Review: A More Sure Word: Which Bible Can You Trust?
My rating: 1 of 5 stars
A Sincere Thanks
I believe R.B. Ouellette made a sincere effort to write with a gracious spirit; and from what I can tell about the publisher and editors of this book (West Coast Baptist College and Paul Chappell), that gracious spirit shouldn’t be a surprise. Ouellette writes,
I want to have charity and grace enough to state that someone who disagrees with the position of this book could still be a biblical fundamentalist. Godly men may disagree and yet still be greatly used of the Lord.
I accept these words as a gift from brother to Christian brother; they are much appreciated. I will attempt to write this review with similar grace.
A Roundabout Critique
Indeed, I want to be very careful, because I happily agree that there are “King James Only” men and women whose godly zeal and growth in grace are very admirable. And I owe much to some of them, particular ones who taught me. But I still came away from this book deeply grieved.
I could give a thorough review of Ouellette’s book, and I have. It’s in the extensive notes I made on the Kindle version, which was kindly given to me by a West Coast Baptist College administrator and teacher. Out of Christian love for that brother I read every page patiently and with careful attention, and I ended up, Kindle tells me, with 107 highlighted passages and 99 notes. Frankly, however, I don’t think any of those notes is likely to help anyone who agrees with Ouellette.
And I’ll tell a story to illustrate why I think so. My sophomore year of college, I went on a “date” with a girl to a formal outing in which we all participated in a murder mystery. We were supposed to write down the clues that were provided to us and vote at the end of the night on whodunnit. It was fun, sort of an Agatha Christie feel. But my date and I were the only couple, I think, who couldn’t come up with a unified answer when it was time to turn in our cards guessing who the murderer was. She had faithfully scribbled down all the clues and was fairly certain she had nailed the perpetrator. I, however, smelled a rat. There were just too many details—the footman was in the library and heard a scream, the duchess claimed she was fixing her hair in the powder room at the time of the murder, the car was red, the cat was a Manx, the carpet stain formed a ring, the perfume was Chanel No. 5—on and on and on. There was just no coherent way to put it all together given all the other gaps in my knowledge about the case. So I threw my hands up and said the butler did it. (And for once in my life, I won something!)
I get the same feeling—follow me here—when I read Ouellette and other literature defending exclusive use of the KJV and the superiority of the Textus Receptus. I feel like I’m being snowed under with countless details about the Lucianic Recension, scribal practices, translation theories, ancient versions and lectionaries, and scattered examples from modern Bible translations. It’s all quite complicated and detailed, and I’m just a little incredulous that people without specialized training in these areas can really follow it all (more on this in a moment). In the end I really feel like I’m being asked to take Ouellette’s word for it that his interpretation of all those details is correct. (That’s especially true since I frequently wrote “Footnote?” in my notes—a good number of his assertions are not footnoted, and those that are typically point to pro-KJV literature.) There must be people who scribble down all the clues Ouellette provides and then feel confident that they’ve nailed the right answer (and nailed the perpetrators who deny it). But I smell, if not a rat, then a snow job.
If I were to supply all my notes, or organize them into a detailed review, for most readers it would probably boil down to my word against Ouellette’s. That’s because, despite Ouellette’s insistence that “it doesn’t take a scholar to understand the big picture of the Bible discussion,” I don’t see any way around a simple fact: if you can’t read Greek, you’re simply going to have to take someone’s word for that big picture. Because the big picture can only be formed by extensive understanding of the details. And those details are—both sides agree this far—written in Greek.
Greek and the Layperson
Listen to what I’m not saying: I’m not saying laypeople are unintelligent or incapable of forming good opinions on the matter of the Bible’s text and translation. I am only saying that I leave it to my mechanic to fix my car. I leave it to doctors to diagnose my illnesses. On many important issues that affect my life, I do what homework I can but leave the issue, ultimately, to trustworthy authorities.
Ouellette tries to argue that any “distinction…between the ‘learned’ and the ‘laity’” is “Nicolaitanism” (Rev. 2:6, 15). Even though the Bible never defines this term, Ouellette informs us (with no footnote) that it “carr[ies] the idea of lording over the people or the laity.” What he fails to mention is that the only way someone could possibly know the meaning of that word is if they read Greek—or if they trust someone who does. (Nikao means “conquering” in Greek, and laos means “people”—but the Bible doesn’t actually say that’s what the Nicolaitans were doing.)
I don’t think it should be controversial for most Christians to admit that they don’t read Greek. So I think the real question about the New Testament text for most Bible-believing Christians is “Whom do I trust?” On the complicated and difficult issues of Greek lexicography and textual critical canons and manuscript families you’re going to have to trust someone. Should it be Ouellette?
I say trust your pastor. Trust your God-given spiritual authorities (1 Pet. 5:5; Heb. 13:17). Yes, do your own reading. Yes, do your own thinking. Ask questions. Don’t follow blindly. Don’t cede all your spiritual responsibilities to your church leaders, but just humbly admit it: you don’t read Greek, and you’re going to have to take someone’s word for it on matters relating to the Greek text of the New Testament. And that’s okay. Not every member of the body of Christ is gifted to be a Bible translator or Greek scholar.
