Other Free Encyclopedias » Online Encyclopedia » Encyclopedia - Featured Articles » Contributed Topics from P-T » Tyndale, William (William Tindall, William Hutchins, William Huchyns, William Hychyns) (c. 1494–1536) - BIOGRAPHY, CRITICAL RECEPTION


tyndale sense literal god

While Tyndale is today seen as a polemicist, propagandist, political reformer, moralist, theologian, historian, and enemy of the institutions of the church, it is clear that he saw himself as first and foremost a translator, so much so that his response to reports that his New Testament was being burned was reportedly, “Burn my books, burn me.” A polyglot, Tyndale knew Latin, Greek, German, French, Hebrew, Spanish, Italian, and probably some other languages including Welsh, and his linguistic and rhetorical abilities shine through his translations. Throughout his life he endeavored to present an English Scripture that would more accurately represent the true voice of Christ and the apostles, a Scripture that would refer inwardly to itself and not outwardly to the secondary structures with which the medieval church had laden it. That he was conscious that he was undercutting a thousand years of church practice can hardly be denied, but his faith in the Greek testament (and later the Hebrew Old Testament) gave him the assurance that the church, not himself, was heretical. Tyndale’s translations, which ultimately would supply most of the Matthew Bible as well as the Authorized (King James) Bible, established the linguistic and doctrinal base for English readers of the Bible for almost five centuries.

For Tyndale to reclaim the Bible as God’s Word spoken to mankind, it was first necessary to silence the voices that had drowned out that word, and in The Obedience of a Christian Man (Antwerp, 1528), Tyndale attacked the kinds of readings that the “modern theologians” whom Erasmus so disliked had institutionalized over the past few centuries. In place of the traditional “four senses, the literal, tropological, allegorical, and anagogical,” Tyndale wanted to return the literal sense to primacy: “The literal sense is become nothing at all, for the pope hath taken it clean away, and hath made it his possession. He hath partly locked it up with the false and counterfeited keys of his traditions, ceremonies, and feigned lies; and partly driveth men from it with violence of sword: for no man dare abide by the literal sense of the text, but under a protestation, ‘If it shall please the pope’” (303). For Tyndale, the “four senses” are not four at all, but two (for “[t]ropological and anagogical are terms of their own feigning, and altogether unnecessary. For they are but allegories, both two of them, and this word allegory comprehendeth them both, and is enough” 303), and of those two, only the literal is genuine: “Thou shalt understand…that the scripture hath but one sense, which is the literal sense. And that literal sense is the root and ground of all, and the anchor that never faileth, whereunto if thou cleave, thou canst never err or go out of the way. And if thou leave the literal sense thou canst not but go out of the way” (303). For Tyndale, the literal sense is the sense that God intended, and all else is “no sense of the scripture, but free things beside the scripture” (304).

Tyndale is certainly not advocating a plain style here: for him, the literal sense comprehends all of the images used in the Bible, but their intended significance is central: “[T]he scripture useth proverbs, similitudes, riddles, or allegories, as all other speeches do; but that which the proverb, similitude, riddle, or allegory signifieth, is ever the literal sense, which thou must seek out diligently” (304). The literal sense comes from God; all others come from man. While aware of the rhetorical virtues of allegory, metaphor, and simile, Tyndale nevertheless makes it clear that we ought to be very careful in employing and interpreting them: “The greatest cause of which captivity [under antichrist the pope] and the decay of faith, and this blindness wherein we now are, sprang first of allegories. For Origin and the doctors of his time drew all the scripture unto allegories: whose ensample they that came after followed so long, till that they at last forgot the order and process of the text, supposing that the scripture served but to feign allegories upon…. Then came our sophisters with their analogical and chopological sense, and with an antitheme of half an inch, out of which some of them will draw a thread of nine days long” (307). For “our sophisters,” the Scripture serves merely as an occasion for them to spin out their chop-logic conclusions until all are trapped within their web of deceit; for Christ’s true followers, the Scripture must serve as the means by which we hear Christ’s voice.

In what we may take as a paradigmatic example of his own writing. Tyndale tried to convey what that voice was saying clearly yet powerfully, as when he suggests in his Parable of the Wicked Mammon that to have one’s eye on a goal is to lose the reward one seeks: “Christ’s blood hath purchased life for us, and hath made us the heirs of God; so that heaven cometh by Christ’s blood. If thou wouldst obtain heaven with the merits and deservings of thine own works, so didst thou wrong, yea, and shamedst, the blood of Christ; and unto thee were Christ dead in vain. Now is the true believer heir of God by Christ’s deservings; yea, and in Christ was predestinate, and ordained unto eternal life, before the world began. And when the gospel is preached unto us, we believe the mercy of God; and in believing we receive the Spirit of God, which is the earnest of everlasting life, and we are in eternal life already, and feel already in our hearts the sweetness thereof, and are overcome with the kindness of God and Christ; and therefore love the will of God, and of love are ready to work freely; and not to obtain that which is given to us freely and whereof we are heirs already…. For they that look unto the reward, are slow, false, subtle and crafty workers, and love the reward more than the work, yea hate the labour; yea, hate God which commandeth the labour; and are weary both of the commandment, and also of the commander; and work with tediousness. But he that worketh of pure love, without seeking of reward, worketh truly” (65). In this exposition of Luke 16, Tyndale succeeds in conveying what he takes to be the core of the gospel message—salvation is not by works but by Christ’s blood, shed for those who are called to belief—in simple yet rhetorically powerful rhythms that are aimed at stirring the mind and emotions of the reader while they remind that reader of the meaning of the Christian faith.

What was radical about Tyndale can, in a sense, be easily overlooked for often it is as much for what he did not say as for what he said that his work is noteworthy. For example, the 1526 Worms New Testament presented in English for the first time the complete New Testament stripped bare of all allegorizing text, written in a language natural to the average Englishman or Englishwoman and in a format small enough to carry around and be read. In the expanded prologue to the Cologne Matthew, which Tyndale had separately printed in 1531 as The Pathway to the Scriptures , he affirmed three principles: that the law and the gospel may never be separate; that our nature is fallen, but through grace we are redeemed; and that the work of Christ is sufficient for our salvation. To those hundreds and thousands of Londoners and south and east Englanders who were able to possess one of Tyndale’s New Testaments before they were confiscated and burned, the news would be transformative (as it clearly was for James Bainham; cf. Greenblatt, 74–84). For as Daniell writes, “If Tyndale is saying in print that the body of Christ is everyone, without distinction—no laity, no priests, no bishop, no pope, if everyone is equal in Christ—then the gathering of Christians together is a congregation of equals, not a church of divisions and hierarchies, where priest and bishop and pope are essential. So Tyndale translated the Greek New Testament word eklesia as ‘congregation.’ Philologically, he was correct: Erasmus, no less, had done the same before him. Theologically he was correct, too, as the New Testament understands the gathering of believers as a congregation of equals in the Kingdom of Heaven” (122).

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