Laurence Coupe: Tyndale, Interpretation and Revelation

[revised Autumn 2008]
Being an authority on neither the Reformation nor the Bible, I hesitate to offer any overall judgement on the work of William Tyndale. So I shall confine myself to one section of one of his works: that part of The Obedience of a Christian Man (1527-8) in which he repudiates the principle of multiple interpretation. For the sake of argument and at the risk of absurdity, I shall be setting out to treat Tyndale in the same manner as I might treat a secular literary critic, explaining the vocabulary which he rejects and which he accepts. It cannot be done, of course; but that, as I hope to make clear, is precisely my point.

I shall not, then, be relating 'The Four Senses of the Scripture' in any detail to either Tyndale's historical role ('magisterial' or 'radical'?) or his scriptural translations. But perhaps it will be possible to draw certain larger, if tentative, inferences from this, his specific intervention in the field of hermeneutics.

Sacred hermeneutics - the whole set of principles and procedures for discovering the Word of God in the words of men - has itself a history. Thus we shall have to situate Tyndale briefly within the context of patristic and medieval thinking: we cannot appreciate Tyndale's meaning without recognising his relation to Augustine, say, or Aquinas. At the same time, we might also be permitted to speculate as to his continuing significance. We will, after all, do him no favours by setting him only amongst the dead. As the first International Tyndale Conference (Oxford 1994) has shown, his continuing and vital relevance is undeniable.

The very distinction just made -between 'meaning' and 'significance'- is itself central to hermeneutics [1] . Looking back to the apostolic period, we might say that the Christian scriptures themselves were in large part attempts to translate the original 'meaning' of the Judaic scriptures into the new 'significance' embodied in Jesus, the Messiah. Humanity had moved from 'law' to 'grace', from 'letter' to 'spirit'. Put so simply, though, the distinction looks dangerously neat. And indeed, that was what the subsequent debate within the patristic period was about. Had the law been abolished or fulfilled? Was its meaning intact, if extended; or had the significance of the incarnate Word overwhelmed it?

Here is not the place to quote endless passages of either scripture or early exegesis. The crucial issue is whether the end result was a regard for the literal meaning of the founding texts, or whether what came to be called the Old Testament was mainly a foil for the proclamation of the New. If the former, then we speak of 'typology'; if the latter, of 'allegory'. While the Synoptic Gospels are credited with initiating the one, John's Gospel and Paul's Epistles are credited with initiating the other. Actually matters are more complex: a good case can be made for Paul as arch-typologist, since he explicitly debated how Jewish history might be reconciled with the Christ event, and the existing covenant with the new. At the risk of simplification, we could distinguish typology and allegory as two ways of visualising that reconciliation. Both are figurative, but one is more figurative than the other. As Erich Auerbach explains, 'typology' establishes

a connection between two events or persons, the first of which signifies not only itself but also the second, while the second encompasses or fulfils the first. The two poles of the figure arc separate in time, but both, being real events or figures, are within time, within the stream of historical life. Only the understanding of the two persons or events is a spiritual act, but this spiritual act deals with concrete events whether past, present, or future, and not with concepts or abstractions...[2]

Thus Jonah, swallowed by a sea-monster and regurgitated, could be seen as a 'type' of Jesus, crucified, buried and resurrected. Jesus is the 'anti-type' of Jonah, the fulfilment of his promise. Though the story of Jonah is primarily important as a 'foreshadowing' of that of Jesus, the assumption behind traditionally typological thinking is that the first episode did actually happen: what is 'figurative' or 'spiritual' is the way it is connected to the second. Thus typology is rooted in the literal event, which then is transformed by association.

The church father chiefly associated with this kind of interpretation was Ignatius of Antioch (AD35-107). By contrast, Origen of Alexandria (AD 185-254) was allegorical in approach. That is to say, under the influence of Plato, he sought to translate the concrete (the literal, historical actuality) into the abstract (ultimately, the idea of Christ as Logos). Instead of keeping his attention on the history of the Jews and on the life and death of Jesus, Origen concentrated on the incarnation and the paradox by which spirit descends into matter while remaining spirit. Hence in discussing Genesis 19, he effectively denied the literal sense - Lot having sexual relations with his daughters - as invalid, seeing Lot as the rational human mind, his wife as the flesh, and his daughters as the sin of pride. He then saw all three as examples of the inadequacy of the Old Testament law - still bound to sin and rebellion - compared with the eternal, transcendent spirit of the New. [3]

If we may neatly associate the name of Ignatius with typology, and that of Origen with allegory, then sacred hermeneutics has become rather complicated, confusing even, by the time we reach Augustine (AD354-430). Essentially, he claimed to put the literal meaning first, but then found allegories everywhere. While his pronouncement that the New Testament is 'concealed' in the Old and that the Old is 'revealed' in the New ranks him with Ignatius, his distinction between 'carnal' and 'spiritual' meanings ranks him with Origen. What he added to this tension - some might say contradiction - was the 'rule of faith'.

