Tush Ye Shall Not Die

John Bossy

  • William Tyndale: A Biography by David Daniell
    Yale, 429 pp, £19.95, September 1994, ISBN 0 300 06132 3
  • The Renaissance Bible: Scholarship, Sacrifice and Subjectivity by Debora Kuller Shuger
    California, 297 pp, £32.00, December 1994, ISBN 0 520 08480 2

There must be an ecumenical spirit at work at Yale University Press for, having just given us Eamon Duffy’s masterly and devoted evocation of English Christianity before the Reformation, The Stripping of the Altars, they have now made things even with David Daniell’s William Tyndale. Tyndale’s life is soon told. He was born, probably in 1494, of a landowning and entrepreneurial family in that part of Gloucestershire where the Cotswolds meet the Severn, since then the home of Evelyn Waugh (temporarily: the ghost of Tyndale got the better of him), of a bird sanctuary and a power station. Then it was most famous for the cloth trade, which gave Tyndale plenty of support during his life. He went to Oxford, where he discovered Erasmus, and perhaps to Cambridge as well. Around 1523 he left Gloucestershire for London, and tried to persuade the learned Bishop of London, Cuthbert Tunstall, to let him translate Erasmus’s New Testament into English. When Tunstall turned him down, he went abroad to the Netherlands and Germany, where he published his translation, now of a Lutheran stamp, in 1526.

He spent most of the next ten years living quietly among sympathetic English merchants in Antwerp, getting on with the Old Testament and having his translations smuggled into England. He had an in-and-out relationship with the government of Henry VIII, and a controversy in print with Thomas More. In May 1535, when the government of the Emperor Charles V was persecuting Protestants in the Netherlands, he was betrayed to the authorities and, despite an attempt by Thomas Cromwell to have him sent to England, executed (by strangling before his body was burned) in October 1536.

Daniell, like his hero, is an altar-stripper: he writes ‘Paul’ and ‘John’ for ‘St Paul’ and ‘St John’ as others write ‘Austen’ for ‘Jane Austen’. (For some reason Tyndale himself kept the ‘St’ for Matthew, but dropped it for everybody else.) He is that rare thing, not just a Protestant but an Evangelical historian: rare, because in so transcendental a view of the world it is hard to find room for the secondary causes which are most historians’ meat and drink. He holds that the truth about God and human salvation is contained in Scripture alone; that the message of Scripture is single, coherent and self-validating; and that it had been perverted by churchly forms, traditions and innovations from some date after its delivery in Palestine to the time of Martin Luther and the other 16th-century reformers, who broke the mould and put things right.

I am not sure if Daniell holds that the average soul of the 15th century was happy in his bondage, or was one of John Foxe’s secret multitude of true believers, like Wycliffe and the Lollards, who chafed at the Church and wanted to get through its corruptions to scriptural truth. But he thinks that, in England, ‘the removal of a thousand-year-old wall built by the Church between the people and the Bible’ was accompanied by a ‘collective sigh of relief’; so he must think that the English were, in spirit, altar-strippers all the time. He believes, with reason, that the rendering of the Bible into English was a – probably the – great event in the history of the nation; and that Tyndale, who was the prime renderer, is therefore a most important figure in that history. In his view Tyndale has been underrated and written down by comparison with, say, Shakespeare; the OED, whose original version did not use him as an authority, will surely do him better justice next time round. Daniell wants to verify Tyndale’s centrality by exploring both how he made himself a sort of repository of the history of English as it had been spoken up to his time, and still more how his invention of an English scripture-speech determined the language of the liberated people we became.

Daniell says, as I can well believe, that there is a lot of work to be done here; and he has already started on it with his publication of Tyndale’s New Testament, and of the Old Testament so far as he had got before he was maliciously winkled out of the house of the English merchants at Antwerp and sent to his death. These editions are beautifully done, as is this biographical companion to them, and have somewhat the effect that I imagine Erasmus’s New Testament had in 1516. Modern spelling, a virtual absence of notes except for a few rude ones of Tyndale’s own, the continuous page unversified and undivided into columns: these give the text the transcendental quality Daniell is looking for.

