The Reformed Church Tradition: Language, Music and Spirituality


A personal reflection on the conference held Saturday 31 October 1998

Pliny the Younger has been described as being "garrulous but with art". With this in mind, he asks us to read a portion from his thoughts of a garden. Part of one sentence will suffice:

"Picture to yourself a vast amphitheatre such as could only be a work of nature, a great spreading plain, ringed round by hills, below them, the vineyards spreading down the slope weave their uniform pattern, their lower limit bordered by a belt of shrubs...."

This great spreading plain could well be the Geneva of Switzerland, and the hills? Why not the mountainous terrain that encroaches upon this city "international". Geneva, like Zurich has in its roots, a European identity. The city fully capitalises on this identity and increasingly incorporates it into its modern infrastructure. The one day Tyndale conference was ideal in bringing to us something of this, though the organisers may not have realised it at the time. From Tyndale to Calvin, and even to Shakespeare, the scope of this identity was to be traversed. Even Luther would be included, by the very date of the conference - he published his Ninety Five Theses on the 31st of October 1517.

Professor David Daniell was one of the featured speakers and also filled in for the Rev. Dr. Alan Bartlett who was unable to attend due to illness. His first talk was Tyndale, Geneva and the English Bible. Tyndale was truly avant-garde in the Renaissance/Reformation era. His linguistical and Biblical scholarship was clearly evident in his expertise with the Hebrew and Greek languages. His skill as a Hebraist was truly unique, and this would come across powerfully in translation. His work would become in essence the framework for the Biblical text in English. However, in the various versions that we have and especially the King James, the rendering and certain meanings of the text have been changed, even though the changes are slight. This is important when we attempt to scan the mind of Tyndale, when we try to follow the path his thoughts were taking, the meaning of a single word, or the common touch he so deftly applied for the general reader. David Daniell fully explored this, from Paul's First Epistle to the Corinthians, to 2 Chronicles and Genesis. Tyndale's mind is at work, perhaps not always easily seen on the surface, but embedded in the foundation of the scriptural text. Sad to say that many of today's "theologians" make a mockery of this. After considering Tyndale in England, David Daniell moved to Geneva, to ponder how Tyndale might have fitted in, from his theological position on the sacraments to his Reformation principle of the monarch being the head of the church. Particular emphasis was rightly given to the Geneva New Testament in English. This work was an important factor in furthering Tyndale's powerful theological stance. With its marginal notes of theological, philological and historical exposition of the text, it was a masterpiece of spiritual clarity in its own right. The impact of the Geneva Bible was enormous not only in the realm of Biblical studies. Renaissance thinking with Reformation application can be seen as an outworking of this work in its fullness.

The next speaker, Professor Francis Higman, linked the Renaissance to the Reformation with his paper: Who taught the French to think? The role of John Calvin. This scholarly lecture examined and compared in detail the structure of Calvin's writings with those of his detractors. This was done by using grammatical insights, especially the way syntax played an important role to convey meaning to the reader. Calvin's contribution was the 'short sentence'. It was interesting to trace the change in French writing, moving from the Renaissance to the Reformation.

The last lecture, The Reformed Church and Shakespeare by Professor David Daniell highlighted factual evidence of a European mind of Shakespeare, against the backdrop of an historical array of nationalistic overtones. For too long Shakespeare's European dimension has been tucked away in an historical closet of historians own making, as the origins of so many of his plays reveal.

"... The currents that flow through him are European, and the range of his dramatic form, his ideas and vocabulary, shows that England when he was writing, roughly 1590-1613, was fully connected to the mind of all Europe."

(In passing, the Voyages de Shakespeare en France et en Italie by G. Lambin (1962) is still available. Surely this is remarkable!) Detail was given vis--vis Calvin, his influence in many ways over the English church, the regard for his writings, and his use by many later English theologians such as William Perkins. David Daniell finished the talk with a reading from Tyndale's 1526 New Testament: the parable of the prodigal son.

At the end of the lectures, there was time for informal debate over what had been said and for general discussion.

Like Tyndale, Shakespeare, or Calvin, Pliny's garden still lives in history then, and even more so now today.

David Callan