“I’m going to read to you the very touchstone of embellished prose in English literature.” That’s how Leland Ryken starts the day in his class when he teaches prose styles in 17th century English literature. He then reads to his students from I Corinthians 13 in the King James Bible. (See, The Legacy of the King James Bible, pg. 151). This poem in praise of love is one of the most well known in the Bible, quoted commonly at weddings, printed on picture frames, and embedded in the English speaking conscience. Surely, any English reader can discover why by merely reading sections of the passage aloud;
Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge: and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have no charity, I am nothing. And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burnt, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. Charity suffereth long, and is kind: charity envieth not: charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil, rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth: beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease…And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three, but the greatest of these is charity.
(David Norton, ed., NCPB, 1 Co 13:1–13)
Here is the King of our English Bibles which we know so well, standing sure in all his majestic beauty. He is a brave conquerer whose edict shall strongly stand in force. He will not succumb. But we must ask – from whence came this oratorical ode to charity? That is, more specifically, why is it an ode to charity and not an ode to love?
The story, as so often, starts with William Tyndale in the early part of the 16th century.
The Weighty Words Of Reformation
The great passion of William Tyndale’s life was to put the Bible into English. Unlike previous attempts (like those by Wycliff and the Lollards), Tyndale wanted to put the Greek text of the NT itself (not the Latin Vulgate) into English. The people deserved no less. As he did so, he created in some cases original renderings, and in others gave certain English words a place in the Bible they had never had before (effectively creating a new kind of English, sometimes later called “Bible English”). David Daniell, the great Tyndale scholar and biographer, explains;
Apart from manuscript translations into English from the Latin, made at the time of Chaucer, and linked with the Lollards, the Bible had been only in that Latin translation made a thousand years before, and few could understand it. Tyndale, before he left England for his life’s work [the very first translation of the Greek NT into English], said to a learned man, ‘If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost.’ He succeeded.
Daniell, David. William Tyndale: A Biography (p. 1).
At some points, Tyndale’s choice of English words showed a significant departure from the vocabulary that had become standard in those passages through the influence of the Latin Vulgate (primarily via Wycliffe). A few of these words became theological “hotspots” of controversy in the Catholic/Lutheran debates. Indeed, Tyndale’s passion to put the original Greek text into clear English comes most to the fore where he thought medieval catholicism had obscured the text, or imported what he thought to be wrong theology into it.
If God spare my life, ere many years I will cause a boy that driveth the plough shall know more of the Scripture than thou dost.
In fact, the whole battle of the English Reformation can be seen, from one angle (and it is not the only angle), as a battle about which words should have a place in the English Bible, and how much the Latin should be allowed to shape the English Bible. David Norton illustrates how the importance of vocabulary was central to Reformation concerns by the story of an early attempt that would ultimately give the Church the Bishops’ Bible;
The Bible in English was part of the larger battle, political as much as theological, for the English Reformation. The clergy’s political allegiance might be relatively easily diverted from Rome to London, but beliefs were not so readily changed. By no means all the clergy were enthusiasts for the vernacular Bible: if they could not suppress it they could at least attempt to make it more acceptable to themselves, that is, more like the Vulgate. An attempt to do this was made in 1542. Though it came to nothing, it remains of interest because it gives further evidence of just how much the question of English vocabulary was tied up with larger issues. In parliament the archbishop ‘asked members individually whether without scandal, error and manifest offence of Christ’s faithful they voted to retain the Great Bible in the English speech. The majority resolved that the said Bible could not be retained until first duly purged and examined side by side with the [Latin] Bible commonly read in the English Church’. The work went into committee, and the last one hears of it is a list of Latin words which Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester, ‘desired for their germane and native meaning and for the majesty of their matter might be retained as far as possible in their own nature or be turned into English speech as closely as possible’ (Pollard, p. 117). Clearly Gardiner would have preferred these meaningful and majestic words to remain untouched.
