KJVOism, Fanaticism, and Epistemology
Alan Jacobs offers a “useful definition of fanaticism”:
No matter what happens, it proves my point. That is, true believers’ beliefs are not falsifiable: everything can be incorporated into the system—and indeed, the more costs true believers have sunk into the system, the more determined and resourceful they will be….
In general, and on most issues, it’s fair to say that if you cannot imagine circumstances that would cause you to change your mind about something, then you may well be the victim of the power of sunk costs.
Naturally, I read this and I think of King James Onlyism, which has again been absorbing my attention because of my work on an upcoming book with Lexham Press, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible. (The book is not about KJV-Onlyism, per se, but it naturally comes up—and I do not believe all fans of the KJV are fanatics.) But one reason I think of KJVOs is that I can’t seem to find a single person in all of KJV-Onlyism who has ever publicly asked the question, “How do we know when English has changed so much that the KJV will need to be revised or updated?” They don’t seem interested in imagining circumstances in which their viewpoint is overturned.
But who does? I had to ask myself while reading Jacobs, what would it take for me to be persuaded of the King James Only position? That’s a difficult question, in part because I’m not sure what the position is.
The Mainstream KJV-Only Position
I think the mainstream KJVO view can be boiled down to three points, and I do not have a tongue in my cheek as I write:
- We should use whatever family of Greek and Hebrew manuscripts God has used the longest and therefore apparently blessed.
- Multiple English Bible translations cause confusion rather than edification.
- The KJV is the best English translation of the Bible.
In order for me to believe these things, I’d have to have:
- A Bible verse telling me to watch out for textual variants and adopt the texts God has used the longest.
- A Bible verse telling me that multiple same-language Bible translations cause confusion rather than edification.
- A Bible verse telling me that once a given vernacular translation is well established it should be permitted to remain so without revision (after the sixth revision); or a Bible verse telling me to look for the golden age of any language and make sure I use a Bible translation made during that era.
I’m doing my best, however good that is, to come up with a counterfactual situation. And as is always the case when I write about KJV-Onlyism, I am laboring not to be snarky. I could genuinely imagine the Bible containing statements like the three I’ve just mentioned.
KJV-Only folks will plead that I’m ignoring verses that do, in effect, say some of these things. They will point to verses which appear to promise perfect, word-for-word preservation of all that God has revealed in Scripture. If we are to live by “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God,” and if “not a jot or a tittle will pass from the law,” then we’ve got to have all the words, all the jots, and all the tittles.
KJV-Onylism and Sources of Revelation
Now, the Bible is my ultimate source of divine authority; and it’s the only perfect verbal source. So if these verses teach perfect preservation of Scripture, I must believe it. But—and bear with me on this—the Bible is not my only source of divine authority. Creation and providence, the Bible itself tells me, are sources of truth as well (Psalm 19, Romans 1). And it isn’t as simple as saying, “The Bible tells me how to interpret the general revelation of creation and providence.” That’s certainly true. But creation and providence are also necessary for interpreting the Bible. On the very simplest level, I can’t know what a “sycamore tree” is until I look at one. And that’s true of much more important biblical words and images such as “sheep” and “shepherd,” even “love” and “hate.” I have to experience these things before I can grasp them in Scripture. And I can’t know the meaning of any words in Scripture from Scripture alone. I need lexicons, which themselves rely on a tradition going back to a time when there were native speakers of Koine Greek, as well as on studies in papyri and inscriptions and other sources of ancient Greek usage. Again: I must take into account God’s authority in Scripture and in creation and providence.
As I look at creation, I notice a limitation in man: man is not a computer. No person alive can copy a lengthy document by hand without making some unnoticed errors.
