The Perspicuity of Scripture 2
By J.P. Thackway
The Puritan William Gurnall once said, “Bless God for the translation of the Scriptures. The Word is our sword; by being translated, the sword is drawn out of its scabbard.” This, of course, is relevant to the perspicuity – or clarity – of Scripture. Unless readers are fluent in its original languages, the Bible stays a sword in its scabbard. However, for centuries the English-speaking world has had the Bible translated, coming to its height in 1611 with the Authorised or King James Version. The sword is unsheathed!
We would not want an obscure Bible translation. We believe if divine revelation is to be received, it must be understood. Therefore, any translation of the original Hebrew and Greek into our language must be correct and clear. To obscure divine revelation is the sin of Roman Catholicism, with its Latin Vulgate Bible, and services in Latin until recent times. We recall Nehemiah 8:8, “So they read in the book in the law of God distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading.”
As Miles Smith, who wrote The Translators to the Reader,1put it,
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 holy place; that removeth the cover of the well, that we may come by the water.
We believe the AV succeeds admirably in this. It is the most accurate and reliable English Bible translation available today — and it is readable. Many would beg to differ, and claim that the AV undermines the perspicuity of scripture because of its time-bound English words and idioms. They claim that the 100s of newer English translations take things forward and give us a sword “drawn out of its scabbard” for use in the 21st century.
In this concluding article on the subject I would like to address the place of the AV and the perspicuity of scripture. The complaint is often made that the 47 scholars who produced the AV were men of their time. The English they employed in translating the original Hebrew and Greek scriptures, though fine language, is dated. English has moved on over the centuries since 1611 – this is 2018! Such detractors regard the AV as a literary relic – “antique majesty – but not an everyday Bible version. As someone put it, “A single AV, in a lonely eminence with only Shakespeare for company.”
If over the centuries our English language had evolved upwards, there might be something in this claim. However, the sad fact is that our debased culture has also debased its language. A degraded English has gradually become the norm, with even slang words entering The Oxford English dictionary,2 thus becoming an acceptable part of our noble language. Far from a Bible translation that reflects an English shaped by the spirit of the age, we need one shaped by the Bible itself.
1. The English of the AV.
The AV translators built upon the work of William Tyndale, who translated the New Testament and about half the Old Testament. It is believed that the AV is nearly 90% from Tyndale. His translation of the New Testament appeared in 1526, and has been described as “the single most important event in the English Reformation.” 3 However, it was also one of the most important events for the English language.
At that time, written English was a curious mix. It was made up of elements of older Anglo-Saxon, was heavily Norman-French, and strongly Latinate (derived from Latin). Latin was the language of government, the professions and of religion – including the Roman Catholic Vulgate Bible and the worship of the Roman Catholic Church.
Tyndale produced an English translation that was a breath of fresh air. He turned the Hebrew and Greek into English, but a quality of English that conveyed God’s word to ordinary people: words remarkable for their “great clarity, economy and power.” 4 He, and the AV translators who followed him, gave us a unique English. As David Daniell, a foremost authority on Tyndale, wrote,
Tyndale’s gift to the English language is immeasurable. He translated into a register just above common speech, allied in its clarity to proverbs. It is a language which still speaks directly to the heart. His rhetorical aims were always accuracy and clarity. King James’s revisers adopted his style, and his words, for a good deal of their version. At a time when European scholars and professionals communicated in Latin, Tyndale insisted on being understood by ordinary people. He preferred a simple Saxon syntax of subject-verb-object. His vocabulary is predominantly Saxon, and often monosyllabic. 5
Moreover, Tyndale’s English, and that of the King James translators, is shaped by the original language of scripture, giving us an English produced by the words of the Bible itself. David Norris, a linguist, writes,
The so-called archaic feel to the AV is generated in large part by its unusual syntax (organisation of words in sentences), something that has been brought about by following the Hebrew and Greek as closely as possible. 6
He quotes A.T. Robertson in his Grammar of the Greek New Testament,
No one today speaks the English of the King James Version, or ever did for that matter, for … it reproduces to a remarkable extent the spirit and language of the Bible. 7
Norris says this is even true of the word-order, and gives this example,
Let us look … at Genesis 1:4. The Hebrew reads word-for-word ‘And he saw God the light that good.’ The translators of the AV retained Tyndale’s, ‘And God saw the light, that it was good.’ Whilst some may view the rather odd syntax as archaic, it reproduces the original, whereas the NIV, for example, does not. It reads: ‘God saw that the light was good.’ Modern version enthusiasts would doubtless argue that this is how it would be said today, perhaps so, but this is not the point … The AV translators sought at all times to let the original shine through the translation in order to retain the identical meaning. Following Hebrew and Greek vocabulary and syntax enables the English reader to enter into the atmosphere and meaning of the passage as though he were reading the original. 8
A compelling case can be made for saying that if the English of the AV is “dated,” it is only as dated as the language of scripture itself, which “liveth and abideth for ever” (1 Peter 1:23). To move away from it to modern translations is to move from and not toward improvement.
