The Lord Gave the Word – Commemorating the 400th Anniversary of the King James Version (1)

The year of our Lord 2011 marks a momentous and monumental occasion for the English-speaking members of the church catholic of Jesus Christ, including the Protestant Reformed Churches in America (PRCA); her sister churches in Northern Ireland and in the Philippines; and the Evangelical Presbyterian Churches of Australia (EPCA), with whom she has a corresponding relationship. In 1611, 400 years ago, the first edition of the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible rolled off the London printing presses of Robert Barker, “printer to the King’s Most excellent Maiestie [Majesty][1],” as the grand title page of the first edition proclaims. The massive edition of 1611—11 inches by 17 inches, over 5 inches thick, and weighing in excess of 30 pounds—contained the fruit of the blood, sweat, and tears poured out in nearly seven years of labor by 50-54 men to produce what remains to this day the most majestic, reverent, accurate, faithful, and God-glorifying English translation of the Bible, and what would be for almost 250 years after its first printing the only and most-beloved English translation of Holy Scripture.

The 400th anniversary of the KJV must be of most heartfelt interest to the members of the PRC. Most, if not all, of our membership is English-speaking, whether as a first or as a second language. The KJV is the Bible officially used in our divine worship services, and in our instruction of our children and youth in the catechism classes. Our Bible study and society groups gather around the KJV. Missionaries sent out by the PRC to destinations both domestic and foreign carry with them and preach from the KJV. It is the version of Scripture required for every student of our Christian day schools, and used in those schools for devotions and chapel exercises, among other things. And it ought to be, cheerfully and gladly, the version which we use in our family devotions in the home and in our own personal study of God’s Word.

This series of articles will unfold the fascinating, twisting, sometimes disheartening, and oftentimes surprising history, not only of the King James Version, but of the English Bible in general, beginning with the translations by colleagues of John Wycliffe in 1380-82 and continuing through almost 220 years to the first printing of the KJV in 1611. These articles will not enter into the worthy, but sometimes bewildering, area of textual criticism, except to state the facts of the case as they are known with regard to the Textus Receptus, the Greek text of the New Testament used by the King James translators, and to defend the verity of the Textus Receptus against the faulty text of Westcott-Hort which is the basis of most, if not all, of modern Bible versions. Nor will these articles give a detailed critique of modern Bible versions,[2] although our above description of the KJV as the “most majestic, reverent, accurate, faithful, and God-glorifying English translation” demands a general defense over against the modern versions.

You may wonder, as the questioning reader and perhaps as a student who has never much enjoyed his history classes, why it is necessary to begin 220 years before the KJV and recount the entire history of English Bible translation, if this year is a commemoration only of the King James Version. The reason is that the history of the translation of the English Bible is an organic history, by which is meant that it is living, growing, and progressive. Each successive English Bible translation built upon the one before it—or, more accurately, sprung out of its preceding translation—while at the same time checking the previous translation against the original languages and other vernacular translations to improve upon the previous translation and provide the church with a more faithful rendering of God’s Word in their own tongue.

This was exactly the perspective of the King James translators. Listen to Bishop Miles Smith in the “Translators to the Reader,” the great preface to the original 1611 edition that is no longer, regrettably, included in editions of the KJV. Smith writes: “Truly (good Christian reader) we never thought from the beginning, that we should need to make a new translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one…but to make a good one better; or, out of many good ones [to make] one principal good one…that hath been our endeavor, that our mark [goal].”[3] Therefore, it is our endeavor in these articles to trace, if sketchily, the whole organic history of that “one principal good” translation, the KJV.

