Always Singing One Note
- Thursday, July 01, 2010
Erasmus was twenty-eight years older than Tyndale, but they both died in 1536—Tyndale martyred by the Roman Catholic Church, Erasmus a respected member of that church. Erasmus had spent time in Oxford and Cambridge, but we don't know if he and Tyndale ever met.
On the surface, one sees remarkable similarities between Tyndale and Erasmus. Both were great linguists. Erasmus was a Latin scholar and produced the first printed Greek New Testament. Tyndale knew eight languages: Latin, Greek, German, French, Hebrew, Spanish, Italian, and English. Both men loved the natural power of language and were part of a rebirth of interest in the way language works.
For example, Erasmus wrote a book called De copia that Tyndale no doubt used as a student at Oxford.26 It helped students increase their abilities to exploit the "copious" potential of language. This was hugely influential in the early 1500s in England and was used to train students in the infinite possibilities of varied verbal expression. The aim was to keep language from sinking down to mere jargon and worn-out slang and uncreative, unimaginative, prosaic, colorless, boring speech.
One practice lesson for students from De copia was to give "no fewer than one hundred fifty ways of saying ‘Your letter has delighted me very much.'" The point was to force students to "use of all the verbal muscles in order to avoid any hint of flabbiness."27 It is not surprising that this is the kind of educational world that gave rise to William Shakespeare (who was born in 1564). Shakespeare is renowned for his unparalleled use of copiousness in language. One critic wrote, "Without Erasmus, no Shakespeare."28
So both Erasmus and Tyndale were educated in an atmosphere of conscious craftsmanship.29 That is, they both believed in hard work to say things clearly and creatively and compellingly when they spoke for Christ.
Not only that, but they both believed the Bible should be translated into the vernacular of every language. Erasmus wrote in the preface to his Greek New Testament,
Christ wishes his mysteries to be published as widely as possible. I would wish even all women to read the gospel and the epistles of St. Paul, and I wish that they were translated into all languages of all Christian people, that they might be read and known, not merely by the Scotch and the Irish, but even by the Turks and the Saracens. I wish that the husbandman may sing parts of them at his plow, that the weaver may warble them at his shuttle, that the traveler may with their narratives beguile the weariness of the way.30
Tyndale could not have said it better.
Both were concerned with the corruption and abuses in the Catholic Church, and both wrote about Christ and the Christian life. Tyndale even translated Erasmus' Enchiridion, a kind of spiritual handbook for the Christian life—what Erasmus called philosophia Christi.
From a Lightning Bug to a Lightning Bolt
But there was a massive difference between these men, and it had directly to do with the other half of the paradox mentioned above, namely, that we must die not just to intellectual and linguistic laziness, but also to human presumption—human self-exaltation and self-sufficiency. Erasmus and Luther had clashed in the 1520s over the freedom of the will—Erasmus defending human self-determination and Luther arguing for the depravity and bondage of the will.31 Tyndale was firmly with Luther here.
Our will is locked and knit faster under the will of the devil than could an hundred thousand chains bind a man unto a post.32
Because . . . [by] nature we are evil, therefore we both think and do evil, and are under vengeance under the law, convict to eternal damnation by the law, and are contrary to the will of God in all our will and in all things consent to the will of the fiend.33
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