Posted by: stpowen | September 29, 2011

An Endangered Species

An Endangered Species.

A few weeks ago I attended the Autumn Conference of the Protestant Reformation Society at Wycliffe hall, Oxford.  I must confess never to have heard of the organization before, but having received an invitation from my friend, George Ella, who was speaking there, and believing with all my heart in the need for a new Reformation of the Protestant churches  along Biblical lines, I was happy to attend.  I would normally have looked up the society’s website on the internet, but it transpires that it doesn’t have one.

The society’s express purposes are the conservation of the conservative evangelical wing of the Church of England, along with the use of the Authorised Version of the Bible and the 1662 Prayer Book.  It was these last two aims that made me think of the preservation of an endangered species like the Red Squirrel or the Giant Panda.  There are few rarer animals in the world than the Giant Panda, yet it has no known predators as far as I know.  Its threatened extinction comes from three causes:  the loss of its habitat, its highly restricted diet and its reluctance to mate.

The same problems seem to threaten the survival of the P.R.S.   There are very few Anglican churches indeed that still use the A.V., and the use of the Prayer Book seems mostly to be restricted to the Anglo-Catholic wing of the C. of E.  Successful Anglican evangelical churches have taken enthusiastically to the NIV and are quite cavalier in their use of liturgy, using whatever modernized stuff may come out and adapting it as they see fit.  As a non-conformist, Martin Marprelate can see no problem with that.  In the 1980s, a few Anglican churchmen left the established church and set up the Church of England (Continuing).   Its first bishop (now retired), Dr. David Samuel, is the current President of P.R.S.   Alas, the breakaway organization boats only four churches, each dedicated to the A.V. and the 1662 Prayer Book.  It does not seem likely to me that either the P.R.S. or the ‘continuing’ church are likely to attract younger members.  At the age of nearly 60, Martin Marprelate was not quite, but almost, the youngest person attending the conference.

The first paper given at the conference was from Rev. Dr. E. Culbertson of Armagh cathedral.  He spoke on the early translations of the Bible, from Caedmon and Bede leading up to the Geneva Bible.  This was a most edifying paper, particularly in its discussion of the Anglo-Saxon translations.  There seems to have been a genuine desire among the pre-Conquest Britons to have the Scriptures in their own tongue.  Perhaps it was the advent of the Normans in 1066 that put the whole business off until Wycliffe in the late 14th Century.

The second paper was given by George Ella on the Hampton Court Conference (where the decision was taken for a new Bible translation) and on the translation teams that worked on the A.V.  Part of Dr. Ella’s talk was a robust defence of James I and his role at the Conference.  Having been brought up with a view of James as ‘The wisest fool in Christendom,’ it was something of a revelation to learn that James was a firm Protestant who mediated wisely between the Anglicans and Puritans and who faithfully supported Protestant forces during the Thirty Years War.  Dr. Ella has studied this era very deeply and is of the view that the Church of England was at its height in term of doctrine and practice under James.  Martin Marprelate is not sure how much of a compliment this is, but at all events, credit must go to him for supporting and bringing to pass the Authorized Version of the Bible.

The third talk was on the Textus Receptus, the Greek Text underlying the A.V.  It was given by Michael Harley, pastor of Frinton Baptist Church.  It was nice to see another non-Conformist there.  Pastor Harley’s talk focussed on the  doubtful quality of the codices underlying the Critical Text, Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, on the essential agreement of the vast majority of extant manuscripts on the Byzantine text-type and on the preservation of God’s word as it has come down to us.   All this was music to my ears.  It cannot be right to reject up to 900 Greek manuscripts in favour of just four or five, admittedly older, codices.  Nor can it be right to use secular criteria to judge the word of God.  I did a little textual criticism when studying Classics at University.  It was normally assumed that, when faced with three or four widely differing manuscripts, the oldest might be supposed to be the most accurate since it was likely to have been copied fewer times.  This might work with some of the Latin or Greek authors where only a tiny number of manuscripts remain, but it is ridiculous to apply the principles when faced with literally hundreds of manuscripts all pointing in the opposite direction.  It was also supposed that, when faced with two differing manuscripts, the one with the most foolish or contradictory text was most likely to be the correct one since it was most unlikely that a copier had corrected it.  This concept might conceivably be justifiable in a secular work like the poems of Sappho or Catullus, but surely we cannot tolerate it for a moment in the word of God (1)?

