Thinking in Public
January 31, 2011
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
Mohler: This is “Thinking in Public”, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about front line theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host, and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.
Four hundred years ago, that is back in 1611 one of the most significant events in the history of western civilization took place the publication and release of the King James Bible. Now looking back over four centuries, it is impossible not to be amazed about the influence of this Bible translation. There is cause for our celebration as we look back at this 400th anniversary but also as we think about the meaning of the King James Bible and of the word of God not only in our lives but in our culture. Welcome to Thinking In Public.
Dr. Leland Ryken is one of the most respected professors in Christian higher education. He serves as the Clyde S. Kilby Professor of English at Wheaton College where he has taught for forty-three years and has twice received the Teacher of the Year award. He is the author of more than one hundred published articles and essays. He has written, edited, or contributed to twenty-five books. We’re here today to talk about his newest book The Legacy of the King James Bible. Dr. Ryken welcome to Thinking In Public.
Ryken: Thank you.
Mohler: I really have been looking forward to this conversation. Of course in the background of this is the fact that 2011 marks the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. Tell me about your own experience with the King James version of the Bible.
Ryken: Well, I come from an era when the King James Bible was the only major English translation really until I was in graduate school. So that means that I used the King James Bible right through college years. To this day, I have the King James Bible that my parents gave me inscribed on Christmas 1951 when I was nine years old. I don’t want to say the King James version is demonstrably the greatest English bible ever. I have not used it as my regular bible for at least a half a century because of its archaic qualities. I have incidentally decided to use it during this anniversary year.
Mohler: Well, I think that’s going to be typical of a lot of evangelicals who have taken advantage of some of the really fine new translations. And I wish some of them were using even finer new translations. But the King James has a place not only in our evangelical affections but it has a very important place in history, and literature, and in the culture. In your book the Legacy of the King James Bible: Celebrating 400 Years of the Most Influential English Translation published by the way recently by CrossWay books. You really make the point for the centrality of the King James Bible to so much that we consider our language, our culture, our worship. Can you tell me the history of how the King James Bible came to be?
Ryken: Yes, it’s very easy to pin point the origin of the King James Bible. It happened in 1604. King James had recently ascended to the throne in England. The Puritans made request of him. He said alright, I’ll give you a conference that’s known as the Hampton Court Conference. Was a….Puritan moderate pitted against eighteen Anglican heavy weights. The king dismissed all of their requests. At the very last minute one of them made a request for a new English Bible translation. Surprisingly the king agreed to it.
Mohler: Now, the king had something of a political reason to believe that a new Bible translation might be timely. What was that?
Ryken: Well, you’re absolutely right. First of all the best selling Bible was 1560 Geneva Bible. It was the Puritan’s Bible. It had marginal notes of Puritan sentiment. So the king would have loved to get the Puritan Bible replaced. I think and what we’re just surmising now that he wanted a Bible that would unite the English people and raise his stature probably as a ruler. So he already was amenable to the idea of a translation. He was a profane person, so it was not motivated by a spiritual goal. But he agreed to it, and I think despite his contentiousness he said he had never seen an English Bible, well translated. But the worse of all was the Geneva Bible. So that was a sneering conflict at the Hampton Court Conference. But despite that I think God overruled the sneer of a profane king, and it produced the greatest English book.
Mohler: Dr. Ryken there’s a question that has always just made me kind of scratch my head with relation to the King James Bible or the authorized version as it’s called by most people in Britain. Why did the Puritans of all people want a new translation? They after all had their prized translation in the Geneva Bible that had a place not only in their hearts but very centrally in their worship. Why did they, and you described it so well, at the last moment of that conference decide to ask for a new Bible translation?
Ryken: You know, I think it’s one of the surprises surrounding the King James. The only thing that I can infer, and I’ve not seen a good reason set forth in my research. You know the bishop’s Bible was ensconced in the Book of Common Prayer. So it was the official church Bible. Now, I mean people could choose whatever they wanted in the home, so they chose the Geneva Bible. It is possible that the Puritans since they wanted to purify the Anglican Church and remaining Anglican, Catholic vestiges they may have chafed under the present, the Bishop’s libel in the Book of Common.
