how our English Bibles came to translate the original Greek word ekklesia (which we looked at last time) as the word church, which we examined in another post.
If you’re struggling to find any practical significance with this, despite some of the related links posted in The Importance of Studying Church consider the following:
William Tyndale (1494-1536) was the first man credited with translating the Bible into English. Up to this point, the Bible had primarily been in Latin (The Vulgate, Jerome ~383 A.D.) thereby restricting its readability to the priests and clergy only. Tyndale, working off of the Greek New Testament translating work performed by Erasmus (and Luther), translated the Bible into English directly from the original language sources. He was able to translate the New Testament from Greek and half of the Old Testament from Hebrew prior to his death as a martyr.
Tyndale is considered the “Father of the English Bible” and has been referred to as the Apostle to England. Born near the border of Wales, he studied at Oxford in 1510, where the aforementioned Erasmus was teaching. He became a master of Greek and Hebrew under Erasmus as well as becoming fluent in 7 languages. In 1515, Tyndale studied at Cambridge, and may have encountered some of Luther’s early teachings. He was ordained to the priesthood in 1521, but expressed his frustrations with the failure to make the Scriptures available in the common language of the people. This was another similarity between Tyndale and Luther. In a famous quote, Tyndale summarizes this frustration, “I will cause a boy who drives a plow to know more Scripture than the Pope.”
Mentioning Tyndale as the Father of the English Bible isn’t meant as a slight to the excellent work performed by the Morning-Star of the Reformation, John Wycliffe (1382). However, Wycliffe lacked access to the Greek and Hebrew, thus basing his English translation on the Latin Vulgate, essentially becoming a translation of a translation. It’s likely that his work did not excel in popularity like that of Tyndale because the printing press had not yet been invented. Nevertheless, his influence should not be minimized.
In 1523, Tyndale applied to the Bishop of London for permission to translate the Scriptures into English, but was denied. Despite the rejection, he undertook the effort in an underground manner in Germany, an area now known for its sympathy for Reformation.
Tyndale’s English translation of the New Testament, completed in 1525, challenged some of the core doctrinal beliefs which had been established and maintained by the Catholic Church through their use of the Latin bible and the distinction they maintained between clergy and laity. For this reason, his NT translation was smuggled into England. In an effort to undermine the spread of the English NT, the Bishop of London ordered all the copies to be purchased, a plan which backfired and went on to fund a second edition.
Some such challenges, by Tyndale, which threatened the institutional Catholic Church can be found in his decision to translate the word presbuteros to mean “elder” rather than “priest”, an obvious undermining of the Catholic priesthood. Additionally, Tyndale favored the translation of metanoeite as “repent” rather than “do penance”, again a clear assault on the Catholic doctrine of penance. Both of these preferences, and we may add, more accurate translations, by Tyndale are represented in our modern English translations.
Those aside, and others, most significant to our discussion here, was Tyndale’s insistence upon translating ekklesia as congregation, not church, a hill he literally chose to die on. Until then, the popes, priesthood, and councils of Catholicism had dominated the people and kept them under their authority as a hierarchical institution known as the Roman Catholic Church. If one were unable to find the word “church” in their Bible, which they were now able to read in a common language for the first time, then clearly the authority of the Catholic Church would have come into question.
Using the word church in this way, was an authoritarian move that pointed to the universal, visible, institution that sought to expand its dominion throughout the world, by force, not the gospel. In essence, Tyndale was rightly returning the power to the people, the assembly, or congregation, and stripping it from the visible institution which had grown apostate in the centuries since the Apostolic era and most notably since the 4th Century reign of Constantine. In 1536, Tyndale was martyred under the reign of King Henry VIII. His last words were “Lord open the King of England’s eyes”.
Now we must ask, if Tyndale’s other changes were incorporated into our other English translations, why do we still find the word “church” as the translation for ekklesia in every single modern translation? In short, it’s because during the Reformation, the reformers, such as Luther, did not offer a clean break of the “church” from the sacral society of the State. Instead, the church, if we may use that word now, became more formally wed to the State and the interest of the State to constrain the people became an even bigger problem than when they were under the banner of the Catholic Church.
