The Fourteenth Annual St. Andrew's Lecture was presented last evening by Dr. Philip Harrold, Associate Professor of Church History at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania. The audience for the Lecture this year--which was co-sponsored by the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh--included a rich mix of parishioners of our East End Episcopal and Anglican Diocese congregations, clergy, and faculty and students from Trinity School for Ministry and the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. All to commemorate and celebrate the 400th Anniversary of the publication of the King James Version of the Holy Bible. The Lecture itself was fascinating, the questions that followed were thoughtful, and the reception afterwards was most enjoyable indeed. We expect that a video file of Dr. Harrold's lecture will be available via the St. Andrew's website, www.standrewspgh.org , in the next few weeks.
Englishing the Scriptures and Evangelizing the Nation:
The Theology of Translation in the King James Bible
by Philip Harrold, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Church History
Trinity School for Ministry, www.tsm.edu
St. Andrew’s Lecture, Friday, November 11, 2011
St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Highland Park, Pittsburgh, PA
[this lecture will be published in a forthcoming volume of Trinity Journal for Theology & Ministry,
Trinity School for Ministry, Executive Editor: The Rev. Dr. Grant LeMarquand]
Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light…
[from the Preface to the Authorized (King James)
Version, 1611, par. 05]
This is perhaps the most quoted line from the Preface to the Authorized (King James) Version in its original 1611 debut. It is itself a window to the mind of the King James translators and their astonishing achievement—one that we continue to celebrate even in this 400th anniversary year. It is also a window to the ongoing task of translation and the many blessings and challenges this presents to Bible readers in our own day.
In terms of its reception, the King James Version is, by far, the most successful translation of the Scriptures in the modern era. It has been “authorized” as much by its popularity as any explicit sanction from the powers of church or state. It was practically the only Bible that English-speaking Protestants read from 1670 to 1885, and only after 1986 did another English translation—the New International Version—begin to edge it out. Even in today’s burgeoning market for modern English Bibles, the ‘good ol’ King James’ retains a venerable luster, its diction still dignified, if somewhat dusty, when heard in our solemn assemblies.
But what about that dustiness? We acknowledge, of course, that the singularity and sonority of the Authorized Version are no longer the claims to fame they once were. Numerous historians and literati have acknowledged, and in some cases mourned, the loss of the King James’ near universal status. No longer do we look to this text as the principal source of a common religious language—one that always seemed old and therefore reliable, uniquely deserving of God’s word. That is not my concern this evening, however. While its decline in status is itself a fascinating topic for discussion, its remarkable ascendency presents us with quite another range of issues that are equally pressing and provoking—especially concerning the nature of religious language and the challenges we always face in conveying what God has said.
In revisiting the Jacobean world, I hope to show you the kind of window that this text opened, in terms of its Englishing the Scriptures and evangelizing the nation —its theology and praxis of translation. In my view, the King James Bible’s achievement is best explained by tracing its distinctive clarity and richness to a non-naïve hermeneutics of trust. We need not venture far beyond the scriptural texts themselves to see this; I will focus most of our attention, in fact, on the Preface from which I have already quoted. Finally, because I am more a historian than a theologian, I will call very briefly upon two brilliant theologians for help: Rowan Williams and, of course, Bob Dylan.
Let’s begin by noting the urgency that surrounded the production and dissemination of English Bibles in the sixteenth- and seventeenth-centuries. It is well to remember that biblical scholarship, translation, and literacy were foundational to the Protestant Reformation. “[N]othing could be more important,” Adam Nicolson observes, “than a text which was both accurate and intelligible.” From the onset, English Protestants struggled to find a translation that everyone—Puritan and high churchman alike—could read in common and with confidence as true to the word of God. John Tyndale’s covert translation in the 1520s had been associated with the vernacular Bibles of peasant uprisings on the Continent or, closer to home, the machinations of troublesome weavers and wool merchants who had financed its printing and smuggling into England. No wonder it was banned, as all vernacular Bibles had been banned since the 1408 Constitutions of Oxford. Even loyal churchmen like John Colet, dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral-London, had been barred from preaching in 1513 for having translated the Lord’s Prayer into English.
