In 1953, C. S. Lewis wrote an 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, 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, after all. 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.
Enter C. S. Lewis, who defended Phillips’s colloquial translation as reflecting the down-to-earth, unsophisticated, style of the original Greek:
Does this [the lowly style of New Testament Greek] 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 [King James] 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 is 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. Those who accept this about Christ 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 not only in the language of the people but in the customs and conventions of the day.
That’s why, as we have come to learn over the last 150 years or so, 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. They spoke of God from out of their own place and time. We are seeing God through their eyes.
Perhaps God is fine with that.
And perhaps we today should try to see the historical shaping of Scripture not as something to tip our hat to or, worse, a hindrance to be overcome, but as the very means by which God speaks to us in Scripture.
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.”
Only by accepting this state of humility we will understand what the Bible says and then accept the next hard step of discussing and debating how this ancient text can speak today.
[The original version of this post appeared in April 2012. I explore the theme of the humiliation of the Bible in Inspiration and Incarnation, The Evolution of Adam, and The Bible Tells Me So.]