Henry VIII, the Reformation, and the First Authorized Bible

Spend much time in Protestant circles and you will eventually hear of the Authorized Bible

“Henry VIII is one of the oddest characters in the story of the Reformation. A man of conservative instincts when Luther’s reformation began, he nevertheless overthrew papal influence in England and built a church of his own.”

 

Spend much time in Protestant circles and you will eventually hear of the Authorized Bible or the King James Bible. People who should know better have invented all manor of theories about the purity of the KJV, it’s reliance on the Textus Receptus, and the corruption of modern translations.

But the KJV was not the first English translation authorized by a king. The Great Bible (1539) was authorized by Henry VIII and was supervised by leading Protestant luminaries such as Miles Coverdale. It also rested its translation in large part on those books translated by William Tyndale. It’s legacy was to shape future English bibles, including the KJV itself. Also its legacy will be largely forgotten due to the quirky way Henry VIII viewed the Reformation, as well as the enormous success of the KJV a century later.

Henry VIII and the Reformation

Henry VIII is one of the oddest characters in the story of the Reformation. A man of conservative instincts when Luther’s reformation began, he nevertheless overthrew papal influence in England and built a church of his own. This puts Henry in the awkward position as both persecutor and supporter of the English Protestant church—the king who had Tyndale killed and later himself hired Protestants to translate the Bible into English. He’s a man of enormous contradictions, which is why the early Reformation in England appears to hesitant and piecemeal.

Still Henry did quarrel with the pope over his annulment to Catherine of Aragorn and so launched England in a Protestant direction (try as he might to stop it from becoming fully Protestant). Henry at least liked certain types of Protestants who were both opposed to the pope and yet still supportive of Henry VIII’s claims to be head of the church in England. These men included Thomas Cranmer, Thomas Cromwell, and Miles Coverdale, each instrumental in the approval of the Great Bible.

The Reason for the Great Bible

Once Henry had ruptured the relationship between England and the papacy he was in need of supporters within the church. He needed leaders who would not question his authority and he was willing, in part, to give them leeway on Protestant issues if they were loyal to the crown.

For Protestants in England, this was not a problem. Most early Protestants, including Luther, were in league with political rulers in order to shield the Reformation from oppression. Luther had written forcefully that Protestants do not rebel against the political state. Protestants in England, then, were on solid footing at first to be vocal advocates of Henry VIII’s regime.

What both Henry and Protestants both needed, though, was something to galvanize their relationship. If one were to discuss theology proper with Henry, they would often find themselves at a stalemate—again because Henry was so quirky. He liked seven sacraments but not the cult of saints in Catholic practice. He wanted celibate priests but destroyed the fabric of English monasticism almost on his own. He did not like the Lutheran understanding of justification yet he had no Catholic magisterium to hold up his understanding of merit and penance.

What both Henry and Protestants agreed on at least was that the papacy needed to be removed and that the Bible supported their reformation. The option to release an English translation of the Bible appears, then, to have been a natural idea to both sides.

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