The inaccessibility of the KJV

November 19th, 2011 17 comments

king-james-bible-trust-logoI 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.

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Pussy cat, pussy cat…

November 11th, 2011 4 comments

images-1I have an invitation to a special service at Westminster Abbey next week which I’m looking forward to very much. I’ll write a report when I get back.

A SERVICE OF CELEBRATION TO MARK THE 400TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE KING JAMES BIBLE

16 November 2011 at Noon

Her Majesty The Queen accompanied by His Royal Highness The Duke of Edinburgh and His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales will attend a service of celebration, in association with the King James Bible Trust, to mark the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible at Westminster Abbey on 16 November at 12 noon.

The place of the King James Bible in our culture and the continuing significance of the Word will be celebrated in the service.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend and Right Honourable Dr Rowan Williams will give the Address. A new composition by one of the winners of the King James Bible Trust Composition Awards, Out of the South Cometh the Whirlwind by American composer, Zachary Wadsworth will be performed by the Choir of Westminster Abbey, conducted by James O’Donnell.

Following the service the Abbey’s bells will be rung to a peal of Stedman Caters comprising 5,400 changes.

Lancelot Andrewes, Dean of Westminster 1601-1605, was Director of the first Westminster Company responsible for translating part of the Old Testament. It is believed that the translators met in the Jerusalem Chamber at Westminster Abbey, a room also used by subsequent translators.

The service is part of a series of Abbey events marking the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible.

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Like a mighty tortoise

November 8th, 2011 11 comments

galapagos-tortoise_532_600x450Many of us remember the parody of the famous hymn, Onward Christian Soldiers.

Backward Christian soldiers, fleeing from the fight
With the cross of Jesus, nearly out of sight
Christ our rightful master, stands against the foe
Onward into battle, we seem afraid to go.

Like a mighty tortoise, moves the Church of God
Brothers, we’re treading, where we’ve often trod
We are much divided, many bodies we
Having different doctrines, but not much charity.

The “like a mighty tortoise” phrase came to mind recently as I listened to my friend, Brian Givans, describe the amazing and innovative work of Christians Against Poverty. Christians Against Poverty (CAP) is a national debt counselling charity with a network of 160 centres based in local churches. Brian heads up the ministry in my former congregation, Carnmoney Presbyterian Church, as it seeks to bring direct practical help to people who are struggling with debt. The testimonies of those who have benefitted from this ministry are inspiring.

But in describing the expansion of CAP’s ministry, Brian pointed out how that mainstream churches are slow in taking up the challenge, but that newer, emerging churches, are responding quickly and effectively to this pressing, and increasingly relevant, pastoral need. It seems that older, larger churches move at a much slower rate than the more recent arrivals on the ecclesiastical landscape.

seminary-book-194x3001This observation was confirmed by the author of  a recent publication. “What They Didn’t Teach You in Seminary” is by an experienced pastor of large American church, James Emery White. It is an a-theological reflection on the challenges of pastoral ministry, which, in spite of its lack of theological reflection on the doctrine of the church, offers some useful and practical advice on coping with many of the issues that occur regularly in the rough and tumble of congregational life. White points out that many of the issues which preoccupy those involved in theological education are just not relevant when it comes to leadership in a local church.

Among those issues is the ability of the church to respond quickly to changing circumstances. When it comes to church government, how the church is led, the roles and responsibilities of its leaders, and general church polity, White says that it is important that we have a structure that allows gifted leaders the space and the opportunity to lead the church. The way churches are structured either releases the gift of leadership or stymies it. And churches rise or fall on leadership.

White points out how that people attending a conference or seminar on church life often identify an action that would radically improve their church’s health or effectiveness. But it is never implemented, not because their church doesn’t have the money or the volunteers or the facilities, but because they don’t have the freedom. If they tried to get the permission needed by whatever authority is in place, they would be blocked or hindered because that authority is not trained or inclined to make such decisions. In other words, decision-making is so radically democratised or shared that it can take so much time to act that you lose the window of opportunity. A more flexible and nimble-footed church or parachurch organisation can act more quickly and seize the initiative.