Mohler: Well it’s a fascinating question to me, but it goes back to the fact that in the providence of God all of the parts and people came together in order to make this happen. And one of the most important documents I believe ever written about Bible translation is the preface dedicated to the King in which the translators of the King James explain how they went about that process. Just in terms of an essay I don’t think it’s been improved upon in the last four hundred years. You’re a specialist in the English language. How do you rate their ability as translators?
Ryken: Oh, they were the best of their time. Here’s the deal although the Hampton Court agreement was a moment of contention. When the translators were actually selected political and ecclesiastical bias played no part. The best of the best were chosen in terms of Hebrew and Greek scholarship and knowledge of the Bible. So they were the best scholars and they came from three spheres Oxford University, Cambridge University, and very intellectual ministers such as Lancelot and Lyndon. All of the translators were ordained in the Church of England but within that the whole broad spectrum of the Anglican Church was represented. And the scholarship was the best available. By our standards we have the computer and all its resources you know what the translators had was somewhat rudimentary, but it was the state of the art at the beginning of the 17th century. So everything converged in my view providentially. I absolutely agree with that to produce this best of translations.
Mohler: There is a question about the King James that has always I think been in the background of my mind because I grew up like you with the King James as the first Bible that’s just what I thought of as the Bible. The first Bible presented to me was a King James probably the first ten Bibles presented to me were King James Bibles. And it is an archaic language read from the 20th century and now the 21st century. It is a rather stilted language by the standards of how we engage in most conversations today. But the question I want to ask you as a specialist in English is this Dr. Ryken. When the King James Bible first emerged was it in a language that was more formal than most people in Britain would then have spoken?
Ryken: I’m going to say slightly more formal. See we think it’s formal because of the archaism. But you know archaism automatically registers with us as formal. But that would be incorrect because if you go to the language of the street it was archaic in those same ways. That is the language, the verb endings, the deism that there was nothing unusual about the King James in regard to that. I do want to say this in addition to this archaism as immediately registering without this formal I think the debunkers and their allegiants have simply overstated the degree of elevated language in the King James. The King James had a vocabulary of 6,000 that’s pretty modest. Milton 13,000. Shakespeare 20,000. I’m just going to say the following for me epitomizes the King James style. “Come unto me all ye that labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest for my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Well that’s not spoken conversation we know that. But it’s not elevated it’s relatively simple. I would call the King James style dignified. I would agree with elegant, but I don’t want that confused with eloquent. Yes, there are eloquent passages in the King James. You know Eugene Peterson makes a sneering comment that the King James translators put lace cuffs on Tyndale. Well, I’ve studied it. More often than not the King James translators actually took fewer words than Tyndale did. So, I think the degree of formality in the King James has been misrepresented by the debunkers.
Mohler: Well, I have to agree. And I have a collection of reprints and histories of English bible translations and when you read the King James it follows in a family of translations.
Mohler: It’s not as if it just came out of the blue.
Mohler: It’s based upon an existing family. Why don’t you describe that a bit?
Ryken: Alright. Six translations starting with Tyndale preceded the King James. Now Tyndale did not translate the whole Bible. In fact no more than two-thirds of it. But in the parts that he did translate, and let’s just stick with the New Testament, 90% of what’s in the King James version is there in Tyndale and it’s a way of saying we should not set Tyndale up as being the grade opponent of the King James style. I mean he’s the precursor. Alright we have Tyndale, Coverdale who had been an assistant of Tyndale, Matthew’s Bible but that was a pen name for John Rogers who had also been an assistant of Tyndale. Then we have a church bible, the Great Bible, then the Geneva Bible, then the Bishop’s Bible. I want to agree with you strongly these are not rivals. They are all really part of a single effort. Each built upon each other. Alister McGrath has written a book on the King James that is so good on the communal view of knowledge represented by… Every successive translation committee inherited something, improved it, passed it on, so that although technically the King James Bible is a revision of the Bishop’s bible that is misleading, it is really a synthesis of a whole century in which things had been progressing toward the climax of the King James Bible.
