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Title: Biblical Revision
       its duties and conditions

Author: Henry Alford

Release Date: February 6, 2021  [eBook #64470]

Language: English

Character set encoding: ISO-646-US (US-ASCII)


Transcribed from the 1870 Strahan & Co. edition by David Price.

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Its Duties and Conditions






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“Every scribe that is instructed unto the kingdom of heaven is like unto a man that is an householder, which bringeth forth out of his treasure things new and old.”—Matt. xiii. 52.

The Scribes were the guardians of the law, and its readers and expounders to the people.  It is related of Ezra, that he was “a ready scribe in the law of Moses which the Lord God of Israel had given: he had prepared his heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach in Israel statutes and judgments.”  But in exercising this guardianship the Scribes were only representing the Church of which they were members.  They were a class of persons told off for especial attention to this duty, which in fact belonged to the whole community.  To the Jews as a people, the Apostle tells us, were committed the oracles of God: and the Church in all p. 4times is the witness and keeper of Holy Writ, as of a sacred deposit committed to her.  The character assigned in the text to the Scribe instructed unto the kingdom of heaven, belongs, in all its particulars, to her, who both is the sum, and constitutes the ideal, of all such guardians and expounders.

With these few preliminary remarks, we may apply our Lord’s words immediately to ourselves.  The Christian Church throughout the world is now the guardian of the Holy Scriptures.  All that the Jews had, we have, with the inestimably precious addition of the New Testament of our Lord Jesus Christ.  These Scriptures all Christians regard as the revelation of God to man.  Other works rise and are built up from below: this alone we receive as let down upon us from above.  All art, all science, all theology, which is but a system built up by inferences from Scripture, these are of man, and constructed on earth.  They may rise higher, and become truer, as one race is advanced in skill or in knowledge; but they began below, and will ever carry with them the infirmity of all that is born on earth.  Whereas the sayings and the p. 5lessons of this book are not of man, nor did they take their beginnings here.  They have come to us indeed through human words, and by means of human action; but they did not arise originally in the breasts of men; they came from Him who is Himself the first spring of morals and the highest fountain of truth.  Between philosophy reared up from below, and the facts, and rules, and motives, which they disclose, there is always a gap which our reason cannot bridge over.  God’s sovereignty, man’s free will—God’s creative agency, man’s inductions of science—God’s interference with physical order, man’s establishment of physical law—one member of each of these pairs will ever remain discontinuous from, and in the estimate of human reason irreconcileable with, the other.  And because this Book is unlike all other books, because its voice comes to us from another place, and is heard in deeper and more secret chambers of our being than all other voices, because its sayings have for our humanity a searching and conserving and healing power which none other possess, therefore it is that to keep these Holy Scriptures in all their integrity as delivered down to her is the solemn p. 6trust of the Church throughout the world: a trust simple, direct, indefeasible.

Now when I say the Church throughout the world, and in all I shall say in these or like terms to-night, I am using the words in their very widest sense.  I mean by the Church no less than our Article defines it to be, “the great congregation of faithful men in which the pure Word of God is preached, and the Sacraments are duly administered according to Christ’s ordinance.”  I mean the whole body, wherever dwelling, however ordered and denominated, who take the Scriptures for their rule of life and for their ultimate appeal.  On the whole of this body rests this trust, to preserve the purity and integrity of Holy Scripture.

Now of course this duty concerns primarily the Scripture in the form in which it was given to man: the one sacred text, existing for us at this day in the very language in which it was originally written.  In plain words, by way of illustration: if the universal Church were at this day commanded to lay up a copy of this deposit, as the Law was laid up in the ark of the Covenant, that one copy p. 7would consist of the Old Testament in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek.