Ironically, the first officially approved English Bible—the Matthew Bible, which Henry VIII endorsed in 1537—was largely Tyndale’s work. But like its successors, most especially the Puritan-sponsored Geneva Bible (some 20 years later), it contained copious study notes—over 2,000 in all!—with a scandalous Puritan slant. Not unlike today’s study Bibles, it told the reader how to interpret the biblical text, often in a way that was decidedly at odds with the sensibilities of the Anglican establishment. Ultimately, it was the marginalia, as much as the translations of particular words in the text, that sealed the fates of these early English Bibles.
The immediate recourse was to scale back on margin notes which, of course, raised questions concerning the locus of authoritative interpretation. Another maneuver was the publication of enormous folio-sized Bibles that were simply too big to carry around or too expensive for ordinary people to afford. This led to the appropriately named Great Bible in 1539, and, interestingly, this is how the King James Bible first appeared in 1611. In the intervening years, the Bishops Bible (1568) had been promulgated as the official English version for the Church of England, but it was decidedly royalist and anti-Puritan, beginning with the crowded frontispiece showing Queen Elizabeth and her hierarchy of bishops. It also happened to be chocked full of inaccuracies that embarrassed the Church and exasperated its Puritan critics, inspiring even more enthusiasm for the more refined, yet proscribed, Geneva Bible.
So, by the time of an unprecedented gathering of Puritans and Bishops at Hampton Court Palace in 1604, England was deeply unsettled regarding the prospect for an English Bible that could satisfy all sides in an increasingly fractious Church and literate public. Little wonder, then, that when a moderate Puritan scholar by the name of John Reynolds (president of Corpus Christi College-Oxford) proposed a new English translation, the Archbishop of Canterbury, John Bancroft immediately spoke in opposition: “If every man’s humor were followed,… there would be no end of translating,” he retorted. The king, still quite new to the English throne, responded more favorably, knowing that a new translation might serve his magisterial concerns for order and stability. A superior text might also displace, at long last, the Geneva Bible with its notes “very partial, untrue, seditious, and savoring too much of dangerous and traitorous conceits.”
Accordingly, James I expressed his wishes concerning the authorizing of a new English translation:
His Highness wished, that some especial pains should be taken in that behalf for one uniform translation… and this to be done by the best learned of both the Universities, after them to be reviewed by the Bishops, and the chief learned of the Church; from them to be presented to the Privy Council; and lastly to be ratified by his Royal authority; to be read in the whole Church, and no other.
Note the king’s expectations regarding the quality and scope of the work to be undertaken as well as the tight control required to pull it off. Premier scholars from the Universities and oversight of the whole of the Church’s hierarchy, the king’s council, and his own authority as royal governor were lined up to safeguard the project. In keeping with his personal motto, “blessed are the peacemakers,” James I envisioned a Bible that would unify, rather than divide, elevate, rather than succumb to the baser instincts of partiality in an age already ridden with “insistent individuality.” In satisfying a constituency that was torn between a penchant for the word and a fearful clinging to the power of symbol, James set in motion what would eventually become his only lasting achievement in the religious life of his people: a vernacular Bible for the whole English nation.
Englishing the Scriptures in the terms set forth by James I meant taking full advantage of the inherent fluidity of the language in order to evoke the grandeur of sacred writ and the legitimacy of a sacred office—the divinely appointed king. Everyone knew that the chief reason he found the Puritans’ Geneva Bible so repulsive was that it finessed the wording of certain passages in such a way as to accentuate the failings, especially the tyrannies, of rulers. The word ‘tyrant’ was, in fact, used more than 400 times where other terms for monarchs could have been used just as well. We have to remember that the king’s conceit was monumental: “If you will consider the attributes of God,” he later informed Parliament, “you shall see how they agree in the person of a king.” Not surprisingly, he expected his Bible to bless his crown, if only through the subtleties of word choices and phrasing.