Mohler: Now, when you consider the different Bible translations available to us today and there are a myriad of them. And they follow different translation philosophies formal equivalents which is an attempt at the closest thing to a word for word equivalent possible and then what’s called a more dynamic equivalence. The King James really is the paragon of the more formal equivalence translations. Now again, you’re a specialist in English why would that be superior in your view to a more dynamic translation?
Ryken: Right before I answer that I want to commend you for your knowing so strongly that the King James Bible was essentially a literal translation. Most people are not aware of that. I was not as fully aware of it as I should have been. Alright, why do I commend that? I also want to make the point that it started with Tyndale this translation philosophy. It dominated. It was the main tradition until the middle of the twentieth century. So, it’s the main tradition. Why is it better? Because the goal of English Bible translation should be to take us as close as possible to what the biblical authors wrote. I mean what else would be the purpose of a translation I ask? Verbal equivalence means that there is an equivalent English word or phrase for everything that the Biblical authors wrote. Not more than what they wrote not less than what they wrote. To me that’s simply the goal of the English Bible translations. Yes I’m…all on the side of the King James translation.
Mohler: You know the story of how the King James Bible or the authorized version came to be is one of those great stories out of history. It includes twists and turns that are unknown to most people. Intrigue, royal interest, of course it also includes the mechanics of how it was done. You know there’s just something about the pageantry of the Jerusalem chamber of Westminster and of all that was involved here. It is absolutely amazing to think of God’s providence in bringing together such a skilled and dedicated core of translators for a project that could only probably have been done in this way at this time, in this place, under these circumstances. I’m humbled by that realization. And it makes me appreciate the King James Bible all the more.
Dr. Ryken a good deal of your new book, The Legacy of the King James Bible, is indeed about that legacy with the impact and influence of the King James Bible on subsequent ways of speaking. On subsequent Bible translations, upon our culture, society, literature, not only among believers but as you document even among unbelievers. If you were to distill the influence of the King James Bible in terms of our literary heritage how would you describe that?
Ryken: Ok. From the beginning, it was just an assumption that half of my book would deal with literary matters. First of all that means the literary achievement of the King James Bible itself including the language which we’ve spoken and then it’s influence on English and American literature. Well, it’s almost synonymous with the English and American literary tradition first of all. It’s just a truism that the Bible is the greatest single source and influence on English and American literature. However the question is which English Bible. Until I wrote this book, I just naively used whatever translation I use when I was speaking of the biblical element in this or that author. But when I wrote this book then I started asking well which English Bible and that’s pretty easily answered except for Catholic writers for example. Right from the 17th century to the current day virtually every literary person whether author or teacher of literature assumes that the King James Bible is the gold standard. So whenever we speak of the influence of the Bible for the past four centuries on literature that’s the King James that we’re talking about.
Mohler: Well, I was fascinated by the way you documented that because I read literature widely, and it is amazing that there are many Christians and even evangelical pastors and theologians who will debate about which Bible translation is best. But if I’m reading William Faulkner, John Updike, Virginia Wolfe, they all know which translation to quote. When they talk about the Bible they go to the King James. It is a gold standard.
Ryken: Yes you’re absolute correct. You know I devote one chapter to that in my book documenting the degree of preference among literary folk for the King James. I think most people reading that chapter will be mildly shocked by the vehemence with which literary people prefer the King James over modern translations.
Mohler: Now, when you talk about the whole philosophy of translation here we’ve talked about the formal and dynamic equivalents kind of verbal equivalence argument. There’s also a good deal of argument about style, and I remember that sometime back you did some work even on the NIV in terms of its literary qualities. And as you document in your book there was a pushback as the people even saying why should we be concerned about that? But the Bible, the inspired and inherent word of God is an inspired literature. How would you rate the literary quality of the King James Bible?
Ryken: Yes, it’s very important. The literary integrity of the King James Bible really flows from its being an essentially literal translation. So the Bible is a very literary book. I agree with the modern author Reynolds Price who says that any essential literal translation, but starting with the King James, is almost automatically assured of ending up as a good literary book because of its adherence to a book that its origin. So, it all begins there. There are two aspects really to an English Bible. One is the content, what the translators put forward as what the biblical authors wrote so we covered that when we talked about essentially literal. But, then there’s the question of vocabulary and style. The big divergence there with modern translations is remaining true to the King James tradition which I’m going to call stately, dignified, I’m willing to accept elegant, and colloquial. So there’s the big divide and beginning with the NIV but in a mild form, there most modernizing let me speak of the modernizing translations. Not modern, all contemporary Bibles are modern, but modernizing means scaling down the language to the level of spoken conversational English. So there’s the big discrepancy.
