Lewis, C.S. 1970 . “Modern Translations of the Bible.” In God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics (pp. 229-333), edited by Walter Hooper and published by Eerdmans. Also published in First and Second Things, edited by Walter Hooper (Fount Books, 1985).
In 1947 J.B. Phillips published his Letters to Young Churches: A Translation of the New Testament Epistles (later the whole N.T. was published) and C.S. Lewis was asked to write an introduction to the Epistles. He reminds us that “sincerely pious people in the sixteenth century shuddered at the idea of turning the time-honored Latin of the Vulgate into our common and (as they thought) ‘barbarous’ English” (229).
This important prompt is parallel to the thinking of sincere and spiritual people today who “shudder” at the thought of using anything but the King James Version as their standard, “authorized”, (and in some minds—inspired), text for the English Bible. (As an aside and to illustrate the point, one of our supporting churches—the one, in fact, where I came to know Christ—dropped our support because I acknowledged that I did not use “only” the King James Bible—the KJV).
Lewis mentions that the only sanctity that Scripture can lose is accidental: the original Greek text of the New Testament was written in the colloquial speech of the Eastern Mediterranean peoples. It was not written in some high ecclesiastical language that the common people could not understand. Lewis equates this humility with the same one God had in having Jesus become a baby of a peasant woman, then later in his life be arrested by Roman police. Further, Lewis maintains that the Authorized Version is no longer a good, that is clear, translation. The meanings of the words have changed, the syntax has changed and in many respects it is archaic and clearly unintelligible. Adherents to the KJV have recognized this (to some extent) and have published the “New King James Bible.”
As any Bible translator recognizes, every generation needs the Bible in the dialect they speak and understand clearly. So translation is an on-going process because it reveals what Jesus and the prophets mean to current readers. It is the meaning that is essential and determines that we must focus on how the words and expressions are used today in the common man’s language—not in some esoteric language of a theologian. Their turn comes in examining the historical context of the Bible and teaching us how errors have crept into the church through the misunderstanding and application of the Scriptures.
Lewis also reminds us that literary beauty, like that in many of the favorite passages of the Bible, can also lull our minds into a passive reading and acceptance without realizing the full horror and hopes that lie in the passages. We may begin with these familiar passages, but their full meaning can only be known if we can express them to our biblically illiterate neighbor. Lewis therefore believes that we should welcome all new translations.
It is not surprising that Lewis felt this way about modern translations: he sensed that his business was to interpret the Gospel message into forms that his contemporaries could best understand. In another article in the same volume (called by the book’s title “God in the Dock”), Lewis reports that when he had been asked to write about the difficulties of communicating the Gospel to modern unbelievers, he found a “theological vagueness” and a unlearned view of history. Therefore, to speak to them in English he had to learn their vocabulary. For “just as a missionary learns Bantu before preaching to the Bantus” the popular English has to be learned before preaching to the English speaker. And what Lewis found was the almost total absence of any sense of sin in his listeners. Instead of recognizing God as their judge, they judged God—He was “in the dock.”
Lewis’s observations on the way words slip out of use “into the abyss” (“The Death of Words” in Of This and Other Worlds, edited by Walter Hooper, Fount Paperbacks, 1982, p. 140) is relevant to Bible translation as well. Even the word “marriage” has taken on a secular cultural meaning when it includes two people of the same sex. And who can use “gay,” or even “straight” now without cringing? Lewis wanted modern translations, but I don’t know what Lewis would say about “gender neutral” ones, although I doubt his comments would be positive.
Lewis wondered, in fact, if English was “doomed” (see “Is English Doomed” in Present Concerns: Ethical Essays, edited by Walter Hooper and published by Fount Paperbacks in 1986). Commenting on a curriculum report called “The Norwood Report” (1941), he saw English depreciated (we would say “dumbed down”) and he wished the general public to know what was going on. In his concern for expressing English in a modern style he was of course not calling for the dumbing down of English. He simply wanted the meanings expressed as simply as possible, following the correct exegesis.
In all of his writings Lewis exemplifies his concerns by interpreting culture and language in Scriptural terms.