The Lord Gave the Word – Commemorating the 400th Anniversary of the King James Version (7) The Golden Age of the English Bible (2)

Our series on the significant 400th anniversary of the King James, or Authorized, Version of the Bible and on the history of the English Bible which gave birth to the Authorized Version (AV) has obviously continued past the 400th year landmark and into the 401st year. Anniversaries rightly celebrated recall the mind of the church to the victories which God has given to the church militant in history in her struggle against sin, the world, and the false church; to the lives of great men in the church, generals who have marshaled the troops, strengthened the defenses, and spearheaded the offensive against heresy; and to the continual hope of glory which belongs to every Christian soldier: the promise of the reward to come as a member of the church triumphant in heaven and complete, final, and everlasting victory over the enemy, which victory they have now in principle as they fight here on earth.
The 400th anniversary of the AV provides the opportunity for us to do this with regard to God’s preservation of his Word in the Holy Scriptures. Specifically, as he has preserved it for his English-speaking elect in the whole history of the English Bible and the AV in particular. Our subject in this article is the third of the six English Bible translations produced in the period we may call the Golden Age of the English Bible. This is the Geneva Bible.
“Great are the Troubles of the Righteous” (Psalm 34:19a, Geneva Bible of 1560)
England at the time of the Reformation was a disturbed and often perilous place for the child of God. Henry VIII, the adulterous king of many wives, continually vacillated between allowing limited reform and violent reaction against reform in a return to Romanist doctrine and practice. He allowed the Coverdale Bible (1535), licensed the Matthew’s Bible (1537), and promoted the Great Bible (1540, and the de-Cromwellized edition in 1541); then, in 1546, he proclaimed the possession or reading of any Bible translation of Tyndale or Coverdale to be treason against the king, and ordered all copies to be turned in for burning. While the smoke from the ashes of this Bible burning still rose to heaven, Henry died in 1549, and his son Edward VI, aged 10, succeeded to the throne.
Edward’s fervent Protestantism was due to another of his father’s religious mood swings. Henry had allowed the education of his heir to proceed under the tutelage of Protestant nobles and churchmen, with Archbishop Thomas Cranmer at their head. During Edward’s reign, Bible reading was officially encouraged and facilitated by no less than 50 editions of the English Bible, in its current various translations. Cranmer issued in 1549 his Book of Common Prayer, which was placed in every English church alongside the Bible as the official service-book. Edward VI, his chancellor Lord Somerset, and Cranmer all corresponded with John Calvin, who offered continual advice and strongly admonished Cranmer to carry the Reformation in England further; that is, to carry it as far as the Word of God demanded.
But Edward VI was a sickly youth, and in 1554, after a reign of seven years and not even 20 years old, he died. And this boy king, whom many who were thirsty for reform in the English Church had hailed as the Josiah who would restore the glory of the right worship of God, was succeeded by a right Jezebel: his half-sister Mary Tudor, daughter of Henry VIII and his first wife Catherine of Aragon. Mary fervently embraced the Romanism of her Spanish mother and determined to return England to the papal fold. She unleashed persecution on her realm. John Rogers, translator of the Matthew’s Bible, was the first of nearly 400 martyrs during the years 1555-1558. Among the martyrs who followed were the illustrious bishops Nicholas Ridley of London and Hugh Latimer of Worcester in 1555, and, on March 21, 1556, Archbishop Cranmer. Miles Coverdale had been made bishop of Exeter by Edward VI, and he too was imprisoned by Mary’s regime. He would have been burned had not his wife’s relative, who was court chaplain to the king of Denmark, brought Coverdale’s plight to the attention of that monarch. The Danish king intervened with Mary on Coverdale’s behalf, and Coverdale was permitted to go into exile in Denmark.
But England lost far more citizens through exile than death. Thousands of Englishmen, known as the “Marian exiles,” since it was Mary’s persecutions which forced them into exile, left their homeland for the Continent of Europe. Among them went some of England’s finest scholars. And the destination of many of these Marian exiles was Calvin’s Geneva, regarded as a haven for the right worship of God and for the outstanding scholarship at the Geneva Academy.
