A Vow Regarding the KJV

by Aug 29, 2016ChurchLife, KJV27 comments

An online interlocutor with genuine intellectual acumen engaged me graciously but firmly on a recent post I wrote promoting the use of multiple Bible translations. He’s essentially KJV-Only, though his professed allegiance is actually to Scrivener’s Textus Receptus. He linked me to a lengthy bibliology statement by one Thomas Ross which he affirmed.

To my knowledge, I have made two vows in my lifetime: 1) a vow to love my wife with the true love of delight (with all the attendant vows of a wedding), and 2) a vow never to vote for a pro-abortion candidate. After lengthy consideration, I’m adding a third in this post—to protect me from forgetting what’s really at stake in the KJV debate, such as it is.

Here’s my reply:

That bibliology statement has some oddities that I’ve never seen before, but I at least appreciated the way Ross distinguished his viewpoint from Ruckman and Riplinger. I look in vain for most KJV-Only churches (and I am all the time reading their bibliology statements) to understand that, if indeed there are scriptural promises of preservation, the KJV is not “the preserved Word of God for English-speaking peoples.” Rather, as Ross says, “the promises of preservation are specifically made for Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek words, not English words.” What a relief to read this. And this: “no verses of the Bible promise a perfect English translation.” I also appreciated the acknowledgment that, in principle, the KJV might need to be replaced some day. I have never seen a KJV-Only bibliology statement offer that admission.

However, the principles by which one may discern whether or not the KJV needs to be replaced leave much to be desired:

In the unlikely event that the Lord were not to return for some hundreds of years into the future, and the English language changed in such a manner that the early modern or Elizabethan English of the Authorized Version were to have the comprehensibility of the Old English of Beowulf, it would certainly be right to update Biblical language.  However, I believe that the Holy Spirit would lead Biblical Baptist churches to have general agreement that such a revision of the English Bible is needed.  Without such clear Divine leadership, any revision would be inferior to the Authorized Version (as such versions as the NKJV most certainly are), and detrimental to the cause of Christ.

Leaving aside the irresponsible eschatology of the first lineBeowulf’s English is absolutely unintelligible (it opens with “Hwæt! We Gardena in geardagum, þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon”)—do we have to wait till the KJV reaches that stage before we can ask for a new translation into the vernacular? Presumably not. So when can we ask? When the English is 50% unintelligible? Presumably before that… How about 10%? 5%? No KJV defenders I’ve ever met seem in the least interested in this question. [Update from eight years later: I finally found one who would answer straightforwardly!]

The NKJV is dispatched in a line, and a (frankly) airy call for “clear Divine leadership” of “Biblical Baptist churches” (why not the CofE?) is made when that call has already come in the very word of God you seek to defend. Vernacular translation is a necessary corollary of Christ’s Great Commission: how can we disciple the nations if the Bible isn’t in their languages? It’s also called for in 1 Corinthians 14, where Paul says over and over in various ways that edification requires intelligibility (I heard eloquent KJV-Only preacher Malcolm Watts, a leader at the Trinitarian Bible Society, say the same thing in a sermon: I’m not the only one who has made this connection). It’s also arguably modeled by Ezra (Neh 8:8)—and is most certainly modeled in the NT’s use of translations of countless OT passages. Even the little efforts throughout Scripture to “translate” not-so-very-old, or merely foreign, words and customs for the intended reading audience—these provide authoritative examples for us. (I have in mind the passage in which “today’s ‘prophet’ was formerly called a seer,” and others in which anything from Talitha cumi to Immanuel to Rabbi to Tabitha to Barnabas is translated for the reader.) Richard Muller dedicates a whole section to “Vernacular Translation” in his summary of the views of the Reformers. He summarizes the views of one German reformer:

