Sunday, July 23, 2017

Tyndale, More, and Venomous Words

The Pathway, a publication of the Missouri Baptist Convention, is running a series of stories commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. In this post, the focus is on William Tyndale and Thomas More:

In 1529, the year before Tyndale printed the Pentateuch, Thomas More—an English lawyer who was on the king’s council and who would soon be named Lord Chancellor of England—wrote a lengthy dialogue attacking evangelical heretics like Luther and Tyndale. Soon Tyndale responded with a brief answer to More’s dialogue. And, again, More replied with a Confutation of Tyndale’s Answer, a work that trudged along for half a million venomous words.

Ironically, Tyndale may have considered More, the famous author of The Utopia, a friend of reform little more than a decade earlier. Indeed, he seems betrayed by More’s attacks. But, although he was friendly with famous Christian humanists and was no particular lover of the pope, More always believed that the hierarchical Roman church was the only guarantor of truth and order in the world. If the church falls, the world will collapse into chaos. Thus, the church must be defended vehemently.

It is no wonder then that some—though not all—historians have argued that More himself employed Henry Phillips, who betrayed Tyndale to his death. In October 1536, after being imprisoned for more than a year, Tyndale—a martyr for Reformation truths—was strangled and then burned at the stake.

But by the time of Tyndale’s death, More had been dead for a year—a Catholic martyr beheaded by the authority of King Henry VIII.

I'm glad to see the author clear More of employing Henry Phillips. But he needed to make it clear: If Tyndale had been imprisoned for more than a year by October 1536, that means the betrayal took place in 1535: Thomas More had been in the Tower of London since April of 1534 and had been out of office since 1532.

The author also doesn't give the full context of the exchange of publications between More and Tyndale: although Ben Hawkins refers to More's "half a million venomous words" in his Confutation of Tyndale’s Answer, he does not describe the venom of Tyndale's response to the Dialogue—some of those 500,000 venomous words may indeed be Tyndale’s, because More took each argument in Tyndale’s 1531 An Answer to Thomas More’s Dialogue and answered it point by point.

In his Reformation Divided, Eamon Duffy looks at the Confutation and notes the effort and detail with which More labored on this work. As this reviewer sums up Duffy's effort to explain More's effort:

Duffy takes for his study perhaps the chief offender among More’s works, his voluminous Confutation of Tyndale’s Answer (1531), a work five times longer than the book it purported to confute. Critics, Duffy remarks, have found the Confutation a “shapeless, repetitious and boring work whose immense bulk and inflamed rhetoric reflects the collapse of More’s control over his material, and hence his failure as artist, persuader and polemicist.” Even C. S. Lewis deemed it “the longest, the harshest, and the dullest” of all More’s controversial writings.4 Duffy, however, successfully counters the perception that More’s religious polemics were failures even as literary works. More was adapting learned literary debate for a vernacular readership. Some of the vast bulk of his compositions results from his decision to quote his opponents at length so that it could be evident that he was not misrepresenting their arguments. More claimed, in fact, that Tyndale’s Answer could be reproduced in its entirety simply by leaving out More’s own responses in the Confutation. “One test of the value of any literary innovation,” Duffy points out, “is whether or not the form is adopted by other serious writers.” The form More introduced was indeed to have “a decisive influence” on the shape of religious controversies in the next generation of both Catholic and Protestant polemicists, as the works of William Rastell, Thomas Harding, and John Jewel attest.

I've submitted a review of Reformation Divided to another publication and will let you know when it's in print!

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