But now comes in a necessity for the exercise of judgment on the part of the scribe instructed unto the kingdom of heaven: in other words, on the part of the Church.  When we speak of these two sacred texts, we speak in fact of a store of both.  These texts have been transmitted by human means.  They exist for us in many forms, coincident in the main, but varying more or less from one another, principally through infirmities incident to transcription in ancient times.  The great mass of these variations concerns matters of relatively small importance.  In primitive Christian times believers were too intensely employed about the great interests of the Redeemer’s kingdom, to be very careful about the mere letter of the Scripture narrative.  Whether in one and the same phrase our Lord went, or came, or journeyed,—whether He said, or answered, or spoke, or answered and said, was to them small matter: and thus we have these and hundreds of such as these insignificant variations in the different ancient manuscript copies of our New Testament.  But there are, and in no small p. 8number, other variations affecting the sense,—modifying the facts of the history, diverting the course of argument, changing the tendency of exhortation.  And it is with regard to these that the Church, trusted as she is with the Scriptures, is bound to bring things old out of her treasures: to seek back for the most ancient and best attested of the variations, and to hold that fast as the text, rejecting the others: or, if none can be found whose evidence sufficiently preponderates, to publish to all the fact that it is so.  Less than this will not be a faithful discharge of the trust: cannot satisfy her feeling of reverence for God’s word.

Now before we can proceed to any application of what has already been said, we must advance further in the duty of the Church as the Guardian of Scripture.  The Word of God was not given to be laid up and hidden, but to go forth and to be understood.  That faith which is to save the nations, cometh by hearing, and hearing cometh by the Word of God.  But the nations are not able to understand the Scriptures as they were given.  And therefore it was very early recognised as a duty of each Church to provide the p. 9Scriptures for her members in their own language: to bring out of her stores not only things old,—the genuine and venerable text of the word, but also things new,—the new garment or vehicle of that sacred text, its expression in her vernacular language.  And here let it never be forgotten, that though we believe Scripture to be a thing divine, a version, every version, of Scripture must of necessity be a thing human; must be liable to imperfection and error, and capable of correction and improvement.  It is in fact, after all, little more than a comment or speculation upon Scripture.  A few of the simplest considerations serve to shew this.  Take but these.  In almost every sentence where there is fervour of feeling, or precision of argument, or graphic description, we are totally unable to give in the version the living force of the original.  We are obliged to enquire what is the general sense of that which is vividly represented, and to devise some English words which will as nearly as possible convey it to the mind: and thus the power and charm are lost.  Again, where an original word may have two or more meanings, giving to the sentence where p. 10it occurs a corresponding variety of applications to life or doctrine; in our rendering we are obliged, because there is no corresponding word of ours alike fertile in signification, to exclude all but one of these senses.  On the other hand, where the original employed some word of but one perfectly plain sense, we are often constrained to use a term in our tongue which, bearing an ambiguous meaning, weakens that sense, or even obliterates it altogether.  Any one may see, from even these scanty hints, how difficult, how unsatisfactory at the best, must be the discharge of this portion of the trust: how utterly impossible it is that there should ever be a perfect or final version of the Scriptures: how the Church, the Scribe entrusted with the custody and provision of God’s word for the souls of her members, is bound to bring out of her stores ever from age to age things new, fresh and more accurate renderings of such phrases of Scripture as time and use may prove to have been inaccurately represented.

And observe, before we pass on to the account of our own situation in these respects, that this duty incumbent on the Church is to be performed p. 11quite irrespectively of any beauty or aptness of outward form which such rendering may happen to possess.  An erroneous rendering of a Scripture phrase may have been so well put into words, may carry a sound so terse and epigrammatic, as to have sunk deep into the mind of a nation and to have become one of its household sayings.  But who would accept the excuse of beauty or aptness in the case of anything else wrongly come by?  It is strange that in this case only has any such argument been used and allowed.

Now we in this land possess a version of the Holy Scriptures which may challenge comparison for faithfulness, for simplicity, and for majesty, with any that the world has ever seen.  Perhaps its chief defect is that it admits of being too highly praised.  Its pure use of our native tongue, the exquisite balance and music of its sentences, the stately march of its periods, the hold on the memory taken by the very alliterations and antitheses, which were the manner of writing when it was made,—these and a hundred other charms which invest almost every verse, make us love it even to excess.

p. 12And when we intensify all these claims to our affection by the fact that it has been for centuries, and is now, the vehicle to this great English race of all that is pure and holy and lovely and of good report, the first lesson of infancy, the guide of mature life, the comforter of sickness and death, we can hardly be surprised that many, and some of the best among us, refuse to see its faults, and are unable to contemplate with any content the prospect of their being corrected.  It is a spirit for which we ought to be deeply thankful, this earnest and affectionate cleaving to the English version of the Scriptures.

