A Comparative Study of Desiderius Erasmus and William Tyndale

While working as a tutor, Tyndale came to the conclusion that he should be the one to bring Scripture to the English people. Photos courtesy of Christian History Magazine.

Introduction

Until the time of Erasmus and then later Tyndale, Bible literacy in England was void and England was a dark place. Church historian W. J. Heaton states, “Simple and pure Christianity was, indeed, almost unknown in all Europe. Divines of eighty years of age were ignorant of quotations from St. Paul.”1 Prior to the Reformation, only 168 clergy in Gloucester out of 311 were able to recite the Ten Commandments and out of these only thirty-one could tell you where they were located in Scripture.2 However, through the efforts of Erasmus and Tyndale, England became what Erroll Hulse refers to as, “a land of the Book.”3 Both men contributed to the work of bringing the Bible to England, yet only Tyndale translated the full text of both Old and New Testaments into English for the common people. While Erasmus elevated the importance of humanism and the Greek classics along with the hermeneutic interpretive principle of allegory, Tyndale’s interests were to bring a literal translation with dynamic equivalence in English to the people. While Erasmus’ Greek New Testament (Novum Instrumentum, 516) became the standard text in use for a while, it was later eclipsed by Tyndale’s translation. While both men were participants in the Reformation, the extent of each man’s commitment can be seen by the sacrifices they made to effect change in the church. Although Erasmus made known the heresies of the Catholic Church, he refused to challenge papal authority and sought to find a middle ground for compromise. Whereas Tyndale, on the other hand, fought and suffered martyrdom to ensure his vernacular translation of the Bible made it into the hands of the common people. In the end, Erasmus, reconciling that martyrdom was not a suitable option for himself, sought exile in Basel.4 One must ask, what was it that was fundamentally different about each of these men that caused the outcome of their journey to end so differently? Although both men, Erasmus and Tyndale, translated the New Testament Scriptures, the legacy left by each is uniquely different. While Tyndale was set afire as he comprehended the magnitude of the doctrines of the Gospel of Christ and therefore went the distance, Erasmus, on the other hand, did not leave us with any indication of true faith and believing in his writing and chose to end his days in exile rather than suffer martyrdom. 

The State of the Church at the Time of the Reformation

At the time of the Reformation, Christianity and its corresponding ecclesiastical structures had evolved to such an extent that it no longer resembled anything of the first century church. The intrusive reach of the papacy had largely taken over every aspect of life and worship mostly consisted of the sacraments and penitence and indulgences. The teaching of purgatory was particularly popular in the church. Erasmus once remarked concerning purgatory “the monks were wonderfully fond of the Fire of Purgatory, because it was so useful to their kitchens.”No doubt, the church had found a way of raising revenue through the teaching of their traditions. However, the teaching and preaching from the Scriptures was scarce prior to the Reformation. Again Erasmus states, “People scarcely heard a profitable sermon once in six months.” 6 W. J. Heaton records that biblical illiteracy was widespread across most of Europe prior to the Reformation of the Church, and ignorance of the Scriptures was not isolated to the commoner or layperson but was typical of the clergy as well. Heaton states, “when Hooper was Bishop of Gloucester, out of 311 of his clergy, he found 168 unable to say the Ten Commandments; 31 of these did not know where they were; 40 could not tell where the Lord’s Prayer was given, and 31 did not know the author.”7 Heaton goes on to say, “Divines of eighty years of age were ignorant of quotations from St. Paul; and preachers of long standing had never seen the New Testament.”8 This lack of familiarity and knowledge of the Scriptures led to an unhealthy distrust of the Scriptures and fear from suspicion. Heaton quotes the Archbishop of Maintz as saying, “In truth, I do not know what this book is, but I perceive that everything in it is against us.” Cardinal Hosius’s persuasion was that it had been best for the Church if no Gospel had been written. The maxims that were current at the time are decisive enough on the point.”9 To some extent Maintz’s suspicions were correct, for after the Scriptures were introduced back into the church beliefs and perceptions began to change. 

