Look who I discovered being cited in the august OED… I wish I knew more about the work of OED lexicographers, my heroes. I don’t know, for example, how OED editors find/choose their citation sources. It’s just that beyond Shakespeare and various editions of the Bible, most of their citations are so obscure—so old (obviously) or so far from my ken—that it was a pleasant shock to see a current book from my evangelical world.
I’ve come to really trust the OED after tons and tons of use. It isn’t perfect; I do occasionally find senses I think are archaic or obsolete that they don’t mark that way. But it well deserves its status at the top of the lexicographical heap.
A Christian friend who struggles with doubt recently wrote me asking why I chose the name of long-time blog, byfaithweunderstand.com.
Today I was thinking again about those four words “by faith we understand” and I feel a physical reaction to it. It’s hard to swallow because it’s still counter-intuitive to my analytical/scientific mind if it means what I think it means. In science, we tend towards inductive reasoning, gathering facts and then making a conclusion. But these four words seem to flip that around and say, if you first come to the conclusion that God is trustworthy and you believe Him, THEN you’ll understand and see that His words and worldview are true and trustworthy.
I feel I see this same pattern of “first believe and trust God and then He’ll help you understand it” echoed in other passages as well like 1 Jn 5:13, John 10:38 and even in Ephesians 6:16 and the faith in me says “ok! Yes Lord, I trust you, this is freeing!” But the cynicism says “ok, so brainwash yourself and then of course everything will make sense.” That last cynical thought honestly isn’t a very alluring temptation to me anymore because I’ve experienced God and His opening of my eyes and I know He’s God and wiser than me and I do trust Him! But it still bugs me a little bit sometimes, and I actually hate that.
So I guess my question is just is what I described above what you are emphasizing by the name of your blog? Have you written about that concept and if so, where can I find it?
I so completely understand where you’re coming from, because it’s the land I come from, too: Empiristan, the Show Me state. It’s the country from which nearly all Western believers must emigrate in order to dwell in Beulah. I chose my blog title both because it’s a direct quote from Hebrews 11 and because I quite self-consciously intend to cause some physical revulsion among the Empiristani. Christ is an epistemological challenge to the West: he commands all men everywhere to repent of their pretensions to any kind of autonomy, including the intellectual variety. Belief is a moral activity; we are obligated to obey our creator with our minds. The sin that calls down God’s wrath from heaven is suppression of the truth.
That’s a pretty stiff way to start, I recognize, but there is some sugar-coating to lick elsewhere in Scripture. =) And my own story, which has some parallels to yours, figures in here. I myself faced a period of doubt during my senior year in college. I never doubted that, if the Bible is true, I was “saved.” I just doubted that the Bible was true. I was preaching regularly in a nursing home at the time, and I’ve always been grateful that it was an Alzheimer’s unit—it hardly mattered what I said in my sermons, because it was instantly forgotten… But a friend of mine gave me some biblical counsel I never forgot. She simply pointed out that the argument of Romans 1 was unavoidable. And, happily, my soul immediately rested. I knew, I knew, I knew that the rulers of Empiristan have no answer for the most simple question: Why is there something rather than nothing? I knew the two truths that Romans 1 says nature is telling me: a being of 1) eternal power and 2) divine nature made our world. This is the sugar, the easy part of the argument for an understanding that comes by faith. I feel comfortable simply repeating it. People ought, in the moral sense of ought, to see God without physically seeing him—through his creation.
But Paul does himself get stiff here, too: he says that those who don’t see, or rather won’t see, are “without excuse.” And what could possibly explain the tendency everywhere—the tendency I was experiencing in my own heart in my senior year—to deny what can’t not be known, what is “plain” to people, indeed what God himself has made “evident” to them? Only the culprit Paul himself fingers: unrighteous suppression of the truth.
Why? Why would people do this? Because there’s something deeper than reason, and deeper than the faith by which we reason: love. Men love darkness rather than light, because they don’t want their deeds to be exposed. They don’t want the accountability a Creator demands. And God punishes them with further blindness, and greater latitude for degrading and self-harming sin.
