No 👣 tracking social sharing

The Famous Thomas More / William Tyndale Polemic. They debated each other for 2000 pages. Both were also executed. Harsh words, harsh times.

Thomas More

An excellent paper concerning The Thomas More / William Tyndale Polemic is now online. This famous debate between a prominent Catholic and Protestant totaled 2000 pages and covered a host of issues on which Catholics and Protestants remain divided even today. An edited version of the introduction to the paper is below. One can see More and Tyndale employing arguments against each other that an agnostic or atheistic scholar might apply against both today.

Also see my blog entry, Tertullianʼs Paradox; Insufficiency of both Reason & Scripture, that highlights the way Catholic scholars employ modern critical biblical scholarship to dispute the Protestant claim that the Bible interprets itself, never contradicts itself, and speaks so plainly and uniformly such that all religious authority lay in the Bible alone (Sola Scriptura). Meanwhile Protestants employ modern critical investigative techniques to dispute Catholic claims that religious authority lay in a visible church that has survived for 2000 years and been preserved from error via Godʼs revelatory care and whose truth is made visible via countless tales of “miracles.” After such scholarly investigations on the part of both Catholics and Protestant one may note that neither:

  1. Protestant claims of “Sola Scriptura,” nor,

  2. Catholic claims of special revelations and miracles, appear highly convincing. They have in effect debunked each other to death and continue to do so today, both using modern techniques of study.

And see The Famous Burgh-Spinoza Exchange, another famous exchange, this time between Spinoza, the first man to have a book published that questioned the divine inspiration of the Bible, and one of his former students who converted to Catholicism.

Besides the finer points of the debate between More and Tyndale that one can read below, More also mentioned that when Lutheran soldiers in Italy took Rome (as forces of the Holy Roman Empire) they committed all kinds of horrors, hanging men by their “privy members,” raping women, roasting children on spits. The full passage from More starts on page 97 of the online manuscript and is reproduced directly below:

Of this [Lutheran] sect was the great part of those ungracious people also, which late entered into Rome with the duke of Bourbon, not only robbing and spoiling the city as well their own friends as the contrary part, but like very beasts did also violate the wives in the sight of their husbands, slew the children in the sight of the fathers. And to extort the discovering of more money, when men had brought out all that ever they had to save themselves from death or further pain, and were at pacts and promises of rest without further business, then the wretched tyrants and cruel tormenters, as though all that stood for nothing, ceased not to put them eftsoons to intolerable torments. And old ancient honourable men, those fierce heretics letted [=obstructed] not to hang up by the privy members [=penises], and from many they pulled them off and cast them in the street. And some brought out naked with his hands bounden behind him, and a cord tied fast unto his privy members. Then would they set before him in his way other of those tyrants with their Moorish pikes the points toward the breasts of these poor naked men. And then one or two of those wretches would stand behind those Moorish pikes, and draw the poor souls by the members toward them. Now then was all their cruel sport and laughter either to see the silly naked men in shrinking from the pikes to tear off their members. Or for pain of that pulling to run their naked bodies in deep upon the pikes. Too piteous and too abominable were it to rehearse the villainous pain and torments that they devised on the silly women, to whom, after that they had beastly abused them, wives in the sight of their husbands, and the maidens in the sight of their fathers, they were reckoned for piteous that did no more but cut their throats. And very certain is it, that not in Rome only, but also in the country of Milan that they kept and oppressed, after torments used and money fet out that way, than some calling himself a gentleman in Almain or Spain, would fain himself fallen in love of his hostʼs daughter, and that he would marry her in any wise, and then make [S6v] much earnest business for to have some money with her. And whether he gat aught or gat naught by that device, he letted not soon after to put the father, the mother, the fair daughter and all the whole house to new torments, to make them tell where any more money were, were there any or none. And some failed not to take the child and bind it to a broche, and lay it to the fire to roast, the father and mother looking on. And then begin to common of a price for the sparing of the child, asking first an hundred ducats, then fifty, then forty, then twenty, then ten, then five, then twain, when the silly father had not one left, but these tyrants had all before. Then would they let the child roast to death. And yet in derision as though they pitied the child they would say to the father and the mother, Ah, fie, fie for shame what marvel is it though God send a vengeance among you. What unnatural people be you that can find in your hearts to see your own child roasted afore your face, rather than ye would out with one ducat to deliver it from death.