Mohler: That’s a very helpful distinction to make there. You teach literature. You know issues of readability. I think one of the most contentious issues about the King James has to do with its contemporary readability. How would you gauge that?
Ryken: I think it is very difficult to read. And here we’re to the issue of the archaic quality of the words and the grammar. Now it is possible for our modern translation to ride the literary coat tails of the King James, and I use that as a commendation. That is to retain the level of vocabulary even many of the cadences, the phraseology, someone who edited a modern twentieth century collection of poems based on the Bible used the RSV for the biblical text because he said well it’s almost like the King James except that it’s in modern vocabulary and grammar. Well, that’s the English Standard Version as well. I think it is possible to retain almost all the advantages of the King James Bible while using an updated Bible both in terms of scholarship and language and style.
Mohler: Well, it’s one of the reasons why I really appreciate the English Standard Version which is what I teach and preach out of, and read for my personal devotions in the main. It’s because I see the English Standard Version as something of again being in the same family as the King James. It’s a continuation of the same translation philosophy and of the same translation structure. And Dr. Ryken just to tell you the truth, you know, I love reading the Psalms when they are translated more like the King James tradition translates them.
Ryken: I agree.
Mohler: I think there is a rhetorical, literary, flattening of the psalms that takes place in some contemporary translations that basically removes them from the realm of poetry.
Ryken: Oh absolutely. It’s flat, tepid, prose lack, discourse and whenever all these modernizing and colloquial Bibles is read in public in a church service I experience it as such a letdown. I mean it’s not the best available. We have translations that can retain the greatness of the King James version.
Mohler: Well, one of our principles of the scripture is that we understand that well Luther was absolutely right the Reformers were precisely right in arguing that the Bible needed to be made available in the vernacular. And yet there’s a distinction between the vernacular meaning the language that is commonly understood and what maybe called slang. Or a lowest common denominator form of speech. One of the things I appreciate is when a translation does indeed translate in ways that are within the available language and the accessible language of the people for whom it’s being translated. But at the same time does not seek to drop to a lowest common denominator because the King James translators did not do that.
Ryken: Amen. They expected their readers to rise to the level required of the Bible. And modernizing translations scale everything down. They begin with the readership assumed to have a sixth grade level of understanding. That really offends me. It’s as if to say leave your adult understanding on ways of thinking and talking behind when you come to reading the Bible. I want to reach back to my childhood. I remember no horrible burden of unintelligibility in the King James. Doubtless there were difficult things I just accepted that. I kind of intuitively sensed that someday I would understand. And I remember to this day you know the second grade classroom where I memorized, “Behold to obey is better than sacrifice then to hearken in the fat of rams.” I didn’t fully understand, but I knew something very big was being asserted there, and I just knew that someday I would fully understand it. So this whole scaling down is just troubling to me.
Mohler: Well, let’s consider four centuries now. We’re looking at the 400th anniversary of the translation of the King James Bible and its publication in 1611. Are you surprised as a literary scholar at the survival of this text and its influence well into the 21st century?
Ryken: Well, only slightly. Surprised because of the very archaic quality that is an obstacle to a modern reader. Now I have to say for churches and families that never relinquished the King James, the archaism isn’t a particular problem. But you know in our culture at large, it is. I would say the inherent qualities and superiority of the King James makes it less surprising to me. Also, we have to remember that for three centuries the King James had no serious rival so that it had the playing field to itself and people just accepted that this archaic book was the Bible. A lot depends on what we accept as normal. It’s not until the modernizing translations came on the scene that the King James seemed too difficult.
Mohler: For forty-three years you’ve been in a classroom at Wheaton College. And, I know what that means. It means you love the experience of being with undergraduate students. And I just have to know because I have spoken to so many of your students, alumni of the college, that they came to an awakened knowledge and love for English literature through your teaching. Do you find a certain joy in receptivity in the students you face now in reintroducing them to a translation that unlike our own stories they may not really have known before.
