Erasmus and Tyndale on Bible-reading

Matthew DeCoursey
Catholic University of America

The relation between Erasmus and the Reformation has been widely discussed, yet Erasmus' undoubted influence on William Tyndale has been little analyzed. In common with other reformers, William Tyndale learned to read the Bible from Erasmus. His reading of Erasmus, nevertheless, was not straightforward or simple, and certainly his theological conclusions were not the same.

Erasmus set out his conception of Bible-reading in his Ratio verae theologiae of 1518, and those same principles are to be found throughout his writings of that time and later. Yet Tyndale's understanding of Bible-reading does not derive from this source, I will argue here, as much as from the Enchiridion militis christiani of 1503, which Tyndale had translated.[1] Even at that, Tyndale's reading of Erasmus was selective and idiosyncratic. Nevertheless, the result is not arbitrary, but derives from an Erasmianism reduced to its philological elements, ignoring the rhetorical theology that dominates Erasmus' mature hermeneutic.

Erasmus' rhetorical theology is now very well known. It is Christocentric, in that the figure of Christ as a personality, as a perfect God-man, is central to it. The Erasmus of 1516-18 wishes the character of Christ to be known to all, to become alive in believers from their reading of the Scriptures. In the Introduction to the New Testament, he had mentioned the veneration of images and gone on:

[An image] represents only the form of the body — if indeed it represents anything of Him — but these writings bring you the living image of His holy mind and the speaking, healing, dying, rising Christ Himself, and thus they render Him so fully present that you would see less if you gazed upon Him with your very eyes.[2]

A number of commentators over the last thirty years have remarked on this presence of Christ in Scripture as central to Erasmus' theology.[3] Most recently, Manfred Hoffmann has dubbed this element 'Christ's inverbation in Scripture'.[4] Christ is viewed as the author of Scripture, and, by the signifying power of language, Erasmus thought that he could become present to the reader, inspiring readers by his own character made of perfect virtues.

For Erasmus, one of the ways of seeing someone's character in discourse is through the philological analysis of narrative and descriptive passages. In the Ecclesiastes of 1535, Erasmus demonstrates to the preacher how he can impress upon the congregation that Jesus had wonderful qualities of goodness, charity and gentleness.[5] He asks the preacher to carry out a careful and vivid exposition of the story of the paralytic told in Matthew 9:2-8 and Luke 5:18-26. In the process, naturally one must understand all the vocabulary in the two versions of the story, and one must compare word usage with other sources. In this case Erasmus thinks it would be good to read 'books of the physicians' in order to grasp the nature of paralysis.[6] Once a true understanding of the text is found through philology, that is, comparison with other ancient texts, the reader can discover the true acts and therefore the perfect character of Christ.

Philology has then an important role in Erasmus' view of Bible-reading. It is necessary, if Christ's character is to be seen vividly and accurately, that the details of each story be read well. Therefore one must read each word in the New Testament according to the most accurate possible techniques. For Erasmus, these techniques were those he had learned from Lorenzo Valla. Each word, in Erasmus' view, must be compared with the usage previous to, and contemporary with, the text under scrutiny. For example, Erasmus discusses whether the Greek word pistis in its pagan usage previous to the New Testament can reasonably be translated into Latin as fides.[7] This kind of philology requires enormous learning, as the commentator must be able to produce a range of examples of each word, and examine whether they do indeed mean the same thing.

Character is the object, for Erasmus, of philological reading. Not only is Christ the centre of Bible-reading, but Cicero's character is the centre in reading his works. Erasmus has two principal metaphors to describe the appearance of the author in the text. One is of the work as a mirror of the author's mind,[8] and the other is of a spring: the mind produces language as a source produces water, and that water, whether pure or polluted, flows out to be drunk by all who read or listen.[9] The function of philology, one might say, is to polish the mirror, and to purify the water of impurities gained through the centuries, to be sure that the true product of the best mind is in fact what is read.

Yet there is a certain contradiction between philology and rhetorical reading, or rhetorical theology. Philology denies authorship in that the basic principle is consuetudo, or custom. The text as a whole is seen as purely the emanation of an author's mind, but each word in it is the result of impersonal convention. Still, perhaps the individuality of the author is to be found in larger stylistic features.

