The Preserved Word of God for English-Speaking Peoples

“Preserved” is the key word in KJV-Onlyism these days. Just about every KJV-Only doctrinal statement I see uses that word “preserved.” But I’ve been thinking for a long time along with famous systematic theologian Inigo Montoya, I do not think it means what they think it means.

A new friend from KJV-Only circles contacted me on Facebook, asking me how I would assess the bibliology statement from a KJV-Only mission board. It turns out that the language is used elsewhere, and my best guess is that the original source is Heartland Baptist Bible College. So I’m going to use their text. I will bold the statements that concern me in this post, the ones about preservation.

Here’s Heartland:

We believe the Holy Bible was written by men supernaturally inspired: that it has truth for its matter without any admixture of error; that it is and shall remain to the end of the age, the only complete and final revelation of the will of God to man; and that it is the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and opinions should be tried.

We believe the Authorized (King James) Version, Old and New Testaments, is the Word of God kept intact for English-speaking peoples by way of God’s divine providence and work of preservation; and that the Authorized Version translators were not “inspired,” but were merely God’s instruments used to preserve His words for English-speaking peoples.

By Holy Bible we mean that collection of sixty-six books, from Genesis to Revelation, which, as originally written and providentially preserved, does not only contain and convey the Word of God, but is the very Word of God.

By inspiration we mean that the books of the Bible were written by holy men of God as they were moved by the Holy Ghost in such a definite way that their writings were supernaturally and verbally inspired and free from error, as no other writings have ever been or ever will be inspired.

By providentially preserved we mean that God through the ages has, in His divine providence, preserved the very words that He inspired; that the Hebrew Old Testament text, as found in the Traditional Masoretic Text, and the Greek New Testament text, as found in the Textus Receptus, are indeed the products of God’s providential preservation and are altogether the complete, preserved, inerrant Word of God.

We therefore believe and require that the Authorized Version (King James Version) be the only English version used and or endorsed by the staff, faculty, and student body of this college.

There is much here that I joyfully affirm, of course: inspiration, inerrancy, the 66-book canon, the final authority of the Bible. I don’t want to fail to stress my wholehearted agreement with these historically orthodox beliefs. And I believe the people confessing them are truly my brothers.

But I find the language of “preservation” applied (repeatedly and insistently) to a translation to be confusing and misleading at best. We must guard against all language in doctrinal statements—where precise language is the whole point—which suggests that any one translation is perfect, or that it is the best available, or that all other translations should be avoided and viewed as untrustworthy. The Bible simply does not teach these things, even by “good and necessary consequence.” If the Bible is our “supreme standard,” and it is, we must refuse to go beyond its claims in doctrinal statements. When we do, we are building our doctrine on the same foundation on which Wile E. Coyote often found himself.

I’m going to bracket in this post the question of whether the Bible teaches that God will preserve his words in an unbroken line of perfect manuscript copies. I certainly have an opinion on this important question, but it actually isn’t relevant here. No matter what answer a KJV-Only brother might give to that question, I would like to urge him to stop using “preservation” language of any translations; this word properly belongs only in a discussion of the original Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic words God inspired.

“To Preserve, v.”

I looked up “preserve” in the three major contemporary dictionaries I always use. Here are the relevant senses, or so it seems to me:

New Oxford American:

maintain (something) in its original or existing state: all records of the past were zealously preserved

Merriam-Webster:

1 to keep safe from injury, harm, or destruction: protect
2 to keep alive, intact, or free from decay

American Heritage:

To keep in perfect or unaltered condition; maintain unchanged: fossils preserved in sediments; a film preserved in the archives.

I have earnestly tried, with some encouragement from two intelligent friends (one KJV-Only and one not), to read “preserved” in KJV-Only doctrinal statements to mean something different than “maintained in its original, unaltered, unchanged, intact state.” Maybe by calling a translation “preserved” they’re only saying that an accurate translation of God’s preserved words are themselves God’s words. I can affirm that, but I don’t think that’s what preserved means in standard English. English can bend pretty far under appropriate circumstances, but I’m just not seeing it. No, to “preserve” is to “keep intact.”

To call a translation a tool for “preservation” of the source text is therefore a serious confusion of categories. It’s like saying that an ornamental bush trimmed to look like a mushroom really is a mushroom. It’s like saying that a bus is a plane because, clearly, they are both oblong vehicles which can move many people at once.

I am troubled when Heartland calls the KJV “the Word of God kept intact for English-speaking peoples” (the language I see more commonly [here’s an example] is that the KJV is “the preserved word of God for English-speaking peoples”). Never mind for the moment that the English speaking peoples speak a different English than they did 400 years ago (that’s the problem my new book focuses on); I want to know: what is this “preservation” language supposed to mean when applied to a translation? If a translation “preserves” God’s words, then that translation would seem to be keeping them in perfect or unaltered condition.