Daniell frequently observed that Tyndale is more ‘modern’ than the Authorised Version. I wasn’t brought up on the King James Bible, but Daniell seems very good on it: ‘Appeal to Latin, so characteristic of the Authorised version, tends to flatten differences, and make a special kind of language for everything, something a little antiquated, a little removed, and feeling therefore, for the New Testament, rather artificially holy.’ It does not let us hear the serpent saying unto the woman: ‘Tush ye shall not die,’ or Amnon asking King David to let his sister Thamar make him ‘a couple of fritters’. What I take it the Authorised Version is doing is Englishing the Bible in such a way that it can appear in a decent English liturgy, holding off the Geneva Bible on one side and the Douai Version on the other. It is thus churchy, as Tyndale is not. Tyndale’s translation was offered to his Christian brothers and sisters for their ‘spiritual edifying, consolation and solace’: it was for devotional, which had always meant for silent, reading.

There is a point to be made here, which is not meant to detract from Tyndale’s newness, but may help to bring Duffyism and Daniellism together. Tyndale, like Luther, was the heir of a century in which the cultivation of interior devotion had been intense, and its connection with the machinery of the ecclesiastical institution loose. The printing-press, before it became an instrument for humanists and reformers, had been the motor of a vast proliferation of prayer-books, in the vernacular as well as in Latin, which were not necessarily as fabulous or as anti-scriptural as Daniell supposes. The Primer, or Book of Hours, was mainly composed of Psalms: it was also the medium for a great deal of private and direct communication, or hoped-for communication, between individuals and God, for purposes which ranged from the extremely mundane to the perfectly otherworldly.

In England, the Church hierarchy had not permitted the proliferation of devotional aids to include vernacular translations of the Scriptures as a whole; it was in the hope of altering this situation that Tyndale had, unsuccessfully, approached Tunstall. So we can put Tyndale, in the first place, into the context of the flourishing of vernacular piety in England on the eve of the Reformation; just as we can see Luther, in the first place, as elaborating a theme in 15th-century piety about the efficacy of Christ’s Passion and death in satisfying for human sin. For Luther, for Tyndale, and for a large number of the devout people of their time, the effect of an intense devotion to the person of Christ was to make the public church, or many aspects of it, an intruder into the private dramas of sin, consolation and salvation. Tyndale’s retranslations of ‘church’ into ‘congregation’, of ‘priest’ into ‘senior’ or ‘elder’, of ‘charity’ into ‘love’, struck home not just because they were authentic, but because they had, in the ambient devotional soundworld, a variety of available chords to strike.

Suppose Thomas Cromwell had succeeded in getting Tyndale out of his prison in Brabant and brought him home to become a living presence in the actual Church of England on the same kind of footing as Cranmer: would he not have changed his tune a little? Daniell remarks that commentators have discerned in Tyndale’s existing work a tendency to drift from the anarchic syndrome ‘gospel-versus-law’, as Luther had stated it, to something much more law-friendly, almost the covenant between God and the law-keepers which Calvin was to expound. Perhaps the progress of the translation from the New to the Old Testament was bound to encourage some such shift; but he also changed his mind, at what for his public would have been important point, from ‘Blessed are the maintainers of peace,’ which I take to mean ‘Blessed is the government,’ to the traditional ‘Blessed are the peace-makers,’ meaning those who reconcile enemies. Would he not have had to change his mind a little about the Church?

