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The Literary Impact of The Authorised Version

C S Lewis on the Influence of the Bible

Will the “Bible as literature” continue to be read?

August 5, 2011
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Even for this son born at the tail-end of the Baby Boom, it seems difficult to imagine a time when The Chronicles of Narnia did not exist in print. I do remember, however, a time when virtually the entire English world thought of the King James Version as the Bible. It was not as if there was no other translation readily available, but if the Bible was read in church, or used in any “official” capacity, you could be sure it was King James.

Years before I came into the world, much of Christendom, especially on the other side of the Atlantic, had fallen into skepticism, either despising the Bible, or not taking it very seriously. The attitude was (and remains) that we were beyond all the fables and dogmatic theology.  Not that dogmatism, usually based in denominational sectarianism, wasn’t still pushed on people. But belief, and the observance of prescribed rituals, was often characterized by its disconnect from the secular. One’s religious beliefs and observances were often separated from the “real world.”

It was in such a world that C S Lewis had grown up, and which he had in mind when he prepared to address the University of London in 1950, over half a year before The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe appeared in print. I assume some committee at the University had chosen his topic: “The Literary Impact of The Authorised Version.” (The Athone Press published a 26-page booklet of the transcript later that year. This was republished in 1963 by Fortress Press of Philadelphia, which reprinted a revised version, edited by John Reumann, in 1967. It is also included in the 1962 anthology, They Asked for a Paper, published by Geoffrey Bles.)

Lewis hints about his attitude toward the subject near the beginning of the address when he asserts, “There is a certain sense in which ‘the Bible as literature’ does not exist.” Because of the heterogeneous nature of the scriptures (They were written at various periods of time and vary in style and types of writing.), “no common criticism can be passed on them.” However, the various translations of the Bible take on the appearance of unity because of the common beliefs of the translators, and the “liturgical context in which they were heard.” The belief in the doctrine of the inspiration of scripture also unifies the whole, seeing God as the ultimate author. [pp.3-4, The Athone Press, 1950 edition]

The Bible thus considered, for good or ill, as a single book, has been read for almost every purpose more diligently than for literary pleasure. Yet certain testimonia to it even on that score can be collected from earlier ages.
The oldest literary appreciation that I know is also the most modern in tone. When Longinus [a Greek teacher of rhetoric] praises the author of Genesis—in his language, ‘the lawgiver of the Jews’—for sublimity of conception, he seems to express a literary experience very like our own. Genesis is placed beside Homer and in some respects preferred to him. The Bible is being ranked among the classics on purely secular grounds. But it would be difficult to cite strict parallels from the ages that follow. [p.4]

Lewis goes on to discuss the medieval attitude toward scripture. Scholars from that era “belittled what we should regard as the actual literary quality of the text.” The historical sense of scripture was viewed as an “alphabet” to be learned quickly in order to get to the “words”—the more important allegorical meanings of the text. Lewis does not object to finding allegory in scripture, but he does warn that its overemphasis is “probably dangerous… to appreciation of the historical Books as plain heroic narrative.” [pp.5-6]

The Protestant reformers took a different approach, rejecting the “allegorical sense” of scripture.

What is interesting is not Tyndale’s negation of the allegories but his positive attitude towards the literal sense. … ‘God is Spirit’, he writes, ‘and all his words are spiritual.’ That is very characteristic of Tyndale’s outlook. For him, just as God’s literal sense is spiritual, so all life is religion: cleaning shoes, washing dishes, our humblest natural functions, are all ‘good works’. [p.9]

From my studies of C S Lewis and his life, I would conclude that he shared Tyndale’s attitude about all life being “religion.” His Christian beliefs were anything but disconnected from the way he lived. Those who knew him best, even those who disagreed with him, bear witness to the fact that he lived out what he believed in every aspect of his life. (See Remembering CS Lewis.) While he does not directly say so, I think much of the point of this address was the relative unimportance of the literary impact of the Authorized Version compared to the impact it has made in people’s lives.

Lewis discusses five ways the AV can be said to have an influence on the other writing. [pp.11-15]

  • Using the Bible as a source of reference. Lewis concludes that the Biblical accounts found in English literature are not important to the discussion of the influence of the AV since “the persons and stories would be the same” from any other translation.
  • Quoting the AV directly. Lewis compares this to “the difference between borrowing a man’s clothes for a particular occasion and imitating his style of dress.”
  • Embedded quotation. Here the writer expects the reader to know he is borrowing from another source. The quotations are used for solemn or facetious effect.  “[O]nly in so far as our English is not influenced by the Authorised Version—do they achieve the effect the authors intend.”
  • The influence on vocabulary. This is what Lewis calls “Influence in the full and strict sense.” Examples would be “beautiful, long-suffering, peacemaker or scapegoat.”
  • In the use of language—”in the rhythm, the imagery, or (using that word in its narrowest sense) the style.” This is the “fullest sense” in which it could be said the AV can have an influence.

Lewis is hard put to come up with examples of this “fullest sense” showing up in English literature. Even John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress does not show a style similar to the AV. His conclusion is “the Authorised Version as a strictly literary influence has mattered less than we have supposed.” [p.21] He discusses two possible reasons this may be so.

First of all, Lewis shows that until the Romantic Movement began in the latter half of the eighteenth century, the literary style of the AV was not attractive as a pattern for writing. The second reason is its familiarity. For three centuries, the King James Bible was so well known biblical phrases could not be “borrowed without recognition. … There could be a pious use and a profane use: but there could be no ordinary use.” [p.22]

In this age when so many deny the authority of the scriptures, will the “Bible as literature” continue to be read? Lewis is doubtful.

 I think it very unlikely the Bible will return as a book unless it returns as a sacred book. … Unless the religious claims of the Bible are again acknowledged, its literary claims will, I think, be given only ‘mouth honour’ and that decreasingly. …[I]n most parts of the Bible everything is implicitly or explicitly introduced with the formula ‘Thus saith the Lord’. It is… not merely a sacred book but a book so remorselessly and continuously sacred that it does not invite, it excludes or repels, the merely aesthetic approach. … [I]t will not continue to give literary delight very long except to those who go to it for something quite different.

For the Bible, whether in the Authorized or in any other version, I foresee only two possibilities; either to return as a sacred book or follow the classics, if not quite into oblivion yet into the ghost-life of the museum and the specialist’s study.  Except, of course, among the believing minority who read it to be instructed and get literary enjoyment as a by-product.

In this 400th anniversary year of the first publication of the King James Bible, many are celebrating with special exhibitions, Bible readings, and the like. Books are being written, and documentaries shown. I have to wonder, has the King James Bible—or the Bible in general, no matter the translation—become just a museum piece? After all the hoopla for the quatercentennial, will the Bible just be put back into its display case? What influence will we allow it to have on our lives?


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Mark received an Associates degree in Pastoral Ministries in 1989 and was licensed to the Gospel Ministry in 1997. Mark and his wife, who have been married over 30 years, live in northern Indiana. They have four grown children, two granddaughters, and one grandson. Besides his job for a manufacturing company, Mark also sells books—mainly related to C S Lewis and JRR Tolkien—on eBay (iHaveAnInkling).

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