In the first place, the prophets and apostles themselves spoke and wrote in the vernacular in order that their hearers might understand: translation thus enables the Scriptures to be read by all, as the prophets and apostles themselves intended. Second, the Scriptures are the “weapons of the faithful” for defense “against Satan and the heretics.” Even so, third, all believers are commanded to read and study the Scriptures (John 5:39; Deut. 31:11) as, indeed, the apostle praised the Bereans (Acts 17:11). Beyond this, the command to preach to all nations implies the need to translate Scripture, as does the great effort of the early church to produce translations in all of the languages of believers—such as the Syriac, the Chaldee paraphrase, the Septuagint, the many Latin versions, and even the Hexapla of Origen. (Muller, 425)

Every KJV defender I’ve met would profess allegiance to this Reformation value, vernacular translation. They excoriate medieval Catholics for their fear that putting the Bible in the hands of the people would lead to doctrinal novelty. They thrill to repeat the stirring words of Tyndale,

I defie the Pope and all his lawes. If God spare my life, ere many yeares I wyl cause a boy that driveth the plough to know more of the Scripture, than he doust.

But they all turn on the plow boy, whipping out their pikes and mattocks, as soon as he observes that he’s having trouble understanding the KJV.

No matter which text you prefer, or how you get to that preference, the practical upshot is the same: English speakers, including “the least of these” to whom I ministered in West Greenville for 15 years, will not get to have the Bible in their English. And I won’t get to have it in mine.

You’ve led me to a decision: henceforth and forevermore, God helping me, I will not discuss textual criticism with people who insist on the exclusive use of the KJV. I’m not saying I won’t listen to others; I’m not saying I’ll never talk about textual criticism at all—I’ve built a huge project helping English speakers see for themselves all the differences between Scrivener’s TR and the NA28, and [2020 update] I’ve written at some length about the differences among TR editions, all in a bid for peace over this issue. But here’s what I’m saying: I won’t engage KJV-Only brothers directly in discussion over textual criticism. Vernacular translation is the only issue I’ll debate with them. Resolved: the KJV is not—or rather, is no longer—a vernacular translation. It’s not entirely unintelligible, but it’s sufficiently unintelligible in places that it’s time for change. Let’s talk English.

The greatest and saddest irony of the KJV-Only movement has to be the list of words that modern versions have supposedly “taken out” of the Bible. In reality, my King James Bible Word Book details hundreds of words that the KJV, through no fault of its own, “takes out” of Scripture. Every besom, every emerod, every shambles—is a word the KJV-Only folks take out of the hands of God’s people. The vocabulary words can be looked up, yes, but in my experience people don’t do it. They don’t know how to do it—they don’t even always know when to do it (because the modern senses of some words still make sense in context; see “false friends” such as halt and let). They have no idea what the Oxford English Dictionary is or why it is necessary for KJV readers. And it’s not just archaic words that take the KJV out of the “vernacular” category—this is so often missed; it’s phrases, and it’s syntax. Every “give place,” every “fetch a compass,” is a phrase taken out of people’s hands. Every “not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh,” every “fret not thyself in any wise to do evil” is a clause whose syntax keeps God’s words locked in obscurity. I know all the individual words in those sentences, but I still can’t understand them when put together that way. Difficult syntax cannot be looked up in a dictionary. You get it or you don’t—or you take a graduate program in the different phases of English and do a great deal of reading in late 16th and early 17th century English literature. Needless to say, this is not an acceptable way forward for today’s plow boys.

Educated KJV defenders are putting a burden on people’s shoulders that they themselves are not willing to bear. I’m a professional theological writer and have been, more or less, since 2001. I love words. I grew up on the KJV (and I won five spelling bees in a row in the 1980s and early 1990s, I’ll have you know). I can read Greek and Hebrew. I cannot understand many verses in the KJV, and I trip for at least a moment on countless others. I could be flattering myself, but I have reason to believe that others are faring less well than I—largely because I was them. I used to think I understood the KJV just fine. It took me many years of study in Greek, Hebrew, and English to figure out how much I was missing.

I don’t want to overstate my case; the KJV is still (early) modern English, and it is indeed deeply beautiful. Many individual words and sentences don’t need updating. But when I read the Bible I want to understand every word, and the KJV—through no fault of its own, but merely because of the slow but inevitable forces of language change—won’t let me.