So indeed, Erasmus postulates the presence of the author's character, including Christ's, in 'style ... an imaging of the mind in its every facet.[10] Erasmus tells us of the kinds of men he reads in texts:

One may have greater charm, another more conscientiousness, still another more simplicity, another a more vivid personality, another more gentleness, another more intensity; one man may be marked by austerity, another by kindliness, one by loquacity, another by conciseness, one by learning, another by holiness, one by copiousness, another by force and vigour.[11]

In the definition of style which accompanies this passage, there are two elements of style in the text: treatment of argument and figures.[12] Erasmus has little to say about the treatment of argument, but in figures he sees the expression of the writer's personality.

It would be involved and wearisome to trace Erasmus' logic on the relation of figures to the author's character. Suffice it to say that each figure is seen as tending toward some virtue of style, whether pleasantness, vehemence or vividness, and the choices made by the author as to rhetorical effect are seen as evidence of the author's character.[13] Hence Luther's chief fault lies in the indiscriminate forcefulness of his writing style, which is so extreme as to deserve the Greek name of deínosis.[14] Similarly, one Pietro Crinito earns Erasmus' scorn since 'like a shrew-mouse he gives himself away by his own voice'.[15] As for Christ, Erasmus tells us that his 'manner of speaking' (sermonis habitus) lies in his extensive use of 'tropes and allegories and similes or parables'.[16] He uses these figures in order better to move the feelings of his flock toward holiness. He uses familiar things to tell his stories and makes his parables vivid in order to accommodate the human weakness of those he addresses.[17] What Jesus' style demonstrates is the divine charity which bends down to humanity and tells of the heavenly things in a way that they can understand.

William Tyndale's Bible-reading derives from Erasmian philology, but the search for an author's character is no part of his work. Instead of an ideal character, Tyndale seeks a God of covenant:

God is no thinge but his law and his promyses/that is to saye/that which he biddeth the doo and that which he biddeth the beleve and hope. God is but his worde.[18]

In this theological view he is very firm. To him, the vital element of Bible reading is in the need to understand the law God has laid down for his people and the promise of salvation for those who have faith. The virtues of God or of Jesus are nowhere discussed, except insofar as God's law is just and his keeping of promises makes him true.[19] The goal of interpretation is then quite different.

With respect to individual words, this difference of purpose creates no rift between the practices of Erasmus and Tyndale. Both refer to custom in determining word-meanings, and they reach similar conclusions. Tyndale treats English a little differently from Erasmus' treatment of Latin, in that Erasmus' custom of the ancients' arose from the usage of canonical authors. Tyndale might have done this in English, using Chaucer, Lydgate and perhaps Skelton, but he does not. Instead, he appeals to the English-speaking reader to confirm his judgements: 'I report me unto the consciences of all the land' (PS III, 14). He generally does not present much detail on the Greek precedents in word use, very probably relying on Erasmus, whom he once cites by name (PS IIII, 16).

When the question of construing figures arises, the matter is quite otherwise. Erasmus' conception of style had required him to interpret figures in terms of the writer. Tyndale, being uninterested in style and in authorship, sees figures in terms of impersonal meaning. At the beginning of The Obedience of a Christian Man, Tyndale asks that preachers should teach the people the 'principles and the grounde of the fayth' and further, 'I wolde have you to teach them also the propirties and maner of speakinges of the scripture/and how to expounde proverbes and similitudes.'[20] Though 'maner of speakinges' is probably a translation of Erasmus' sermonis habitus, it is not attached to an author here, but to the entire Bible, and what is at issue is not the character of any speaker, even Christ, but the accurate understanding of doctrine.

There was precedent for this in Erasmus' Enchiridion militis christiani of 1503, which Tyndale had translated in 1521 or 1522. In that work Erasmus recommends to the Bible-reader to interpret all the visible world in terms of its analogues in the invisible world of God, his angels, and the 'blessed minds.' The most important aspect for this argument lies in Erasmus' insistence that this not be done at random, or according to the individual mind of the believer, but according to the usage of the Bible. Hence, one should respond to the rising sun as follows:

[Being] instructed by visible creation, pray with Paul that He who ordered the light to shine out of darkness may Himself shine in your heart to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ Jesus. Recollect similar places in the Holy Scriptures where here and there the grace of the Holy Spirit is compared to light.[21]