Desiderius Erasmus

Desiderius Erasmus, c. 1466-1536,10 also known as Erasmus of Rotterdam is known mostly today as the “controversial Dutch humanist” scholar who is responsible for his “text critical Greek New Testament of 1516.”11 Additionally, Erasmus published paraphrases, a Handbook of the Militant Christian (1503), as well as his popular satire on the clerical abuses in the church, The Praise of Folly (1514). Erasmus obtained his education in Gouda den then at Deventer where he studied under the humanist Alexander Hegius.12 Later, in 1492, he reluctantly became an Augustinian Canon at St. Gregory’s Steyn near Gouda. I was during his time at St. Gregory that he developed his appreciation for the Classics and Church Fathers.13 With permission, he left the monastery and travelled to study in Paris at the College of Mantaigu and then later at Oxford, “where he was deeply influence by J. Colet, who encouraged his dislike of Scholasticism and directed him to the study of the New Testament.”14  From this point forward, he applied himself toward the study of the New Testament and Greek. After making his way back to Italy, Erasmus received his doctorate in theology at Turin in 1506. While in Bologna Erasmus studied under Aldus Manutius who had published his own Latin translations of Euripides. Erasmus moved to Venice and while there “he published the revised version of his Adagia, the Adagiorum chiliades, with which he achieved international fame.”15

Erasmus continued his study and work in the New Testament. Humanism at the time of the Renaissance had spurred a renewed interest to “rebuild on the Graeco-Roman foundations of our civilization.”16 Those who were skilled in Latin, the Vulgate, had noticed discrepancies between the Latin Bible and the Greek manuscripts. David Parker states, “They concluded that, since the New Testament were first composed in Greek, these differences must necessarily be due to corruptions in the Latin.”17 Therefore, interest was raised in restoring the New Testament back to Greek. While the complutensian Polyglot, which was produced in Alcala, Spain was the first, the Pope delayed granting it’s release. Therefore, Erasmus Novum Instrumentum, the first published Greek New Testament was published in 1516.18 Erasmus edition was a Greek-Latin parallel Bible with the Greek and the Latin Vulgate texts in parallel columns. Despite numerous printing errors and inaccuracies in Erasmus’ Greek translation due to the limited number of Greek manuscripts he had available to him in Basel, the impact of the edition can not be overstated. Erasmus’ New Testament was put into production and became widely available. According to Heaton, “between 1526 and 1536, 30,000 copies of this New Testament were put into circulation.” 19 For the first time, “the Laity were able to see, side-by-side the Christianity that conversed the world, and the Christianity of the Church.”20 The impact of Erasmus’ New Testament on Christianity was enormous; however, coinciding with the release of Erasmus’ New Testament was also Tyndale’s Manual of a Christian Soldier, which expressed “pronounced anti-papal tendencies.” Heaton writes, “It said that Christianity was not a matter of the acceptance of dogma or the performance of outward ceremonies and rites, so much as a pure, righteous, and self-sacrificing life.”21  Due to the release of these publications the beginning spark was ignited for the Reformation; however, the importance of Erasmus’ Latin should also not go unnoticed. David Daniell’s notes that “on four occasions (in 1538, 1548, 1549 and 1550) Tyndale’s 1534 New Testament was printed with Erasmus’s Latin on the page in a parallel column,”22 which shows the influence and part Erasmus’ work played in the Reformation. Highlighting the significance of Erasmus’ work, Daniell’s goes on to write:

Erasmus’s Latin broke a thousand-year chain, the unchallengeability of Jerome’s Vulgate text. But his Greek was the real breaker of chains. Luther was able to see that the Greek made a new German possible. Tyndale did even more, and found in the Greek an English which is still, nearly five hundred years later, modern.23

David Daniels

William Tyndale

His Work and Contributions as a Bible Translator

The contributions and sacrifices of William Tyndale in bringing the Scriptures to the English-speaking world are nothing short of remarkable. Tyndale was the first to translate the New Testament directly from Greek into English and thereby initiated a new period in the history of the English Bible. It was only a year prior to the printing of Erasmus’ Greek New Testament that, at twenty-six years old, Tyndale received his MA degree at Oxford in 1515. 24 It is believed Tyndale may have studied Greek at Cambridge soon thereafter. 25 Tyndale’s ambition for making the Scriptures known to the English world is widely known. Skillton and Ellingsworth state, “Tyndale expressed defiance of the Pope and his laws and said that if God would spare his life he would cause a ploughboy to know more of the Scripture than his learned adversary did.”26  Tyndale experienced great opposition and difficulty in England frustrating his efforts to make a vernacular Bible available for the common people, so he took his project to Hamburg and then later travelled into continental Europe. Concerning the opposition Tyndale faced in England, J. Hutchison, quoting Tyndale writes, “I understood not only that there was no room in my Lord of London’s palace to translate the NT, but also that there was no place to do it in all England.” 27