Thus devised these cursed wretches so many diverse fashions of exquisite cruelties, that I ween they have taught the devil new torments in hell, that he never knew before, and will not fail to prove himself a good scholar, and surely render them his lesson when they come there, where it is to be feared that many of them be by this. For soon after that they had in Rome exercised a while this fierce and cruel tyranny, and entered into the holy churches, spoiled the holy relics, cast out the blessed sacrament, pulled the chalice from the altar at mass, slain priests in the church, left no kind of cruelty or spite undone, but from hour to hour imbruing their hands in blood, and that in such wise as any Turk or Saracen would have pitied or abhorred, our lord sent soon after such a pestilence among them that he left not of them the third part alive. For this purpose I rehearse you this their heavy mischievous dealing, that ye may perceive by their deeds, what good cometh of their sect. For as our saviour saith ye shall know the tree by the fruit.

Now for the Introduction to The Thomas More / William Tyndale Polemic: A Selection by Matthew DeCoursey, Hong Kong Institute of Education (Most of the work for this edition was done during the term of a postdoctoral fellowship from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada, spent at the Catholic University of America and the Folger Shakespeare Library.)


From the beginning of the Reformation in 1517, philology was a crucial element of Protestant thought. Sola scriptura, “the scripture alone” was a Reformation slogan, and the nature of that scripture was defined in philological terms. Luther used Erasmusʼs edition of the Greek New Testament with a revised Latin translation in an effort to reach the sources of biblical thought. When Luther understood the original languages well enough, he translated the text into German for the common reader. William Tyndale followed his example in English, laying the foundations for most of our King James Version. These new translations were arguably consistent with the original languages, but certainly inconsistent with the Latin Vulgate, the Bible of the Roman church. This break with the past was controversial because it implied a discontinuity in the church, a separation between the church and God. It breached a vision of the church as a unified consensus of the faithful existing continuously since the time of Christ, a vision that motivated More to write the polemical texts excerpted in this book. Each of the two could discredit the other on his own terms: Tyndale argued that mistranslations of particular words in the Bible had created an illusion that the Bible supported the visible church and its hierarchy; More argued that no one in an imperfect world can reason so well as to justify opposition to a visibly sacred church.

For us today, the content of the debate is of more than usual interest. The Reformation in general, of course, changed the course of European and ultimately global history. Nor did these two men merely repeat the conventional arguments made for and against Luther on the Continent. More was a writer of great stature in 1529: at a time when fewer than ten books a year were published either in English, or in Latin by Englishmen, More had published six, all but one in Latin.1 Tyndale would ultimately affect the course of the English language through his deep influence on subsequent English versions of the Bible. They wrote these works in the shadow of violence: besides the threat of execution, the Peasantsʼ War had already taken place, and the relation between theology and violence was an important issue here, as we shall see. Through their stature with their respective religious communities, both of these two writers would be reprinted frequently in future centuries.

Thomas Moreʼs Execution

The importance of this exchange has been recognized by historians and literary historians for many years, but it has never received the scholarly attention its significance would justify. The main reason for this is simply that it is tremendously long, at almost 2,000 pages, and the parts are not all of equal interest. Specialists in Thomas More or William Tyndale work on their author for decades or entire careers without reading the controversy all the way through. Even when one does read these works, it is difficult to keep track of the flow and exchange of ideas because of the enormous bulk of the material and the forbidding hostility of some of the exchange: the two authors accuse each other of “railing,” and each is right about parts of the otherʼs work. Moreʼs writings in particular have attracted negative comment even from those who specialize in them. Timothy DʼAlton writes that the Dialogue is a “long, often tedious work” (52), and Richard Marius writes that the Confutation of Tyndaleʼs Answer is an interminable desert, stretching to a hellish horizon under the untempered sun, and we find burning on every page a monotonous fury that deadens the soul. (p. 425)

Anne OʼDonnell and Jared Wicks wonder whether the Confutation “has ever had more than a dozen readers in any generation” (xxvii). These are typical responses among those few who have read this massive work, but the strength of repulsion masks the virtues of Moreʼs accomplishment: it is in the Confutation that More offers his most cogent criticisms of the Protestant program. Tyndaleʼs writings were of necessity more concise—they were smuggled, after all—but much of what is in them is responsive. A nuanced understanding of what Tyndale has to say is dependent on a reading of More.