Ryken: I do…to say I let students carry the Bible they want and there’s quite a range there. I’ve really been pleased by how many people carry the English Standard Version but then I’m disappointed by how many don’t. Yes, I would say that the concept of the literary nature of the bible that’s been half of my career. I really love awakening students to that because that’s a new way of looking at the Bible, and I would say that’s gone hand in hand with my more recent interest in the King James Bible specifically in Bible translation. But to open people’s eyes to the literary nature of the Bible that’s been an important part of my career.
Mohler: It is something of a quandary as to how this particular book named for a king who was not pious but did sponsor the translation having coming out of a family of translations rooted you know back in the 17th century and back into the 16th century is now still so much of our common parlance. I was just the other day looking at greeting cards because I had a necessity to buy one, and I was marked then by the note that most of these cards when they quote scripture still quote the King James. When we want to say something serious, when we want to speak a word of bereavement, when we want to speak a word of celebration, it just seems better to use a text that speaks of the love of God that abideth rather than the love of God that still hangs on.
Ryken: Amen. The King James is elevating, and yes it has traditional associations but it’s more than that. There’s just an inherent superiority there. You know if you go to the website that list bible sales you’ll find the King James Version is either second or third on the list of print selling Bibles. Well, that’s a big readership. So to paraphrase something Mark Twain said when his death was reported in the newspaper and he was still very much alive, reports of the demise of the King James Version have been greatly exaggerated. It does live on. It lives on in our public inscriptions. That’s one bit of research that really interested me, and I’m the one who came up with the idea. I said to myself well how am I going to prove all this cultural influence? I got to thinking well, let’s look at the places where we have public inscriptions. And overwhelmingly, it’s the King James. On the one hand, it’s a tribute to how important the King James was to attain that status. On the other hand once it’s there on the library or across from the United Nations headquarters or on the Liberty Bell, then it perpetuates that…for the King James Version.
Mohler: Indeed it does. Dr. Ryken thank you for joining me for Thinking In Public.
Ryken: You’re welcome.
Mohler: It’s great to have had that conversation with Dr. Leland Ryken. He has been at Wheaton College for forty-three years. His son Dr. Philip Ryken is the new president at Wheaton College, and I’m very, very happy about that. It’s good to talk with a man who’s had such a background in literary studies and the teaching of the English literature and someone who cares so deeply about the Bible. His new book, The Legacy of the King James Bible: Celebrating 400 Years of the Most Influential English Translation is really a thrilling read. There are a number of good books about Bible translations out there and there are several good books about the history and you might say even the biography of the King James Bible coming out for this anniversary.
Here at the beginning of the year I thought it would be timely for us to have this discussion. I appreciated Dr. Ryken’s honesty about the text, about the fact that it does include all these archaisms. But, I really appreciated what he had to say about the enduring power of this translation. Not only in terms of it substance but in terms of its intention in terms of its trajectory. Without the King James Bible, we would not be having the conversation about, for instance the English Standard Version, or the Revised Standard Version, or an entire family of translations that many people do not even know were based on the King James Bible. That’s something that should cause us to think but also to be very thankful.
The question of bible translations is one of the most urgent and important that we now face and this has been true ever since the Reformation. Let’s be reminded that it was during the Reformation that the Reformers came to the clear conviction that the Bible must be accessible to the people in the pew. Those who would be worshipping should also be able to read the text. Those who would be hearing the preaching and teaching of the word of God should be able to be taught by the word of God through their own reading of it. You know when you think about Bible translations there are now so many. I was in a Christian bookstore recently and there where the Bible section was, there was a guide, a laminated set of cards for people to use when coming to terms with what the translations are and what they’re all about. This leads to the realization that many of the most important questions I get most urgent and repeated questions I get are about Bible translations. Which do I recommend and why. Well, the issues really are crucial here. I am a very clear advocate of a formal equivalence translation. I believe that the Bible very clearly reveals itself to be the inherent, inspired, infallible Word of God. I am absolutely confident that just as the Bible says God inspired men of old to write. And as the Holy Spirit inspired them to write, their writing took the form of words. And because I know this to be the living and active word of God, I want a translation that most carefully translates word for word and phrase for phrase.