A History of the English Bible as Literature, pg. 35
Norton concludes that, “The manner of English translation was a fundamental issue of the Reformation.” He might be accused of slight exaggeration, but he is clearly not entirely wrong. Words matter, and the question of which precise words deserved to have a place in the English Bible were core to the Reformation question in England.
One of the words that became a hotspot was the way Tyndale translated the Greek word agape, in I Cor. 13 (and some other places), as love rather than the word that had been common, which was charity. Tyndale was by no means the first to use the English word love. But he did create the first English translation that exclusively used love instead of using a mix of love and Charity. To understand what was going on we must back up in the story a thousand years.
A Brief History of Charity
When Jerome translated the Greek NT into Latin (or started a translation that others later completed), he had sometimes rendered the Greek word agape as caritas, and other times rendered it as dilectio. This was a matter of sheer interpretation. The Greek displayed no clear difference at these points.
Not all agreed that there should be any distinction. Augustine argued (which shows that he had someone to argue with) that there was no difference in meaning between the Latin words. Citing numerous passages, he concludes, “But we wished to show that the Scriptures of our religion, whose authority we prefer to all writings whatsoever, make no distinction between amor, dilectio, and caritas; and we have already shown that amor is used in a good connection” (The City of God, XIV.7.1, NPNF).
Nonetheless, despite Augustines objections, the Latin text retained a difference (seen still for example in Biblia Sacra Iuxta Vulgatam Versionem, which uses caritas 105 times, and dilectio 43) that would be felt more strongly as time went on, but one that was not based on the Greek text. This distinction came into the English Bible by way of Wycliffe and the Lollards. A quick search of the Logos edition shows that loue occurs 96 times in the NT, while charite occurs some 94.
The distinction Augustine opposed so firmly had become part of common English theology.
Tyndale’s Bout With Charity
Tyndale was convinced that bringing this distinction into English missed the Greek text. His passion was, as always, to go back to the Greek, and to give that text to the English reader without a Latin or ecclesiastical intermediary. Thus, Tyndale spoke of “love” in I Cor. 13. In fact, with one minor exception, Tyndale spoke of “love” in every place the Greek NT has agape. He cast out charity entirely from the NT. Love was the reading of the Greek text, which had no distinction.
It turns out, then, that this was one of that small handful of words that Tyndale was convinced had imported bad theology into the Bible. Daniell explains that Tyndale’s approach to some of these words was part of his support of the Reformation project. It was drawn from his passion to let the Greek NT itself speak. In contrast to earlier translations, in Tyndale’s completed NT translation in 1526, “There is strikingly no reference to the Church, to what the pope, the bishops or the priests teach; nor to the ceremonies of the Church as necessities for salvation; nor to the tomes of casuistry erected on each syllable of Scripture down the centuries; nor to the element, taught as essential, of doing good works, especially in giving money to priests, monks and friars. All you need is this New Testament and a believing heart.”
But Tyndale, Daniell notes, is not being perverse. He translates presbuteros, as “senior,” (and later, “elder”) becuase that is what the Greek text says. He translated the word for the group of Christians together, ekklesia, correctly, a “congregation,” because the Greek word means simply “assembly” without overtones of apostolic succession. Tyndale, “avoids ‘church’ because it is not what the New Testament says.” He translates the Greek verb metanoeo, precisely as it means, “repent” rather than “do penance,” a rendering that has brought foreign connotations into the text. He likewise translates the verb exomologeo, which has the primary sense, “acknowledge, admit,” as “acknowledge” because no idea of confession to a priest is in the text. Finally, Daniell notes, “The Greek word agape is one of several words for ‘love’, so Tyndale prints ‘love’ (as in 1 Corinthians 13) and not ‘charity’.” Tyndale is rejecting the way these words have been used to support doctrines he is convinced are entirely unbiblical, and dangerous. He wants instead for the translation to reflect the text itself, not a doctrinal system foreign to it.
