Readers of popular evangelical magazines could plausibly conclude that the historic Protestant conception of the authority and infallibility of the Bible is alive and well. Advertisements for Bibles in various translations and with differing annotations, along with commentaries, software programs, reference works, devotionals, and paraphernalia, testify to Protestantism’s continuing allegiance to Scripture as the only source of divine guidance. Today’s Bible industry would also appear to vindicate the Protestant Reformers’ efforts to translate the word of God into the vernacular and make it available to a broad audience of lay believers. Testimonies to the Bible’s uniqueness and popularity come in all forms, from the advertisement for a new translation that required “ninety leading Bible scholars laboring prayerfully for seven years to assure the accuracy and readability” of Scripture, to General George F. Patton’s habit of reading the book “every goddamned day.”
These two books challenge the apparent success of the Bible industry in America. Indeed, as Paul Gutjahr and Peter Thuesen show, scholarly criticism is just the beginning of Protestant worries when it comes to defending the Bible as the sole authority for faith and practice. As a physical object, the Bible is never only the word of God, but comes mediated through the human hands of publishers, translators, editors, and booksellers. For this reason, efforts to prevent sinful humans from tampering with the pristine character of holy writ are futile. In the history of Bible publishing and translation, the Creator’s word ends up depending on the words, hands, strength, and especially money of His creatures.
An American Bible is a particularly effective account of how matters as seemingly innocuous as bindings, covers, illustrations, and maps have had the ironic consequence of redirecting Protestant reverence for Scripture. Gutjahr starts by demonstrating that the Bible, as a book, created an inherently contradictory dynamic within the marketplace of American publishing. For instance, the American Bible Society’s laudable desire to furnish every home with a Bible established the book as the most accessible and influential among nineteenth–century readers. But the widespread availability of the good book required changes in print and distribution that made it increasingly cheap to produce and set in motion a competition among printers and publishers for the largest market. And one of the cultural contradictions that attended this form of capitalism was that an affordable Bible required publishers to look for packaging that would attract buyers. With the advent of niche marketing came Bibles designed for display in the parlor, Bibles with more expensive bindings, Bibles with better illustrations, Bibles with more comments, and Bibles with superior translations. This story of the Bible’s publishing, packaging, and marketing allows Gutjahr to make the important point that the materiality of the book itself may have had the unintended effect of distracting readers from the Bible’s very words.
Likewise, the Protestant desire to make the Bible influential in American public life resulted in a series of skirmishes for the soul of the nation’s public schools. Most of what Gutjahr presents here concerning the nineteenth–century school wars is familiar terrain. Nevertheless, his telling of this story brilliantly reinforces his larger point about the way that the promotion of the Bible ended up undermining the book’s pious advocates. In this particular case, not only did the debates about Bible reading in public schools show the growing numerical and political influence of Roman Catholicism in the United States, but the court battles that ensued diminished the Bible’s status in the schools’ curricula. As Gutjahr puts it, “a text that had provided the nation with a source of shared cultural memory and language for nearly two centuries would find itself increasingly ‘ghetto–ized’ among specific, more Protestant segments of the nation’s population.”
If An American Bible shows the unintended mess that Protestants made of the Bible’s significance, In Discordance with the Scriptures details the ways that Protestant churchmen over the last 125 years have tried to put the genie of a vernacular Bible back in the bottle of one version that all Protestants would use. (By 1880, according to Gutjahr’s count, Americans had nearly two thousand different editions of the Bible from which to choose.) The most notable results of the search for a commonly accepted English version of the Bible that would supersede the King James Version were the Revised Version (1881 for the New Testament; 1885 for the Old Testament) and the Revised Standard Version (1952). Thuesen’s narrative explores more than these two versions, covering English Bible translations from William Tyndale to the New International, but the heart of his story is the effort by American Protestants to arrive at a definitive version.
Neither the Revised Version nor the Revised Standard Version succeeded in becoming the translation used by all American Protestants. Part of the reason for this failure was the rift that developed between mainline and evangelical Protestants over the last 125 years. But just as important—and this is the most significant point in Thuesen’s argument—is the legacy of Protestantism’s teaching on sola scriptura. In the late nineteenth century the contributors to the Revised Version believed that textual criticism could be used to arrive at the best translation. But the study of manuscripts inevitably raised questions about the history recorded in the text and so had the potential for creating doubts about the Bible’s veracity and authority.
In the twentieth century the debates about the Bible escalated as Protestants recognized that even such simple matters as translation were bound up with interpretation. Consequently, evangelicals suspected the Revised Standard Version as a liberal Bible, and eventually countered with the New International Version, a translation produced by conservative scholars. Along the way, Protestants demonstrated what Catholics already knew—namely, that the Bible never stands alone but, even in its translation, is situated in a web of relationships that involve the authority of church leaders and questions about who has responsibility for determining orthodoxy.
These books, then, are sobering reading for Protestants. As soon as anyone reproduces the Bible for others to own and read, human agency becomes entangled with divine authority. The question is which person, institution, or scholar should be responsible for controlling access to the Bible.
That may be an indelicate way of putting the matter, especially for Protestants who think human authority of any kind should stay out of the way of divine revelation. But in evitably someone takes charge, either the market (as Gutjahr shows) or churchmen (as Thuesen documents). One should not have to be Roman Catholic to sense that churches may be a more appropriate context than the market for supervising the reproduction of the Bible. But thanks to the American Protestant habits of Bible–only–ism and anticlericalism, most Protestants are so far removed from the wisdom of ecclesiology that they may need some instruction from their Catholic neighbors. Short of that, these books could well provide a useful guide to reflection.
D. G. Hart is Academic Dean at Westminster Theological Seminary in Escondido, California.