Now I do recognize that there is a linguistic distance between Greek, and Aramaic, and Hebrew, and contemporary English. No one should minimize that. But that just makes the task of Bible translation more important. It just points to how urgently crucial the philosophy of a translation is. In my conversation with Dr. Ryken one of the points that we were able to make clear is that the King James Version didn’t come out of the blue. It came out of a translation history and a family of translations. But if it reads to something of the status of the classic it’s the King James that survived when its predecessor translations really did not. And no successor translation has yet earned the place in our hearts, in our worship, and in our culture that is deserved and held by the King James Bible. But I also appreciated something that came out in our conversation. We do not hold out the King James Bible as if it is the translation that we should all use, every day, in our preaching and teaching, and in our personal bible study. We do hold to the fact that the Bible needs to be in the vernacular. And the archaisms of the King James Bible mean that for most of us it is not the way that we now speak. That means when we look to the King James Bible we look so with deep affection with deep appreciation, with a renewed understanding of its historical and theological, and cultural, and spiritual significance. We look back at the miracle that might be described of how it came to be, and we look back with tremendous gratitude for how God used this translation in his church to ground his church in the truth. But, we also know that the very principles of translation that brought the King James Bible into being now call us also to make certain that we are using, and distributing, and teaching out of translations that are accessible to the people who are using the English language right now. There have been controversies over the King James Bible. There have been some who have tried to claim a privileged place for the King James Bible as if it is the only acceptable and authorized, and honored, accurate translation of the biblical text into English. That is not so. That doesn’t stand the test of intellectual credibility nor would the translators of the King James Bible ever make such a claim about their translation. But it is a magnificent translation. And, as I mentioned in my conversation with Dr. Ryken, it is interesting that when you look for the points in our lives when something of great significance needs to be said it’s often to the King James Bible that we go. As he pointed out, if you’re going to put an inscription on a building, and a public edifice, you’re probably going to want to use the most formal language because you want it to last. Now, that’s another testimony to the power of language, and to the power of a translation, and even beyond that to the power of words and ultimately to the power and authority of the Word of God.
The 400th anniversary of the King James Bible is something that ought to cause a good deal of conversation amongst us. It ought to be the precipitating cause of some good conversations about Bible translation and the place of Bible translation in the church and our expectations of Bible translations. But also of the deep need to translate the Bible into languages into which it has not yet been translated in hopes that people from every tongue, and tribe, and people, and nation will be able to read the Bible in their own language. And understand it. The King James Bible, and its legacy is something we certainly want to celebrate. We don’t celebrate it just as a historical occurrence that is an anniversary to be marked by the kind of formal observations that we do when great civic events and historical occurrences are honored and celebrated. We need to do so understanding that the cause that brought those translators together for that magnificent moment for this great achievement should be only surpassed in our generation by a determination to preach and teach the word of God. And to make it accessible and available to all but there are issues here of literary quality, of formal equivalence, of verbal exactitude, of care and precision in translation that ought to be remembered and ever mindful. We need to be reminded of the fact that when we pick up a translation it’s something of a miracle. We pick up an accurate, eloquent, wonderful translation of the Word of God. It is a legacy that is given to us by some who put their lives on the line that we would have the Bible in our own language in our own time.
I’m thankful that many Christians who have the Bible have it without knowing this, but I’d be even more thankful for Christians who have the Bible in their hands and have an even deeper reason to appreciate it because they know of this history. Maybe the 400th anniversary of the King James Version will be the opportunity for even more Christians to come to an even greater understanding of the Word of God. And beyond that for persons who are not yet believers to read the Word of God and by its convicting power come to know the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.
Thanks for listening to Thinking In Public . For more information about The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary go to sbts.edu. For more information about Boyce College go to boycecollege.com. I want to remind you about the Give Me An Answer Conference for high school students to be held on Southern Seminary’s campus March 18-19 of 2011. Please join me, Dr. Russell Moore, and our special guest Dr. J.D. Greear. We’re going to challenge students to live a life of importance by building their lives on biblical wisdom and the goal of following the will of God. For more information visit sbts.edu. Thanks for joining me for Thinking In Public. Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.