Always Singing One Note
- Thursday, July 01, 2010
It is not possible for a natural man to consent to the law, that it should be good, or that God should be righteous which maketh the law.34
This view of human sinfulness set the stage for Tyndale's grasp of the glory of God's sovereign grace in the gospel. Erasmus—and Thomas More with him—did not see the depth of the human condition (their own condition) and so did not see the glory and explosive power of what the reformers saw in the New Testament. What the reformers like Tyndale and Luther saw was not a philosophia Christi but the massive work of God in the death and resurrection of Christ to save hopelessly enslaved and hell-bound sinners.
Erasmus does not live or write in this realm of horrible condition and gracious blood-bought salvation. He has the appearance of reform in the Enchiridion, but something is missing. To walk from Erasmus into Tyndale is to move (to paraphrase Mark Twain) from a lightning bug to a lightning bolt. Daniell puts it like this:
Something in the Enchiridion is missing. . . . It is a masterpiece of humanist piety. . . . [But] the activity of Christ in the Gospels, his special work of salvation so strongly detailed there and in the epistles of Paul, is largely missing. Christologically, where Luther thunders, Erasmus makes a sweet sound: what to Tyndale was an impregnable stronghold feels in the Enchiridion like a summer pavilion.35
Where Luther and Tyndale were blood-earnest about our dreadful human condition and the glory of salvation in Christ, Erasmus and Thomas More joked and bantered. When Luther published his Ninety-Five Theses in 1517, Erasmus sent a copy of them to More—along with a "jocular letter including the anti-papal games, and witty satirical diatribes against abuses within the church, which both of them loved to make."36
The Difference: Clarity and Seriousness about the Gospel
I linger here with this difference between Tyndale and Erasmus because I am trying to penetrate to how Tyndale accomplished what he did through translating the New Testament. Explosive reformation is what he accomplished in England. This was not the effect of Erasmus' highbrow, elitist, layered nuancing of Christ and church tradition. Erasmus and Thomas More may have satirized the monasteries and clerical abuses, but they were always playing games compared to Tyndale.
And in this they were very much like notable Christian writers in our own day. Listen to this remarkable assessment from Daniell, and see if you do not hear a description of certain writers in our day who belittle doctrine and extol ambiguity as the humble and mature mind-set:
Not only is there no fully realized Christ or Devil in Erasmus's book . . . there is a touch of irony about it all, with a feeling of the writer cultivating a faintly superior ambiguity: as if to be dogmatic, for example about the full theology of the work of Christ, was to be rather distasteful, below the best, elite, humanist heights. . . . By contrast Tyndale . . . is ferociously single-minded ["always singing one note"]; the matter in hand, the immediate access of the soul to God without intermediary, is far too important for hints of faintly ironic superiority. . . . Tyndale is as foursquare as a carpenter's tool. But in Erasmus's account of the origins of his book there is a touch of the sort of layering of ironies found in the games with personae.37
It is ironic and sad that today supposedly avant-garde Christian writers can strike this cool, evasive, imprecise, artistic, superficially reformist pose of Erasmus and call it "postmodern" and capture a generation of unwitting, historically naive people who don't know they are being duped by the same old verbal tactics used by the elitist, humanist writers in past generations. We see them in the controversies between the slippery Arians and Athanasius,38 and we see them now in Tyndale's day. It's not postmodern. It's pre-modern—because it's perpetual.
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