An Evaluation of the Work of Charles Surrett on Preservation

I will not and cannot discuss textual criticism with my brothers and sisters in Christ who insist on the exclusive use of the King James Version. I will discuss only vernacular translation. But there are two questions that my KJV-Only friends have consistently asked that necessarily span the divide between text and translation—and that I do feel I must offer an answer to in good faith. The first is, “Doesn’t the NKJV use critical text readings?” That is a fair question that necessarily involves some discussion of text, and I’ve sought to answer it. The second is, “Doesn’t the Bible teach perfect preservation of the biblical text?” That, too, is a fair question, though I confess that some days I think I should not have to answer it: I can direct someone who prefers the Textus Receptus to contemporary translations of that same text. I do not mind if my brothers prefer and use the TR—as long as they use a translation that is as intelligible as possible to the plow boy (1 Cor 14:9), and as long as they do not cause division and strife over this debate (Gal 5:19–20). But I have decided to write on this topic because I myself want to be certain that I am not ignoring or twisting the Bible. If the Bible teaches perfect preservation, I will and must believe it.

Chuck Surrett has recently released a short white paper of sorts, arguing in some detail but in admirable brevity what I’ve also read in his two books: precisely that the Bible teaches perfect preservation of the Hebrew and Greek texts of Scripture. It teaches, he says, “the certainty of the words” (Prov 22:20–21). I have been asked by nearby pastor and friend Jonathan Beazley to evaluate Surrett’s arguments, and my own desire to dig into the relevant passages combined with this request to produce the text below. I beg the reader’s indulgence in starting with a somewhat lengthy introduction; these matters are complicated, and I need a little time and space. Let’s begin.


There are two major issues involved in debates over English Bibles: 1) text and 2) translation.

The debate divides into many smaller issues, but it is at its heart—and, actually, like a heart—irreducibly binary. Defenders of exclusive use of the King James Version (by English speakers) such as Charles “Chuck” Surrett, longtime Academic Dean at Ambassador Baptist College, have to “win” debates on both 1) text and 2) translation if they hope to establish their KJV-Only viewpoint.

If someone like Surrett argues successfully that 1) the KJV is based on the best Hebrew and Greek texts, he must then argue that 2) the KJV is the best translation of those texts.

With me so far?

Now, to use an evaluative word such as “best” implies a standard. How do we know which 1) texts are “best” and which 2) translations are “best”?

We have to look ultimately to Scripture, to God’s special revelation. On this I think all my readers are likely agreed. But this is where those two fundamental issues start dividing into smaller questions. Does the Bible give us direction on which 1) texts are best? Does it tell us how to 2) translate those texts? And when we get translations into our hands, does the Bible tell us how to critically compare and evaluate those translations?

Christians declare the Bible’s “sufficiency.” Scripture is profitable for teaching, for reproving, for correcting, for instruction—so that the man of God might be thoroughly equipped for good works. We don’t need any other divinely inspired language to live the godly lives God has called us to live. We have everything we need for life and godliness.

But what do we mean when we confess the Bible’s complete “sufficiency” as our standard? When brother Surrett sat down to do the many hours of homework that went into his extensive charts contrasting the King James with the New King James in his book Certainty of the Words, was the Bible his standard?

For example, he argued that in Genesis 2:18, the KJV’s “help meet for him” is a better translation of the Hebrew עֵ֖זֶר כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ ( ‘ezer kenegdo) than the NKJV’s “helper corresponding to him.”

This may seem like an odd question, but did Surrett look up the proper meaning of kenegdo (כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ) in the Bible?

The answer is no: he looked it up in a dictionary, a “lexicon” (the academic word for dictionaries). He says he used two Hebrew lexicons and three Greek ones as his standards:

Surrett compared the KJV and NKJV renderings to the standard set by these dictionaries, made by biblical scholars of previous generations.

(I’m going somewhere with this; are you still following me?)

Now, what if I were to say to Surrett, “I refuse to accept your non-biblical standard! Who ‘inspired’ these dictionaries? You must show me from the Bible, and the Bible alone what is the precise, proper English translation of kenegdo (כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ)!”

I think he’d have to say, “Well… the Bible doesn’t tell us precisely how to translate its words into English (or Japanese, or Urdu).”

So I ask, “Then how can we know the right way to translate kenegdo (כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ) in Genesis 2:18?”

(Just keep swimming, just keep swimming… You can follow this!)

Surrett has already implicitly answered this question. By appealing to the lexicons as his standard, he is saying that their method of discovering the meaning of words is right, appropriate, and reliable.

And what is their method? They do look to Scripture, but not only to Scripture. Lexicons look at all the ways Hebrew and Greek words are used, especially but not only in the Bible. We have lots of Greek inscriptions and documents from the time of the New Testament, and NT lexicons look to those. We have relatively little Hebrew from outside the Old Testament, so OT lexicons more commonly look for “cognates” in related languages such as Ugaritic. (This gets complicated.)

Lexicons frequently, and for some words mostly, cite documents other than the Bible, because the only way to know what a word means in any language is to observe the way it was used at the time the speaker spoke it or the writer wrote it.

Here’s a standard entry from the current edition of one of the lexicons Surrett cited—with all the stuff from outside the New Testament highlighted in yellow. This is the entry for malakos, a word that occurs in 1 Corinthians 6:9, a passage Surrett gave as an example when looking for places where he felt that the KJV was superior to the NKJV. I’ve made some notes showing where much of the “extrabiblical” (from outside the Bible) information the lexicographers used came from:

Danker, Frederick W., Walter Bauer, and William F. Arndt. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).

Now, again, I might ask brother Surrett, “Does the Bible tell us the way to translate Koine Greek’s malakos into contemporary English?”

No, it does not. This word malakos occurs in two different senses in the Greek New Testament, just as the lexicon says. The first sense, “soft” (as in soft to the touch, soft clothing) occurs three times (Matt 11:8 twice; Luke 7:25). The second sense, “effeminate,” occurs only once. How do know what the particular sense of a word truly is when it occurs only once? You have to look at how the word is used by writers outside the Bible. And this is just what the lexicon Surrett used did.

The KJV translators talk about this very problem in their excellent preface (a preface which I earnestly and ardently beg all of my KJV-Only brothers to read carefully until they understand every last line).

There be many words in the Scriptures which be never found there but once (having neither brother nor neighbour, as the Hebrews speak), so that we cannot be helped by conference of places.… Now in such a case doth not a margin[al note] do well to admonish the reader to seek further, and not to conclude or dogmatise upon this or that peremptorily? For as it is a fault of incredulity to doubt of those things that are evident: so to determine of such things as the Spirit of God hath left (even in the judgement of the judicious) questionable, can be no less than presumption. Therefore as St Augustine saith, that variety of translations is profitable for the finding out of the sense of the Scriptures: so diversity of signification and sense in the margin, where the text is not so clear, must needs do good, yea, is necessary, as we are persuaded.

The meaning of some Hebrew words, especially, is obscure. The KJV translators do not specifically say how they determine the translation of these words. But quite clearly, they’re not getting their meanings from the Bible itself, even though they certainly appeal to context. They mention in their preface looking to what Jewish scholars have said, but in the end (they say) they simply have to pick something and put the other option(s) in the margin. If they had had access to Ugaritic cognates, surely they would have used them—just as they used the Greek Septuagint and Latin Vulgate as conversation partners.

The KJV translators needed books other than the Bible in order to translate the Bible.

(Here’s a small point I’ve frequently thought of: if what the KJV translators are saying is true, and I think it is, then what does this do to a doctrine of perfect preservation? God perfectly preserved all the words for us, but not all the meanings? Doesn’t that seem a little backwards? Indeed, brother Surrett has wondered how those who believe the Greek New Testament text is not certain in every detail can preach it at all. I might say the same to him about interpretation: how can someone preach any of it if he doesn’t understand all of it? The reality is that I can stand on many precious gospel certainties taught in Romans and John without knowing for sure what Ezekiel’s temple signifies or what Selah means. This is the classic doctrine of perspicuity or clarity: not that the entire Bible is equally clear [it isn’t; see 2 Pet 3:15–16], but that the truths of salvation are sufficiently clear to compel belief and bring salvation.)

