Martin Luther published his 95 theses in 1517, setting in motion a crisis that was to engulf Western European Christianity. Luther was denounced virulently by a number of Catholic commentators. In England his chief opponents were firstly King Henry VIII and then predominantly the humanist scholar and lawyer Sir Thomas More. After Luther had published the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Henry replied with the Assertio Septem Sacramentorum, which upheld the Catholic doctrine of the seven Sacraments. For this he received the title Fidei Defensor, Defender of the Faith, from the Pope.
England was still firmly Catholic, but the Lutherans were gaining ground. One of the most important of these English Reformers was William Tyndale. In 1525-1526 he published an English translation of the Bible. Tyndale's translation and his Protestant doctrine drew the wrath of Thomas More, who argued against Tyndale in his Dialogue Concerning Heresies, published in 1529. Tyndale replied to this in 1531 with his Answer to More's Dialogue. Tyndale's Answer resulted in a massive effort at refutation by More, a text which came to be known as the Confutation of Tyndale's Answer.
The Confutation is an absolutely massive text - More's longest - so I will have to be very selective. I will attempt to give a brief description of More's position when he was writing the text, and then comment on the structure and intended audience of the text. Finally, I will look at three central points in the controversy: political authority, the definition of the Church, and the role of tradition and history.
The Confutation: circumstances of composition
The Confutation was written during a critical period of More's life. It was probably begun in the summer of 1531, when More was Lord Chancellor. By the time he came to write the Preface, however, More had fallen out of favour. He had lost the argument over Henry VIII's divorce. More had consequently resigned from his office. The whole work is pervaded by a sense that the heretics are on the ascendant.
More's own situation, and the rising power of Protestantism in England is surely the main reason for the hint of despair evident in the work. More is very much aware that disastrous rebellions have happened before, for instance among the Israelites of the Old Testament. In ominous tones, he writes in the Preface: "Our sauyour sayth that ye chyldren of darkenes be more polytyke in theyr kynde then are the chyldren of lyght in theyr kinde" (quoted in CW 8: III, 1253). By now, More saw that the so-called children of darkness could win, at least in this life. He thought it was possible that the rift in Christendom would leave the Catholic Church as a minority group, defending the true faith against the oppression of Protestantism.
Structure of the text
The Confutation is in two parts. The first was written when More was still Chancellor. This was published in 1532 by More's nephew William Rastell in London. It is indicative of how More viewed Tyndale as an extreme threat, since even as he was persecuting heretics as Chancellor, among his other duties, he found the time to write an extremely long theoretical rebuttal of Tyndale's writings. The second volume was published in 1533 when More was out of office.
In his Answer Tyndale covered about three fourths of More's Dialogue concerning heresies. In the Confutation, More attempts to refute only one fourth of Tyndale's text. However, More uses over twenty words for each of Tyndale's. This tells us a lot about More's style and the structure of the text. Obviously, More goes into extreme detail. It is very much a lawyer's text. All possible counterarguments are sought out and repudiated. The very possibility of an answer to the text is pre-empted (and of course, there was never another answer from Tyndale).
Tyndale is quoted a short section at a time, sometimes just a paragraph or single sentence at once. Then, counter-arguments relying on a numerous variety of sources are laid out. Tyndale's errors are described countless times. Schuster suggests that this thoroughness is perhaps a symptom of More's belief in the wholeness of truth in general, and Catholic belief and practice in particular. Catholicism is a whole; you cannot remove some elements and retain others. Every detail counts. And More does not let Tyndale off the hook on even the most trivial of details.
The similarity with the Responsio ad Lutherum is evident. The technique of attacking the character of the Protestants and thereby discrediting their doctrine is used numerous times in the Confutation as well. This rhetorical tool suggests that the audience was the common, unlearned people of England. Protestantism was making inroads among common working people, especially in London. More repeatedly makes the same ad hominem argument as in the Responsio: Luther was a monk who broke his vows and then married, defying both the institution of celibacy and the institution of matrimony. Also, the constant repetition of arguments is perhaps indicative of the text meant to be read out loud, especially to the illiterate majority. More's style of argumentation leads further weight to this interpretation of the intended audience. It is extremely detailed, but relatively straightforward. More identifies passage after passage in Scripture which refutes Tyndale, supplemented by numerous references to the Church Fathers and Saints. The abundance of classical references to be found in Utopia is absent.
More's argument: political authority
The question of political authority is at the heart of the controversy. More emphasizes the political aspects of heresy.Tyndale for his part stresses the political implications of papal rule, asserting that the Pope is the true master of Europe.
For More, authority is fundamental to the functioning of society. He sees society as a system where the few rule, and the rest obey. Even if criticisms of highers-up were correct, they are in no way legitimate. The masses have no right to challenge their superiors, since the result of this would be chaos. More's emphasis on authority seems almost proto-Hobbesian. It should be noted, however, that More was not an advocate of any specific form of government. God has ordered the world politically; hence all regimes are legitimate. The subject must obey, not question.
The question of authority is especially important with regard to the papacy. Here More clearly separates the office from the office-holder. More admits there have been bad Popes. But in itself, this is no argument against the authority of the papacy. If bad men in offices discredit those offices, then there would be no authority in the world. There have been bad kings, but that does not mean sovereignty should be abolished altogether. Similarly, the fact that there have been bad popes does not undermine the papacy itself. Hence, Tyndale's arguments against the Pope do not make sense, and, in addition, they are dangerous.
More held that Tyndale's embrace of predestination led to the destruction of free will. This is damaging to individual morality. If one thinks one is condemned, one can sin as much as one wants to in this world, since the torments of hell are inevitable. On the other hand, if one is certain of one's salvation, one may sin with impunity knowing that salvation is guaranteed regardless.
