Why I Preach from the Received Text is an anthology of personal testimonies more than it is a collection of careful arguments. It is not intended to be academic, and I see nothing necessarily wrong with that. But it does make countless properly academic claims, and these are fit subjects for review.
I’ve wondered how I can fairly describe a book that has more than two dozen authors. There is, indeed, a spectrum of views represented here. The contributions do not all perfectly cohere.
So I think I’ll describe the poles, which I take to be the contributions of Mahlen and Myers. And then I’ll examine what they said about the main issue at stake in the debate over the KJV: the current intelligibility of Elizabethan English.
A biblical worldview
When I read a book such as this one, one that announces its agenda on the front cover, I am always on the lookout for the authors to demonstrate their awareness of three of the very simplest of truths in a biblical worldview, namely that 1) there is created goodness in my opponents, who are made in God’s image; 2) the fall affects my tribe, too; and 3) Christ’s redemptive power is strong enough to save both of our tribes.
When Christian people forget or ignore or even deny these simple truths, they fall into tribalism, into canonizing their friends and demonizing their opponents. And they lack both humility and charity. When the other side is only ever wrong and our side is only ever right, there is pride and every evil work.
Brett Mahlen was the one author who, I felt, showed the most evident grasp of the simple creation-fall-redemption Christian worldview. He tells the encouraging personal story of his conversion, and then of his growth in grace under the influence of certain men, including especially James White. In one key comment, Mahlen reflects with humility the way God’s world really works. He both pushes back against his own and sees good in his opponents:
Some TR advocates like to insult James White, but I do not find that helpful. I do believe Dr. Riddle defeated Dr. White in the two debates of October 2020, however, just because I disagree with Dr. White or believe he lost a debate does not make him my enemy. I still benefit from his books and his debates against Romanists, cultists, and Muslims. I appreciate his stand against wokeism. All men have feet of clay, and I learn from a wide variety of men with whom I may disagree on some issues.
Philip Gardiner strikes a similar tone:
There are godly men who have embraced the modern Critical Text who solidly declare the doctrine of the Trinity, who uphold the deity of Christ, and strongly believe in praising God in prayer, “ascribing kingdom, power, and glory to him” (WSC, 107). It is true that their rejection of the Received Text has not caused them to deny the truth of orthodox doctrine or the reality of Christian living.
Christopher Sheffield, too, is “confident that there are sincere brethren who uphold … foundational truths [such as the Trinity and deity of Christ] while advocating for the Critical Text.”
These notes of unity and humility are appreciated.
But then comes the other pole in the book, the piece by Christopher Myers. Myers almost literally demonizes his opponents. He spins a grand narrative in which there have always been “two Bibles”:
(1) Satan’s Bible with gnostic heretics writing false scriptures and twisting the true scriptures, and (2) the received and preserved Word of God.
This “two-streams hypothesis” is very common outside of Confessional Bibliology; it is found, too, in all forms of KJV defense, especially in the extreme brand of KJV-Onlyism known as Ruckmanism (after Peter Ruckman, who called these two streams the Antiochene and Alexandrian streams).
Here is Myers again:
There are two main codices, Sinaiticus and Vaticanus, which modern textual critics regard as supremely trustworthy. However, Sinaiticus had uninspired writings attached to it. Vaticanus contained the Apocrypha and its provenance was unknown before coming into the possession of the Vatican by AD 1475. The Protestant churches knew about Vaticanus and had rejected it due to its corruptions. Once again, we see Satan setting up his own Bible against the true one. This battle continues.
(Is Myers aware that the 1611 KJV contained the Apocrypha?)
Myers makes it clear that when he refers to Satan’s Bible, he is not speaking of the sectarian New World Translation or the Book of Mormon, but to the Bible that I carried to church this very day as I write (the ESV), and to the one my pastor preached from (the NASB), and, by a small extension, to the Bible I preached from in our Spanish ministry (the NVI, related to the NIV). Here is Myers:
Modern translations based on Satan’s Bible, that omit some of the Word of God, include the New American Standard Bible, New International Version, English Standard Version, and many others.
Let me stop and register this again: according to Myers, this very day I carried, heard, and preached from translations based on Satan’s Bible. The Bibles I read—that are extremely similar to his—are part of a corrupt stream deriving somehow from gnostic heretics. I respond to a great many arguments from KJV/TR defenders, and I ask the Lord for patience in this work. But Myers’ words are utter and complete foolishness unworthy of response; they are almost impossibly divisive; they are sin.
