Sunday, January 15, 2012

William Tyndale, by David Teems

Book Review by Chris Haven

By Teems' own admission, there is much about Tyndale’s life that is unknown. In seeking to present the historical man, Teems relies heavily upon the sixteenth century world of which Tyndale “would have been” a part. In approaching the story of Tyndale’s life this way, Teems is able to present a number of contemporary people and issues that make for very interesting reading.

Teems gives a good taste of late medieval culture. The institutional church and state were (unhealthily) conjoined. A person entered both by birth. “At the heart of medieval Christianity,” Teems writes, “was a reliance on fear and manipulation” (p. xi). The burning of heretics was a regular occurrence, where the church authorities pronounced a person to be guilty of heresy and then turned that person over to the secular authorities (whose laws made heresy a capital offense) for execution. Teems well conveys “the strict controlling motherhood of the Catholic Church over its children” (p. 167).

We are also provided much information about the development of languages. Latin was the lingua franca of Europe in the late medieval period. Scholars would not dream of condescending into a vernacular language, like English or German, in conveying their lofty or religious ideas. Hence, men like Tyndale and Luther, were not only radical in their endeavors to translate into the “common tongue,” but viewed by many as quite “low brow” for doing so. In the early sixteenth century, English was used for cursing, not theological discourse.

Teems furthermore gives insight into what a medieval education was like.  Entering university at fourteen was commonplace. There a student would receive a “liberal arts” education made up of logic, grammar, and rhetoric (the Trivium) and arithmetic, astronomy, music, and geometry (the Quadrivium). “Disputation,” or oral defense, was a staple of the medieval theological education. However, the Bible itself was not studied.

Not surprisingly, there is much about the history of Bible translation in the book. While John Wycliffe was the first to translate a Bible into English, Tyndale’s translation was much superior and had far broader influence. Wycliffe’s translation was Middle English (think Beowulf), hand written, based on inferior Latin manuscripts, and not plentiful in circulation. Tyndale’s work, on the other hand, was in early modern English (think Shakespeare), printed on presses, based upon Erasmus’ recently published Greek New Testament texts and Hebrew texts, and were more effectively circulated.

Teems paints an unsightly picture of Thomas More. Although granted Sainthood by the Roman Catholic Church, it’s difficult to see him as such after after reading Teems. More was a zealous defender of the Roman Catholic Church and its theology, and Tyndale seems to have brought out the absolute worst in him. While God does not take delight in the punishment of the wicked, More apparently did. Teems shows More’s obsession in seeing Tyndale and his ilk incinerated at the stake, and More’s writing to Tyndale is filled with coarse ad hominem abusive attacks (as was not uncommon in polemical discourse of the day).

Tyndale is presented as a lover of God’s Word who had the mind of an artistic genius. In a way few English writers have been able to achieve, Tyndale deftly combined “Economy…Simplicity [and] Elevation” (p. 67). Tyndale’s work was essentially the basis for the 1611 Authorized (King James) Bible. Aside from perhaps Shakespeare, Tyndale has had the greatest influence of any singular person on the English language. In addition to the thousands of words he invented, many of the most beloved and memorable passages of Scripture in our modern translations are Tyndale’s phrases.  

Tyndale spent his life on the run, as a fugitive-scholar. His crime? Translating the Bible into English. In the end, Tyndale would give his life for his craft and passion. One of the lessons one can learn from the life of Tyndale is that human traditions (among other things) blind men to biblical truth. Even if Tyndale’s theology was not correct at points, he at least grounded it in the Bible. His views were at least biblically plausible positions to take. This could not be said of his opponents.

Teems has produced a well-written account of the life and times of William Tyndale. He is sympathetic to Tyndale and his causes. He shows how Tyndale’s exile from England shaped and enriched his translation. Tyndale is shown to be a man of self-control and steady conviction. While fair in his portrayals, Teems is not afraid to reveal the warts of Tyndale’s pursuers (e.g., Tunstall, Wolsey, and More). In the end, this book should educate and inspire its readers to strive for lives of greater significance for the things that eternally matter. 

I received this book for free from Thomas Nelson Publishing to write this review.

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