Watch the progression in what Paul told the Ephesians (4:17–18). He said that unregenerated people are darkened in their understanding (noetic sin, a sin of reason) because of their ignorance (noetic sin again) because of their hardened hearts (affective sin). Loves lie underneath all our beliefs. No wonder love is the central Christian virtue, the highest biblical command. Truly and ultimately right thinking requires love for God first and neighbor second. Paul is the most important of the writers who taught me that beliefs lie underneath arguments, and that loves lie underneath beliefs. Augustine and Edwards and Frame taught me that this was not merely an intellectual sin, some kind of logical mistake. It is instead the fruit of erring loves. They also helped me see that if my own loves are pointed and weighted (“ordered”) rightly, I have only the grace of God to thank. He rescued me from the noetic and affective effects of the Fall.
Many other writers have expanded on the basic scriptural truth that there is no neutrality and objectivity available out there when it comes to the existence of our creator. There is no perfectly evenhanded, rigorously empirical exploration of the question of origins. Our thoughts are directed by our beliefs and, ultimately, our loves. As one of my mentors liked to say, “Affection drive cognition.” Here were some of my assistants on the journey toward understanding this truth (in no particular order):
Tim Keller’s The Reason for God demonstrates over and over—and shows how he demonstrates this to non-Christians with some effect—that defeaters to Christianity are themselves beliefs, not empirically attained knowledge. I’ve seen them stumble over this question. Keller helps lay materialism bare as itself a faith, and a rather strong one. Every process is explicable by natural means. No appeal to the supernatural is legitimate. This they know, they are sure of, they believe. (I’ll never forget the famous, revealing, gotcha moment in that Ben Stein documentary on intelligent design, the time when he got Richard Dawkins to acknowledge that yes, it was possible that life on Earth was seeded here by alien life. “That designer could well be a higher intelligence from elsewhere in the universe, but that higher intelligence would itself have had to have come about by some explicable, or ultimately explicable process.”)
Postmodernism itself has laid bare the pretensions of modernism and empiricism and scientism. Enlightenment rationalists though they could know truth independently of faith, and postmodernism has shown how very often the truths they discovered just so happened to be what they believed and wanted to find in the first place. Postmodern literary theorist Stanley Fish has been my most loyal companion here. He gleefully exposes the parochial beliefs and selfish loves motivating everyone who calls himself “neutral” (or “fair” or “just”). And over and over again, his New York Times commenters—the very crowd most heaping scorn on me for believing in a God of eternal power and divine nature who created man in basically his current form—could only sputter in rage at Fish’s heresies against scientism and classical liberalism. (I wrote a paper on this which was about the most fun I’ve ever had in academic writing, and which you may find helpful and enjoyable; and here is Fish’s most classic essay, which I reread every few years.)
C.S. Lewis has also been a huge help here. I just have to quote him at length:
Those who accept theology are not necessarily being guided by taste rather than reason. The picture so often painted of Christians huddling together on an ever narrower strip of beach while the incoming tide of “Science” mounts higher and higher corresponds to nothing in my own experience. That grand myth of [evolutionary progress] which I asked you to admire a few minutes ago is not for me a hostile novelty breaking in on my traditional beliefs. On the contrary, that cosmology is what I started from. Deepening distrust and final abandonment of it long preceded my conversion to Christianity. Long before I believed Theology to be true I had already decided that the popular scientific picture at any rate was false. One absolutely central inconsistency ruins it…. The whole picture professes to depend on inferences from observed facts. Unless inference is valid, the whole picture disappears. Unless we can be sure that reality in the remotest nebula … obeys the thought laws of the human scientist here and now in his laboratory—in other words, unless Reason is absolute—all is in ruins. Yet those who ask me to believe this world picture also ask me to believe that Reason is simply the unforeseen and unintended by-product of mindless matter at one stage of its endless and aimless becoming. Here is flat contradiction. They ask me at the same moment to accept a conclusion and to discredit the only testimony on which that conclusion can be based. The difficulty is to me a fatal one; and the fact that when you put it to many scientists, far from having an answer, they seem not even to understand what the difficulty is, assures me that I have not found a mare’s nest but detected a radical disease in their whole mode of thought from the very beginning. The man who has once understood the situation is compelled henceforth to regard the scientific cosmology as being, in principle, a myth; though no doubt a great many true particulars have been worked into it. (From “Is Theology Poetry,” in The Weight of Glory, 134–136.)