All this does not mean the Bible is something other than sufficient for a life of godliness. It also does not mean God has left us high and dry, and that we can’t really know what he said.

It simply means that we have to be content with the level of certainty God gives us—and that scholars (some of the “pastors and teachers” Christ gave to his church) have some work to do. That’s the Christian biblical scholar’s job: to go read all the documents we have from the ancient world and observe what malakos (or selah or authentein) means in them. Surrett does apparently agree, or he would not have cited lexicons in the first place.

I’m not a scholar. That’s a title other people give you, not a title you give yourself. But I’ve worked very hard to understand the word malakos while writing a paper on the word that malakos gets paired with in 1 Cor 6:9, ἀρσενοκοίτης (arsenokoites, “men-bedders”—homosexuals). I went through that same lexicon’s entry on arsenokoites with extreme care, tracing the steps of the lexicographers’ argument.

And do you want to know what I came to? Well, you can read the paper and see. But I’ll describe it briefly: I came to a little bit of uncertainty as to the best way to translate the words malakos and arsenokoites in English. The overall gist is more than clear: unrepentant active and passive partners in homosexual acts will not inherit the kingdom of God. But does the Bible consign “effeminate” men—men with higher voices or artistic sensibilities (or whatever else might count as “effeminate” in a man)—to the same eternal punishment? Is “effeminate” the best translation of the word in that context? And where precisely is the line between “masculine” and “effeminate”? Precisely what did Paul mean by choosing this word?

These are all difficult questions that study of Homer, Josephus, Philo, Chrysostom, and other writers cited in the lexicon can help us answer. But it gets complicated. We can’t know with absolute, exhaustive, 100% certainty the answers to all the questions I just raised in the previous paragraph. We have to use the Bible and other available resources (including systematic theology, namely conclusions derived from synthesis of Scripture); we have to pray for spiritual illumination and do our best scholarly work. We also have to look at our world and see what kinds of dress (earrings?) and movement (certain hand motions?) are associated with effeminacy.

The point

Here’s where I’m going with this, and I warn you that I am about to belabor this point: the Bible is sufficient for a life of godliness, but the way God chose to give us the Bible requires that we study our world carefully, too. The Bible is our ultimate authority, but it gives us other authorities we must listen to, from pastors (1 Pet 5:1–5; Heb 13:7) to politicians (Rom 13). And one of the “authorities” we must consult in order to interpret the Bible accurately is the providence of God in history. This truth comes to us in a different form than that of the Bible. It isn’t inspired and perfectly reliable, as Scripture is. But, as with the meanings of words such as those I discussed above, it is a necessary part of good and faithful Scripture interpretation.

It is right and necessary, as Surrett’s own comparisons of the KJV and NKJV show, to look outside the Bible for help interpreting the Bible accurately.

Back to the opening words of the article, and let me state this just once more: if we are to find the “best” Bible 2) translation, we must look in part to (linguistic and lexical, in this case) standards outside the Bible.

And I believe this basic principle is true of 1) text as well.

It sounds good initially to say, “All we need is the Bible!” In other words, all we need is special revelation. But God didn’t give us inspired Hebrew and Greek dictionaries in the back of the Bible (and even if he did, we’d have to translate those). When two English translations differ—one says “soft” and the other says “effeminate”—it feels weird, but God gave us a situation in which we have to look outside Scripture (to standards given by his providential preservation of Hebrew and Greek usage from outside Scripture) to determine if either choice is better (or if they’re equally good or equally bad!).

When a possible interpretation of a given passage occurs to me, it is also okay, even necessary, for me to check God’s providence as revealed in my own experience. Experience can never and should never trump Scripture. But if I read “She shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety” (1 Timothy 2:15), and it occurs to me that maybe this is a promise that Christian women won’t die in childbirth, it is right for me to think of the sad stories when this has in fact occurred—and to conclude that I should opt for another interpretation. If I read that God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4), it is right for me to consult both my Bible and my experience—clearly, not all people in Scripture or in my neighborhood are saved—in order to come to a right understanding of that passage. We have to look at God’s work in the world as part of our Bible interpretation.

And when two Greek or Hebrew manuscripts from a thousand years ago differ, we have to do the same thing. We have to put on biblical spectacles and then use them to look carefully at our world. Special revelation interprets providence. The Bible comes logically first, before the looking—but the looking must come. Interpretation is a “spiral”: you look at the Bible and then at the world and then on and on until you bring the two together in your understanding.

This is precisely what brother Surrett does. He looks at his Bible, sees promises of perfect preservation, and then looks to God’s providential use in history of the King James Version to establish which textual variants in the manuscript traditions of the Hebrew and Greek testaments are the perfect ones. The particular edition of the Textus Receptus that he regards as “perfect” and “doubly certain” is the one created by the textual-critical decisions of the KJV translators. Why that one? His answer is God’s providential use of the KJV. In Which Greek Text?, he says,

For a pure text, then, one should look to that text which local churches and church leaders throughout their history have used. That text has been, without question, the tradition that produced the Textus Receptus.

He does not have a Bible verse telling him where to find the perfect texts and how to avoid the corrupted ones. He has to look outside the Bible, to (his understanding of) God’s providence in history.

Perfect preservation and ongoing accessibility

That introduction was too long. I apologize, I really do. But I have finally arrived at the impetus for this second lengthy article (here’s the first), namely arguments Chuck Surrett has recently made in a short paper that the Bible teaches perfect preservation of itself, that it teaches Certainty of the Words.

Surrett is not alone in making these arguments. But he makes them with a grace and care (both here and in his books) that makes me prefer him as a conversation partner over countless other “KJV-Only” brothers who, I regret to say, cannot seem to stop being downright mean long enough to have a discussion.

Surrett drives toward the conclusion that the original language texts underlying the KJV are perfect, and notice the way he pits special revelation against God’s providence in history on his way to that point:

It would be foolish for me to try to debate a textual critic, if history were the final authority that decides all issues. But if the Bible is to be accepted as the final authority, I feel secure in the position I take regarding the Word of God.

Let’s get his conclusions firmly in mind before we head to the passages he cites. I see two major conclusions in his piece (and these are consistent with his two books, both of which I have read—I am not basing my critique on an insufficient sampling of his work). Surrett believes that the Bible teaches A) perfect preservation of the biblical text and B) ongoing accessibility of that text. In other words, there are perfect manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible and Greek New Testament, and they have always been accessible to God’s people, despite the “corruptions” that he acknowledges do exist.

A) Surrett on perfect preservation

By “perfect” Surrett does mean “perfect.” Absolutely free from error. As best I can tell, that means we can have absolute confidence about three things: 1) no jot or tittle is missing; 2) no jot or tittle is added; and 3) no jot or tittle is out of place. We have exactly, down to the least stroke of a pen, what the Holy Spirit inspired. Let me quote his writings to show that I’m understanding him correctly. He says, for example,

Prov 22:20-21…indicates that we can have certainty about the written words of truth. The Hebrew words used lead us to the conclusion we can be doubly certain of the written words.

He says in Which Greek Text,

For a student of the Bible to be properly motivated in precise exegesis of the New Testament, he must work with the text under the assumption that every prefix, suffix, stem change, preposition, and root word are precisely known.

He says that preservation without certainty—in other words, the doctrine of preservation taught by the vast majority of evangelicals, which is preservation to a high degree of confidence that falls short of certainty—is not preservation at all. Most Christians today believe that God has preserved his words in the totality of manuscript copies we possess. If there are 144,000 jots and tittles that God inspired, we have maybe 150,000 (so say the great majority of Christian people who write our commentaries and reference works), and it is the job of textual critics to weed out the ones that don’t belong, the ones that got added (and, sometimes, subtracted) for various reasons over the centuries.

Surrett replies to this viewpoint:

I wonder how man would benefit from preservation without certainty? To know that the right words exist somewhere, but to be unclear about how to find them would make it very difficult to live by “every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God (Matt 4:4).” How and why do you do exegesis, if you are unsure?

