Monday, March 02, 2015

Alexander Alane / Alesius - Translating the Bible

I am reading lots about the Reformation at present. Usually distilled into simplistic Northern-Ireland-tribalisms of Catholic v Protestant, the actual issue was/is theological and not tribal. The Church had, for centuries, presented a false message of "works-salvation" (with umpteen other extra-Biblical add-ons). But when the early manuscripts were read afresh, the message of the Bible actually turned out to be the opposite - "salvation by faith alone in Christ alone". As this blog post from Canada recently put it, Christ Alone is bad for business. The Reformation was a revolution. The Gospel is available to all who will receive it, regardless of tribe, colour, gender, nationality. No "good works" can secure it or improve it. No money can procure it. 

The first martyr of the Scottish Reformation was young Patrick Hamilton, burned at the stake at St Andrews in 1528 for daring to present this scandalous and liberating message. A younger monk, Alexander Alane, was sent to persuade Hamilton of his error. Alane ended up being persuaded by Hamilton! Some days later as Hamilton burned (it took 6 hours in total, in a scene reminiscent of the horrific ISIS burning of the Jordanian pilot Muath al-Kasaesbeh recently), Alane was among the watching crowd and later became Hamilton's first biographer. Changing his surname to Alesius, he went to Luther's Germany and settled at Wittenberg. It was here that Alesius (according to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography) –

'...became involved in a literary feud with the Catholic polemicist Johannes Cochlaeus, which at once made him known throughout Germany and beyond. In March or April 1533 he published an open letter to James V, in which he appealed to his sovereign to annul a recent decree by the Scottish bishops prohibiting the possession and distribution of the New Testament in the vernacular (Alexandri Alesii epistola contra decretum quoddam episcoporum in Scotia). Although it is not certain to which decree he referred, there is evidence to show that William Tyndale's translations of the New Testament were secretly shipped to Scotland and that individuals were prosecuted for its possession. The publication of this elegantly written work may have been Melanchthon's idea, who at this time strove to further reform movements in other countries by appealing to their rulers. In June Cochlaeus reacted likewise with an open letter to the Scottish monarch, claiming that Alesius was translating Luther's New Testament and other works into Scots with the intention of shipping them to Scotland, and warning that free access to the scriptures in the vernacular would not only lead the people into error, but incite political and social unrest...'

Alesius is an overlooked Bible translator. He did so with a theological, evangelistic purpose not just as a linguistic exercise. I have volumes of the Scots New Testament from the 1800s and 1900s and enjoy them very much. Wye-Smith is the most accessible to me. I also have a significant collection of hymns and gospel songs in Scots and Ulster-Scots, most of which are online here. But I have still often been a bit uneasy and unsure of Ulster-Scots Bible translations in the present-day - unsure of their need or their usefulness. As a gospel initiative, no problem. As a merely linguistic or literary project, I am not so sure that scripture should be treated as an intellectual commodity.

However last week in Scotland I took part in an event where a County Antrim man preached a sermon in Ulster-Scots and read from the recent Gospel of Luke in Ulster-Scots, (which was published under the direction of Wycliffe Bible Translators) to a Scottish congregation. It was magnificent, in a natural setting, being used by a man who had grown up with the words and expressions, touching hearts with power and presenting the Gospel to those who would receive it.

Here is one of Cochlaeus' objections to Luther:

Luther’s translation was read (as the source of all wisdom, no less) by tailors and shoemakers, even women and simpletons, many of whom carried it around and learned it by heart, and eventually became bold enough to dispute with priests, monks, even masters and doctors of Holy Scripture about faith and the gospels.

Around the same time Philippe-Robert Olivetan translated the Bible from Hebrew into French. Here is his summary to his sceptical brother-in-law Jean Calvin

“There are but two religions in the world. The one class of religions are those which men have invented, in all of which man saves himself by ceremonies and good works. The other is that one religion which is revealed in the Bible, and which teaches man to look for salvation solely from the free grace of God.”


Cochlaeus' portrait from Wikipedia is below.

Johannes Cochlaeus