An Answer to One of My Top Two Critics

I just wrote a 2,200-word response to a fairly brief Amazon review. I’m either OCD or just O. But it takes obsession to write a good book, I’m convinced—and to keep up with the promotion and then the discussion the book generates. I really care about this issue, and I’ve been itching to hear from accredited critics. But nota bene: it’s your own fault if you read this. You’re feeding my obsession. I did wait weeks to post this, just to make sure I wasn’t overreacting. I hope the waiting worked.

My respected friend, Dr. Ben Heffernan, a pastor in the Midwest, has given the most substantive critical review so far of my new book, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible. He gave me five Amazon stars I didn’t deserve—and very kind and sincere praises, which I will omit here. In other words, he was very gracious. But he offered some criticisms and disagreements with which I would like to take some time to interact. I’ve been itching to get someone as well trained as Ben to disagree with my central thesis. I wish I’d thought to send him the book before publication.

Ben wrote:

While arguing for the necessity of translating into the vernacular of the people, this book lacks the balance of emphasizing the most important aspect of translation work and that is fidelity to the original text. The vernacular argument, as important as it is, does not trump accuracy to the original words. These two tensions are not mutually exclusive, but the vernacular can be emphasized to the exclusion of Biblical accuracy. When it is, modern theology tries to adjust what God has written and calls for adjusting of things like gender pronouns in the Bible. A careful distinction needs to be made between vernacular language and contemporary theology which impacts the vernacular language.

Ben notes that the two issues of vernacularity and accuracy are ultimately separate: I don’t think he would say that it’s “impossible” to translate the Bible into contemporary English vernacular. If it was possible in 1611, it’s possible today (right, Ben?).

So… how about using an accurate Bible translation into the vernacular, one that doesn’t “adjust gender pronouns”—like the NASB? Or, if one prefers the TR/Majority Text, why not the NKJV or MEV?

Now, if understanding is truly set against accuracy, accuracy must win. But I’d rather say that the two are inseparably tied together within the very concept of “translation.”

An accurate translation no one can understand isn’t a translation. But if the target audience can’t read it, the text in question didn’t get translated. Glen Scorgie: “If a translation is published but fails to communicate, is it really a translation?” An “accurate” translation into a language I don’t speak does me no good. I’m tempted, in fact, to say it’s not really accurate in that case. To get real practical, besom is not an “accurate” translation of X in Isaiah 14:23, even though it used to be—because hardly anybody knows that word anymore. Broom is the accurate translation.

A readable translation that isn’t accurate isn’t a translation, either. Maybe it’s a paraphrase or an interpretation. But if it doesn’t communicate what the original communicated, it’s not a translation. So, okay, yes, The Message is not a Bible translation.

The whole concept of “translation” includes—entails—the concepts of accuracy and readability. Unless, I suppose, the original text being translated is unreadable, too difficult for the intended audience; but is that what the Hebrew Bible and Greek New Testament were? Would God give us unintelligible revelation?

There’s an unbreakable chain stretched taut between the two poles of accuracy and readability. But there is space between the two poles. There’s a continuum. I think far too much of the fighting over English Bible translation is over which link of that chain is the best one. And I’m still left wondering: why do I have to choose just one link?

To make things even more complicated and to make my metaphor do too much work, every major English Bible translation moves back and forth on that chain in every line. Every (predominantly) “accurate” Bible translation has its God forbids, and every (predominantly) “readable” translation has its Psalm 44:14s. Psalm 44:14 is translated quite literally in the NLT: “they shake their heads at us.” Meanwhile, the usually more literal ESV has “a laughingstock among the peoples.” Both are good translations, but as the writer from whom I borrow this illustration, Bible translator Dave Brunn, says, maybe we shouldn’t get so upset about the readable/dynamic vs. accurate/literal spectrum-when all translations, including the KJV, use every portion of it.

If the Russians took over America and, uh, burned all the Bibles except the KJVs and TNIVs, and forced every Christian to choose one for life and refuse to use the other (those Russians and their crazy plots!), I could see why we might have a problem in the Christian church. That choice would present real difficulties.

I’d choose the TNIV for my family and any church I pastored. I’d rather have to explain the occasional gender pronoun problem (and there are some; I’ve found some of Poythress’ examples compelling on this score) than violate the principle of vernacular translation. The KJV is not in an entirely different language, but it is different enough—this is the point of my book—that it’s past time to look for an alternative. But I could see someone going the other way, and I would respect that choice.

But thankfully the Russians are only tampering with our elections and not forcing us to choose only one English Bible translation. It’s Christians who are doing that. And I want to say back to them, as they hold the KJV up against all other versions, “Uh, can’t I have both?”

“All are yours,” Paul said (1 Cor 3:22). All God’s gifts to the church are, in a definite way, gifts for us all. Different gifts may serve different purposes. Maybe the NLT or even the NIV works better as a study aid than as a general purpose Bible, but we do have general purpose Bibles that have none of the gender pronoun issues Ben is concerned about: the NASB, ESV, NKJV, MEV, etc.