And he asks penetrating questions (though I could do without the sarcastic scare quotes on the word “scholars”—that was, frankly, unbecoming of brother Surrett and unlike his general character; scholars have done much good for me, refreshing my soul, strengthening my faith, and instructing me more perfectly in the way):

Do you consider every variant to be viable, or do you trust the “scholars” to make those decisions for you? In actual practice, how often in preaching do you indicate to your listeners that you are uncertain? When you use a Greek New Testament that documents all the variants, how do you determine which reading to preach? I think these questions would haunt me, if I were preaching from your perspective.

Surrett insists that we can have perfect and complete certainty about every word of Scripture. We can know which ones belong and which ones (found in some “corrupt” manuscripts) do not.

Is there anything in God’s Word that teaches man would ever have to face the Bible with uncertainty, due to textual variants? What is the Biblical justification for allowing our limited knowledge of history to alter your view of preservation?

Now what would Surrett say to my argument above, that we have to look at both the Bible and the world and fit them together? In other words—as my neighbors-I-still-haven’t-met, Surrett’s former students Jonathan Beazley and Stephen Boyce, have pointed out (Surrett’s statement is a response to their piece)—it is abundantly empirically evident that no two Greek New Testament manuscripts of any significant size are exactly the same. Just as Paul appealed to visible evidence of Christ’s resurrection (dead Jews that arose) in 1 Corinthians 15, and just as John appealed to the tangibility of the incarnation (“That which…we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled”), so any biblical scholar can show you Greek manuscripts that aren’t precisely the same in every detail. (I have put together a project, KJVParallelBible.org, showing every last translatable difference between the Greek New Testament Surrett prefers and the one I tend to use most often. These differences are not secrets.) The natural question arises: how can we possibly know which manuscripts are perfect if they all disagree?

Later I will question his premises, but Surrett’s reply is logically sound:

The statement that there is no perfect manuscript is unproveable, without having the autographa [the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts penned by the prophets and apostles] to compare. The fact that A and B are different from each other does not necessarily prove both of them wrong. It does prove that one of them is wrong, but not necessarily both, nor does it tell which of them is right.

Note, then, that Surrett is insisting on absolutely perfect preservation. Every other manuscript out there in Hebrew and Greek is “wrong,” but the right text, the perfect one, does exist. I have consistent trouble getting TR defenders to tell me which edition of the TR is perfect, but Surrett, I believe, does clearly name Scrivener’s 1881/1894 text as perfect (although he named Beza’s 1598 text on page 4 of Which Greek Text? and for this I have no explanation: the KJV differs from Beza, according to Scrivener, 126 times in mostly minor ways).

Surrett’s other reply, which we’ll spend more time on later, shows why I wrote such a lengthy introduction arguing for the necessity of looking at God’s providence in history outside of Scripture. This is a telling point, his strongest—if the Bible indeed teaches perfect preservation:

It was that exact same mindset that caused some Bible-believers to think they had to alter their view of creation in order to accommodate the “scientific facts” of evolutionism.

Now in large part I agree: I cannot read Genesis 1–11 with a good conscience and allow any room for theistic evolution (much less deistic or materialistic evolution). I look at what the Bible says, and I look at the world as the evolutionists describe it, and I cannot fit the two together. I stick with Scripture, because the Creator has greater authority than even his most intelligent creatures. I can’t explain how starlight from millions of lightyears away got here or how supernovas that, by our best lights, happened five million years ago (the light is only now reaching earth) are consistent with Scripture. I just trust God and keep working to harmonize the Bible with history and experience.

So why is this matter of textual criticism different? Why don’t I trust in the perfect preservation of every last inspired jot and tittle of Scripture—no more, no less, all in the proper order?

Hang on. We’ll get there. For now, it’s important only to understand that this is what Surrett believes, and has taught thousands (?) of students over decades of teaching: the Hebrew and Greek words inspired by God thousands of years ago have all been perfectly preserved.

B) Surrett on ongoing accessibility

And, he says, they are accessible.

Isaiah 59:21…clearly states that every generation of man will have access to God’s Words, with the plural used to indicate not just a general Gospel message, but the specific words used to communicate that message.

I’m a little unclear on precisely what “accessible” means. How many Christian people in the centuries before air travel had access to perfect copies of God’s words? If I’m understanding Surrett correctly, I think he’d say that even if the available evidence shows manuscript variation, that doesn’t mean people throughout history were unable to access the perfect copy or copies.

Surrett doesn’t say nearly as much about accessibility as he does about perfect preservation (and my reading of his books would yield the same observation), so I’ll stop my summary of his views on that topic here.

Prooftexts for perfect preservation and ongoing accessibility

And now I will begin an examination of the passages that, Surrett says, teach A) perfect preservation and B) ongoing accessibility.

I’m just going to take the passages he cites in the order in which he cites them. The question we bring to these passages is, “Does the Bible teach perfect preservation and ongoing accessibility?”

Brother Surrett, Hast thou appealed unto the Bible? Unto the Bible shall we go.

Assorted passages allegedly teaching perfect preservation

I will talk below through all the passages Surrett cites, though because this article is rather long already I will deal with some only very briefly. I’ll focus on only the verses that appear to me to be the strongest possible supports for Surrett’s A) and B) viewpoints.

Proverbs 22:20–21

The first passage Surrett cites is the one from which he got the title for his book, Certainty of the Words. It is Proverbs 22:20–21. In it, Solomon writes to his son.

Have not I written to thee excellent things in counsels and knowledge,
That I might make thee know the certainty of the words of truth;
that thou mightest answer the words of truth to them that send unto thee?

Surrett argues,

While some may assert that this [certainty] only applies to words that Solomon wrote to his son, rather than to the words that God inspired Solomon (and others) to write, that would lead us to the ludicrous application that Solomon’s words were certain, but God’s were not! I find that hard to believe.

Could any of Solomon’s original readers have ever thought that by referring to “the certainty of the words” Solomon was implicitly promising perfect preservation of Hebrew (and later, Greek) manuscripts of the Bible?

Maybe, but I don’t think so. I think that the overall emphasis in this passage, as in others we’ll look at, is on the truth of God’s words rather than on our perfect possession of all those true words. I acknowledge that it’s hard to be certain that words are true when you aren’t certain you have them all and none others. But I have three reasons for saying “maybe-but-I-don’t-think-so,” and these themes will come up again:

First, the Bible regularly uses language that purposely avoids exhaustive precision. Some of this language we call “phenomenological.” the Bible says that the sun “rises” and “sets”: obviously it is speaking from the perspective of a person standing on the planet, not from that of a person standing in heaven. The sun doesn’t “really” rise. Jesus said that the mustard seed was the “smallest” of all the garden plants. It isn’t; there are smaller seeds. But that’s okay: he wasn’t lying or mistaken. He simply wasn’t speaking with exhaustive and pedantic precision. He was speaking hyperbolically, in a context that (he well knew) limited the application of his words. We all do this all the time.

As one theologian who has frequently helped me understand my Bible better, John Frame, has said,

It is absurd to imagine that Jesus, in the parable of Matthew 13:31–32, was giving his hearers the conclusion of an exhaustive botanical taxonomy, and it is irresponsible to demand that we read the text in such a way.

Doctrine of the Word of God, 188

Frame says that “Scripture generally speaks the way ordinary people speak.” He says that critics of the Bible often misinterpret it by “assum[ing] that Scripture is making a universal statement when in fact it [is] address[ing] only a narrow context” (Ibid.).

That, I think, is precisely what Proverbs 22:20–21 is doing. This is a narrow context focused on the reliability of Solomon’s counsel. It isn’t meant to be universalized and applied pedantically to a totally separate question about copies of biblical manuscripts.

My respected, godly, older acquaintance Vern Poythress, who helped translate the ESV Bible and who has memorized more Scripture than anyone I know, talks about the kind of precision and certainty the Bible provides.

In the Bible God uses ordinary human language rather than a technically precise jargon. He does not include all the technical, pedantic details that would interest a scholar. By doing so, he speaks clearly to ordinary people, not merely to scholars with advanced technical knowledge. What God says is not exhaustive, but it is sufficient to save us and to provide a sure guide for our life.

Hence, the ordinary, humble readers of the Bible do all right. Paradoxically, scholars and would-be scholars can easily get into trouble by overestimating the degree of technical or pedantic precision in the Bible. They will then fall into mistakes that an ordinary reader of the Bible would not make.

