KJVOism, Fanatacism, and Epistemology

Alan Jacobs offers a “useful definition of fanaticism”:

No matter what happens, it proves my point. That is, true believers’ beliefs are not falsifiable: everything can be incorporated into the system—and indeed, the more costs true believers have sunk into the system, the more determined and resourceful they will be….

In general, and on most issues, it’s fair to say that if you cannot imagine circumstances that would cause you to change your mind about something, then you may well be the victim of the power of sunk costs.

Naturally, I read this and I think of King James Onlyism, which has again been absorbing my attention because of my work on an upcoming book with Lexham Press, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible. (The book is not about KJV-Onlyism, per se, but it naturally comes up—and I do not believe all fans of the KJV are fanatics.) But one reason I think of KJVOs is that I can’t seem to find a single person in all of KJV-Onlyism who has ever publicly asked the question, “How do we know when English has changed so much that the KJV will need to be revised or updated?” They don’t seem interested in imagining circumstances in which their viewpoint is overturned.

But who does? I had to ask myself while reading Jacobs, what would it take for me to be persuaded of the King James Only position? That’s a difficult question, in part because I’m not sure what the position is.

The Mainstream KJV-Only Position

I think the mainstream KJVO view can be boiled down to three points, and I do not have a tongue in my cheek as I write:

  1. We should use whatever family of Greek and Hebrew manuscripts God has used the longest and therefore apparently blessed.
  2. Multiple English Bible translations cause confusion rather than edification.
  3. The KJV is the best English translation of the Bible.

In order for me to believe these things, I’d have to have:

  1. A Bible verse telling me to watch out for textual variants and adopt the texts God has used the longest.
  2. A Bible verse telling me that multiple same-language Bible translations cause confusion rather than edification.
  3. A Bible verse telling me that once a given vernacular translation is well established it should be permitted to remain so without revision (after the sixth revision); or a Bible verse telling me to look for the golden age of any language and make sure I use a Bible translation made during that era.

I’m doing my best, however good that is, to come up with a counterfactual situation. And as is always the case when I write about KJV-Onlyism, I am laboring not to be snarky. I could genuinely imagine the Bible containing statements like the three I’ve just mentioned.

KJV-Only folks will plead that I’m ignoring verses that do, in effect, say some of these things. They will point to verses which appear to promise perfect, word-for-word preservation of all that God has revealed in Scripture. If we are to live by “every word that proceeds from the mouth of God,” and if “not a jot or a tittle will pass from the law,” then we’ve got to have all the words, all the jots, and all the tittles.

KJV-Onylism and Sources of Revelation

Now, the Bible is my ultimate source of divine authority; and it’s the only perfect verbal source. So if these verses teach perfect preservation of Scripture, I must believe it. But—and bear with me on this—the Bible is not my only source of divine authority. Creation and providence, the Bible itself tells me, are sources of truth as well (Psalm 19, Romans 1). And it isn’t as simple as saying, “The Bible tells me how to interpret the general revelation of creation and providence.” That’s certainly true. But creation and providence are also necessary for interpreting the Bible. On the very simplest level, I can’t know what a “sycamore tree” is until I look at one. And that’s true of much more important biblical words and images such as “sheep” and “shepherd,” even “love” and “hate.” I have to experience these things before I can grasp them in Scripture. And I can’t know the meaning of any words in Scripture from Scripture alone. I need lexicons, which themselves rely on a tradition going back to a time when there were native speakers of Koine Greek, as well as on studies in papyri and inscriptions and other sources of ancient Greek usage. Again: I must take into account God’s authority in Scripture and in creation and providence.

As I look at creation, I notice a limitation in man: man is not a computer. No person alive can copy a lengthy document by hand without making some unnoticed errors.

As I look at providence, I notice minor differences—typos, as it were—in the manuscript traditions for both the Greek New Testament and the Hebrew Bible. If we have one perfect text of the Greek New Testament, I don’t know which one it is. God hasn’t told us in the Bible. So how can I know? The KJV-Onlyites look at providence, too, and they say that the text used by the greatest number for the greatest time must be the right one; it’s blessed. But I have one question: which TR? If God truly intended to preserve his words perfectly and exhaustively and to let us know where he did so, why are there differences among editions of the TR? Which one is the right one? In other words, I look out at the world God providentially gave us, and I see something perfectly consonant with what I just said I see in creation: Bible manuscripts with typos in them, some of which are easily corrected, others more puzzling. Almost all very minor. Even if I did have a verse telling me to look out for the Greek textual family God used and blessed the most, that wouldn’t give me 100% certainty about every jot and tittle. I would still have to perform some kind of textual criticism.