An overstated case

Here’s Ben again:

Second, the author overstates his case. We should all acknowledge that the KJV presents challenges to the reader because of language changes, but it is simply an overstatement to say that the KJV is no longer in our language. Elements of it are archaic, but the majority of it is not. False friends are quantifiable, and rare archaic words are just that, rare. (I took the book of Philippians, and of the roughly 1600 words, I found less than 10 that impeded the meaning of the original text-and with two of those, modern translations don’t necessarily solve the issues either. This analysis is subjective and arbitrarily selective but the main arguments of this book against the KJV are as well.

I actually handed this objection to Ben by writing it in the book, and I will continue to hand it to all KJV-Only readers. I acknowledge at the end of chapter 6 of Authorized that the strongest objection to my viewpoint is, “It’s not that big a deal—there just aren’t that many false friends.” I have some answers in the book, to which I’ll refer the reader.

But I still have some questions for the good Dr. Heffernan:

  1. How many false friends are there, then? I didn’t count them; I offered about 50. If my list is arbitrary (which I deny) and selective (which was kind of the whole point!), who will count them objectively and make the list known to the English-speaking church? There are ten in Philippians—okay. Philippians is four pages in my ESV, out of an 1,825-page Bible. A little presto-change-o math tells me that an average of ten every four pages would make for 4,562 or so words that impede the meaning of the text for modern readers. Is that a problem? Does that concern you?
  2. I agree fully that the majority of the lexemes (words) in the KJV are not archaic. Pretty well all of the syntax is, however; there’s hardly a sentence which is put precisely the way we would put it today. But I want to know: how many archaic words, syntactical structures, and punctuation conventions should a translation be permitted to have before it’s time to update or replace it? 4,563, maybe?
  3. Should the Bible sound like our English (and French people’s French’s, and Russian people’s Russian), or should it sound archaic, elevated, and solemn? I argue in the book that the choice to use Elizabethan English adds meaning the KJV translators never intended and that was not contained in the original Hebrew and Greek. (I can’t seem to get an answer to this argument from anyone: I’m genuinely curious to hear! Dr. Heffernan, please help!)


Finally, this book reduces the motives for championing a single version to a self-glorying pride. I’m sure that he has addressed an element of it, but to not explore other alternative motives is an over-simplification of the issue at best.

I get what he’s saying here, and I want to affirm that I do not believe that championing a single translation of Scripture is always or universally the result of a tribalistic impulse. This shoe does not fit all the KJV defenders I know, particularly the ones I know well, like Ben. He has always been humble toward me, and his countenance has always radiated Christian joy. The shoe does fit KJV-Onlyism as an -ism, however. They have a reputation. And they acknowledge it somewhat with a term I’ve heard many of them use for the proponents of their view of whom they are embarrassed: “KJV-Ugly.” Every position has its ugly, graceless adherents, and it isn’t fair to assume that all of KJV-Onlyism is just like its worst defenders, even if there do seem to be a lot of them. But then there do seem to be a lot of them… What is it about this viewpoint which has given it such a reputation for irascibleness?

If you’re going to be an effective, constructive critic of other Christians, a critic whose aim is the restoration of fellowship and unity, you’ve got to work as hard at discerning the good in their views as you do at discerning the errors. So let me explore alternative motives for KJV-Onlyism for a moment. I see good in the KJV-Only crowd, I really do, or I would have given up appealing to them a long time ago. The ones I know are true brothers in Christ; they are faithful witnesses to Christ; they care about leading holy lives; they don’t care too much about what the culture thinks of them; and in their defense of the KJV they are going for something that is ultimately good: they want a definite, accessible standard for all doctrine in the church. They want doctrinal and spiritual stability for Christians. They think the existence of multiple Bible translations is a threat to that standard and that stability. To be clear, I think they’re right to seek stability and a clear standard for Christian doctrine. I think they’re wrong, however, to seek those things by holding onto a traditional Bible translation—simply because that’s not the ultimate place of divine authority in the church. No translation is. Subtly, a good and trusted translation can take over from the inspired originals as the locus of authority for the church (the Vulgate did this centuries ago). And that is what is happening in every variety of KJV-Onlyism I’m aware of. This is one reason I write at length about it. I’m deeply, deeply concerned.

I don’t know that Ben is “KJV-Only”; I truly welcome his correction as I seek to put the best spin I can on the motives of those who are still loyal to the KJV and critical of other translations.

But I feel jealous for God’s people to enjoy all his good gifts, and I think my friend is inappropriately withholding some of them from his people and from those he influences.

Review of NKJV Unapologetic Study Bible

The NKJV Unapologetic Study Bible (subtitle: Confidence for Such a Time as This) is a fruit of the ministry of the Kairos Journal, a conservative evangelical publication dedicated to making timely application of the Bible to the cultural season in which we find ourselves in the Western world.