For Augustine was concerned primarily to affirm 'the City of God' over 'the City of Man', and to assert ecclesiastical authority as the best guide to the route towards the heavenly metropolis. Hence in interpreting the scriptures one might move from literal to figurative, and one might then opt either for typological or for allegorical figuration, but ultimately the decision as to valid interpretation lay with the church. The 'rule' was not the individual 'faith' to be proclaimed eventually by Luther, but was submission to traditional, official exegesis. [4]

The conventional way of explaining what had happened by the time of Thomas Aquinas (1224-74), is to say that an ill-informed clergy had forgotten Augustine's insistence (contradictory as it was) on the primacy of the literal sense. It was relying entirely on allegory and authority. Typology, with its acknowledgement of the Bible as the product of a specific people and of a specific history, had been overtaken by the concern for a facile harmony of interpretation.

Whatever overview we take of Aquinas - and perhaps Hans Kung is right to rank him way below Augustine, viewing his system as mere 'university science' and 'papal court theology' [5] - it is clear that his scholasticism was decisive in reaffirming the literal sense. His emphasis on the use of reason undermined the 'universal allegory' which his predecessor had encouraged; his appeal to the philosophy of Aristotle rather than Plato ensured that the material roots of the scriptural narrative were not overlooked. Indeed, he went so far as to argue that the literal sense contained everything necessary to faith since, in the events of the Old and New Testaments, time - distinctly and decisively - had become sacred. Umberto Eco explains his position:

In the whole sweep of the Incarnation and the salvation of mankind, God has, once and once only, made use of people, objects, and history as expressions of his own language. It is the only enterprise of this kind which Aquinas ascribes to providence. Therefore, the sacred history is marked by a character which is quite unique in comparison with other human events ... The events recounted in the Bible were ordered as a vast message, expressed through its literal sense but pointing towards a spiritual meaning.[6]

Aquinas, that is, by no means subscribed to the pan-allegorical habit which had derived from an idle, one-sided appropriation of Augustine. Indeed, if we are to identify the Reformation with a rebuilding of the literal foundations, Aquinas may be acknowledged to have prepared the ground, despite the complexities of the late-medieval exegesis with which he is associated. [7] It is this mode of interpretation - the notorious 'four senses' - which Tyndale condemned, and to which we must now turn.

They divide the scripture into four senses, the literal, tropological, allegorical, and anagogical. the literal sense is become nothing at all: for the pope hath taken it away, and hath made it his possession.. Tropological and anagogical are terms of their own feigning, and altogether unnecessary. For they are but allegories, both two of them; and this word tropological is but an allegory of manners: and anagogical, an allegory of hope. And allegory is as much as to say as strange speaking, or borrowed speech. [8]

It is not against allegory as such that Tyndale argues; it is against polysemy, the multiplication of 'strange' speeches; for long before and long after Aquinas the received wisdom regarding scripture was that its meaning could never be simple and single. A rhyme that circulated widely in the medieval period put the system into popular form: [9]

The letter shows us what God and our fathers did;
The allegory shows us where our faith is hid;
The moral meaning gives us rules of daily life:
The analogy shows us where we end our strife.

What had happened was that allegory, distinct from the literal meaning, had now been divided into three further levels of understanding: 'allegorical' in the specific sense referred to Christ's presence and influence (thus adapting patristic typology); 'moral' (or as in Tyndale's account 'tropological') referred to what lessons a Christian could glean as to how to behave; and 'anagogical' revealed the final destiny of humankind. Even one word could be subject to such conjectures. Thus 'Jerusalem' would have been popularly understood on four levels:

literal:     the ancient Jewish city
allegorical: the church founded by Christ
moral:       the faithful soul, standing firm
anagogical:  the heavenly city of the future

