Monday, 14 November 2011

1611 And All That

Allan Massie rehearses the usual, purely aesthetic, argument for the King James Bible.

Peter Hitchens has been doing some work recently on making the case for the Book of Common Prayer based on its theology rather than on its poetry, but I can only wish him good luck. Where the BCP is concerned, its lobby is in no small measure made up of those who are particularly attached to the later musical settings of it. Those have not recently become confined to cathedrals and to the chapels of Oxbridge colleges. Rather, they have always been so. (There are particularly naive cradle Catholics who imagine that that is the sort of thing that will be going on in the Ordinariate. It is not.)

Even beyond that, the argument is about the language. But the whole point of it at the time was that it was in ordinary speech, specifically designed to be universally understood down to every last word. Peter seems to grasp that point. But, to the best of my knowledge, no other partisan of the BCP does. Quite the reverse, in fact. Made all the odder by the fact that many of us, even in childhood, never did have much difficulty understanding the language of parochial Evensong, which is not remotely like the cathedral or the college chapel kind's omitted confession and absolution, no sermon, almost no concession to the presence of the congregation in the room, and deliberately unpastoral timing in the mid-afternoon, although it is telling that a collection is still taken. Nor understanding the BCP Communion Services of early Sunday mornings or of mid-weeks. That it was practically Slavonic, which we should sit back and enjoy for the rhythm if we did not understand the words, was always as lost on us as it was, and was intended to be, on the original hearers.

Bringing us to the King James Bible, rarely read even at parochial Evensongs: the Psalms in the BCP are not the King James, but an earlier translation; whereas the readings for Communion Services, which are King James, are printed in full in the BCP, those for Matins and Evensong are not, only the Bible references are given. But, again, the King James Bible was specifically designed to be universally understood at the time, and in fact has a history of fostering popular religion. John Wesley changed parts of the BCP to suit his theology, but did not alter the language; his Prayer Book was still in widespread use among Methodists until fairly recently, and may still be in parts of the world, while the Authorised Version was universal, as it was in Nonconformity generally, and as it still is in much of the American Bible Belt and elsewhere.

Yet in the country of its origin, the argument advanced for it, even for its use in church, is that it is the text preferred by atheist aesthetes. What does it say about it, that that is the case? Is its literary impact even that great, certainly compared to Shakespeare, and no one suggests that he should be read in church? Yes, many modern translations are heavily politicised both theologically and in a wider sense, as are certain lectionary arrangements of their material. So was, and is, the King James. So will any translation always be. All translation is exegetical, whether of the Bible or of anything else. Again I appeal for someone, somewhere to reissue the Missal's RSV Edition, using by far the most edifying translation of the Bible into modern English. "The Bible as literature" is always, ultimately, a refusal to engage with the Bible as the Bible, at least if one allows oneself to stop there.

There are theological arguments to be made for the King James Bible, based on its design specifically for liturgical use and in order to aid theological scholarship within the eclessial community as such, based on the authority that Authorised it, and based on fidelity to the Textus Receptus, a position which, whatever else may be said of it, also has adherents in several other language-groups, including a particularly strong following among the Finns. The first of those points is a very good one indeed, to which the answer is the affirmed superiority of other meetings of that same need. The second and third are also theological points, the answers to which are likewise theological. And that, alas, is why they have not been the points made all over Radio Four and the better newspapers this year. They do these things much better in America, in Northern Ireland, and on the ultraconservative fringes of English, Scottish and Welsh Calvinism. I may not agree with them. But at least I can respect them.


  1. I thought you were a Thomist? You certainly were in your last book. The Divine Attributes are identical among themselves and with the Divine Essence, and include Absolute Truth, Absolute Goodness and Absolute Beauty.

    It follows that nothing can be true which is not both good and beautiful, nothing can be good which is not both true and beautiful, and nothing can be beautiful which not both true and good. There is a real identity between doctrinal orthodoxy, moral goodness, and good liturgical aesthetics.

  2. Precisely so. Thus, since God is Immutable, so the true, the good and the beautiful are Immutable.

    Since God cannot be known by spatial, temporal and material beings save He disclose Himself within and through his spatial, temporal and material Creation, so the true, the good and the beautiful cannot be known save by that divine self-disclosure, and wherever we discern the true, the good and the beautiful, there we hear and read the Word of God, the Divine Logos Incarnate in Jesus Christ.

    Since the Absolute Truth, Absolute Goodness and Absolute Beauty is (not "are") the absolute interpersonal intimacy and love that is the Life of the Triune God, so the true, the good and the beautiful are always to be measured and evaluated in terms of interpersonal intimacy and love, which is always a participation in that Triune Life, possibly only by the grace of God, so that wherever is that intimacy, there is that participation, there is grace, there is truth, goodness and beauty.

    And so on, and on, and on. The morally evil cannot have aesthetic, including literary, merit. Both education standards and those of general behaviour are bound to decline in an ugly environment. Both doctrinal and moral orthodoxy are bound to decline where the Sacred Liturgy is celebrated without due reverence. It is wonderfully, gloriously inexhaustible.

    The question is the relationship between adherence to the Book of Common Prayer or the King James Bible on the one hand, and adherence to doctrinal orthodoxy and the Christian Ethic on the other. That is precisely the question of how beautiful it really is, or really is not.