Ruckmanism

Back to my initial question: what would have to happen before I would become KJV-Only? I answered that question with regard to the mainstream KJV-Only position, but when I speak to men who hold this position, I regularly smell the other major KJVO view, the Ruckmanite view. It happened the other day in a phone call I had with an earnest and godly young man, a teacher at a KJV-Only Bible college—and someone who explicitly distances himself from Ruckmanism. But as we discussed the possibility for an update or revision of the KJV, due to its antiquated language, he said, “But you cannot alter the word of God.”

I said, “Woah, wait a minute. That’s Ruckmanism right there.”

“Wha…?,” he said. “I’m baffled that you would say that given how clearly I disavowed Ruckmanism mere minutes ago.”

I tried to get him to see that if you think revising the KJV is equivalent to altering the word of God, then you’re a Ruckmanite. You’ve confused text and translation; you’ve equated a translation with God’s word at the one point where they can’t be equated, namely the ultimate point.

So what would it take for me to be persuaded of Ruckmanism? An illness, perhaps. Or a blow to the head. (No, no snark… Sorry.) To hold this view, which I take to be that God re-inspired the KJV, I’d have to have a Bible verse telling me that there is one translation for every recognizable language—and it might help to have some Bible verses telling me how to distinguish recognizable languages. (The line between “dialects” and “languages” is not always clear.)

I’m struggling to come up with circumstances in which I could become a Ruckmanite.

Fanaticism

So does that make me an anti-KJV fanatic? No. I still genuinely love the KJV. Its words trip off my tongue more readily in conversation than do those of any other translation. I grew up with it. I will always love it.

But I put the question to any KJV-Only folks who stumble across this post: can you imagine circumstances which might make you change your mind? Imagining how you could become someone you disagree with is a helpful self-critical exercise. I tried. I tried.

Resolution

In my first version of this post, which just published a few hours ago, I ended here. But I was listening this morning on the bus to an edifying and challenging book by Tony Reinke, 12 Ways Your Phone Is Changing You, and he said this:

In an age when anyone with a smart phone can publish dirt on anyone else, we must know that spreading antagonistic messages online with the intent of provoking hostility without any desire for resolution is what the world calls “trolling,” and the New Testament calls “slander.”

The phrase that stuck out to me was “without any desire for resolution.” And I want to make absolutely sure I communicate in this post that I do have a desire for resolution with my brothers and sisters inside KJV-Onlyism. I have genuine respect and love for many people who are influenced by this teaching that, yes, I believe is erroneous. But I don’t demand that they come to all my views on bibliology in order to have a smooth and edifying friendship with me.

I think what I would like to suggest to my KJVO brothers and sisters is that they would see the number of judgment calls involved in their viewpoint and explicitly give me and others liberty to make different judgment calls. This is happening to some degree; I have recently spoken to numerous KJVO Bible college professors, and every one of them was gracious to me (there was only one exception, a man who refused to talk—but who wasn’t nasty). One of them referred to our disagreement over the KJV as a “Paul and Barnbas” situation. The rhetoric driving the movement, however, is not so gracious. It is not possible to achieve resolution when even the most gracious KJVO books, such as Ouellette’s A More Sure Word, are basically calling the Bible translations read by most Christians Satanic ploys.

So, again, I say: resolution is possible here, and I want it. I’m not a troll. I’m asking my brothers and sisters to stop casting suspicion on my motives for encouraging the use of multiple Bible translations. I’m asking them to stop making the KJV a source of division between Christians. And I’m willing to stop short of insisting that they stop reading or preferring the KJV. I’m willing to believe the best about their own motives.

Fantastic Deal on My Favorite Theology Books

John Frame is retiring, and now you can have all six of his best and most important books for $120. Hardbacks. This is killer. I paid much more.

Do not miss this deal: $20 a book for some of the best theology books you will ever buy.

