The Preface to the KJV, “Meanest,” and Translations

On the heels of our discussion of Turretin’s treatment of the necessity of versions 1, 2, and 3 let us turn to the Translator’s Preface to the Reader of the 1611 King James Version under “An Answer to the Imputation of Our Adversaries” the preface reads,

“Now to the latter we answer, that we do not deny, nay, we affirm and avow, that the very meanest translation of the Bible in English, set forth by men of our profession, (for we have seen one of theirs of the whole Bible as yet) containeth the Word of God, nay, is the Word of God.”

1.) Turretin wrote his Institutes of Elenctic Theology in 1696 or 85 years after the completion of the 1611 KJV. This is to say that the KJV has been the standard sacred text of the English-speaking church for about 50 or so years after the Geneva. In his institutes he addresses two versions specifically, the Septuagint and the Vulgate. He regards both as having ecclesiastical authority. Of the former he writes,

“Among the Greek versions of the Old Testament, that of the seventy interpreters deservedly holds first place with us.”

Turretin, Institutes, vol. 1, Second Topic, Q. 14, Sec. I.

And of the Vulgate he writes,

“The question does not refer to the utility of the Vulgate and its frequent correspondence with the truth (which no one denies); nor to its antiquity and long use in the church (which also is granted by all).”

Turretin, Institutes, vol. 1, Second Topic, Q. 15, Sec. I.

Nevertheless, Turretin goes on to argue of the Septuagint,

“Although we do not deny that it is of great authority in the church, yet we regard this authority as human, not divine, since that was done by the translators was by human effort only, not by prophets and men who were God-breathed (theopenustois) by the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit.”

Turretin, Institutes, vol. 1, Second Topic, Q. 14, Sec. IV.

And of the Vulgate he launches a similar critique when he writes,

“Although we respect the Vulgate as an ancient version, we deny its authenticity. (1) It was elaborated by human skill and has no God-inspired (theopnueston) author which the authentic edition demands.”

Turretin, Institutes, vol. 1, Second Topic, Q. 15, Sec. III.

Recalling Turretin’s treatment on the necessity of versions, Turretin here means by human authority and skill that capacity of scholars to make a translation which corresponds to the original but does not supersede the original. The reason why the version does not supersede the original is because the translation process is not an immediately inspired process. In this sense, the version has only human authority because the human is not writing in both form and substance of the words of Scripture. Rather a version can only be translated according to the substance/meaning of the words. If the translator were to translate in the form and substance, he would be writing in Greek and Hebrew and thus not produce a translation.

2.) Back to the Translator’s Preface to the Reader, note first that the translators of the KJV speak of the “meanest translations” they do not include those translations immediately mentioned above – the LXX and the Vulgate. They focus their words on the English translations and say of them that they “contain the Word of God, nay, they are the Word of God.” What English versions are in view here? It seems quite apparent that versions like Tyndale’s NT, the Coverdale Bible, Matthews Bible, Bishops Bible, the Great Bible, Geneva Bible, all of which are generally considered to be prior iterations of the King James Bible. So, when the Translator’s Preface references “meanest translations” it is including the King James Bible tradition along with the King James Bible itself. In this sense the KJV translators liken the KJV and its prior iterations as the acorn, oak sapling, young oak tree, and robust oak tree. Put more simply, all of the iterations of the KJV are oak tree but in different stages.

3.) What about this business of containing the word of God versus being the word of God? Given Turretin’s language about versions whether English or not, we are compelled to include that either the translators of the KJV are theologically wrong, or they are right, and consistent with Protestant orthodoxy. We here at hold to the latter.

How is it then that an English-translation can for some be said to contain the word of God and for others it be the word of God? There is no evidence that the translators of the KJV held their translation to be equal to the original in inspired form and content. As such, they admit that a translation can be the word of God and not merely contain the word of God in that a translation can participate in the self-credible substance/meaning of the original. Additionally, I do not take the translator’s “nay” as a kind of edit of thought within the text. By that I mean the translators did not mean to say, “The meanest translations contain the word of God. No, wait, we were wrong in writing that (but we are going to leave it in anyway). What we really meant to write is that the meanest translations are the word of God.”

What the King James Version translators are doing here is what every scholar should do, affirm their particular translation is like all the others and humbly conclude that scholars before them may have gotten it right on this or that points. In short, the King James Versions scholars are not choosing a side on the version issue, as it should be. Here we see in the King James translators a perfect example of scholarly certainty in a version mentioned by Turretin,

“The certainty of the conformity of the versions with the original is twofold: the one merely grammatical and of human knowledge apprehending the conformity of the words in the versions with the original (this belonging to the learned, who know the languages).”

Turretin, Institutes, Second topic, Q. 13, Sec XVII.

But this of course is not the whole story and it is quite clear that the King James Version translators understood this. They understood that their certainty of conformity was merely grammatical and of human knowledge. But as Turretin observes there is a twofold certainty. The first is quoted immediately above but the second is had apart from scholarship. To remind you, Turretin writes,

“…the other spiritual and of divine faith, relating to the agreement of things and doctrines (according to the measure of the gift of Christ, as he himself says, ‘My sheep hear my voice,’ Jn. 10:27; and Paul, ‘he that is spiritual discerneth all things,’ 1 Cor. 2:15).

Turretin, Institutes, Second topic, Q. 13, Sec XVII.

Even further, Turretin declares,

“Although a private person may be ignorant of the languages, he does not cease to gather the fidelity of a version as to the things themselves from the analogy of faith and the connection of the doctrines: ‘If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself’ (Jn 7:17).’”

Turretin, Institutes, Second topic, Q. 13, Sec XVI.

The King James version translators did not privilege their translation of the word of God above the other previous iterations of the King James Version tradition. Nor should they. That is for the believing community to do. And the believing community did just that when read and taught from the King James Version for over 400 years. Checkmate.

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