Aquinas endorsed polysemous interpretation, but he wished to ensure that the first level did not become a mere springboard for conjecture. Hence it mattered very much to him that Jerusalem was an historical phenomenon, an element in God's plan for the world. Now Tyndale declares that the whole business has got out of hand: that now the meaning of the scriptures is being mystified and, indeed, evaded rather than made accessible to the faithful. Hence, in agreement with Luther, he proclaims one of the central principles of the Reformation: sola scriptura. The canon of the Bible must be assumed to cohere, and hence to make sense in every particular; and where obscurity on the literal level arises, it may best be elucidated by reference of part to whole. We may want to call this approach 'typology'. But consider the following example of interpretation from Tyndale's earlier work, A Pathway into the Holy Scripture (1525):

'The Law' (saith John in the first chapter) 'was given by Moses: but grace and verity by Jesus Christ.'... The law condemneth us and all our deeds, and is called of Paul (in 2 Cor.iii) the ministration of death. For it killeth our conscience and driveth us to desperation; inasmuch as it requireth of us that which is impossible for our nature to do... But... when the law hath passed upon us, and condemned us to death (which is its nature to do), then we have in Christ grace, that is to say, favour, promises of life, of mercy, of pardon, freely by the merits of Christ; and in Christ have we verity and truth, in that God (for his sake) fulfilleth all his promises to them that believe. Therefore is the Gospel the ministration of life. (DT 10-11)

Does not this insistence on finding Christ everywhere, and on restricting the historical autonomy of the Old Testament, merit the name of 'allegory'? It may, but Tyndale's whole endeavour of interpretation is meant to repudiate such pedantic formulae: 'twenty doctors expound one text twenty ways, as children make descant upon plain song. Then come our sophisters with their analogical and chopological sense, and with an antitheme of half an inch, out of which some draw a thread nine days long' (DT. 307).

As translator, of course, Tyndale knows the value of 'allegory', in the linguistic sense of 'borrowed speech'. Here he reflects that it is part of our everyday language: 'as when we say of a wanton child, "This sheep hath magots in his tail, he must be anointed with birchen salve"; which speech I borrow of the shepherds.' Thus there is no problem for him that Christ himself is presented in the scriptures through figurative language: 'So when I say, "Christ is a lamb"; I mean not a lamb that beareth wool, but a meek and patient lamb, which is beaten for other men's faults.' What he objects to is the imposition of alien figuration on the text. Yes, he tells us, it may be legitimate to interpret Peter's sword, with which he cut off the soldier's ear, as the 'law' which 'killeth' and Christ's healing of the wound as the 'gospel' which is 'life, mercy, and forgiveness', since the evidence is in the Bible, perceived as a unified text. But no, it is not legitimate, as does the Pope, to interpret Peter himself as the 'rock' of the Roman church (DT 304-5, 317-8).

Thus in repudiating false allegorisation, Tyndale takes his opportunity of identifying the practice within the papacy. But in turn he identifies the papacy with a most sinister figure:

And because that allegories prove nothing, therefore are they to be used soberly and seldom, and only when the text offer thee an allegory... And likewise do we borrow likenesses or allegories of the scripture, as of Pharaoh and Herod, and of the scribes and Pharisees, to express our miserable captivity under antichrist the pope. The greatest cause of which captivity and the decay of faith, and this blindness where we are now, sprang first of allegories. (DT 307)

Strictly speaking, we hear of the Antichrist only in the first two Epistles of John, where he is a terrible, but human, enemy of the Messiah. But popular wisdom (of which I take Tyndale to be acutely aware) had long since associated him with the figure of the first 'beast' in Revelation. Tyndale's wish to break free of what he calls, scathingly, 'chopological' interpretation is insistently understood as the victory over that monster. While he is fully prepared to concede that this very understanding itself draws on allegory, the word he wishes to emphasise is 'spiritual' understood not merely as proceeding from the 'literal' but as identical with it. Considering the story of the drunken Noah and the wicked Ham, 'which saw his father's privy members, and jested thereof to his brethren', and whose own children were cursed, he reflects:

God is a Spirit, and all his words are spiritual. His literal sense is spiritual, and all his words are spiritual ... (Thus) this text offers us an apt and handsome allegory or similitude to describe our wicked Ham, antichrist the pope... (DT 309-317)

The theological message here is that the letter kills unless brought to life by the spirit, by the gospel: in other words, the meaning of the Old Testament is moribund without the significance of the New. The ecclesiological message here is that Rome denies the living gospel to the people, and hence will have to be superseded. Tyndale moves readily, by way of 'borrowed speech', from exegesis to polemic.

