God’s Secretaries — a Review

Today the Avondale United Methodist Church Book Club discussed God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible, by Adam Nicolson.

We agreed it the reading could sometime be tedious, but that it was a book well worth reading.

The King James Bible happened during the reign of King James (duh), right after the Elizabethan era. Many of us realized this was a rather blind spot in our historical understanding. The book was very enlightening about the world of that day. Some people enjoyed learning the politics of the era.

My particular appreciation was on the description of the language of the day. It seems the Jacobean world (Jacobean is the term for that historical era) was a world of the Word, rather than one of sculpture or the visual arts. It came right out of the time of Shakespeare — which gives us an idea of why Shakespeare and his era are considered such a focal point of English literature. The word was the primary art form.

The rules the translators were given was a fascinating part of the process. They translated by committee, and they translated quite successfully that way. There was no sense of individual inspiration in translation, or even spiritual devotion in the process.

What there was was a sense of acting on authority. As one person mentioned in our discussion, they were God’s secretaries, as in a Secretary of State, someone who acts with and on behalf of someone else’s authority. They acted with the authority of God, not their own, they acted with the authority of the King, not their own. It was that sense of authority that caused the strife of the age, the religious sectarianism. The separatists believed in the authority of the Scripture over Pope or king. The Puritans likewise saw authority of

It was that sense of authority that caused the strife of the age, the religious sectarianism. The separatists believed in the authority of the Scripture over Pope or king. The Puritans likewise saw authority of the word over the Pope or any popish remains in the church. The Bishops saw the authority of both King, Church and Scripture. But they all saw authority.

I want to jump to one of the rules about the translation. They weren’t to choose the most literal translation, but the one the reflected the most meanings. You can see this in the words chosen, they were pregnant with multiple options, multiple perspectives, they weren’t limiting but expanding the options. The plays on words are multitude. There is a richness to the language, a sense of power.

Below is the passage I found in the book that I feel reflects the author’s thesis statement, and also says a lot about the Jacobean use of language, versus ours:

“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. The language of the King James Bible is the language of … an instructed order, of richness as a form of beauty, of authority as a form of good; The New English Bible is motivated by the opposite, an anxiety not to bore or intimidate. It is driven, in other words, by the desire to please and, in that way, is a form of language which has died.”

Our modern language tends to the flattening trend, the appeasing trend. It stands for nothing, has no authority. We are an age adrift, and too many of our modern translations end up that same way.

I didn’t mention this next idea in the discussion, because its form just came to me as I write this post. But too many of our translations empty the Word of power by trying to appease. God loses his Fatherhood. We remove the metaphors (God no longer comes down, but merely enters the world, etc.). The miracles lose their mystery. All the hard edges, the stumbling blocks that the Word says Christ will be to people, are removed or explained away.

We need a Scripture that doesn’t pander to us, but challenges, informs, and even entertains. We need a language that can carry an authority from beyond our own little world and world view, an authority from the timeless and eternal. The language of Shakespeare and the King James Version can carry it.

(Note: if you are interested, here is a link to a documentary that the author did on the subject of his book.)


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