While working on the completion of his translation of the New Testament, Tyndale used Erasmus’ later 1519 and 1522 editions of his Greek New Testament.28 Erasmus’ first attempt at a Greek New Testament was flawed in that he did not have the Greek manuscripts necessary for his translation available to him for his first translation. However, his latter editions were complete and suitable to Tyndale’s use for his translation into a vernacular Bible. In additional to Erasmus’ Greek translation Skilton and Ellingsworth state, “He also consulted Erasmus’ Latin translation, Luther’s German text and the Latin Vulgate.”29  The first editions of Tyndale’s New Testament were printed in 1529 in Cologne, but soon “opposition forced him to flee to Worms with the sheets that he had printed.”30   Not long after, two editions of Tyndale’s New Testament were completed and in circulation. Unlike the Cologne fragment, these were printed in “octavo” (pocket size) without the prologue and notes, which made it possible for them to be smuggled into England.31  There were three thousand copies printed of each of the two editions for a total of six thousand copies. This was revolutionary for the church and the beginning of a new era. As Donald Brake writes, “The Bible-locked up for centuries in monasteries and in a language unknown by many-was now available to all who dared challenge the consequences.”32 It was not long thereafter that Tyndale took to beginning his work on a translation of the Old Testament in English. Some have questioned Tyndale’s ability to have translated the Scriptures from the original Hebrew; however, Tyndale himself has attested to the fact that it was directly from the Hebrew Scriptures that he accomplished his work.33  The first of Tyndale’s translation, the books of Genesis and Deuteronomy, were published in 1531 and followed by a translation of the complete Pentateuch with preface and margin notes.34 This work was followed with the publication of a new edition of the Gospel of John with Prologue and a complete revision of Tyndale’s New Testament in 1536. Unlike the Previous, this was a new translation based on the Greek rather than relying Gerome’s Latin Vulgate. 35

Tyndale never returned to England after leaving its borders. After leaving England, he spent the last twelve years of his life in exile spending countless hours working to complete his translation of the Scriptures. Many of his hours were spent in hardship as he tirelessly worked to fulfill his desire of giving his people a “reliable version of the Holy Scriptures in their own tongue.”36  After living some time in Antwerp, Tyndale was betrayed and arrested in 1534. After his arrest, he spent nearly a year and a half imprisoned in the castle at Vilorde outside of Brussels. His dying prayer before being strangled and burned “was that the Lord would open the eyes of the king of England.”37

The Legacy of Tyndale

The legacy of Tyndale’s work goes both deep and wide in providing a linguistic basis for future English translations of the Scriptures, as well as providing a precedent for challenges to church authorities who resisted allowing the Bible in English. Tyndale opened the doors to a flurry of translative work by others after his death, and although without giving credit where due, much of Tyndale’s translation was retained by other Bible translators who followed him. Lynne Long finds that “the greater part of Tyndale’s phrasing has been retained in the translations following him.” She goes on to say that “Nine-tenths of the Authorised [KJV] NT is still Tyndale, and the best is still his.”38 Biographer David Daniell, commenting on the legacy of Tyndale writes: 

At the end of the 20th century Tyndale’s achievement begins to look substantially greater than has ever been understood. He was a most remarkable scholar and linguist whose eight languages included skill in Greek and Hebrew far above the ordinary Englishman of the time—indeed Hebrew was virtually unknown in England. His unsurpassed ability was to work as a translator with the sounds and rhythms as well as the senses of English, to create unforgettable words, phrases, paragraphs, and chapters, and to do so in a way that, again unusual for the time, is still even today direct and living. Newspaper headlines still quote Tyndale, though unknowingly, and he has reached more people even than Shakespeare. At the centre of it all for him was his root in the deepest heart of New Testament theology, a faith of the sort that can, and did, move mountains.39

David Daniel, The Bible in English

Tyndale’s work continues to impact English translations today. Daniell notes that “since 1526, there have been of the whole Bible or New Testament alone, made from Hebrew and Greek into English, in the UK and USA, about nine hundred fresh translations.”40  Much more, another three-thousands new editions of each translation has been added since 1526 containing the legacy of Tyndale’s work. Daniell, commenting on evidences of Tyndale phrasing occurring in later translations writes:

Tyndale’s sentence in the Lord’s Prayer, ‘Give us this day our daily bread,’ is timeless. The simplicity of those seven words, in Saxon vocabulary and syntax, matching the original koiné (common) Greek, has continued since 1526 in almost all English Bible translations, in the twentieth century made in their scores, with only occasionally the substitution of ‘today’ for this day’. So it is with hundreds of the memorable phrases of English-speaking New Testament Christianity: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’ (Matthew 5:3); ‘I am the good shepherd’ (John 10:14); ‘Fight the good fight of faith’ (1 Timothy 6:12); and many, many more.41

David Daniels, The Bible in English

Other notable Tyndale phrases that have survived in the KJV are: “Come unto me all ye that labor and are laden and I will ease you” (Matt. 11:27), Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (Matt. 7:7), and Hebrews 12:2: Looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith…,”          and as Daniell said, there are many many more.