The fourth talk bore the title, Archaic or Accurate?  The language and supposed difficulties of the A.V.  It was given by Dr. R. T. Beckwith, Chairman of the P.R.S. Executive Committee.  This was to me the most surprising, important and satisfying of the various talks.  Dr. Beckwith suggested  that the A.V. was both accurate and archaic.  There is no doubt that the translators of the A.V. were most eminent scholars who worked carefully and piously to make a translation that was as accurate as possible.  However, Dr. Beckwith gave a long list of archaic words used in the A.V., some of which, like ‘let’ (2Thes 2:7), now mean the exact opposite of the meaning they had in the 17th Century.  My own favourite comes from Psalm 5:6; ‘Thou shalt destroy them that speak leasing.’  At first glance, this sounds like bad news for Hire Purchase salesmen, and it is quite hard to establish the meaning of ‘lease’ unless one looks at a modern translation, which is really cheating.  It is no use looking it up in the Oxford Concise Dictionary; you won’t find the meaning there.  You have to go to one of those massive thesauruses used by  English Literature graduates to discover that it means ‘lie’ or ‘deceit.’ 

Dr. Beckwith went on to suggest that if the A.V. is going to survive, it will need to be updated.  His plan is to keep the old personal pronouns, Thou and Ye, but to upgrade other obsolete words.  He will also need to correct certain faulty translations that arose because the translators, through no fault of their own, were not acquainted with advances in scholarship which have come about over the years.  Most prominent among these is the Granville Sharpe Rule which states that when two nouns are united by a single article, they refer to the same thing or person.  This is important in two (2) verses which should witness to the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Titus 2:13, A.V.  Looking for that blessed hope and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ.’

Titus 2:13, N.K.J.V.  ‘Looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ’ (other modern versions are similar).

2Peter 1:1b, A.V.  ‘…..To them that have obtained like precious faith with us through the righteousness of God and our Saviour Jesus Christ.’

2Peter 1:1b, N.I.V.  ‘….To those who have obtained like precious faith with us by the righteousness of our God and Saviour Jesus Christ’ (other modern versions are similar).

The only modern translation that supports the A.V. in these two texts is the New World Translation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses!  Just in case it might be thought that the A.V. is right in these instances, let the reader look at 2Peter 1:11.  Here the A.V. rightly translates, ‘….our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.’  Yet the Greek construction here is exactly the same as in 1:1.   Granville Sharpe was a member of the so-called Clapham Sect and a friend and colleague of William Wilberforce.  He published his rule and the end of the 18th Century, almost a hundred years after the publication of the A.V.

The question also has to be asked whether a modernization of the A.V. will be acceptable if Thee , Thou and Ye are retained.  What about the words which go with these pronouns, the Hasts and the Wilts and the Wouldests and so forth?  Are these to be kept?  And if so, would the result really be likely to restore the fortunes of the A.V.?  There is an argument, and a strong one, that modern translations are unclear in verses like Luke 22:31-32 and John 3:7 because the Second Person pronoun You does not distinguish between singular and plural.   However, there is no need to retain the archaic pronouns for that reason.  It would be quite possible, for example, to space the You,       ‘y o u’ when it translates the plural.  This is the method used by William Hendricksen in his famous New Testament Commentaries.

Despite these criticisms, I was glad to hear that there are those in the A.V. camp who are prepared to accept some sort of revision.  Without it, there is no doubt that this great Version of the Bible will disappear, as the Giant Panda is in such danger of doing, as fewer and fewer people find it comprehensible, and the churches that use it wither and die.  Those of us who believe that the traditional text  of the Bible is more likely to be the original are longing to see a revised A.V. in something approaching modern language, which would eliminate the various shortcomings of the NKJV and be available through a Christian publisher.  I can think of no body more suited to undertake this work than the Trinitarian Bible Society.   I’m not holding my breath, however.

I also hope that the Protestant Reformation Society survives and prospers.  These are dear people with a real love for the Lord, and while I cannot share their enthusiasm for the liturgy of the 1662 Prayer Book, I do believe that all true Christians should draw closer together in order to battle the relentless march of godlessness in our land and to witness to its only hope, our Lord Jesus Christ.  I am looking forward to the society’s next meeting (3)(4).