In other words, he is making the New Testament refer inwardly to itself, as he instructs his readers to do, and not outwardly to the enormous secondary construction of late-mediaeval practices of the Church: priests and penance and confession and charity. Interpretation, as he explains in the second paragraph of the epilogue [to his 1526 NT], has to be so that ‘all is conformable and agreeing to the faith’ of the New Testament. He cannot possibly have been unaware that those words in particular undercut the entire sacramental structure of the thousand-year Church throughout Europe, Asia and north Africa.
Daniell, David. William Tyndale: A Biography (pp. 148-149).
But while Tyndale went about changing these few words that would pack such weighty punch, he did not see himself as undercutting the sacramental system. Rather, “It was the Greek New Testament that was doing the undercutting.”
Some Fight Against Love
As was to be expected, Tyndale’s return to the Greek text was not well received by all. Bishop Cuthbert Tunstall railed against Tyndale and what he had written. He preached a sermon (no longer extant) reportedly claiming that Tyndale’s new translation had some 2000 errors in it. It would seem that Tyndale’s choice of “love” was among these. Eventually, Tunstall would go so far as to call for Tyndale’s translation to be burned. Yes, he burned the New Testament, to Tyndale’s great shock and dismay. Daniell notes that it has been commonly claimed that Tunstall found fault only in Tyndale’s marginal notes, which, it is claimed, were too bitter. But this cannot be the real reason, for there are no marginal notes in the 1526 NT, (and if the 1525 is meant, it only got through the first 21 chapters of Matthew, and with no bitter notes). The case collapses, and in fact, “Tunstall’s attack can only have been on Tyndale’s rendering of the New Testament text itself. Two thousand errors in a volume of 680 pages gives an average rate of three per page. Some of these would be words to which the most serious offence could be taken by the Church, like ‘congregation’ for ‘church’, ‘love’ for ‘charity’, and ‘repent’ for ‘do penance’” (William Tyndale, pg. 192).
It was not marginal notations which brought hatred of Tyndale. It was the Greek text, now clearly and directly in English. Especially, it was this handful of dangerous words, the change of which could overthrow a millennium of ecclesiastic tradition. Such hotspot words were enough to get a translation burned. They were enough, in fact, to get a translator burned.
Tunstall was not the only one upset about what Tyndale had done. Sir Thomas More (of “Utopia” fame in the history of English works), was aghast at Tyndale’s blatant attack on the established church. Daniell picks up More’s attitude well;
Of course More was offended by the English New Testament. He did not need anyone, thank you very much, and certainly not some stray Englishman living abroad, to tell him that ‘priest’ should be ‘senior’, that ‘church’ should be ‘congregation’ and that ‘charity’ should be ‘love’; that there was no purgatory in Scripture, and that five of the seven sacraments were not sacraments at all. In the whirligig of time and fashion, Tyndale is today only known in some powerful intellectual circles as an annoyance to the blessed Saint Thomas, clinging like a burr to the great man’s coat, as if Tyndale’s life were meaningless without More.
Willlian Tyndale, pg. 252 [edit – should be 262].
In June 1529, More wrote his, A Dialogue Concerning Heresies, (read a PDF here, from which I cite below) no small part of which was to lambast Tyndale for his translation choices, which More was convinced were an intentional attack on the Catholic Church and its doctrines. David Norton explains;
In the earlier work, A Dialogue Concerning Heresies (1529), More instances some false translations of words, refers to the difficulties of translation and responds to the argument against English. Discussing Tyndale’s use of ‘seniors’ for ‘priests’, ‘congregation’ for ‘Church’ and ‘love’ for ‘charity’, he observes that ‘these names in our English tongue neither express the thing that he meant by them, and also there appeareth… that he had a mischievous mind in the change’ (Works, VI: 286).
Norton, David. A History of the English Bible as Literature (Page 22).
More repeatedly charges Tyndale with writing an English New Testament fashioned after Luther’s Protestant theology;
Which whoso calleth ‘the New Testament’ calleth it by a wrong name… except they will call it ‘Tyndale’s Testament,’ or ‘Luther’s Testament.’ For so had Tyndale after Luther’s counsel corrupted and changed it from the good and wholesome doctrine of Christ to the devilish heresies of their own… that it was clean a contrary thing!