Effectively everything in this book—minus appeals to the Reformed tradition and its confessions—I heard growing up in my Independent Fundamental Baptist, KJV-Only church. I am not saying that Confessional Bibliology and KJV-Onylism are identical positions. But they do use the same prooftexts and basic arguments. And I offer the same reply to both: 1 Corinthians 14 teaches that edification requires intelligibility, and it is wrong to bind other Christians’ consciences to use a 400-year-old Bible translation whose English is no longer fully intelligible.
What does this new book say about the readability of the KJV? I’ll summarize in eight headings:
1. KJV readability is not a real problem.
Gavin Beers writes:
I wish to address one of the more common criticisms of the King James Version of the Bible: that its archaic language is not fitted for use in the twenty-first century, as it poses a hindrance to our presentation of the gospel. I have heard this many times and watched as churches have changed to Bible translations based on the modern eclectic text. In over two decades as a Christian and fifteen years in the ministry, however, I have found this to be much more of a projected than real problem. I was a child of the late twentieth century, science-minded, and certainly not literary in my tastes. I was the kind of person for whom the Church is supposed to have to change her Bible version. Yet, contrary to popular myth, the use of the King James Bible posed no problem to me. I have found the same in my ministry working among the old and young, the educated and the uneducated, those inside the Church and those outside the Church. The use of the King James Bible has never posed a problem.
I hear this constantly from KJV defenders. I felt the same way myself for many years. But are the “dead words” of the KJV “no problem”? What are “chambering and wantonness” (Rom 13:13)? It is not difficult to look them up—but these words are not “no problem.” They are static in the public Scripture reading. They are unnecessarily archaic. These archaic words meant “sexual immorality” and “sensuality”—which is exactly what the ESV says. So what is wrong with using the ESV here?
And are the “false friends” in the KJV “no problem”? I rather think not. They were a problem in Noah Webster’s day 200 years ago. They are a worse problem today. They are not, perhaps, insurmountable. With some training from my Fifty False Friends in the KJV series and with access to the Oxford English Dictionary, many people are learning to read these false friends. But they do pose a problem.
2. KJV English is not colloquial.
Poul de Gier writes:
It was these convictions that led our church to use the Received Text. The leadership spent a winter studying the New King James Version for potential use in the pulpit but felt retaining the KJV was more beneficial. … Has maintaining this position always been easy? No. It is not a majority position, and the KJV is not colloquial English. Have some misunderstood our church because of our position? Probably. Some might even think we are “King James Only”, but we consider that a dangerous position to hold.
I’ve heard this many times, too: “the KJV is not colloquial English.” But this is a category mistake. The challenge made against continued (exclusive) use of the KJV is on the diachronic axis, not the literary one. In other words, I argue that KJV English is unnecessarily confusing and opaque today because it is unnecessarily old. I did not say and do not say that the fault with the KJV is that it is too formal or literary; that is a different axis. I like literary translations. I use one, the ESV. It, too, is not colloquial. What de Gier should have said is that the KJV is not contemporary English. By saying it is not colloquial, he is changing the subject.
(I also find it interesting that he disclaims all relation to KJV-Onlyism. But I heard exactly his arguments in my IFB KJV-Only church in high school.)
3. Contemporary versions do not make difficult passages of Scripture easier to understand.
I was delighted when I received my first copy of the NIV, but was soon disappointed when reading the book of Job. Simply having a modern translation did not make that book any easier to understand!
In a sense, I don’t disagree here: Job is “hard to be understood” (2 Pet 3:16) no matter what translation you read it in. But can I be a bit picky? A modern translation didn’t make it “any easier”?
Here’s a verse in Job from the KJV, chosen nearly at random. It’s Job 35:8, part of a speech of Elihu:
Thy wickedness may hurt a man as thou art;
And thy righteousness may profit ithe son of man.
I stumbled over this a bit. Your wickedness would hurt a man like you? Is that what it’s saying?
But here is the NIV at the same verse:
Your wickedness only affects humans like yourself,
and your righteousness only other people.
This is a perfect example of the kind of thing that the NIV has done for me since I finally won the right in my conscience to read it. It took the same interpretation as the KJV but put it in words I could understand. At least, I think that’s what the KJV translators were trying to say in their English. I find that first verset rather difficult, even after getting some help from the NIV.