The goal of this edition is to bring the major points of the controversy within the reach of both students and specialists. Through this book, readers can gain an understanding of the relations between the two writersʼ ideas, and the ways in which they tried to respond to each other. . . . Those who wish to go further in the study of this fascinating conflict may refer to the full, original-spelling editions of the works, Moreʼs from Yale University Press (now complete) and Tyndaleʼs from Catholic University of America Press (in progress).

William Tyndaleʼs Execution

Both sides of this controversy can be viewed as responses to Martin Luther.

More was involved in refuting Luther from the beginning. He participated in the production of Henryʼs Assertio septem sacramentorum (Marius, Thomas More, 278). By his own account, he had an editorial role, but he may have been responsible for more, given the obvious wisdom of ceding credit to kings. He went on from there to write a Responsio ad Lutherum (Response to Luther, 1523) and an extended letter to Johann Bugenhagen (1526 or 27), also in Latin, which last was not published until much later. In March, 1528, Cuthbert Tunstall, Bishop of London, wrote a letter authorizing More to read heretical books in order to refute them in English. Tyndaleʼs Obedience must have come into Moreʼs hands later the same year. The Dialogue appeared in 1529, and More became Lord Chancellor in October of the same year.

Like many other Lutherans, Tyndale was first a Catholic humanist before he took up the cause of the Reformation. The little evidence we have about his life before he began to publish all refers to Erasmus and not Luther.

The earliest salvo in the controversy between the two was Tyndaleʼs Obedience of a Christian Man. For the most part, Tyndaleʼs Obedience deals with the most urgent aspect of this disagreement: the relation of the new doctrine to political rebellion. The treatise is primarily an effort to construct a view of political authority on biblical terms. Tyndale argues from his philological understanding of the Greek and Hebrew Bible that scripture does not support the existence of a church hierarchy, let alone mandate obedience to it; but it does support the authority of kings (Obedience D5r-E2r). Part of the purpose of the treatise is to counter the accusation against Lutherans that their doctrine is destructive of all authority. Catholic polemicists had maintained that Lutherʼs denial of ecclesiastical hierarchy would lead to the downfall of all hierarchy, and the Peasantsʼ War had greatly strengthened their position. In the passages included here, Tyndale asserted that it was the church hierarchy that encouraged disobedience to kings, by refusing them full sovereignty over their clerical subjects and maintaining a separate kingdom (66-7 infra) Like Luther, Tyndale condemned rebellion against established rulers, but he argued that those who were newly aware of the crimes perpetrated against them were not so much to be blamed if they thought it legitimate to wield a sword in Godʼs name. He told of James and John, who wished that fire should come from heaven to consume the Samaritans, and were rebuked by Christ. “If Christʼs disciples were so long carnal what wonder is it, if we be not all perfect the first day?” Tyndale even blames the [Catholic] church itself for the violence of the rebels, since it had encouraged “bloody imaginations” of violence against heretics, Turks and Jews, and that this bloodiness was now almost justly turning on its authors (p. 66 infra).

We can also perceive in this treatise Tyndaleʼs fondness for typology, and its polemical use to support the Lutheran cause. In the first pages, Tyndale presents the situation of Protestants as identical with that of Christ and his disciples in the time of the Gospels. In so far as Tyndale and his followers were rebellious, they were, Tyndale implies, neither more nor less so than was Christ when he was on earth. The [Catholic] church authorities were behaving like the scribes and pharisees of the stories, collaborating in the deaths of martyrs as the Jewish religious authorities collaborated in the death of Christ. He presents the scribes and pharisees as plotting to deceive the people and Christ as revealing the genuine truth of the Hebrew scripture. In the Obedience, Tyndale offers a quotation that would resonate throughout the controversy:

“By their fruits ye shall know them.”

For Tyndale, that meant that believers should examine the lives of flesh-and-blood clerics among them, and ask themselves whether this life was the result of a true and pure faith in God, or of a “belly wisdom” that taught them how to satisfy their bodily hungers by deceiving the people.

