KJV 400: Celebrating the Life and Legacy of the King James Version of the Bible
- Kristopher Barnett Associate Dean of the Clamp Graduate School of Christian Ministry and Assistant Professor of Christian Ministry at Anderson University in Anderson, South Carolina.
- 2011 11 Jan
The King James Version of the Bible marks its 400th year of publication in 2011, which will provide diverse opportunities to celebrate the KJV, including several marathon reading sessions, a History Channel documentary and a flipbook of an entire 1611 printing of the KJV. Reaction to the quadricentennial of the KJV varies widely. Some see the event as worthy of celebration while others stifle a yawn. The diversity of reaction reveals the disparity in perception of the grand old English translation.
The current perception of the KJV is similar to that of an elderly grandfather. Some hold the grandfather in high esteem, revering the wisdom of experience. Others see the grandfather as out of touch and unapproachable, distant and disconnected. While the Bible, and certainly a translation of the Bible, never should be worshipped, the KJV certainly deserves appropriate respect for its impact on language, literature and faith. We are not required to use the King James Version in the pulpit in order to respect and celebrate its impact on culture in general and on the church specifically.
Respect the Impact
Respect reminds us the Authorized Version influenced the development of the English language. The 54 translators naturalized Hebrew, Greek and Latin phrases into English. The consistent use of these naturalized phrases in Bible reading encouraged the flexibility of the English language to assimilate words from other nations. The adaptive nature of English allowed it to become a global language.
Respect reminds us the impact of the KJV on literature is widespread. The KJV sparked literacy. The accessibility of the language and the increased availability of the printed form encouraged reading. The KJV was even more approachable than the works of Shakespeare. Not only did the KJV encourage reading, but it also provided inspiration for writers. It has been well said that without the prose of the KJV, "there would be no Paradise Lost, no Pilgrim's Progress, no Negro spirituals, no Gettysburg Address."
Respect reminds us this translation of God's Word stood as the uncontested English translation for 300 years and has held its own in the last century amid the proliferation of English translations. The KJV enjoyed such popularity that for about 200 years many English speakers did not realize the KJV was a translation. They thought the KJV contained the original autographs!
The KJV's popularity in the pews was mirrored in the pulpit. Famous preachers such as Jonathan Edwards, D.L. Moody, Charles Spurgeon, Billy Sunday, George Whitfield, John Wesley, Billy Graham and countless others preached from the pages of the KJV. Respect for the KJV's impact on language, literature and faith should result in celebration; it also should encourage us to learn from the translation's legacy.
Learn from the Legacy
In order to understand the legacy of the King James Version, we need to consider the religious climate prior to 1611. Today we can wander into a Christian bookstore and peruse a myriad selection of English translations. Members of the congregation often inquire, "Which translation should I choose?" English speakers in the centuries prior to the reign of King James had no such luxury. In fact, their access to the Bible was limited to the Scripture readings in Latin conducted within the church. They did not have personal copies of the Bible or English translations of Scripture. John Wycliffe and William Tyndale, worked diligently to make the Bible accessible while maintaining the accuracy of the Word of God.
John Wycliffe lived in the latter part of the 14th century. While teaching at Oxford University, Wycliffe questioned several practices of the Catholic Church, including the sale of indulgences for salvation. While his views on indulgences drew the attention of the Church in his lifetime, it was Wycliffe's views on Scripture that lived on after his death. Wycliffe believed Scripture should be translated into the vernacular of the common people. He taught that the common people needed an English translation of Scripture, and he set out to provide that translation. Wycliffe died before completing this task; after his death, he was deemed a heretic. The Church had Wycliffe's remains exhumed and burned.
Roughly a century after Wycliffe's ashes were spread over the Severn, William Tyndale—an Oxford scholar—completed an English translation of Scripture. As did Wycliffe, Tyndale believed the people should have a translation of Scripture in a language they could understand. Tyndale's work occurred outside the authority of the English monarchy or the Catholic Church. Therefore, Tyndale's translation was banned in England. Undeterred, Tyndale fled to Germany and started smuggling Bibles back into England, once selling Bibles to an English Bishop to fund later translations. Eventually, the authorities caught up to Tyndale. In 1536 A.D., Tyndale was strangled and burned at the stake. His final words were a powerful prayer: "Lord, open the King of England's eyes."
In 1611, 75 years after Tyndale's death, his dying prayer was answered when the 54 scholar's commissioned by King James completed their translation of Scripture. Ironically, the translation that cost Tyndale his life served as the basis of the Authorized Version. Lecturing on the heels of the 300th anniversary of the KJV, Cleland Boyd McAfee said, "Tyndale is the real father of our King James Version. About 80 percent of his Old Testament and 90 percent of his New Testament have been transferred to our version."
The King James Version of the Bible fulfilled the dreams of Wycliffe and Tyndale. This translation coupled with the invention of the printing press half a century earlier enabled English speakers to read God's Word in their own language. For the first time, an accurate translation of Scripture was accessible to the common people. While the KJV's impact on culture and religion deserve respect, the combination of accuracy and accessibility provide an enduring legacy that should be emulated by preachers.