White says that most forms of church government have three features that dominate their structure, any of which can kill good leadership: committees, policies, and majority rule. As someone committed to a presbyterian form of church government where committees, policies and majority rule are key components, White’s analysis, if correct, is depressing. The reality is that presbyterian structures can result in movement and change, but in many cases it only happens at a glacial pace. Without forfeiting the key features of a form of church government which “is founded on and agreeable to the Word of God”, is there any way that established churches can act more quickly and respond more effectively to their changing situations?

White describes how that his congregation were forced to leave the high school they were meeting in with just ninety days’ notice. White took a personal lead in a new building project and, amazingly, within ninety days a new building was built. There were no committees and no votes, he says, just truly gifted leaders leading as the Holy Spirit enabled their gift. And all because their church structure allowed it. It’s not a scenario that is likely to be repeated in any church in our denomination, and I imagine no one committed to a presbyterian form of church government would consider it desirable or wise to have to move at such a speedy pace. There are distinct advantages to a church structure that has an inclusive form of decision-making. But sometimes that degenerates into a desire for unanimity on every issue, which means that the decision-making body only moves at the pace of its slowest members.

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland is in decline, and in many places congregations are finding it hard to change. In some congregations there is an in-built conservatism which often reacts negatively to new initiatives, and the result is that in attempting to respond to the needs of their community they are out-paced and out-flanked by newer churches and fellowships. Clearly, it is important to have godly leaders who have a vision and a heart for the expansion of the kingdom of Christ. But it is also important that those leaders are not trapped in a church structure which stifles their gifts of leadership. That is why we must not only seek to develop the leadership gifts of people in our congregations, but we must organise our meetings and our decision-making processes in a way that allows opportunities for witness and service to be grasped.

My prayer is that the authentic words of the hymn may not simply be an aspiration but may become a reality in our churches: “Like a mighty army, moves the church of God….one in hope and calling, one in charity.”


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Jean Carson 1921-2011

October 25th, 2011 22 comments

dsc00032My mother, Jean Carson, died today. For all of her 90 years, apart from the past 7 months in a nursing home in Portadown, she lived in Larne, Co. Antrim. She was born and raised at Larne Harbour, one of Jack and Rosena McClean’s six children. She is survived by her brother, Billy McClean (Larne) and her sister, Rose McBride (Sydney, Australia).

In 1939, as an eighteen year-old girl, she committed her life to Jesus Christ, and that commitment was the enduring and dominant feature of her life. She married my father, Willie, in 1950. My father came from Waringstown, Co Down, and following their marriage he worked at the linen factory at Millbrook, just outside Larne, and then for over 20 years he was the Parks Superintendant in Larne Borough Council.

As young people, my mother and father had met at meetings held in the Ulster Temple, Ravenhill Road, Belfast. Both were members of the Elim Church, and for a lifetime they worshipped in the Elim Church in Larne where my father was an elder. In recent years my mother belonged to the fellowship that meets at Larne Mission Hall. She began her working life in The Cash Drapery in Larne, then in Tweedy Acheson’s, and for a number of years worked in Joseph Semple’s drapery shop on Main Street. She loved her home town and lived all her married life in the same house in Kent Avenue.

Today I give thanks to Almighty God for the memory of a good and godly mother.

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The advantages of singing

October 15th, 2011 1 comment

wales_2026320cOne has to feel sorry for the Wales rugby team following their exit from the Rugby World Cup. It just seems as though their defeat by France was inevitable following a dubious red card decision by an Irish referee. Yet up to that point in the tournament, they had performed so well, playing with great skill, passion and unity as a team.

Part of their success was attributed to the fact that they had learned to sing together as a choir. Everywhere they went, they took their hymn sheets, and their togetherness was nurtured and enhanced by doing what the Welsh do better than most other nations — singing! Every rugby supporter knows that the Welsh rugby players seem to raise their performance to a new level when the sounds of Cwm Rhondda echo around the stadium. There is something about the melodious Welsh support that raises their players’ spirits and calls them to new efforts on the field. And there was clearly something about their singing together as a choir that created and maintained unity in the team during this current tournament.