Similarly, the doctrine of justification by faith alone is dangerous, since it seems to grant the common people full licence to do anything whatsoever as long as they have faith. If man not responsible in anyway for his salvation, he may not be seen to be responsible for affairs in this life. More thought that people need to believe their actions in this life are significant for salvation in order for society to function properly. Obviously, such charges could be and were refuted by the Reformists, but More held them to be serious. I do not know whether More fully understood these doctrines, or whether he wilfully distorted them. It might be that he understood them fully, but thought that regardless of the theological sophistication of the doctrines and the intentions of the Reformers, the result of a widespread belief among the common people in predestination and salvation by faith alone would lead to moral degeneration and anarchy.
More thinks heretics always cause rebellions and violence. In past ages, the Church attempted to be patient with them, but the heretics themselves broke the peace of society. He asserts that Luther directly caused the Peasants' Revolt in Germany in 1525. More protests at Luther's assertion that if people truly followed the Bible, there would be no need of secular law, thinking this will lead to anarchy. Also, More thought that the disagreement of different heretics and their sects leads necessarily to violent conflict. Peace among the heretics could only be established by Protestant dictatorship, the thought of which More abhorred. More knew that the Church had been persecuted in previous ages, and that it could be persecuted again by triumphant Protestants. This was More's justification for the persecution of heretics: they cause rebellions, and if they are victorious, they will persecute the true Church. Therefore, they must be persecuted by the Church in self-defence.
History and tradition
In Tyndale's Answer to More, the issue is largely historical: has the Church done wrong, has it become corrupt? Tyndale uses the medieval chronicles to great effect in demonstrating that throughout its history, the Church has been corrupt. The Pope has managed to subvert temporal power. He has become the true ruler of Europe. The monarchs of Europe are only his servants. Obviously Tyndale uses his sources very selectively, and sometimes invents history. But the central role that history plays in the controversy is evident.
More places much emphasis on tradition. He sees Scripture as only part of God's message. More asserts that God is absolutely free, and as such, is not limited to Scripture. The will of God has been transmitted over the centuries through the Church. Hence, the practices of the Church have changed over time. Furthermore, Christ did not leave behind books, but a people - the early Church. Fundamentally the legitimacy of the Church derives from this.
The importance of tradition is also evident in More's placing considerable weight on 'common consent'. More identified the Church with the whole mass of Christians, not just with the hierarchy. The clergy is only part of whole Church. The practices of the masses of commoners gains legitimacy through everyone's consent. More thought any practice or belief in Christianity gained legitimacy because it was widely practised - precise justification from Scripture was unnecessary. As Marius argues, this can be seen as an appeal to the medieval veneration of tradition, the idea being that if God lets a practice perpetuate, He must approve of it.
The definition of the Church
Tyndale totally rejected the existing Church; in the Answer to More, he called for its abolition, not reform. The Church was corrupt beyond any hope of reform. Tyndale's alternative to the Catholic Church of fifteen hundred years of tradition, was the invisible Church. Tyndale accepted the doctrine of predestination. According to this, God has already chosen who will gain salvation. The true Church, then, is comprised of these individuals.
More thinks Tyndale mistakes the Church triumphant with the Church militant. The Church militant necessarily has some bad members. The Church has a role to play on earth, and this is to teach men how to gain salvation, to establish the code of morality, and to be a restraint on society. These are earthly tasks, and they cannot be achieved by an invisible Church. The visible Church, however, has inevitably some bad members. But this does not discredit the Church as a whole, and it certainly does not discredit the doctrines of the Church.
Perhaps the most important point of the controversy is the question of the relationship of Scripture with the Church. For Tyndale, Scripture is supreme. Indeed, Scripture does not require an authority to interpret it, any man can read the Word of God for himself. For More, however, the Church is supreme. It was not Scripture that created the Church, but vice-versa. Also, the authority of the Church is needed to interpret Scripture. Only the Church's interpretation is correct, since the Holy Spirit only works through the Church, and guides it to an ever more perfect interpretation.
Ultimately, of course, More failed in his desperate task of upholding the Catholic Church in England in particular, and stopping a rift in Christendom in general. Henry VIII's political prerogatives were soon to override his previous loyalty to Rome. As I noted in the introduction, More lost the argument over Henry's divorce, and resigned as Lord Chancellor. A few years later, More was executed for refusing to accept Henry's control over the Church of England.
Tyndale can perhaps be seen as the more successful of the two. The Reformation was succesful in England. His work, especially his translation of the Bible into the vernacular, were important, and his work lived on in the offical King James Bible of 1611. However, Tyndale himself died for his faith. To deepen the irony, the Reformation in England was not brought about because Tyndale's arguments won the day in a fair contest. Ultimately the countless words that More and Tyndale wrote in their passionate controversy counted for very little, since the break from Rome was made a reality by King Henry VIII not out of ideological conviction, but to further his political ends.
More, Sir Thomas, Saint, The Confutation of Tyndale's Answer, part 1. in The Complete Works of Saint Thomas More, Vol. 8.: I (New Haven, Yale University Press)
More, Sir Thomas, Saint, The Confutation of Tyndale's Answer, part 2. in the Complete Works of Saint Thomas More, Vol 8.: II (New Haven, Yale University Press)
Schuster, Louis, 'Thomas More's Polemical Career, 1523-1533' in The Complete Works of Saint Thomas More, Vol. 8.: III (New Haven, Yale University Press)
Marius, Richard 'Thomas More's View of the Chuch' in ibid.