But there was another side to the king that proved, in the end, to be of tremendous benefit to the work of translation. His personal interest in the Scriptures encompassed a deep appreciation for the power of language, especially religious language, to evoke the “sparkles of divinity” that he likewise claimed for himself. Thanks, in part, to the literary prowess of his chief translator and supremely loyal subject, Lancelot Andrewes, James’s Bible was driven by the idea of majesty. Adam Nicolson explains:
[The King James Bible’s] method and its voice are far more regal than demotic. Its archaic formulations, its consistent attention to a grand and heavily musical rhythm are the vehicles by which that majesty is infused into the body of the text. Its qualities are those of grace, stateliness, scale, power. There is no desire to please here; only a belief in the enormous and overwhelming divine authority, of which royal authority, ‘the powers that be’ as they translated the words of St. Paul, was an adjunct and extension.
Thus, from a royal ideology arose a literary strategy that aimed at dignity and richness. And, in the hands of the king’s translators, this Jacobean agenda was in some ways redeemed by painstaking attention to the power of well-chosen words and delicately crafted phrases. In the midst of their well-supervised endeavor emerged a theory and, indeed, a theology of translation that has inspired the ongoing work of translation to this day.
Before we proceed to that topic, however, we need to say something about the actual work of translation. Time does not permit me to explore the intricacies of the translation process—a complex project that spanned a period of two years and nine months, involving some fifty translators divided into six so-called “companies,” each taking on a portion of the biblical canon and following a letter of instruction with 15 “rules” drafted by the king himself. The instructions began with an insistence that the Bishops Bible serve as the normative text—“to be followed, and as little altered as the Truth of the Original [languages] will permit.” Any precedents derived from the ancient Fathers for word choices were also to be preserved. Certain “ecclesiastical words” like ‘church’ and ‘priest’ were to be preferred over Puritan innovations like ‘congregation’ or ‘elder.’ And, most conspicuously, margin notes were not permitted except to explain Hebrew or Greek words that had no immediate English equivalent. The word ‘circumlocution’ was used in reference to this literary operation—a word that, in the early seventeenth-century, referred to an interpretation that “set forth a thing more gorgeous, or else to hide it.” That is to say, “the words of this translation… could embrace both gorgeousness and ambiguity.” This, according to Nicolson, was “the heart of the new Bible as an irenicon, an organism that absorbed and integrated difference, that included ambiguity and by doing so established peace.”
Now let us turn to the theological implications of this project as they are laid out for us in the original Preface to the King James Bible. A moderate Puritan—a court Puritan, no less—by the name of Miles Smith was given the honor of writing the piece, “buoyant with enthusiasm and with a quality that can only be called grace.” Before serving on the First Oxford Company, which was assigned the Old Testament prophets, Smith had distinguished himself as a classical scholar and “orientalist” (fluent in ‘Chaldiac, Syriac, and Arabic’) while enjoying the benefices (endowments) of a prebendary at Exeter Cathedral and the rectory of Hartlebury in Worcestershire. He was also recruited to make the final revision of the Old Testament, a daunting task, no doubt, but one that he performed well enough to earn the favor of the king himself. The “gentle reader” addressed throughout the Preface is the English man and woman who share the king’s “zeal to promote the common good”—that opening phrase of the Preface that identifies so readily the civic function of the new Bible.
Smith’s Preface demonstrates, in fact, the literary via media of the project: avoiding the excessive “scrupulosity” that he himself attributed to fellow Puritans while, at the same time shunning the “obscurity of the papists.” There remains, however, a desire for clarity, on the one hand, and richness, on the other, and once we get past the language of commonweal we see this dual quest expressed in overtly evangelical terms. This can be illustrated in the three fundamentals of Smith’s theology of translation: the logic of illumination, the Spirit of the Word, and the sense of the words.
