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Saturday, 26 March 2011

Thomas Holland – Deep learning, strong conviction.

Thomas Holland was born in Ludlow, Shropshire in 1538/39, and was one of the older translators of the King James Version. He graduated from Exeter College, Oxford and became chaplain and Fellow of Balliol College in the same University.

Exeter College, Oxford

He was made Doctor in Divinity in 1584. The next year, when Robert Dudley, the well-known Earl of Leicester was made governor of the Netherlands – having just then been set free from Spanish rule - Dr. Holland went with him as chaplain, in 1585.

A man of solid learning

In 1589, Holland became the King’s Professor of Divinity at Oxford, for no obscure reason:

McClure says he was “so celebrated for his preaching, reading, disputing, moderating, and all other excellent qualifications, that all who knew him commended him, and all who heard of him admired him.”

He adds that under his leadership many distinguished scholars were trained up. Later in 1592 he served as Rector of Exeter College for twenty years. As a student, it was said of him, that he was so “immersed in books,” that academic pursuits overshadowed and dominated his entire life. The same could be said of many, perhaps all of the translators.

[This] office he filled with great reputation for twenty years, being regarded as a universal scholar, and a prodigy of literature. His reputation extended to the continent, and he was held in high esteem in the universities of Europe. These were the leading events in his studious life.

In his funeral sermon Dr. Kilby said of our translator:

that he had a wonderful knowledge of all the learned languages, and of all arts and sciences, both human and divine. He was mighty in the Scriptures; and so familiarly acquainted with the Fathers, as if he himself had been one of them; and so versed in the Schoolmen, as if he were the Seraphic Doctor [Thomas Aquinas].

The antiquarian Anthony Wood referred to him as “another Apollos, mighty in the Scriptures,” and besides, “a solid preacher, a most noted disputant, and a most learned divine.”

Contending for the Faith

Dr. Holland preached with gravitas and was intensely serious. When he discoursed off the cuff, he held an audience better than when he relied on the smaller details of an elaborate script.. For Holland, “contending for the faith” meant opposing Roman Catholic errors and expounding the Bible from John Calvin’s perspective. The latter’s teachings from Scripture formed the backbone of Holland’s Christian character, and in all his studious work he maintained an ardent devotion to God. He was a decided Puritan appealing against the prevailing standards of church ceremony and discipline.

He enjoyed debating difficult questions in the public University arena. For example, when he visited Oxford in 1604, the King, no mean scholar himself, liked to listen to a good academic argument with plenty of heat - all part of the royal entertainment. Holland and two other KJV translators, Giles Thomson and John Harding, argued for the negative when discussing the theological question, “Can the saints and angels read the thoughts of our hearts?” Dr John Anglionby, chaplain to the King (and to Elizabeth 1st before him) - yet another helper in the KJV translation - argued for the affirmative: yes, they can! Thomas Bilson, Bishop of Winchester, yet another translator, was the dialogue moderator in all this.

Paine says of this debate:

Though an appropriate choice for men of many minds, all on their good behaviour, the virtue of the question was that no one could answer it. It was therefore a perfect subject for a heated debate, a drill in what passed for logic, in the manner of the schoolmen of the Middle Ages. (1)

A fierce Puritan

“Fierce” is what Nicolson calls him (2). This is doubtless because of the famous contretente he had with the future Archbishop William Laud, as to whether bishops should rule the Anglican Church, rather than it be governed by elders.

William Laud

Archbishop Richard Bancroft (and Laud later on) had laboured all too successfully to introduce ‘popish innovations ‘at Oxford. Holland maintained against all comers that “bishops are not a distinct order from presbyters, nor at all superior to them by the Word of God. Thomas Holland had attempted to persuade the young Laud to a different opinion when the latter was taking his Divinity degree in 1604. Laud as a student contended “that there could be no true churches without diocesan episcopacy.” Dr. Holland issued a sharp public rebuke to him for what he foresaw as a prescription for a divided church, written by “one who sought to sow discord among brethren, and between the Church of England and the Reformed Churches abroad.” At that time the Calvinist party was strong in the Church of England. Laud's later insistence on the authority of ‘apostolic succession’ was unpopular in many quarters. His diminutive stature was satirised in the pun, "give great praise to the Lord, and little laud to the Devil."

But the bishops let him alone, as just Dr. Holland and harmless – a renowned old codger [now in or beyond his 60’s] whom all Oxford loved.

Thomas Holland must have been very preoccupied with the errors and idolatry wrapped inside Roman dogma, for Kilby - in the same funeral sermon – tells how whenever the scholar set out on a journey, he would first convene the Fellows of his College, and give them his favourite parting charge, that is, never failing to end with, Commendo vos dilectioni Dei, et odio papatus et superstitionis!! “I commend you to the love of God, and to the hatred of all popery and superstition!”(1)

A worthy translator

Holland was a member of the "First Oxford Company", responsible for the Major and Minor Prophets of the Old Testament, in the royal aim to create an ‘authorised version’ of the Bible for reading in the churches. He took a prominent part in what was the crowning work of his life.

Once translation days were over, Holland spent most of his time meditating and praying. Through his life, he had published several learned orations, also one sermon. Many manuscripts were ready for posthumous publishing, but they fell into unfriendly hands opposed to Puritan teaching, so were never published.

Sickness and the weakness of old age drew him closer to his eternal destiny and quickened the prospect of heaven. His biographer writes:

He loved and he longed for God, for the presence of God, and for the full enjoyment of Him. His soul was framed for heaven, and could find no rest till it came there. His dying prayer was— ‘Come, O come, Lord Jesus, Thou Morning Star! Come Lord Jesus; I desire to be dissolved, and to be with Thee!’ (1)"

He died and was buried with great solemnity in the chancel of St. Mary’s, Oxford on 16th March, 1612. Richard Kilby published his funeral sermon on Thomas Holland, in 1613. This was just a few months after the Bible was completed and published. He was 73: it was a religious age.

(1) Paine, Gustavus S. (1977/1959) The men behind the King James Version, MI: Baker, p. 85, 46-47, 155.
(2) Nicolson, Adam. (2003) Power and glory: Jacobean England and the making of the King James Bible, Lon: Harper. p. 254.

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