The significance of this passage is that it makes the Bible into a metaphorical code. There is a signifying practice here, which the Bible-reader should imitate in his or her prayers. Erasmus goes further, suggesting that there can be a method, ratio, which can underlie the reading of Biblical simile, metaphor and allegory:

In unveiling the hidden sense ... one ought not to follow conjectures of his own mind but acquire a method, and, so to speak, a kind of technique, something a certain Dionysius gives us in a book called Concerning the Names of God and Saint Augustine in his work entitled Christian Doctrine[22]

Another part of the Enchiridion offers an illustration of this 'method' or 'technique' in which water is shown to be customarily a symbol of divine wisdom, and Erasmus thereby claims the right to interpret water in the same way throughout the Bible.[23] Unquestionably, this codifying aspect of Erasmus' understanding of metaphor was subordinate, in his career as a whole, to the emphasis on authorship and style, but it was there for Tyndale to read.

Tyndale reads in the fashion of the Enchiridion when he somes to confute the notion that the power of the Pope is underwritten by Jesus' statement, 'Thou art Peter and on this rock I will build my church' (or, as Tyndale has it, 'congregacion'; Matthew 16:18). He tells us, 'Now sayeth all the scripture that the rocke is Christe/the fayth and Gods worde,' and there follows a series of examples of rock-imagery just as Erasmus offers for water.[24]

Tyndale carries the notion of impersonal code in the reading of metaphor rather further than does Erasmus. His well-known discussion of the four senses of Scripture in the Obedience includes a general characterization of metaphorical speech. He presents a series of proverbs from English usage and concludes:

Thus borow we and fayne new speach in every tonge. All labels prophesies and redels are allegories as Ysopus fabels and Marliens prophisies and the interpretacion of them are the literal] sense.
So in like matter the scripture boroweth wordes and sentences of all maner thinges and maketh proverbes and similitudes or allegoryes![25]

Where Erasmus had used figures, including the metaphorical figures, to differentiate between authors, Tyndale uses the notion of metaphor to present all signification as the same. As it is 'our' custom to borrow expressions from some trade or discipline to express things alien to it, so it is the custom in all languages, all times and all writings.

This generalization is startlingly nuansed in 'A Brief Declaration of the Sacraments' of 1533. This treatise is concerned with 'the manners and fashions of the Hebrews' in signifying practice.[26] Tyndale begins with the establishment of cairns to mark boundaries and works logically through Hebrew ceremonial to the moment when the Christian sacraments are established by Jesus. With respect to metaphor, he proposes that

The Jews ... are wont ever to name the memorial and signs of things with the very name of the thing signified; that the very name might the better keep the thing in mind: as when Jacob, Gen. xxxii. turned home again out of Mesopotamia, saw the angels of God come against him, he called the place where he saw the Mahanaim, an host; because that his posterity in time to come, when they heard the field, which was none host, yet so called, should ask why it was so named, that their elders might thereby have an occasion to teach that Jacob saw there an host of angels. (PS I, 375-6)

He goes on with three pages in the Parker Society edition of parallel examples out of the Bible, from which he concludes that

where Matthew and Mark say, 'This cup is my blood of the new testament', the sense must needs be also, that it is the memorial and seal thereof; only calling, after the use of the Hebrews, the sign with the name of that which is signified. (PS I, 379)

What Tyndale is proposing here is a trope specific to the Hebrews, a specialized type of metaphor. This is quite remarkable: very few or none of the many who have discussed metaphor have ever thought to make it culturally relative in this way.

Once again, Tyndale has made no reference to specific users in his discussion of metaphor. It is not the choice of metaphor as revealing the speaker's character that interests him. In this case his point is that the words establishing the Eucharist must be rightly understood in relation to the law and the promise: the sacrament is given by God to keep the promise 'in mind', and the law does not state that one must believe, as Catholics would claim, in the transubstantiation.