Steven D. Smith’s book—that Keller put me onto—called The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse was absolutely masterful in its uncovering of the moral smuggling operations that are endemic in our supposedly neutral, rational discourse. In other words, secularism is supposed to require no metaphysical/theological assumptions—but it absolutely cannot ever live up to its self-promise. (I wrote another fun paper about reactions to this book.)
J. Michael Sandel of Harvard, the greatest lecturer I have ever seen, who taught a class on moral philosophy taken by many thousands of Harvard students, shows deftly over and over again in his book Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? that every vision of justice presupposes a “vision of the good” that is not empirically discoverable. I cannot recommend his book highly enough, and his lectures have been placed on video expertly by WGBH Boston. Absolutely superb. Neither he nor Fish have much to offer when you ask, “Well, which values should be ultimate?” Their worldview gives them no access to God through divine revelation. But they are nonetheless massively helpful.
Alasdair MacIntyre in his justly famous book After Virtue: A Study in Moral Theory shows that the pursuit of a set of moral values grounded only in reason has been a failure throughout time. His own proposal is excellent and helpful but, with all due respect to his vastly superior intellect, he also fails to show why certain practices and their attendant virtues should be inculcated rather than others, because he, too, tries to operate apart from divine revelation.
The most important book I could hand you is probably John Frame’s The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. If you have epistemological questions—How can I know faithfully? What counts as knowledge, biblically speaking? Is there something wrong with empirical ways of knowing?—he’s your man.
By Faith We Understand
Those words, “by faith we understand,” come from Hebrews 11, of course.
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation. By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.
Faith is assurance; faith is conviction; faith is two essential components of knowledge, even proof (and one major translation uses that very word in this passage). And I find it interesting that the main issue on which the Bible expects understanding—knowledge and assurance and conviction—to arise from faith and not the other way around is creation. This is an argument that really ought, in the moral sense of ought, to persuade people who demand empirical proof. Creation has been available to all five of their senses for their entire lives.
In the case of creation, seeing ought to be believing. And what a beautiful and artful persuasion sunsets and woodpeckers and RNA are! They all shout the same message; they all proclaim that they are God’s handiwork. And Romans 1 says we are “without excuse” if we won’t see the “eternal power and divine nature” they reveal. Even empirically speaking, somethings don’t come from nothings. Quadruple-blind, peer reviewed studies have shown this over and over. Indeed, all empiricism is impossible without this foundation.
That is my smattering of thoughts. I pray you find them helpful.
Several friends have asked, so here’s a tour of my home video studio—which I set up for the second season of the Bible Study Magazine Podcast and for my own YouTube channel:
Updated shot of my studio (3/3/21):
And this is my current video kit:
Canon M50, body only – This is widely regarded as one of the best entry-level vlogging cameras. I’m thoroughly happy with it. Literally my only wish is that the remote could trigger manual focus.
Update (03/03/2021): The M50 is still great, but I now rock the Canon M6 Mark II, because it can shoot uncropped 4K footage. In every other respect, it’s just like the M50—and I got it used for $704. It’s only downside is a flip up screen rather than a flip-out screen. That means I can’t see the screen as well; it’s blocked by my teleprompter.
EF-M 22mm lens – I sold the kit lens and bought this (and a 55–200mm which I quite like but can’t use in the home studio). Nice bokeh. Super happy.
Update (03/03/2021): I now use the Sigma EFM 30mm. It’s been the perfect vlogging lens for my somewhat small office space. The 16mm is also nice, but not for my space. I’ll use it for some outdoor shooting.
Dummy battery for Canon M50 [and here for M6 Mark II] – What’s so awesome about this is that you can plug the USB into your computer for power or into a powerbank when you’re on the go. (I purchased my powerbank with money given to me by a KJV-Only pastor who gave me an Amazon gift card because of my spirit and tone in Authorized!)
Update (3/22/21): My microphone is now the Rode VideoMic NTG. I have it plugged in via USB to my computer and I have it on a jury-rigged boom just out of frame above my head. It’s a shotgun mic, meaning it can zero in on my voice and eliminate other room noise—essential in a small office.
Update (03/03/2021): I now use the Desview-T2-Teleprompter instad of the Parrot Padcaster I used to have (though I still use the Padcaster Parrot Remote), and I can lay my phone on it rather than having to squeeze the phone into a spring-loaded trap.