Anticipating the charge of lust against Luther and others who married despite previous religious vows, he [Tyndale] presented priests as taking any number of prostitutes, but hypocritically remaining unmarried (125 infra). In the Prologue (reprinted here) and elsewhere, priests appear as warmongers, creating wars between princes to preserve their own power (66-7 infra). He ironically lists the many rituals of the church, suggesting that their main point is to raise money for priests. He asks why the Mass is in Latin, and replies that it is to keep the people mystified by revealing nothing, and charging money, too, for a ceremony that almost none of the flock could understand (115 infra). By this means, the clergy succeeded in cheating the people at once of their worldly goods and of their salvation.

Moreʼs Dialogue Concerning Heresies Answers the Obedience with Four Kinds of Arguments.

One group of arguments disputes Protestant characterization of church corruption, arguing in effect that Protestant assertions about the “fruits” of clerical sin carried the force only of rumour. More argued that while corruption existed, as it must exist in any human entity, there was no firm evidence that the church was integrally corrupt. To show that the orthodox had always known of such frauds, More told the story of Duke Humphrey exposing a false miracle. More is sure that God will not allow his church to accept anything fraudulent for long, so if a story is old, its age is evidence of truth.

Subordinate to this point, but argued at great length, is a discussion of the nature of evidence. Through a series of thought-experiments, More asks what justifies the fixation of belief. For example, he suggests that a “black” man in India might hear of the existence of white people. Would he believe it? By such illustrations, More builds up a skepticism about the possibility of knowing anything, especially by the reading of texts, and concludes from this skepticism that the only thing to do is accept the authority of the Holy Church, which alone can know certainly. The legitimacy and continued occurrence of miracles is for him a crucial point: God blesses the established church by granting miracles at shrines and on pilgrimages, but no such blessing comes to the Lutherans. This kind of argument takes up much of Books I and II.

Secondly, More argues in Book III against Tyndaleʼs translations of key terms [in the Bible].

Thirdly, he [More] challenges the rationality of Tyndaleʼs trust in sola scriptura, “the scripture alone.” Moreʼs position is that the only way he or Tyndale can know that the scripture is the scripture is from the authority of the church, and that the church therefore has logical precedence. It has the authority to interpret the Bible just has it has the authority to say what the Bible is. He repeatedly quotes Matthew 28:20, “Lo, I am with you all the days to the worldʼs end,” to show that Jesus is still guiding the church.

Finally, More presented a vision of the origin and fate of heresy which served to underpin a negative view of Protestant character, supplying a motivation for the irrationality of Protestant claims. He deals with [the character of] such Englishmen accused of heresy as Richard Hunne and Thomas Bilney, but the model case is that of Luther. More presented Luther as a man of irrational pride, who received a license to sell indulgences from the pope and saw it taken away again. He “fell to railing” against “all pardons,” contradicting himself at every turn. In spite of his irrationality, Lutherʼs ravings were persuasive. The people quickly realized that Lutherʼs heresies freed them from the normal obligations and duties of civilized society, and forgot that the social disorder resulting from this indiscipline would hurt them. Lords found it advantageous to use Lutherʼs ideas as an excuse to seize church lands, and so the heresy grew. The doctrine of predestination was part of this devilish mix, and led the Lutheran soldiers in Italy to believe that they were not responsible for their own actions, but might impute any sin to God. When they took Rome, then, as forces of the Holy Roman Empire, they committed all kinds of horrors, some of which More describes: old men are hung up by their “privy members,” women raped, and children roasted on spits.

Tyndaleʼs Answer to Sir Thomas Moreʼs Dialogue stresses the importance of philology, setting out detailed arguments for each of his translations. Besides that technical argument, his introduction presents a vision of the philological man as spiritual, since the one who genuinely accepts and loves Godʼs law never stops studying it, to see what it really is, what it means. He says the spiritual man
never leaveth searching till he come at the bottom, the pith, the quick, the marrow and very cause why, and judgeth all thing. (p. 112 infra)

Tyndale takes a phrase from More to represent the opposite tendency: More had written that we must “captive and subdue our understanding to serve and follow faith.” In the introduction and throughout the book, Tyndale returns to this phrase in order to present More as wilfully brainless, ready to accept the most illogical rule, as long as authority enjoins it. Later in the treatise, Tyndale further develops the process by which he believed church ceremonies first came about, and then were emptied of their meaning.