Each of our two writers faces problems in his approach to metaphorical speech, but Erasmus' problems must be seen as worse than those of Tyndale. In the edition of Jerome of 1516 he tries to explain how he knows that one work is by Jerome and another not. He must return time and again to irreducible perceptions: in one place he compares his ability to discriminate to recognizing the smell of parsley, and in another to recognizing a friend on the street.[27] He works from the impact of the text on himself toward a conclusion about the author. He possesses a view of 'virtues of discourse' (virtutes orationis) which he could use to describe this impact, and he could list the elements of style, but at this stage there is no relating the two.[28] Even his most developed understanding of figures, published at the end of his life, does not relate them directly to the character of an author, but catalogued only the virtues of style promoted by each figure. Once it is known that a particular figure in a particular context promotes, say, vehemence (vehementia), we must still discuss all the other figures and make an assessment of the overall impact of the passage or of the text. If the passage can be shown to be vehement overall, we still do not know about the author's character until we have related this vehemence to him, to the audience addressed, to the material and to time and place. It is a complex judgement. at best, and the categories involved are not easily limitable. 'Time', for example, might require a full discussion of the historical moment, what had happened just before writing the piece, what the audience felt about it and so on.

Tyndale also has problems applying his method. On the important question of the keys of St Peter, he offers his interpretation with relatively little support. He says that the keys are the keys of knowledge: that is, knowledge of the law and the promises. Yet this time he has no tremendous list of occurrences to offer, but can refer to only one passage in Luke 11.[29] In this case, he moves to other means of interpretation: he argues that there is no case within the Bible of Peter using the 'power of the keys' as the Pope uses it, but different apostles may be seen to preach the knowledge of the law and the promises just as he says. This is a case of 'clear scripture' interpreting an obscure passage, after a principle of Augustine learned directly, from Erasmus, or from another source influenced by Augustine such as Luther.[30]

When Tyndale interprets the verse 'I send you forth as shepe amonge wolves,' he draws no conclusions about Christ, the author of these words. Rather, he interprets: 'The shepe fyght not: but the sheparde fyghteth for them and careth for them.[31] Though he does not argue this interpretation, the practice we have already seen suggests a way to do it: one would go through the Bible drawing out all the occurrences of sheep, and interpret according to the customary usage of the Bible. One might well run across contradictory instances, but at least the procedure is clear.

One might argue for Erasmus' way of reading that it offers a living, dynamic image out of the text, which is effectively inspiring to the reader. Yet for a writer with Tyndale's preoccupations, who wished to be very sure that he was in truth reading the Bible, and not some product of human imagination, certainty of interpretation is well served by simplicity of method. Because Tyndale is moving from words to words, from the words on the Bible page to the words of law and promise, his path is clear, even if he has difficulty making a simple case in many places. Because Erasmus is moving from words to something different in kind, that is, to the projected psychology of a human being or of God, his problems are perhaps irresolvable.

List of abbreviations

Allen: Erasmi epistolae (ed. P. S. and H. M. Allen, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1906-58).

ASD: Opera omnia Desiderii Erasmi Roterodami (North-Holland, Amsterdam, 1969- ).

CWE: Collected Works of Erasmus (U. of Toronto P., Toronto, 1974- ).

Holborn: Erasmus, Ausgewählte Werke [in Latin] (ed. Hajo and Annemarie Holborn, Beck'sche, Munich, 1933; reprinted 1964).

LB: Desiderii Erasmi Roterodami Opera omnia (ed. Jean Leclerc, vander Aa, Leyden, 1703-6).

PS I: William Tyndale, Doctrinal Treatises and Introductions to Different Portions of Holy Scripture (ed. Henry Walter, The Parker Society, Cambridge, 1848; reprint Johnson, New York, 1968).

PS III: William Tyndale, An Answer to Sir Thomas More's Dialogue, The Supper of the Lord ... and William Tracy's Testament Expounded (ed. Henry Walter, The Parker Society, Cambridge, 1850; reprint Johnson. New York, 1968)