But good as it is, there is one thing better.  And that is, the humble reverence for God’s word, rendering a man willing to make any sacrifice for the sake, if it may be, of nearer approach to His truth.  And as the public mind has lately been and now is stirred regarding this matter, I think it may not be a wrong use of our time to-night, if I venture to speak to you of that part of the subject which especially belongs to the pulpit: avoiding details, and trying to remind you in our own case of the need for thinking of the duty at this time, p. 13and of our own means of performing it; taking into account, by the way, the principal objections urged against our putting it in hand.

The necessity of thinking of the duty at this time arises from two causes, setting in contrast our own circumstances with those under which our version was made: one relating to the things old, the other to the things new.

When that version was made, rather when it was constructed and amended out of former ones, the available sources whence the sacred text was to be derived were very few indeed, and those for the most part not of a high order.  In almost every case where the real text is matter of doubt, and has to be ascertained by evidence, our translators had not that evidence before them.  By far the greater and more important part of it was not brought to light in any trustworthy form till within the memory of living men.  Nay, one of its most ancient and principal witnesses has been within the last few years discovered and given to the Church.  And the consequence is that, setting aside all cases of indifferent or unimportant variations, there is by this time an immense weight of responsibility pressing p. 14on the Church with regard to these varieties of reading: a weight which it seems to me only those can be contented to rest under, who are not aware of its magnitude.  We, the Churches of Christ in this land, are causing to be read to our people, to take but a single very solemn instance, words respecting one of the foundation doctrines of the faith which are demonstrably no part of Scripture at all.  And we of the Church of England are doing worse: we are reading those words by special selection, implying that they convey a proof of that doctrine, on the Sunday set apart by its name.  This is perhaps the most prominent example: but there is no lack of others: we might quote instances where the text found in our English Bibles, which passes current with millions for the word of God, has but the very slenderest, if any authority to rest upon, and where other words, which very few of those millions ever heard of, really are, according to the Church’s own belief respecting Scripture, the message of God to men.  We might produce examples again, where the evidence of the great authorities is so nearly balanced, that to the end of time, if no more p. 15witnesses are discovered, the question never can be decided which of two or more is the true reading.

Now there is no reason to think that there was any fault in our translators as regards this matter.  Where they in their time knew of an important variation, they noted it in their margin, or indicated it by the type of their text.  But in the great majority of cases, the fact was not, and could not be, within their knowledge at all.  Upon us in our own time has it fallen to carry out their principles with the vastly extended light which God has shed upon us.

But, it is asked, are we able to do this?  As regards the text of the New Testament, where these variations principally occur, certainly we are.  The whole ground has been of late years thoroughly and repeatedly worked over, and the evidence is well known.  In many of the most important of varying passages, the decision of biblical scholars would be shortly and easily made, which reading to adopt or reject, or whether to take the middle course of fairly representing the uncertainty.  The number of such important p. 16variations is but limited; and in most of them, the voice of ancient testimony is all one way.  So that it seems to me there would be no formidable difficulty, as regards the things old, in setting right at this time the unavoidable errors, and supplying what were the necessary defects, of our English Bible.

We now come to the second of the reasons which seem to press on the Church at this time the duty of reviewing her stewardship of the Holy Scriptures; and that reason concerns the things new—the form in which those Scriptures are represented in the vernacular tongue.  In the main, as has been already said, we have in this respect nothing to regret, and but very little that we should be compelled to change.  The character and spirit of our version are all that we can desire.  But it is utterly impossible for any one capable of judging to deny, that it is disfigured by numerous blemishes, far too important to be put by or condoned.  The gravest of these are due to manifest errors in rendering; errors, about which there could be but one opinion among biblical scholars of all religious views.  Others have arisen from p. 17principles adopted and avowed by the translators themselves: as, for instance, from the unfortunate one of allowing a number of apparently equivalent English words an equal right to represent one and the same word in the original, whereby very important passages have been disguised and confused.  Others again owe their source to causes which have come into operation since the version was made.  Certain words have, as time has gone on, passed into new meanings.  Others, which could formerly be read without offence, have now, by their very occurrence, become stumbling-blocks, and tend to remove all solemnity, and even all chance of fair audience, from the passages where they occur.  Some few blemishes may also be due (and it is hardly possible altogether to put by this source) to doctrinal or ecclesiastical bias on the part of the translator.  Of the various elements which were wisely united in the body of men entrusted with the preparation of our version, one was much weakened during the work by the death of two of its leading members: and some apparently forced or inconsistent renderings have been thought to be not altogether unconnected with this circumstance.