The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, in particular, has been epochal for me. It shapes me in ways I see just about every day. The Doctrine of the Christian Life was also extremely helpful. When I’ve dipped into Frame’s Systematic Theology, I have also found what he always delivers: carefully biblical, straightforward, clear, even simple explanations of complex topics.

Is Science the Best Way to Know?

Not long ago, popular YouTube science guy Derek Muller of Veritasium put out a video detailing the myriad ways in which scientific studies go wrong. He titled it, “Is Most Published Research Wrong?”

He ends with these words (click here to skip to this portion of the video):

What gets me is the thought that even trying our best to figure out what’s true, using our most sophisticated and rigorous mathematical tools, peer review, and standards of practice we still get it wrong so often. So how frequently do we delude ourselves when we’re not using the scientific method? As flawed as our science may be, it is far and away more reliable than any other way of knowing that we have.

I’m actually not a science skeptic. I have to have pretty compelling reasons to disbelieve a given Western scientific consensus. The Words of the Living God in Genesis 1–11 provide one compelling reason to doubt one reigning consensus. But I’m not against science as such. I’m for it. I think the scientific method is an incredibly useful tool for discovering truth God reveals through the observable cosmos.

What gets me is scientism: the faith people place in science. “As flawed as our science may be, it is far and away more reliable than any other way of knowing”? How can we know that? Science can’t prove that science is the best way to know. I’m far from the first to make this point; I simply found it interesting to see such faith at the end of a video in which Muller shows how flawed science can be.

For a much fuller discussion of the themes in this post, check out Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption. I wrote unit 7 on science, and I roundly praise the created good in science, explore the ways the fall twists it, and show that Christ can and will restore his rule over it.

Stanley Fish on the Foundations Baptist Fellowship and American Protestant Fundamentalism More Generally

Readers of my blog know that I have a strong (and perhaps strange) affinity for Stanley Fish, the pragmatic, antifoundationalist literary theorist and classic public intellectual gadfly. I find him always stimulating and incisive, even when I disagree. But because his strength is analysis and not so much evaluation (indeed, in what I’m about to quote he makes a rare statement of something he “certainly” believes in—and it just happens to be original sin!), I don’t really have to disagree very often.

Recently, Fish has been called up to the lecture circuit because of rising interest in some of his long-term themes: academic freedom and the proper justification for the liberal arts. And in his recent comments defending the idea of a university against the hordes of student protesters (who, Fish says, should be listened to but ultimately told to shut up, because academic freedom is not for students, and giving into them will destroy what the university was created to do), he offers genuine wisdom for someone like me who is currently engaged in defending the existence of certain institutions of American Protestant Christian fundamentalism. A narrower ideology is not supposed to be available than this one, so why do I defend it? Because, in part, as Fish says, every ideology is narrow. Every culture proclaims and defends its values and not others. I hope my proclamation and defense hew to a standard external to my subculture, namely the standard of Scripture. But I can’t pretend that I have no culture through which I view that standard, or that I think other cultures are equally valid. If I want to give to my children what I was given, I have to work to maintain the relevant traditions.

Bear with me here, because my extended quotation of Fish is going to be off-putting at points for much of my readership. But I genuinely believe there is wisdom here. I give different supporting reasons for the conclusions that Fish reaches, but those conclusions most certainly resonated with me.

I have transcribed the following from the Hugo Black lecture Fish gave (audio) a little over a year ago. I won’t be breaking this up with commentary, so have patience until I can explain a few more things. Fish again, is talking about higher education:

The perfectionists are, by definition, progressivists. They do not believe in original sin, but hold rather to an optimistic view of human potential, and they are in search of the political methods that will liberate rather than shackle that potential. Perfectionism or progressivism could possibly flourish on either side of the political aisle; it has a liberal as well as a conservative face. But as many have pointed out, it’s natural home these days seems to be on the left. Political theorist Jacob Talmon puts it this way: “The left proclaims the essential goodness and perfectibility of human nature.” That was a statement made in the 1950s, but here is a statement made last week, by William Voegli, editor of the conservative journal, The Claremont Review:

Liberals believe in progress because they believe in a virtuous circle. As a society becomes more free it progresses, and as it progresses it becomes more free.” (citation)