Contemporary translations have helped me understand God’s word over and over and over—in countless places that have utterly nothing to do with textual criticism or preservation. The underlying Hebrew text in Job 35:8 is the same in every translation.
4. The KJV was purposefully archaic, even in its day—so there is no problem with archaism.
Trevor Kirkland writes:
Our preference for a translation of the TR is the AV. We are not claiming perfection for the AV. Granted, it does have some blemishes and imperfections; however, the translators were not interested in being “contemporary.” Ironically, this has become a common criticism (i.e., that it uses “archaic” language) when, in fact, some of its language was already archaic in 1611!
I’ve never understood why this argument, which I have also heard many times, is appealing to KJV defenders. Given that the KJV was a revision of the 1568 Bishop’s Bible and not a fresh translation, I think it did preserve some archaisms. Thee and ye had pretty well fallen out of use by 1611, I have read. But the fact that the KJV translators retained some archaic English elements from past translations doesn’t mean we ought to do the same today.
5. Uneducated people can read the KJV with adequate understanding.
Brett Mahlen works in prison ministry, a ministry that is dear to my heart, because for many years I served basically the same demographic (though outside prison walls):
When I finally began using the KJV in my prison ministry, I felt like I had caught up to the inmates. Most of them read the KJV with understanding even though many came from poorly-run urban schools with historically poor test scores. These men in prison actually had dictionaries, and used them!
I deny Brett’s experience as he may perhaps deny mine. KJV English bewildered the low-income folks to whom I ministered. So did the NASB, for that matter. In my ministry we used the New International Reader’s Version and loved it.
I’m tempted to call a draw here: our respective experiences cancel each other out. But I’ve done the lexical work. I’ve scurried around through the citations in the OED hundreds of times; I’ve dug into linguistic corpuses. I believe I have shown evidence that people who read the KJV today don’t understand it as well as they think they do. I refer readers to my work elsewhere.
6. The KJV follows the inspired Hebrew and Greek word order.
Christian McShaffrey, with whom I have had some profitable and cordial (and even hilarious: the guy is a wit) correspondence, writes:
Sometimes word order is significant, and sometimes it is not, but a translation committee should not make that decision for the reader. It should simply translate the text as God inspired it. Here is an innocuous example from the AV: “Then came to him the disciples of John…” (Matthew 9:14). That translation follows the exact word order of the original Greek. We no longer speak that way, so modern translations often “fix” the archaic sound of it by re-arranging the words: “Then the disciples of John came to him…” (ESV). Again, it is an innocuous example. No major doctrine hangs upon the word order, but the question still stands: Why rearrange words which God himself inspired? What if God intended to emphasize the action rather than the subject?
I do not recall whether or not Christian has studied Hebrew or Greek, but I cannot agree with his point. Every translation into any language I know (and I have at least some familiarity with numerous Indo-European languages) requires some adjustments in word order. The siren song of the perfectly literal translation is just that: an invitation to steer one’s ship into the rocks.
Yes, the KJV often holds on to Hebrew and Greek word order—but unless it does this perfectly, Christian’s point falls. And it certainly does not do this perfectly, because no competent translator would ever do such a thing. To take just one example, chosen at random, here is Col 3:21 in the KJV:
Fathers, provoke not your children to anger, lest they be discouraged.
This is a fine translation. But it isn’t a perfectly “accurate” one by the standards my brother Christian has set up. Here is a literal translation reflecting the Greek word order:
The fathers, not provoke the children of you, in order that not they lose heart.
One might ask: “Why rearrange words which God himself inspired?” What if God intended to emphasize “not” by placing it first in the main clause? And I know just how the KJV translators would answer: because the result is not a translation; it’s not English.
How often a translator holds to the original word order is a judgment call. And if it’s a judgment call—and unless an “extraordinary measure of God’s Spirit” nudges certain translators the right way and leaves others to their own devices—then different translators are going to make different judgment calls. And some of them must be permitted to notice when “we no longer speak this way,” and then must be permitted to do what they are called to do: to translate the Bible into our English. Word order is an aspect of the language that must be translated; it cannot be carried over perfectly.