Until KJV defenders take more interest in what the Bible actually talks about, namely the importance of understanding, than what it doesn’t, namely the perfect preservation of ancient manuscript copies—until then I love the plow boy (and the bus kid and my own children) too much to spend my time debating textual criticism.

I have to ask again: why can’t we have the Bible in our own language?

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  1. David McKay

    Hi Mark.
    I enjoy reading your posts. I like what you’ve said here.
    Although I was brought up on the KJV, I have never read it through. It seems very daunting. I have happily read the whole of the old NIV, the TNIV, the new NIV, the ESV, the HCSB, the New Living Translation, 2nd edition, the Good News Bible [Australian edition], the CEV and the New Jerusalem Bible.

    But, I wanted to be able to experience the KJV and so listened to a lightly dramatised American version from Faith Comes By Hearing. It was mostly very well read, and, although there are a lot of unfamiliar words, and although it has long sentences that are strange to our ears, the readers did such a good job, that i understood the gist of almost every passage.

    But, I’d imagine that few people today would be able to do a decent job in reading it to others, and very few would really understand the message in many passages, if they read it to themselves.

    • Mark Ward

      Check out my KJV category for posts on this topic. I think you’ll be surprised to see examples of places where you thought you understood the KJV but didn’t, because English has changed in such a way that—through no fault of the KJV translators—their words mean different things to us. I just came across an apparent example this morning, but I can’t be sure until I look it up in the OED.

  2. Layton Talbert

    I’ll just offer one very mild editorial observation. To me the final question reads better, and hits closer to the heart of the issue, if it’s phrased this way: Why shouldn’t we have the Bible in our own language?

    • Mark Ward

      True, Dr. Talbert: it’s not as if we don’t have it in our language; we do. In plenty of translations, even some translations of the TR.

  3. Sue S.

    Jack Hyles died several years ago and this whole KJV-only thing is still going on. Agree with him or not or like him or not, you cannot deny that he was an extremely powerful leader and basically a genius to have people still adhering to KJV-onlyism.

  4. Sue S.

    By the way, I liked and admired Jack Hyles and agreed with him in many issues. Although, not on this one. I am not a supporter of KJV-onlyism. I’m not saying he was the only leader who believed in this movement, but he was a vocal proponent.

  5. Paul

    Ah, Mark, I’m nitpicking here, but for a detailed English speaking blog to have this error above:
    “it’s phrases, and it’s syntax” when it should be “its phrases, and its syntax.”
    That’s almost the unpardonable sin! 😉

    • Mark Ward

      Read it again—are you sure? =)

  6. WPBDoc

    Jack Hyles only became a proponent of KJV-Onlyism after the scandal rocked his empire in the late 1980’s. When I attended college there, if you held a “Ruckmanite” or KJV-Only position, you were subject to expulsion. He would frequently correct the KJV while preaching. He needed something to distract from the firestorm swirling about him and his church and schools and the KJV Controversy was an ideal topic. Ruckman was the first loud voice, followed by Hyles, the Pensacola Christian/The Hortons, The Sword of the Lord and others smaller IFB entities. But make no mistake, Hyles was not always the proponent and he was certainly not the first.

  7. Paul

    On a trip to Grand Rapids last year, I stopped at the Puritan Reformed Seminary bookroom and while there, picked up a hardback copy of their new Reformation Heritage KJV Study Bible. Dr Joel Beeke is the general editor, and Dr Michael Barrett is the OT editor. I’m slowly reading through it this year. Many of the notes are excellent.

    However, in the introductory material, Dr Beeke wrote a seven page article titled “The King James Version: Its Tradition, Text, and Translation” in which he gives very similar reasons why the KJV should be used, similar to those which you copied into your blog article for 2/1/2016. When I read through the article, I placed a number of small question marks in the margin, as I challenge the accuracy of some of his statements on the KJV.

    As I read through this Bible, I’m constantly struck by the number of notes at the bottom which are explaining the old English language, and I’m asking, if the KJV is so readable and understandable as Beeke claims it is, why are all these explanatory notes needed? There must be thousands of them! I’ve not read through the KJV in a number of years, but I recently said to my wife that this may be the last time I do so. I’ve gotten so used to reading a more modern translation that I greatly prefer one now.