Symphonic Theology

Sadly, I believe this is what brother Surrett, despite his stated disdain for scholars, has himself done. He has committed an important error in exegesis, one that he will commit over and over in the list below: he reads his questions into passages that aren’t addressing them. He is expecting the Bible to be pedantically precise. He is thereby making the Bible say more than its Author intended it to say. Liberals’ temptation is to make God say less than he meant; conservatives’ temptation is to make him say more.

Second, in the days before computers, which can copy the entire Encyclopedia Galactica perfectly in less than a second, would it have occurred to anyone to interpret Proverbs 22:20–21 as promising something they’d never seen, and had no way to verify if they did—a perfect copy of a long document? Maybe, but I think not, given the other things I’ve just observed.

And third, I’ve got God’s providence in history. I’ll wrap up this huge article much later by going back to that topic, but all of the Hebrew manuscripts the KJV translators had access to indicate many minor areas of textual doubtfulness. The Masoretes, who made the “Masoretic Text” that Surrett confesses to be perfect, listed many dozens of kethib and qere readings—many of which are textual variants. If they had a perfect text, why would they do this? The scribes who copied New Testament manuscripts also encountered variants—and produced more of them. This is true of every manuscript of any size that we have (tiny scraps may be so small that they do perfectly match other manuscripts). If I’m wondering whether I should interpret God’s words as promising perfect preservation, it is right and necessary for me to look at the world he actually gave me through his providence and see if that’s what I have. It’s not.

2 Peter 1:19

We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed.

Another generally gracious KJV-Only brother drew the title of his book out of this passage. Does it teach perfect preservation?

This passage says that the words of Scripture, given to us by the apostles, are more sure than the words of God on the mount of transfiguration: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Could Peter mean we have greater confidence in the accurate copying—that is, in our possession of—the words of the Bible than we do in our possession of the words the Father spoke to the Son at the transfiguration?

No. As multiple contemporary translations (translating precisely the same Greek words) show, Peter’s point is about the reliability or the efficacy of the words, not our possession of them.

Surrett will ask, How can the words be reliable or efficacious if we don’t have perfect certainty that we have them all? This is a reasonable question.

But I urge my readers to just go look at all the variants between Surrett’s preferred Greek New Testament and mine. I’ve translated them all into English and highlighted them for you—with a little help from Surrett himself and a team of other volunteers representing KJVO and non-KJVO institutions—at KJVParallelBible.org.

Here’s a screenshot from the very first chapter of the New Testament. These two texts clearly differ. But does that affect the reliability of the message being communicated? You be the judge:

Boaz is spelled differently in the two texts, but it’s perfectly clear who is meant. David is called “the king” twice in Scrivener’s TR, and only once in the CT. These are differences that make no difference.

Here are some other differences, chosen at random, between Scrivener’s Textus Receptus and the Nestle-Aland 28 critical text. These two Greek New Testament editions are not perfectly the same here. Do the differences affect the reliability of the message of Romans?

Is there a difference between “Jesus Christ” and “Christ Jesus”? Is there a difference between “Behold” and “But if”? Not one I can discern.

I urge readers to take my TR quiz and look at more randomly chosen variants for themselves. Are the two Greek New Testament editions “massively different” (as Shelton Smith recently said)? I’ve heard defenders of the TR call them “completely,” “radically,” and “totally” different. Look for yourself. Are they?

I understand: it’s scary at first to find out that God has not given us perfect and exhaustive certainty about which words belong in the Old and New Testaments. It feels wrong. As a firm inerrantist, I don’t enjoy pointing it out. But when you actually look at the variants, a lot of that fear goes away. The vast majority of them are excessively minor. Many don’t even show up in translation. The Bible’s message can still be sure even if a few little words on many pages are not.

Surrett says that if you change the words you change the message.

Surrett argues that if you change the words you change the message.

Surrett thinks that if you change the words you change the message.

Surrett thinks that if you alter the words you alter the message.

Surrett thinks that if you alter any words you alter the message.

Surrett thinks that if any words are different, the message is different.

We could do this all millennium. Do you get my point? You can give the same message in slightly different words. If you don’t believe me that that’s what the TR and the critical text are doing, go see for yourself. Never until April 2019 was it possible for English readers to see for themselves. I’ve made it possible (with a little help from Surrett, actually—he cooperated with me for a small portion of the site). Please do go see for yourself.

Psalm 119:128

I esteem all thy precepts concerning all things to be right; and I hate every false way.

I confess I simply don’t see how this verse can be interpreted to promise perfect preservation—unless you assume that inspiration demands perfect preservation, which is the very point at issue. This passage doesn’t prove Surrett’s point; it only corroborates that point if he is right.

Matthew 5:18

Verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.

This passage is absolutely key. Anyone who cites it as proof of perfect preservation is pulling a very specific promise from Jesus’ lips: not one jot or tittle can pass away from the law.

One might quibble: he didn’t say none will be added. He also didn’t say that the jots and tittles would all remain in the same order in a supposed perfect copy. He just said they’d all be there.

But I won’t quibble. I think it is possible to conclude that Jesus is promising perfect preservation here. This, in my mind, is the strongest passages Surrett and other KJV/TR defenders have in their arsenal of prooftexts.

So why don’t I interpret it the way they do?

In large part for the same three reasons I mentioned above: I still think 1) that Surrett’s interpretation is pedantically making Jesus specify something he wasn’t concerned to say; 2) that none of Jesus’ original hearers would have concluded “Oh, there must be a perfect manuscript copy of the Hebrew Bible accessible to believers in every age!”; and 3) that when I look out at the world God gave me, I have no reliable way of knowing where an allegedly perfect text is.

A little word on this third point before I get back to Matthew 5:18. Surrett has set up an absolute standard of perfection. All it takes to break a perfect chain like this is one imperfect link. I ask: “Ok, so there’s a perfect text out there: which one is it?” Surrett, as best I can understand him, argues (along with all other KJV/TR defenders) that God’s use of the KJV constitutes his approval of its textual basis. Surrett makes a big point in his talk (which I explored in my last big article) of the many ways God has used the KJV—and therefore upon the particular edition of the TR upon which it is based.

But God used other translations in other nations that used slightly different textual bases, and he’s using translations now in English at my own church and countless others that have more significantly different textual bases. The equivalent of the KJV in the Netherlands, a translation made in 1637 (which, most historians agree, comes before 1881 =) is De Statenvertaling. It is the one major, historic translation that achieved the most widespread use for the longest time among Dutch-speaking Christians. Its NT is based on the TR. And in Matthew 2:11, the Statenvertaling follows a different edition of the Greek New Testament than the one followed by the KJV translators.

  • In the TR the Dutch translators used, the wise men “found” (vonden, translating εὺρίσκω) the child Jesus (the TR-based Portuguese Bible does the same). The KJV, following a different TR, says they “saw” (ὸράω) him.
  • In the Dutch Bible, Jesus warns against Beelzebul (Matt 10:25), not Beelzebub as in the KJV. Maybe this is just a spelling difference, maybe not; we’re not sure. This we know: the jots and tittles are different here between the two TRs.
  • In the Dutch version of 1 Tim 1:2, Paul wishes grace, mercy, and peace on Timothy from “Christus Jezus,” reflecting a different TR text. In the KJV it’s “Jesus Christ.”
  • The Dutch used a TR that repeats “their robes” twice in Rev 7:14; the KJV used a TR that has it once.
  • “Staff” in Matt 10:10 is singular in the Dutch translators’ TR and plural (“staffs”) in the KJV translators’ TR.
  • There is a formal contradiction at James 2:18 between the TR underlying the Dutch version and the one underlying the KJV. English-speaking believers over the centuries have read, “Show me your faith without [apart from; χωρις] your works”; Dutch-speaking believers have read “Show me your faith by [through; εκ] your works.”