Video light – Sure I’d love to have the more expensive Aputure 120D every Youtuber raves about, but this is almost as good for a lot less money. I love the remote, and I never hear the fan noise that is this light’s only downside compared to the 120D.
RGB lights for background – These add a real nice touch, and because I find it hard in my home office to put a “hair light” above and behind me, these are doing double duty as accent lights and a hair light.
Ecamm Live for recording video and audio directly to hard drive – also used for livestreaming and for turning my camera into a virtual camera for video conferencing on Zoom or Google Meet. I wish I had a better solution. This is expensive at $25/mo. =|
These are almost all affiliate links, but they are all items I purchased with my own money (some of which will be reimbursed by my employer).
J.I. Packer’s first book, “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God, published when he was 32 years old in 1958, provides a brilliantly simple analysis of the three major approaches to Christian religious authority that were then, as now, on offer. Briefly, they were….
1) Evangelicalism: Scripture is the final authority
2) Traditionalism: church tradition is the final authority
3) Subjectivism: autonomous human reason is the final authority
I take Packer’s evangelical viewpoint: though I value Christian tradition and will never cease being a subject who employs my reason, I am not autonomous but aim to build my Christianity on the authority of the Bible. I believe this is the only consistently biblical position, the one Jesus supported when he said several times to the Pharisees, “The Scriptures cannot be broken,” and even, “Have you not read…?”
Many debates over what Scripture means are intractable not because the Bible itself is impossibly ambiguous, but because lying just below the surface of discussion are two (or more) of Packer’s three approaches to authority. I am convinced that homosexuality is one of those debates.
Adverting to One’s Epistemology
So I appreciate it when theological disputants announce clearly their basis for religious authority, as a PC(USA) pastor in Virginia did some time ago, in a lecture (split into twovideosa) to a gathering of his parishioners. His topic was homosexuality, but the title of his lecture was actually “The Presbyterian Understanding of Biblical Authority and Inspiration.”
He opened with a definite, though not explicit, affirmation of Packer’s third approach to biblical authority, autonomous human reason:
The Bible is both human and sacred…. Can we say, for instance, that Paul was truly inspired by God—the breath of God—when he said “I have been crucified with Christ….”? That sounds like sacred text to me. But then when he said things like “women should cover their heads and shouldn’t speak out in church”—couldn’t we agree that he was just speaking as a first-century man who had his own biases about stuff like that, and that’s not really something that should be…sacred for us? You may not agree with that, but that’s what I think. And there would be countless examples of that in the Bible.
“This sounds sacred to me, and this doesn’t.” And the rest of the pastor’s talk—the point of which is ultimately to argue for the inclusion of active, open homosexuals in the church—provides a helpful example of Packer’s “subjectivist” approach to authority in the Christian religion.
This is a popular-level lecture, and appropriately so. I will not hold its creator to academic levels of accuracy. But it is worth the analysis it’s about to receive because, numerically, most discussion of homosexuality in the church will be on the popular level. This lecture shows how the debate is already decided by which of Packer’s religious authorities one chooses, before any arguments ever get mounted.
The pastor’s first gambit, a standard move among subjectivists, is to claim that the Bible knows nothing of stable, monogamous homosexuality:
The Bible…does not speak to every need or anticipate every dilemma. We wish it did; it sure would be good if it did. We can look hard, we can dig, we can get our concordances and look every word that we can think of. But, darn it, there’s just going to be some things that there’s nothing in there about that. And one of them is a covenanted relationship between two people of the same sex who want to live in holy matrimony. [There’s] nothing about that in the Bible.
Of course, the Bible doesn’t speak directly to Internet porn either, something which the pastor condemns later in his lecture in no uncertain terms. But if the Bible doesn’t apply unless it gives us explicit prohibitions or commands—how do we know porn is wrong, or short-selling stocks, or speeding in a school zone?
And what does insisting on explicit (rather than working to apply general) biblical statements make us? It makes us, I’m afraid, like my five-year-old son at his most ornery and most literal. His mother says, “Didn’t I tell you to be nice to your sister?!” And he replies, “You never said I couldn’t hit her with a stick!” This PCUSA pastor seems to expect my wife to say, “Good point, son! Carry on.”