Daniell makes hay with Thomas More’s defence of churchiness against Tyndale’s faith in the Word, and few will deny that the prize for manners and coherence in that controversy goes to Tyndale. All the same, More had something worthwhile to say. Tyndale appeared to hold that the written word was the sole vehicle of communication of the truth about Christ and Christianity; More held that the word was in the first place a vehicle of communication within a community, within which images, mental or visible, signs, symbols, sacraments, ‘mysteries’, might equally or better serve the purpose: to those, among others, who couldn’t read. This was not a foolish point, though it may look better the farther away we get from the context in which More stated it. If we take it to be simply a defence of the more entrenched positions of the English Catholic clergy of his time, it may well look silly; it looks less silly if we take it to be a defence of the historically existent community of Christians as the bearer of what Christianity can actually be supposed to be; perhaps it looks less silly still if we take it to be a general thought about the philosophy of language. It may possibly not be a Christian thought at all: it depends on what one understands St John to mean by saying that ‘in the beginning was the Word.’ Its virtues were hard to recognise in the 1520s and 1530s, when logolatry was the norm and, to many serious people, the extraordinary achievements of the previous century in the visual and musical arts were suddenly to cry out for the hammer and the boot. But something like it was what the actual Lutheran Churches, and the Church of England itself, came back to in the end.

I doubt if Tyndale would quite have gone along with that: if I may twist a little Daniell’s persuasive exposition of his objects and gifts as a translator, he thought that a community of English believers, whose historical existence he had no faith in, could be created from scratch by inventing an ideal type of English common speech and setting down the Bible in it. It was a heroic vision, the vision of a very considerable, probably of a great, artist; it did not quite set off the transcendental explosion that Daniell suggests, but I should think it has had, over the centuries, a good deal of the effect that Tyndale looked for.

Debora Kuller Shuger’s The Renaissance Bible is not really about the Bible at all but about the interpretation of the Bible, and more precisely about the interpretation of sacrificial themes in the New and Old Testaments, in Early Modern Europe. Her interpreters are a very distinguished succession of humanists and Calvinists that begins with Lorenzo Valla in the 15th century and ends with Hugo Grotius in the 17th, passing by Erasmus, Buchanan, Scaliger and others on the way. It comes in a series called ‘The New Historicism: Studies in Cultural Poetics’, and is occasionally the worse for it. But all told it is a fine book, and at its centre there is a view of the very serious, and to most of us inadequately known, figure of Grotius which will stand up in any kind of history. Shuger is most interested in Grotius’s De satisfactione Christi of 1617. This was an attempt at a historical, contextual, one might almost say anthropological view of a principal theme of the New Testament, the Passion and Crucifixion of Christ, situating the scriptural texts in the context of the communities which produced them.

Grotius began by wanting to defend against the humanist rationalism of the Italian émigré unitarian, Fausto Sozzini, the traditional doctrine of Christ’s self-sacrifice as an atonement for human sin. Sozzini had said that vicarious atonement was not civilised form of transaction, and that Christians should therefore not suppose that what Christ was doing was reconciling man to his Father in the customary sense. Grotius’s vindication appears to have taken two forms. He claimed that the transaction was acceptable under Roman public law, which required retaliation, not from God as the party offended by human sin, but from God as the imperial ruler of the world, whose business it was to stick up for the rules of good order in general. God was ‘satisfied’ in our present sense of ‘contented’, rather than in the historic sense that he was ‘paid’ or that his right to vengeance was appeased. Grotius also claimed that Christ’s satisfaction was a form of the expiatory sacrifice which he thought was part of the law of nature or of nations: the rituals of the Ancient World assumed that a degree of identity between the person offending and the person/object sacrificed was sufficient to ensure the acceptability of the sacrifice to the deity. As Shuger says, Grotius had a good deal in common with J.G. Frazer. By the same token, he appeared to be offering a sort of anthropological justification which distinguished the mores of the past from those of the present, to be putting the Crucifixion into a context of primitive rites, and to be giving the game to Sozzini. On just the same grounds, that the forms of social connection or ‘conjunction’ of the ancient Hebrews were different from those of his own time, Calvin had rewritten the traditional prohibition of usury. Shuger concludes that if we are looking for the source of Renaissance individualism we ought to look for it in the process of understanding the central doctrines of Christianity; and she has made the point with learning and aplomb.