Largely unnoticed on the continent, the English-speaking world has this year been celebrating the 400th anniversary of the most influential version of any book in its whole history: the King James Bible.
Books published especially to coincide with this anniversary include–just to name three–The book of books, by Lord Melvyn Bragg, The book that made your world, by Indian Vishal Mangalwadi, and Freedom and Order, by Nick Spencer.
Each of these is excellent value and brings a different emphasis. Bragg traces the story of the KJB, from John Wycliffe to William Tyndale, who ‘had a good claim to be both the founder of the KJB and the father of the English language’.
Based on Tyndale’s work, the KJB exercised huge influence on the development of modern science, on the English language, on English literature on both sides of the Atlantic, on the slavery debate and ensuing emancipation, on education, on democracy and even on socialism, argues Bragg.
Mangalwadi’s treatment focuses more broadly on the Bible in any version and language, and its seminal influence in shaping western thought. He contrasts it to the Hindu worldview with which he was raised in India. Perhaps of more interest to Europeans in general, Vishal’s book explores how modern and postmodern ideas and lifestyles have led to many contemporary crises when biblical values have been forgotten or ignored.
Nick Spencer also writes specifically for an English readership, and has given Guardian readers a taste of his book with a series of articles over recent weeks. He deals with the lesser-known influence of the Bible in the realm of politics, claiming that it has done more to shape the ground of British political thought than any other text. Over a series of eight articles, he explored its impact on British ideas of justice, equality, toleration, nationhood, democracy and the welfare state. [See spenceronbible] The Bible addressed two apparently conflicting political impulses, he wrote. The first was to freedom, beginning with the story of the Exodus. Key text is Acts 5:29: We ought to obey God rather than men.
The second, towards political order, drew from the respect given to royal power, including Christ’s command to give Caesar his due. Key text here was Romans 13:1: Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established.
Can we then square this circle? Spencer asks. Well, no, he says–at least, not fully and not here. “Search for it as we might, there is no place where peace and security, justice and righteousness, freedom and order perfectly coexist; no utopia; no heaven on earth.”
The problem, according to the Bible, is because humans are sinful. We tend to abuse our freedom in a way that harms others. Unregulated freedom tends to anarchy and social disintegration. Political order must keep us in check.
But, Spencer tells his readers, we are as liable to abuse political authority as we are political freedom. That too demands limitation. A ruler must always be under law, his authority under judgement, his power limited. The ruler needs to respect the relationship between the individual and God himself. This spiritual freedom forms the basis of wider, political freedoms.
Our struggles for freedom always need to be restrained by political order. Our emphasis on order always needs to be challenged by freedom.
These biblical insights inspired political thinkers on both sides of the Atlantic to develop systems of checks and balances in the governmental forms of the modern nation state.
On Saturday in Utrecht, on our first historical trail of the current Evening School for European Studies*, we stood by a plaque commemorating the signing of the Union of Utrecht in 1579, and the forming of the Dutch Republic–the first modern republic. Breaking from Spanish autocratic rule, the Protestant signatories drew their inspiration for freedom from tyranny on the one hand, and order in the new republic on the other, from what Jonathan Sacks calls ‘a forgotten political classic’, the Bible.
These books are a welcome attempt to address the widespread ignorance of the Bible’s profound influence in shaping today’s Europe.
Till next week,
* you can still sign up on www.schumancentre.eu to follow this course on line.