Now, we may not launch at once into the history without sharply defining from what viewpoint we will describe that history. Well, you may say, is that not obvious? But look. The PRC will not be the only ones marking the 400th anniversary of the KJV in 2011. There are and will be many commemorations of the KJV in this year. Especially will these take place in Great Britain—where, not unexpectedly, the KJV has fallen into disrepute—in an attempt to revive it among the people as a mark of British identity and a flower of British history and culture. The “King James Bible Trust” (KJBT) was launched in London on November 23, 2010, amid great applause and aplomb in the presence of the Duke of Edinburgh himself, who is the husband of the Queen of England. The KJBT began its celebrations of 2011 at Hampton Court Palace, where the KJV was commissioned in 1604, and will continue them throughout the year with great energy to the culmination on November 16, 2011 in a grand service in Westminster Abbey. The target of these festivities and energetic activities was pointed out by KJBT chairman Frank Field in his remarks at the KJBT launch evening in 2010. Said Field: “We are here to celebrate a man and a book, a king and a Bible…we are here to celebrate the one book associated with [James I’s] name: his Bible.”[4] The focus of the celebrations of the KJV, for the KJBT, will be man. And, mind you, not even the 54 men whose blood, sweat, and tears produced this translation. These men were noted only as “academics” in one speech at the launch on Nov. 23 (of all persons, by the atheist Harvard professor Niall Ferguson). No, the sole honor goes to the king! He is the man of the year! It is “his Bible”!

For just a moment, leave the “King James” part out of it! It is highly significant that the appellations “King James Version” or “Authorized Version” date only from the early 19th century, to distinguish this translation from the modern versions that began to spring up like hydra’s heads about that time; up to the early 19th century, all the way from 1611, this version was known simply as “The Holy Bible.”[5] What is the Holy Bible? Our Belgic Confession explains that to us in Articles 3-7. Article 3 reads in part: “We confess that this Word of God was not sent, nor delivered by the will of man, but that “holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost,” as the apostle Peter saith. And afterwards God, from a special care which he has for us and for our salvation, commanded his servants…to commit this revealed Word to writing.”[6] Concerning the source of the authority of holy Scripture, Article 5 declares: “We receive [the books of the Old Testament and New Testament–JL], and these only, as holy and canonical…believing, without any doubt, all things contained in them, not so much because the church receives and approves them as such, but because the Holy Ghost witnesseth in our hearts that they are from God, whereof they carry the evidence in themselves.”[7]

Therefore, far from being a celebration of man, let alone of King James, the PRC will recount the history of the English Bible from the antithetical perspective of God’s sovereignty, and of God’s providential guidance of this period of church history, whereby he provided his English-speaking church with a Bible translation that faithfully ascribes all glory to him alone. We will govern our account of that history in these articles from that perspective, and will point out where God’s guiding hand is especially revealed. These articles will apply the Reformed confession of “Let God be God!” and “God everything; man nothing” to the history of the English Bible.

Such a perspective is possible only because of God’s graciousness to us. The means he has been pleased to use to preserve this high regard for the Bible as the very Word of God in our midst is our Reformed creeds. The creeds of our churches are a bulwark against the degradation of Scripture by unbelieving men and churches. The Reformed creeds are not additions to Holy Writ. Rather, the Reformed standards arise from it as the walls of a fortress built upon a sure foundation. The Reformed creeds interpret the doctrines of holy Scripture for us. When the attacks of the enemy are launched, and when the Bible is called into question as God’s Word, we are not bewildered and overcome, but have a ready answer and a sure defense. Moreover, the creeds provide our unity with the church as it has confessed the truth of Scripture as the very Word of God throughout all ages. This is why they are also called the Reformed confessions. To “confess” is literally, “to say the same thing as,” and by holding to the ecumenical creeds of the Apostles, of Nicea, of Chalcedon, and of Athanasius; to the Three Forms of Unity; and to the Reformed liturgical forms, the Church Order, and the Formula of Subscription, the PRC “say the same thing as” the church of Christ of all ages with regard to the truth of holy Scripture.

Therefore, as we recount the history of the English Bible and of the King James Version in particular, let us also be eagerly studying our Reformed creeds, including and especially, in the Protestant Reformed Churches, our settled and binding “Declaration of Principles.”