The flurry of conferences, events and media interest in the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible during 2011 raised the profile of Scripture in public consciousness. But how, in a postmodern culture, is Scripture best interpreted?
This question was addressed at the Christianity and History Forum’s autumn conference, ‘Beyond 1611: how the Bible shaped British culture’, that took place at St Peter’s Church, Vere Street, London, on 12 November.
Delegates heard a fine line-up of speakers trace the influence of the KJV from the 17th to the 19th centuries. Nick Spencer of public theology think-tank Theos looked at its effect on politics and argued that it played a central role in the formation of the English national identity, democracy, equality and toleration, as well as in the construction of an accepted framework by which the legitimacy — or otherwise — of rulers could be gauged.
Prof. John Coffey of the University of Leicester took as his theme the abolitionist Bible, saying in the 18th century people used Scripture to argue both for slavery and its abolition. Christian abolitionists used the Exodus, the Jubilee event and Luke 4 to argue for emancipation and employed texts such as Genesis 1 and Acts 17:26 to stress the unity of the human race.
Dr Jon Roberts, of the University of Liverpool, considered the Bible of the Romantic poets of the early 19th century. Positing a fascinating contrast with Richard Dawkins’ command that we must sit back and be awed by nature as science reveals it, Dr Roberts suggested that Percy Shelley, for one, was quite unable to integrate the different worlds of science and feeling with Prof. Dawkins’ facile ease.
Instead, it is the irreconcilable conflict between the emotional and rational which gives Shelley’s verse the raw intensity and power for which it is renowned.
Dr Mark Knight of Roehampton University drew attention to the debates about the interpretation of Scripture in the mid-Victorian period, proposing that these were of even more concern to contemporary evangelicals than the writings of Charles Darwin.
Sadly, there was too little time left after this series of most stimulating papers to debate the central issue of biblical interpretation as fully as one might have liked, but it was an outstanding conference, nonetheless.
Dr Iain Taylor