I’ve been re-reading a wonderful book by American historian Benson Bobrick, Wide as the Waters: The Story of the English Bible and the Revolution It Inspired.
This is quite a weighty title. You might not expect it, but for quite a while it appeared on the New York Times bestseller list. This was surprising and intriguing enough for me to read it the first time, but this second time has been even more engaging.
Bobrick traces the genesis of the English Bible from John Wycliffe through William Tyndale and Miles Coverdale through figures like Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, and James VI of Scotland, who became James I of England, France, and Ireland. Most of us know (only a little) about him principally because of the Bible version that bears his name.
There were of course many other nearly equal or lesser names intimately involved in the striking drama of how English Bibles came to be, particularly the work known as the Authorized text – the King James Bible. For those details I simply recommend Bobrick’s book.
If you read it you’ll be compelled to take a broader view of the Holy Spirit’s prevenient work. Within the context of political and theological conflicts between Roman Catholics and Protestants, between high church Anglicans and Puritans, and between British monarchs and Popes, you’ll discover that people were literally burning each other at the stake over matters of Bible translation! Apparently the Lord can use any of us anytime, anywhere, in any way to accomplish his purposes.
Bobrick begins by saying, “The first question ever asked by an Inquisitor of a “heretic” was whether he knew any part of the Bible in his own tongue. It was asked of a man who belonged to a dissident religious sect known as the Waldensians. They emphasized Bible study, lay preaching, and the priesthood of all believers. In time, the same question would be asked of thousands of others before the course of history would render its dark and cruel implications null and void.”
Bobrick goes on to say, “Next to the Bible itself, the English Bible was (and is) the most influential book ever published. It gave every literate English-speaking person complete access to the sacred text. This helped to foster a spirit of inquiry through reading and reflection. These in turn accelerated the growth of commercial printing and ever-widening circulation and production of books. As one contemporary put it, ‘Books formerly imprisoned in the libraries of monasteries were redeemed from bondage to freely walk about in the light.’
Once people were free to interpret the Word of God according to the light of their own understanding, they began to question the authority of the inherited institutions, both religious and secular. This led to reformation within the church, to the rise of constitutional government in England and elsewhere, and to the end of the divine right of kings. Although efforts to translate the Bible into English had actually begun in support for England’s monarchy and its independence from the Pope, in the end it contributed to and justified defiance of the monarchy itself.”
The value I think of Bobrick’s argument rests only partly in its historical weight and plausibility. There’s also a deep appreciation in it for the (sometimes barely perceptible) role of the Holy Spirit in and over human affairs.
The story of the English Bible is frankly as shocking as it is beautiful. It’s filled with moments of deep faith and courage, but also debilitating, discrediting pride, and demonstrable wickedness. To help make sense of it all, we remember the first verse of Proverbs 21, “The heart of the king is in the hand of the Lord; like rivers of water he turns it wherever he will.”
The King James Bible that ultimately evolved and emerged was indeed used by the Holy Spirit to convey the truth of the gospel in ways that changed the hearts and minds of many and, in many ways, the course of history.
Whatever currency this venerable version still has in our own lives, we do well to conclude here with portions of the preface to early editions of the KJV. It was written by Miles Smith, one of the translators and editors, for the group as a whole. It goes some distance in revealing the heart of the matter that these all-too-human but faithful scholars at least tried to bear in mind:
But now what piety without truth? What truth without the Word of God? What Word of God without the Scripture?
The Scriptures we are commanded to search…If we be ignorant, they will instruct us; if out of the way, they will bring us home; if out of order, they will reform us; if in heaviness, comfort us; if dull, quicken us; if cold, inflame us.
Tolle lege! Tolle lege! Take up and read! Take up and read! But how shall we meditate on that which we cannot understand? How shall we understand that which is kept close in an unknown tongue?
…Translation it is that openeth the window to let in the light; that breaketh the shell that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtain that we may look into the most Holy place; that removeth the cover of the well that we may come by the water…
Ye are brought unto the fountains of living water which ye digged not; do not cast earth into them… If light be come into the world, love not darkness more than light; if clothing be offered, go not naked, starve not yourselves…
It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. But a blessed thing it is, and will bring us to everlasting blessedness in the end, when God speaketh unto us, to hearken; when he setteth his word before us, to read it; when he stretcheth out his hand and calleth, to answer, here am I.