    BTW, if anyone is in the GR area, the Puritan Reformed bookroom is quite nice and they give decent discounts, similar to what they give on their Reformation Heritage website. That’s an unsolicited and unpaid endorsement.

    • Mark Ward

      Paul, thank you so much for writing this. And I happen to know that you are a real reader. If a very proficient reader struggles while reading the KJV, what about “the least of these”?

  8. Paul

    Mark, When I read it, I didn’t think you were trying to say, “it is phrases, and it is syntax.”

    • Mark Ward

      So the English fault is indeed mine, but not for bad grammar but for a bad sentence. Let me think of a way to solve this…

  9. David

    Thanks for adding “(early)” to “modern English.” I was going to point out that the KJV is really Early Modern and not Modern English.

    It’s a small distinction, but good shorthand for what we’re saying: The KJV is not written in my native tongue, nor in that of anybody I know. And we Evangelicals/Protestants have had this strange obsession with having the Bible in our own language for quite a long time.

    • Mark Ward

      Yes, Dave. I have now several times had email correspondences with intelligent KJV-Only folks, and where our discussion foundered was on whether or not the KJV is in fact hard to read for speakers of modern English. They say “nun-unh,” and I say, “yes-huh.”

      Actually, I say more than that. This is another post, but the basic structure is what I sent to one of those people:

      I can’t understand many, many of the words and sentences in the KJV. It isn’t a subjective matter of application; it’s a clear-cut issue with an accessible standard—in fact, a standard more accessible than it ever has been in the history of the world. With computer-aided corpus linguistics, we can know whether given words (besom, chambering, caul, chapiter, concupiscence, daysman, bray, bruit, wimple, etc.) are used in contemporary English. Many words in the KJV have fallen out of usage. But I want to understand the passages in which those words appear. Why can’t I, when we have easy modern equivalents? What is so wrong with saying broom instead of besom?

      It’s only slightly more difficult, but still pretty straightforward, to show that standard American English no longer includes many of the standard syntactic strategies of the KJV translators. Choosing at random from a random KJV passage, we don’t say, “thou wilt make all his bed in his sickness.” I don’t understand that clause. “What profiteth the graven image that the maker thereof hath graven it?” I don’t understand that one either.

      Anecdotal evidence itself is plentiful: bus kids, people I talk to on the plane, people I talk to on the street when passing out tracts, educated people, and certainly uneducated people—none of them talk or write like the English of the KJV. And frequently they misunderstand it, and not just in doctrinally significant places but in narratives and psalms and proverbs. And a great deal of that misunderstanding is needless.

  10. Mr. P.

    I do not know if this is true or not, as I have only heard bits and pieces of the story. I don’t know of anyone who is KJV-only, as probably none of us do. I have only seen this “controversy” online. Granted, I do think we need to be careful of translations and watch out for perversions of the Bible, but the whole KJV-only thing seems to be a cult. I feel bad for for poor people caught up in this movement who are totally clueless that think it’s actually a legitimate movement when it’s really just a skillfully played diversion and a masterful stroke of genius. I have heard that this is a totally non-issue and nothing than anyone would have even heard of had it not been for the May 1989 article that came out. This was a quickly invented “controversy” intended as a diversionary tactic to get people to stop thinking affairs and scandals and to divert attention to anything but that. I always chuckle to myself when I see online about the poor people who are caught up in this movement who have no clue that the inventor of this “controversy” probably invented it in the car on the way home from the office one day after this article came out. I have to give him kudos. People have certainly bought into it and still continue it on, years and years later, as if it was a legitimate issue in the first place. It seems to have taken on legs of its own and I bet there are people involved in this movement who have never even read the May 1989 article.

    Can anyone tell us if the above is true? I am not claiming that it necessarily is. This is just my surmising from bits and pieces of the story I have heard.

    • Mark Ward

      Actually, the KJV-Only movement has roots in the 19th-century work of Dean Burgon. Various leaders may have used the issue as a wedge, but I don’t think it was the invention of a single modern individual.

