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Title: Biblical Revision - its duties and conditions
Author: Alford, Henry
Language: English
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Transcribed from the 1870 Strahan & Co. edition by David Price.

                       [Picture: Decorative header]

                            BIBLICAL REVISION
                        Its Duties and Conditions

                                * * * * *

                EVENING SERVICE, ON SUNDAY, MARCH 13, 1870

                                * * * * *

                          BY HENRY ALFORD, D.D.
                           DEAN OF CANTERBURY.

                                * * * * *

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                                * * * * *

                        STRAHAN & CO., PUBLISHERS
                             56, LUDGATE HILL

                                * * * * *

                       [Picture: Decorative header]

    “Every scribe that is instructed unto the kingdom of heaven is like
    unto a man that is an householder, which bringeth forth out of his
    treasure things new and old.”—MATT. xiii. 52.

THE Scribes were the guardians of the law, and its readers and expounders
to the people.  It is related of Ezra, that he was “a ready scribe in the
law of Moses which the Lord God of Israel had given: he had prepared his
heart to seek the law of the Lord, and to do it, and to teach in Israel
statutes and judgments.”  But in exercising this guardianship the Scribes
were only representing the Church of which they were members.  They were
a class of persons told off for especial attention to this duty, which in
fact belonged to the whole community.  To the Jews as a people, the
Apostle tells us, were committed the oracles of God: and the Church in
all times is the witness and keeper of Holy Writ, as of a sacred deposit
committed to her.  The character assigned in the text to the Scribe
instructed unto the kingdom of heaven, belongs, in all its particulars,
to her, who both is the sum, and constitutes the ideal, of all such
guardians and expounders.

With these few preliminary remarks, we may apply our Lord’s words
immediately to ourselves.  The Christian Church throughout the world is
now the guardian of the Holy Scriptures.  All that the Jews had, we have,
with the inestimably precious addition of the New Testament of our Lord
Jesus Christ.  These Scriptures all Christians regard as the revelation
of God to man.  Other works rise and are built up from below: this alone
we receive as let down upon us from above.  All art, all science, all
theology, which is but a system built up by inferences from Scripture,
these are of man, and constructed on earth.  They may rise higher, and
become truer, as one race is advanced in skill or in knowledge; but they
began below, and will ever carry with them the infirmity of all that is
born on earth.  Whereas the sayings and the lessons of this book are not
of man, nor did they take their beginnings here.  They have come to us
indeed through human words, and by means of human action; but they did
not arise originally in the breasts of men; they came from Him who is
Himself the first spring of morals and the highest fountain of truth.
Between philosophy reared up from below, and the facts, and rules, and
motives, which they disclose, there is always a gap which our reason
cannot bridge over.  God’s sovereignty, man’s free will—God’s creative
agency, man’s inductions of science—God’s interference with physical
order, man’s establishment of physical law—one member of each of these
pairs will ever remain discontinuous from, and in the estimate of human
reason irreconcileable with, the other.  And because this Book is unlike
all other books, because its voice comes to us from another place, and is
heard in deeper and more secret chambers of our being than all other
voices, because its sayings have for our humanity a searching and
conserving and healing power which none other possess, therefore it is
that to keep these Holy Scriptures in all their integrity as delivered
down to her is the solemn trust of the Church throughout the world: a
trust simple, direct, indefeasible.

Now when I say the Church throughout the world, and in all I shall say in
these or like terms to-night, I am using the words in their very widest
sense.  I mean by the Church no less than our Article defines it to be,
“the great congregation of faithful men in which the pure Word of God is
preached, and the Sacraments are duly administered according to Christ’s
ordinance.”  I mean the whole body, wherever dwelling, however ordered
and denominated, who take the Scriptures for their rule of life and for
their ultimate appeal.  On the whole of this body rests this trust, to
preserve the purity and integrity of Holy Scripture.

Now of course this duty concerns primarily the Scripture in the form in
which it was given to man: the one sacred text, existing for us at this
day in the very language in which it was originally written.  In plain
words, by way of illustration: if the universal Church were at this day
commanded to lay up a copy of this deposit, as the Law was laid up in the
ark of the Covenant, that one copy would consist of the Old Testament in
Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek.