  1. Minor point – Friston, not Frinton.

  2. Dr. Beckwith went on to suggest that if the A.V. is going to survive, it will need to be updated.

    But I thought the New King James Version, is an update of the KJV (or better known as the AV)? Isn’t it? 🙂

  3. Dear Brother Martin,
    Thank you for your excellent thought provoking report on the Protestant Reformation Society conference this year. It was a time of very sweet fellowship and it was a blessing to meet you. The lectures you missed as you had your own ministry to take care of were also very good and the sermon by a young Presbyterian minister was truly uplifting. I was especially instructed and edified by one of our younger members, Edward Malcolm (early forties, I think) on the influence of the AV on Church and nation. Incidentally, even our German Press, including the tabloids, featured most constructive and even lengthy articles on what the AV has meant and still means to the English-speaking world.
    Sadly, as you report, we are a rather endangered, though protected species, our main pillars being over eighty, though we trust that the old trees will still bear much fruit and the seedlings will grow up around us. Perhaps next time you may find some other youngsters like yourself accompanying you. Two other fledglings in their sixties, whom I had invited, came and, impressed by what they experienced, joined us in membership. It is interesting to note that several of the younger members come from non-Anglican backgrounds.
    I passed on your thoughts on a website which our two new members also missed and the matter will be taken up in a meeting of the committee this coming week.
    I suppose the Church of England members amongst us are a kind of Red Squirrels or Giant Pandas but, as said above, they are the Lord’s protected species and I, as a member of a church composed of several Reformed churches who have buried the hatchet and come together around the Heidelberg Catechism and now are easily the largest church in Germany, who am thus a non-Anglican, see them as not being a wing of the Reformed Church of England but the foundation of it in the Lord. (Sorry for that long sentence). This is what still gives me hopes for the future of the Church in England. Other denominations lack the doctrinal core and Reformation history the Church of England and if revival should, by God’s grace, come to Britain, the wherewithal is already there. This happened in the 18th century and, we trust, will happen again. I can wait. Concerning the Church of England Continuing, like the Free Presbyterian Church continuing, I have not fathomed them out yet. However, they can hardly be called a break-away organisation as they stick to the doctrines of the glorious Reformation, which started the Church of England off, as perhaps no one else. Churchmanship is belief in God-given faith, not external structures.
    Concerning James I, a favourite of Cromwell’s, modern scholarship is rescuing him from the myths propagated by critics of the Church of England and the AV like Alan Clifford who can publish vilifying essays on James, giving contemporary texts to prove it, though the writers used are quite free of Clifford’s ‘quotes’ from them. It is such tabloid journalese that has caused this negative picture of James. Anyway, the Thirty-Years’ War came just five years before his death. Up to then, he was a staunch defender of Dutch and German Protestantism. When the wars started, Gustav II Adolf, the mightiest man in Europe, told James to keep out, as Protestant Europe, outside of Britain, was his empire alone. Oxenstierna continued this threat regarding Charles ‘interference`, too. Nevertheless, Britain had, at different times during the troubles, from 30,000 to 50,000 troops on the Continent though the Puritan Parliament forbade Charles money and ships for them. The rebel Parliament did not want a strong Protestant Charles as they were hoping that Scottish troops, leaving Germany, would now invade England, as they did under turn-coat Leslie, Charles’ cousin and fetter England with their scandalous Solemn League and Covenant, their new Covenant of Works. . They said that Charles flirted with Spain and France, – yes, to protect the Continental Protestants and keep Britain safe. Cromwell followed both James and Charles here but though he was severely criticised then, few think of doing so today. The Continent begged Charles via the Diets of Hanau and Frankfurt (1633-34) to reform the Continental churches on English lines but they called Cromwell the King Killer and danced in the streets when he died.
    My breakfast is over and the family are calling me back to Germany.
    God bless,

  4. Hello Jade,
    I think Dr. Beckith does not regard the NKJV as being a true updating of the A.V. but a completely new translation. He would want to update some of the archaic language but to leave the ‘Thee’s and ‘Thou’s in place.

    There are a few problems with the NKJV. Firstly, I don’t like putting money in Nelson’s pocket, and secondly, I believe that it sometimes follows the A.V. too closely. The renderings of Phil 2:6 and 2Tim 3:16, for example, are identical to the A.V. and therefore are not quite accurate. In these two verses, in my opinion, the NIV is better.

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