This edition features over two-hundred page-long article inserts drawn from Kairos on multiple topics, all of which are related somehow to the passages of Scripture near which they are inserted. The article inserts are well written and generally careful, though their connections to surrounding passages are not always equally obvious. The articles are not generally expositional: their purpose is not, like many (most?) study Bibles, to explicate the biblical text but to apply it to current issues. Quotations from prominent Christians (both historical and contemporary) also dot the text, including Ambrose of Milan, Frederica Matthewes-Green, John Adams, and Tertullian. Profiles of other prominent Christians are also included, including brief articles on Nell Bridges, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Justin Martyr and Jim Elliot.

The selection of current issues is indeed timely: “Family: Homosexuality and Transgenderism,” “Sanctity of Life: Euthanasia and Suicide,” “Government: Peace and War,” and “Education: Evolution and Intelligent Design” (though readers may wonder how much the Bible has to say specifically about “Economics: Taxation”—and explanatory notes in this study Bible acknowledge that indeed they are looking for principles more than explicit statements).

Brief introductions are provided for Bible books.

The above is what I wrote for the Christian Library Journal; they don’t like me to be too negative, and that’s fine. But I really have to say this somewhere, and my blog is apparently the place: I am stymied by this study Bible. Who thought this was a good idea? Every article insert I read was good: well written, responsible, interesting. But the pages inside the covers of a Bible are just not the place for a bunch of articles on topical issues. I don’t complain as much when such articles are placed in appendices before Genesis and after Revelation, as in the ESV Study Bible—particularly when the articles make an obvious effort to be exegetical and theological; that is, closely tied to the Bible text (even if they are topical). But profiles of famous Christians, though they have a definite place, should find that place outside the actual pages of a copy of Scripture.

Of the first ten pages of the Bible, starting with Genesis 1:1, six and a half of are taken up with articles, three and a half with Bible text. The ratio does not stay the same throughout this study Bible, but it is emblematic. I am all for anything that will get people studying the Bible and all for anything that will get them reading sound Christian writing. I just think the two things should be kept more distinct.

I would not recommend this study Bible, because it isn’t a “Study” “Bible.” It’s a Bible—the NKJV is a fine translation—with a bunch of articles stuck between its pages. Those articles do not tend to help people study the Bible. They stand at a remove or two away from it. That in itself is not wrong: we need to apply Scripture to current events and to learn church history. But when I see the Bible text sprinkled with hundreds of full-page articles, I get the implicit message that the Bible is boring and needs enlivening—or that some people with some nice things to say wanted to use the Bible as a platform to say those things.

I had a rather negative gut reaction to the NKJV Unapologetic Study Bible, though a genuinely positive impression of the work of the Kairos Journal. I’ll have to check them out again; it’s been quite a while since I’ve done so. A number of the names associated with it were familiar to me. There was a preponderance of Southern Baptist conservatives, and this is welcome. The biggest thing that encourages me about this Bible is that I see in it the fruits of the conservative resurgence thirty years on.

But spend your money on something else.

In Which I Beat Critics to the Punch, a Punch I Deserve

My new book Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible has inside it what I now take to be an error. Probably. But one I already hedged.

In the book I give about three dozen examples of “false friends,” words which we still use but which meant something different in 1611—in such a way that modern readers usually won’t notice. This is the key concept of the entire book, and one of my examples, added at the last minute as my deadline neared, I now believe doesn’t belong in the list. If there’s a second edition, I plan to replace it (I’ve got more).

Ironically, it’s one of the examples a radio/podcast interviewer zeroed in on in one of my interviews about the book. The interviewer didn’t spot my error. It’s still possible I was right. It’s not perfectly clear. But on balance, I think I was wrong.

And I’d love for a critical reviewer to find the error. I am discovering that, for this book, the most difficult part of the entire project has been not writing, not editing, not re-editing, not re-re-re-re-editing, not persuading my wife that a given line actually was funny and merited inclusion, not getting a publisher to take me on, not analyzing the cover, not promoting the book, not any of those things. The most difficult part of the project has been finding a qualified person who disagrees with my thesis and who will do me the courtesy of listening hard and responding to that thesis. I’ve had basically two such responses. I’ve also had nice responses; I’ve also had a very few nasty ones; I’ve also had a number of responses that utterly refused to address what I actually said and instead insisted on talking about something else. But I’ve only had two people listen hard enough to understand the main thing I was saying and then answer it with anything more than the wave of a hand.

I feel like, I dunno, a swordsman who spent his formative years watching a battle go back and forth and training to step onto the front lines. I sharpened my blade religiously; I invented new thrusts and parries; I perfected a near painless method of killing my opponent in which he comes immediately back to life and realizes we’re actually on the same side (hey, this is my metaphor). And now hardly anyone will fight me.

There are lots and lots of KJV-Only folks out there, and I’m asking you: hit me! I will smile with joy and turn the other cheek for another blow and another! Look up all the words I laboriously looked up in the Oxford English Dictionary. Find the one I think I was wrong about. Offer an alternative. Try to undercut my project at its central point: “false friends.”

Now’s your opportunity.