English and You
I’d like to focus my critique of this book instead on something you are an expert in: contemporary English. Perhaps you don’t think you’re an expert. Perhaps your grades in English class suggest otherwise. But when it comes to spoken English, think how many Chinese students would gladly give up all their worldly possessions to speak English like you do. You began mastering English very early on. By age 3, or even earlier, certain ways of saying things sounded “funny” to you—you just knew they weren’t right. You would never have made the errors of some of those Chinese students: “I mother love very well you.” You might say something like, “I maked this finger painting, Daddy!” But even that “error” is actually just a logical extension of the rules you were mastering (namely that adding “-ed” to the end of a verb puts it in past tense). You just hadn’t learned the exceptions. By age 10 at the absolute latest, you had.
When you hear a foreigner speaking English, you pick it up instantly. She doesn’t talk like I do. You can even distinguish global and regional English accents; you know British English (“Cheerio!”) from Australian English (“G’day, mate!”), and you know Southern English (“y’all”) from Minnesota English (“dooncha knoow”). Sure, you still make grammar errors even as an adult (mainly in writing and not so much in speech), but you almost literally never say anything that other English speakers can’t understand, unless you do it on purpose! You are a master of spoken English. (My three-year-old son insists for some reason, “I don’t speak English!” but his very assertion disproves his argument.)
So you know—you know, without having to trust some other authority—that the King James does not speak your language. It certainly fits, broadly speaking, in the same era as the English you speak, the one called by linguists “Modern English.” It is not totally unintelligible, and it’s definitely pretty. But it’s foreign, not so much because it comes from Britain, but because it comes from 400 years ago. Nobody in America—and nobody in Britain—speaks or writes like that anymore.
So I was shocked—just astonished, bamboozled, dumbfounded, stunned—when Ouellette made this little (unfootnoted) assertion, even though I’ve seen it countless times before (always without a footnote) in KJVO literature:
Recent evaluation shows the reading level of the King James Bible to be fifth grade, as a whole—many individual passages would be lower. The modern Bibles are shown to be between sixth and ninth grade levels as a whole. The modern versions claim to increase readability when in reality, they often make readability more difficult.
You probably don’t know Greek. If the Greek of Hebrews is more difficult than the Greek of Revelation, you will just have to take someone else’s word for it. But you do know English. You know Ouellette is wrong. Don’t let “recent evaluation” (by whom? by what method?) or computer grading scales deny what you can’t not know: the KJV is unnecessarily hard to read. I simply can’t fathom how Ouellette can say this with a straight face:
The modern versions increase the reading difficulty of the English Bible.
Have you ever read a modern Bible translation? Has he? Ouellette’s unfounded assertion about readability is the one statement that grieved me most in a book which constantly had me shaking my head. I preach weekly in an evangelistic bus ministry, and I preach to black and white adults who are on the lower rungs of American society. Few of them have good education. Now, they’re not dummies! They have capacities I could never hope to have. But reading is not one of them. They cannot read the KJV, and I feel very defensive for them whenever an R.B. Ouellette comes along and tells them they must. Can a 62-year-old woman with an eighth grade education be expected to learn a 400-year-old form of English before she can read her Bible?
Ouellette says, “The English language reached its literary peak in the early 1600s. While the English language has changed, it has primarily deteriorated since that time.” So why doesn’t he speak in Jacobean-era English at home, or in his sermons, or in this book? Why does he use punctuation the KJV translators didn’t use, like quotation marks? Ouellette is taking God’s words away from the weakest people by encasing them in a language even he doesn’t speak. Does the Bible tell us that languages have “literary peaks”? Should missionaries translate Bibles into historical literary forms of Indonesian or Filipino instead of the forms people actually speak in Indonesia and the Philippines today?
Listen to how often KJV preachers have to give synonyms for KJV words. That’s an implicit recognition that it’s time to update the KJV. If the real problem with modern translations is their failure to use the Textus Receptus, then why not make a translation of the TR into modern English?
But Ouellette simply dismisses the idea of making a new translation of the TR:
Sometimes people ask the question, “Couldn’t we update the Word of God and use two for the word twain?” Would we be changing the Word of God? It is possible to update God’s Word without changing what God said. If it’s not possible now, it would not have been possible in 1611. To change twain into two would not be changing what God said. In this case, we are not dealing with concepts, we are dealing with synonymous words. Yet, there is a more pressing question that must be answered first: Do we need a new translation? I do not believe so. Friend, we have an accurate, literal translation (formal equivalency) of the Word of God from the right text in English.
An Appeal to My KJVO Brothers
Dear KJVO brothers, go ahead and take your pastor’s word for it when he says that the TR is the best Greek text. We’ll never get anywhere arguing about it, because neither of us is an expert. But dear brothers, demand that your KJVO leaders get together and make a translation of the TR into English you can read. They don’t like the NKJV, which is already a translation of the TR? Fine. Make another one. The KJV is indeed an excellent translation, but a translation into a form of English that no one will ever speak again, and that no one can read with full understanding today, even with the help of a dictionary.