7. The KJV contains archaic words, but the modern versions also contain difficult words.
Christian McShaffrey also wrote:
There are archaic words in the AV, but even modern translations like the English Standard Version use words that no modern man has ever spoken in actual conversation (e.g., behold, birthstool, bitumen, lest, satraps, etc.). It is the preacher’s calling to explain the Bible and dealing with occasional archaisms does not make that overly difficult.
Once again, we’re changing axes. No one denies that every good Bible translation will contain words modern men don’t use. That’s because the Bible refers to things we don’t have: mandrakes, birthstools, satraps, etc. Those are good examples he chose (except for “lest,” which is still contemporary, though formal).
The charge made against (exclusive use of) the KJV is on a different axis, the diachronic one, the one that notices that languages change over time. The ESV does not, to my knowledge, contain archaic words or archaic syntax. And if it does, this may be regrettable in individual places, but there is simply no way that these holdovers (the ESV is in the KJV tradition!) happen anywhere near as often as archaisms happen in the KJV.
I have made this point repeatedly in my work. Anyone engaged in public debate is doomed to such Sisyphean tasks.
8. Someday the KJV may need to be revised because of changes in English.
But I get to end on a high note, a point of agreement. I believe I have referenced here every mention of KJV readability and/or Elizabethan English in this book. I went through them in the order in which they appeared. The final comes from D. Scott Meadows:
While English changes and a future revision of the AV may become warranted, at least it translates trustworthy apographs (copies) of the autographs (original manuscripts).
And I ask my brothers again: when? When will such a revision be warranted? We’ve got a pretty good idea of what language change looks like by now, at least in English. Certain words drop out of the language: I call them “dead words.” Other words drop or add senses, or both. Sometimes this causes confusion. I call these words “false friends.” Spelling changes, too. Word order (syntax) changes, too. Punctuation and even typography change over time, too. All of these factors have some bearing on intelligibility. How far does our English have to travel away from 1611—on any or all of these axes—before a revision of the KJV is called for?
Paul called for it already, I think, when he argued in 1 Corinthians 14 that people aren’t edified by words they don’t understand. But I can see why, given the great benefits the KJV brought us over the centuries, brothers of mine might weigh the value of retaining the KJV in pulpit ministry differently than I do. I am prepared to acknowledge that faithful men can make different judgment calls here.
I am not prepared to agree that archaic KJV English poses no problems, that prisoners are doing just fine with the KJV, that archaisms are actually good, or that modern versions aren’t any easier to understand after all.
I share so much doctrinal belief with the men who wrote this book. I, too, am a Calvinist who loves and honors the Puritans. I, too, am an inerrantist who is dismayed by the way some evangelicals treat the Bible. If I ran into (nearly!) any one of the contributors to Why I Preach from the Received Text in the adjoining seat on a plane, I feel certain we could enjoy sweet fellowship until the KJV came up. I think the ultimate impulses of the authors of this book contain a good deal of truth and righteousness. I also think that evangelicals involved in mainstream textual criticism need always to remember—as, in my experience, they do—that they are dealing with divine words. Such reverence for the Word is abundant in the writers of this book, and I praise God for it. I happen to know that certain of these men (I think especially of Pooyan Mehrshahi) are ardent and faithful evangelists. A few are known for their gracious dealings with others on social media. Others are known for their good preaching and faithful pastoring. Again, praise God.
But it takes an elaborate set of contrivances to convince people of something they can’t not know, namely that KJV English is unnecessarily archaic and, at places (due to half a millennium of language change), unintelligible. The writers in this book, for all their appeals to the Reformed tradition, do not represent the historic orthodox or Reformation position on the Bible. They claim a perfection for one edition of the Greek New Testament that is a tiny minority view. They tend to insist on the exclusive use of one translation, something the Reformers certainly did not do. They misuse Bible passages such as Psalm 12:6–7, which (I have shown in a recent paper) have never in the history of the church until the advent of KJV-Onlyism been used the way KJV/TR defenders use this passage. And they divide the church unnecessarily. The editors picked some of the most capable and gracious men of their sect, but at the lay and pastoral levels their views are almost always accompanied by a spirit of arrogance and strife. And the editors of this book included at least one essay in which the English translations used by countless faithful Christians were called Satanic.
I see in this book an effort to marginalize some TR defenders who cannot speak with any of the intelligence and grace (most of) these authors used. But I cannot recommend this book, and I am dismayed that the tiny Confessional Bibliology movement has gathered enough strength to publish it. I pray that its days will be few.