Music and singing is one of the handful of practices which has been, and which remains, a universal feature of Christian worship. “Sing joyfully to the Lord, you righteous”, says the psalmist in Psalm 33. There is something about music and song that is appropriate and fitting for Christians to do when they want to praise and worship their Saviour.

Augustine observed that when sacred words are joined to pleasant music “our souls are moved and are more religiously and with a warmer devotion kindled to piety than if they are not sung.” He bore witness to the power of music in his own life:

When I remember the tears which I poured out at the time when I was first recovering my faith, and that now I am not moved by the chant but by the words being sung, when they are sung with a clear voice and entirely appropriate modulation, then again I recognise the great utility of music in worship. (Confessions, X, xxxiii)

Music moves us. It engages one’s soul and one’s emotions. Our hearts are “kindled to piety”.

When Paul writes in his letter to the Ephesians, his view of music is instructive. He understands music as having a role to play in our sanctification. Most of Ephesians 4 and all of Ephesians 5 address what it means to live as children of light, or how to live holy lives. Paul gives many commands and instructions, but ultimately men and woman are made holy by the Spirit who is called Holy.

The command in Ephesians 5:18, “Be filled with the Spirit” is the culmination of these chapters, both rhetorically and theologically. The passive imperative, “be filled”, is followed by four subordinate, participial clauses: i. speaking to one another in psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, ii. singing and making music in your hearts, iii. giving thanks to the Lord, iv. submitting to one another. These participles are grammatically dependent on the verb, and they give substance and content to the command to be filled with the Spirit. Remarkably, two of the four clauses (three of the five participles) have to do with making music.

Many commentators simply absorb the command to sing into a general exhortation to worship. But if Paul had wanted only to indicate a relation between the filling of the Spirit and worship in general, he could have done so. Instead twice over he indicates a link between the Spirit and this particular aspect of worship. Whatever explanations we might offer, Paul binds together singing and the sanctifying work of the Spirit.

Why is that? Song is an apt response to sensuality because music engages body and sense. Music is one way in which the Holy Spirit brings the life of sense and embodied experience from the darkness into the light. In psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, the world of bodily experience is enlisted in praise, and reoriented toward the worship of God, and the benefit of others. The senses are not held down, but by the Spirit are lifted to God in song. Our whole beings are drawn into worship of Almighty God.

But Paul’s exhortation to sing is also connected with his emphasis throughout Ephesians on the unity of the body of Christ. As we sing together we are conscious of the activity of our own voices in making sound, and we respond to our own song as we hear it resonate in the space around us. But we also hear and attune ourselves to the sounds of others’ voices. We respond not only to people, but to the physical qualities of the sound we are creating with others as well as the physical and acoustical properties of the space in which we sing. More than that, we submit ourselves together to a tempo and to a pattern of melody and rhythm.

In that way, music and singing gives voice to the shared life of the church. It is not accidental that the commands to sing in Ephesians 5:19 lead on to the exhortation in verse 21: “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” Music is both an image and a means of attaining to this unity, and of how we are meant to relate to one another.

Some commentators have pointed out that the command to sing is the hinge which connects the two sections of the epistle. Chapters 4 and 5 urge the Christian to put away the self-gratifying and self-interested behaviour that destroys community. The second half of chapter 5 and the first half of chapter 6 paint a picture of healthy community life, in which each member senses and responds to the needs of others.

When a congregation sings together, a new entity emerges. A sound is created which has qualities and properties that the individual voices do not have. But the special power of singing together is that one voice, the voice of the church, is heard. Many, diverse voices become one sound. The singing of the church then becomes an aural image of the unity of the Body of Christ, in that it creates a symphony and a harmony comprised of different people with different backgrounds and abilities being united in a common activity.

So music and singing make a distinctive contribution to growth in the Christian life and to the unity of the church. It is no surprise then that the unity of the Wales rugby team was enhanced as they sang together. Even in their sad defeat, they played defiantly and bravely as a team.

At the end of many international matches which were likely to be a victory for Wales, the great rugby commentator Bill McLaren was often heard to say, “They’ll be singing in the valleys tonight.” Sadly, not tonight. But once the Rugby World Cup is over and they return home, there will, with such a young and talented team, be many opportunities to sing again. Don’t lose the hymn sheets, lads.

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