What “Preserve” Appears to Mean

And that, friends, is either nonsensical or a doctrinal innovation I can’t accept. Let me state the obvious: every word in the KJV is completely different from every word in the Hebrew and Greek. Ἀ-γ-ά-π-η is 100% different from l-o-v-e. The KJV in that sense “alters” every last jot and tittle of the originals by putting them in an entirely different language with an entirely different script (I borrow this point from Bible translator and linguist Mark Strauss). Sure, the originals and the KJV mean the same things, and I’m glad to affirm that they do. But it’s still nonsensical to say that the KJV (or any translation) “preserves” the originals—if “preserve” means “keep intact.”

But I don’t like to attribute nonsense to people; I want to believe that Heartland is affirming something definite. So when this doctrinal statement confesses that a particular Bible translation revision made by a few dozen Anglicans between 1604–1611 was the object of “God’s divine providence and work of preservation” to the exclusion of all others (they’re not even allowed to “use” other translations, much less “endorse” them), they seem to me to be saying that the KJV can serve as a standard fully equal to the originals. By words like “intact” they seem to me to be saying that the KJV is perfect. I spoke at length on the phone with a Heartland professor in the last year (a gifted and dedicated guy), and when I asked him whether he would update any of the language of the KJV if he could, he said, “Well, you can’t alter the Word of God.”

This—viewing the KJV as perfect and inviolable—is a significant deviation from orthodox bibliology. Yes, a translation is God’s word, and this is important to affirm; but a translation is not God’s word in the same, ultimate sense as those originals. If we’re unsure what a passage means, the ultimate appeal is to the inspired Greek and Hebrew. Translations don’t trump the originals. Ever. And they don’t fully equal them. Nowhere does the Bible itself tell us to expect perfect Bible translations. “All Scripture is God-breathed,” yes—and the human subjects involved were “holy men of God who spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Tim 3:16; 2 Pet 1:21; Bibliology 101). The KJV—and Reina Valera and Louis Segond—translators are not properly considered among the group of men moved by the Spirit. The Bible never tells us to expect this.

I’m not even sure what a perfect translation looks like: what is a “perfect” translation of a difficult word like στοιχεῖον (stoicheion) in Col 2:20? What’s a perfect translation of the disputed phrase in Rom 1:5, ὑπακοὴν πίστεως (hupakoen pisteos), often translated “obedience of faith”? To have a perfect translation means, in these and many other cases, making perfect interpretations of those phrases—do we really think all those Anglicans managed it? They certainly didn’t think so.

And what about the tiny judgment calls abounding in Bible translation—ones for which the KJV translators themselves felt compelled to add notes mentioning alternative renderings? Is it “trusted” or “hoped” in Eph 1:12? The KJV translators weren’t certain:

What about the even tinier judgment calls—like the one I came across while reading a new translation of the NT during my lunch break:

“The foxes have lairs…” The KJV has, of course, “The foxes have holes…” Which is it? Is it the more general holes or the more specific lairs? The referent is clearly the same in each case, and the lexicons give both glosses. Which translation is “perfect” and “intact”?

And what about the times when a MT/TR-based translation into another language, like the Spanish Reina-Valera of 1909, makes a different interpretation of a text than does the KJV? Who’s got God’s words, the English speakers or the Spanish ones? To pick a random example, the last word in Numbers 23:21 is translated them by the KJV and él (“him”) by the Reina Valera of 1909. Presumably this is a matter of interpretation on someone’s part. Who got it right? Who has God’s word there and who doesn’t?

KJV-Onlyism is a search for a perfect, physically accessible doctrinal standard: the KJV. I suppose I wouldn’t mind having a perfect translation, but that isn’t what God gave us, or promised to give us.

The Preserved Vulgate

One of the signal errors of the Roman Catholic Church was that for many centuries it treated their preferred Latin translation as possessing an authority which even they now recognize it did not. I say they recognize this because it is my understanding that Catholic translations are now made from the Greek and Hebrew originals. Even today there are Catholics who wish to go back to the days of the Latin rite. But some of the Vulgate’s translations, like poenitentiam agite, led to major problems over centuries. (Footnote: interestingly, the TR now preferred by the KJV-Only was originally accompanied with a new translation into Latin by Erasmus.)

No one, I guarantee you, stood up one day in any Catholic church and said, “Starting next Sunday, we’re going to read the Bible and conduct our services using a language no one can understand.” So how in the world did it happen? Slowly. Latin became Spanish and Italian and Portuguese and French; and the last one on that list just happened to pour numerous words (from multiple French dialects in different parts of France, it turns out) into the language of a nearby island country through successive invasions, and we got modern English. But the Latin Vulgate was “preserved.” It remained basically unchanged, kept intact. And eventually it became unintelligible to the common people.

One of the reasons we can’t have a perfect translation is that you can’t say a language is, once and for all. A language is always changing, always becoming something new and slightly different, until the changes add up and misunderstandings begin to occur more and more often. The “English-speaking peoples” of today don’t all speak precisely the same English—witness Kenyan, UK, Aussie, South African, Guyanese, Singaporean and other Englishes. And the “English-speaking peoples” of today most certainly don’t speak the English of the Elizabethans. One of the reasons translations can’t be perfect bullseyes is that languages are moving targets.

