CS Lewis on New Translations

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One constant yet, frankly, confusing theological position that keeps appearing is King James only fundamentalism. I grew up reading and memorizing Bible verses from the Authorized Version and thus am sympathetic to the beauty and power of the translation. But try as I may, I do not understand the dogmatic stance of King James only theology. It’s arguments are weak, to say the least, uncharitable, and distract us from focusing on the gospel of God and the glory of Christ.

With that said, I came across an intersting essay from CS Lewis on modern translations of which the late 20th century apologists was in favor of them. As a British author and professor of medieval literature, Lewis enjoyed the King Jame Version of the Bible yet found it inadequate as the one and only translation for English readers.

Lewis’s essay, entitled “Modern Translations of the Bible,” was first published as an introduction to J. B. Phillips Letters to Young Churches: A Translation of the New Testament Epistles in 1947. It now finds itself in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics.

Lewis begins by acknowledging the severity of the debate. “Some people,” he writes, “whom I have met go even further and feel that a modern translation is not only unnecessary but even offensive. They cannot bear to see the time-honoured words altered; it seems to them irreverent.” (229)

That remains true today, yet the argument has evolved to charges of demonic heresy. KJV-only fundamentalists regularly suggest publishers and readers of modern translations are demonic and have literally stripped the Bible of its Spirit-inspired power. Their argument is based off of a fundamental confusion of textual criticism and the differene between the Textus Receptus and the Alexandrian Text. The truth is older manuscripts closer to the original autographs are more reliable than more recent manuscripts. By rejecting this obvious point, KJV-only fundamentals plant their flag on intellectuall folly.

With that said, Lewis offers his defense of new translations. First, the King James Version is not the first and only translation. He writes:

In the first place the kind of objection which they feel to a new translation is very like the objection which was once felt to any English translation at all. Dozens of sincerely pious people in the sixteenth century shuddered at the idea of turning the time-honoured Latin of the Vulgate into our common and (as they thought) ‘barbarous’ English. A sacred truth seemed to them to have lost its sanctity when it was stripped of the polysyllabic Latin, long heard at Mass and at Hours, and put into ‘language such as men do use’—language steeped in all the commonplace associations of the nursery, the inn, the stable, and the street. The answer then was the same as the answer now. (229)

To the strange surprise of many KJV-only defenders, the Authorized version was not the first English translation. John Wycliffe’s 14th century translation from the Latin Vulgate was the first. After him came the Geneva and the Tyndale and a host of other translations. In fact, most of what is in the KJV is taken directly from William Tyndale who was executed by the British king simply for translating the Bible into the vernacular.

Furthermore, King James’s translation was not popular at first. The King ordered the translation for political reasons. A single translation would united his kingdom he thought. Yet the people were content with their translations, especially the Genevan translation which played an important role in the Reformation.

Finally, when we read the KJV, we are not actually reading the KJV. Google 1611 KJV and you will find what was first published. It looks nothing like what we commonly read today. So while claiming the purity of the KJV, we often read an updated version of the KJV.

This only proves Lewis’s point. Christianity is no a religion of princes, but palpers. Lewis writes:

The same divine humility which decreed that God should become a baby at a peasant-woman’s breast, and later an arrested field-preacher in the hands of the Roman police, decreed also that He should be preaching in a vulgar, prosaic and unliterary language. If you can stomach the one, you can stomach the other. The Incarnation is in that sense an irreverent doctrine: Christianity, in that sense, an incurably irreverent religion. When we expect that it should have come before the World in all the beauty that we now feel in the Authorised Version we are as wide of the mark as the Jews were in expecting that the Messiah would come as a great earthly King. The real sanctity, the real beauty and sublimity of the New Testament (as of Christ’s life) are of a different sort: miles deeper or further in. (230)

Secondly, the King James Version is no longer clear and readable. Not only are words like “thee,” “thou” and “beseech” foreign to modern readers, but other verses are awkward. Lewis cites 1 Corinthains 4:4 which says, “For I know nothing by myself; yet am I not hereby justified: but he that judgeth me is the Lord.” The English Standard Version, for example, says, “For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me.” The KJV was perfectly clear five hundred years ago, but language evolves and becomes confusing when translations are not updated.

This leads Lewis to suggest:

The truth is that if we are to have translation at all we must have periodical re-translation. There is no such thing as translating a book into another language once and for all, for a language is a changing thing. If your son is to have clothes it is no good buying him a suit once and for all: he will grow out of it and have to be re-clothed. (230-231)

He is exactly right. Language, like the Greek we find in the New Testament, evolves and updating translations help current generations to properly understand Scripture and to maintain a pure theology.

Finally, Lewis argues we ought to move on from the KJV because it is such a beautiful and solemn translation. “Beauty exalts,” he writes, “but beauty also lulls.” (231)

I believe Lewis is right. Suggesting one should predominately read and study modern translations in no way means to reject the King James Version. No literary work has contributed to the development and evolution of English more than the KJV. Yet KJV-only fundamentalism is inadequate on a number of grounds.

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