WILLIAM TYNDALE AND SIR THOMAS MORE – by Dr. Herbert Samworth
When we last noticed William Tyndale, he had completed the publication of the Pentateuch in 1530 and his revised second edition of the New Testament in 1534. We must pause in our narrative of the events of his life to take notice of a verbal battle that ensued between him and Sir Thomas More. It certainly was not the most edifying of contests, but a review of it will bring into focus some of the most important contrasts of the events taking place in England and Europe during that time.
On one hand, William Tyndale and Thomas More were two dissimilar men. More, who was about seventeen years older than Tyndale, had achieved fame as a humanist. He was a graduate of Oxford University and the companion of John Colet and Erasmus. More had gained notoriety in his own right with the publication of the satirical Utopia. He pursued a career as a lawyer with great success, married well, and enjoyed a very successful life.
There are many who believe that it was Colet and More who persuaded Erasmus to take up the study of Greek. Colet had studied at the Platonic Academy in Florence while More had pursued the study of Greek at Oxford. Thus, there was a direct connection between Thomas More and the beginning of the Reformation with the publication of the Erasmus’ Greek New Testament, the Novum Instrumentum in 1516.
On the other hand, Tyndale, while also a graduate of Oxford and a student of the Greek language, had been forced to go abroad to translate and print the Word of God in his native English. We must be reminded at this date, due to the Constitutions of Oxford promulgated in 1408, that it was illegal to possess a translation of the Bible in the English language. Tyndale was basically a fugitive from English law and was residing in the Merchant Adventurers’ house in Antwerp. He enjoyed none of the comforts that characterized the life of More.
However, the outward circumstances as different as they may have appeared, were secondary to the differences that characterized the two individuals. It was not a matter of character because both individuals were transparent in their beliefs. However, the issue dealt with the most basic of differences imaginable. For William Tyndale what was supreme in his life was the Word of God. For the Word of God, he had sacrificed all that men usually considered critical to live a fulfilled and satisfying life. He was content to be a fugitive, living on the edge of danger to give the ploughboy the Word of God in a language he could understand.
For Sir Thomas More, it was not the Scriptures, but the Church that occupied the supreme place in his life. Whatever the Church taught and believed was the creed of Sir Thomas More. Thus, when the Church decreed that it was illegal to give the people the Word of God in their own language, Sir Thomas More agreed from the depth of his being. As a result, when a person, like Tyndale, had the effrontery to translate and print the Scriptures in the English language, it was as though a blow had been aimed at the heart of all that More believed and cherished. And those that did this were guilty of the most heinous of transgressions and must be silenced.
Although the basic differences between the two individuals were clear, what were the actual circumstances that precipitated the literary duel between them? We must take a moment to put the situation in perspective and it will be necessary to go back several years before Tyndale had completed his work on the Pentateuch.
There was no doubt that the Reformation had made great inroads in England and the basic cause was the influx of William Tyndale’s English New Testament. The authorities, especially the Bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall, were incapable of stemming its flow. Although Tunstall employed agents to interdict the New Testaments arriving from overseas and a number of them were confiscated, the flow continued unabated. Even in the Fall of 1526 when Tunstall delivered a sermon at Saint Paul’s Cross decrying the three thousand errors in the translation and burned a number of copies, it seem only to increase the number of New Testaments that made their way into the hands of the people.
Obviously, a new strategy had to be employed. If the prohibitions of the Law could not stem the tide of New Testaments and other Lutheran works, perhaps the voice of reason could prevail. In a letter to More, Tunstall referenced the “sons of iniquity” who were attempting to infect England with heresy by the translation of the English Bible and other books. Unless someone could counter this attempt by producing books from the conservative side, the country would soon be overrun with heresy. Tunstall permitted More to read a marked copy of the New Testament and other Lutheran books and to write against them. Mozley, in his biography of Tyndale, comments on the irony of this situation when an individual of the stature of Sir Thomas More had to receive permission from a Bishop to read the Word of God. Thus, we see the contrast with Tyndale who desired to make the Bible accessible to the ploughboy so he could read the Word of God at his convenience.
Thus, the stage was set for the contest, not so much as between two individuals, but between two competing world views. On one hand was William Tyndale who believed the Bible had the supreme authority over the Church and should be freely give to all and on the other was Thomas More who believed the Church was over the Bible and had the right to determine who could be entrusted with the Word of God.
The details of the literary conflict, if indeed the word literary, could be used, can be summed up as a clash of authority. More initiated the contest with the publication of the The Dialogue of Sir Thomas More knight….wherein be treated divers matters as of veneration of images and relics, praying to saints and going on pilgrimage….touching the pestilent sect of Luther and Tyndale, by the tone begun in Saxony and by the totether to be brought into England.