[1]For an account of the evidence on Tyndale's translation of the Enchiridion see Erasmus, Enchiridion militis christiani: An English Version, Anne M. O'Donnell, S.N.D., ed., Early English Text Society No. 282 (Oxford U.P., Oxford, 1981) pp. xlix-li ii.
[2]Erasmus, 'Paraclesis', Christian Humanism and the Reformation, (trans. and ed. John C. Olin, Fordham U.P., New York, 3rd edition, 1987), p. 108
[3]'[L]e Nouveau Testament n'est pas seulement un document inspiré de la doctrine du Christ; it contient la présence du Christ lui-même' (Georges Chantraine. 'Théologie et vie spirituelle: un aspect de la méthode théologique selon Érasme', Nouvelle revue théologique, 91 [1968], p. 827). 'Thus the humanist persuasion that an eloquent text orates reality expands in Erasmus to a lively faith in the real presence of Christ as text.' (Marjorie O'Rourke Boyle, Erasmus on Language and Method in Theology [U. of Toronto P., Toronto, 1977], p. 83.)
[4]Manfred Hoffmann, Rhetoric and Theology: The Hermeneutic of Erasmus (U. of Toronto P., Toronto, 1994), p. 82
[5]Bonitas, charitas; misericordia, mansuetudo, Ecclesiastes, ASD. V-5, p. 164, 1. 254; p. 170, 1. 344.
[6]ASD V-5, p. 170, 11. 353-4.
[7]CWE 56, pp. 42-5; LB VI 562D-563B. See also the discussion in Jerry H. Bentley, Humanists and Holy Writ: New Testament Scholarship in the Renaissance (Princeton U.P., Princeton NJ, 1983), pp. 181-3.
[8]E.g., Ecclesiastes, ASD V-4, p. 38, II. 98-9.
[9]'Mens fons est, sermo imago a fonte promanans' (ASD V-4, p. 40. 1. 132). As Irenaeus 'swallowed' the errors from the philosophy of Plato (Allen, epistle 1738, I. 187), or in more extreme form, as Celsus 'vomited' blasphemies (Allen, epistle 1738, 1. 255).
[10]CWE 61: 79: Erasmus, ed. Hieronymi opera, 9 vols. (Basel, Froben, 1516) 11, to. 4r.
[11]CWE 61: 78-9; Hieronymi opera, II, fo. 4r.
[12]'The word "style" embraces very many things: the habit of discourse, the thread or fibre, as it were, of the speech, figures, sagacity, judgement, the kind, invention and treatment of argument, the emotions induced, and those things which the Greeks call ethos' (translation mine). 'Plurimas res pariter complectitur stili vocabulum, sermonis habitum, et dictionis quasi filum, figuras, consilium, iudicium, argumentationis genus, inuentionem, tractationem, affectus, et ethe quae Graeci uocant' (Hieronymi opera, fo. 3v-4r). These elements are quite various, including textual features, aspects of the writer's mind, and stages of composition. The elements which are directly observable in the text are figures (figuras) and exposition of argument (argumentationis genus, inuentionem, tractationem).
[13]For a fuller treatment, see Matthew DeCoursey, Chapter 2, 'Style', in 'Rhetoric and Sign Theory in Erasmus and Tyndale' (unpublished University of Toronto Ph.D. thesis, 1995), pp. 75-121.
[14]See Allen, epistle 1688, 1. 10.
[15]CWE 61, p. 55.
[16]Ratio verae theologiae, in Holborn, p. 259, 11. 33-4.
[17]See Hoffmann, op. cit., pp. 107, 115.
[18]William Tyndale, The Obedience of a Christen Man ([Antwerp], 1528; reprinted Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, Amsterdam, 1977), sig. C3; PS I, 160.
[19]For example, 'He hath sworn/he is true/he will fulfill the promyses that he hath made vnto Abraham/Isaac and Jacob', Obedience, sig. A4v; PS I, 135.
[20]Obedience, sig. C2r; PS I, 135.
[21]The Enchiridion of Erasmus (trans. Raymond Himelick, U. of Indiana P., Bloomington, 1963), p. 102; Holborn p. 68, ll. 19-23.
[22]Enchiridion, Himelick, p. 107; Holborn, p. 71, 11. 21-4.
[23]Enchiridion, Himelick, pp. 49-50; Holborn, p. 31, 11. 12-30.
[24]Obedience, sig. S7v; PS I, 318-19.
[25]Obedience sig. R2v; PS I, 305.
[26]PS I, 347.
[27]CWE 61, p. 86, Hieronymi opera, II, fo. 189v; CWE 61, p. 77, Hieronymi opera, fo. 3v.
[28]The list in the Ecclesiastes of 1535 (ASD V-5, p. 98, II. 904-5) almost exactly reflects the list of virtues promoted by metaphor in the preface to the Parabolae of 1514 (CWE 23: 130-1; ASD I-5, p. 90, 1. 28ff.). It appears that Erasmus' view of virtues of style that can be produced by figures remained constant over that time.
[29]Obedience sig. G6r; PS I, 205.
[30]Ratio verae theologiae, Holborn, p. 197, 11. 3-5; Augustine, De Doctrina christiana 2.6.8.
[31]Obedience, sig. A6r-v; PS I, 137.

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