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Lewis, with, I am told, his cigarette photoshopped out. Note the curious position of his fingers.

In 1953, C. S. Lewis wrote a introduction to J. B. Phillips’s translation of the NT letters into contemporary English, Letters to Young Churches: A Translation of the New Testament Epistles. (Eventually, Phillips translated the entire New Testament, The New Testament in Modern English.)

Not everyone was crazy about a Bible in plain English. I mean, the scandal of it all. This is God’s word. You can’t have it looking so untended, so normal. As God’s word, it deserves a more staid and reverent air, something more in keeping with its divine origin and divine content. A colloquial, modern translation risks dragging the Bible too low to the ground.

Lewis defended Phillips’s translation in the following manner:

Does this shock us? It ought not to, except as the Incarnation itself ought to shock us. The same divine humility which decreed that God should become a baby in a peasant-woman’s breast, and later an arrested field-preacher in the hands of the Roman police, decreed also that He should be preached in a vulgar, prosaic and unliterary language. If you can stomach the one, you can stomach the other. The Incarnation is in that sense an irreverent doctrine: Christianity, in that sense, an incurably irreverent religion. When we expect that it should have come before the World in all the beauty that we now feel in the Authorized Version we are as wide of the mark as the Jews were in expecting that the Messiah would come as an earthly King. The real sanctity, the real beauty and sublimity of the New Testament (as of Christ’s life) are of a different sort: miles deeper and further in (pp. vii-viii).

Lewis says that neither Jesus nor Scripture are quite what we might have expected. Both are humble. And it is precisely this humility that drives us to see “the real sanctity, the real beauty, and sublimity” in both.

God chooses to speak through the irreverence and shock of the incarnation. If  you accept this about Christ, you should have no trouble accepting it about the Bible.

This “divine humility” extends beyond Lewis’s focus here on the Greek of the New Testament as a “vulgar, prosaic and unliterary language.” Humility is a thorough-going property of the Bible. It speaks the “language” of the people–the conceptual language.

That’s why the Bible looks so much like the literature of its day–not here and there, once in a while, not only when absolutely necessary. But, as in Christ, the “humanity” of the Bible is through and through–and of a very humble sort.

The biblical writers spoke not from a lofty height, separate from the customs and conventions of their day. They spoke of God from out of their own place and time. We are seeing God through their eyes.

And that’s the way God seems to like it.

That’s why we today should try to see the historical shaping of Scripture not as something to tip our hat to or a hindrance to be over come, but as the very means by which God chose to speak.

If we enter into this state of humility through which God has chosen to speak, we will understand better what God is saying.

This should not “shock” us and we should be able to “stomach” it, if we can accept that God became “a baby in a peasant-woman’s breast, and later an arrested field-preacher in the hands of the Roman police.”




Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.