Execution of William Tyndale using Strangulation and Burned for Heretical Act of Translation of Bible

It is also in the Answer that Tyndale develops the very characteristic notion of “feeling faith,” which he had adapted from Melancthon. More had criticized Lutheran adherence to “faith alone,” saying that it is very easy to believe in the words of the Gospel, but this would not prevent people from committing crimes.13 Tyndale answers that he is not referring to intellectual assent, as More seems to think, but rather to the powerful conviction that comes of true experience (141 infra). Intellect and emotion, then, relate differently for our two authors:

Tyndale sees the development of understanding as intellectual, but the results of developing faith as emotional. That is, one arrives at faith through intellect (combined with the grace of God), but the proof of true faith is in emotional conviction. For More, faith is a simpler matter of trust, and intellect enters into the question thereafter. He values emotional conviction, but it is not a consequence of faith as it is for Tyndale. He depicts the faithful Christian developing emotion in faith by the contemplation of images, by a process of self-persuasion, as Erasmus had recommended.

This tension between views of emotion and faith is congruent on each side of the debate with views of philology. For Tyndale, if a reader is first intellectual, philological analysis is a natural way of arriving at the truth of a textʼs meaning, and it is after the “spiritual man”ʼs analysis that “feeling faith” emerges. Moreʼs trust in the visible church means that the common believer should first of all trust the teachings of the church, as they come down from the larger church through the parish priest. For More, independent philological analysis of the biblical text must take place with the guidance of the church. More had believed in philology, but only as a way of reinforcing the unity between the Bible and the church: to use philology to split the church is to miss the heart of the matter.

It is only in the last treatise, the Confutation of Tyndaleʼs Answer, that More comes to the strongest part of his case against Tyndale, in the impracticality of Tyndaleʼs vision for ordinary people. They cannot be the “spiritual man” demanded by the reformer, as they have lives to live, and may not be very educated anyway. More creates a fictional dialogue between two ordinary women and Tyndaleʼs fellow reformer Robert Barnes. They ask him a series of questions about the significance of his program for them. Since they are not learned people, and since they cannot spend all their time scrutinizing the Scripture, how are they to know truth from falsehood?

At the outset, the first woman claims to trust Barnes, but wants to know how she is to stay on the right path once he is gone. The second woman, who is illiterate, is more hostile. The standard Protestant answer to their question, which Barnes gives, would be that a good preacher will give them doctrine that is consistent with the scripture. In the Obedience, as we have seen, Tyndale had recommended a program of teaching to enable them to make good judgements. Moreʼs women point out that this will not do—and here Moreʼs understanding of language comes into play in a way that conflicts strongly with Tyndaleʼs. More does not believe that certain knowledge can arise from a text, analyzed by philological means or not. His women are not only the unlearned, but all humanity. At the same time, the inferiority of their femaleness serves to disgrace Protestants: even women can confute the reformers. [A rhetorical ploy that J. P. Holding likes to use today by employing a female bunny character or a female theologian character as seen in one of his videos. — E.T.B.]

Looking globally at the arguments and responses here, it is noticeable that this is not a dialogue of the deaf. The two men understand the nature of each otherʼs arguments very well. Nor is this surprising, for both were Erasmians.

Tyndale went beyond Erasmus . . . For Erasmus, the elements of corruption and superstition were parasitic upon the true religion inherent in the church; for Tyndale, they were symptoms of a rot that went to the core.

Both differ from Erasmus in being very much concerned with political reality and the stability of society. They owed this concern to the earlier history of the debates—for Lutherʼs critics had forced a concern with social stability onto him—and to the concrete history of events. Lutherʼs critics had claimed that his attack on the authority of the church hierarchy would lead to the erosion of all authority and ultimately to anarchy. They claimed victory on the point, not unreasonably, when the Peasantsʼ War broke out in 1524 (Bagchi, 108). Tyndale arrived in Germany the same year, so he must have been there and either seen its effects, or heard of them at close quarters. It was Tyndale, then, who brought up the question of social stability, holding that social order should be determined by the Bible.

