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‘Into all truth’ with the King James Bible

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Sermon for King’s College Chapel, 15 May 2011 ‘Into all truth’ with the King James Bible David F. Ford Regius Professor of Divinity; Director, Cambridge Inter‐faith Programme ‘I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot bear them now.  Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth. ’ – John 16:12‐13.  Those words from today’s Gospel reading in the King James Version are simple and direct, like John’s Greek, and do not vary much in different translations.  But what content! ‐  Especially the amazing promise that the Holy Spirit ‘will guide you into all truth’.   Some commentators see this as meaning just the truth about Jesus, and not, for example,the range of things that a university like this inquires into.  But the truth that John’s Jesus is concerned with embraces all this university’s disciplines and more.  Just think ofone of the best known passages of the King James Version, which is also perhaps the most influential short piece of Christian theology in the past two thousand years, the Prologue of John’s Gospel.  ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God… All things were made by him; and without him was not any thing made that was made.’ (John 1:1, 3) Here Jesus Christ is identified with God and associated with the creation of all things and people.    That sets the horizon for Christian thought, imagination, inquiry and action, a universal horizon within which the foundation of universities fits perfectly.  We can be confident not only that all truth is God’s and is related to God’s truth and wisdom embodied in Jesus Christ, but also that there is always more of it, and the seeking of truth and wisdom will go on and on and on stretching our imaginations and minds.   Within all that truth‐seeking, the part that we are especially concerned with today is the attempt by the translators of the King James Version, many of them members of this University (and one of this College), to do justice to the Bible in an English translation.   Why is it important to be true to the Hebrew and the Greek of the original manuscripts? Why is the Bible itself significant? The translators are in no doubt.  In their wonderful Preface to the first edition they justify their project at length from many angles; they attack opponents of their project and those who go about translating very differently; but above all they are almost ecstatic as they celebrate the qualities of the Bible.  They 1quote St.  Augustine: ‘Ama scripturas et amabit te sapientia ‐ Love the Scriptures, and wisedome will love thee’.  Then they take off, revelling in a riot of imagery.  Whatever the parallel, the Bible excels it.  Vulcan’s armour? – the Bible is ‘a whole armorie of weapons, offensive and defensive’.  A healing herb? – the Bible is ‘a whole paradise of trees of life, which bring foorth fruit every moneth, and the fruit thereof is for meate, and the leaves for medicine’.   ‘A pot of Manna, or a cruse of oyle’? – the Bible is ‘a showre of heavenly bread sufficient for a whole host, be it never so great… a whole cellar full of oyle vessels; whereby all our necessities may be provided for, and our debtsdischarged’.  And so on, culminating in a new beatitude: ‘Happie is the man that delighteth in the Scripture, and thrise happie that meditateth in it day and night. ’   Then the question comes: ‘But how shall men meditate in that, which they cannot understand? How shall they understand that which is kept close in an unknowen tongue?’ In response they give their well known defence of translation in general, and in particular their own of the Bible.  And what an extraordinary book they gave us! This year has rightly resounded with appreciation of it, and of its astonishing, profound influence over so many years on so many people, churches, cultures, works of art, literature and music, and through all those on the English language.  I wholeheartedly join in the chorus, and also support those who are determined that the King James Version be kept in use.  Let me add my little testimony.    In 1998 a group of which I was a member was commissioned to lead the opening and closing plenary sessions of the Lambeth Conference for over 800 bishops of the Anglican Communion.  The theme text was the Second Epistle of St Paul to the Corinthians.   I myself had once spent five years with a colleague, Frances Young, writing a book on 2Corinthians, which included a translation of it.  In the months preceding the conference our group met regularly to study 2 Corinthians and prepare the plenaries.  A key moment was when one member suggested we study it mainly in the King James Version.  In the many hours of study that followed, I was amazed, not only how effectively that translation stimulated our discussion, but also how much it added to my earlier five years of wrestling with that short text, including studying it in Greek.  The dense, rich letter of Paul, much of it in difficult Greek, was freshly illuminated by the vigorous, often angular and nearly literal translation, which risked being as awkward and difficult as Paul.  The King James Version refused to domesticate or smooth it down, and we were often left exclaiming at the translation’s intractability, and its intensity of meaning that could never quite be grasped.  And all those were reactions that Frances 2Young and I had experienced some years previously in the course of wrestling to produce our far inferior translation.  There is nothing like trying to imitate a work of genius to convince you of its inimitable greatness.    But at this point let us recall our text: ‘the Spirit of truth… will guide you into all truth’.  If we combine this promise with the King James Preface’s celebration of the overwhelming abundance of the Bible’s meaning we might appreciate more fully a point made eloquently by the French philosopher and biblical commentator Paul Ricoeur: that that meaning lies not only behind the text or within the text but also ahead of the text.   A rich text will go on generating fresh interpretations; and, since all translation is also interpretation, it will also go on inspiring fresh translations.  So we cannot be content with one translation.  Languages change, cultures change, older translations do not convey now what they did when they were written, and the best way to honour them is to learn from them, to go on consulting them, but also to do what they did in their day: namely, to produce translations for our day.   The sound biblical reason for doing this is suggested by our text: there is far more truth to discover, complete truth is with God in God’s future, and so, in the matter of biblical translation as in all the disciplines of this university, we must acknowledge the incompleteness of what we have achieved so far and the need to be continually open to doing fuller justice to the truth.      I would add one further point about the author of today’s Gospel.  What was the effect on him of his own Gospel’s promise that he would be given the Holy Spirit and would be guided into all truth? We do not have to speculate about one part of the answer because we can see the effect in the Gospel he wrote.  The effect was that he gave us one of the most daring writings in history.  Just look at his Prologue, already quoted, as an example of what he believed the Spirit guided him to say.  In it he does not claim to be quoting Jesus or anyone else.  He is doing new, daring theology, saying things which had never been said before and which have been central to Christian thinking ever since.    And what about us? If we too believe this promise and are willing to receive this Spirit what might we say and do? Will we just repeat what John said, in whatever translation? Or will we do what John did and be guided even further into truth, the truth opened up by the Bible and the truth opened up by the sciences, the arts, the humanities, technologies, other religions, languages, cultures and civilizations? It is quite a thought that since the introduction of the King James Version of the Bible probably no week, even perhaps no day, has gone by without that Bible being read in this University.  Let us pray that this legacy will be continued by us who have the responsibility for it, and that we will fulfil it not only by continuing to read the King James Version but also by asking for and receiving the Holy Spirit who can lead us further into God’s truth in Scripture and in the whole of God’s universe.