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The King James Version of the Bible:
'The Literary Impact of the Authorised Version' by C.S. Lewis
- A Summary and Comment

C.S. Lewis once wrote an interesting paper on 'The literary Impact of the Authorised Version' [published by the Athlone Press, University of London, 1950], which may be of present interest as we celebrate 400 years to the Authorised, or King James, version of the Bible. Here is a summary of Lewis' argument, followed by comments that link his thought with that of others.

Introduction: C.S. Lewis' Conclusion

The paper is interesting because he argues that the literary impact has been less than supposed and he predicted that from henceforth it would be mainly believers who would read the Bible.

Reading the Bible as literature (rather than as a sacred book) was in vogue when he wrote the paper. Lewis believed this is like "using the tool for a purpose it was not intended to serve." [p.25]. He continued It demands incessantly to be taken on its own terms: it will not continue to give literary delight very long except to those who go to it for something quite different."

This is because "Unless the religious claims of the Bible are again acknowledged, its literary claims will, I think, be given only 'mouth honour' and that decreasingly. For it is, through and through, a sacred book." [p.24]. He ends with:

"For the Bible, whether in the Authorised or in any other version, I foresee only two possibilities; either to return as a sacred book or to follow the classics, if not quite into oblivion yet into the ghost-life of the museum and the specialist's study. Except, of course, among the believing minority who read it to be instructed and get literary enjoyment as a by-product." [p.26]

His prediction seems to have been near the mark. Now I summarise the argument that led to this conclusion. Then I make some comments.

Lewis' Argument

C.S. Lewis' argument may be summarised as follows.

  • If only the Romantics value the King James Version, then during a counter-Romantic attitude, such as prevailed when Lewis wrote his paper, the King James Version would not be found attractive.
  • Throughout the paper, Lewis compares the influence of the King James Version to that of Virgil, Homer and, later, Johnson, and others. He makes the observation that the Bible, and the King James Version, are unlike them in one very important respect. "Neither Aeschylus nor even Virgil tacitly prefaces his poetry with the formulat 'Thus say the gods'. But in most parts of the Bible everything is implicitly or explicitly introduced with 'Thus saith the Lord'." [p.25]. This is why the Bible, including its King James Version, is a tool that should not be used for merely literary purposes. This is why "it will not continue to give literary delight very long except to those who go to it for something quite different."

  • Hence, his final conclusion: only believers will value the King James Version. And as they use it to hear about and from God, they will enjoy it as literature, but that is a by-product and by no means the main reason for reading it.


    I stand at the junction of many versions of the Bible. I find the economy of phrase found in the King James Version quite remarkable, and the rhythm of its wording very satisfying. Moreover, it was in the King James Version that I learned more than 100 verses off by heart in the 1960s, and the phraseology of these remain in the depths of my memory. I appreciate the KJV, but I hardly ever read the King James Version, preferring other versions for an understanding of God, his world, our relationship with him, our responsibility to the world under him, our state, and his salvation.

    Comment 1. The Bible as Everyday Life and Pre-theoretical Attitude

    Unlike the Mediaevals, I like and value the everyday nature of the Bible. It speaks directly to everyday life. I can apply it directly to whenever and wherever I am. Unlike the Humanists, I like its directness and simplicity and its everyday turn of phrase. Therefore I am one of the people that C.S. Lewis believed the Bible is to serve.

    This may be understood philosophically. For more than 2,000 years, philosophers have presupposed that the theoretical attitude of thought is the route to true knowledge, and that the pre-theoretical (everyday, 'nave') attitude is of little value. But during the past 100 increasingly this presupposition has been challenged and undermined, and there has been a growing interest among philosophers in everyday life, some of it centring around the notion of 'lifeworld' (shared background understanding by which we live in everyday life).

    Arguably the best philosopher of everyday life to date is Herman Dooyeweerd. Whereas most philosophers have taken a theoretical attitude to understanding everyday pre-theoretical experience, Dooyeweerd began with a pre-theoretical attitude, and though philosophy inevitably involves taking a theoretical attitude, he always maintain that it should always bow to pre-theoretical experience, because theory is limited to a single aspect while pre-theoretical experience is open to all aspects. (See 'Everyday'.)

    Dooyeweerd discussed how we should understand the Bible. He held that the Bible exhibits a pre-theoretical attitude, and should be read with a pre-theoretical attitude. I concur. That is, we should engage with it directly, rather than theorizing about it. We should not come to it with a priori theological theories, but let it speak to us. Now, of course, we do come to it with theories, insofar as our interpretation of the Bible is influenced by previous knowledge that we deem general in nature. But we should always reckon that our theories are limited. We should value the 'low', down-to-earth message of the Bible as the very Word of God, rather than seeing it as the dry crust that leads us to the honey of allegory. Allegory is theory, and so is social construction rather than truth, even though it might express some truth.

    Comment 2. How we may read the Bible

    If we are to listen to the down-to-earth message, how do we do it? A common way among Bible-believing Christians is to take single verses and apply them to our lives. This is best when done self-critically, but today many do it in a way that boosts one's own ego. That is bad. But even when done best, it is narrow and can mislead.

    A way I find useful is to try to find the 'big' messages of the Bible, the ones that are so obvious that we overlook them, as well as the ones that go against our own cultural presuppositions. This approach has been inspired by Jesus' castigating the Teachers of the Law for arguing about the finer points of the law, but ignoring the big issues like justice. I want to understand these big, important issues, and I want to do so more than 'by accident'. I want to find out what many of the big issues are, so that I can hold them all in mind as I live everyday life.

    I have tried to do this in a website I have called 'A Brief History of God'. I have tried to sketch the main messages that God has been giving humanity over the various Biblical and post-Biblical eras.

    Such an approach helps us sketch out a better theology of our responsibility to the planet, without falling into worship of the earth on one hand or ignoring it on the other. See 'A New View in Theology and Practice'.

    Comment 3. Nature-Grace Ground-motive

    C.S. Lewis' portrayal of Mediaeval attitudes to the Bible shows clearly the influence of what Dooyeweerd called the Nature-Grace Ground-motive. This is the presupposition that drove Western thinking for a thousand years (approx. 500-1500): a divide between natural and supernatural, with the latter being the more important. This is why they were surprised that God could use "vile bodies", and because of their presupposition felt bound to provide an explanation that we today would find funny (which Lewis briefly outlined).

    Andrew Basden.

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    Created: 1 January 2011. Last updated: 2 January 2011 new title.