p. 18But, after all, we are asked, of what character are these blemishes.  Do they, do any of them, affect points of Christian doctrine?  Now let it be observed, my brethren, that this question is in itself a fallacious one.  For what is Christian doctrine?  Is it a hard dry tabular statement of dogmas, to be proved by a certain number of texts? or is it the conviction of the great truths expressed by those dogmas carried into the hearts and lives of men?  If it be the former, then might we, according to the objector’s argument, dispense with nine-tenths of Scripture altogether.  If the latter, then we can spare nothing which may make it clearer or more forcible, better apprehended or more warmly felt.  I am persuaded that no one can estimate the benefit which may be done to the souls of men by casting light on any one saying of our Blessed Lord,—by making evident a sentence before obscure in the writings of prophets or apostles.  And that this may be now done, done in very important instances, done with easy consent and effectually, I am also persuaded.  The great principles of biblical translation have in our time engaged many able men both here and on the Continent; and to p. 19most of the passages in which our version has gone astray, our chosen revisers would come with their minds firmly made up, and ready at once to apply the remedy.  With regard to some other blemishes which I ventured to mention, its application would be easier still.  Few would fail to note, or be desirous to retain, an obsolete word; and in the case of expressions of the other kind, the only desire would be, while removing the offence, to leave unimpaired God’s testimony against sin, or whatever might be the solemn sense of the passage.  As regards the last class of blemishes mentioned, those few which may be due to doctrinal or ecclesiastical bias, the task might seem likely to be a hard one.  But I should be unwilling hastily to think this.  In many such instances, the question, as it would be raised among our modern scholars, would never enter the region of opinion at all.  It would be simply one of faithful and consistent rendering, to which the occurrence of the word elsewhere would furnish an easy and safe guide.  I trust it may be said of the Church in our land, that the longer she lasts, the more she becomes aware of the futility of forcing into the p. 20sacred text any foregone conclusions: the more she sees the importance of keeping pure from all later alloy the water which men are to draw from the wells of salvation.

We have thus advanced in our very hasty and incomplete sketch of this subject, to the last branch of enquiry which we proposed: by whom, and how, this review of the Church’s stewardship may be carried out.

In asking “By whom?” we are in fact putting two questions: under what sanction, and by what instruments.  To the former enquiry it might be answered, that inasmuch as uniformity in the use of a Scripture text is of the first importance, it would be desirable that the version when amended should be put forth by authority.  But there can be little doubt that such an answer would be an inconsiderate one.  The procedure would defeat the very end it has in view.  On only one of the Christian bodies in this country would such authority, even if complete in her sense, be binding.  And if the amended version were thus bound upon her, we should be departing from the precedent set us in the case of our present version, which, whatever p. 21might be the intention of the notice that it is “appointed to be read in churches,” appears to have made its way to universal acceptance by its intrinsic excellence, and without any binding authorisation at all.  There might be various conceivable ways of undertaking the revision.  It might be entrusted to a body of men selected and commissioned by the highest power in the land.  Or the action might begin, as it is now beginning, with one of the religious bodies among us, and might proceed, not confined to that body alone, but extended so as to take in such of the rest as might be willing to aid.  But, however undertaken, the result should be put forth to make its way simply and entirely on its merits, and as approving itself to the conscience and judgment of the Churches of Christ.  And we are thus brought to answer the second member of this enquiry, By what instruments should the revision be carried out?  Our last sentence has anticipated the reply.  Such a work should no more be done by one section of the Christian Church than by one man.  The same concurrence and conflict of thought, the same variety of experience, the same differing shades of p. 22feeling and apprehension, which render many men requisite for the work, render also many Churches requisite.  There is in the lay mind a natural and well-founded distrust of men who are enlisted in the warm advocacy of particular systems: and nothing but a fair balance of the English Churches in the work would command public confidence.

