Thursday, 14 August 2008


"Beloved, let us love one another, for love cometh of God. And every one that loveth, is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not, knoweth not God; for God is love. In this appeared the love of God to us-ward, because that God sent his only-begotten son into the world, that we might live through him. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his son to make agreement for our sins.

Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another. No man hath seen God at any time. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is made perfect in us. Hereby know we that we dwell in him, and he in us, because he hath given us of his spirit. And we have seen and do testify that the father sent the son, which is the saviour of the world. Whoseover confesseth that Jesus is the son of God, in him dwelleth God, and he in God. And we have known and believed the love that God hath to us.

GOD IS LOVE, and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him. Herein is his love made perfect in us, that we should have trust in the day of judgement. For as he is, even so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, for perfect love casteth out fear, for fear hath no painfulness. He that feareth is not perfect in love.

We love him, for he loved us first. If a man say: I love God, and yet hate his brother, he is a liar. For how can he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, love God whom he hath not seen? And this commandment have we of him: that he which loveth God, should love his brother also.

- First Epistle of John 4:7-21. Tyndale Translation"

Over the last few years, someone who has emerged as something of a hero to me, a genuine 'man for all seasons', is William Tyndale. Who, I hear you ask? Well, not as celebrated as his contemporary (and mortal enemy), the supposed 'man for all seasons', Sir Thomas More, he was nevertheless responsible for one of the most important spiritual revolutions in the English speaking world. He was the first man to make it his life's work to translate the Bible into English. Before he died at the stake he had completed the whole of the New Testament and half of the Old and learnt Greek and Hebrew to do it. This was a first. All other attempts to translate it into English had come from the Latin of St Jerome. Tyndale was the first to go back to the original source material and, as a consequence, was the first to expose just how laden with errors Jerome's version was.

Big deal! I hear you say. Who cares? Why does that make him a hero? Well, its the way he did it, the stand he took and the attempt he made to rediscover the meaning of the Bible. Until Tyndale, all study of the Bible had to be done in Latin. Ordinary people who could barely read their own language were therefore utterly excluded from a direct experience of it. This gave the Church absolute power over Scripture and interpretation. For the general populace, there was no way of checking whether what they were saying was correct. Not everyone abused this monopoly of information of course. Figures like Meister Eckhardt, St Bonaventure and St Francis etc conveyed the liberation inherent in the texts as best they could. But by the time of Tyndale Church control of Scripture was total and an integral part of how it controlled the Western mind and made sure heresy could be stamped out. Anyone who dared translate it into the vernacular was denounced and risked being burnt as a heretic, as Tyndale eventually was. To do what he did was an act of immense bravery, but he did it in the hope that he could break the stranglehold of the Church on Western spirituality. He quite literally wanted to enable the people Christ was supposed to have come to help - the poor, the ordinary - to have access to his words so that they could make their own minds up and work out their own path to salvation.

Tyndale was not the first to try and translate the Bible into English. John Wycliffe before him had had a go, inspiring the Lollards and the Peasants' Revolt and getting into trouble as a consequence. In France, the Cathars had set a precedent by translating the New Testament into French. By Tyndale's time they were all dead, annihilated by the Church's forces. The story goes that Tyndale was inspired to embark upon his project by a chance encounter with an authority of the Church who said to him 'It were better we were to do without God's Law than the Pope's'. This provoked Tyndale to a fury. It embodied what he saw as the total corruption of the Word by the Church and its desire to disenfranchise the population of their spiritual inheritance. His reply is justly famous:

"If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scipture than thou doest."

And that is what he set out to do. In the process - and this is where he becomes my hero - he translated the Old and New Testaments in such a way as to give them back to the people. He 'republicanised' them, as it were. And he did so not by changing anything but going back to the original. Thus what has been for so long seen as an irreversibly rigid, hierarchial spirituality suddenly becomes one without leaders, buildings or structures. What had been static - the whole edifice of the Church - suddenly became dynamic, and all because of truthful translation. So, for instance, the original Greek word 'Ecclesia' which had for so long been translated as 'Church' was translated for the first time as 'Community' or 'Assembly', something utterly different, something far more communal and egalitarian. 

At the same time, Tyndale brought new words into the English language to express difficult Hebrew or Greek ideas. 'Atonement' was a coinage of his, but for him this did not mean the negative, self-punishing thing it has come to mean. He assembled the word out of the English 'AT-ONE-MENT', meaning a condition in which humanity felt AT ONE with God, much more in keeping with the Hebrew sense of the word. He also gave us the word Jehovah, constructed from the letters of the Tetragrammaton, JHVH and the vowels of ADONAI, showing, once again, his knowledge and understanding of the Hebrew. He also coined the word 'Passover' to describe the Hebrew Festival of Pesach which plays such a key role in the Christian story.