If I say, “Ouellette demonstrated to me over and over again that he had no real understanding of the complicated Greek issues he was talking about,” those on Ouellette’s side will just dismiss me. They’ll trust him instead of me. And that’s to be expected; I don’t blame them. But please, please don’t let him look you in the face and tell you that the KJV is easier to read than the ESV. I love you, my brothers in Christ, and I urge you to see that only an extreme partisan could ever claim that the KJV is easier to read than the ESV, NASB, NKJV, or HCSB.
You deserve—you need—a translation of the best Greek texts (whatever you think those are) into the language you actually speak. Not slang, not dumbed-down street talk, but standard American English—the kind you hear on the nightly news. I urge you with all my heart: read a modern translation all the way through. Rather than shaking your faith, it will strengthen it—because God will be speaking to you in your heart language. You’ll gain clarity on countless verses you didn’t know you were missing before. This has been my experience, and that of my wife and many others I know.
I love the KJV, and I’ll never lose it. But even Ouellette says that “The New Testament was written in what has been called ‘Koine’ Greek—the language of the common people.” He’s right. There was another form of Greek available, a higher and more literary, classic form. But God didn’t employ that. He used the language of the common people. Why can’t your Bible translation?
Five More Direct Critiques for My Blog Audience
I wrote the preceding for GoodReads, but I’m going to add a few thoughts for my blog audience:
- If the TR is (as Ouellette says repeatedly) “absolute” and “perfect”—then why does it come in a “line” or need to be “edited”? Ouellette actually admits that there are differences between versions of the TR (Erasmus, Elzevir, Beza, Scrivener):
In the 5,600 copies of Greek manuscripts that exist today, there is clear and overwhelming evidence as to the accurate words of God (99% consistency).
But what about that 1%? Perfect is perfect; jots and tittles pass from the law, or they don’t (if indeed Jesus was talking about preservation of perfect manuscript copies, which I do not grant).
If you were to compare the Critical Text versus the Received Text you would discover many doctrinal and defining differences—differences that profoundly impact the foundations of Christian faith. Yet if you were to compare the manuscripts and writings of the Traditional Text among themselves you would find minor reading variations but not doctrinal differences.
He’s open, then, in principle, to the existence of minor variations in the Greek manuscripts—variations which exist due to the vagaries of scribal error (I presume) and not a concerted effort to change the Bible. That’s just what I see when comparing the critical text and the TR.
- Ouellette offers very little discussion of the verses which supposedly teach the perfect preservation of Greek manuscript copies. He just rattles them off. And he never raises a simple question: even if those verses teach what he says they teach, where does the Bible tell us how to identify which manuscripts contain the perfectly preserved words and which don’t?
- A little note: Ouellette declined to use Psalm 12:6–7 as a proof text for preservation. He doesn’t mention the passage at all. That’s a good thing, because the passage very clearly has nothing to do with the KJVO debate.
- There is a major equivocation running through the entire book, including in the subtitle. He repeatedly calls the KJV a “Bible” and the NASB a “Bible” and the NIV a “Bible”—as if there are multiple, vastly differing Bibles out there vying for our allegiance. There aren’t. These are Bible translations. This is an equivocation that must be banished from all KJVO discussion. I don’t read a different Bible than my KJVO brothers; I read a different Bible translation.
- Throughout this book, Ouellette claims to know a great deal about the hidden motivations of a lot of people.
- Sinaiticus and Vaticanus were relegated to the Vatican library because the church knew they were bad. (And not for the reasons most books are put into libraries and forgotten: human finitude.)
- The ASV 1901 translators’ decision to offer a marginal reading in 2 Timothy 3:16 (“All Scripture that is inspired by God is also profitable”) “demonstrates the mind-set of those who edited and translated this version.” (Somehow he knows their mindset without reading anything they’ve written about their views.)
- “The men behind the Critical Text were heavily biased and dishonest.” (In other words, they knew they were lying.)
- And again, Critical Text supporters use the “guise of scholarship” to “explain away” clear Bible passages. (In other words, they know what they’re doing; they’re purposefully deceiving us.)
- “In 1 Timothy 3:16, another attempt is made by some of the modern translations to weaken the deity of Christ.” (In other words, the motivation behind the use of this textual variant is not faithful submission to the evidence God has given us but is a purposeful attack on Christ’s deity.)
How could Ouellette possibly know these people’s inner heart reasons, especially when they run against their publicly stated reasons (when such are available)? KJVOism is, at heart, a conspiracy theory, like those which see the Illuminati running the world.
This book made precisely the same arguments made by every other pro-KJV book and article I have ever read, with the important exception that it clearly avoids the extremes of Ruckmanism (people have to get saved from the KJV, the KJV corrects the Greek, etc.), and it at least tries to be charitable. As charitable as you can be, anyway, when you’re saying your opponents are purposefully deceiving the whole Christian world with corrupt Bibles.