Three Critiques of Authorized that Bear Weight with Me
It’s been really, really hard to get responsible, unsympathetic people to offer critiques of Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible. I have come to feel that a patient and careful response from one’s opponents is one of the rarest honors accorded to a writer these days. Social media is a huge invitation to people to go off eighth-cocked.
But I’ve been listening hard to my critics, and here are the top three substantive points they’ve scored against my viewpoint:
1. Let’s not make an “only-not-King-James” tribe to compete against the “KJV-Only” tribe.
This one came from the president of an organization whose acronym starts with “F,” as in “Formerly Known As.” And I think it’s apt. It was a good and godly reminder to me. When I first heard it I thought, I’m not doing that! But I have decided to work to heed his wisdom. I have purposed in my heart not to judge everyone who uses the King James Version. I don’t know all the reasons they have for doing so unless they tell me. And given that, until two years ago, my own pastor preached from the KJV, I certainly do not want to say—or leave the impression that—using the KJV in preaching and evangelism is always and everywhere a sin. That would indeed make me guilty of the same kind of tribalism that I’ve critiqued in others.
I ultimately came to this in my book, after many pages of argument:
Children and new converts should not be given copies of the KJV. Paul said no to that option when he tied intelligible words to edification in 1 Corinthians 14. (120)
And I stand behind that statement. But that “should not” and that “no” are capable of some flexibility. People need time; people need patience; people need to not be made the objects of someone else’s tribalism. May God help me.
(Plus: there are many more important issues in the church than which English Bible translation most people use.)
2. Not all false friends are false friends to all readers.
This one came from a guy who read the book and produced a longer review than just about anyone else. I think he’s right in his criticism, though I’m stating his argument in a form more congenial to my viewpoint: not all false friends are false friends to all readers.
In Authorized I defined a false friend as a word that is 1) still used today but 2) meant something different in 1611. And, crucially, I added this idea: false friends are words 3) that have “changed in such a way that modern readers are unlikely to notice” (119). And a number of the examples I gave unquestionably meet these three criteria. But that third one is squirrelly, and I didn’t account for rodents adequately. Take this example that I gave in the book:
Men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good. (2 Tim. 3:2 KJV)
I wrote of this word incontinent:
Today this means men will lose control of their bowels. In 1611 it meant lacking in self-restraint. (45)
I do think some readers will stumble here and and fail to notice that incontinence is an odd character quality to put in a vice list. Incontinent, for some readers, meets all three criteria of a false friend. But surely some readers today, many readers, will notice that our modern sense doesn’t make sense in this context. Is it still a false friend?
In a future edition of my book I’ll spell out these three criteria explicitly and be a little more careful to distinguish words that meet two from those that meet three. But I’ll say this: there is no saying once and for all which words are dead words, which are false friends, and which aren’t either. Different readers have different skill levels. What kind of skill level should a Bible translation aim at? Defenders of the exclusive use of the KJV are very confused on this point. One minute they’re saying, “Complaints about KJV readability are ludicrous! It’s on a fifth-grade reading level, as computers show! And [here’s an actual quotation] ‘many individual passages would be lower’!” The next minute they’re saying, “Modern versions dumb down the Bible by using contemporary English!” As if an accessible reading level is a good thing in the KJV and a bad thing anywhere else…
So, sure, ideally every Christian would be a great reader. But they’re not, and they’re never going to be. Not many wise, not many noble are called.
And what indeed do you call a word that is still used today but meant something different in 1611? Even if a good reader notices, I’d still call that a false friend. It looks familiar: we feel we should know what the word means. But the sense we know doesn’t work in the given context. It is okay for our main Bible translation to include many words like incontinent when without self-control is readily available?
3. Let’s not talk as if only the Greek and Hebrew are the word of God.
Now, I’m not really willing to say, exactly, that this is a point scored against me. This is one I am not guilty of—precisely because I’ve read the excellent preface to the KJV too many times. But it’s worth heeding and remembering, and I want to make sure to clarify my support for it in a future edition of Authorized, if there is one.
