Origins of the KJV and the Enlightenment

Time for some more historical tidbits. I know, I’m doing these a lot lately but I’m reading a couple of great history books. I recently read a chapter in Alister McGrath’s Christianity’s Dangerous Idea about events in England following the Reformation. Interestingly, even with all the history I studied in seminary, this was mostly a knowledge gap between the establishment of Anglicanism and the revival of Wesley. Two related points, though, that I learned in this chapter.

The first has to do with the creation of the KJV. We pretty much all know that it was politically authorized by King James I. What I didn’t know was that it was designed as a way to combat the Geneva Bible, an English translation complete with margin notes, many of which encouraged the Reformed understanding that citizens can and should violently rise up against a tyrannical political leader. You can see why James didn’t like that very much. Banning the Geneva Bible didn’t work nearly effectively enough, so James authorized his own Bible version which would have no margins. Interestingly, it didn’t work – the Bible was a complete flop – until after the English Civil War, the failed attempt at Puritan governance, and the Restoration of the monarchy.

Important lesson from this: there is no neutral Bible interpretation or translation. Some are very clear about their fully-intentional bias and their purpose for creation, like the King James Version or today’s English Standard Version (which is unashamedly meant to be a conservative Reformed rebuttal of more academic “liberal” translations). Others try very hard to avoid bias, and some definitely do better than others but none do it perfectly. There is no such thing as a completely objective commentary; most can agree on that. There is no such thing as a completely objective translation. There is not even such a thing as a completely objective Greek Bible, because even that requires decision making on minor differences between the early manuscripts we have.

The truth of interpreting the Bible

How Biblical interpretation actually works

The second follows from this. After decades of Europe fighting over religion, ideas of the Enlightenment begin to development. I’d never had the connection drawn for me before, but McGrath makes a point that is shockingly obvious when you consider it:

The necessity for Catholics and Protestants of various traditions to coexist throughout Europe was now so obvious that it required little argument. No one wanted a repeat of the pointless brutalization and destruction that had just ended. Yet one of the more significant outcomes of this realization, an attempt to find common ground on which all could meet, inevitably led to an emphasis on philosophy and those aspects of European culture that were not overtly religious – in other words, its secular aspects. (page 144)

Important lesson from this: attempting to establish religious dominance accomplishes the exact opposite of what it tries to accomplish. All of the respective groups involved in the religious wars believed that the best way to create a true Christian world was through force getting rid of those who disagreed. As a result, eventually, people realized how harmful this was and rejected that religious authority entirely. I don’t hear too many anymore complaining about the demise of Christendom – really just extremes of the American conservative church – but they really don’t have anyone to blame for it except for people who thought exactly like them.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.