As I look at providence, I notice minor differences—typos, as it were—in the manuscript traditions for both the Greek New Testament and the Hebrew Bible. If we have one perfect text of the Greek New Testament, I don’t know which one it is. God hasn’t told us in the Bible. So how can I know? The KJV-Onlyites look at providence, too, and they say that the text used by the greatest number for the greatest time must be the right one; it’s blessed. But I have one question: which TR? If God truly intended to preserve his words perfectly and exhaustively and to let us know where he did so, why are there differences among editions of the TR? Which one is the right one? In other words, I look out at the world God providentially gave us, and I see something perfectly consonant with what I just said I see in creation: Bible manuscripts with typos in them, some of which are easily corrected, others more puzzling. Almost all very minor. Even if I did have a verse telling me to look out for the Greek textual family God used and blessed the most, that wouldn’t give me 100% certainty about every jot and tittle. I would still have to perform some kind of textual criticism.
Back to my initial question: what would have to happen before I would become KJV-Only? I answered that question with regard to the mainstream KJV-Only position, but when I speak to men who hold this position, I regularly smell the other major KJVO view, the Ruckmanite view. It happened the other day in a phone call I had with an earnest and godly young man, a teacher at a KJV-Only Bible college—and someone who explicitly distances himself from Ruckmanism. But as we discussed the possibility for an update or revision of the KJV, due to its antiquated language, he said, “But you cannot alter the word of God.”
I said, “Woah, wait a minute. That’s Ruckmanism right there.”
“Wha…?,” he said. “I’m baffled that you would say that given how clearly I disavowed Ruckmanism mere minutes ago.”
I tried to get him to see that if you think revising the KJV is equivalent to altering the word of God, then you’re a Ruckmanite. You’ve confused text and translation; you’ve equated a translation with God’s word at the one point where they can’t be equated, namely the ultimate point.
So what would it take for me to be persuaded of Ruckmanism? An illness, perhaps. Or a blow to the head. (No, no snark… Sorry.) To hold this view, which I take to be that God re-inspired the KJV, I’d have to have a Bible verse telling me that there is one translation for every recognizable language—and it might help to have some Bible verses telling me how to distinguish recognizable languages. (The line between “dialects” and “languages” is not always clear.)
I’m struggling to come up with circumstances in which I could become a Ruckmanite.
So does that make me an anti-KJV fanatic? No. I still genuinely love the KJV. Its words trip off my tongue more readily in conversation than do those of any other translation. I grew up with it. I will always love it.
But I put the question to any KJV-Only folks who stumble across this post: can you imagine circumstances which might make you change your mind? Imagining how you could become someone you disagree with is a helpful self-critical exercise. I tried. I tried.
In my first version of this post, which just published a few hours ago, I ended here. But I was listening this morning on the bus to an edifying and challenging book by Tony Reinke, 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, and he said this:
In an age when anyone with a smart phone can publish dirt on anyone else, we must know that spreading antagonistic messages online with the intent of provoking hostility without any desire for resolution is what the world calls “trolling,” and the New Testament calls “slander.”
The phrase that stuck out to me was “without any desire for resolution.” And I want to make absolutely sure I communicate in this post that I do have a desire for resolution with my brothers and sisters inside KJV-Onlyism. I have genuine respect and love for many people who are influenced by this teaching that, yes, I believe is erroneous. But I don’t demand that they come to all my views on bibliology in order to have a smooth and edifying friendship with me.
I think what I would like to suggest to my KJVO brothers and sisters is that they would see the number of judgment calls involved in their viewpoint and explicitly give me and others liberty to make different judgment calls. This is happening to some degree; I have recently spoken to numerous KJVO Bible college professors, and every one of them was gracious to me (there was only one exception, a man who refused to talk—but who wasn’t nasty). One of them referred to our disagreement over the KJV as a “Paul and Barnbas” situation. The rhetoric driving the movement, however, is not so gracious. It is not possible to achieve resolution when even the most gracious KJVO books, such as Ouellette’s A More Sure Word, are basically calling the Bible translations read by most Christians Satanic ploys.
So, again, I say: resolution is possible here, and I want it. I’m not a troll. I’m asking my brothers and sisters to stop casting suspicion on my motives for encouraging the use of multiple Bible translations. I’m asking them to stop making the KJV a source of division between Christians. And I’m willing to stop short of insisting that they stop reading or preferring the KJV. I’m willing to believe the best about their own motives.