This is what the KJV translators say:
We do not deny, nay, we affirm and avow, that the very meanest translation of the Bible in English set forth by men of our profession (for we have seen none of theirs of the whole Bible as yet) containeth the word of God, nay, is the word of God: as the King’s speech which he uttered in Parliament, being translated into French, Dutch, Italian and Latin, is still the King’s speech, though it be not interpreted by every translator with the like grace, nor peradventure so fitly for phrase, nor so expressly for sense, everywhere. For it is confessed that things are to take their denomination of the greater part…. A man may be counted a virtuous man though he have made many slips in his life (else there were none virtuous, for, ‘in many things we offend all’), also a comely man and lovely, though he have some warts upon his hand, yea, not only freckles upon his face, but also scars. No cause therefore why the word translated should be denied to be the word, or forbidden to be current, notwithstanding that some imperfections and blemishes may be noted in the setting forth of it. (xxviii)
And I say, Amen!
This third point is a criticism of Authorized in that when I urge people to use multiple Bible translations, I do indeed relativize them all. Now, suddenly, none of them is final. And it is possible that a layperson would come away from my arguments bestowing too much honor on the Greek and Hebrew compared to the English. He might always be thinking to himself, But these English words aren’t really and truly what God said. This might destabilize his faith or provide him a way to wiggle out from under God’s commands.
I have not met such people, but I do not care to deny that they exist. I’d say to them just what the KJV translators did. They called all good translations “the word of God.” But they implied standards translations meet to varying degrees in various places: grace, fitness, and even accuracy (“nor so expressly for sense”). In other words, they did not accord final authority to any translation but, along with their Reformation forebears, to the originals alone.
We’ve got to be able to hold up an English Bible, whichever one it is; say, “This is the word of God”; and yet add a footnote—“Remember, folks, this translation isn’t inspired or perfect.” And people need to accept this, because it’s true. When they don’t accept it, when they treat one and only one English Bible as if it is perfect, we have an English-Version-Onlyism. We have bibliological error.
Defenders of exclusive use of the KJV seem to me to be motivated by something very good: the desire for certainty, for a firm foundation for their faith, A More Sure Word. They do this in textual criticism and in translation. But they are wanting a world God didn’t give us. He could easily have given inspired translators to each nation, but he didn’t. He could easily have maintained jot-and-tittle perfection in every Hebrew and Greek manuscript copy, but he didn’t. We must not demand that God give us more certainty than he in fact gave. I believe in the inspiration of the Bible, both the Old and the New Testaments; sometimes indeed I’d love to have perfect copies and translations of both, rather than the highly accurate ones we do have. But I’m willing to accept God’s actual providence instead of looking over his shoulder and editing his choices.
As the KJV translators go on to say,
For whatever was perfect under the sun, where Apostles or apostolic men, that is, men endued with an extraordinary measure of God’s Spirit, and privileged with the privilege of infallibility, had not their hand? (xxviii)
It’s disappointing when people don’t even bother to listen to one’s carefully wrought book, when they set up a straw man and knock it down (He thinks we should make the whole Bible easy enough for a dyslexic kindergartener!), when they keep using arguments I humbly feel I demolished (I’m looking at you Flesch—and you, too, Kincaid!). But I was ready for all of that before I published Authorized.
What I didn’t know to expect would be that only one person among those many people and institutions who defend the exclusive use of the KJV would try to answer my central argument. Only one person tried to answer the question, “If there are false friends in the KJV, words people don’t know they don’t know, how are they supposed to know to look them up?” The only way to answer that question is to know Greek and Hebrew yourself, use multiple English translations to check for misunderstandings, and do some counting. One friend of mine—Ben, a sometime commenter on this blog—did this for one NT book, Philippians. I’m grateful and honored. That’s responsible interaction.
There are some intelligent people in the KJV-Only world who read me with the skeptical eye that only disagreement can generate. I actually want to hear their best shots. I’m grateful for the three trenchant criticisms above, even if I’m still waiting for answers to my central thesis.