An Accurate Translation
Readers often applaud the rich, vibrant language of the King James Version of Scripture. However, we must remember that elegance was not a goal of the KJV translators. Certainly, the 54 men on the translation team wanted to employ effective English phrases, but their chief goal in translation was accuracy. They wanted to make the Word accessible, but they did not want to lose its accuracy in the process.
The KJV's legacy of accuracy provides an invaluable lesson for preachers. In our contemporary media-saturated culture, preachers often face the temptation to make the Bible relevant. The quest for relevance often leads us to entertain our people rather than accurately communicate the Word of God.
Sermons lack accuracy when the Scripture text becomes a diving board. I once heard a sermon on prayer, and the preacher started by reading Luke 11:1, in which Jesus' disciples asked Him, "Lord, teach us to pray." The preacher then dove into a sermon from that text and proceeded to provide three pertinent points he had learned from his personal prayer life. Never once did the pastor explore the response that Jesus provided the disciples. I left the service disappointed. I knew Jesus offered poignant insights on the topic of prayer, and I would have much preferred to hear what Jesus said on the matter!
The other day I was listening to a sermon on CD while driving with a colleague. The preacher told stories well. He engaged the audience and had a keen sense of humor that he utilized effectively. The audience's laughter and response indicated an appreciation of the message. It was highly entertaining. However, the preacher's words and stories had little direct correlation to the text he read at the beginning of the sermon. Ironically, the preacher had asked the congregation to stand in honor of the reading of the Word. I guess he was warning them that when they sat down they would not receive anything else from the Word! I kept asking my colleague, "What does this have to do with the text?"
Please, don't misunderstand me; I am not opposed to stories that illustrate and humor that encourages. However, in our quest for relevance we must not lose sight of the fact that these methods of engagement always must serve the overarching theme of accurately communicating the text to the congregation. Preacher, you must follow in the footsteps of the KJV translators and Wycliffe and Tyndale before them by intentionally centering your sermons on the authoritative Word of God! Don't occasionally honk and wave at the Bible in your sermon; tether your message to the text. Remember, due to the legacy of the KJV, the people in your pews have their own Bible. Your sermons should encourage them to use it!
An Accessible Translation
Can you imagine an era when the Bible was quarantined from commoners? Today, many have access to the Bible via computers, phones and other mobile devices. The accessibility of Scripture makes the image of Bible-less church-goers almost incomprehensible. Yet this was the case prior to 1611. The KJV, coupled with Guttenberg's printing press, provided English speakers access to the Bible. In the years following 1611, English speakers could hold and handle their own copy of Scripture.
Contemporary preachers should be cautious not to dilute the legacy of accessibility handed down by the KJV. In the contemporary cult of personality, the temptation exists for preachers to present themselves as ultimate authorities on all things biblical. Certainly pastors should possess knowledge of Scripture. However, they do not need to convey such knowledge as if it is unattainable to non-clergy.
I occasionally have heard compliments from well-meaning members of my congregation. "I never could see things in Scripture the way you do." Initially that compliment stroked my ego, but eventually I recognized the inherent danger. If my preaching method taught them they could not understand Scripture on their own, then how did my preaching differ from Roman Catholics and English priests droning in Latin? Instead of seeking to baffle the congregation with my knowledge of Scripture, my sermons should help people understand Scripture and encourage them to study the Word for themselves.
The KJV translators also made the 1611 Bible accessible with their choice of language. Research reveals that the familiar "thees" and "thous" of the KJV actually harkened back to English usage that predated the production of the KJV. Rather than attempting to translate the Bible into trendy, cutting-edge language, KJV translators incorporated familiar, comfortable terms. Many contemporary preachers unintentionally hinder rather than help their listeners access the Word of God by using the language of Zion without appropriate translation in terms today's listeners will understand. I recall a time when I needed a gentle warning against this temptation.
One Wednesday night, I had led the youth Bible study at our church. After services, my wife commented on the lesson. "Your education is showing a little too much." My wife always encourages me in my teaching ministry and only offers critical analysis at appropriate times. I considered her comment. I was to complete my seminary studies a few months later, and I had spent a great many hours reading about such fascinating topics as supralapsarianism and antinomianism. The majority of the students in our youth group could not pronounce much less understand those concepts. My wife's gentle rebuke reminded me to consider the audience when selecting my words.
Since that Wednesday night many years ago, I always have sought to place my sermons on a shelf that listeners can reach. A product placed on the top row at a grocery store would be inaccessible to someone unable to reach the shelf. In the same way, the preacher who uses impressive vocabulary or heady concepts runs the risk of making his or her message inaccessible.
That is not to imply the preacher should dumb down the message. Instead, the preacher should explain the message in terms and concepts the listener can understand. Jesus modeled this method of communication. He consistently spoke in agricultural terms that resonated with His listeners. Likewise, contemporary preaching must speak to the hearts and minds of listeners in language they readily can understand.
As we celebrate the quadricentennial of the KJV, we should treat the elder statesman of English translations with respect, celebrating the far-reaching impact of this historic translation. We also should learn from the KJV's enduring legacy. Pastors maintain the vital tension between accuracy and accessibility. Make certain your sermons faithfully bridge the gap between Word and world. If we make sure our sermons are accessible and accurate, then we can stand firm on the authority of the King!