A Vow Regarding the KJV
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 line, Beowulf’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.
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, for 14 years. 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?