It Will Not Return Void

A Reflection on the KJV Celebrations and Controversies


2011 marks the 400th anniversary of the King James Version of the Bible. Though not the first English translation of the Bible, this "Authorized Version" distinguished itself with its attention to scholarly detail and elegant rhetorical style. No other English translation has had such a powerful and lasting impact on Western civilization. Indeed, many scholars have argued that the KJV is the most influential book in the history of the English-speaking world.

Those of us raised in a Christian context can readily testify to this influence. There was a time not too long ago when every pew Bible would be a KJV. If asked to quote John 3:16, odds were that we could all do so in unison, because we all learned the Authorized Version of the verse.

Even the secular community cannot escape the pervasive cultural presence of the King James Bible. Its language has become so deeply ingrained in our speech that we often quote Scripture unawares. Sayings such as "a broken heart," "a sign of the times," "wits’ end," "see eye to eye," "root of the matter," and "sour grapes" all originated in the 1611 Authorized Version of the Bible (in Ps 34:18, Matt 16:3, Ps 107:27, Isa 52:8, Job 19:28, and Jer 31:30, respectively). Literature has been enriched, music has been inspired, and art has been created because of the King James Version.

Celebrations around the world and in a variety of contexts have been held in honor of this landmark publication. My husband and I have had the privilege of attending and participating in a number of these events. In the spring, we both took a class at our seminary taught by renowned church historian Timothy George, which dealt with how the Reformers understood and interpreted Scripture. Over the summer, we visited the Bodleian Library at Oxford University to see their display of original manuscripts, Bibles, and reference books used by Oxford scholars during the translation process.

Oxford was not the only university to honor the KJV this year. My own alma mater, Union University, put on a fabulous interdisciplinary event in September: The R. C. Ryan Center for Biblical Studies hosted a King James Bible Festival that celebrated the anniversary in a big way. At the heart of the conference was a display of historic Bibles, psalters, and other texts that traced the evolution of Bible study and translation over millennia. This exhibit included dozens of pieces from the world-famous Green Collection and from the personal collection of Michael Morgan.

Accompanying the exhibit were lectures by eminent scholars such as John Woodbridge, Timothy George, and Leland Ryken that provided, along with a screening of Norman Stone's documentary KJB: The Book that Changed the World, some background for and insight into the legacy of the Authorized Version. Union faculty members from almost every department (religion, history, politics, science, music, art, literature, sociology, social work, philosophy, economics, and education) gave presentations that explored the connections between their respective disciplines and the King James Version. The music department had a concert in which they performed historic pieces of music that reflect the influence of the KJV, and the art students displayed original artwork that reflected its cultural impact. The theater department staged William Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, representing the other formative influence on the English language. Dramatic readings by British actor and minister Nigel Goodwin of some of the most powerful biblical passages were scattered throughout the event, and brought the Elizabethan language of the KJV to life.

Along with the celebration, however, comes the controversy.

Some Christians cling to the King James Version as "The Holy Bible," the only translation of the Bible the church should use, and the only translation that is the inerrant Word of God. In recent days, we have seen Christians who hold this conviction resort to book-burnings in order to rid their communities of tainted Scriptures (i.e., different translations).

Other Christians reject the KJV entirely as antiquated and flawed. The discovery of older manuscripts and the existence of critical editions of the original Hebrew and Greek texts allow modern scholars, such as those working with Wycliffe Bible Translators, to produce more accurate translations. Still other Christians recognize the limitations of the KJV but still treasure it for its poetry and history. Everyone seems to have an opinion about the King James Version, and the debates are ongoing: Is it accurate? Is it obsolete? Is it relevant?

While I generally shy away from controversy, I must admit that I see some value in this particular disputation. Any discussion related to the King James Version requires its participants to turn to the text. We are forced to be poring constantly and minutely over the Word of God, and we are examining the Word in multiple forms—Hebrew, Greek, Latin, KJV, RSV, NIV, ESV, and more! The close inspection of the biblical text fostered by events and debates such as these is ultimately constructive, no matter the conclusions that are drawn, because it prompts people from a wide range of backgrounds to study the Bible.

As an evangelical Christian, I believe that the Bible is, as it claims, "quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow" (Heb 4:12). Scripture is not a passive thing. The Holy Spirit works through Scripture in a very active way, and such close consideration of it, no matter what language or version, can hardly be anything but helpful. The God who reveals himself to us through Scripture promised, "My Word . . . shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it" (Isa 55:11). As we study His Word, He will keep His promise.

Image courtesy of Manifold Greatness: The Creation and Afterlife of the King James Bible and the Collection of the Washington National Cathedral.

Rebecca Poe Hays is a student at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama. She co-edited C. S. Lewis Remembered (Zondervan, 2006) and The Good, the True, and the Beautiful: Meditations (Chalice, 2007) and has written devotional material for several publications.

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