But now comes in a necessity for the exercise of judgment on the part of
the scribe instructed unto the kingdom of heaven: in other words, on the
part of the Church.  When we speak of these two sacred texts, we speak in
fact of a store of both.  These texts have been transmitted by human
means.  They exist for us in many forms, coincident in the main, but
varying more or less from one another, principally through infirmities
incident to transcription in ancient times.  The great mass of these
variations concerns matters of relatively small importance.  In primitive
Christian times believers were too intensely employed about the great
interests of the Redeemer’s kingdom, to be very careful about the mere
letter of the Scripture narrative.  Whether in one and the same phrase
our Lord _went_, or _came_, or _journeyed_,—whether He _said_, or
_answered_, or _spoke_, or _answered and said_, was to them small matter:
and thus we have these and hundreds of such as these insignificant
variations in the different ancient manuscript copies of our New
Testament.  But there are, and in no small number, other variations
affecting the sense,—modifying the facts of the history, diverting the
course of argument, changing the tendency of exhortation.  And it is with
regard to these that the Church, trusted as she is with the Scriptures,
is bound to bring things old out of her treasures: to seek back for the
most ancient and best attested of the variations, and to hold that fast
as the text, rejecting the others: or, if none can be found whose
evidence sufficiently preponderates, to publish to all the fact that it
is so.  Less than this will not be a faithful discharge of the trust:
cannot satisfy her feeling of reverence for God’s word.

Now before we can proceed to any application of what has already been
said, we must advance further in the duty of the Church as the Guardian
of Scripture.  The Word of God was not given to be laid up and hidden,
but to go forth and to be understood.  That faith which is to save the
nations, cometh by hearing, and hearing cometh by the Word of God.  But
the nations are not able to understand the Scriptures as they were given.
And therefore it was very early recognised as a duty of each Church to
provide the Scriptures for her members in their own language: to bring
out of her stores not only things old,—the genuine and venerable text of
the word, but also things new,—the new garment or vehicle of that sacred
text, its expression in her vernacular language.  And here let it never
be forgotten, that though we believe Scripture to be a thing divine, a
version, every version, of Scripture must of necessity be a thing human;
must be liable to imperfection and error, and capable of correction and
improvement.  It is in fact, after all, little more than a comment or
speculation upon Scripture.  A few of the simplest considerations serve
to shew this.  Take but these.  In almost every sentence where there is
fervour of feeling, or precision of argument, or graphic description, we
are totally unable to give in the version the living force of the
original.  We are obliged to enquire what is the general sense of that
which is vividly represented, and to devise some English words which will
as nearly as possible convey it to the mind: and thus the power and charm
are lost.  Again, where an original word may have two or more meanings,
giving to the sentence where it occurs a corresponding variety of
applications to life or doctrine; in our rendering we are obliged,
because there is no corresponding word of ours alike fertile in
signification, to exclude all but one of these senses.  On the other
hand, where the original employed some word of but one perfectly plain
sense, we are often constrained to use a term in our tongue which,
bearing an ambiguous meaning, weakens that sense, or even obliterates it
altogether.  Any one may see, from even these scanty hints, how
difficult, how unsatisfactory at the best, must be the discharge of this
portion of the trust: how utterly impossible it is that there should ever
be a perfect or final version of the Scriptures: how the Church, the
Scribe entrusted with the custody and provision of God’s word for the
souls of her members, is bound to bring out of her stores ever from age
to age things new, fresh and more accurate renderings of such phrases of
Scripture as time and use may prove to have been inaccurately

And observe, before we pass on to the account of our own situation in
these respects, that this duty incumbent on the Church is to be performed
quite irrespectively of any beauty or aptness of outward form which such
rendering may happen to possess.  An erroneous rendering of a Scripture
phrase may have been so well put into words, may carry a sound so terse
and epigrammatic, as to have sunk deep into the mind of a nation and to
have become one of its household sayings.  But who would accept the
excuse of beauty or aptness in the case of anything else wrongly come by?
It is strange that in this case only has any such argument been used and

Now we in this land possess a version of the Holy Scriptures which may
challenge comparison for faithfulness, for simplicity, and for majesty,
with any that the world has ever seen.  Perhaps its chief defect is that
it admits of being too highly praised.  Its pure use of our native
tongue, the exquisite balance and music of its sentences, the stately
march of its periods, the hold on the memory taken by the very
alliterations and antitheses, which were the manner of writing when it
was made,—these and a hundred other charms which invest almost every
verse, make us love it even to excess.