More was not wrong. He takes up at several points Tyndale’s choice for “love” instead of “charity,” and what he assumes to be Tyndale’s rationale behind it. He frames the whole of his work as a dialogue between himself (the author) and a fictional character, “the messenger,” which allows him a kind of diatribe of his own making.
Now, where he calleth the Church always the ‘congregation,’ what reason had he therein? For every man well seeth that though the Church be indeed a congregation, yet is not every congregation the Church, but a congregation of Christian people… which congregation of Christian people hath been in England always called and known by the name of the Church; which name what good cause or color could he find to turn into the name of ‘congregation,’ which word is common to a company of Christian men or a company of Turks?
Like wisdom was there in the change of this word ‘charity’ into ‘love.’ For though charity be always love, yet is not, ye wot well, love always charity.
The more pity, by my faith,” quoth your friend, “that ever love was sin! And yet it would not be so much so taken if the world were no more suspicious than they say that good Saint Francis was, which when he saw a young man kiss a girl once in way of good company… knelt down and held up his hands into heaven, highly thanking God that ‘charity’ was ‘not yet gone out of this wretched world.’
More’s imagined opponent claims the change is for the better. More patiently and kindly explains to his absurdly ignorant interlocutor that of course, if the change were for the better, the author would support it. He does not, for it is not “better.” And it is not seldom, which could be forgiven;
If he called charity sometimes by the bare name of ‘love,’ I would not stick thereat. But, now, whereas ‘charity’ signifieth in Englishmen’s ears not every common love, but a good, virtuous, and well-ordered love: he that will studiously flee from that name of good love, and always speak of ‘love’ and always leave out ‘good,’ I would surely say that he meaneth naught.
He goes on to accuse Tyndale of collaborating with Luther. He comes finally to specifically charge Tyndale with changing this word in order to slip in Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith, and remove the implications inherent in the word “charity” for justification by works. He writes, under the heading, Luther’s Heresies, of what he at least sees as the real reason Tyndale has made his change;
But, now, the cause why he changed the name of ‘charity,’ and of the ‘church,’ and of ‘priesthood,’ is no very great difficulty to perceive. For since Luther and his fellows among other their damnable heresies have one that all our salvation standeth in faith alone, and toward our salvation nothing force of good works: therefore it seemeth that he laboreth of purpose to diminish the reverent mind that men bear to charity… and therefore he changeth that name of holy, virtuous affection into the bare name of ‘love,’ common to the virtuous love that man beareth to God… and to the lewd love that is 3.8 between fleck and his make. And for because that Luther utterly denieth the very, catholic church in earth… and saith that the church of Christ is but an unknown congregation of some folk, here two and there three, no man wot where, having ‘the right faith’ (which he calleth only his own new-forged faith): therefore Hutchins in the New Testament cannot abide the name of the ‘church,’ but turneth it into the name of ‘congregation,’ willing that it should seem to Englishmen… either that Christ in the Gospel had never spoken of the Church… or else that the church were but such a congregation as they might have occasion to say that a congregation of some such heretics were the church that God spoke of.
As David Norton explains, “More’s chief concern is with heretical tendencies in the translation. Among these is the choice of certain words through which, with some justification, he sees Tyndale as attacking the teaching and practice of the [Roman] Church” (A History of the English Bible as Literature, pg. 21-22).