2. What is antiquated English?
The allegation is often made that the AV is in the English current at the time: Elizabethan or Jacobean. However, this is not true. For a sample of that English, here is an extract from the brief Dedication to James I from the translators, found in most editions of the AV.
And now at last, by the Mercy of God, and the continuance of our Labours, it being brought unto such a conclusion, as that we have great hopes that the Church of England shall reap good fruit thereby; we hold it our duty to offer it to Your Majesty, not only as to our King and Sovereign, but as to the principal Mover and Author of the work: humbly craving of Your most Sacred Majesty, that since things of this quality have ever been subject to the censures of ill meaning and discontented persons, it may receive approbation and Patronage from so learned and judicious a Prince as Your Highness is, whose allowance and acceptance of our labours shall more honour and encourage us, than all the calumniations and hard interpretations of other men shall dismay us.
That is one hundred and thirty-seven words in one sentence! And notice that when they address King James they say “Your most Sacred Majesty,” not “thy;” there is not one “thy” or “thou” in the whole Dedication. Despite some long sentences, the English of the AV is not like this at all. It is far simpler: it is the Hebrew and Greek turned into their biblical-English equivalents. Even the BBC has picked this up. On a radio programme on the 400th anniversary of the AV in January 2011, it paid tribute to, “the most striking characteristic … its simplicity.” Also, “its majesty, clarity, beauty, directness, deep musicality and rhythm.” Truly, “the children of this world are in their generation wiser than the children of light” (Luke 16:8)!
Here, let us touch on the many “archaic, obsolete words” that allegedly make it hard for modern people to cope with. Hence the boast that modern translations strip this away and put a plain, easier-to-read Bible into our hands. Now, we acknowledge that some words in the AV have changed their meaning over the centuries, such as: “trow,” “bray,” “unicorn,” “champaign,” “pate,” “leasing,” “bruit,” “collop,” “durst,” “emerods,” etc. However, these are not so many. Of a total of 783,137 words in AV, there has been calculated that only about 300 are actually archaic (outdated), and only 94 obsolete (not in use anymore).
These can easily be defined in public reading or preaching. Trinitarian Bible Society Bibles have a list of several hundred such words at the back of their Bibles. Their Westminster Reference Bible has these and others in the margin, with an asterisk against each of the words. And one can always consult a dictionary!
3. The language of the AV is not dated.
Adam Nicholson (historian and authority on the AV, who places it third of his top ten favourite books) wrote,
One quality, or at least … one combination of qualities: an absolute simplicity of vocabulary set in a rhythm of the utmost stateliness and majesty … The characteristic sound of the King James Bible is … like the ideal of majesty itself … indescribably vast and yet perfectly accessible, reaching up to the sublime and down to the immediate and the concrete, without any apparent effort. 9
The broadcaster and writer Melvyn Bragg, in his book Twelve Books that Changed the World, includes the King James Bible as one of these.
Even the great theological words of the AV are not dated. They express the great words of the faith which themselves are timeless. Terms such as, “propitiation,” “atonement,” “righteousness,” “mercy seat,” “justification,” “sanctification,” etc. Modern translations tend to avoid these words and instead seek to use other words to try to define their meaning. There is a very sound reason for retaining these words. It is because of the kind of Bible translation principles the AV translators used.
There are two kinds of translation principles (discounting paraphrase, which is not really a valid translation principle). “Dynamic equivalence” is when the original language texts are rendered in a thought-by-thought way rather than word-for-for, allowing the translator to give the meaning in his own words. Leaning more toward paraphrase, this eliminates the need for those big, theological terms since the aim is to supposedly clarify them by adding other words.
“Formal” or “exact equivalence” is translating the text word-for-word as exactly as possible from the original language texts. This is never possible in every case owing to the differences between Hebrew/Greek and English. However, the principle and aim of the AV translators was, “as literal as possible, as free as necessary.” Therefore, when it came to e.g. “propitiation” (in the Greek hilasmos) Thayer’s Greek lexicon defines it as “an appeasing, propitiating.” Therefore, the King James men used “propitiation” to express this mighty truth accurately.
And not only is it faithful to the original, it also preserves the all-important vertical plane in atonement: that our Lord’s death acted upon God for us, satisfying His justice and appeasing His wrath, thus bringing us into His favour. This is a very serious matter. It has to do with our view of Scripture, and even of God Himself. If He has inspired these pregnant words, He means us to have them as they are. The AV gives them as they are. If we avoid translating them as they are, we weaken their meaning. Interpretation and teaching is the calling of preachers not translators. These words are not “theological jargon” but weighty, biblical words and terms given by God for His glory and our blessing.