And when we intensify all these claims to our affection by the fact that
it has been for centuries, and is now, the vehicle to this great English
race of all that is pure and holy and lovely and of good report, the
first lesson of infancy, the guide of mature life, the comforter of
sickness and death, we can hardly be surprised that many, and some of the
best among us, refuse to see its faults, and are unable to contemplate
with any content the prospect of their being corrected.  It is a spirit
for which we ought to be deeply thankful, this earnest and affectionate
cleaving to the English version of the Scriptures.

But good as it is, there is one thing better.  And that is, the humble
reverence for God’s word, rendering a man willing to make any sacrifice
for the sake, if it may be, of nearer approach to His truth.  And as the
public mind has lately been and now is stirred regarding this matter, I
think it may not be a wrong use of our time to-night, if I venture to
speak to you of that part of the subject which especially belongs to the
pulpit: avoiding details, and trying to remind you in our own case of the
need for thinking of the duty at this time, and of our own means of
performing it; taking into account, by the way, the principal objections
urged against our putting it in hand.

The necessity of thinking of the duty at this time arises from two
causes, setting in contrast our own circumstances with those under which
our version was made: one relating to the things old, the other to the
things new.

When that version was made, rather when it was constructed and amended
out of former ones, the available sources whence the sacred text was to
be derived were very few indeed, and those for the most part not of a
high order.  In almost every case where the real text is matter of doubt,
and has to be ascertained by evidence, our translators had not that
evidence before them.  By far the greater and more important part of it
was not brought to light in any trustworthy form till within the memory
of living men.  Nay, one of its most ancient and principal witnesses has
been within the last few years discovered and given to the Church.  And
the consequence is that, setting aside all cases of indifferent or
unimportant variations, there is by this time an immense weight of
responsibility pressing on the Church with regard to these varieties of
reading: a weight which it seems to me only those can be contented to
rest under, who are not aware of its magnitude.  We, the Churches of
Christ in this land, are causing to be read to our people, to take but a
single very solemn instance, words respecting one of the foundation
doctrines of the faith which are demonstrably no part of Scripture at
all.  And we of the Church of England are doing worse: we are reading
those words by special selection, implying that they convey a proof of
that doctrine, on the Sunday set apart by its name.  This is perhaps the
most prominent example: but there is no lack of others: we might quote
instances where the text found in our English Bibles, which passes
current with millions for the word of God, has but the very slenderest,
if any authority to rest upon, and where other words, which very few of
those millions ever heard of, really are, according to the Church’s own
belief respecting Scripture, the message of God to men.  We might produce
examples again, where the evidence of the great authorities is so nearly
balanced, that to the end of time, if no more witnesses are discovered,
the question never can be decided which of two or more is the true

Now there is no reason to think that there was any fault in our
translators as regards this matter.  Where they in their time knew of an
important variation, they noted it in their margin, or indicated it by
the type of their text.  But in the great majority of cases, the fact was
not, and could not be, within their knowledge at all.  Upon us in our own
time has it fallen to carry out their principles with the vastly extended
light which God has shed upon us.

But, it is asked, are we able to do this?  As regards the text of the New
Testament, where these variations principally occur, certainly we are.
The whole ground has been of late years thoroughly and repeatedly worked
over, and the evidence is well known.  In many of the most important of
varying passages, the decision of biblical scholars would be shortly and
easily made, which reading to adopt or reject, or whether to take the
middle course of fairly representing the uncertainty.  The number of such
important variations is but limited; and in most of them, the voice of
ancient testimony is all one way.  So that it seems to me there would be
no formidable difficulty, as regards the things old, in setting right at
this time the unavoidable errors, and supplying what were the necessary
defects, of our English Bible.

We now come to the second of the reasons which seem to press on the
Church at this time the duty of reviewing her stewardship of the Holy
Scriptures; and that reason concerns the things new—the form in which
those Scriptures are represented in the vernacular tongue.  In the main,
as has been already said, we have in this respect nothing to regret, and
but very little that we should be compelled to change.  The character and
spirit of our version are all that we can desire.  But it is utterly
impossible for any one capable of judging to deny, that it is disfigured
by numerous blemishes, far too important to be put by or condoned.  The
gravest of these are due to manifest errors in rendering; errors, about
which there could be but one opinion among biblical scholars of all
religious views.  Others have arisen from principles adopted and avowed
by the translators themselves: as, for instance, from the unfortunate one
of allowing a number of apparently equivalent English words an equal
right to represent one and the same word in the original, whereby very
important passages have been disguised and confused.  Others again owe
their source to causes which have come into operation since the version
was made.  Certain words have, as time has gone on, passed into new
meanings.  Others, which could formerly be read without offence, have
now, by their very occurrence, become stumbling-blocks, and tend to
remove all solemnity, and even all chance of fair audience, from the
passages where they occur.  Some few blemishes may also be due (and it is
hardly possible altogether to put by this source) to doctrinal or
ecclesiastical bias on the part of the translator.  Of the various
elements which were wisely united in the body of men entrusted with the
preparation of our version, one was much weakened during the work by the
death of two of its leading members: and some apparently forced or
inconsistent renderings have been thought to be not altogether
unconnected with this circumstance.