      I also wouldn’t call my friends who are KJV-Only “cultish”—they all say they’re not Ruckmanites, and I take them at their word. His view, that the KJV corrects the Greek, is indeed cultish.

  11. Mr. P.

    To be fair and honest and above board. I have never met anyone involved in the scandal and only know it from the original article and the ensuing online community. Please, don’t take my comments as sarcasm or cruelty because that is not the intention. It’s an honest question. I don’t mean to impugn anyone dead or alive, as I am not perfect either and I will let God by anyone’s judge. I have heard this speaker in recorded messages and he is a great speaker and a charismatic fellow and I can see how people could easily like him and want to follow him. I’m sure I would have liked him if I had known him as well. It just seems like these movements are too man-focused and that people tend to lose some discernment in following a leader too much.

  12. Mr. P.

    Mark, I’ll take your word for it that KJV-onlyism is not a cult. That is not to say that I think there is no room for discernment. There probably are groups out there who do want to distort the Bible. This is something to watch out for.

    The people I have tried to have conversations with seem to worship the Bible,and not pay nearly as much attention to the actual God who is spoken of in the Bible. And no, I am not using hyperbole when I say that. But to be fair, I have no idea where those people come from or what branch of KJV-onlysim they stemmed from. They may have been some obscure group that has nothing to do with the whole May 1989 group at all. For all I know, they may have never even heard of that fellow. The people I have come across online (wherever they are from) have been obstinate, hard headed, lacking grace, and dare I say anti-intellectual people who cannot even hold a sane conversation. It’s like they have completely written God of as some second-class citizen and have started worshiping the Bible instead of the God of the Bible.

    • Mark Ward

      Mr. P, I would not say that KJV-Onlyism is *not* a cult, full stop. I would say that the great majority of adherents I know personally are not in a cult. They are my brothers and sisters in Christ. However, there is no doubt that online there are many obstinate and anti-intellectual proponents of KJV-Onylism. The question becomes how to treat people you know in real life who are this way (and I do know some). The ones who insist that the KJV is re-inspired are espousing bibliological heresy. In obedience to 2 Thess 3:6 (and after warnings called for in Matt 18), I withdraw myself from such people. The problem is the people who are confused, people who through their ignorance talk as if the KJV is itself inspired but who formally don’t subscribe to that doctrine. I try to have as much patience as possible with them, patiently instructing them the way the Bible tells me to do.

  13. Pat Russell

    Thank you very much for this article! It is absolutely the most concise and best presented I have read in a long time, if not ever. I have been very frustrated over the years in trying to have honest discussions with sincere KJV-Only folks when we would get stuck on the textual criticism vs. understanding subject.

    • Mark Ward

      This is very encouraging to hear, and you’re so right: textual criticism and understandable translation need to be kept separate.

      And I do believe there are sincere KJV-Only folks—they themselves, in all my experience, completely confuse the issues of text and translation.

  14. Tim Branton

    Mark, I really do enjoy your posts and this one was special. I’d like to make just a couple of comments. Some one responded that there are few KJV Only churches out there anymore. That person obviously is from some part of the country other than the South! However, the good news seems to be that there isn’t as much heat on the subject as was common 10-20 years ago. I once heard an evangelist say that if you have an NIV, we have some trash cans in the men’s room. I have heard many preachers speak on the issue with such vehemence that you’d think they were preaching a hell fire and brimstone message!

    I meet for breakfast every Saturday with two long time friends who would both tell you they are KJV Only. But both have now opened the door a crack.

    I also was greatly pleased to see that you differentiate between text and translation. Frankly, I am not nearly so interested in the text as I am the translation. I believe it was Mark Twain who said it was not the things in the Bible he didn’t understand which worried him but things he did understand! I submit that there are more problems with the translation of words than with the limited number of problems with the Greek or Hebrew texts. A good example to use is John 1:1-15. Compare any other version with the KJV and you will find dozens of changes yet when you compare the TR (or, Scrivener’s) with say the UBS 4th, you won’t find a single difference.