An example of the attempt to render the “propitiation” of Romans 3:25 in modern words is Today’s New International Version. It translates the verse as, “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement.” J. Alec Motyer has said of this rendering: “when the great truth of ‘propitiation’ becomes the imprecise ‘sacrifice of atonement’ (Romans 3:25; 1 John 2:2), too many unnecessary concessions are made to the supposed need to be ‘modern.’” 10 Paraphrase involves rewording and sometimes adding to Holy Scripture. 11 In the case of “propitiation,” the TNIV has three words instead of one. Worse still, the Contemporary English Version translates it, “the sacrifice that takes away our sins” — which now has six words instead of one. Scripture solemnly warns us about adding to it, as well as taking away from it (Revelation 22:18).
When the translator exceeds his bounds and becomes an interpreter, he takes us away from plain Scripture to man’s understanding of its words. This is not clarification but obfuscation.
The alleged difficulty of reading the AV is often overstated. Surveys have shown that it scores very highly in readability. In his A New Hearing for the Authorised Version, Theodore Letis refers to such claims as, “a popular fallacy born of a scornful age.” 12 Then he quotes Dr. Rudolf Flesch, “one of the authorities on readable writing, (who) has shown that the difficulty of any reading material can be gauged by the number of affixes 13 per hundred words. For example,
the average reader standard of 37 is important to know. The best example of easy prose (about 20 affixes per 100 words) is the King James Version of the Bible: literary writing tends to be fairly difficult. This book (i.e. Flesch’s book) has 100 words, 33 affixes.
This is remarkable, and confirms earlier findings, where I ran tests, comparing the AV with the English Standard Version and a popular book on Evolution.
To dismiss the AV as archaic is to forget where the real difficulty of understanding Scripture lies.
It is not in any translation, historic or modern. How does the reader ever understand the Bible? Not by having it turned into “readable” English, but by the Holy Spirit: “the natural man receiveth not the things of the spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Corinthians 2:14).
This is not a comprehension problem but a spiritual problem. We need a spiritual nature to receive spiritual revelation. We are not talking so much about readability as we are about the new birth and illumination —being “taught of God.” And the Spirit of God will be pleased to do this through a Bible translation that is nearest the original He has inspired and given to us. This translation, we believe, will always be the AV.
Alan Macgregor’s wise words form a fitting conclusion,
The AV is often dismissed as archaic and out of date, but if it were allowed to go out of print and out of use, I believe many of the gains of the Reformation would be lost. We have already seen the evidence of this among many who have embraced modern Bible versions — how they have become more tolerant of Rome and more prone to Ecumenism. We have witnessed their delight in discarding reverent forms of worship, replacing them with that which gratifies the carnal senses. And this is so even among some who claim to be Evangelical … I believe we must make a stand for the historic Reformation Texts of the Bible, and our English Authorised Version based on them.
1This is the AV translators’ introduction and justification for their work. It is published in the Trinitarian Bible Society’s Westminster Reference Bible. 2https://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/press-releases/new-words-added-oxforddictionaries-com-august-2014/
3Introduction to Tyndale’s New Testament (London: The British Library, 2000), page ix.
4William Tyndale, The New Testament 1529 (London: The British Library, 2000), page vi.
5David Daniell, The Bible in English, Its history and influence (New Haven, CT, USA: Yale University Press, 2003), page 158
6David Norris, The Big Picture, quoted in Dayspring magazine, no. 15, autumn 2011, page 44. Available as a book on Amazon.
7Ibid, page 43.
8Ibid, pages 50,55.
9Adam Nicholson, God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible. New York: HarperCollins 2003, pages 230,231.
10Alec Motyer, ‘Review of Today’s International Version,’ Evangelicals Now, February 2006.
11The great proponent of dynamic (or functional) equivalence in Bible translation was Eugene A. Nida (1914-2011). Letis (page 21) quotes him as stating: “One of the most common interpretations of the atonement has been substitutionary, in the sense that Christ took upon Himself our sins and died in our place as a substitutive sacrifice. This interpretation, true and valuable as it may be for many, is not communicable to many persons today, for they simply do not think in such categories … (T)he presentation of the Atonement in terms of reconciliation is more meaningful, since in this way they can understand more readily how God could be in Christ reconciling the world to Himself.” Yet, if the Holy Spirit has inspired the apostles to use “propitiation,” who is Nida to suggest something else? And this effrontery from a man who was an ecumenist, helping the Vatican and the United Bible Societies (UBS) to produce cross-denominational Bibles in translations across the globe!
12Letis, page 10.
13“Grammar: one or more sounds or letters occurring as a bound form attached to the beginning or end of a word … and serving to produce a derivative word or an inflectional form. The affix in the word ‘attendance’ is -‘ance’ (Merriam Webster Dictionary).
14See the editor’s Is the AV Difficult to Read? on the Bible League web site: https://www.bibleleaguetrust.org/is-the-av-difficult-to-read/
15Alan Macgregor , 400 Years On: How does the Authorised Version stand up in the 21st Century? (Belfast, NI: Vision Solutions, 2010), pages 306,307.