But, after all, we are asked, of what character are these blemishes.  Do
they, do any of them, affect points of Christian doctrine?  Now let it be
observed, my brethren, that this question is in itself a fallacious one.
For what is Christian doctrine?  Is it a hard dry tabular statement of
dogmas, to be proved by a certain number of texts? or is it the
conviction of the great truths expressed by those dogmas carried into the
hearts and lives of men?  If it be the former, then might we, according
to the objector’s argument, dispense with nine-tenths of Scripture
altogether.  If the latter, then we can spare nothing which may make it
clearer or more forcible, better apprehended or more warmly felt.  I am
persuaded that no one can estimate the benefit which may be done to the
souls of men by casting light on any one saying of our Blessed Lord,—by
making evident a sentence before obscure in the writings of prophets or
apostles.  And that this may be now done, done in very important
instances, done with easy consent and effectually, I am also persuaded.
The great principles of biblical translation have in our time engaged
many able men both here and on the Continent; and to most of the passages
in which our version has gone astray, our chosen revisers would come with
their minds firmly made up, and ready at once to apply the remedy.  With
regard to some other blemishes which I ventured to mention, its
application would be easier still.  Few would fail to note, or be
desirous to retain, an obsolete word; and in the case of expressions of
the other kind, the only desire would be, while removing the offence, to
leave unimpaired God’s testimony against sin, or whatever might be the
solemn sense of the passage.  As regards the last class of blemishes
mentioned, those few which may be due to doctrinal or ecclesiastical
bias, the task might seem likely to be a hard one.  But I should be
unwilling hastily to think this.  In many such instances, the question,
as it would be raised among our modern scholars, would never enter the
region of opinion at all.  It would be simply one of faithful and
consistent rendering, to which the occurrence of the word elsewhere would
furnish an easy and safe guide.  I trust it may be said of the Church in
our land, that the longer she lasts, the more she becomes aware of the
futility of forcing into the sacred text any foregone conclusions: the
more she sees the importance of keeping pure from all later alloy the
water which men are to draw from the wells of salvation.

We have thus advanced in our very hasty and incomplete sketch of this
subject, to the last branch of enquiry which we proposed: by whom, and
how, this review of the Church’s stewardship may be carried out.

In asking “By whom?” we are in fact putting two questions: under what
sanction, and by what instruments.  To the former enquiry it might be
answered, that inasmuch as uniformity in the use of a Scripture text is
of the first importance, it would be desirable that the version when
amended should be put forth by authority.  But there can be little doubt
that such an answer would be an inconsiderate one.  The procedure would
defeat the very end it has in view.  On only one of the Christian bodies
in this country would such authority, even if complete in her sense, be
binding.  And if the amended version were thus bound upon her, we should
be departing from the precedent set us in the case of our present
version, which, whatever might be the intention of the notice that it is
“appointed to be read in churches,” appears to have made its way to
universal acceptance by its intrinsic excellence, and without any binding
authorisation at all.  There might be various conceivable ways of
undertaking the revision.  It might be entrusted to a body of men
selected and commissioned by the highest power in the land.  Or the
action might begin, as it is now beginning, with one of the religious
bodies among us, and might proceed, not confined to that body alone, but
extended so as to take in such of the rest as might be willing to aid.
But, however undertaken, the result should be put forth to make its way
simply and entirely on its merits, and as approving itself to the
conscience and judgment of the Churches of Christ.  And we are thus
brought to answer the second member of this enquiry, By what instruments
should the revision be carried out?  Our last sentence has anticipated
the reply.  Such a work should no more be done by one section of the
Christian Church than by one man.  The same concurrence and conflict of
thought, the same variety of experience, the same differing shades of
feeling and apprehension, which render many men requisite for the work,
render also many Churches requisite.  There is in the lay mind a natural
and well-founded distrust of men who are enlisted in the warm advocacy of
particular systems: and nothing but a fair balance of the English
Churches in the work would command public confidence.

