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The language of faith … and a personal response.

March 1995 | by Geoff

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This article is a response to The language of faith, a personal view

Dear Stuart,

That our preaching should be as lucid as possible is not the issue, nor that there are certain archaic expressions in a few verses of some hymns as well as in some verses of the Authorized Version. You quote some of them and everyone acknowledges those embarrassing realities. Where then do we differ?

1. A fear of the alleged ‘dialect’ of the Authorized Version and of the great older hymns

I was surprised to discover this fear in you as I see it widespread among middle-class Christians, especially college graduates and Anglican vicars who studied at Cambridge. Others of us whose congregations are awash with students have found that to be another reason to go over to the N.I.V. (I mean, as well as its removal of those old phrases which you quote). Working-class people are much more at ease with the Authorized Version. For example, those who became the backbone of the Elim and Assemblies of God denominations in the 1920s and 1930s were all saved under pastors and evangelists who used the A.V. and the old hymns. That generation were as linguistically distant from the language of King James as we are. Many today are still convinced that for ordinary (i.e. non-student) folk the most effective version to be used in evangelism to which one’s friends and families are invited is the A.V., and the best books of praise for them, Christian Hymns, Grace Hymns or the metrical psalms.

You know that one of the most thriving congregations in Scotland, which has seen as many conversions in the past decade as any other, is Rosskeen Free Church, nine miles north of Alness on the A9, its building standing solitary in the midst of fields. Kenneth M. MacDonald has been there since 1984. Twenty years ago the members of the congregation were so few that they were meeting in the schoolroom. Today 500 people can fill the church, most of whom have come to the Saviour in the past decade. The A.V. and unaccompanied metrical psalms alone are used. Again, the largest congregation in Wales of 700 people is Heath Evangelical Church, Cardiff, pastored for thirty-five years by Vernon Higham. The Authorized Version and Christian Hymns are used.

In America the Independent Baptist churches which began to break away from the Southern Baptists forty years ago now number over 12,000 congregations. They support hundreds of missionaries, seminaries and colleges. They all use the King James Version and judge it to be the best tool for communication in the American culture. Your language about ‘non-dialect speakers having to master the dialect to full participation in worship’ would be utterly incomprehensible to them and denied by what they have seen of their churches’ growth.

2. Problems with the meaning of verses

There are difficulties in understanding some individual verses of the Bible. Leaving the A.V. does not mean you leave those problems behind. What is the N.I.V. saying when it declares, ‘even the cohorts of Rahab cowered at his feet’ (Job 9:13)? Or ‘Arrayed in holy majesty, from the womb of the dawn you will receive the dew of your youth’ (Psalm 110:3); or ‘So she tastes as she did, and her aroma is unchanged’ (Jeremiah 48:11); or ‘The shorelands will quake when your seamen cry out’ (Ezekiel 27:28); ‘He who swears by the altar swears by it and by everything on it’ (Matthew 23:20); ‘hating even the clothing stained by corrupted flesh’ (Jude 23)? But those are God’s words exactly, to the jot and tittle.

Select at random then people in your congregation. Now ask them to give you the exact meaning of the following lines, all of which are taken from Mission Praise:

‘There’s a sound on the wind like a victory song, Listen now, let it rest on your soul’ (235), ‘Lord may we see your hands and side Touch you and feel your presence near’ (146), ‘Let me have my way among you, Do not strive, do not strive, [repeat]’ (134).

This done, ask them to explain (without hesitation) the following words, all of which are found in the N.I.V.: onycha, galbanum, filigree, dill, chalcedony, chysoprase (respectively, Exodus 30:34; Exodus 39:16; Matthew 23:23; Revelation 21: 19-20).

“Many New Testament messages were not directed primarily to the man in the street, but to the man in the congregation.”
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How did they get on in those two exercises? With a concordance and dictionary they should have the answers to the second set of questions quickly. As to the hymns, there is poetic licence is there not? Part of your problem is a belief that as the language of the New Testament was Koine Greek, the ‘language of the man in the street’, so hymns and translations should fully communicate to the stranger who attends the church for the first time. The truth of the matter is that many New Testament messages were not directed primarily to the man in the street, but to the man in the congregation. When I first heard Dr Lloyd-Jones in September 1958, the gripping reality which I took away with me was that while I failed to understand all he was saying it was of crucial importance and I had to discover why.

3. Difficulties about the language of the in-group

Every interest develops its own vocabulary. And when you fall in love with some hobby you want to learn the the terms. If it’s motor bikes, mountaineering, computers, rugby, or whatever, it has its own words. Christians are constantly to use the words God has so carefully inspired and explain them to our hearers. Timothy was exhorted, ‘Preach the Word!’ – let your prayers and sermons be full of the Word. I fear your obsession with what you unhelpfully call ‘dialect’ will cause preachers a self-consciousness about using excellent correct words, and they will begin to fumblingly use other phrases which are not nearly as sharp. For example, few things are as important as the earnest loving quoting of great texts from the Authorized Version of the Bible.

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I would have judged that you shared a concern of mine to maintain the great hymns as the staple of the congregation’s praise. R.L.Dabney speaks my mind when he says of the wave of late Victorian hymns: ‘The danger thus far apparent is that of habituating the taste of Christians to a very vapid species of pious doggerel, containing the most diluted possible traces of saving truth, in portions suitable to the most infantile faculties supplemented by a jingle of “vain repetitions”‘ (Discussions, Vol.2, p.94).

I believe we are convinced that the worship should be controlled by a man of God, holy and filled with the Spirit. That requirement is far more important than which of the three or four acceptable translations of the Bible he and the congregation have decided to use. James said, ‘Not many of you should presume to be teachers, my brothers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly’ (James 3:1). How is it that in today’s churches every Tom, Harry and Mary is teaching, now that he/she has a guitar and knows three chords? (As Chuck Berry said, ‘Three great chords, eighteen great albums.’)

You have taught me so much by your preaching and life. I will think over what you have written. I look forward to hearing you speak at the next Banner of Truth Ministers’ Conference