The Logic of Illumination
In his “praise of the Holy Scriptures,” Smith draws a kind of flowchart of derivations on which all work of translation depends: “But now what piety without truth? What truth (what saving truth) without the Word of God? What Word of God (whereof we may be sure) without the Scripture?” Did you catch that? Piety derives from saving truth which derives from the sure Word of God which derives or, in this instance, depends somehow on the Scriptures. We can assume, quite reasonably, that in the final link of this golden chain, Smith is thinking about the illumination of Scripture to the reader, not its inspiration. No Puritan, and certainly no Calvinist, would have subordinated God’s Word to written words (Scripture); that would, after all, undermine the authority of the Scriptures themselves. No, this is not a declaration of Scripture’s authority so much as it is a description of Scripture’s effects.
The logic inferred in this statement retraces what happens in the encounter between the reader and the biblical text. As we read the Scriptures, he says, we encounter saving truth in the sure Word of God. The results we call piety, for the “high and divine” words make us wise unto salvation, instruct us when we are ignorant, “bring us home” when we are “out of the way,” reform us when we are “out of order,” comfort us when in “heaviness,” “quicken us” when “dull,” and “inflame us’ when “cold.” These effects are evidence of the unique “perfection” we find in Scripture, and Smith is happy to turn to the early Fathers to amplify his point; Tertullian, Justin Martyr, Cyril of Jerusalem, and Saint Basil all bearing witness to the “fullness” of the biblical text. Smith’s gentle readers are reminded of the pantry of “wholesome food,” and the “physician’s shop” of remedies that awaits them as they turn to the life-giving and life-healing Word in the written words. Indeed, he declares, “happy is the man that delighteth in the Scripture, and thrice happy that meditateth in it day and night.”
The Spirit of the Word
This entire operation is, of course, a work of the Holy Spirit. It is crucial that Smith situate all aspects of reader response in a robustly Trinitarian framework. At this point, he weaves the always pressing issue of authority back into the picture:
The original thereof being from heaven, not from earth; the author being God, not man; the indicter, the Holy Spirit, not the wit of the Apostles or Prophets; the penmen such as were sanctified from the womb, and endued with a principal portion of God’s Spirit; the matter, verity, piety, purity, uprightness; the form, God’s Word, God’s testimony, God’s oracles, the Word of truth, the Word of salvation, etc., the effects, light of understanding, stableness of persuasion, repentance from dead works, newness of life, holiness, peace, joy in the Holy Ghost; lastly, the end and reward of the study thereof, fellowship with the saints, participation of the heavenly nature, fruition of an inheritance immortal, undefiled, and that never shall fade away . . .”
What a lively scene (!), moving from God’s authorship, the Word of truth and salvation coming down from heaven, and the Holy Spirit’s convicting and convincing activities—all of this applied initially to the microcosm of the reader, then opening out to the fellowship of the saints; and from the reader in time, to the reader’s participation in the Trinitarian life for all eternity.
Here is the “window” that translation opens—the window that lets in the same light that we associate with illumination:
Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtain, that we may look into the most holy place; that removeth the cover of the well, that we may come by the water, even as Jacob rolled away the stone from the mouth of the well, by which means the flocks of Laban were watered.
