I present the following from Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones not to condemn new translations, but to share this eminent Reformed pastor’s thoughts on the subject before the present era of Bible translations.
He did prove to be correct on this subject. The modern Bible era has not produced a more Biblically literate Christian. Indeed, studies show Christians are even more ignorant of the Bible today than they were in 1961 when Dr. Lloyd-Jones made these comments. The problem of Biblical illiteracy among English speaking Christians has never really been due to the King James Version.
Christ Reformed Church
Part of an address given by Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones at the National Bible Rally in the Royal Albert Hall, London, on October 24, 1961
I suppose that the most popular of all the proposals at the present moment is to have a new translation of the Bible….
The argument is that people are not reading the Bible any longer because they do not understand its language— particularly the archaic terms—what does your modern man… know about justification, sanctification, and all these biblical terms? And so we are told the one thing that is necessary is to have a translation that Tom, Dick, and Harry will understand, and I began to feel about six months ago that we had almost reached the stage in which the Authorized Version was being dismissed—thrown into the limbo of things forgotten, no longer of any value. Need I apologize for saying a word in favor of the Authorized Version in this gathering? Well, whatever you may think, I am going to do it without any apology.
Let us, first of all, be clear about the basic proposition laid down by the Protestant Reformers: that we must have a Bible which is understandable by people. That is common sense; that is obvious. We all agree too that we must never be obscurantist. We must never approach the Bible in a mere antiquarian spirit. Nobody wants to be like that or to defend such attitudes. But there is a very grave danger incipient in much of the argument that is being presented today for these new translations. There is a danger, I say, of our surrendering something that is vital and essential.
Look at it like this. Take this argument that the modern man does not understand such terms as “justification,” “sanctification,” and so on. I want to ask a question: When did the ordinary man ever understand those terms?… Consider the colliers to whom John Wesley and George Whitefield used to preach in the eighteenth century.
Did they understand them? They had not even been to a day school, an elementary school. They could not read, they could not write. Yet these were the terms which they heard, and the Authorized Version was the version used. The common people have never understood these terms. However, I want to add something to this. We must be very careful in using such an argument against the Authorized Version, for the reason that the very nature and character of the truth which the Bible presents to us is such that it is extremely difficult to put into words at all. We are not describing an animal or a machine; we are concerned here with something which is spiritual, something which does not belong to this world at all, and which, as the apostle Paul in writing to the Corinthians reminds us, “the princes of this world” do not know. Human wisdom is of no value here; it is a spiritual truth; it is something that is altogether different. This is truth about God primarily, and because of that it is a mystery. There is a glory attached to it, there is a wonder, and something which is amazing. The Apostle Paul, who probably understood it better than most, looking at its contents, stands back and says, “Great is the mystery of godliness” (1 Tim. 3:16).
Yet we are told, “It must be put in such simple terms and language that anybody taking it up and reading it is going to understand all about it.” My friends, this is nothing but sheer nonsense! What we must do is to educate the masses of the people up to the Bible, not bring the Bible down to their level. One of the greatest troubles in life today is that everything is being brought down to the same level; everything is cheapened. The common man is made the standard of authority; he decides everything, and everything has to be brought down to him. You are getting it on television and in your newspapers; everywhere standards are coming down and down. Are we to do that with the Word of God? I say, No! What has happened in the past has been this: an ignorant, an illiterate people in this country and in foreign countries, coming into salvation, have been educated up to the Book and have begun to understand it, to glory in it, and to praise God for it. I am here to say that we need to do the same at this present time. What we need is, therefore, not to replace the Authorized Version with what, I am tempted at times to call, the ITV edition of the Bible. We need rather to reach and train people up to the standard and the language, the dignity and the glory of the old Authorized Version….
Very well, my friends, let me say a word for the old book, the old Authorized Version. It was translated by fifty-four men, every one of them a great scholar, and published in 1611.
Here is another thing to commend it to you: this Authorized Version came out at a time when the church had not yet divided into Anglican and Nonconformist. I think there is an advantage even in that. They were all still as one, with very few exceptions, when the Authorized Version was produced. The Authorized (King James) Version was produced.
Another important point to remember is this. The Authorized Version was produced some time after that great climactic event which we call the Protestant Reformation. There had been time by then to see some of the terrible horrors of Rome and all she stood for. The early Reformers had too much on their plate, as it were; Luther may have left many gaps; but when this translation was produced, there had been time for men to be able to see Rome for what she really was. These translators were all men who were orthodox in the faith. They believed that the Bible is the infallible Word of God and they submitted to it as the final authority, as against the spurious claims of Rome, as against the appeals to the church fathers and everything else.
Here, I say, were fifty-four men, scholars and saintly, who were utterly submitted to the Book. You have never had that in any other version. Here, and here alone, you have a body of men who were absolutely committed to it, who gave themselves to it, and who did not want to correct or sit in judgment on it—whose only concern and desire was to translate and interpret it for the masses of the people.
In view of all this, my argument is that the answer does not lie in producing new translations; they are coming out almost every year, but are they truly aiding the situation? No, and for this reason: men no longer read the Bible not because they cannot understand its language, but because they do not believe in it. They do not believe in God; they do not want it. Their problem is not one of language and of terminology; it is the state of the heart. Therefore what do we do about it? It seems to me there is only one thing to do, the thing that has always been done in the past: we must preach it and our preaching must be wholly based upon its authority.
Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1900–1981) served as minister at Westminster Chapel, London for thirty years. His ministry and books have had a worldwide impact for good on tens of thousands.
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