The perfect chain is broken. Which jots and tittles are perfect, and which are corrupt? And how do we know? If God used different Greek texts for centuries before the release of the critical text, how are we to know which one is absolutely perfect in every jot and tittle? I understand the appeal to God’s providence, but God’s providence has not spoken with clarity or definiteness on every last jot and tittle of the testaments. If you, dear reader, respond by saying, “Well, God has clearly chosen English to be the main vehicle for his gospel in the modern world, so we’re back to the KJV as our textual-critical guide”—at least do me the kindness of recognizing how many highly debatable steps of inference you’ve moved away from the statements of Scripture (and how much, frankly, you sound like Peter Ruckman).

I take no delight in talking this way. I am not arguing for total uncertainty; I am arguing against what a friend has called “textual absolutism.” I am arguing for sufficient certainty, for the amount of certainty God actually has given us—which is a lot! There is no ultimate difference in meaning I can discern in the passages I’ve just mentioned; even James 2:18 is making the very same point, just in a slightly different way. Even E.F. Hills, in his book The King James Version Defended, acknowledges that preservation has not been miraculous, only providential. And as my own most important exegetical mentor has said so wisely,

My own weaknesses as a reader expose me to far more significant misunderstanding than the manuscript differences do, so by far the greatest problems that God must overcome in order to talk to me are within me, not within the transmission process.

There were plenty of denominations in existence, all with different understandings of various Bible passages, long before the critical text was released. And today, as my mentor also points out, there is no correlation between what theological viewpoint someone holds (Calvinist, Arminian, credobaptist, paedobaptist) and what Greek New Testament they use. They simply aren’t that different—even given the “big three” passages (Mark 16:9–20; John 7:53–8:11; 1 John 5:7). All Greek New Testament editions teach the same faith. The differences are so minor: “Christ Jesus” vs. “Jesus Christ” is one common difference (see for yourself), and yet my KJV/TR brothers are demanding no differences!

And does a contextually careful exegesis of Matthew 5:18 lead us to the conclusion that Jesus was indeed promising perfect preservation? Look at what Jesus cites in the next verse as the opposite of “every jot and tittle” remaining in the law:

Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.

The opposite of their remaining in the law is not their being lost or discarded or textually corrupted; it is their being broken. This is a subtle but important point. It supports my contention that Jesus is not primarily concerned with preservation here but with authority and efficacy.

(A small additional note: the script we know today as the iconic Hebrew alphabet is not the same as the “paleo-Hebrew” script that would have been first used to write the Old Testament. A lot of the jots and tittles changed somewhere between the time Moses and David [etc.] wrote them and the time of Christ [so says Glinert, The Story of Hebrew]. The character ? became ה; the character ? became ח; the character ? became ט. Does this have any relevance to the argument here? Didn’t the tittles all change? Perhaps not: the letters end up being the same. But it is a small point in favor of seeing Jesus’ words as a metaphor for the law’s authority and efficacy and not its letter-perfect preservation. Also, it is my understanding that matres lectiones, Hebrew consonants added to indicate the presence of vowels were placed in the text subsequent to the production of the autographs. Does this have any relevance to the argument here?)

John 17:17

Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth.

I do not see in this verse an affirmation of perfect preservation unless you assume before coming to the text that divine inspiration demands perfect preservation.

2 Samuel 7:28

O Lord God, thou art that God, and thy words be true.

I do not see in this verse an affirmation of perfect preservation unless you assume before coming to the text that divine inspiration demands perfect preservation.

Proverbs 30:5

Every word of God is pure: he is a shield unto them that put their trust in him.

I do not see in this verse an affirmation of perfect preservation unless you assume before coming to the text that divine inspiration demands perfect preservation.

Psalm 12:6[–7]

The words of the Lord are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. Thou shalt keep them, O Lord, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever.

Surrett didn’t actually cite verse 7, so I’m not sure why he cited verse 6. In any case, the “them” that God will preserve is clearly, in context, the poor and not the words.

There are two reasons why I don’t believe that this passage is talking about Bible preservation at all, and, interestingly, Surrett mentions both in his book Certainty of the Words (see Kindle loc. 589).

  1. A contextually sensitive reading of this passage will show that it would be a terribly awkward lurch for David to move from talking about the cry of the needy to talking about perfect preservation of biblical manuscripts. Try to read the “them” in verse 7 as referring to the poor; see if it works. It does. It’s the only interpretation that works. Those who take Psalm 12:7 to be referring to preservation are making “them” point to the wrong antecedent.
  2. The Hebrew word for “them” is masculine (Hebrew words, like Spanish and Italian ones, have grammatical gender); but the Hebrew word for “words” in 6 is feminine. Surrett is aware of this problem and in his book cites a paper by Thomas Strouse explaining why the KJV-Only interpretation is possible, but given point 1 (and see what else I’ve argued elsewhere), I simply can’t grant that this verse is talking about biblical manuscript preservation at all.

Surrett says,

Because of this controversial grammatical issue, Psalm 12:6-7 may not be the best passage to use when debating with those who deny that the preservation of Scripture is taught in the Bible.

And I agree.

Galatians 3:16

Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ.

Surrett’s argument here is that if Paul is able to make a point based on the plural versus the singular form of a noun (“seed”), then perfect preservation must extend not only to words but to forms of words—singular vs. plural nouns, Qal vs. Hiphil Hebrew verbs, past vs. present Greek participles (etc.).

But I don’t think this follows. As multiple careful students of Galatians have pointed out, Paul knows that “seed” (or “offspring,” Hebrew זֶרַע) in Genesis 22:18, the passage he is apparently quoting, is a collective noun that is grammatically singular but can be either singular or plural in meaning, depending on context. He cites the “seed” promise in Romans 4:18 and sees its fulfillment in the (decidedly plural) “many nations” that came from Abraham. The actual plural form of the word occurs only once in the Old Testament, and that’s in the literal sense of “seeds” (1 Sam 8:15). Paul’s point did not turn on an accurate form of the word being perfectly preserved (although I believe that in this case it surely was); it turned on a neat quirk of many languages, namely the fact that the word “seed” is a collective noun.

Now, the preservation of the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament are truly amazing: you need only look at Jeremiah in the Septuagint to see that it is possible for holy books to be preserved poorly and for rival versions to persist together. We don’t have that with the Bible. What we have is page after page (see for yourself at KJVParallelBible.org) of verses that are identical, sprinkled with mostly minor differences in wording that make no difference in sense—and certainly none in doctrine.

The Bible is more than sufficiently well preserved to permit argumentation like Paul’s. It need not be perfectly preserved for the Bible to hold together. God’s voice is powerful enough to speak over the mild static sometimes generated by textual variants in Hebrew and Greek.

Romans 3:4

Let God be true, but every man a liar; as it is written, That thou mightest be justified in thy sayings, and mightest overcome when thou art judged.

I do not see in this verse an affirmation of perfect preservation unless you assume before coming to the text that divine inspiration demands perfect preservation. God can speak truly without giving us miraculously perfect preservation of his word.

Psalm 119:89

For ever, O LORD, Thy word is settled in heaven.

I’ve long thought that this is an odd verse to use to support perfect preservation. Heaven is far away. This verse actually might seem to indicate the inaccessibility of the biblical text.

That was a segue.

Assorted passages allegedly teaching ongoing accessibility

Now we turn to the passages Surrett uses to establish ongoing accessibility. Again, I have a little trouble understanding who gets that access and when and where. Does every believer have a guarantee that if he wants the perfectly pure text of Scripture, he can get it?

But then what does that mean, given that 99.9999⅑% of Christians the world over cannot read Greek or Hebrew? Does it mean they can always access the pure text of Scripture in translation?

But then, that would seem to mean that God promises a perfect translation to every group of believers—and he simply hasn’t done that. He hasn’t promised it, and he hasn’t done it. There are churches around the world who don’t have the Bible in their language. I have many friends who are helping them get one. And Surrett himself has clarified that he doesn’t believe the KJV is perfect or inspired.

God did not promise to extend inspiration to the then-future translations, there can be no Biblical proof for the inspiration of translations. All that the Bible addresses as being inspired (“God breathed”) are the original autographs. Inspiration and new revelation ceased with the completion of the Book of Revelation in 96 AD.

Which Greek Text, 103.

Surrett regards the KJV as the “best translation of the best texts,” but at the back of Certainty of the Words, he acknowledges that sometimes the New King James is more accurate than the King James (according to criteria I don’t grant, but that’s a longer discussion in a previous article).

