How We Got Our Bible (8): The Geneva Bible

Lord, open the King of England’s eyes!” Uttered from a bonfire in Antwerp, the dying prayer of William Tyndale asked not just for Henry VIII’s personal enlightenment, but for that of a nation. Shortly after Tyndale’s death, the light of the gospel began to shine more strongly in England, though slowly and painfully at first. While English lay-people demonstrated their appetite for the Word of God in their own language, their rulers were not always so enthusiastic. Henry did eventually break from the Church of Rome but his reasons had far more to do with sovereignty – and his complicated family life – than with doctrine. Though his motivation may have been less than noble, his action in proclaiming that he, and not the Pope, was the head of the Church of England did allow those in his administration who favored the cause of reform to advance it.

After Henry’s death in 1547, his only son, aged 9, ascended the throne as Edward VI. A council of regency initially ruled who accelerated the program of reformation. As Edward began to exert his own influence, it became clear that his commitment to reformation went well beyond his father’s. Under his reign, men like Thomas Cranmer had a new freedom to reform the practice of the Church. A number of reformed – and indeed Scriptural – doctrines, including, most importantly, the truth of justification by faith alone, were adopted as official doctrines of the Church of England. But before the full extent of Edward’s – and Cranmer’s – ambitions could be realized, the young king died in 1553 at the age of 15.

Edward’s death precipitated a succession crisis. The closest heir was his sister Mary, but she was ardently Catholic. Protestant nobles found their most promising candidate in Lady Jane Gray, Edward’s cousin. She was in fact crowned queen, but after nine days was imprisoned by those loyal to Mary, and she and her husband were beheaded.

Thus it was that England, once more, had a Catholic monarch. Moreover, that monarch was determined to root out the shoots of reformation and blot out the light of the gospel. She embarked on the vicious campaign of persecution that earned her the title “Bloody Mary.” Many English Christians were tortured and slaughtered – at the stake, on the gallows, and at the pillory.

Fleeing such persecution, many other Christians left England for the European continent. Many of these “Marian exiles” made their way to the city-state of Geneva, a theocratic society based, in large part, on the teachings of John Calvin and Theodore Beza. There, Beza had established the Geneva Academy, a university devoted to the humanities. This academy became a center for the translation of Scripture into the European vernaculars: French, Italian, Spanish, and English. The English translation was carried out by a small number of the English theologians and scholars gathered at Geneva and, both for the benefit of English congregations on the continent and their persecuted fellow-believers in England, they began work on a new translation of the Scriptures. The first edition of the New Testament in this translation was published in 1557 and the first edition of the Geneva Bible was published in 1560. In 1576 the first edition to be printed in England was published, and over 150 editions, in various revisions, were ultimately issued.

The Geneva Bible was heavily in debt to the past. Like every translation of Scripture before the 20th century, it drew heavily on Tyndale’s work. As a measure of this indebtedness, it is estimated that the Geneva Bible retains almost 90% of Tyndale’s translation.

But the work of the Geneva translators was also innovative in many ways. The Geneva Bible was the first English Bible to have all of its Old Testament translated directly from Hebrew. It was the first English Bible to feature verse numbers as well as chapter numbers. While previous English Bibles had been printed in black letter typefaces, the Geneva Bible was set in modern Roman type. Words provided by the translators to help with the English sense were printed in italics for the first time in this Bible. This valuable new feature signaled how committed its translators were to the concept of the verbal inspiration of Scripture, and was adopted, almost a century later, by the translators of the King James Bible.

These were significant and useful innovations. They paled into relative insignificance, however, next to the Geneva Bible’s most significant novelty. The Geneva translators did not just provide the world with a new English Bible, they produced the first ever study Bible.

The idea of including interpretative helps in the same volume as Scripture was not a new one. Printings of the Vulgate were available with all manner of helps, and both Luther and Tyndale’s vernacular translations had included – sometimes at some length – prologues that guided the reader to a correct understanding of Scripture. But what was dramatically new was the decision of the Geneva translators to print their notes to Scripture alongside the passages that they expounded. These marginal notes, along with detailed woodcuts of the tabernacle, the garments of the high priest, and other visual aids, provided the reader with Scripture and commentary in one convenient volume. This format has survived, and a quick scan of the shelves of any Bible bookshop will confirm its enduring popularity.

In spite of that popularity, it is not clear that the Geneva notes were an unmixedly good thing. Written as they were in Calvin’s Geneva and by Calvinist theologians, they embodied a Calvinist understanding of Scripture. They were enormously effective in spreading these ideas. Their influence, along with that of the returning exiles under Elizabeth, changed the orientation of the Church of England from Luther’s teachings to Calvin’s. Our view of the value, or otherwise, of this effect will obviously depend greatly on our estimation of the value of that teaching.

In any case,the Geneva Bible’s annotations were to some degree responsible for its ultimate demise. This demise came only after considerable success. For decades the Geneva Bible was the English Bible of choice, the Bible of Shakespeare, Spenser, and Donne. It was the Bible available in every church and in more and more households.

However, as the Calvinism of its notes became less popular with some parties within the Church of England, the Geneva Bibleitself was regarded with increasing disfavor. Furthermore, Elizabeth’s failure to produce an heir – or even to marry – meant that King James VI of Scotland became James I of England. James had, even for the time, an unusually exalted view of kingship, and the anti-monarchical orientation of some of the Geneva notes offended him. Ultimately, as we shall see, all parties within the Church of England agreed on the need for a new and entirely un-annotated translation.

The Geneva Bible was an important stage in the development of the English Bible. It was successful and hugely influential. Its weakness, however, was its notes, which caused Scripture itself to be seen as a partisan document. In the final analysis, this first study Bible is a cautionary tale about blurring the lines between the infallible and unfailing Word of the Living God, and the words of men, no matter how well intentioned those men or how helpful their words may be.