Many have speculated concerning Luther’s influence on Tyndale and his translative work. Donald Brake, in his research on English translations states, “rather than defer upon Luther’s German translation and the Latin Vulgate, it is more likely that he [Tyndale] did not stray far from the Greek and Hebrew tests. Rather tan depending on Luther or the Latin, the text first passed through his scholarly judgment.”42  In measuring the enormous impact of Tyndale’s work comparatively, Daniell comments, “Erasmus’s Latin broke a thousand-year chain, the unchallengeability of Jerome’s Vulgate text. But his Greek was the real breaker of chains. Luther was able to see that the Greek made a new German possible. Tyndale did even more, and found in the Greek an English which is still, nearly five hundred years later, modern.”43

Tyndale and Erasmus

Theological Influences

What influenced both Erasmus and Tyndale and their work have been noted by many through the years. While humanism, the Patristic Fathers, and Jerome’s Latin Vulgate are frequently identified largely as the foundation for both men’s work, the extent to which these influences played a part in each translator’s work vary greatly between each man and their work. Gervase Duffield, for example, identifies three primary influences for Tyndale’s translative work: (1) “the Lollard background” meaning his was a follower of John Wycliffe’s work, (2) Renaissance humanism, and (3) “Reformation theology”—and specifically Luther.44  Michael Whiting convincingly argues that any hint of Lollardy influence in Tyndale’s work is subordinate to the influence of Luther and Reformation theology in Tyndale’s work.45   Moreover, Renaissance humanism was not as popular during the Reformation period as assumed by contemporaries and was largely reserved for “the universities, courts and other centers of learning,” states Whiting.46   Additionally, Tyndale, although a student at Oxford, was not a fixture of academia, as will be mentioned in more detail later; therefore, it should be concluded that Reformation theology was the greatest influence on Tyndale and his work. 

Colet’s Oxford Lectures

There comes a time in the life of every Christian believer when there is a pivotal moment that seals their faith and sends them on a trajectory of faith and belief that will govern their life until the day they die. The Colet Lectures at Oxford in 1496-1499 was such an occasion for both Erasmus and Tyndale, when twenty-nine year-old John Colet lectured on Paul’s epistles. The Colet lectures were unique in that Colet lectured and taught systematically through the Pauline epistles, and it is said to have gripped the hearts of the students as they heard the epistles of Paul come to life for the students as never before. Such impact did the Colet lectures have on the students of Oxford that even “the wise and moderate Erasmus, no less, attended the lectures, and the legend has had it that they affected him as a Damascus-road experience, then and there revealing to him, it has been claimed, the need for a Greek New Testament” according to David Daniell.47 Biblical interpretation prior to the Reformation had largely been taught at Oxford in the form of a “for-fold method on interpretation—literal, allegorical, topological and anagogical.”48  However, Colet’s lectures had broken that mold for the students as he laid the “bare text of Scripture” before the students. Daniell states, “Colet gave to the world again the historical Paul, with his essential epistles now stripped of all the enormous accretion of centuries of false allegorical and scholastic commentary.” Therefore, when Tyndale left the Colet lectures, he was “electric with revolutionary rejection of all but the historical ‘bare text’ of Scripture, and Scripture in the original Greek at that.”49  As such, Colet’s lectures were revolutionary showing these men something new of the New Testament they had never before understood. 

Contrast Between Erasmus and Tyndale

Literal Verses Allegory

The interpretive methodology used by each translator can be used as an indication of each man’s views of Scripture and their theological perspectives. For example, Erasmus consistently accepted the four senses of biblical interpretation taught at Oxford which originally derived from Origen of Alexandra.50 Erasmus, according to his writing in Enchiridion, accepted the allegorical understanding to be a preferable means of interpretation when the literal is not plain and clear,51whereas most Reformers rejected the validity of allegory as a means of interpretation. Luther states, “An interpreter,” he said, “must as much as possible avoid allegory, that he may not wander in idle dreams.” “Origen’s allegories are not worth so much dirt.” “Allegories are empty speculations, and as it were the scum of Holy Scripture.”52 Conversely, Tyndale in his later writings attacks the allegorical interpretive methods of Origen. Whiting, writing concerning Tyndale’s views of allegory as an interpretive method states, “Tyndale recognized the value of allegory as a rhetorical method to illustrate a point stated clearly in another passage of Scripture, but he never classifies allegory as one of four modes of biblical exegesis.”53 According to Tyndale’s interpretive methodology, “the literal sense would bear the allegory as the foundation bears the house. Allegories prove nothing.”54