So do KJV readers not have God’s pure word in those places where the NKJV is more accurate?

What does “ongoing accessibility” mean? I looked again at Certainty of the Words, and I could not find a place where he answers that question.

Maybe looking at his prooftexts will tell me.

Isaiah 59:21

This is my covenant with them, saith the Lord; My spirit that is upon thee, and my words which I have put in thy mouth, shall not depart out of thy mouth, nor out of the mouth of thy seed, nor out of the mouth of thy seed’s seed, saith the Lord, from henceforth and for ever.

What does this mean? Surrett is sometimes dismissive of “scholars,” but I had to go to them for help on this obscure word-in-the-mouth metaphor—and they helped me for the thousandth time. Surrett appears to be taking “my words” as a technical term for “the Bible.” But that is the same kind of pedantic, universalizing impulse that he used in passages allegedly teaching perfect preservation.

I have books by many careful students of Isaiah, all of whom can read Hebrew, and none of whom saw “my words” as referring to the Bible. The reference, they say, is to God’s words more generally—just as your own pastor and mine “preach God’s word” even when they’re saying words they wrote (based on Scripture study) and not reading the text of the Bible out loud.

John Oswalt, an excellent commentator on Isaiah, says,

This is surely the covenant of the prophet, in which the Spirit of God comes on the people as a whole (cf. Num. 11:29) to empower them to speak his Word.… The people’s unclean lips will be cleansed so that they may speak the Word of God to the world. It is hardly coincidental that the first result of the coming of the Holy Spirit on the church was that people from all the nations heard the gospel message. That is a clear analogue to what the prophet says here. (531)

And that makes perfect sense in the context of Isaiah 59 (as Oswalt shows). The people at Pentecost were not speaking Scripture, but they were speaking the Word of God to the world.

Surrett is taking a very narrow contemporary question—will God’s people always have access to God’s perfect word—and trying to make this passage answer it when it does not.

Deuteronomy 29:29

The secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.

The things God has revealed belong to us, that is true. But it doesn’t follow that all believers will have ongoing access to perfect copies of the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts of Scripture.

God’s revelation belongs to me: I have it on my shelf and in my hand and on my computer. I feel perfectly comfortable saying that—while still believing that I have less than 100% certainty over whether the wise men “saw” baby Jesus or “found” him in Matthew 2:11 (these, again, are variants among the TR editions the KJV translators used).

Deuteronomy 30:11-14 (cf. Num 23:12; Rom 10:8)

For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not hidden from thee, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it? But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.

If “the word” here is the entire Bible, what does it mean that the word is “in thy mouth, and in thy heart”? Surrett is universalizing a contextually narrowed promise and giving a too-literal interpretation of a metaphor. What God is saying is (to borrow from a fellow graduate of my alma mater) that God’s words “can be understood by the human mind despite its limitations” (391), not that people will always have all of God’s words in physical proximity to themselves.

Assorted other passages

Surrett listed multiple other passages in which I simply cannot see a divine promise that people will have ongoing access to perfect copies of the Bible. Surrett seems to think that the metaphor of God placing his words in people’s mouths indicates ongoing accessibility. I just can’t in good conscience take that leap with him. You can use Logos Reftagger to read these verses if you wish. I can’t interact with them because I’m not really even sure what the claim is that Surrett is making via these passages.

  • Numbers 23:12
  • Deuteronomy 18:18
  • Joshua 1:8
  • Psalm 40:3
  • Isaiah 51:16
  • Jeremiah 1:9
  • Malachi 2:6
  • Deuteronomy 6:6
  • Deuteronomy 11:18
  • Psalm 37:31
  • Psalm 119:11
  • Luke 2:51
  • John 5:39

Hebrews 8:10 (cf. 10:16)

This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people.

Remember what this has to mean to work as a prooftext for ongoing accessibility: it has to mean that “I will put my laws into their mind” means that God’s people will all have all of God’s words, in the right order, with none added or missing, in their minds. Right? I don’t know any other way to try to make this text say what Surrett says it’s saying. And I just can’t read it that way in good conscience. The law on the heart is a metaphor indicating God’s gracious changing of our sinful desires through the regeneration provided by the new covenant (see Ezek. 36:26).

Luke 16:29

Abraham saith unto [the rich man], They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.

To say that this means ongoing accessibility to perfectly preserved copies of the Hebrew Old Testament is to push language, once again, to be pedantically and exhaustively and technically precise. It is to universalize a statement that isn’t addressing ongoing accessibility at all.

I can “have” Moses and the Prophets—I can hear God speaking through them—even if there are a few kethib-qere readings indicating textual doubtfulness in the Masoretic Text, and even if I’m reading them in a translation I don’t fully understand.

To enlist this passage in support of ongoing accessibility is like me texting my wife, “Did you get the yard of mulch?” She says, “Yes; I brought it home in the trailer.” And I say, “No you didn’t get the mulch! Some of it surely dropped out of the trailer in transit!” Abraham is simply not talking about perfect copies. In fact, all the evidence we have suggests that no one has ever had perfect copies—and yet Abraham in heaven is still willing to say that the rich man’s brothers “have” Moses and the Prophets.

Pulling the threads together

In this piece I have tried to demonstrate that we are obligated to use knowledge from outside the Bible to help us interpret the Bible accurately and faithfully. Only Scripture is verbal revelation from God, of course. It therefore brings a clarity and fullness that our readings of providence (I think I feel safe in saying) never do. But that doesn’t mean we are free to ignore God’s providence in history.

Surrett said to me in personal correspondence what he has said in his books (and because he said this in his books, which I have read, I feel free to share):

Unless you deal exegetically with statements in Isaiah and Proverbs and dozens of other passages in the Old and New Testaments that seem to indicate we can be certain about the words of scripture, I would not want to spend much time in historical debate. I have not seen even one Scripture passage that seems to state otherwise, so my conclusion is that our understanding of history is incomplete. If I could see any place in Scripture that would seem to counteract the many passages that teach preservation and certainty, I would be willing to look at that from an exegetical standpoint. But I believe that our knowledge of history is incomplete, and history certainly pales in comparison to the authority of Scripture on this or any other issue.… I want to cling to the clear statements of God’s Word, and follow the concept of Rom 3:4.

So my brother in Christ, Chuck Surrett, is taking his stand on Scripture. And even to write that sentence makes my heart jump. That’s what I want, too. Lord, to whom shall we go? There is no other place where words of life can be found.

And there are times—as in the debate over evolution—in which I am bound by conscience to go with what Scripture says against what people are saying who are far more knowledgeable than I am in relevant areas of biological and astronomical and geological science.

But are the preservation and accessibility prooftexts Surrett supplies so clear in supporting the TR-Only view that he has a right to turn his eyes away from the testimony of divine providence in history? Does Matthew 5:18 so clearly teach perfect preservation that Surrett is justified in deflecting simple questions like, “Which TR is perfect, and how do we know?” Or “Why did God use different TRs in the Netherlands and in England at the same time?”

Surrett is willing to appeal to lexicons (remember my introduction, from about two hours ago?) which look precisely at history, the history of the use of words in and outside Scripture. I believe he ought to do the same with preservation. He ought to give attention to what the evidence actually says.

Matthew 5:18 is, in my mind, the only passage that could be plausibly taken to teach perfect preservation of the inspired Hebrew and Greek (and Aramaic—I have to say that somewhere in this piece just so I don’t get comments!) words of Scripture. Surrett argues that it is inappropriate to look to God’s historical providence as part of our interpretation of that passage. I differ. The world God describes in Scripture will harmonize with the world God has given us in experience. It is legitimate to look at biblical manuscripts, to take note that we do not have access to (or, at the very least, knowledge of) a perfect one, and to conclude that we must interpret Matthew 5:18 to be saying something other than what KJV/TR defenders say it means.

Making connections between the Bible and the world often requires looking as hard at the world as you do at the Bible. I do not believe my KJV/TR-Only brothers have done this.

The best text

So which 1) text is the right one? Which 1) text do I think you should use?

