I had the privilege of being at Westminster Abbey this week to attend a service celebrating the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. Along with Her Majesty The Queen, Prince Philip and Prince Charles, there were over 2,000 people assembled in a service which was the culmination of a year of events to mark this anniversary. The Queen herself had highlighted this anniversary in her Christmas message last year. In our own congregation we have been acknowledging this anniversary in our preaching series, Route 66, in which we have been preaching from each of the 66 books in the Bible.
The preacher at the service was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, not always the most lucid and easily understood when it comes to preaching. In his sermon he said that he believes that Christians should resist the temptation to make the King James Version of the Bible more accessible. Instead we should celebrate the determination of its translators to find words that express “the almost unbearable weight of divine intelligence and love pressing down on those who first encountered it.”
The temptation is always there for the modern translator to look for strategies that make the text more accessible. When that temptation comes, it doesn’t hurt to turn for a moment – for some long moments indeed – to this extraordinary text, with its continuing capacity to surprise us into seriousness, to acquaint us again with the weight of glory – and we hope and pray, to send us back to the unending work of letting ourselves be changed so that we can bear just a little more of the light of the new world, full of grace and truth.”
The main reason why many churches have turned to more modern translations of the Bible for use in public worship is precisely the reason which Dr Williams says we should celebrate. Many believe that the language of the 1611 translation makes divine truth inaccessible to modern readers and hearers. The “inaccessibility” of the King James Bible, far from being an obstacle, is in fact one of its virtues, claims Dr Williams. Since “there never is an ideal or final translation ” of a text, we should not think that the KJV is the final word. But there is a weightiness and seriousness about the King James Version of the Bible that we should not lose.
In terms of our dress and our language in worship, we have become much more informal. That is not a bad thing. The increased informality of church life reflects key aspects of Christian truth, namely, that we are loved, and accepted by God as we are, because of Christ, and that we ought to reach out in love and grace to those who worship with us. Barriers and walls on both the vertical and horizontal dimensions have been removed by Christ. But most Christians will concede that there is something missing when we become too relaxed in the presence of God. Perhaps the continued use of the KJV in public worship would help us to appreciate the greatness and the majesty of the One who speaks to us from his Word when we assemble for worship, that it would “surprise us into seriousness”, as Dr Williams says. And there are aspects of God’s being and love that we will never grasp, and which the “inaccessibility” of the KJV helps us to appreciate.
But if the language of the Bible translation we use results in us understanding little of what we read or hear in worship, then nothing is gained. Paul himself commends intelligibility in worship. He says,”I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.” (I Corinthians 14:19). The translators of the King James Bible themselves said in their words to the Reader, “Translation it is that openeth the window to let in the light, that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel.” The work of Bible translation is a window-opening, shell-breaking task that enables us to access sweet and precious spiritual truths.
We recognise that the King James Bible is probably the most beautiful and elegant English translation that will ever be produced. It has contributed so much to the English language. Lord Melvyn Bragg has described it as “the DNA of the English language”. Many of our contemporary English expressions were first coined by the translators of the King James Bible: “the powers that be”, “the apple of his eye”, “signs of the times”, “a law unto themselves”, “from strength to strength”, and “the writing on the wall”. Modern translations lack the elegance of the 1611 version because modern scholars are often more like scientists than artists.
Nevertheless, there are two major problems with the King James Bible. Firstly, in the 400 years since 1611, thousands of Hebrew and Greek manuscripts have been uncovered which are older and more accurate than those which were available to the translators of the King James Bible. Modern translations give us a more accurate understanding of the original words of Scripture. Secondly, the English of the 17th century is a very different language from that which we speak today. Both vocabulary and grammar have changed significantly. For many people, reading the King James Bible is like reading a foreign language.
That does not mean that we should embrace every new translation of the Bible that comes on the market. The danger of some modern Bible translations is that flawed human agendas can impose themselves and distort the truth of God’s Word. Recent controversies have highlighted the issues that arise when translators attempt to make the Bible gender-neutral or when they try to create a version which is acceptable to Muslims.
I was struck by the words of the Dean of Westminster, Dr John Hall, in his introduction of the service which accurately summarised the reason for our celebration:
Four hundred years ago this year, the King James Version of the Bible was published, the result of the commitment and foresight of King James I and the scholarly work of six companies of learned divines. Two of the companies met in each of Oxford, Cambridge and here at Westminster. It is fitting that we gather here to give thanks to almighty God for their work.
We celebrate the impact of the work on our understanding of the great story the Bible tells of God’s persistent and generous love for his creation and for his people. We acknowledge with gratitude the work’s lasting influence on our national language and culture and on the faith, language and culture wherever the English language has reached throughout the world. We give thanks for the contribution of so many to this year of celebration.
Above all, we pray that we and all people may continue to be uplifted and transformed by the great story the Bible tells, and may grow daily in our knowledge and love of almighty God who unites us now as we join together to offer him fitting worship.
As the service in the Abbey came to an end, it occurred to me that just over 30 years after the company of scholars at Westminster had completed their work on the translation of the Bible, another group of divines met in the same Jerusalem Chamber at Westminster and completed the Westminster Confession of Faith and Catechisms. As they reflected on Holy Scripture, they affirmed that while not everything in the Bible is accessible and clear, the important matters with regard to salvation are transparent.
All things in Scripture are not alike plain in themselves, nor alike clear unto all; yet those things which are necessary to be known, believed, and observed, for salvation, are so clearly propounded and opened in some place of scripture or other, that not only the learned, but the unlearned, in a due sense of the ordinary means, may attain unto a sufficient understanding of them.