Thursday, December 09, 2010
The Vision (12/9/10): Celebrating the 400th Anniversary of the King James Version (1611-2011)
I read an online article a couple of weeks ago reporting on a recent poll in the United Kingdom revealing that 51% of those under age 35 had never heard of the King James Bible, compared to only 28% of those over age 55. One wonders what the results of such a poll would be if taken in the United States. As the 400th anniversary of the King James Version draws closer (1611-2011), it is clear that modern critical efforts to overthrow the majestic KJV are fast becoming a nearly accomplished fact.
Even if taken from a wholly secular perspective, cultural amnesia with regard to the KJV is striking. How would we feel if such a poll revealed that the population was losing touch with the writings of Shakespeare? One wonders what this will mean for the standards and cadences of contemporary English language, a fact even some secular literary critics are also beginning to lament.
I remember a conversation I had with one of my English professors in college years ago. He was an agnostic but knew that I was an evangelical Christian. One day he happened to see me reading one of the modern versions of the Bible and said, “Jeff, I’ll never understand why you Christians have been so eager to abandon the old King James Version for these sterile modern translations.”
A few years ago mainstream secular author Adam Nicolson wrote an intriguing book titled God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible (Harper Collins, 2003) which traces the historical and cultural settings that resulted in the making of the King James Bible translation. It also offers biographical sketches of the men who were involved in the translation, including Lancelot Andrewes, the man who directed the entire project and who might well be called the “guiding Translator of the King James Bible” (p. 32). Andrewes was well known both for his personal piety and erudite scholarship. Nicholson reports that Andrewes spent five hours each morning in prayer, and he once said “that anyone who visited him before noon clearly did not believe in God” (p. 32)! Nicolson adds:
The man was a library, the repository of sixteen centuries of Christian culture, he could speak fifteen modern languages and six ancient, but the heart and bulk of his existence was his sense of himself as a worm. Against an all-knowing, all powerful and irresistible God, all he saw was an ignorant, weak, and irresolute self” (p. 33).
Nicolson ponders the fact that Andrewes was able to combine immense ability with immense humility, “a yoking together of opposites which seems nearly impossible to the modern mind. People like Lancelot Andrewes no longer exist.” He concludes, “It is because people like Lancelot Andrewes flourished in the first decade of the seventeenth century—and do not now—that the greatest translation of the Bible could be made then, and cannot now” (p. 33).
In the concluding chapter of Nicolson’s book, this secular author eloquently praises the King James Bible as “the touchstone, the national book, the formative mental structure for all English-speaking people” (p. 236). He continues, “For generation after generation, it gave the English, and the English in America, a template against which to measure their own utterances” (p. 237). He notes how this Bible was often the only book in many households and so became “a spur to literacy” (p. 237). It shaped the language of Milton and Bunyan, the poetry of Coleridge and Wordsworth, and ‘became the backbone of the great milestone speeches” in America’s history from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, to Kennedy's inaugural address, to the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr.
This outsider to the gospel offers Christians a striking reproof: “The churches and biblical scholarship have, by and large, abandoned the frame of mind which created the translation…. The belief in the historical and authentic truth of the scriptures, particularly the Gospels, has been largely abandoned even by the religious” (p. 238). He describes modern Christianity as “drained of its passion” and closes by confessing, “I am no atheist but I am no churchgoer, perhaps because these things are no longer voiced in the church” (p. 241).
Of course, one should not choose a translation merely because of its literary elegance or historical-cultural influence. The Word of God was originally written in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek, and it has been effectively translated into many modern languages and in more than one English translation. We do not concur with those in the so-called “KJV-Only” movement who claim special inspiration for the King James Version. On the other hand, perhaps we should also listen to cautions that are offered, even by secular outsiders like Nicolson, regarding the special role and abiding usefulness of this highly influential translation. We should also take seriously the possibility that God chose peculiarly to bless this particular translation because it was (1) based on the traditional original language texts and (2) followed a literal (word for word) translation philosophy.
As we approach the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible in 2011, I want to suggest that our congregation make some effort to celebrate this milestone over the next twelve months. For one thing, I want to suggest that we make generous use of readings from the King James Version in our Lord’s Day worship services and midweek gathering. You might also take the opportunity to do your personal daily Bible readings or family devotions from this translation. For those who might complain that it is hard to understand some of the archaic language and phrases, I suggest that you might purchase a copy that provides explanatory notes or a glossary of King James Version vocabulary (The KJV Study Bible published by Thomas Nelson provides such notes on unfamiliar terms and the Trinitarian Bible Society offers attractive copies of the King James Version with “Bible word lists” printed at the back for easy reference—the word list is also available as a pdf online). I realize that we might run the risk of being accused of obscurantism or even “anti-intellectualism,” but I believe the rewards will outweigh the risks.
Grace and peace, Pastor Jeff Riddle