You cannot miss the significance of this! In the first place, because it shows that Calvin’s influence was not only felt in England, but accepted, appreciated, and looked for by those who claimed to support true reformation in the English Church. We have seen how Calvin wrote to nobles, to Edward VI, and to Archbishop Cranmer. And although his instruction failed to take root completely in the highest echelons of the Church of England (although Cranmer, at least, was certainly grateful for his guidance), Calvin’s principles of a truly Reformed church—including that it must be Reformed in church government (which the official Church of England was—and
is—not)—were embraced by those who later become known as Puritans. We shall talk more of the Puritans later, but for now it is enough to see that they were especially grateful for Calvin’s leadership. When they were forced from England through persecution, they were drawn to Geneva like iron to a magnet.
Secondly, the Marian exiles, many of them at least, recognized the need, indeed demand, to belong to true, instituted church of Jesus Christ, even though cut off from their own land. Although they could see that the Church in their homeland was far from truly Reformed, they had remained in it (also, at Calvin’s direction), praying and waiting on the Lord to bless their land with more perfect reform. During the reign of Edward VI, they were hopeful. Then Mary came with all her papist persecutions and drove them out. Where were they to go? Calvin’s Geneva! There was a church where they could worship. Did they migrate there because they thought that the only road to heaven lay through Geneva? Nonsense. Rather, they recognized that by God’s grace working effectually through the ministry of John Calvin, the church at Geneva exhibited all the marks of the true church (see Article 29 of the Belgic Confession), and moreover was a place where they would be free to worship Jehovah according to his Word. So, conscious of the demand to be a member of a true, instituted church of Jesus Christ, they migrated there. And it was in Geneva, in 1560, that a new English Bible appeared.
“But the Lord delivereth them out of them all” (Psalm 34:19b, Geneva Bible of 1560)
The Geneva Bible was without controversy the greatest and most popular of the English Bibles yet to appear. Tragically, it is little known to the average Reformed Calvinist today. In fact, the Geneva Bible is the point, the nexus, where the history of the English Bible met the Reformation in its Calvinistic strain. Scholars among the Marian exiles desired a new translation of Holy Writ, based entirely on the original languages of the Scriptures, as opposed to the largely Latin-based official translations in the form of the Coverdale, Matthew’s, and Great Bibles. Nothing like this had been done since Tyndale in the 1530s. And, these same scholars wanted the text of Holy Writ interpreted for the readers according to the gospel of the Reformation, that is, according to the gospel which Scripture itself proclaims. They wanted Scripture interpreted with Scripture. Therefore, their aim was a faithful text of the Word of God surrounded by marginal notes interpreting the texts according to other texts and applying it to the situation of the reader.
To this end, in 1557, William Whittingham, one of the Marian exiles in Geneva, produced his own new translation of the Greek New Testament. He then worked in collaboration with the marvelous classicists Anthony Gilbey, Thomas Sampson, William Cole, and Christopher Goodman to produce the entire English Bible in 1560.
This first edition is often nicknamed the “Breeches Bible” because of its translation of Genesis 3:7b: “And they sewed fig tree leaves together, and made themselves breeches.”
The names of the men mentioned above perhaps mean nothing to you and are seemingly far away, floating abstractly in the mist of history. But they labored night and day with blood, sweat, and tears to render God’s Word faithfully for their fellow countrymen. When I say they were “marvelous classicists” maybe you are inclined to say, “Well, that’s all right then, it was no big deal for them to whip out the Hebrew and Greek into English.” But one who has actually worked with the Hebrew or Greek or both will know how time-consuming it is and how frustrating it can be—to the point of tears, in fact. Nothing of significance is “whipped out” of the language but drawn carefully by long patience and care which is fueled and nourished by love: love for Jehovah, whose Word it is; love for the Word, because it is of God; love for God’s dear people, who belong to him by Jesus Christ in the covenant of grace and must hear—and read—his Word of gracious, sovereign love to them. This love the translators of the Geneva Bible and their assistants possessed in great measure. And it shows in their work.
As far as the text itself was concerned, the translators “paid meticulous attention to the Greek and Hebrew originals, and made use of the best of the most recent translations into Latin and French.” It may be reasonably assumed that they also consulted Tyndale’s New Testament and perhaps, because Miles Coverdale (whom various circumstances in the providence of God brought from Denmark to Geneva) acted as sometime advisor to Whittingham and company, Coverdale’s translation as well. It was the “most scholarly…and accurate English Bible yet to appear.” Some of the phrases introduced into biblical English by the Geneva Bible were: “smite them hip and thigh,” “vanity of vanities,” “except a man be born again,” “Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth,” “Solomon in all his glory,” “My beloved Son in whom I am well pleased,” “a cloud of witnesses,” and “a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump.” We know these same phrases so well exactly because the King James men, unable to improve upon them, incorporated them wholesale into the Authorized Version of 1611.
