The lively Oracles of God

Posted in Blog, Christianity

Image result for Richard Bancroft Archbishop of Canterbury. Size: 142 x 185. Source:

420 years ago, in January 1604, some months after coming to England (having worn the crown of Scotland for 37 years), King James I called a conference of church people and theologians at Hampton Court Palace. The organisers of the conference explained that it was ‘for the hearing, and for the determining, things pretended to be amiss in the Church’. Nothing much came of the Hampton Court conference except – and it is a notable exception – that Dr John Reynolds of Corpus Christi College, Oxford, suggested that a new translation of the Bible be made.

King James seized eagerly on the proposal. ‘I profess,’ he said, ‘I could never yet see a Bible well translated in English. But I think that, of all, that of Geneva is the worst. I wish that some special pains were taken for an uniform translation, which should be done by the best-learned men in both Universities, then reviewed by the Bishops, presented to the Privy Council, lastly ratified by Royal authority, to be read in the whole Church, and none other.’

Richard Bancroft, Bishop of London, and soon to become Archbishop of Canterbury, wasn’t as keen on the idea as the King. ‘If every man’s humour were followed,’ he complained grumpily, ‘there would be no end of translating. But if there is to be a new translation, let it be without notes.’

The King heartily agreed with this. ‘I have seen,’ he said, ‘that among the notes annexed to the Geneva Bible some that are very partial, untrue, seditious, and savouring too much of dangerous and traitorous conceits.’

And so the resolution at the end of the conference said, ‘That a translation be made of the whole Bible, as consonant as can be to the original Hebrew and Greek; and this to be set out and printed, without any marginal notes, and only to be used in all Churches of England in time of divine service’ [my italics].

The decision to make this new translation of the Bible was a landmark in the religious history of English-speaking people. The King was energetic in getting the proposal carried through to a conclusion and deserves credit for the part he played in the production of the ‘Authorised Version’. Actually, although it came to be known as the Authorised Version, it acquired this label, not by royal proclamation, or Act of Parliament, but because of the grand words in it preface in which the translators stated that they offer the work to the King ‘as to the principal Mover and Author of the work: humbly craving of Your most Sacred Majesty, that since things of this quality have ever been subject to the censures of illmeaning and discontented persons, it may receive approbation and patronage from so learned and judicious a Prince as Your Highness is’. I think that it also came to be seen as ‘Authorised’ in the light of the general approval of the people who read it.

The King managed, after some delay, to secure an arrangement whereby the translators were supported by various colleges at Oxford and Cambridge. The 47 members of the translations committee included vice-chancellors, five professors, nine clergy in charge of parishes, and one knight who had taught Greek to Queen Elizabeth. They represented every section of the church and were divided into six groups who had all the books of the Bible, including the Apocrypha, divided between them.

Beginning in 1606, the translators completed their task in 1609 and during 1610 the twelve chief translators trawled over their work in Stationers’ Hall in London and the new Bible was finally published in 1611. This team of scholars did their work at a time when the English language was at its finest and strongest. It was the language which Shakespeare spoke – and this accounts for the Authorised Version’s strength, majesty, simplicity and purity. But I agree with those who argue that this is not the complete explanation for the excellence of the Authorised Version – they believe that it has the breath of the Spirit of God.

And so, in the words of John Richard Green, ‘England became the people of a Book, and that Book was the Bible … It was read in churches, and it was read at home, and everywhere its words, as they fell on ears which custom had not deadened to their force and beauty, kindled a startling enthusiasm … The effect of the Bible in this way was simply amazing. The whole temper of the nation was changed. A new conception of life and man superseded the old. A new moral and religious impulse spread through every class.’

The historian G M Trevelyan said of the Bible: ‘New worlds of history and poetry were opened in its pages to people who had little else to read – indeed it created the habit of reading and reflection in whole classes of the community and turned a tinker into one of the great masters of the English tongue’ (a reference no doubt to John Bunyan and Pilgrim’s Progress).

Perhaps it is a good time for each of us to resolve to spend more time prayerfully reading and reflecting on the book which the Moderator of the Church of Scotland described to King Charles at his Coronation last May as ‘the most valuable thing that this world has to offer. Here is Wisdom, this is the royal Law; these are the lively Oracles of God’.