The work of translation opens windows, breaks shells, removes covers, and rolls away stones that would deny us access to the light, the kernel, the holy place, and the well of God’s Word. It does so by extending the activity of the Holy Spirit into the particular languages we speak in everyday life—the “vulgar tongue,” as it was called in Smith’s day, or what today we would refer to as the ‘vernacular.’ “Indeed,” he observes, without translation into the vulgar tongue, the unlearned are but like children at Jacob’s well (which was deep) without a bucket, or something to draw with…”
The Sense of the Words
Given the logic of illumination and the Spirit of the Word, Smith asserts with confidence that it is indeed possible to “deliver the sense” of the Word of God in the particular words and phrases of vernacular language. He makes his case with a short and someone gritty history of translation. Remembering that the Greek Septuagint, despite its imperfections, was good enough for the apostles: “the Word of God being set forth in Greek, becometh hereby like a candle set upon a candlestick…” The seventy translators were not “prophets,” he insists; rather, they were mere “interpreters” who did many things well, “yet as men” they stumbled and fell through oversight, ignorance, by unwarranted addition and subtraction as they set about their task. Even so, the Apostles discerned the sense in the Greek translation “according to the truth of the Word, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” History lesson number one: the work of translation is actually a work of interpretation, and no interpretation is perfect due to the limits of the human condition. Nevertheless, the Spirit delivers the sense of the Word.
In the early church, new translations appeared, especially in Latin. The best work was marked by reliance on the “fountains” of the original Hebrew or Greek and a certain set of virtues associated with the task itself: “great learning, judgement, industry and faithfulness.” Jerome, of course, fit the profile nicely, but Smith is quick to note that the writer of the Vulgate was not the only translator in the Patristic era. John Chrysostom and Theodoret, and countless individuals working in Syria, Egypt, India, Persia, and Ethiopia—even the Venerable Bede in England—were busily turning out the Scriptures in vulgar tongues. Clearly the second lesson to learn from this history is that translating the Word of God into a mother tongue “is not a quaint conceit lately taken up…” Furthermore, the best work of translation has, from antiquity, always been done for evangelical purposes: to edify the unlearned “which hungered and thirsted after righteousness, and had souls to be saved.” Translators are after the sense of the Word that saves.
In the medieval period, Smith finds these lessons lost on a Roman Church that cared less for its children by depriving them of the “light of the Scripture.” Up to the present day, the papacy had required special licenses from local bishops and “Inquisitors” to read the Scriptures in English. Recalling such Roman tyrannies, Smith’s energetically Protestant side appears in a sudden burst of gratitude to James I for so graciously permitting the new Bible, especially with all previous translations so “maturely considered and examined.” And in that careful examination, it can be demonstrated—to the chagrin of the “Romanists” who refuse to hear and dare to burn the Word translated—that “the sense and meaning, as well as man’s weakness would enable,” has indeed expressed the Word by “the Spirit of grace.”
So the third and final lesson to learn from the history of translation is that God’s saving purposes will not be thwarted by those who shun the light of His Word. And of more immediate importance, the human fallibility evidenced even within “the house of God” is insufficient to impede the ongoing task of translation. For, as history has shown, “nothing is begun and perfected at the same time, and the later thoughts are thought to be the wiser: so if we building upon their foundation that went before us, and being holpen [sic] by their labors, do endeavor to make that better which they left so good; no man, we are sure, hath cause to mislike us; they, we persuade ourselves, if they were alive, would thank us.” In effect, Smith is expressing his confidence in the continual operation of the Holy Spirit such that an abiding “sense” of the Word can be discerned with ever increasing refinement. That is about as close to a self-congratulatory pat-on-the-back that we get as Smith concludes his historical argument.
* * *
We have seen how the logic of illumination, the Spirit of the word, and now the sense of the words constitutes the theology of translation that, according to Miles Smith, guided the work of the King James translators. I would now like to conclude with some thoughts on the ‘Englishing’ and the ‘evangelizing’ that accompanied this work. This also prompts some final reflections on the theory of translation that originated in this theology and its implications for you and I as gentle readers of the Bible today.