Ironically enough, and I truly don’t mean to be flippant, feel free to use any of them—as long as you don’t create division over it. There is no available printed edition of the Greek New Testament or of the Hebrew Bible that I would tell anyone else not to use. I simply cannot point to any Bible verses which tell me to expect perfect preservation or ongoing accessibility. And even if I did (remember: I don’t), I don’t have any Bible verses telling me how to find that perfect and accessible biblical text. Even TRs have minor differences among them, and God saw fit to use them anyway.

Perhaps, then, I can have an inerrant Bible and yet be less than perfectly certain whether Christ is “our life” or “your life” in Colossians 3:4.

Maybe I can maintain unity with Christians whose Bibles say “then” and with those whose Bibles say “for” in Acts 25:11.

If you, dear reader, prefer the TR, that is truly fine with me. It is God’s Word. Use it. Preach it. Read it.

Well—in translation, of course. And that is an area where I think God gives me some specific guidance.

The ultimate point

2) Translation is why I bothered to write all of this. I want to preserve the ability of good brothers to agree to disagree about 1) text. I wrote because I love God, I love his word, and I love my brothers and my neighbors—and I want people to understand what God said through translations made into their own language, not someone else’s.

Charles Surrett and countless other brothers in Christ have taken a very natural and completely understandable feeling that I share, that is, a loyalty to and a love for a traditional Bible translation that has done them much good, and they have turned it into a doctrine that has divided Christ’s flock and withheld many of God’s words from today’s plow boys.

Brothers and sisters who have made it this far, these things ought not so to be. The Bible does not teach perfect preservation. Even if it did, it doesn’t tell us how to locate the perfectly preserved text among all the variants out there.

What the Bible does tell us is this:

Except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for ye shall speak into the air. (1 Corinthians 14:9)

1 Corinthians 14 repeatedly teaches that edification requires intelligibility.

Now, somehow TR defense always ends up turning into KJV defense. And though I love the KJV, “the English language has undergone some changes in the past [four-hundred years]…. Since English is a living language, the modern-day connotations of words such as ‘conversation,’ ‘charity,’ and (sadly) ‘gay,’ are much different from their 1611 meanings.”

It was Chuck Surrett, I believe, who wrote that. It’s in the official position statement of Ambassador Baptist College. And it’s true.

The KJV contains “dead words,” words we all know we don’t know—like besom, chambering, and emerod. It’s not unreasonable to ask people to look up archaic words, but it is unnecessary. We could just say broom, immorality, and tumor. We would be using intelligible speech instead of unintelligible—and edification would be the result.

The KJV also contains what I call “false friends,” words we don’t know we don’t know—like halt, remove, and commendeth. It is unreasonable to ask people to look up these words, because they won’t know to look them up. They won’t know where to look them up (answer: the OED). And people who use them will be speaking into the air without knowing it.

The time has come to stop insisting on the exclusive use of the King James Version. English has changed too much. And this insistence is causing undeniable trouble in churches. Strife, rivalries, dissensions, and divisions are “works of the flesh” (Gal 5:19–20). I appeal to my KJV-Only brothers to consider that if the Bible does not teach perfect preservation, they do not have the right to divide from me over their preference for one of the 28 editions of the Textus Receptus. I want unity with them, as much as possible in this vale of tears.

But I’m not actually telling anyone who prefers the TR to give it up. There is another option: use a contemporary translation of it. Surely it cannot be right to officially ban Sunday school teachers and college sophomores and Neighborhood Bible Time kids from using the NKJV or MEV—if “the text is the issue.” They use the same texts as the KJV.

Let me speak then, finally and directly, to Ambassador Baptist College as an institution. I have spoken with Alton Beal, at his kind invitation. I have spoken to Chuck Surrett briefly over email on multiple occasions. If you prefer to use the Hebrew and Greek texts underlying the KJV, rather than the slightly different ones that I use (that teach precisely the same Christian faith), then by all means do so. But please do not divide from me over this extrabiblical preference. Because of the plow boy, because of your students, because of your children and theirs, open up liberty at your institution to make or use a translation of whatever texts you prefer into contemporary English that is intelligible by the plow boy. It is his right and your scriptural duty.

Update (01/30/2020): Two knowledgeable friends pushed back against my idiosyncratic expansion of the theological label “general revelation” in the first edition of this post. I have listened to their arguments and altered my references to general revelation so that I now speak instead of God’s providence in history. The argument remains essentially unchanged, but I now believe my friends were right to question me on this point. It is better to apply “general revelation” to those things that Psalm 19 and Romans 1 tell us God is revealing about himself through nature.

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.

13 Comments

  1. Jeff Schmitz on January 10, 2020 at 12:22 pm

    “vail of tears” – I found that a bit ironic, given the discussion.

    I appreciate how you’ve handled this, Mark. It is not easy to love when so much division and strife is so evident. May Jesus Christ be lifted up from your efforts.

  2. Tancredi on January 14, 2020 at 12:37 pm

    Jeff, I believe he meant “vale.” I think I understand the irony you mean. I also appreciate Mark’s plaintive and irenic spirit in trying to heal this rift.

    • Mark Ward on January 14, 2020 at 12:39 pm

      Ha! You guys got me!

      If I were really clever, I could say that I was making a subtle joke. Reality is that I don’t keep up with all the words that the OED calls “chiefly poetic.” I got this one wrong, and it is now fixed!

  3. Corey Reynolds on January 16, 2020 at 10:12 am

    I guess my random thoughts on this are that 1) if there is not significant difference between the TR and NA1-28 (other than a few big sections like John 8 and Mark 16 that modern versions include anyway, but with brackets), and 2) if we posit that some of what has gone on in this whole enterprise of textual criticism is pretty shady, and not done with the utmost theological rigor (sort of like people who go for theistic evolution), then why is the prevailing notion that we should accept the NA eclectic text? Why not rather say, “Well, this is the best we’ve come up with utilizing our often compromised methods, and it’s still not really different. So let’s just throw this out and use the first one?” If it’s at least a quasi-valid choice to use the modern critical text, with all of its wonky choices, then why isn’t it at least as valid to choose the TR and jettison the other crap as kind of worthless? Didn’t they go to all that trouble to produce something that has pretty much no difference, while starting a bunch of useless fights in the process? Seems like that was a fail.

    • Mark Ward on January 16, 2020 at 10:46 am

      If someone who reads Greek and can interact with me knowledgeably over the evidence takes this viewpoint, I’ve got arguments. We can have debates. My basic points to such a person would be that 1) the TR is the product of textual criticism, too, only with far less evidence to go on; 2) I want to use all of the evidence (the general revelation) God has provided, because 3) I want to know just what God said in every detail.

      If someone who can’t read Greek and therefore can’t speak knowledgeably about textual criticism takes this viewpoint, I don’t care to argue. With such a person I say, “Because of the teaching of 1 Corinthians 14 that edification requires intelligibility, please make or use a translation of whatever texts you prefer into contemporary English that I and today’s plow boys can understand.”

  4. Corey Reynolds on January 17, 2020 at 10:07 am

    So you want to know what God said in every detail (well, sure, we all do), but you readily admit that there’s not much difference. So which is the place of the greatest difference (after a mountain of liberal scholarship has added all of their super-helpful thoughts)? And then I ask once you have identified the place of greatest difference: is your thinking about what God said any different now? Have you been edified?

    Let’s take John 8. If it’s not in the text, does that give more or less validity to the idea that God’s penal sanctions should still be put into effect in the law books of nations that seek to honor God through their laws? If it does belong there, does it mean that governments may now no longer execute people for adultery because Jesus forgave her? Does including the passage teach us something different about Jesus that we couldn’t see elsewhere?

    But even if we personally decided that the PA shouldn’t be in the text, can we ever be totally sure? If we want to know “just what God said in every detail”, can any amount of textual criticism ever truly allow us to ignore this text? Won’t there still be some possibility that God did indeed say this?