For someone whose own rhetoric has affinities with that of Revelation, Tyndale is surprisingly reluctant to give the last book of the Judaeo-Christian Bible much detailed exegesis: 'The apocalypse, or revelations of John, are allegories whose literal sense is hard to find in many places' (DT 305). Where Luther was initially hostile to the work, wishing to exclude it from the canon, Tyndale simply went ahead and translated it - though with only a brief and non-commital marginal commentary. Each, however, in his own time came to find Revelation extremely useful as a framework for placing - and attacking - the Roman Catholic church.

Thus while we know Tyndale had a great influence on the apocalyptic thinking of John Foxe, there is no need to attribute to either master or disciple any commitment to millenarianism. What Foxe took from Tyndale primarily was an understanding of the inevitability of persecution under the false power of Rome - figured in apocalyptic terms as, alternatively, beast or whore of Babylon - rather than a specific expectation of the Messianic kingdom. [10]

Here we may seem to have wandered from our specific subject, namely Tyndale's case against fourfold exegesis. But perhaps we will be better placed to appreciate his repudiation of polysemy. The allegorical thinking to which he objects is that which divides into three further levels beyond the literal; and the final one of these is the anagogical. 'Anagogy' concerns purpose, ends, the future; it is thus a very close synonym of what we call 'eschatology'. It is the dimension which the contemporary theologian Jurgen Moltmann characterises as the 'theology of hope.' [11]

Revelation is a book particularly open to anagogical interpretation. After all, it offers a vision of 'a new heaven and a new earth', a new Jerusalem in which the Lamb will marry the Bride and the tree of life will be restored. But of course it is a deeply ambiguous text, given that the end it envisages may be understood as both 'not yet' and 'already'. Eschatology itself may be divided into 'realised' and 'futuristic' Is the kingdom within us, here and now, if we did but know it? Or do we have to wait for the final catastrophe and the final struggle between Christ and Antichrist? Is its meaning 'spiritual' or 'literal'? [12]

Christopher Hill suggests that millenarianism as such did not re-emerge in England (after John Ball and the Peasants' Revolt) until the early seventeenth century, and only came into its own during the English Revolution. [13] Tyndale- a complex figure who was, arguably, influential on both the 'magisterial' and 'radical' Reformation - did not nurture any fantasy of catastrophe. Indeed, he studiously avoids the question of an actual apocalypse in the following reflection from The Parable of the Wicked Mammon (1527):

Mark this above all things, that Antichrist is not an outward thing, that is to say. a man that should certainly appear with wonders, as our fathers talked of him. No, verily, for Antichrist is a spiritual thing; and is as much to say as, against Christ: that is, one who preacheth false doctrine, contrary to Christ. Antichrist was in the Old testament, and fought with the prophets; he was also in the time of Christ and the apostles... Antichrist is now, and shall (I doubt not) endure till the world's end. (DT 42)

For Tyndale, remember, God's 'literal sense is spiritual, and all his words are spiritual.' With Luther, he denies the distinction between the two words. Thus the way he affirms the first of the medieval four senses is very different from the way Aquinas does. Tyndale believes that the Word can communicate directly through words, and what matters is that the reader has been baptised into faith and is open to the Christ who is to be known only through the Bible. Aquinas accepts the need for distinction and elaboration. For him Revelation is no more obviously literal than for Tyndale, but what he feels obliged to maintain is the dimension of a collective future, of 'anagogy' or 'eschatology', of the 'theology of hope'. He knows the first and the fourth senses do not coincide, but that is the point. There is always a 'not yet' as well as an 'already'.

Fredric Jameson argues that the anagogical level is essentially a political reading of scripture. Taking the example of Exodus, he says it may be read as about an historic event in the second millenium BC (literal), a prefigurement of Christ's liberation of humanity from sin (allegorical), and an encouragement to the individual to resist the bondage of sin (moral)'; but it is the fourth reading which is most important for him. Here Egypt comes to prefigure not only 'the sacrifice of Christ and the drama of the individual believer' but also 'that long purgatorial suffering of earthly history from which the second coming of Christ and the Last Judgement come as the final release'. [14]