Keep in mind that Luther himself refused to use the German word for church (kirche), preferring instead for “the congregation of the saints as the people or company of God.” As significant as Luther’s efforts were in ushering in the Reformation, in practice, his break from the institutional church was only half-hearted. Instead, it paved the way for the new Protestant “Church” to become even stranger bedfellows with the State.
If you struggle with that, simply ask how it was that Martin Luther was able to oppose the Catholic Church and still live, meanwhile countless martyrs who opposed the new mixture of church and state were brutally murdered? (he was actually protected by the civil magistrate) I’ll pick this theme up later as we approach the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation.
Tyndale’s Bible was completed and published as The Matthew’s Bible in 1537. It maintained the translation of ekklesia as congregation. In 1539 a second major publication of the Bible was made called The Great Bible which likewise maintained this same translation. However, in 1557 the Geneva New Testament produced by William Whittingham was the first to use the word church instead of congregation and the rest they say is history. Later, because Protestantism became the official state religion of England, the Church of England, under the rule of King James likewise chose to retain the word church in the most widespread English translation, The King James Bible, 1611.
King James (James I – Scotland) had a list of 14 specific instructions to the translators of the King James Bible, who by the way were all from the Church of England. Number 3 states,
“3. The old ecclesiastical words to be kept; as the word church, not to be translated congregation, &c.”
In this way, James was able to reassert ecclesiastical (church) authority which had been held by Rome prior to the Reformation.
In conclusion, it’s not difficult to see the motives behind retaining the translation of “church”. It was for power, authority, and money, not because church was the best translation of ekklesia. Tyndale and Luther recognized this and made a statement to the world in their translation choices.
So then we return to our original question, is church an ekklesia?
First, we must conclude that the word church is not an accurate translation or portrayal of what the Scriptures are talking about when it uses the word ekklesia. Primarily this is because we read our modern conception of church into the Scriptural translation of the word and arrive at the meaning, just as those in the 16th century did. Unfortunately, it has become the proverbial “loaded word”.
Second,the true meaning of church is “belonging to the Lord”, while the true meaning of ekklesia is an “assembly or gathering”. While the former may be an accurate description of the people of God, unfortunately, as we’ve seen its use is certainly not constricted to this meaning. The latter is communicating something different, or at least nuanced, namely that Christ’s ekklesia is an assembly or gathering.
Third, because the use of church is so widespread, its usage is not going away, therefore we must be careful to define what it is. Reciting Kittle again on this point, “This does not mean that we should banish the words ‘Church’ and ‘congregation’ from our vocabulary. Apart from the impossibility of such an undertaking, there would be no sense in forfeiting the wealth of meaning proper to these terms. What is needed is that we should grasp the precise significance of the word ekklesia, since at this point linguistic sobriety will help us to the true meaning and bearing from the standpoint of biblical theology.” (pg. 505, footnote 6)
Whether we prefer to use the word church or congregation/assembly/gathering may not matter as much as what meaning is intended behind it. Because we have a cultural tendency to be sloppy with the usage and meaning of our words, there are inherent dangers in simply throwing around the word church without properly defining what the new Testament intends by ekklesia. Simply put, ekklesia does not convey all that our modern use of church has come to convey. It is never used in Scripture as a building. Certainly never used to refer to a denomination. It is, depending on context of course, used as an assembly or gathering of people and specifically an assembly by God in Christ when so designated (conversely, see Acts 19:32,39,41)
The question now is, what are the ripple effects from this? Anything? Or is the whole discussion pedantic?
I suggest we continue probing God’s Word and humbly submit to what we find, even if it costs us our precious traditions.
*For an excellent overview of the English Bible by Daniel Wallace including Wycliffe and Tyndale see this link https://bible.org/seriespage/1-wycliffe-king-james-period-challenge