Charitable Hermeneutics

It just so happens that a friend of mine knows the now-deceased (?) gentleman who says he came up with the “preserved word of God for English-speaking peoples” language. I have not been able to track down more information, but my friend says this guy said he didn’t mean for that language to become what it has become.

So I’m not sure what the language originally meant, but I believe I know what it’s being used to mean now. The most charitable interpretation I can put on the common KJVO language—“The KJV is God’s preserved Word for English-speaking peoples”—goes something like this: they want to accord exclusive status to the KJV, but they recognize they can’t call it “inspired” (to be clear, I applaud this recognition). So instead they call it “preserved” (or “intact”)—which is somehow less than “inspired” but still makes the KJV superior to all other English Bible translations; yea, even perfect.

I have looked at hundreds of KJV-Only doctrinal statements, and not one of them explains whether other English translations are also “God’s preserved word”; this tends to leave the impression that they are not. More commonly (maybe 25% of the time?) these statements reject all other English translations, as Heartland does, and they insist that only the KJV will be “used” in their church or school or mission board. Recently I’ve even seen a few of them calling the KJV itself the “ultimate authority” for faith and practice.

They don’t actually tend to call the KJV “perfect” outright, but that’s the only thing I can get out of all the “preservation” language when applied to a translation.

Brass Vernacular Tacks

Some KJV-Only leaders, the ones working on developing the theological rationale for the movement, have come up with some impressive argumentation for their viewpoint. It is not irrational, I think, to conclude from “Man shall not live by bread alone but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” that we need every one of God’s words. It’s not a huge step from there to assume that, well, we must have all these words somewhere. It’s not an impossible step from there to say that a good God would give us all the words, and just those words, in our language.

I do think there are significant flaws in this reasoning, and I’ve discussed some of them in the past. But I’m supposed to be bracketing this question… So let me get to brass tacks, two foundational reasons why I’m skeptical of TR-Only views:

  1. The Bible never tells us to expect perfect translations. The Septuagint used by Jesus and the apostles was not perfect, just good. (Don’t believe me? Listen to the KJV translators in their own preface: “The translation of the Seventy dissenteth from the Original in many places, neither doth it come near it for perspicuity, gravity, majesty; yet which of the Apostles did condemn it? Condemn it? Nay, they used it.”) I don’t want language in my doctrinal statement to claim more than the Bible claims.
  2. And after spending multiple years on the issue of vernacular Bible translation and the KJV, I’m utterly convinced of this: the end point (I’d actually say the beginning point) of TR-Only reasoning is that we have have to accord top or exclusive status the KJV. And that means we have to read and memorize and teach from a translation people can’t fully understand because we no longer speak the English it uses. And that just can’t be right. What good is it to have all the right words if people can’t understand them? Paul speaks directly to this issue in 1 Cor 14. And the KJV translators do, too, in their excellent preface:

Without translation into the vulgar tongue, the unlearned are but like children at Jacob’s well (which is deep) without a bucket or something to draw with; or as that person mentioned by Isaiah, to whom when a sealed book was delivered, with this motion, “Read this, I pray thee,” he was fain to make this answer, “I cannot, for it is sealed.”

This is why I’m always saying to the TR-Only: give us a translation of the Bible into our English using whatever texts you prefer.

Crossing Sea and Land

In the two weeks since my book’s release I’ve started to get letters from people who are in the process of leaving KJV-Onlyism. KJV-Onlyism has little to fear from me: I get the impression that these people were already skeptical and bought my book immediately upon release because they knew it would help them know how and why to leave KJV-Only bibliology behind. Also, I want to say that I cautioned all of them to be respectful and gracious toward—and grateful for—their heritage. I think it’s ugly to feel arrogant over people you agreed with yesterday, a denial of 1 Cor 4:7.

I also think it’s ugly to crow about the proselytes one has made within Christianity; that is, from one doctrinal view to another, even if one is aberrant. I don’t feel like saying to the KJVOs, “See my converts? Ha, take that!”; I just feel sad. I feel sad that we can’t be unified because of the KJVOs’ doctrinal innovation. I feel sad for the missionary, the assistant pastor, and the senior pastor who’ve contacted me recently and told me of their return to bibliological orthodoxy—because I know they’re going to lose friendships, and I don’t want them to be cast adrift relationally. I feel sad for the kids who are taught verses they can’t understand when the NIV and ESV are a click away. The idea that Christians would forbid not just the endorsement but the “use” (!) of Bible translations other than a 400-year-old one people struggle to read—I’m just at a loss. This is divisive extremism of the saddest and most unnecessary kind: how could regenerated people engage in it? This whole topic fills me with dread.

But the Bible fills me with hope: regenerated people have God’s Spirit; they have gifts and brains and love and Christ’s righteousness. Loving, rational, Bible-based appeals can make a difference. I’m seeing that difference, even if the results are currently small. So here’s my double appeal to the KJV-Only: 1) take advantage of the riches of modern English vernacular Bible translation: “all are yours” (1 Cor 3). And 2) don’t go beyond the Bible to “preserve” the Bible.

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.

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