Although the title of the book first mentioned Martin Luther, it was on William Tyndale that More concentrated his attack. There were three major points to this dialogue: the cult of saints, the Bible, and the nature of the Church. It was printed as a folio of about one hundred and fifty pages and published in June 1529.
In format, the work was cast into a dialogue which permited More to set up straw men and demolish them easily. Although the three subjects were touched on in the book, the major attack was on the translation prepared by Tyndale. In contrast to Tyndale’s desire to give the entire New Testament to the English people, More contrived a novel way of permitting the people to have the Word of God. Under More’s scheme the Bishop would have copies printed but he would retain control of them and distribute them to selected individuals by individual books. For example, one might receive a copy of the Gospel of John but not the other Gospels. Or one might be permitted to read one of Paul’s epistles such as Ephesians but would not be permitted to read Romans. Also the books would be loaned and subject to recall at the desire of the Bishop. More went so far to illustrate this method of distributing the Bible by liking it to a father who gives selected items to his children because of his fear that they could be harmed.
The major defect of More’s production was his abject failure to deal with the real issue which was the corruption of the Church. He excused the wickedness of the clergy by stating that it was worse in other countries and the lay persons of England were just as guilty as the clergy. He also justified the harsh treatment, including burning at the stake, of those who had been found guilty of heresy, having a copy of the English New Testament or a book authored by Luther or Tyndale. He was determined to crush all opposition to what the Church had ordered.
Tyndale replied in July 1531 with his book entitled An Answer to Sir Thomas More’s Dialogue, made by Willyam Tindale….
In his Dialogue, More reserved most of his venom for those he termed “wretches” who had the temerity to use the Word of God as the standard to try the condition of the Church. Tyndale was certainly one of those wretches because he used the Scripture in that exact way. Tyndale insisted that the true condition of the Church would be manifested by its actions and those actions were to be measured by the Word of God. Although Tyndale used strong words, his basic intent was to reform the Church not to destroy it. Sir Thomas More, for all his erudition, never was able or was unwilling to accept this. To his mind, Tyndale was determined to destroy the Church.
Perhaps the strongest argument made by Tyndale in his book dealt with the objection of More that one could not know Scripture is unless it was given and interpreted by an infallible Church. Tyndale countered by stating that self-attesting nature of Scripture and the testimony of the Holy Spirit would testify to its truthfulness.
There was more that Tyndale stated in the book but his main argument has been given as above. Tyndale’s rejoinder reached More by late summer of 1531. More countered with his Refutation of Tyndale. It was a large folio and full of bluster against Tyndale. More went over the same ground two or three times in an attempt to answer every statement or possible statement that Tyndale could make. It does not make for edifying reading because More resorted to taunting Tyndale concerning those that had been martyred for their faith. More demonstrated a side of his character that is unflattering to say the least. He was capable of better things than this book. We must accord him credit for his persistence in his beliefs, when at the cost of his life, he refused to sanction the King’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon.
Tyndale did not reply to the book and the matter ended at that point. More later added an Apology in which he defends his use of invective and harsh words against the Lutherans but we should not consider this to express contrition of what he had previously written.
What is the value of this review of the literary combat between these persons? It brought into sharp focus two contrasting views of the church. For Tyndale the English Church was not a true Church of Christ, it had abandoned the Gospel, and denied the Lord. The true Church is composed of those who are truly redeemed. More sought to blunt this accusation by demanding that there is the need of a visible church and not only the invisible one advocated by Tyndale. However, in this as on other occasions, More misunderstood the man. Tyndale was not denying the need of a visible Church; he was saying that the condition of the Church must be evaluated in the light of the teaching of Scripture. For More, who placed the Church above Scripture, this was not true and those who advocated it were guilty of the greatest heresy.
What should have Sir Thomas More done? According to Mozley, He should have struck an agreement with Bishop Tunstall. In exchange for being the spokesman for the Church, he could have insisted that the Bishop institute a thorough cleansing of the immoral practices of the Church. He may have been the instigator of a moral reform in the Church.
While we respect J. F. Mozley for this opinion, and respect Sir Thomas More for his refusal to accept the King’s divorce, we are not convinced that it would have instituted a true reformation. While it is true that correction of moral abuses would have been salutary, such a proposal would not have touched the real heart of the situation. At the basic level, it was the Church’s denial of the Gospel and that could only be remedied by the Word of God. For his insistence on the necessity and exclusivity of the Word of God to effect such a reformation, Tyndale was put to the stake and died for his convictions. Therefore, we submit that it was WilliamTyndale and not Thomas More that history has proven to be correct regarding a true Reformation of the Church.