And then, how should the work be done?  I do not mean, by what kind of
process or machinery: the necessarily arduous details would be best
judged of by those engaged in it: but I mean, guided by what maxims, in
accordance with what rules?  The task may fairly be compared to the
mending and restoration of a goodly piece of ancient mosaic-work.  And
such a comparison may guide us to one leading rule which should dominate
the whole process.  Nothing should be touched of the fair fabric which
can possibly remain: and all that is of necessity new should be in
strictest harmony with the old.  So that the ear, while of course missing
from the altered sentence the expression so long familiar, should find it
superseded, not by a startling modernism, but by words worthy to stand
beside those which remain.  Those who are acquainted with the history of
our present version will recognise in this rule the repetition of one
which its compilers had before them.

On this matter, I conceive there need be no alarm whatever.  Any body of
English biblical scholars, with the responsibility upon them of purifying
our version, would be at least as anxious to preserve its characteristic
excellences as any could be, who were not so deeply aware what those
excellences are.  And let it be observed, that in this matter a version
for public and general use would of necessity differ from such as may
have been put forth for private benefit by individual scholars.  In
those, it may have been desired to give to the English bible-student some
idea of the niceties and precise constructions of the original.  In the
amended version, there should be no such design, unless where our
ordinary English will fully and freely admit of it: no merely grammatical
changes of tense or inference, which might give awkwardness or stiffness
to what was before plainly and conventionally expressed.

From what has already been said, it will be clear that this revision of
the Church’s stewardship cannot be brought about merely by the insertion
of marginal notices or varieties.  We all know how little chance the
margin has of being observed or known: and it would be a still more fatal
objection that, in the great majority of Bibles, the requisite of
cheapness precludes any marginal printing at all.  There might indeed
with advantage be an addition of marginal notices in matters of secondary
importance: but all necessary substantial revision must be made in the
text itself, or it seems to me we are exceeding and not fulfilling our

There remains but one more consideration, without which we can hardly
dismiss our subject.  Will not, it has been asked, the varying of
expressions in our version tend to disturb that confidence and reliance
with which its words are generally regarded among English Christians?
First I would observe that this argument, as against the discharge of a
solemn trust, is worthless; and secondly, that I have no dread of the
consequence apprehended.  The Church of England has used for two
centuries and a half, two distinct versions of the Psalms, varying to a
degree but little appreciated,—and with no such disturbing result.  It is
not a little remarkable, that a precisely similar objection was raised at
the time of the undertaking of our present version,—but it was by the
Romanists.  They complained of the unsettling effect of these frequent
changes, and of the marginal readings as leaving men in doubt what was
the truth of Scripture.  With what reason, let the firm hold which that
amended version has kept be witness.

And now in drawing to an end, let us ask ourselves, why it is that the
conscience of the Church is moved about this matter? why it is that, a
desire which not long since stirred only in a few breasts, has now become
ripe for practical settlement as to by whom and how it is to be

And the answer is to be sought in that conscience itself.  It brings to
light the estimation in which this Christian people have come to hold the
precious deposit entrusted to them.  It is a result of the awakened
enquiry, the honest fearless research which have been and are being
widely spent upon every point connected with Holy Scripture: a higher
value set, not in spite of but because of that inquiry and research, on a
treasure now no longer wrapped in the disguise of mere conventional
reverence, but opened and sparkling to every eye.  It is the old
confession over again,—no longer from the mouth of one standing in the
prophetic front of his age, but in the hearts of Churches walking in the
fear of God and in the comfort of the Holy Ghost,—“Thy law is tried to
the uttermost: therefore thy servant loveth it.”

In this spirit, and in the depth of this affection, let us contemplate
the work which is proposed, let us undertake it if undertaken it is to
be: refusing to yield our reverence for God’s word to any overweening
love for that to which we have been accustomed, or to let go our present
trust in His guiding Spirit for any timid apprehensions of the peril of
change: but on the other hand doing nothing rashly, nothing uncharitably;
respecting the opinions of our brethren, and dealing tenderly with their

And let us who are anxious for this national work remember above all
things, that it is not by our professions of esteem for God’s word, but
by our proof of them, that distrust will be removed and confidence
inspired: by that word being seen to be the source of our own motives,
and the rule of our life.

                                * * * * *

                                 THE END.

                                * * * * *

                                * * * * *



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