Answering Joel Beeke on the KJV

I’m super late to the party on this one, but I just ran across an article by Joel Beeke offering thirteen “Practical Reasons for Retaining the KJV.” Dr. Beeke is respected for good reason, and I have profited in multiple ways from his ministry. He also avoids the extremes of much of the KJV-Only movement.

However, I cannot agree with his conclusion, nor with most of his points. I failed in my efforts to resist the temptation to answer each one… Here’s a screenshot of the post, followed by my replies. I apologize in advance for the awkward reading this will require. If you’re really dedicated, perhaps you might try reading the two articles side-by-side. If you’re not really dedicated, the Internet is large and surely there are better things to read than my post. Hey, here is something you could read instead.

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  1. This is all undoubtedly true, but by this reasoning the English-speaking church will never be permitted to acknowledge that English has changed to such a degree that the KJV is no longer a suitable standard translation.
  2. Laypeople—who bear the greatest impact from the choice of their church leaders to stick with or move on from the KJV—simply cannot evaluate on their own the intricate arguments over textual criticism of documents in languages they cannot read. They must simply trust their leaders. But a lot of smart, orthodox people (in fact, most of them) disagree with Beeke. This point of his should, therefore, not be determinative. Notice I didn’t say whether I agree or not—only that this point shouldn’t be determinative. And even if the point is given a great deal of weight, it isn’t necessarily an argument for the KJV. The NKJV is also based on the TR.
  3. Missionary translator Dave Brunn has demonstrated that all the major modern English translations use “dynamic equivalence” and “functional equivalence” at different times. The KJV certainly lands on the more literal end of the commonly used translation continuum, but it’s not the most literal. It’s willing to translate μη γενοιτο as “God forbid,” to give just one example. I’m afraid it is simple bluster—and dangerous bluster—to say that the “KJV gives you what biblical authors wrote, not what a committee thinks they meant to write.” This kind of talk contributes to the conspiracy theorizing among the fanatics (note: I don’t believe Beeke is a fanatic). Doug Moo is the head of the Committee for Bible Translation, the group responsible for the NIV. Does his commentary on Romans give any indication that he is anything less than consummately careful with the text of Scripture?
  4. Italics are meaningless at best, misleading at worst, to people who can’t read Greek and Hebrew. The only instance in which I have ever heard anyone make something out of those italics is in Psalm 14: “The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God.” We are told, with the air of being given a hidden key to understanding, that what the psalmist was really saying was, “The fool hath said in his heart, ‘No, God!'” But one glance at the Hebrew reveals he is not a disobedient believer; he is an atheist. אֵ֣ין means “non-existence of,” not “No.” Reality is that Bible translators must make countless interpretive decisions, major and minor, which they can only describe or defend in footnotes, if they even have space for that. Ironically, directing people to distrust contemporary translations forces them to adopt the KJV translators’ viewpoints by default—something I feel confident would have mortified them. I’ve read the Translators to the Reader several times. It is remarkable to me how prescient they were regarding the KJV-Only movement. Instead of seeing the existence of multiple translations as a liability, it should be seen as a great opportunity not afforded to any other culture in history.
  5. Yes, it is helpful to see number distinctions through KJV pronouns, but this is a trade-off: what about KJV punctuation? I would argue that the absence of quotation marks makes accurate reading difficult more often than the distinction between thee and ye makes accurate reading easier. Context generally distinguishes the singular and plural second-person pronouns sufficiently—or we’d be having neverending trouble in spoken English. Beeke has chosen one respect in which Jacobean English is closer to Greek and Hebrew than is contemporary English. But there are multiple ways in which Jacobean English diverges so far from contemporary English that I am inclined to think the distinction between thee and ye is a small gain.
  6. God could have chosen a higher, even grandiloquent form of Greek for the New Testament, but he chose Κοινή, the “common” tongue. One could do little better on this than listen to someone who could read Greek of all sorts better than you or I ever will, C.S. Lewis:

    In the first place the kind of objection which they feel to a new translation is very like the objection which was once felt to any English translation at all. Dozens of sincerely pious people in the sixteenth century shuddered at the idea of turning the time-honoured Latin of the Vulgate into our common and (as they thought) ‘barbarous’ English. A sacred truth seemed to them to have lost its sanctity when it was stripped of the polysyllabic Latin, long heard at Mass and at Hours, and put into ‘language such as men do use’—language steeped in all the commonplace associations of the nursery, the inn, the stable, and the street. The answer then was the same as the answer now. The only kind of sanctity which Scripture can lose (or, at least, New Testament scripture) by being modernized is an accidental kind which it never had for its writers or its earliest readers. The New Testament in the original Greek is not a work of literary art: it is not written in a solemn, ecclesiastical language, it is written in the sort of Greek which was spoken over the Eastern Mediterranean after Greek had become an international language and therefore lost its real beauty and subtlety…. When we expect that [the Bible] should have come before the World in all the beauty that we now feel in the Authorised Version we are as wide of the mark as the Jews were in expecting that the Messiah would come as a great earthly King.

  7. I disagree rather profoundly here.
  8. I liked a lot about this point, especially the poignant touch about seniors. I have no wish to rip the KJV out of anyone’s hands, least of all people who have loved it lifelong. But the first spiritual benefit I wish to give my children is that of reading the Bible in their own language. Later we can pick up the heritage of the KJV.
  9. When will English have changed sufficiently to justify moving to a new ecumenical text for Reformed Christians? I believe that time passed some decades ago. And who will take on the burden of carefully, lovingly moving us? By holding on to the old standard (which, it must be confessed, was all but inevitable), we have lost our opportunity to be unified on the new one. It’s like the Galactic Empire in the Foundation trilogy. After its fall, a time of fragmentation is unavoidable, but the period between empires could be shortened with wise preparation.
  10. I’m not sure when and where Dr. Beeke wrote this article originally (can someone enlighten me?), but the ESV has surpassed the KJV in these areas. ESV gift Bibles are very inexpensive, and there are many high-quality and innovatively useful formats whose beauty and quality exceeds that of most KJV editions I’ve seen.
  11. I have heard this before—the idea that the KJV purposefully used then-archaic forms—but I’ve never seen it substantiated (I would be most grateful to someone who could do so for me, because I’m writing a book on this topic and I can’t help it). If it’s true, which seems possible but unlikely to me, I’d really like to know how we know. The only ways we could know, it seems to me, is if 1) the KJV translators said so, and I’m not aware that they did in their preface or anywhere else; or 2) if the language of the KJV was so clearly out of step with the times that it could only have been done purposefully. Judging by the preface (and other writings I’ve read from the time), I would say that the language is remarkably similar to that of the translation. It would take some expertise in 16th and 17th century English literature to make a good judgment here. I would also say that maintaining allegiance to a reverentially religious form of English isn’t all good.
  12. I read Adam Nicolson’s book God’s Secretaries, and I am familiar with many of the translators of the ESV, HCSB, NASB, and NIV. I simply do not believe Dr. Beeke is accurate here, and I’m not sure how much it matters if he is or isn’t.
  13. The best things have been calumniated. I feel genuine sorrow in my heart as I read words like these. On the one hand, I’m a conservative Christian—yea, a fundamentalist of the old sort—who would agree with Dr. Beeke that stripping worship services of their dignity and reverence in favor of the casual and the contemporary is shameful. But I do not see “the penchant for new translations” as arising from this trend. Perhaps some translations do (I won’t name names), but the ESV, NKJV, NASB, and HCSB certainly don’t. New translations arise from the same “trend” that supports and sustains Dr. Beeke’s own pulpit and publishing ministry: people want to know God’s word. They want to hear it in their own language.

The KJV is a wonderful translation which deserves its legendary status, and it deserves to be read and used today. But not as a common standard for devotional reading or preaching. No one on the planet speaks the version of English the KJV uses. And the problem goes beyond individual archaic words such as besom, emerod, or chambering. When a reader encounters those words, he knows he doesn’t know them, and he knows just what to do: look them up. (Though few readers will know that the only suitable place to look up those words is the massive and expensive OED; and why they should have to look up words when there are common contemporary English equivalents—broom, tumor, and sexual immorality—has always eluded me.) That is problem enough, but there are many, many places where English has changed in more subtle ways, and readers will not realize it.

For example, what does “halt” mean in the famous phrase we’ve all memorized, “How long halt ye between two opinions”? I’ve collected numerous similar examples in my book, which may or may not ever see the light of day.

