The King James Version of the Bible:
C.S. Lewis once wrote an interesting paper on 'The literary Impact of the Authorised Version' [published by the Athlone Press, University of London, 1950], which may be of present interest as we celebrate 400 years to the Authorised, or King James, version of the Bible. Here is a summary of Lewis' argument, followed by comments that link his thought with that of others.
'The Literary Impact of the Authorised Version' by C.S. Lewis
- A Summary and Comment
Introduction: C.S. Lewis' Conclusion
The paper is interesting because he argues that the literary impact has been less than supposed and he predicted that from henceforth it would be mainly believers who would read the Bible.
Reading the Bible as literature (rather than as a sacred book) was in vogue when he wrote the paper. Lewis believed this is like "using the tool for a purpose it was not intended to serve." [p.25]. He continued It demands incessantly to be taken on its own terms: it will not continue to give literary delight very long except to those who go to it for something quite different."
This is because "Unless the religious claims of the Bible are again acknowledged, its literary claims will, I think, be given only 'mouth honour' and that decreasingly. For it is, through and through, a sacred book." [p.24]. He ends with:
"For the Bible, whether in the Authorised or in any other version, I foresee only two possibilities; either to return as a sacred book or to follow the classics, if not quite into oblivion yet into the ghost-life of the museum and the specialist's study. Except, of course, among the believing minority who read it to be instructed and get literary enjoyment as a by-product." [p.26]
His prediction seems to have been near the mark. Now I summarise the argument that led to this conclusion. Then I make some comments.
C.S. Lewis' argument may be summarised as follows.
- Much of the impact of the King James version comes not from that particular translation but from the Bible as such: what it says. So, if we are to discuss the literary impact of the King James Version, we should first discuss the literary impact of the Bible before the King James Version. So ...
- The early non-Christian, Longinus, placed the Bible, especially Genesis, on a par with Homer.
- During the Mediaeval period, both Augustine, Hugo of St. Victor and Aquinas, the literal or historical sense of the Bible's text was seen to be 'low', 'rustic', 'mean', 'simple' or 'vile' and, as Lewis put it [p.24], "the literal sense was merely the dry crust of the honeycomb concealing the golden sweetness of the allegory" hidden in it. The Mediaeval view could not accept that the things of God could be linked with "vile bodies" and the like, and so always sought something 'higher', such as an 'allegorical' sense.
- Lewis continued, "the Humanistic taste ... felt that the simplicity of Scripture would be improved by rhetoric". (Lewis finds this "deadly" and "repellent".
- And we should also consider the context in which the King James Version emerged. It was one of many European attempts at translating the Bible (Lewis gives a list on p.8), in which each translation was influenced not so much by political or doctrinal factors, as by scholarship: each translator believed they had a better understanding of Hebrew and Greek than previous ones.
- Tyndale in particular loved the 'lowness' of the Biblical text, and, while some translations were from the Latin, he said that "Hebrew and Greek go very well into English" directly better than via Latin.
- In this context, the King James Version came into being.
- Then Lewis moves to his main topic: the King James Version as an English book and its impact or influence on English literature. He differentiates five different kinds of impact, saying that only the last two are 'influence'.
- The Bible used as a source. For example, Dryden's Absalom and Ahithophel. But here it is the Bible rather than the King James Version that is the source. [p.12]
- Quotations from the King James Version. But "If English literature is full of Biblical quotations, I would not describe as the influence of the Authorised Version, any more than I would call Virgilians all those who quote from Virgil." [p.13]
- 'Embedded quotation', "sentences or phrases from the Authorised Version artfully worked into an author's own language so that an ignorant reader might not recognise them." [p.13] This is not true literary influence, because the effect of such embedded quotations derives from being unlike, rather than like, the author's own style; the King James Version may have been cited, but it has not in any way influenced the author's own writing.
- Words from the King James Version have become "really assimilated, has gone into the blood-stream of the language" [p.14-15]. Words like 'beautiful', 'long-suffering', 'peace-makers', 'scapegoat'. This is the first real literary influence.
- "Literary influence in the fullest sense": on the rhythms, imagery and style ("the actual build of our sentences") of authors [p.15-16]. Unambiguous evidence of influence on rhythms is difficult to find. Influence on imaagery may be found when English authors use, for example corn and whine rather than beef and beer, chariots rather than chargers, and so on, but some of these images might be from the Meditteranean rather than the King James Version as such. Influence on style "has possibly been less than we suppose"; Lewis looks at Ruskin and Bunyan, to find that their style is influenced more by sources other than the King James Version.
- Lewis then poses the question: why has the influence of the King James Version on style and imagery been less than we might suppose? He suggests two reasons.
- "In the first place, we must not assume that it always gave so much literary pleasure as it did in the nineteenth century." The 'lowness' of the everyday content of the King James Version did not always give delight. "I suggest, then, that until the Romantic taste existed the Authorised Version was not such an attractive model as we might suppose." [p.21]
- "The second cause was, I believe, familiarity." Most people could recognise King James Version phraseology, and knew it to be something used in ritual. So they would use it only "either with conscious reverence or with conscious irreverence". "There would be a pious use and a profane use: but there could be no ordinary use." [p.22]. Such an attitude was "less favourable to that unobtrusive process of infiltration by which a profound literary influence usually operates. An influence which cannot evade our consciousness will not go very deep."
