If You Can Give Up KJV English in the Bible, Why not the Confession of Faith?

The recent General Assembly of the OPC established a special committee to study the value of producing a modern English version of the Westminster Standards. Here‘s a little window into the OPC’s deliberations from the daily GA report:

As part of the work of the Committee on Christian Education, on motion, the body approved this: “That the Eighty-fifth (2018) General Assembly notify the member churches of NAPARC and other appropriate church bodies with which we have fellowship that it has erected a special committee to propose linguistic updating of the doctrinal standards of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and include details of the specific mandate, and that it welcomes any input that such churches might desire to give with respect to such proposed linguistic revision.”

Speeches for and against may have depended too much on how deeply commissioners had dug in their heels. For advocates, a modern version would seem to promise a millennium of broad and popular acceptance of Reformed Protestantism. I’m not so sure. For opponents, the arguments sounded a lot like reasons to retain the King James Version. I’m not so sure. If we can welcome modern English versions of the Bible, why not our Standards? One reason is that they come in English, not German, French, or Dutch. Which is to say that CRC and URC Synods have had no trouble updating English versions of the Heidelberg Catechism, for instance, because those communions are not invested in English the way Presbyterians are. If the original is in English, English-speakers tend to think the text is sacrosanct. Same goes for the Bible. If we talked about modern Hebrew versions of the OT, or modern Greek versions of the NT, after scratching their heads (what’s the point?), commissioners would likely object.

A related concern is a teaching device as opposed to a theological standard. If the Confession were like the chemist’s chart of elements, we would likely not want a modern version, better life through chemistry and all. People using the Standards as a benchmark for theological clarity don’t mind requiring users to suffer with the alien words and forms. “Eat your broccoli.” But if you have a chemistry textbook from the 18th century, revising the language for contemporary use in the classroom makes some sense. In which case, the appointed committee may propose a modern language version of the Standards that functions as a teaching device while recommending the old English version for theological exams and the Constitution. I say “may.” I have no direct access to the committee (which hasn’t even met!).

I would recommend to the committee and everyone else, though, a podcast I heard this week. It is an exchange between linguist, John McWhorter and Mark Ward, a Bible software engineer for Logos, on King James English. Ward is also the author of a book on the KJV which goes through fifty examples of how modern readers, even ones who are well educated, don’t understand the Bible (if only because the only way to discern seventeenth-century meanings is by consulting the Oxford English Dictionary, an expensive addition to any family or church library).

The podcast is a bit of a love fest because McWhorter’s arguments for updating Shakespeare convinced Ward to revise his arguments about the KJV. Here‘s part of McWhorter’s argument (beware the Jesuits):

Most educated people are uncomfortable admitting that Shakespeare’s language often feels more medicinal than enlightening. We have been told since childhood that Shakespeare’s words are “elevated” and that our job is to reach up to them, or that his language is “poetic,” or that it takes British actors to get his meaning across.

But none of these rationalizations holds up. Much of Shakespeare goes over our heads because, even though we recognize the words, their meaning often has changed significantly over the past four centuries. . . .

It is true that translated Shakespeare is no longer Shakespeare in the strictest sense. But are we satisfied with Shakespeare’s being genuinely meaningful only to an elite few unless edited to death or carefully excerpted, with most of the rest of us genuflecting in the name of “culture” and keeping our confusion to ourselves? Should we have to pore laboriously over Shakespeare on the page before seeing his work performed?

At the same time, the exchange has the advantage of listening to a sophisticated New Yorker, professor at an Ivy League university, who seems to have no religious preferences, talking respectfully, even warmly, to an avowed evangelical with a terminal degree from Bob Jones University. You almost think you’ve gone back to the 1950s.

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