More responded with his own version of proper authority, what it should govern, and who should hold it. He believed that the established and visible church was the expression of Godʼs truth in the world, and held legitimate sway over the lives of humanity. He viewed the position of the pope as divinely instituted, and the popeʼs pronouncements as harmonious at once with the Bible and with the “consensus of all the faithful” as expressed in General Councils of the western church. (This is not to say that he believed in the infallibility of the pope, which was not received doctrine at the time.) Militating in Moreʼs favour on this matter was the great longevity of the papacy. The original pope was said to have been St. Peter, invested to his position by Jesus Christ in the words, “Thou art Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). Even if one insisted on hard historical evidence, the papacy was still at least a thousand years old, and such durability seemed to imply a divine blessing. More than the pope, however, what mattered to More was the sense of unity, of a continuous tradition of belief through the centuries.

In the course of writing against Protestants, More found it increasingly important to develop the ways in which God communicates truth to his church. . . . God spoke to the world in the words of Christ, as written in the Bible and as preserved in church tradition, but also in “secret inspiration,” as Simon Peter knew without being told that Jesus was the son of God. Jesus replied to Peter, “Thou art blessed, Simon the son of John, for neither flesh nor blood hath revealed and showed this to thee, but my father that is in heaven” (Mt 16: 5-7 translation Moreʼs, modernized, CWM 6:143). More argued that this same secret inspiration had shown itself in the church throughout its history. That is why the practices of the church are to be viewed as inspired, even if there is no biblical basis for them, since Godʼs people have been moved to a practice by inner inspiration. This is how he accounts, for example, for the churchʼs practice of adding water to wine during the Eucharist. Similarly, doctrine develops not by reason alone, as Tyndale seemed to imply in his rational figure of the “spiritual man,” but by reason under the guidance of the Spirit. Certainly, a false prophet may emerge at any time, falsely claiming to have divine guidance, but for More the question was resolved in the consensus omnium fidelium, the consensus of all the faithful. All those whose hearts are open to divine inspiration are in time brought to agree, and the heretical branches of the church, deprived of the divine sap, eventually die as old heresies like Arianism had died. That is why More frequently presents lists of saints who he says agreed with the point that More is making at the time (109 and others infra), and why in the Confutation he presents a vision of the church assembled on Salisbury Plain, unanimous in its condemnation of Luther, Tyndale and the other Protestants (188ff. infra).

More [also] exploits an important weakness of the Protestant position: if the church is invisible, how can anyone know what church to follow? More has an answer for this question, and a huge body of texts to refer to, while the sincere questioner tending toward the Lutheran position is left making a complex judgement that might escape doctors of the Sorbonne: which preacher is most rational and most faithful to Scripture?

To Tyndale, the hierarchy of the church from the papacy to the parish priest was a thoroughly human institution, dedicated to perpetuating its own prestige, power, and wealth. A good deal of space in his polemical writings was taken up with the effort to present familiar elements of religious life as parts of a large plot to prevent Christians from understanding that they are being cheated at once of their religious inheritance and of their worldly goods. He asked why the Mass was in Latin, and answered that the papacy believed in the need to keep the people ignorant and unquestioning. He tried to defamiliarize the Mass by speaking of “mumming”: it was a theatrical presentation intended not to communicate, but to keep the people fascinated by revealing nothing (Obedience O1r-v). He noted the peopleʼs belief that presence at mass brings luck and personal security. Like Erasmus, he denounced far-fetched allegorical interpretation; unlike him, he consistently presented allegory as a conscious means of ensuring that the people did not understand. It seemed significant to Tyndale that the Bible passages supporting the power of the popes had to be read allegorically in order to carry this meaning. (Obedience H7r).

For Tyndale, the hope of genuine Christians in the face of this plotting lay in the persistence of Godʼs truth embedded in the institutional fabric of the Catholic church. The church was constantly plotting against religion, but God had not allowed his scriptures to be entirely changed and lost, but only wickedly interpreted and presented with significant flaws. In Tyndaleʼs view, even the ceremonies of the Roman church carried elements of symbolism which came down from a less corrupt time, and which could be used to recover the truth of Christianity (129-30 infra).