If only the Romantics value the King James Version, then during a counter-Romantic attitude, such as prevailed when Lewis wrote his paper, the King James Version would not be found attractive.
Throughout the paper, Lewis compares the influence of the King James Version to that of Virgil, Homer and, later, Johnson, and others. He makes the observation that the Bible, and the King James Version, are unlike them in one very important respect. "Neither Aeschylus nor even Virgil tacitly prefaces his poetry with the formulat 'Thus say the gods'. But in most parts of the Bible everything is implicitly or explicitly introduced with 'Thus saith the Lord'." [p.25]. This is why the Bible, including its King James Version, is a tool that should not be used for merely literary purposes. This is why "it will not continue to give literary delight very long except to those who go to it for something quite different."
Hence, his final conclusion: only believers will value the King James Version. And as they use it to hear about and from God, they will enjoy it as literature, but that is a by-product and by no means the main reason for reading it.
I stand at the junction of many versions of the Bible. I find the economy of phrase found in the King James Version quite remarkable, and the rhythm of its wording very satisfying. Moreover, it was in the King James Version that I learned more than 100 verses off by heart in the 1960s, and the phraseology of these remain in the depths of my memory. I appreciate the KJV, but I hardly ever read the King James Version, preferring other versions for an understanding of God, his world, our relationship with him, our responsibility to the world under him, our state, and his salvation.
Comment 1. The Bible as Everyday Life and Pre-theoretical Attitude
Unlike the Mediaevals, I like and value the everyday nature of the Bible. It speaks directly to everyday life. I can apply it directly to whenever and wherever I am. Unlike the Humanists, I like its directness and simplicity and its everyday turn of phrase. Therefore I am one of the people that C.S. Lewis believed the Bible is to serve.
This may be understood philosophically. For more than 2,000 years, philosophers have presupposed that the theoretical attitude of thought is the route to true knowledge, and that the pre-theoretical (everyday, 'na´ve') attitude is of little value. But during the past 100 increasingly this presupposition has been challenged and undermined, and there has been a growing interest among philosophers in everyday life, some of it centring around the notion of 'lifeworld' (shared background understanding by which we live in everyday life).
Arguably the best philosopher of everyday life to date is Herman Dooyeweerd. Whereas most philosophers have taken a theoretical attitude to understanding everyday pre-theoretical experience, Dooyeweerd began with a pre-theoretical attitude, and though philosophy inevitably involves taking a theoretical attitude, he always maintain that it should always bow to pre-theoretical experience, because theory is limited to a single aspect while pre-theoretical experience is open to all aspects. (See 'Everyday'.)
Dooyeweerd discussed how we should understand the Bible. He held that the Bible exhibits a pre-theoretical attitude, and should be read with a pre-theoretical attitude. I concur. That is, we should engage with it directly, rather than theorizing about it. We should not come to it with a priori theological theories, but let it speak to us. Now, of course, we do come to it with theories, insofar as our interpretation of the Bible is influenced by previous knowledge that we deem general in nature. But we should always reckon that our theories are limited. We should value the 'low', down-to-earth message of the Bible as the very Word of God, rather than seeing it as the dry crust that leads us to the honey of allegory. Allegory is theory, and so is social construction rather than truth, even though it might express some truth.
Comment 2. How we may read the Bible
If we are to listen to the down-to-earth message, how do we do it? A common way among Bible-believing Christians is to take single verses and apply them to our lives. This is best when done self-critically, but today many do it in a way that boosts one's own ego. That is bad. But even when done best, it is narrow and can mislead.
A way I find useful is to try to find the 'big' messages of the Bible, the ones that are so obvious that we overlook them, as well as the ones that go against our own cultural presuppositions. This approach has been inspired by Jesus' castigating the Teachers of the Law for arguing about the finer points of the law, but ignoring the big issues like justice. I want to understand these big, important issues, and I want to do so more than 'by accident'. I want to find out what many of the big issues are, so that I can hold them all in mind as I live everyday life.
I have tried to do this in a website I have called 'A Brief History of God'. I have tried to sketch the main messages that God has been giving humanity over the various Biblical and post-Biblical eras.
Such an approach helps us sketch out a better theology of our responsibility to the planet, without falling into worship of the earth on one hand or ignoring it on the other. See 'A New View in Theology and Practice'.
Comment 3. Nature-Grace Ground-motive
C.S. Lewis' portrayal of Mediaeval attitudes to the Bible shows clearly the influence of what Dooyeweerd called the Nature-Grace Ground-motive. This is the presupposition that drove Western thinking for a thousand years (approx. 500-1500): a divide between natural and supernatural, with the latter being the more important. This is why they were surprised that God could use "vile bodies", and because of their presupposition felt bound to provide an explanation that we today would find funny (which Lewis briefly outlined).
This page is offered to God as on-going work. Comments, queries welcome.
Copyright (c) Andrew Basden 2011. But you may use this material subject to certain conditions.
Part of his www.abxn.org pages, that open up discussion and exploration from a Christian ('xn') perspective. Written on the Amiga with Protext. Number of visitors to these pages: .
Created: 1 January 2011.
Last updated: 2 January 2011 new title.