Even though Erasmus considered the study of Scripture to be foundational for the teaching of Christian morality, Tyndale’s expression of Scriptural authority surpasses that of Erasmus. Michael Whiting in his research states, “Erasmus admitted that the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity could not at all be grounded on Scripture, even allegorically interpreted, but he was willing to accept such a matter by faith on the basis of the authority of the Catholic Church.”55 It may be seen by this that Erasmus was willing to place the authority of the Catholic Church over the authority of the Scriptures. By these examples, it may be seen that Tyndale’s theology aligned more closely to Luther’s and other Reformers. 

Humanism Verses Scripture

To what extent humanism played a part in the work of each translator will suggest their level of commitment to the authority of Scripture. Renaissance humanism was not like the scientific humanism of today that is steeped in naturalism and evolutionary processes, but rather Renaissance humanism was driven by the desire to shake off some of the constraints of medieval Christianity and move toward a more individualistic perspective on life.56 With other humanists, Erasmus’ humanism was expressed in a particular interest in the Patristic Fathers as he followed their interpretive methods and theology closely. However, Tyndale rejected Erasmus’ preference for allegorical methods and the Patristic Fathers. Moreover, according to Anne Richardson and her research, Tyndale began to “progressively distance himself from Erasmus and eventually rejected him as a political philosopher and a spiritual guide.”57  Some, such as John Yost have argued that Tyndale’s use of the Church Fathers in his later writings indicates that he followed Erasmus’ appreciation for humanism. However, according to Whiting, even Yost admits “Tyndale never comes close to matching Erasmus’s patristic resourcement…, for Tyndale’s writings post-1524 possessed not a fraction of Erasmus’s respect for the ancient pagan poets and rhetoricians.”58 Therefore, it would be inaccurate to emphasize or impose the influences of Erasmus or humanism upon Tyndale or his work. 

Scriptural Authority

What can be seen by their work and the legacy they leave is their view of the authority of Scripture. Tyndale’s embrace of the Scriptures is evidenced by his willingness to teach them to others, regardless of the propriety of the office to do so. While many have cast Tyndale as an academic, the only university that Tyndale ever indisputably attended is Oxford. Moreover, while he taught from the Scriptures at Oxford, he did so as a layman on his own time, for he was not accredited by the university. Michael Whiting states:

In his Practice of Prelates (1530), Tyndale bemoans that his university education was still profoundly in the scholastic mold, which he claims restricted him from engaging a more direct study of the Scriptures themselves on their own terms.  Oxford is the only university that Tyndale indisputably attended. Even Foxe changed his comment in the 1563 edition of the Acts and Monuments from “had been a student of divinities at Cambridge” to “made his abode a certain space” in the 1570 edition. Foxe does claim that Tyndale meanwhile increased in the knowledge of languages, the arts, and “especially in the knowledge of the Scriptures,” even hosting lectures on the Bible to other “students and fellows” of Magdalene Hall. Since Tyndale never actually reached the academic level granting him formal authority to lecture on the Bible, this must have been of his own volition and in an unofficial capacity.59

David Daniels in William Tyndale

As evidenced by Whiting’s research, Tyndale long before undergoing the work of translating the Scriptures into English was busy doing the work of an evangelist teaching the Scriptures to the students at the university on his own time. Even then, Tyndale had a driving passion to make Christ known to the world around him because of his embrace of the doctrines of the Reformation and obedience to the Scriptures. 

On the other hand, Erasmus’ failed to elevate the Scriptures to their rightful place of priority as he held the doctrines of the Catholic Church to be of higher order. As such, Both Calvin and Luther were critical of Erasmus.60 In fact, Luther was astounded by Erasmus’ shallow perception of God and the work of Christ.61Roland Bainton writes, 

The deepest offense to Luther lay in the stand taken by Erasmus of Rotterdam. His position had not essentially changed. He still felt that Luther had done much good, and that he was no heretic. This Erasmus openly said in a colloquy published as late as 1524. But he deplored the disintegration of Christendom…Erasmus preferred the role of mediator, but he was unremittingly pushed by prominent persons whom he esteemed— kings, cardinals, and his old friend Pope Hadrian— to declare himself.62

Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand

Luther and Erasmus were divided on the matter of human beings and the issue of free will, and when pushed on where he stood concerning the Reformation, all he did was pick a peripheral issue such as the free will of man to argue against Luther.63 Although a brilliant theologian and translator and for all that God did in his life, he simply could not bring himself to stand with the Reformers. Why is it that Erasmus would not stand with the Reformers? David Daniell shows that Erasmus never did embrace the central doctrines of the Gospel as Tyndale and the other Reformers had done.6 John Piper states, “Although Erasmus was a greatly learned man, it can be seen in his writing there was a great omission in Erasmus’ writing and thinking and believing. In fact, Erasmus never wrote anything substantial on Paul’s Letter to the Romans.”65  The reason for this void in Erasmus’ thinking rests in his perception of the Scriptures according to Roland Bainton. Erasmus was not, as Bainton calls it, “Stupefied” or in awe of Scripture. Bainton states,

The trouble with Erasmus is that he is not stupefied with wonder at the child in the womb. He does not contemplate marriage with reverent amazement, nor praise and thank God for the marvel of a flower or the bursting of a peach stone by the swelling seed. He beholds these wonders like a cow staring at a new door. The deficiency of faith is made evident by a lack of wonder, for nature is a revelation only to those to whom God has already been revealed.66

Roland H. Bainton

David Daniell goes further with this line of thought as he points to the insufficiency in the level of commitment he held by Erasmus toward the change the Reformation represented. Daniell’s writes:

Yet he never went all the way into a lay person’s common language with anything he did. Indeed, it is possible that just as More blocked requests for an English translation of Utopia, ‘lest it might fall into the hands of the simple and unlearned who might misunderstand and take harm from it’, so Erasmus was in no hurry to see even his most famous work, the Moriae encomium, in English.67

David Daniel in William Tyndale

Even further, after the vernacular Bible was available in England there was a flurry of momentum toward bringing the knowledge of Christ and His Word to the common people of Europe. These great movements, although branded “heresy” by the Church, had great momentum and the power to liberate Christians from the bondage of the Catholic Church. However, as Daniell states, “Erasmus, for all his importance, did not have that great charge: Luther and Tyndale did.”68

Exile Verses Martyrdom

Christopher Wordsworth, in his classical biography concerning the lives of eminent men in religion begins his writing on Tyndale declaring that he was “a faithful Minister and constant martyr of Christ.”69 Wordsworth’s comments being severely accurate with regards to Tyndale in that he suffered in both life and death for the Gospel of Christ. At the onset while at Oxford having not been recognized for his linguistic proficiency concerning the Scriptures, Tyndale would meet privately with students in Magdalene Hall and instruct them “in the knowledge and truth of the Scriptures.”70 As noted earlier this is indicative of Tyndale’s love and obedience to the Word of God. Later, after translating the first five books of the Old Testament Tyndale set sail to Hamburg. While on his journey, he shipwrecked and lost all of his manuscripts with all that he possessed. Once reaching Hamburg he began work again on his translations. In 1529 the English Church leaders persuaded the king to issue a proclamation condemning Tyndale’s translation of the New Testament, but this was not enough for it was not long before they began to plot to kill Tyndale himself. Tyndale sought refuge in Antwerp, but it was not long before he was betrayed and taken to Filford castle where he remained until his death.71  During his imprisonment at Filford, it is recorded that “he converted the jailor, and his daughter, and others in his employment” for Christ. 72 In the end, the emperor of Augsburg issued a decree condemning Tyndale for the cause of translating the Scripture and Tyndale was taken to be executed. When they tied him to a stake for execution, he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, open the king of England’s eyes!”73 John Foxe writes, “The hangman then strangled Tyndale to the point of death, and then burned [Tyndale] in fire for doing God’s work.”74 Prior to his death, Tyndale was forced to take the life of a fugitive running from place to place in order to complete his work. Interestingly, J. H. Merle D’aubigné in his History of the Reformation in Europe reminds readers of Tyndale’s sworn vow he made years before his death, “If God preserves my life, I will cause a boy that drives a plough to know more of the Scriptures than the pope.”75 Tyndale was diligent to the time of his death to keep his vow. His theological writings were published later in 1572 and are representative of the main doctrinal foundations of Protestant Christianity and specifically the doctrine of Justification.