The natural movement of history, unless stymied by reactionary forces, is from less freedom to more, and never from more freedom to less. Conservatives, on other hand, do believe in original sin, as I certainly do, and I quote Voegli again:

Conservatives see little basis to embrace the conviction that progress will reveal humans to possess unfulfilled or unrealized capacities for reason, freedom, and love. They believe, rather, that it is wise to take our bearings from the abundant historical evidence that human nature reveals astounding capacities for savagery, hatred, and idiocy. (Thomas Hobbes, thou art living at this hour.) Therefore, while liberals want to make the world a better place, conservatives want to keep it from becoming even worse. [could not find citation after repeated searches; it is possible that the quotations ends before the parenthesis]

Voegli concludes that “the urgent work of maintaining civilization is constant.” By that he means, and I agree with him from a postmodernist perspective he would probably reject, that the absence of a view of history assuming an internal logic in the direction of the good means that we had better take care to maintain those institutional arrangements that we cherish, institutional arrangements that in the course of a history that has no teleology but only events we have been lucky enough to hit on. That is, there are certain arrangements, associations, structures, and institutions that turn up in the course of human history that are extremely beneficial and healthy and inspiring—but it’s just a contingent accident that this has happened, which means that we must work contingently, empirically, pragmatically, to ensure that they stay around.

Now, I believe that the liberal arts college…is one of those arrangements that should be maintained and preserved rather than perfected. “Perfection” is a bad idea, in part for reasons that Isaiah Berlin gave in his famous essay on two kinds of liberty. I believe that because the schemes of perfection given to us in the statement of the student protestors all have the fatal defect of turning the college or university into a vehicle for the realization of a political ideal, the equal freedom of all people in a world untainted by injustice and discrimination. I do not quarrel with the ideal. I quarrel with the assumption that it is the university’s job to implement it. Not only do colleges and universities have their own job, … to enquire into the truth of things and to do so in a way that leads to understanding rather than to political action, but if universities allow their energies and resources to put in the service of other jobs, no matter how worthy, they will lose their distinctiveness, and any rationale for their existence. After all, if the academic life is just an extension of politics, why not just dispense with all that scholarly apparatus and get right down to it—get right down to the business of canvassing for votes and securing political power? Perfectionist progressivism is the enemy of what we have, and given that what we have here at Wesleyan and elsewhere is a precarious achievement, it behooves us to hang on to it, even if in the eyes of many, the liberal arts model is outdated, reactionary, and something in the nature of a museum. Another way to put this: we should wear the label “ivory tower” proudly, and should wear no other.

It is sometimes said that the postmodernist or deconstructive view of human actions as untethered to any foundational truth is a recipe for relativism and nihilism, on the reasoning if there’s nothing holding everything up or holding everything together, we can do whatever we like without fearing any ultimate consequences. But in fact, the reverse is true: if there is nothing holding everything up or holding it together, we cannot rely on time and history to protect those things we love, and, to borrow a phrase of the poet John Milton, to protect those things we would not willingly let die. If you like something, a way of life, a mode of practice, a mode of being, a mode of practice that captures you to the extent of becoming indistinguishable from you, I am what I do, then you had better work hard to ensure that it will still be around for you and for those who come after you and want to live that life and not another.

In a non-foundational world, no abiding fundamental truth is going to save us, and no abiding fundamental truth is going to preserve what we cherish. We have to do it ourselves. Which means doing consistent battle with those, including our students, who would take it away from us, who would appropriate and “occupy”—not a verb casually chosen—the structures that house and enable the distinctive activity that goes by the name “liberal arts education.”

You might think that my talk of “battle” is hyperbolic. But listen to a Yale student in the course of harassing a hapless, low-level administrator. At one point, she relaxed the stream of expletives she was hurling at him to say, and I quote, “What you’ve got to understand is that it’s not about creating an intellectual space, it’s about creating a home.”….

What should be done, and who is to do it? Well, given what I have said here, the resolution of the present set of controversies will not be found in some theory or master algorithm or failsafe, all-purpose method. It will be found, if it is found at all, in the actions of skilled administrators who, after all, are the ones responsible for keeping the enterprise going.

