James Lister, minister of Lime Street Chapel, Liverpool, England, defended the King James Bible in 1820 in The Excellence of the Authorized Version of the Sacred Scriptures Defended Against the Socinians (Liverpool: Printed by J. Lang, 1820). This was an edited version of a sermon that Lister had preached at Gloucester Street Chapel, Liverpool, on Wednesday Evening, October 18, 1820.
The purpose of the sermon was to defend the King James Bible against the Unitarian Book Society’s edition of the New Testament founded on William Newcome’s version, which was based on the Griesbach critical Greek text. Lister was one of the many Christians that were stirred up by this publication.
When the Unitarian Book Society was formed, a major objective was the translation of a new English version based on the Griesbach critical text. Abandoning this plan, it published in 1808 an “improved” edition of the 1796 translation by William Newcome of Ireland “chiefly because it followed Griesbach’s text” (Earl Wilbur, A History of Unitarianism in Transylvania, England, and America, 1952, p. 339; see also P. Marion Simms, The Bible in America, pp. 255-258). The complete title was “The New Testament, An improved version upon the basis of Archbishop Newcome’s new translation with a corrected text and notes critical and explanatory.” This publication “drew the fire of the orthodox by omitting as late interpolations several passages traditionally cited as pillars of Trinitarian doctrine,” such as “God” in 1 Timothy 3:16 and the Trinitarian statement in 1 John 5:7.
After tracing the history of Bible translations in foreign languages (Syriac, Latin, Ethiopic, Coptic, Armenian, Persian, Gothic, French, Italian, Spanish, German, Flemish, Danish, Swedish, Bohemian, Polish, and Sclavonian or Russian), Lister summarized the history of the English Bible, beginning with Bede. He then described two aspects of the KJV translation that illustrate its excellence, the brilliant biblical scholarship of that time and the fierce religious debates that resulted in extreme caution in translation:
“The time when our translation was completed, though two hundred years ago, was remarkable for classical and biblical learning. The classics from the capture of Constantinople, had been revised, and had been studied with enthusiastic ardour in all the countries of Europe. In the century immediately preceding our version, schools and colleges had been multiplied over all the western world. Manuscripts were explored, compared and edited, and correct copies of the ANCIENT AUTHORS, BOTH PROFANE AND SACRED WERE PUBLISHED WITH A ZEAL AND PATIENCE FAR EXCEEDING ANY THING OBSERVABLE IN OUR TIMES. Oriental literature, Hebrew, Chaldee, Syriac and Greek was deeply studied; and dictionaries, concordances, polyglots, such as the world had never seen before for depth and variety of erudition remain to this day as monuments of the talents, learning and research of our ancestors. Exalted on these monuments, some of our puny scholars, in THESE LATTER DAYS OF GREAT PRETENSION, have taken their lofty stand, and affected to despise the very men by whom these monuments were reared” (Lister, The Excellence of the Authorized Version, 1820, p. 14).
“The time when our authorized version was completed was a time of awful contention between catholics and protestants; a contest in which whole nations were embarked to a man, arranged under their respective civil authorities. Every nerve was strained on both sides to obtain the ascendency. Learning, talents, piety and zeal rushed forth to the conflict. AND THE MIGHTY FIELD ON WHICH THEY MET WAS, ‘THE TRANSLATION OF THE SACRED SCRIPTURES INTO THE VULGAR TONGUES.’ In this fearful combat England stood at the head of the Protestant union; and both sides were fully aware of the incalculable consequences connected with an authorized version of the sacred scriptures into the English tongue. The catholics watched every measure of our government, and put every verse of our translation to the severest scrutiny. The Catholics had already sanctioned the Vulgate, and were prepared to inpugn every sentence wherein our version should differ from their authorized text. The mass of protestant learning was engaged on the one side to make our version as fair a copy as possible of the matchless originals; and the mass of popish erudition, on the other side, stood fully prepared to detect every mistake, and to expose without mercy every error of our public version” (James Lister, The Excellence of the Authorized Version, pp. 14, 15).
The fierce religious debates of the 16th and 17th centuries resulted in a zeal for biblical scholarship and a caution about the details of biblical translation that has absolutely no comparison in our day.
Lister then proceeded to give quotations from 11 authorities as to the excellence of the King James Bible. Following are two of these:
“To Dr. Walton may be added [Matthew] Poole in his Synopsis Criticorum 1669: ‘In the English version published in 1611, occur many specimens of an edition truly gigantic, of uncommon skill in the original tongues, of extraordinary critical acuteness and discrimination, which have been of great use to me very frequently in the most difficult texts’” (Lister, The Excellence of the Authorized Version, p. 17).
“Dr. [Joseph] White [1745-1814], Laudian professor of Arabic at Oxford, in a sermon recommending the revisal of our present version, says, ‘When the authorized version appeared, it contained nothing but what was pure in its representation of scriptural doctrine, nothing but what was animated in its expressions of devout affection. General fidelity to its original is hardly more its characteristic than sublimity in itself. The English language acquired new dignity by it; and has scarcely acquired additional purity since: it is still considered as the standard of our tongue...” (Lister, p. 18).
Lister concluded with a review of the Unitarian translation. One of the passages that he examined was 1 Timothy 3:16, where the Unitarians had replaced “God was manifested in the flesh” with “He who was manifested in the flesh.” This, of course, is what all of the modern versions following the critical Greek New Testament have done since that day, beginning with the English Revised of 1881 and the American Standard of 1901. Lister rightly mocks the Unitarian rendition of 1 Timothy 3:16 as meaningless.
“This translation rises far above my weak understanding. ... what is this great mystery according to the Socinian Creed? It is ‘a man manifested in the flesh.’ This is indeed a mystery, compared with which all Calvinistic or Trinitarian mysteries are nonentities; ‘a man manifested in the flesh.’ ... What adds to this mystery is, that this man, this man of clay manifested in the flesh, was seen, truly seen by his messengers that is by the apostles. That a man should be seen, seen by others, this is a mystery in the presence of which all Athanasian mysteries must for ever hide their heads. In the last clause they say of this man manifested in the flesh ‘he was received in glory.’ It is not to be supposed that we Trinitarians can understand such words. No—this is the climax of the Socinian mystery, such as has not entered into the hearts of Trinitarians to conceive” (Lister, The Excellence of the Authorized Version, pp. 28, 29).
Lister concluded his message with this challenge about holding fast to the KJV: “I entreat my candid readers, to be thankful for a version of God’s book so eminently correct and faithful. To God we owe unfeigned gratitude for the instruments, the holy and learned men, whom he raised up at the era of the reformation; not only to preach, but to translate the sacred volume into the English tongue” (p. 31).
This is excerpted from For Love of the Bible: The Battle for the King James Version and the Greek Received Text from 1800 to Present. The fifth edition (November 2008) is revised and updated and fully illustrated. This book is available from Way of Life Literature, P.O. Box 610368, Port Huron, MI 48061, 866-295-4143 (toll free), www.wayoflife.org (online catalog), firstname.lastname@example.org (e-mail).
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