The Pen-and-Ink Wars, or Tyndale vs. More
Theological polemics-that is, public debates in print about religious topics-were big in Europe in the 1520s and ’30s. And without question, Tyndale was among the leading polemicists.
Derived from the Greek polemos, which means “war,” the term aptly describes the conflicts that went on between the reformers and the anti-reformers, especially between William Tyndale and Sir Thomas More. But whereas More’s polemics had the sanction of King Henry and the official church and could be fired with great frequency and publicity, like heavy artillery, the polemics of the exiled Tyndale had to be launched surreptitiously, like catch-as-catch-can guerilla attacks against a much larger and more-impressively arrayed army. Yet it was these “guerilla attacks” which effectively won the day, firmly paving the way for the English Reformation.
Hiding in exile from heresy-hunters, constantly employing different printers using false addresses, Tyndale turned out a succession of pamphlets arguing the claims of reformed theology. The plain little volumes were then smuggled into England in the holds of merchant ships. Probably few at the time recognized them as the first shots of a revolution, much less as landmarks of English prose.
In four works published between 1528 and 1531, Tyndale basically took the offensive, propagandizing for reformed doctrines and attacking the established ecclesiastical system. In The Parable of the Wicked Mammon, published in May of 1528, he translated and expanded upon a sermon first preached by Martin Luther.
The biblical text he expounds is Luke 16:1–9, usually known as “The Parable of the Unjust Steward.” Throughout this and his other polemical writings, Tyndale consistently explains New Testament passages from what we might call a Pauline-Lutheran perspective: faith alone justifies, but good works done with a willing spirit serve as evidence of living faith. In Tyndale’s words, “This longing and consent of the heart unto the law of God is the working of the Spirit which God hath poured into thine heart, in earnest that thou mightest be sure that God will fulfill all his promise that He hath made thee.” Because the pope and the papal hierarchy had corrupted this key doctrine, Tyndale equates them with the Pharisees and the Antichrist: “ … for Antichrist is a spiritual thing, and is as much to say as against Christ; that is, one that preacheth false doctrine contrary to Christ.”
The Obedience of a Christian Man, published in October of 1528, is Tyndale’s longest and most original polemic work. In it he argues the need for a widely available English translation of Scripture as the basis for both knowledgeable faith and civil order. He refutes the charge that the reformers preach disobedience to governments by attacking the papacy in the same terms. He alleges that the clergy “have with subtle wiles turned the obedience that should be given to God’s ordinance unto themselves.” They are engaged in an international conspiracy, he says, to repress scriptural truth, to undermine established governments, and to gain wealth and political power.
He repeats the same charges in even more angry terms in The Practice of Prelates, which was published in 1530. Looking for evidence of such clerical plots, he surveys both the history of the papacy and the chronicle histories of England to point out what he asserts are indications of such. In this he reveals either a lack of political awareness, an intentionally simplistic view, or perhaps the partially clouded thinking of a harassed and persecuted exile. He insists that the church’s hesitation in regard to King Henry’s divorce was simply a papal plot, orchestrated by Cardinal Wolsey, to discredit the English crown. He ends the work with this interesting call to repentance: “And unto all subjects I say that they repent. For the cause of evil rulers is the sin of the subjects, testifieth the Scripture.”
Sir Thomas More, who had been commissioned by the Church to refute Tyndale, had published his Dialogue Concerning Heresies in 1529. Tyndale’s Practice of Prelates includes brief rebuttals of More’s assertions in this book, and his Answer to Sir Thomas More’s Dialogue, published in 1531, was a fuller response. One man was staunchly Catholic, the other staunchly Protestant and, indicative of the vicissitudes of chameleon-like Henry, both would be executed within five years for their differing views of the faith.
Their debate centered on the relation of the church, or Church, and Scripture. Tyndale argues that the gospel preceded the church, formed the church, and now provides the test for discerning the true church—made up of those people who read the Scriptures with eyes of faith. “For the whole Scripture and all believing hearts testify that we are begotten through the Word.”
Viewed from the 20th-century perspective, Tyndale’s polemics might seem harsh, full of personal attacks, occasionally illogical, and at times almost paranoid. His language is frequently rough, and he often abuses his opponents in personal-attack terms.
He calls Wolsey “Cardinal Wolfsee” because the cleric occupied more than one church office at the same time; he baits Sir Thomas More for his friendship with the Dutch scholar Erasmus (“His darling Erasmus” is Tyndale’s mocking phrase). He begs the question, assuming as true the point he is trying to prove. When the histories do not record clerical intrigue, he assumes that the writers, clergymen themselves, have covered their own tracks.
Yet this was the prevailing style of religious argumentation during the 16th century. Luther is as abusive of Erasmus as Tyndale is of More, and More is equally likely to use circular logic and vitriolic language against him. But Tyndale perhaps had additional convictions moving him to use every polemical tool at his disposal: he was a proclaimed heretic, in exile, and was moving closer and closer to the certainty that he would soon die by burning at the stake. As he wrote in The Parable of the Wicked Mammon, recalling the English authorities’ suppression of his 1524–25 New Testament translation: “In burning the New Testament they did none other than what I looked for. No more shall they do if they burn me also; if it be God’s will, it shall so be.” Living with the likelihood that he would soon be arrested and executed doubtless contributed to his polemical incisiveness.
Many of Tyndale’s polemical writings still retain value. They are the initial English expression of Reformation doctrines, and they mark the first time that lengthy intellectual debate takes place in print in the English language. Tyndale’s style—which will remind modern readers of the King James Version—is quite equal to the occasion. Like his theological expositions, his polemical writings are steeped in Scripture, using plain language, simple but elegant rhythms, and abundant biblical imagery. To illustrate, here is the first full statement of the doctrine of justification by faith in The Parable of the Wicked Mammon:
“This is therefore a plain and a sure conclusion not to be doubted of: that there must be first in the heart of a man, before he do any good work, a greater and a preciouser thing than all the good works in the world, to reconcile him to God, to bring the love and favor of God to him, to make him love God again, to make him righteous and good in the sight of God, to do away his sin, to deliver him and loose him out of that captivity wherein he was conceived and born, in which he could neither love God, neither the will of God. Or else how can he work any good work that should please God, if there were not some supernatural goodness in him given of God freely whereof the good work must spring?”
In The Obedience of a Christian Man, Tyndale berates the established church authorities for refusing to license an English translation of the Bible: “Will ye resist God? Will ye forbid Him to give His Spirit unto the lay as well as unto you? Hath He not made the English tongue? Why forbid ye Him to speak in the English tongue, then, as well as in the Latin?”
For some 450 years now, Christian religious discussion in the English-speaking world has borne Tyndale’s accent. Through his intellectual energy and his stylistic gifts, both as a translator and as a polemicist, Tyndale established many of the terms and much of the prose rhythm of those later debates.
Dr. John A.R. Dick is an assistant professor of English at the University of Texas in El Paso, and is co-editor of two of Tyndale's polemic works, The Parable of the Wicked Mammon and The Practice of Prelates, which will be included in the forthcoming Tyndale series from Catholic University Of America Press.