When Jesus (Mark 7:21) and Paul (Rom. 13:13) both condemn “immorality” in general, they do not have to spell out every act which counts as “immoral.” (You never said I couldn’t x, y, or XXX…) When they appeal repeatedly to the created order for sexual pre- and pro-scriptions, they are not required to restate the obvious and normative fact from the earliest biblical narrative that marriage is one man, one woman, for life.
But, in fact, Jesus very nearly does do this in Matthew 19. And he does thereby speak to homosexuality—and bestiality, and pedophilia, and pornography, and cohabitation, and remarriage after divorce, and all other forms of deviation from God’s sexual norms—when he says, “In the beginning it was not so” (Matt 19:8). By upholding the normative standard of faithful heterosexual monogamy, Jesus proscribes everything else.
He also makes discussions about sex a matter of biblical authority and interpretation:
Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female…? (Matt 19:4)
Without denying that we are all subjects who must employ our reason, or that we are all part of interpretive communities or traditions, Jesus nonetheless makes a direct appeal to the text of Scripture. He holds his readers morally responsible for their ability to interpret biblical texts, and he expects them to come to the same conclusion—the one the Author intended. Subjectivism this is not.
The pastor’s second gambit is to use human reason to cut a disjunction between God and his word:
God is bigger than the Bible…. Even some of the early Reformers said that one could make an idol or a false god out of the Bible. So, in other words, the Bible is so very important to Christians. It always has been, and it always will be, but God is going to always be bigger than the Bible…. The Bible is awesome, but it is not my only source of inspiration, nor is it my only source of my knowledge of God…. May we all admit that there are other sources of inspiration for us, whether it be through nature….or from other authors, poets, musicians, writers, films that you’ve seen, etc.?
[Go to] the great summations like the Golden Rule, the Ten commandments, Micah 6[:9] when you have a hard subject like sexuality issues to figure out.
Again I’m reminded of boys arguing with parents, though five-year-olds are not sophisticated enough for this kind of reasoning. I’m thinking of a sixteen-year-old who has just gotten his license. His dad posts a list of family rules for car usage on the refrigerator, one of which is “You may never drive after dark.” His friends know this rule exists, and one day while they’re out driving after dark his friends say, “Didn’t your dad say you shouldn’t do this?” “No,” replies the boy. “That wasn’t my dad. That was just a list on the fridge.”
If the Bible is in any sense God’s Word, as it repeatedly claims (2 Timothy 3:16) then it carries his authority. And to deny that authority is not to let God out of a human box but to let humans out of a divine one. That’s the essence of sin: transgressing lines that were placed there for our good and God’s glory. Actually, this pastor is stuffing God in a box—the box of cultural and historical constraint. God is not permitted to speak to all times but is stuck vainly shouting to us over the great gulf fixed between what we now know and what benighted people used to think back before further inspiration got us on the right side of history.
Admittedly, there are complexities here. The New Testament says that the way the Old Testament applies to members of the church is different than the way it applied to ancient citizens of Israel. Pastors are supposed to help their sheep through the relationship between the different major parts of the Bible.
Instead he uses the word “inspiration” in the equivocal way they taught him to use it at Princeton Seminary: it doesn’t mean the authoritative “breath of God” to him, but rather something like, “a holy feeling.” You can get that feeling from the Bible, in this view, but you can also get it from Oprah or the mall. God speaks everywhere.
But what if two people are “inspired” differently? By what standard can we judge between the professing Christian man who is inspired to marry a male and the jilted Christian wife who feels inspired to insist that he should honor his vows to her?
Subjectivism makes us all our own ultimate standards; it makes us autonomous. We’ve got our “great summations,” but you can’t box God inside those texts either, right?
PCUSA Guidelines for Interpreting the Bible
Indeed, where exactly is God in the text of the Bible? This PCUSA pastor introduces some guidelines from the PCUSA on how to interpret Scripture (if I understood correctly, they come from this book or this one).
The Bible Is Not a Science Textbook
The guidelines include this wording:
The confessions establish limits within which they may be invoked as a guide, and outside of which one may no longer be operating within the Reformed tradition.
I was surprised by this. Did a fundamentalist sneak into the doctrinal councils of the PCUSA? Why all this boundary-making and frontier-guarding? Nope. This was the next sentence:
For example, we may not claim as confessional that the Bible is an inerrant account of technical information on matters of science.
This, of course, is another standard subjectivist argument. It has become a truism in American and Western culture: even if the Bible does contain valuable “spiritual” information, “It is not a science textbook.”