You will recall that clarity and richness were to be the hallmarks of the new translation. Given the limited use of margin notes, the text was itself to reflect what Smith calls a “variety” or “diversity of sense.” We have just learned that ‘sense’ was a profoundly spirited understanding of how the written words served the divine Word. But in the word-smithing of the translators, ‘delivering the sense’ also stood for a particular kind of literary technique. Instead of resorting to margins that prompted readers to dogmatize the Scriptures, Smith and his colleagues sought out words and phrases that evoked, where possible, a rich multivalence of meaning within the text. In a very practical way, this brought the burgeoning vocabulary of the English language into the service of communicating the sense of God’s Word. This was not an Englishing of the divine Word into ordinary, everyday prose, however, but the elevation of carefully selected vocabulary to a vitalizing level of sonority and dignity. As the translators, according to Nicolson, “plumbed and searched for the essence of the meaning,” they opened a window to majesty and multiple layers of meaning and signification.
Surprisingly, the King James Bible manifests this majesty through an economy of words and a rigorous attempt at literal or word-for-word translation. There is a “passionate exactness” to the word choices that had an aesthetic as well as a moral value that would satisfy a lingering demand in the Reformed tradition for “high fidelity reproduction.” But always the meticulous attention to word choices was governed by the sound(s) of the words and their visual evocations as much as their meaning. This meant that some words were chosen for their metaphorical value and, in fact, their ambiguity. Imagine a room of twelve- to fifteen divines all rattling off these words and phrases to audibly test their impact on fellow listeners. Such exercises, Nicolson concludes, were as much about euphony as accuracy—“if it sounds right, it is right.” If this can be properly called a literal approach to interpretation, it is certainly extraordinary in its attention to the atmospherics of words and what some might call the “dynamic equivalence” of metaphor.
Englishing the Scriptures was always, however, an evangelistic enterprise that had communal and, according to James I’s intentions, national implications. Smith is unflinching in his determination to produce a Bible that not only exercises the “wits,” and weans “the curious from loathing” the “plainness” of the text, but also “stirs up … devotion to crave the assistance of God’s Spirit by prayer.” In this regard, the “variety of translations” [within the new Bible] was profitable because it brought readers together as “brethren” in “conference” to “find out … the sense.” He imagines a communal hermeneutic—perhaps one that even widens to the scale of the nation. And it is a trusting and, indeed, trustworthy hermeneutic that achieves its coherence and discerns the “sense” with the necessary aid of the Holy Spirit. Ultimately, it is this sort of encounter with the Word that removes “the scales from our eyes, the veil from our hearts, opening our wits, that we may understand his Word, enabling our hearts, yea correcting our affections, that we may love it above gold and silver, yea that we may love it to the end.”
I promised that I would end with Rowan Williams and Bob Dylan. What, perhaps, is most remarkable about Miles Smith’s four-hundred year-old Preface to the King James Bible is how its aspirations continue to fire the imaginations of those committed to the ongoing work of translation. We live in an age that can seem both parched and flooded in its religious language. We bring to our texts—both sacred and profane—a penchant for intellectualization and analysis that can confuse what was clear or reduce what was rich. Think of those Dylan songs that beg some sort of direct experience:
Now I wish I could write you a melody so plain
That could hold you dear lady from going insane
That could ease you and cool you and cease the pain
Of your useless and pointless knowledge.
Smith’s vocabulary of deep wells and replenishing buckets of living water has a certain resonance about it. Certainly we live in an age when our “useless and pointless knowledge” often get in the way of meaning, of “delivering the sense” of the thing.
Rowan Williams speaks to this in his own lecture commemorating the King James achievement, and what he says about the work of translation is true, I think, for the faithful reading of Scripture in general. “To translate,” he says, “is to be taken up into the divine act of uncovering, deciphering the world, God’s ‘publishing’ of a readable text in which we can see both the meaning of what he has done and the present effects of it.” That is, indeed, the logic of illumination that Miles Smith assumed in concert with the Spirit of the Word, yielding the sense of the words. May that noble ambition be our own today as we, by God’s grace, we continue to English the Scriptures and evangelize the nations.