The kind of people who can—and care to—read a post like this, bear a responsibility to help lead and guide those who can’t. Dr. Beeke is a dear brother and a wonderful gift to the church, but I do not agree with him on these points.

Author: Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

12 thoughts on “Answering Joel Beeke on the KJV”

  1. It’s been a few years, but I remember Robert Alter making the point about the purposefully archaic language of the KJV at a 400th Anniversary of the KJV conference hosted by the Institute for Studies of Religion. The talk used to be hosted online but the link I saved is dead. Taking a guess, I suspect that the relevant talk was put on paper in this collection of essays: http://www.sbl-site.org/assets/pdfs/pubs/061126P-front.pdf

    You’ll have to hunt the book down, but take a look at Alter’s essay, “The Question of Eloquence in the King James Version.”

    In any case, it’s actually a fairly straightforward question for a literary historian of Stuart Era England. Not my field, of course, although as a 20th century religious historian and with a bit of work I could come up with a list of differences between, say, the rhetorical style and language choices of a sermon preached by Billy Sunday, Sam Jones, or another big tent revivalist and one by Tim Keller, John Piper, etc.

  2. Thanks, Paul. This is deja vu, because we had this conversation… I actually linked to his talk in this post somewhere… And I may be misremembering, but I thought Alter’s point was more that the KJV is purposefully grandiloquent, not purposefully archaic.

    Hmm… I’d be real interested in getting in contact with some recognized authority in the field who could make such a judgment. Maybe I should contact David Norton.

    Boy, am I indebted to you for pointing out that SBL book—thanks!

  3. I may have read in “A Visual History of the King James Bible” by Donald Brake that the English of the KJV was already a little archaic at the time it was published in 1611. But I can’t be certain. Though I guess if you contacted Brake he may be able to help you with this question.

    I concur with your responses. My thoughts when reading this was, no one after drinking old wine desires new, for he says, ‘The old is good.’

    You may not be able to answer this, but your thoughts on the Lexham version?

  4. Good idea, Mark. I haven’t read Norton but his bio seems like a great fit for this question. http://www.victoria.ac.nz/seftms/about/staff/david-norton

    As for “grandiloquent” versus “archaic,” the two are often intertwined. What sounds old to us also sounds more eloquent in the right context. It pops up in political rhetoric all the time. Presidents often use archaic speech patterns and language in State of the Union addresses or other formal speeches.

  5. Excellent point.

    A perceptive friend, via email, gave me another plausible answer to my question:

    I have also heard this quite a bit- without any clear documentation of this as an intentional motive of the translators. I checked Lewis in the O.H.E.L., but he doesn’t seem to address that particular question since it was out of his period.

    However, in In The Beginning, Alister McGrath comments “Yet this raises a fascinating question: why does the King James Bible retain this mode of speaking, when it was already falling out of use? The answer is not difficult to discern, and lies in the first of the very specific directions given to the translators:

    “The ordinary Bible read in the Church, commonly called the Bishop’s Bible, to be followed, and as little altered as the truth of the original will permit.” (McGrath, 269)

    McGrath gives ten pages to this discussion and it seems persuasive to me that what was fit for the plow boy by Tyndale’s judgement in 1526 (the proto-Bishop’s Bible, we might say) was not by 1611, however, they were obliged to alter as little as possible.

    I think this could be my answer. Yes, then, the KJV was purposefully archaic, but not out of some desire to preserve a particular form of English or achieve a certain elevated—yea, grandiloquent—level, but because people don’t like their Bible translations to change! I need to read further on this, of course. More evidence could come to light that will revise this picture.

  6. See my latest reply to Paul M.

    As for the Lexham English Bible, I simply don’t have enough familiarity with it to offer an opinion worth hearing.

  7. Now that I think about it, McGrath also spoke at that conference, so I might have conflated his remarks with Alter’s.

  8. As to point 5 and the use of “ye” and “you” there is good discussion on page 111 through 113 in Norton’s book, A Textual History of the King James Bible. I have been told that “ye” is the plural for “you” and that the KJV makes this distinction while modern translations don’t and therefore the modern translations are inferior. However, the use of “ye” and “you” in the KJV is inconsistent and therefore is the use of “ye” in the KJV that big of a deal? For example see Deut. 5:32-33.

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