Why do atheists love the King James Bible?

That’s one of the topics for discussion at the Battle of Ideas 2011.  Tomorrow afternoon, 5:30pm at the Royal College of Art.

Elizabeth Hunter the director of Theos, a public theology think-tank will be the Christian voice on a panel including Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association.

Find out more here. including a very useful set of links to further reading.

I’ve spoken elsewhere about Dawkins’ love for the KJB and how ridiculous it is that he thinks “religion” has “hijacked” it.

Something else that occurs to me is this.  The triumph of a Bible in the vernacular was at the heart of the English renaissance.  What it did was to put the word at the heart of worship instead of images.  Very crudely put, words are a matter of truth, and images a matter of beauty (obviously words can be beautiful (as we’ll see) and images very meaningful – but let’s work with this crass generalisation for now).  Words provoke the intellect, images excite the senses.  Images without words keep people enslaved to the interpretations of the establishment.  Power is kept when images are at the centre.  But words written in the language of the people devolves power.  This was the revolutionary thing.  But it was revolutionary because the words conveyed ideas – and those ideas were liberating.

When it is understood that the Lord of all became a servant (or in the King James Version, a “minister”) then your understanding of earthly power is transformed.  The most powerful needs to be the prime minister – the chief servant.

When it is understood that the Ruler of heaven reigns as Man and even because He is now Man, then you start to believe that government should be “of the people, for the people and by the people.”  (That sentiment was first expressed in John Wycliffe’s preface to the Bible!).

When it is understood that the Logic of all creation took flesh and was seen, handled, tested and known, then you start to study the world in a new way.  The Word who became flesh leads you to expect both Laws and empirical testing to discover those laws.  If you only believe in “laws” you will create philosophers.  If you only believe in “empirical testing” you will create technology.  But for the modern scientific method you need both.  Without the Biblical worldview it is inconceivable that science as we know it could have arisen.

When it is understood that God’s riches – His grace – should not be paid back to God (as though He needs anything) but freely paid forwards to our fellow man, then you begin having a different view of earthly riches.  Freed by God’s grace you stop hoarding or displaying your wealth and start paying it forwards, re-investing it.  And you begin to realize the truth of Christ’s words “freely you have received, freely give.”  Free grace gives rise to free markets.

Therefore it is no wonder that atheists should love the King James Bible.  In so many spheres of modern life it was the understanding of the Bible that unleashed incredible human flourishing.  This word has made our modern world and we cannot understand our world without understanding this book.

But here’s the irony, and partly the King James Translation is to blame.  If the beauty of the Bible becomes our focus then we begin to commit the errors of the medieval church.  If we simply praise the style without dealing with the content, then we miss the real power of the book.  I say that the King James Translation is partly to blame.  This is because it was born archaic.  It was based on the Bishop’s Bible which itself, one way or another, was based on Tyndale’s translation from almost a century earlier.  While Tyndale translated for the plough-boy, the KJV was translated to be read aloud in worship, and beauty was uppermost in the translator’s thinking.

Of course there’s nothing wrong with beauty!  And many parts of the Scriptures are very beautiful indeed, and meant to be so (think of the Hebrew poetry of the Psalms).  But much of the Bible is rough and ready and written in the Koine Greek of the marketplace.  Yet the KJV renders the whole of it in measured and dignified cadences.  This is not a problem for a 17th century church service, but for a 21st century reader it doesn’t always allow the same degree of understanding that could really unleash the power of the Bible.

A love for the King James Bible should not stop at its lyrical beauty.  If it does it betrays the real revolutionary power which the English Bible unleashed in the 16th and 17th centuries.  The English renaissance was birthed out of the content of the Bible – the gospel of Jesus Christ.  And if we want another renaissance, that’s the place we’ll find it!

Comments are closed.