Tyndale Fights For Love
When we examine the charge of More that Tyndale is peddling Lutheran ideas, we find that, once again, More is not wrong. Tyndale has indeed been influenced by Luther. He is indeed a Protestant, and is indeed creating a distinctly (perhaps even divisively) Protestant English text. He is convinced that in Luther’s theology alone can Paul be truly heard. As Daniell notes, “At bottom, Tyndale’s offence has been to offer the people Paul in English, and translate four key New Testament words (presbuteros, ekklesia, agape, metanoeo) in their correct Greek meanings (senior, congregation, love, repent) instead of priest, church, charity and do penance” (Willaim Tyndale, pg. 269). Tyndale of course came later to respond to these charges. He wrote his, An Answer to Sir Thomas More’s Dialogue, in 1536, to which More would write yet another massive response, The Confutation Of Tyndale’s Answer. Tyndale briefly defended (in far fewer words than all More’s complaints), among other things, his choice of the word “love” instead of “charity.” Interestingly, he responds to the first part of More’s accusation about the word without dealing with the heart of More’s objection (that Tyndale is a Protestant after Luther’s own heart). Perhaps because the deeper charge was true. In any case, Tyndale’s defense is worth hearing at length. He writes, under the heading, Why he useth love, rather than charity;
He rebuketh me also that I translate this Greek word agape into love, and not rather into charity, so holy and so known a term. Verily, charity is no known English, in that sense which agape requireth. For when we say, ‘Give your alms in the worship of God, and sweet St Charity;’ and when the father teacheth his son to say, ‘Blessing, father, for St Charity;’ what mean they? In good faith they wot not. Moreover, when we say, ‘God help you, I have done my charity for this day,’ do we not take it for alms? and, ‘The man is ever chiding and out of charity;’ and, ‘I beshrew him, saving my charity;’ there we take it for patience. And when I say, ‘A charitable man,’ it is taken for merciful. And though mercifulness be a good love, or rather spring of a good love, yet is not every good love mercifulness. As when a woman loveth her husband godly, or a man his wife or his friend that is in none adversity, it is not always mercifulness. Also we say not, This man hath a great charity to God; but a great love. Wherefore I must have used this general term love in spite of mine heart oftentimes. And agape and caritas were words used among the heathen, ere Christ came; and signified therefore more than a godly love. And we may say well enough, and have heard it spoken, that the Turks be charitable one to another among themselves, and some of them unto the Christians too. Besides all this, agape is common unto all loves.
And when M. More saith, “Every love is not charity;” no more is every apostle Christ’s apostle; nor every angel God’s angel; nor every hope Christian hope; nor every faith, or belief, Christ’s belief; and so by an hundred thousand words: so that if I should always use but a word that were no more general than the word I interpret, I should interpret nothing at all. But the matter itself and the circumstances do declare what love,* what hope, and what faith is spoken of. And, finally, I say not, charity God, or charity your neighbour; but, love God, and love your neighbour; yea, and though we say a man ought to love his neighbour’s wife and his daughter, a christian man doth not understand that he is commanded to defile his neighbour’s wife or his neighbour’s daughter.
William Tyndale, An Answer to Sir Thomas More’s Dialogue, the Supper of the Lord after the True Meaning of John VI. and 1 Cor. XI. and Wm. Tracy’s Testament Expounded, ed. Henry Walter, vol. 3, The Works of William Tyndale (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1850), 20–21.
Charity is one of those words that had become a virtual flashpoint for Catholic/Protestant debate, containing in itself, in some ways, the seeds of the whole Reformation question. S. R. Maveety noted the debate between Luther and More, and More’s charge that Tyndale was “guilty of intentionally mistranslating the Bible for the sake of Lutheran doctrine,” then cites the four examples above (including charity/love), and explains, “It may seem remarkable to us today that these translations helped bring Tyndale to death at the stake, but to More and Tyndale and men of their time the words were more loaded than one might suspect.” Tyndale, for his part, was convinced he was only letting the Greek text speak on its own, and that it was not him opposed to Catholic doctrine, it was the NT itself. This doesn’t mean he is altogether opposed to the word charity. He even uses it once in reference to I Cor. 13, (since he saw that passage in particular as requiring deeds of service to others). But for Tyndale, while love may require action, it can never be reduced to it, or equated with it. Love patently demands affection. It must be felt, and only the gospel can cause it to be so felt, as joyous thanksgiving for the work Christ has already done, not as work that we must do.