    There’s a book that might be of interest to those who like to argue the issue with friends. It’s by Jack Moorman, who is a staunch KJVO writer, titled 8,000 Differences Between the N.T. Greek Words of the King James Bible and the Modern Versions. Despite what the title may “seem” to say to the KJVO, he must admit that there are few places where the Greek actually affects the translation. Indeed, it is the translator’s choice which accounts for a staggering majority of the differences.

    So when I talk with friends about different Bible versions, I begin with the John passage first. I also use an illustration: What’s the difference between “Shut the door” and “Close the door.” There is a difference–it may speak of your heritage but it says nothing about the position of the door.

    I’ll close with this one last item. A decade ago I tried to help out a very small church while still working a full time job. On occasions I would have to be out of town so on one such date I asked a local evangelist to speak for me. Our custom was to take the guest speaker out for a meal. During the service the evangelist made a passing comment about the KJV (which was exactly what one couple wanted to hear). At the restaurant they brought it up, including the fact that I was anti-KJVO. The evangelist said (to my wife) you need to tell your husband to read Riplinger’s book, New Age Bible Versions. My wife quickly responded, “Oh, he has!” But being the smart little cookie she is, she added, “He has read it, have you?” At least he was honest enough to admit that he had not. I fully believe most KJVO people are playing follow the leader without realizing what kind of leader they are following. “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge: Because thou hast rejected knowledge, I will also reject thee, that thou shalt be no priest to me…” Hosea 4:6.

    The KJVO position is easily debunked if we use the KJV Bible itself. I am so excited to hear that you have a book soon to be released showing the real issue–not just obsolete words but words which mean far differently from what today’s generation would understand. And Logos is the greatest tool I have ever found. To God be the glory!

    By the way, I have started a Logos personal book titled, the Mark Ward Collection. Hope you don’t mind!


    • Mark Ward

      Thanks for the kind and encouraging words, Tim. I myself was KJV-Only by default for several years and then on purpose, self-consciously, for a year or two. I just trusted my pastor—why would I ever think to question what he said about Westcott and Hort? I still think that pastor was basically trustworthy (he himself was only trusting others) and that I didn’t do wrong to trust him. But I did bear some responsibility for being wrong; he bore more; the leaders he was following bore even more. May God help us all to do and believe rightly.

  15. George Calvas

    Mark wrote, quote “But when I read the Bible I want to understand every word, and the KJV—through no fault of its own, but merely because of the passing of the years—won’t let me”

    prior to this you wrote, quote

    “I grew up on the KJV (and I won five spelling bees in a row in the 1980s and early 1990s, I’ll have you know). I can read Greek and Hebrew. I cannot understand many verses in the KJV…”

    You can read Greek and Hebrew, yet you cannot understand your native tongue? The King James Bible will not let you understand?

    Your statements are absolutely contradictory and shows your lack of biblical faith.

    Proverbs 8:8-9 “All the words of my mouth are in righteousness; there is nothing froward or perverse in them. They are all plain to him that understandeth, and right to them that find knowledge.”

    If you have any problem “understanding every word” above please let me know and I will explain it in the context of all that you wrote.

    • Mark Ward

      George, I can understand my native tongue, but in many places the KJV is not written in my native tongue, contemporary English, but in a closely related tongue, Elizabethan English. I did not say “all places.” I can certainly understand the KJV just fine in most verses.

      But two points:

      1. Even if the KJV is understandable, that doesn’t mean it’s okay that it’s written in archaic language. God didn’t choose archaic forms of Greek and Hebrew when he inspired the Scriptures.

      2. As it happens, I’ve never used the word “froward” in my entire life. I sort of thought I knew what it meant from years of experience with the KJV, but I’m not sure. I looked it up in a contemporary dictionary and I’m still not sure. My New Oxford American Dictionary says “(of a person) difficult to deal with; contrary.” That doesn’t quite fit the sentence you quoted, I’d say—largely because “froward” is modifying “words,” not a person.

  16. Scott Ahern

    As someone who supports the majority text I greatly appreciate your post. Kjv advocates literally don’t know what they’re missing. I think your comments on syntax are especially important; it’s not just about vocabulary.


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