Now, quite clearly I am not an anti-foundationalist. But I’m anti-everybody-else’s-foundation; I mean, I’m anti-all-non-Christian-foundations. So Fish and I actually share a great deal. I’m also not a straight-up postmodern, so I am not “absen[t] of a view of history assuming an internal logic in the direction of the good.” History has a teleology to which we have access; something Someone is holding it all together.

But someone’s also trying to break it apart, and in the age that that adversary rules internal logics go awry, and not everything has yet been brought under Christ’s feet to fully serve their created teleology.

So once again Fish and I can share a lot of agreement. The fact that God is holding everything together, including my own life and sanctification, doesn’t absolve me of the responsibility to “make every effort” to add virtue to my faith (2 Peter 1). Likewise, the fact that man proposes and God disposes doesn’t mean I should stop proposing. I propose to do what I can, what little I can, to maintain the institutions that stabilize and promote my values. It is the leaders of these institutions—the “administrators” of Fish’s example—who are charged with keeping the enterprises going. And I’m trying to help them, and to be a bit of a junior administrator myself.

The portions of fundamentalism that shaped me were 92% “beneficial and healthy and inspiring”—although that means they were 8% fallen, and that means some weeding within my tradition. What can I do when I see the good except to try to preserve it, even in the face of persistent original sin? There aren’t any unstained mantles available out there; I checked. And though weaving a new one is always an option, I don’t think it’s very humble or grateful to try that first. I have to pick up the holes and stains in the fundamentalist mantle if I’m going to pick it up at all. I’ll add my own holes and stains as time passes, through my own “savagery and hatred and idiocy,” but I seek by God’s grace to restore more of the mantle than I rip. What else can I do?

 

Everybody’s a Fundamentalist No. 13

Everybody’s a fundamentalist. Everybody’s a separatist. Everybody has a vision of the good that differs from the visions of others and ends up excluding others from their club.

Everybody limits academic freedom in the next breath after invoking it. Everybody has a conception of the academic enterprise that leaves certain viewpoints out of bounds, no matter how strenuously its representatives insist that those viewpoints count as “academic.”

At least biblical, orthodox Christians can publicly, explicitly, and self-consciously advertise the standards on which they found themselves, by which they separate, and through which they establish the boundaries of academic freedom. The pro-diversity forces have to persuade themselves that their list of acceptable viewpoints counts as “diversity,” that the width of their pluralism is as far as anyone need go to earn the label.

I’ll paraphrase Stanley Fish (my adjustments in bold; original quotation here):

What, after all, is the difference between a sectarian school which disallows challenges to the biblical vision for sexuality and a so-called pluralistic school which disallows discussion of the same question? In both contexts something goes without saying and something else cannot be said (homosexuality is immoral or it isn’t). There is of course a difference, not however between a closed environment and an open one but between environments that are differently closed. (156)

Is homosexuality moral or immoral? Issues of diversity and academic freedom (and consequent disinvitations of campus speakers) are impossible to sort out until we know how we can even answer that question—until we know what moral foundation we’re standing on, and who if anyone is going to keep us accountable for failing to standing on it.

The unified testimony of the Bible and of the church throughout history is that homosexual acts and desires are immoral—because all sexual acts and desires outside the bounds of heterosexual monogamy are sin (see Jesus in Matt 19). When Princeton students deny this, they actually take aim at the the gospel, or perhaps its flip-side, by virtue of delisting the human sins which make us need it. The Bible makes homosexuality (and sexual immorality, and idolatry, and adultery, and theft, and greed, and drunkenness, and reviling, and swindling) a sin that keeps people out of the kingdom of God. And I want you to know that just now as I read 1 Corinthians 6 I experienced a wave of genuine fear—fear of the Lord. I have been guilty of several of the sins on the list. I don’t aim this passage merely at others. I dare not justify my own (heterosexual) lustful thoughts, my own greed, etc., or anyone else’s, lest I alter the biblical terms by which I can be said to be a member of that divine kingdom. Thank God for the blood of Christ and the sanctifying power of the Spirit. I am not as I once was. God has granted me repentance.

The best brief book I know on the topic of homosexuality is still Kevin DeYoung’s What Does the Bible Really Teach about Homosexuality? And the best endorsement of that book I’ve seen comes from an Amazon reviewer who gave the book two stars:

I did not find this book as useful as I anticipated. It seemed to me to revert back to, “The Bible says it, so that settles it.”