The English Bible


(From “Our Transition into English,” Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly, Vol. 100, No. 2 [Spring 2003], pp. 92-93; a translation of “Unser Übergang ins Englische,” Theologische Quartalschrift, Vols. 14-15 [1918-19].)

You cannot read a single page, even a single column, in the King James Version or the Revised Version -- especially in Paul’s epistles -- without bumping up against words and phrases that are unenglish, artificial, unclear, and difficult. The shortcomings of the English Bible are primarily two. For the most part, it translates the idioms and expressions of the original languages too literally, often literalistically, and this makes it difficult, if not incomprehensible, for the reader. And secondly, the English Bible too often lacks the vitality, the freshness and power of the original Hebrew and Greek.

There is an antique quality to the language of the King James Version, which has been remedied only slightly in the Revised Version. The English language changed much more thoroughly and much more rapidly than German did, and in so doing it distanced itself from the language of its Bible. By contrast, Luther’s German Bible helped to create the German language. That accounts for the fact that Luther, permeated with the message of the Scripture, filled with the spirit of Paul, could produce a truly German Bible that is immediately understandable to Germans of every place and time. The translators of the King James Version, on the other hand, used many words and expressions from a centuries-old language which quickly went out of use. Wherever you look in the English Bible, you come across words and expressions which at one time were perfectly good English but are no longer in common use (cf. the jaw-breaker “but nourisheth and cherisheth it,” Eph 5). The English pastor preaches in a language different from his Bible.

This shortcoming has found its way into the language of English worship. It is nothing less than torturing a language to pray:

Heavenly Father, who inhabitest the high and holy place and was justly wroth ... Thou abhorrest iniquity and lovest righteousness ... world without end. Amen.

Prayer language like that pushes God into the distance; it builds a wall between the believer and his God. English-speaking people all over the world have one kind of language in their Bible, their worship, and their prayers, but use a different language in their everyday life. And isolating one’s “Sunday language” from the rest of his life will play a major role in lessening the effect religion will have on a person. If the language of our Bible, of our worship services, of the sermon, of the catechism, of our hymns and prayers is to take hold of our heart and dominate our thinking, feeling, and will, then it dare not seem strange to us, or obscure, old-fashioned, and awkward.

If the English-speaking segment of our membership is to have the gospel as abundantly as those who retained German, then let there be no secret about the fact that we need a new English Bible. We must undertake a revision much more extensive than the American Revised Version. What we really need is for God to give us an English Luther, filled with his spirit and a master of the English language, somebody who can make Moses and the prophets, Christ and the apostles speak English, just as Luther made them speak German. God must provide sanctified poets who will not only translate psalms and church hymns into English, but who can put them into idiomatic English.

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