The Light to Our Paths
Christians don't usually read the prefaces to their English Bible translations. This is a great loss, for in addition to the technical matters of translation philosophy and practice, these prefaces contain much that is edifying about both the Bible and its influence in a Christian's life.
This is especially true of the early English Bibles of the 16th and 17th centuries, starting with William Tyndale's New Testament (first published in 1525). A second major English Bible in the Tyndale tradition was the Geneva Bible, popularly known as the Puritan Bible (1560). The climax of this tradition was the King James Version of 1611.
The prefaces to all three of these English translations are cast in the form of a letter to the reader. Embedded in the technical information about the translations are gems of devotional fervor and stylistic flair. The following excerpts from prefatory letters cover three separate topics, one from each of the English Bibles mentioned above.
The Christian gospel as joyful tidings (Tyndale's New Testament)
Evangelion (that we call the gospel) is a Greek word; and signifieth good, merry, glad and joyful tidings, that maketh a man's heart glad, and maketh him sing, dance, and leap for joy. As when David had killed Goliath the giant, came glad tidings unto the Jews that their fearful and cruel enemy was slain, and they delivered out of all danger: for gladness whereof, they sung, danced, and were joyful. In like manner is the Evangelion of God (which we call Gospel and the New Testament) joyful tidings; and as some say, a good hearing published by the apostles throughout all the world, of Christ the right David, how that he hath fought with sin, with death, and the devil, and overcome them. Whereby all men that were in bondage to sin, wounded with death, overcome of the devil, are with out their own merits or deservings, loosed, justified, restored to life, and saved, brought to liberty, and reconciled unto the favour of God, and set at one with him again: which tidings as many as believe, laud, praise, and thank God; are glad, sing and dance for joy.
The Bible as an inestimable treasure (Geneva Bible)
[The Bible] is the light to our paths, the key of the kingdom of heaven, our comfort in affliction, our shield and sword against Satan, the school of all wisdom, the glass wherein we behold God's face, the testimony of his favor, and the only food and nourishment of our souls ….
Therefore, as brethren that are partakers of the same hope and salvation with us, we beseech you, that this rich pearl and inestimable treasure may not be offered in vain, but as sent from God to the people of God, for the increase of his kingdom, the comfort of his Church, and discharge of our conscience, whom it hath pleased him to raise up for this purpose, so you would willingly receive the word of God, earnestly study it and in your life practice it, that you may now appear in deed to be the people of God, not walking any more according to this world, but in the fruits of the Spirit; that God in us may be fully glorified through Christ Jesus our Lord, who liveth and reigneth for ever. Amen.
Bible translation: Making the fountains of water available (King James Version)
Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtain, that we may look into the most Holy place; that removeth the cover of the well, that we may come by the water, even as Jacob rolled away the stone from the mouth of the well, by which means the flocks of Laban were watered. Indeed without translation into the vulgar tongue, the unlearned are but like children at Jacob's well (which was deep) without a bucket or something to draw with; or as that person mentioned by Isaiah, to whom when a sealed book was delivered, with this motion, Read this, I pray thee, he was fain to make this answer, I cannot, for it is sealed ….
It remaineth, that we commend thee to God, and to the Spirit of his grace, which is able to build further than we can ask or think. He removeth the scales from our eyes, the veil from our hearts, opening our wits that we may understand his word, enlarging our hearts, yea correcting our affections, that we may love it above gold and silver, yea that we may love it to the end. Ye are brought unto fountains of living water which ye digged not … Others have laboured, and you may enter into their labours; O receive not so great things in vain, O despise not so great salvation! …
It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God; but a blessed thing it is, and will bring us to everlasting blessedness in the end, when God speaketh unto us, to hearken; when he setteth his word before us, to read it; when he stretcheth out his hand and calleth, to answer, Here am I, here we are to do thy will, O God. The Lord work a care and conscience in us to know him and serve him, that we may be acknowledged of him at the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom with the holy Ghost, be all praise and thanksgiving. Amen.
Leland Ryken is professor of English at Wheaton College.
The prefaces to the three Bibles excerpted above are available on the internet. For anyone whose appetite has been whetted, the following book contains an abundance of documents from the English Reformation: Gerald Bray, ed., Documents of the English Reformation (Fortress, 1994). You can learn more about the history of Bible translation in Christian HistoryIssue 43: How We Got Our Bible.