And then, how should the work be done?  I do not mean, by what kind of process or machinery: the necessarily arduous details would be best judged of by those engaged in it: but I mean, guided by what maxims, in accordance with what rules?  The task may fairly be compared to the mending and restoration of a goodly piece of ancient mosaic-work.  And such a comparison may guide us to one leading rule which should dominate the whole process.  Nothing should be touched of the fair fabric which can possibly remain: and all that is of necessity new should be in strictest harmony with the old.  So that the ear, while of course missing from the altered sentence the expression so long familiar, should find it superseded, not by a startling modernism, but by words worthy to stand beside p. 23those which remain.  Those who are acquainted with the history of our present version will recognise in this rule the repetition of one which its compilers had before them.

On this matter, I conceive there need be no alarm whatever.  Any body of English biblical scholars, with the responsibility upon them of purifying our version, would be at least as anxious to preserve its characteristic excellences as any could be, who were not so deeply aware what those excellences are.  And let it be observed, that in this matter a version for public and general use would of necessity differ from such as may have been put forth for private benefit by individual scholars.  In those, it may have been desired to give to the English bible-student some idea of the niceties and precise constructions of the original.  In the amended version, there should be no such design, unless where our ordinary English will fully and freely admit of it: no merely grammatical changes of tense or inference, which might give awkwardness or stiffness to what was before plainly and conventionally expressed.

From what has already been said, it will be clear p. 24that this revision of the Church’s stewardship cannot be brought about merely by the insertion of marginal notices or varieties.  We all know how little chance the margin has of being observed or known: and it would be a still more fatal objection that, in the great majority of Bibles, the requisite of cheapness precludes any marginal printing at all.  There might indeed with advantage be an addition of marginal notices in matters of secondary importance: but all necessary substantial revision must be made in the text itself, or it seems to me we are exceeding and not fulfilling our duty.

There remains but one more consideration, without which we can hardly dismiss our subject.  Will not, it has been asked, the varying of expressions in our version tend to disturb that confidence and reliance with which its words are generally regarded among English Christians?  First I would observe that this argument, as against the discharge of a solemn trust, is worthless; and secondly, that I have no dread of the consequence apprehended.  The Church of England has used for two centuries and a half, two distinct versions of the Psalms, varying to a p. 25degree but little appreciated,—and with no such disturbing result.  It is not a little remarkable, that a precisely similar objection was raised at the time of the undertaking of our present version,—but it was by the Romanists.  They complained of the unsettling effect of these frequent changes, and of the marginal readings as leaving men in doubt what was the truth of Scripture.  With what reason, let the firm hold which that amended version has kept be witness.

And now in drawing to an end, let us ask ourselves, why it is that the conscience of the Church is moved about this matter? why it is that, a desire which not long since stirred only in a few breasts, has now become ripe for practical settlement as to by whom and how it is to be satisfied?

And the answer is to be sought in that conscience itself.  It brings to light the estimation in which this Christian people have come to hold the precious deposit entrusted to them.  It is a result of the awakened enquiry, the honest fearless research which have been and are being widely spent upon every point connected with Holy Scripture: a p. 26higher value set, not in spite of but because of that inquiry and research, on a treasure now no longer wrapped in the disguise of mere conventional reverence, but opened and sparkling to every eye.  It is the old confession over again,—no longer from the mouth of one standing in the prophetic front of his age, but in the hearts of Churches walking in the fear of God and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost,—“Thy law is tried to the uttermost: therefore thy servant loveth it.”

In this spirit, and in the depth of this affection, let us contemplate the work which is proposed, let us undertake it if undertaken it is to be: refusing to yield our reverence for God’s word to any overweening love for that to which we have been accustomed, or to let go our present trust in His guiding Spirit for any timid apprehensions of the peril of change: but on the other hand doing nothing rashly, nothing uncharitably; respecting the opinions of our brethren, and dealing tenderly with their prejudices.

And let us who are anxious for this national work remember above all things, that it is not by our professions of esteem for God’s word, but by p. 27our proof of them, that distrust will be removed and confidence inspired: by that word being seen to be the source of our own motives, and the rule of our life.






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