  5. Andy Efting on January 26, 2020 at 6:38 pm

    Corey,

    It’s hard to know exactly what point you are trying to make. However, based on your comments regarding those involved in modern textual criticism (“after a mountain of liberal scholarship…” and “if we posit that some of what has gone on in this whole enterprise of textual criticism is pretty shady, and not done with the utmost theological rigor”), I suspect you are saying that if the differences are not that great, but we “know” that modern textual criticism is suspect, then why not just stick with what we “know” has not been corrupted, i.e., the TR. To that, even though I disagree with you about the nefarious influence of liberals on modern eclectic texts of the NT (btw, the theological bone fides of Erasmus and those responsible for the versions of the TR would require the same scrutiny), I say we are fine if you want to stay with the TR. Mark’s main point, though, is if you are going to do that, please use a translation that is “easy to be understood” to quote the KJV (1 Cor 14:9).

    Regarding John 8, I don’t believe its inclusion or exclusion has anything to say regarding the continuing validity of the OT penal code, or if those committing adultery should be executed or not. The answers to those questions should be established one way or another apart from this passage. On top of that, it’s sort of like 1 John 5:7 – it’s not a strong support of the Trinity because of its disputed nature.

    So, what about John 7:53-8:11? Well, based on the totality of internal and external textual evidence, I don’t believe that passage to be authentic Scripture. It is possible that it could be a non-inspired account of an actual event, but I do not believe it was breathed out by God through John. If I were to teach through John, I would skip this section, just like I skipped the longer ending of Mark when I taught through that Gospel.

    I think Mark alluded to this in his article, but questions about textual variants are much like questions about interpretation, expect that we are much more likely to go wrong with an interpretation than with a textual criticism choice. Just because an interpretation is technically possible, does not make it probable, or even worth mentioning when dealing with the text. For most (if not all) textual variants, it’s a matter of what Biblical point should be made from the text, not Biblical point vs unorthodox point.

  6. Corey Reynolds on January 30, 2020 at 7:49 am

    Andy,

    My point was that Mark seems to go to great strides to show that there’s just not much difference between the TR and the critical text. He is clearly using that as some sort of calming apologetic for people who get touchy about such things. So, in return, I ask why use the critical text at all, then? If the whole business just opened up a big can of divisive worms without much difference, then why did any of us bother with it? If you can establish the Trinity with lots of other places in the text besides 1 John 5:7-8 (which I completely agree that you can), then you can say that we didn’t really need those verses, but they certainly don’t change our doctrine by their inclusion.

    You can look at the PA in the same way. I agree with your assessment that it doesn’t settle one way or another whether Old Testament penal code should still be the rule for national governments, but its inclusion doesn’t change what we believe about Jesus – it is very consistent with other stories.

    So, if Mark Ward wants to know exactly what God said – as he states – then he really can never fully reject something like the PA, because it may very well be something that God said. And if none of the other places where the TR and the CT differ really add anything (or detract anything) from our understanding, then my conclusion is that a lot of people have wasted a lot of time.

    And personally, I think that the most dangerous thing accomplished by this whole enterprise was putting the power to authorize for God’s people what God’s Word actually says in the hands of a bunch of men that we now need to consult to know what God says. And when you consider that many of those people are unbelievers, it just makes me sick.

    • Mark Ward on January 30, 2020 at 9:59 am

      Corey, I think the question you open with is the strongest point made by defenders of the TR. I think that is a wholly valid perspective: laypeople will understandably be upset if their traditional Bible translation is altered for whatever reason, and leaders need to do what they can to preserve peace—even if it means leaving some harmless accretions in the text. I personally would be prepared to use a TR-based Bible in ministry for this reason. I’ve even contemplated making some vast “deal” whereby I sign on 500 biblical scholars and pastors who agree to use the TR in their preaching and teaching if we get 500 KJV-Only/TR-Only pastors/teachers to agree to use the NKJV. I care far more about what the Bible says clearly—namely, edification requires intelligibility (1 Cor 14)—than what the Bible says nothing explicit about, namely the means by which we should judge among textual variants in the manuscript traditions of the Old and New Testaments.

      I don’t fully reject the PA: it may indeed be something God said. I believe I would preach it and not skip it, though I’d spend a Sunday school or three explaining the textual issues.

      Your last paragraph is where I differ with you most strongly. I’m afraid I’ve only ever been able to see this argument as unrealistic cant. =( The original language texts will always be in the hands of scholars, because, by definition, it takes a scholar to be able to do the detail work needed to prepare for and then execute translations. Pastors are generally not trained and qualified for the task. Laypeople most certainly are not. And the fact is, the evangelical biblical scholars who do the textual criticism (the ESV and NIV and others do their own textual criticism; they don’t just blindly accept the work of liberal scholars at the Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft) and translation work on our major evangelical versions *are* churchmen. Many have been pastors. Nearly all (all?) teach and preach regularly in churches and are self-consciously working for and from within the church. The Bible never has to touch the hand of an unbeliever before it reaches us, except maybe that of the UPS driver…

      And I kindly swing the sword back your direction now: are you willing to grant that the differences are not great between the TR and CT? You may not be. 1) If you are, then why complain so bitterly about the ESV or NASB Bibles many lay Christians are being handed? 2) If you aren’t, can you really and honestly say that their acceptance of these critical-text Bibles has materially altered the doctrine they believe or teach? Millions of English-speaking Christians now rely on the ESV, NASB, NIV, etc.; doesn’t your salutary principle of keeping the peace now apply to them? Can they be left alone with their (as you think) minor textual errors?

      Your rhetoric toned down in this last comment. I’m happy to continue a conversation with toned-down rhetoric. *I love the Lord, and I love his Word.* I may be wrong, but I deserve the charitable discourse I’m trying to give to you. Do you see any *strengths* in my position, as I see in yours?

    • Andrew Efting on January 30, 2020 at 11:29 am

      Corey,

      I don’t want to speak for Mark, but for my part, because I believe in verbal plenary inspiration, I want my translations to be based on the very best base text, the one closest to the original. I think that’s the critical text. Your question is similar to, why watch TV in HD when watching is SD is basically just as good? What we are talking about here is sharpening the text, not changing the overall message of the text. The fact of the matter is that we care very deeply about the text and want it to be the best possible. And I would say there are places where the TR is simply wrong and those places ought to be corrected. I don’t think that is a waste of time.

      Granted, both sides of the TR/CT debate think their text is the HD text; but given the fact that the alternative is an SD text, not a totally different program, that should be OK and not worth fighting over. I think Mark’s point, though, is that when it comes to translations, the KJV isn’t just SD, it’s B&W fuzzy antenna reception. Yes, you can still watch and get good benefit, but there are places/times when it’s too grainy to see the picture.

      What you said in your third paragraph is why most modern translations include non-CT readings in the margin, just in case. It lets the reader know where textual issues exist and what the possible alternatives are. The original KJV did that as well. In roughly a dozen or so places they alert the reader to alternative readings due to textual variation.

      As to your last paragraph, what is the alternative? Pretend that no textual variations exist? I don’t share your consternation, because Richard Bentley is largely correct when he says (and this goes back to the whole SD/HD analogy), “The real text of the sacred writing is competently exact, nor is one article of faith or moral precept either perverted or lost, choose as awkwardly as you will, choose the worst by design, out of the whole lump of readings.”

      Andy

      • Mark Ward on January 30, 2020 at 4:13 pm

        Andy, that metaphor is so good! And let’s be clear: what I want to be talking about with my brothers in the TR/KJV worlds is precisely how bad the reception (a perfect word, given that English is the “receptor” language we’re talking about here) has to get on that black-and-white TV before it’s time to revise or replace the KJV. As I just told a KJVO friend in a long and good conversation, I am perfectly sincere in believing that other Christians can have good reasons for thinking that the reception isn’t bad enough yet to justify the unsettling that comes with change. I totally see that. But what I won’t and can’t accept in good conscience is to hear someone deny that there is any static/bad reception at all, to tell me (as I hear frequently) that I’m just abetting laziness. =( No, I am working to defend Tyndale’s plowboy of today. They *should* have to look up “mandrakes,” because there’s no way to make that word easier without changing the text. They shouldn’t have to look up “besom” when “broom” is available; they shouldn’t have to look up “*Remove* not the ancient landmark” when they quite likely won’t even realize that they’re misunderstanding “remove” because of language change.

  7. Shelby Pritchard on September 5, 2020 at 12:00 pm

    Thank you so much for the article! It’s answered a couple questions I had on the subject and, as always, approached the issue with grace and clarity.

    Great work, as usual.

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