He went on, explaining that the original word for 'Repentance', the Greek 'Metanoia', meant 'Transformation of Consciousness' or 'Change of Mind', stressing that, again, the negative connotations of the word were incorrect. Repentance was not about self-punishment but about an entire metamorphoses of one's inner self. With this in mind, John the Baptist's phrase 'Repent ye, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand' takes on a whole different meaning, one more in keeping with Buddhistic ideas of Enlightenment and transformation of Consciousness. Naturally, Churches before or after have not run with this interpretation of the word...

But most revolutionary and most controversial in his day was Tyndale's decision to translate the Greek 'Agape' as, simply, 'Love'. We may think of this as trivial, but it was this that found him under attack from Sir Thomas More. This was more than mere Catholic/Protestant quibbling. It went to the heart of what the two men thought was the central message of Christianity. Until Tyndale, 'Agape', which is, admittedly, almost untranslatable into English (does it mean 'Love', 'Brotherly Love', 'Human Heartedness?') had been conveyed by the Latin word 'Caritas', meaning 'Charity'. This was how More saw it, with its emphasis on good works, public service and, by extension, a certain emotional distance in keeping with the Church. For Tyndale, this was not good enough. It smacked of the Pharisaic emotional separation from the people that he so hated. For him, the meaning of the word was 'Love'; Love encompassing all its possible meanings, sexual, romantic, brotherly, humanitarian, Divine - all of it. Moreover, Love was dynamic, it was something we all had access to and it connected with the meaning of the words of Christ during the Last Supper and those of John in the First Epistle (quoted above). Moreover, Love cannot be legislated, preached against or punished. Love cannot be a sin. All it can do is bind us together with each other and God, as John's Epistle says..

That Tyndale meant this to be his meaning is clear in his defence of the passage in which he tells More that we do are not encouraged to 'Charity our neighbours' or 'Charity our wives'. Alas, Tyndale's insistence on this translation of 'Agape' did not survive his death. Burnt at the stake as a heretic in Europe having been exiled from his homeland, his last words before he died were 'God open the eyes of the King of England'. It wasn't until the accession of King James that his work was to be fully recognised. When he ordered the first complete English translation of the Old and New Testaments it was Tyndale's work that provided the basis. Indeed, even the 54 scholars who finalised it admitted that 90% of the words were Tyndale's. So what happened to 'Agape' and the position of 'Love' in the King James Version? The scholars went with More's assessment. Although no longer Catholic, the Anglican Church still had its hierarchies and prelates etc. They were having none of that 'Love' as the third Virtue after 'Faith and Hope'. It stayed as 'Charity', and thus the whole premise of Paul's version of Christianity was lost until the Twentieth Century, when the new versions reinstated 'Love'. As 'Charity', the real meaning of his morality remained crucially obscured as a consequence, as without Tyndale's translation, which must have been the original meaning, Love fails to be the foundation and trump card of his entire vision. Without it, all we are left with is Paul's dualism which has left its mark on the Western psyche ever since.

But imagine what would have happened if Tyndale's translation had stayed? Instead of a religion based on 'Faith, Hope and Charity' we would have had a religion based on 'Faith, Hope and Love'. What would that have been like? Something very different, something in which Love transcended all that we have found hard in the Christian tradition as it has been handed down. And, doubtless, something much more difficult for the authorities to control, perhaps... 

That is why, for me, Tyndale is the true 'man for all seasons'. A man who died trying to give Love back to the people and to exhume the truth of the Christian message from two and a half centuries of control...

So here's to you, William Tyndale...

"Though I spake with the tongues of men and angels, and yet have no Love, I were even as sounding brass, or as a tinkling cymbal. And though I could prophecy, and understood all secrets and all knowledge, yea if I had all faith, so that I could move mountains out of their places, and yet had no Love, I were nothing. And though I bestowed all my goods to feed the poor, and though I gave my body even that I burned, and yet had no Love, it profiteth me nothing.

Love suffereth long, and is courteous. Love envieth not. Love doth not frowardly, swelleth not, dealeth not dishonestly, seeketh not her own, is not provoked to anger, thinketh not evil, rejoiceth not in iniquity; but rejoiceth in the truth, suffereth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth in all things. Though that prophecying fail, or tongues shall cease, or knowledge vanish away, yet love falleth never away.

For our knowledge is unperfect, and our prophecying is unperfect. But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is unperfect shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I imagined as a child. But as soon as I was a man, I put away childishness. Now we see in a glass even, in a dark spreading; but then shall we see face to face. Now I know unperfectly, but then shall I know even as I am known. Now abideth Faith, Hope and Love, even these three; but the chief of these is LOVE."

- 1st Corinthians Chapter 13. Tyndale Translation

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