A Confession: Duane W. H. Arnold, PhD
“The flattening of language is a flattening of meaning. Language which is not taut with a sense of its own significance, which is apologetic in its desire to be acceptable to a modern consciousness, language in other words which submits to its audience, rather than instructing, informing, moving, challenging and even entertaining them, is no longer a language which can carry the freight the Bible requires. It has, in short, lost all authority.”
Adam Nicolson, God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible
I have a confession to make. It is a confession that will expose me to the opprobrium and ridicule of many learned friends. My confession is this, for the last 45 years my Bible of choice has been the Authorized Version (1611) also known as the King James Version.
Now, before you start pounding out denunciations on your keyboards, let me explain myself.
Firstly, having had to study Hebrew and Greek, I recognize the shortcomings of many of the translation decisions made in the preparation of the Authorized Version. Secondly, I will openly acknowledge that the translators did not have the best manuscripts (even those available in their own time) on which to base their translation. Indeed, over 90% of what we find in the Authorized Version, could already be found in Tyndale’s translation (completed by Coverdale and published in 1535) or that of the Bishops’ Bible (first published in 1568, revised in 1572 and 1602). Yet, the committee that translated the Authorized Version accomplished achieved something that the preceding translations had not been able to do; they produced a Bible that was meant to be read aloud in public and that rather than flattening the translation to the lowest common denominator, they instead filled the Authorized Version with a memorable majesty. This was a translation in which the primary purpose was not that of pleasing an individual in their private devotions or academic studies but, as the title page indicated, was “appointed to be read in Churches”. The unique religious language of the Authorized Version was not the common English of its time. It was a religious language with, as Nicolson says, “a sense of its own significance” and it was a language meant to encourage and gather together a community, the Church.
This, however, brings us to another point of thought and reflection, should religious language be specialized or should it be the common language of any person in the street? We know that the Hebrew of the Old Testament was very different from the commonly spoken Aramaic of Christ’s time. On the other hand, the Koine Greek of the Septuagint (LXX) was the same as that spoken throughout the Eastern Mediterranean and was freely quoted in the writings that make up the New Testament. Nevertheless, to this day there is a specialized religious language that persists in many traditions. Old Church Slavonic is not Russian. Coptic used in Church is not the same at that spoken among Copts in either Egypt or Ethiopia. The Latin of a Roman Catholic Mass may still be heard in France, or Germany, or Italy, or, indeed, here in the United States. Moreover, it is not strictly speaking, the Latin of imperial Rome.
All this is to say, there seems to be something inherently attractive, at least to some, of an elevated religious language that is somehow distinct from what we hear about us on the street, or in films, or in our offices.
Now, in recent decades both mainstream churches and independent assemblies have made the argument of “relevance”, that is, if we wish to attract people to our churches, we must be relevant, in dress, in demeanor and most especially in language. Suits and cassocks have been exchanged for open neck shirts. Organs have been exchanged for praise bands. Prayer books have been revised and updated. The language that once referred to the cure of souls has been replaced with the vocabulary of secular business management as we refer to “development”, “giving units”, and methodologies to manage growth or, more often, to manage decline as our attempts at relevance seem to have largely failed.
For myself (and I would be happy to hear others on this topic) I believe there is a place for a religious language and, indeed, an experience in our places of worship, that takes us beyond ourselves and that inspires the “beauty of holiness”. If we allow this to slip away completely, I fear that we will be impoverished by its loss.