It is for this reason that philology was a central concern for Tyndale. What is now called philology is a set of techniques developed by the Renaissance humanists for the understanding of classical texts. Sometimes the words on the page had been corrupted in transmission, but might be reconstructed by the comparison of texts and close reasoning. Sometimes the words had been correctly transmitted, but had been misunderstood because language change had not been properly taken into account: a word in a particular text might be understood as carrying a meaning that had arisen long after the text had been written. Martin Luther had applied such techniques to the interpretation of the Bible: for instance, he used Johannes Reuchlinʼs comments on the Hebrew word sadaq to inform his thought on the key concept of justification (Cummings 66-7).20

When More came to criticize Tyndaleʼs New Testament, he focused his attack on six glosses. Tyndale rendered ekklesia as “congregation” rather than “church”; presbyteros as “elder” rather than “priest”; agape as “love” rather than “charity”; charis as “favour” rather than “grace”; homologia as “knowledging” rather than “confession”; metanoia as “repentance” or “forethinking” rather than “penance.” In each case, Erasmus had raised questions in his commentaries, pointing out that the Vulgate translations were problematic, as they did not match known pre-Christian usage. Erasmus had pointed out the problems, but had reaffirmed his commitment to the unified and universal church. Tyndale, consistently with what we have seen, regarded these translations as showing a plot to prevent the people from perceiving that the visible church had not support in scripture.

In three cases out of six, these terms had direct consequences for the nature of the priesthood.

When we combine these changes in translation with Tyndaleʼs denial that the office of the Pope is referred to in the Bible, the result is a Bible that offers no support for hierarchical church government, and has no priests in the conventional sense.

In the Confutation, More makes a much more serious effort to respond to Tyndaleʼs philological points than he had done in the Dialogue. As with the passage of the women and Barnes, the philological argument in the Confutation is better than anything along the same lines he had previously written. Yet the passages are so long and the expression so obscure that it proved impossible to include any meaningful extract of the argument in this book. 21

In the Confutation, More recognizes the problems raised by philological scholarship. More veers between mocking Tyndale on tendentious grounds and raising serious questions about philological method.

The power of philology and translation to affect oneʼs basic understanding of religion and politics made these, in Moreʼs view, dangerous things to give individuals. More distrusted the goodwill, virtue and intelligence of the ordinary citizen, and consequently, he tended to authoritarian ideas on public morality. In the Utopia, published before Lutherʼs name was known, More had made his Utopians prescribe severe penalties for fornication, saying that no one would ever get married if pleasure were available freely.22 His History of King Richard III, even earlier, had presented the mass of humanity as gullible and prone to wrong judgments in political matters. So in the Dialogue Concerning Heresies, More favours the translation of the Bible into English, but suggests that bishops should keep a tight control over all copies of the translations. Some people, More thinks, should see only a few of the safer parts of the Bible, and the truly foolish and rash should not see any of it. Only a few of the wisest might be trusted with the whole book. In Moreʼs view, it would have been far better if Luther had remained ignorant, unable to use the Bible to support his own pride, ambition and especially lust.

Tyndale, in contrast, had a belief in the capacity of the ordinary Christian which might well seem excessive today. In a passage of the Obedience included here, he asks that the clergy should teach Christians not only the biblical text, but also I would have you to teach them also the properties and manner of speakings of the scripture, and how to expound proverbs and similitudes. And then if they go abroad and walk by the fields and meadows of all manner doctors and philosophers they could catch no harm. (58 infra)

Perhaps there are few Protestant members of clergy—today, or ever—who could confidently say that their flocks understand Hebrew and Greek idiom, and the problems of interpreting idiom in translation. Philological competence is a key issue.

There are dangers in editing these texts, because the issues they discuss are still alive. Protestants may object that More has more pages in this book, or Catholics that I have not included the best of Moreʼs arguments. Any selection is contentious, and I have included less than ten percent of the total. I hope that this selection will give access to an important exchange to many who would not have read the nearly 2000 pages of the original.

End of the Introduction. See the full paper online.

Comment using Google

Comment using Disqus

Comment using Facebook

Help Ed score 100% on YSlow. Server Fees & 🍪-free *CDN.
This page was designed and tested by Night Owl using GTMetrix on 5/16/2017.

*Content Delivery Network
Onload Time
Fully Loaded Time 1.3s
Pagespeed 100% YSlow 99%

Friends and Colleagues