But there was more in the Geneva Bible. It contained several features designed to enhance its readability: it was easily portable in the pocket of a shirt or in a purse, unlike the huge Great Bible. It was printed in roman type (now called “Times New Roman”), as Bibles are today, and not in the heavy “black letter” or so-called “Old English” type of earlier versions. It was the first Bible in which words that were inserted into the text for clarity, but not found in the original language, were put in italic type. And, especially, “for ease of reference the text was divided (for the first time, in English) into chapter and verse. There were also maps, woodcuts, elaborate
tables, an appendix of metrical psalms, and a running commentary of explanatory notes. Some two thousand alternate readings and 725 literal renderings were packed into the margins of the New Testament alone.”
It was the “running commentary of marginal notes” that both endeared the Geneva Bible to thousands of Englishmen and aroused the ire of the Anglican hierarchy when they got wind of the new translation. These are where we see Calvin’s greatest stamp upon the English Bible. Some say he and his successor in Geneva, Theodore Beza, personally authored some of them. Without doubt, when one who has taken even a pint at the well of Calvin’s writings reads the marginal notes of the Geneva Bible, he will see and taste Calvin in them, not only in the clear and exact style, but as well in the doctrine they teach. Read this example, explaining Acts 2:38, 39. The identifiers of the number and letter of the notes are in brackets.
[8] Then Peter said unto them, Amend your lives, and be baptized every one of you in the Name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins: and ye shall receive the Holy Ghost. For the [a] promise is made unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call.
[8] Repentance and remission of sins in Christ are two principles of the gospel, and therefore of our salvation: and they are obtained by the promises apprehended by faith and ratified in us by baptism, wherewith is enjoyed the virtue of the Holy Ghost.[s] He goes from justification to sanctification, which is another benefit we receive from Christ, if we lay hold of him by faith.
[a] The word [ie: “promise”—JL] that is used here giveth us to understand that it [ie: remission of sins in Christ, “ratified” by baptism—JL] was a free gift.
We may be far removed in time from the men who translated and contributed to the Geneva Bible, but we are one with them in doctrine, as members of Christ’s catholic church. And it must certainly be appreciated by us today, who see the controversy over the nature of God’s covenant—whether it is conditional or unconditional—come to a head in the heresy of the Federal Vision. The promise of God is sure. No question about that! And the sacrament of holy baptism—administered also to infants—signifies unto believing parents that their children have this free justification in Christ and belong to him by faith through the operation of the Holy Ghost. And this is governed by God’s eternal, sovereign, immutable decree of election: the elect children of believers only have this promise of God of justification by faith alone in Christ signified unto them. The elect children of believers alone are sealed with the Holy Ghost unto Jesus Christ. Therefore, this sign and seal are sure. Those who are saved are exactly those—and those only—whom God intended to save from all eternity. Calvin taught this; the men of the Geneva Bible believed this. And we today are the heirs of this glorious doctrine.
But I digress. The Geneva Bible became the household and travelling Bible of English Protestants and in eighty-five years (1560-1644) went through 140 editions. Sixty of these were during the 45-year reign of England’s next monarch, Elizabeth I (reigned 1558-1603); in fact, the 1560 Geneva Bible was dedicated to Elizabeth. The Geneva Bible was the Bible of the English Puritans. The Pilgrims who came to America in 1620 were Puritans, and they brought the Geneva Bible to our own land. Perhaps the greatest testament to the Geneva Bible’s outstanding quality as a scholarly and faithful translation and its great popularity in England is that in Scripture quotations in his great preface to the Authorized Version of 1611, Miles Smith does not quote the text of the translation which he is prefacing—that is, the AV itself—but rather quotes from the Geneva Bible. But he was an exception. The majority of the hierarchy of the Anglican Church disdained the Geneva Bible, chiefly because of its marginal notes and distinctly Calvinistic origin. Next time, we will consider the response to the Geneva Bible of the Anglican hierarchy with their own official translation, the Bishops’ Bible.