Erasmus, unlike Tyndale was not cut out for martyrdom, and rather than travel the road of persecution and martyrdom, chose to spend his last days in Basile in exile. Roland Bainton, in his biography of Luther recounts the decisive moment Erasmus chose exile rather than Martyrdom. Bainton writes,

Aleander returned to the Netherlands, and the burning of books went on merrily. As a certain friar was supervising a bonfire, a bystander said to him, “You would see better if the ashes of Luther’s books got into your eyes.” He was a bold man who dared to say so much. Erasmus, at Louvain, began to realize that the choice for him would soon lie between the stake or exile. Ruefully confessing that he was not cut out for martyrdom, he transferred his residence to Basel.76

Roland Bainton, Here I Stand

Bainton goes on to show the intension of Erasmus’ choice for exile as he expressed in with the following words: “The wise navigator will steer between Scylla and Charbybdis. I have sought to be a spectator of this tragedy.”77 Erasmus never stood with the Reformers on the doctrine of Justification by faith or the authority of Scripture, but as stated earlier, chose to elevate the papacy above Scripture. When pressed to choose, he chose to side with the Catholic Church for the peripheral reason of his disagreement with Luther’s views on the free will of man. His writing De servo arbitrio (On the bondage of the will, 1525), sealed the break between Luther and Erasmus. Silke Dorer-Gommermann writes, “In his later years, Erasmus assumed a moderately conservative posture, prompting hostility from orthodox Catholics, the Reformers, and neopagan humanists alike. Except for the years between 1529 and 1535, when he lived in Freiburg, Erasmus lived from 1521 onward in Basel.”78

Conclusion

In the preceding discussion, we have discovered how both men, although inspired by Colet’s lectures, when pressed chose different paths for themselves; one of moderation and the status quo, while the other, persecution and martyrdom. While Tyndale’s writings provide evidence that he was not only a follower of Luther’s theology, by an advocate replicating the doctrine of justification in his own writing, Erasmus, on the other hand, does not echo the same affinity toward the doctrine, nor did he show any support joining with the Reformers in their theological arguments. Additionally, further evidence from Erasmus’ writings show how he was unwilling to make use of his position to ensure the Scriptures made it into the hands of the English speaking world. All factors pointing to the fact that Erasmus did not embrace Reformed doctrine, nor did he have a the same love for the Scriptures and God as Tyndale. For Erasmus, his relationship with God and the Scriptures was more an academic enterprise and head-knowledge. As such, he was unwilling to place himself at risk for the Gospel, but instead chose a life of modernity in Basile. 