One passage at random, among many that could be chosen, makes the point. Tyndale argues at length in The Parable of the Wicked Mammon for the reformed doctrine of justification by faith alone. As part of that argument, he employes the phrase in Luke 7, “Many sins are forgiven her, for she loveth much.” He qualifies, immediately, to avoid any implication of works;
Not that love was cause of forgiveness of sins, but contrariwise the forgiveness of sins caused love; as it followeth, “To whom less was forgiven, that same loveth less.” And afore he commended the judgment of Simon, which answered that he loveth most to whom most was forgiven: and also said, at the last, “Thy faith hath saved thee” (or made thee safe), “go in peace.” We cannot love, except we see some benefit and kindness. As long as we look on the law of God only, where we see but sin and damnation and the wrath of God upon us, yea, where we were damned afore we were born, we cannot love God: no, we cannot but hate him as a tyrant, unrighteous, unjust, and flee from him as did Cain. But when the gospel, that glad tidings, and joyful promises are preached, how that in Christ God loveth us first, forgiveth us, and hath mercy on us; then love we again, and the deeds of our love declare our faith. This is the manner of speaking: as we say, Summer is nigh, for the trees blossom. Now is the blossoming of the trees not the cause that summer draweth nigh; but the drawing nigh of summer is the cause of the blossoms, and the blossoms put us in remembrance that summer is at hand. So Christ here teacheth Simon by the ferventness of love in the outward deeds to see a strong faith within, whence so great love springeth. As the manner is to say, Do your charity; shew your charity; do a deed of charity; shew your mercy; do a deed of mercy; meaning thereby that our deeds declare how we love our neighbours, and how much we have compassion on them at their need. Moreover it is not possible to love, except we see a cause. Except we see in our hearts the love and kindness of God to us-ward in Christ our Lord, it is not possible to love God aright.
William Tyndale, Doctrinal Treatises and Introductions to Different Portions of the Holy Scriptures, Vol. 1, pg. 83–84.
Love must be felt, fervently, and can only come in response to the gospel. Then and only then can loving deeds for others proceed, as the fruit of salvation, and the fruit of grasping and feeling the love of God for us. That, for Tyndale, was the force of agape. It could not be reduced to mere action or good deeds. Far from it. Tyndale is the romantic. Love must be experienced. And that is what the empty, “charity,” can never convey, for it is laden with all the connotations of almsgiving, good deeds, and actions, yet utterly divorced from the heart. Tyndale’s passion was to render the Greek text clearly and directly, without the unbiblical baggage of the medieval Latin church. He would defend these words with his own life, ultimately being tied to a stake and strangled. Then his body would be lit aflame and burned there for his stand.
And though I gave my body even that I burned, and yet had no love, it profiteth nothing. (I Cor. 13:3, Tyndale 1536)
We read these words as only a hypothetical scenario urging us to remember that actions apart from love are worthless. But for Tyndale, these words are not hypothetical – they were more like a prophecy of his coming end. He would not die having no love, to no profit. Rather, he would give his body that he burned, precisely because he was driven by the passionate love that he preached from both pulpit and press.
A Story Unfinished
Tyndale worked to banish Charity from the English Bible, considering it unworthy of the word of God in English. He includes “charitably” as an adjective exactly once (Rom. 14:15), but has excommunicated the noun entirely from the English Bible. The Bible, in his opinion, has no place for this lesser word, which fails to capture the meaning of the Greek text.
We will look in more detail at Tyndale and other Reformation era Bible’s in the next post. But one reality becomes starkly obvious even from what we have already seen. Charity was exorcised from the Bible by Tyndale. Yet even in the great passage we examined at the start of this post, it has been revived in the Authorized Version. In fact, as we will see, it has been revived in several dozen other passages as well in the KJV.
When did it happen?
Who was responsible?
It is clear that the story of love has not yet been told in full. This is only an interlude.
Until next time.