If that level, that dimension, is denied by Tyndale, then we have to understand his reasons. He is not primarily interested in the way Exodus prefigures Revelation because he has a distinct, non-visual view of 'revelation'. What matters for him is the ability to listen rather than to see, in the sense of projecting visions. Indeed, his is not an apocalyptic mind -except in that he finds it appropriate to condemn the Pope in apocalyptic terminology - for the revelation he seeks is not an image of the destiny of a global community. Indeed, it is not an image at all. Rather, he is concerned - as translator, uniquely - that the Word may be heard directly once more after centuries of mystification. He wishes the Book itself, not the official church account of it, to take effect in forming a Christian community here and now: a 'congregation' of 'love' rather than a 'church' of 'charity'. We may call this 'realised' as opposed to 'futuristic' eschatology, 'allegory' as opposed to 'typology', or 'moral' reading as opposed to 'anagogical'. While we may concede such terms to be the indispensable elements of hermeneutics - indicative of what needs to be done, given that the Word has been made manifest in words - to use them glibly in any case against Tyndale would, ironically, be to forget the 'spirit' of the 'letter', and put system before substance.

For the author of the Obedience is repudiating the terms of tradition and orthodoxy in order to reaffirm our necessary starting point: the power of faith to respond to the summons of sacred language. Thus while he does not propound a 'theology of hope' - the eschatological interpretation that may be given to the Christian kerygma - he offers what the philosopher Paul Ricoeur would call 'a poetics of the possible', a liberation of the Word. By his very translations, he releases both 'law' and 'gospel', both Old and New Testament, from the burden of excessive mediation. Today, too, we need to appreciate Tyndale's vital intervention, having become once again deaf to the Word - through either ignorance or, worse, mere cleverness. After all, to be able to define 'anagogy' or 'eschatology' is no guarantee of liberation, either in the present or for the future ('till the world's end'). Without Tyndale's 'spirit'- and that is surely the appropriate word - such words are hollow. 'Beyond the desert of criticism, we wish to be called again. [15]


  1. See E D Hirsch Jr, Validity in Interpretation, Yale UP, 1967. (The terms 'meaning' and 'significance' are usually associated with secular hermeneutics rather than sacred, but they seem useful here.). hardbackpaperback (1973)other binding
  2. Erich Auerbach, 'Figura', Scenes from the Drama of European Literature, Manchester UP, 1984, p 53. See also Jean Danielou From Shadows to Reality: Studies in the Biblical Typology of the Fathers, Burns & Oates, London, 1960.
  3. William W Klein, Craig L Blomberg and Robert L Hubbard, Introduction to Biblical Interpretation, World Publishing, Dallas & London, 1993, p 34. hardback, See also Duncan S Ferguson, Biblical Hermeneutics: an Introduction, SCM Press, London, 1986.
  4. ibid. pp 36-7. See also E T Donaldson, R E Kaske and Charles Donahue, 'Patristic Exegesis in the Criticism of medieval Literature', CriticalApproaches to Medieval Literature (ed. Dorothy Bethurum) Columbia UP, New York, 1960, pp 1-82. hardback
  5. Hans Kung, Great Christian Thinkers, Continuum, New York, 1994, pp 99-126. hardbackpaperback
  6. Umberto Eco, The Aesthetics of Thomas Aquinas, Radius, Harvard, 1988, p 151. hardbackpaperback
  7. See G R Evans, The Language and Logic of the Bible: The Road to Reformation, Cambridge UP, 1985. hardback
  8. William Tyndale, Dostrinal Treatises (ed Rev Henry Walter) Parker Society Cambridge, 1848, pp 303-4. (Further refs. to DT are given in parentheses in the course of the essay)
  9. Klein et al, op cit, p 38.
  10. See Katharine R Firth, The Apocalyptic Tradition in Reformation England: 1530-1645, Oxford UP, 1979. hardback
  11. See Jurgen Moltmann,Theology of Hope, Harper & Row, New York, 1967. hardback, other editions available
  12. See Rudolf Bultmann, History and Eschatology, Edinburgh UP, 1975 hardbackpaperback; Elisabeth S Fiorenza, The Book of Revelation: Justice and Judgement Fortress P, Philadelphia, 1985 paperback; Anthony A Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, Paternoster P, Exeter, 1978. paperback, more recent editions available
  13. See Christopher Hill, The English Bible and the Seventeenth-Century Revolution, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1994. paperback
  14. Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious, Methuen, London, 1981, p 31. hardback
  15. Paul Ricoeur, The Symbolism of Evil, Beacon P, Boston, 1969, p 349. hardbackpaperback

Author's website:

Valid XHTML 1.0!