Endnotes

  1. W. J. Heaton, The Bible of the Reformation: Its Translators and Their Work, Second Edition. (London: Francis Griffiths, 1913), 4.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Erroll Hulse, “The Story of the Puritans,” Reformation and Revival 5, no. 2 (1996): 18.
  4. Roland H. Bainton, (2013-08-06). Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Kindle Locations 2657-2661). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.
  5. Erasmus quoted by W. J. Heaton, The Bible of the Reformation: Its Translators and Their Work, Second Edition. (London: Francis Griffiths, 1913), 3.
  6. Ibid.
  7. W. J. Heaton, The Bible of the Reformation: Its Translators and Their Work, Second Edition. (London: Francis Griffiths, 1913), 4.
  8. Ibid.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Desiderius Erasmus, “Praise F Folly,” in Praise of Folly; The Essays, ed. Mortimer J. Adler and Philip W. Goetz, trans. Betty Radice, Second Edition., vol. 23, Great Books of the Western World (Chicago; Auckland; Geneva; London; Madrid; Manila; Paris; Rome; Seoul; Sydney; Tokyo; Toronto: Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.; Robert P. Gwinn, 1990), ix.
  11. John L. Thompson, Reading the Bible with the Dead: What You Can Learn from the History of Exegesis That You Can’t Learn from Exegesis Alone (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2007), 268.
  12. F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford;  New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 559–560.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. David Parker, “The New Testament,” John Rogerson, ed. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Bible (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), 110. 
  17. Ibid.
  18. Jennifer Wright Knust, “Versions, Latin,” ed. Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2006–2009), 765.
  19. W. J. Heaton, The Bible of the Reformation, 3–4.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Ibid.
  22. David Daniel, (1994-11-30). William Tyndale: A Biography (p. 61). Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
  23. Ibid.
  24. J. Hutchison, “English, Versions,” ed. James Orr et al., The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (Chicago: The Howard-Severance Company, 1915), 947.
  25. J. H. Skilton, Ellingsworth P., “English Versions of the Bible,” ed. D. R. W. Wood et al., New Bible Dictionary(Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996), 317.
  26. Ibid.
  27. J. Hutchison, “English, Versions,” ed. James Orr et al., The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (Chicago: The Howard-Severance Company, 1915), 947.
  28. Skilton and Ellingsworth, 317.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Ibid.
  31. Donald L. Sr. Brake, “Versions, English,” ed. Katharine Doob Sakenfeld, The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2006–2009), 741.
  32. Ibid.
  33. J. Hutchison, “English, Versions,” 947–948.
  34. Ibid.
  35. Ibid.
  36. J. Hutchison, “English, Versions,” 947.
  37. Skilton and Ellingsworth, 317-320.
  38. Lynne Long, “Scriptures in the Vernacular up to 1800,” in A History of Biblical Interpretation: The Medieval through the Reformation Periods, ed. Alan J. Hauser, Duane F. Watson, and Schuyler Kaufman, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), 460–461.
  39. David Daniels, Tyndale, 33.
  40. Ibid.
  41. Ibid., 133.
  42. Donald L. Sr. Brake, “Versions, English,” 741.
  43. David Daniel, Tyndale, 61.
  44. Gervase E. Duffield, “William Tyndale & His New Testament: J. F. Mozley’s Contribution to Reformation Studies,” The Churchman 90, no. 1–4 (1976): 46.
  45. Michael S. Whiting, Luther in English: The Influence of His Theology of Law and Gospel on Early English Evangelicals (1525–35), ed. K. C. Hanson, Charles M. Collier, and D. Christopher Spinks, Princeton Theological Monograph Series (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2010), 188–191.
  46. Ibid.
  47. David Daniel, Tyndale, 33.
  48. Ibid.
  49. Daniel, 33.
  50. Michael S. Whiting, Luther in English, 180-182.
  51. Ibid.
  52. Frederic William Farrar, History of Interpretation (London: Macmillan and Co., 1886), 328.
  53. Whiting, 180-82.
  54. [Tyndale] Doctrinal Treatises … (1848); Expositions … and The Practice of Prelates (1849); Answer to More … (1850), edited for the Parker Society by Henry Walter, 307-8 in Daniell, David (1994-11-30). William Tyndale: A Biography . Yale University Press. Kindle Edition.
  55. Whiting, 182.
  56. John D. Woodbridge and Frank A. James III, Church History: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day, vol. 2 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2013), 75.
  57. Anne Richardson “Tyndale’s Quarrel with Erasmus: A Chapter in the History of the English Reformation.” Fides et Historia 1993, Vol. 25 (3), 46.
  58. Whiting, 177.
  59. Tyndale, The practyse of prelates, sig. [E viv]. Foxe, A&M [1563], 514; Foxe, A&M [1570], 1224; Rex, “New Light,” 148–49. Daniell, William Tyndale, 37. Michael S. Whiting, Luther in English: The Influence of His Theology of Law and Gospel on Early English Evangelicals (1525–35), ed. K. C. Hanson, Charles M. Collier, and D. Christopher Spinks, Princeton Theological Monograph Series (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2010), 177.
  60. James Atkinson, “The Priority of Preaching,” The Churchman 103, no. 1–4 (1989): 202–203.
  61. Roland H. Bainton, (2013-08-06). Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Kindle Locations 3012-3017). Abingdon Press. Kindle Edition.
  62. Ibid.
  63. Lee Gatiss, “The Manifesto of the Reformation—Luther vs. Erasmus on Free Will,” The Churchman 123, no. 1–4 (2009): 203–205.
  64. Daniel, 69.
  65. John Piper, Sermons from John Piper (2000–2014) (Minneapolis, MN: Desiring God, 2014), Electronic Edition.
  66. Bainton, Kindle Ed.
  67. Daniels, 69.
  68. Ibid.
  69. Christopher Wordsworth, Ecclesiastical Biography; or Lives of Eminent Men, Connected with the History of Religion in England; From the Commencement of the Reformation to the Revolution, vol. 2 (London: F. C. and J. Rivington, 1810), 235.
  70. Ibid.
  71. John Foxe, The Book of Martyrs, revised with notes and an appendix by W. Bramley-Moore, London, 1869, pp 278–84 in Mark Water, The New Encyclopedia of Christian Martyrs (Alresford, Hampshire: John Hunt Publishers Ltd, 2001), 654.
  72. Mark Water, The Christian Book of Records (Alresford, Hants, UK: John Hunt Pub., 2002), 151.
  73. Fox, 133.
  74. Ibid.
  75. J. H. Merle D’aubigné D.D., History of the Reformation in Europe in the Time of Calvin, vol. 5 (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1869), 251–252.
  76. Bainton, Kindle
  77. Ibid.
  78. Silke Dorer-Gommermann, “Erasmus,” The Encyclopedia of Christianity (Grand Rapids, MI; Leiden, Netherlands: Wm. B. Eerdmans; Brill, 1999–2003), 119–120.