The pastor says,
So, there are things we’ve learned from science….that people from the Bible didn’t understand in many cases.
He mentions, in particular, that the earth is round. He could have mentioned the creation-evolution debate or the crossing of the Red Sea or the virgin birth. The idea is that those credulous ancient people just didn’t know what we know about natural selection, climate patterns, and zygotes, so, bless ‘em, we just can’t take miraculous things in the Bible literally.
An appeal to science may sound like the very opposite of subjectivism. But it still fits squarely in Packer’s third category, because science (in the sense in which this pastor uses that word) is still “autonomous human reason.” It is privileging human experience over divine interpretation of that experience.
No, first-century Jews didn’t have the kind of detailed scientific knowledge about reproduction that is available only through microscopes. But through repeated empirical testing they had figured out that virgin conceptions are rather rare. The text of Matthew assumes this knowledge. Joseph was “minded to put her away privily” precisely because he was not credulous. He was matter-of-fact; he knew, empirically, that he had not had intercourse with Mary; he knew, based on universal human experience with no deviations, that someone else must have. It took precisely that divine interpretation to explain why the scientific method failed in this one special case.
The Bible is not a science textbook, but ancient people were not necessarily as credulous as we make them out to be. And Scripture is capable of speaking truly to matters we now call “scientific.”
Human Reason Must Not Be Untethered from Scripture
The pastor then quotes again from the PCUSA guidelines on interpreting the Bible, and this I find especially interesting:
One cannot find confessional support for the claim that only human reason without reference to Scripture is a reliable spiritual guide.
So that would be an example of using reason way beyond its intended use, to say “Well, it just doesn’t make sense, and I don’t care if it’s in the Bible; it doesn’t make sense, and I’m not paying any attention to it.”
Skip a tiny beat, then:
Now there might be some examples where that could be appropriate.
The pastor has added a pretty significant footnote to the PCUSA guidelines, the kind of footnote that qualifies an absolute “thou shalt not” by saying “except maybe sometimes”—the kind of footnote that actually amounts to, “Strike that; reverse it.”
The example he gives is polygamy:
[Polygamy is] something that doesn’t makes sense to us, and we probably aren’t going to pay any attention to it [in the Bible].
There’s that subjectivism again. And, again, he misses an opportunity to help sheep through an apparent Bible difficulty, despite the fact that he himself gives the answer to the problem in his follow-up comments. He notes that it’s hard enough for a couple to get along, let alone when you bring more people in. And that’s precisely the point the narratives (of Genesis, especially) make about polygamy: it never works out well for anyone. It only ever creates problems. It is not normative.
I agree with biblical scholar Robert Gagnon in thinking that it is awfully odd for mainline Protestant liberals to skip over polygamy on the slippery slope to affirming homosexual unions. When you give up sexual complementarity as an essential aspect of marriage, you also give up the only reason for limiting marriage to two people. I feel confident that this PCUSA pastor will get with the program soon and realize that the spirit (of the age) is speaking freshly about polygamy too. When what “makes sense to us” is our standard, what a difference five years makes. Subjectivism is the textbook example of a slippery slope.
The Slippery Slope
This pastor is well aware of the slippery slope argument:
Another thing that I’ve heard a lot is…what some people call the slippery slope. First of all, I think it is undoubtedly [true] that there have been moral standards that have been so lax in our society, that they have become acceptable, and that this is not a good thing…. I’m thinking of things like pornography on the Internet… It’s bad, it’s wrong, there’s nothing good that can come from it.
His answer to the slippery slope is that he doesn’t see any correlation between personal morality and one’s view of the Bible. There are wicked conservatives and wicked liberals (I will grant that much!); ergo, he says, it doesn’t matter whether you believe all of the Bible or just some of it.
Then the lecture ends.
If C.S. Lewis was right to warn us all not to criticize sins we’re not tempted by and books we don’t like to read, then I’m on shaky ground when critiquing liberal mainline Protestantism. I confess I simply cannot understand the appeal of a religion made of playdough. Why bother with the Bible at all if you’re just going to morph every time the culture demands it? If human reason, human experience, and CBS opinion polling trump the Bible every time except for Internet porn, why bother having a Christian religion?
It is largely accepted among watchers of American religion that mainline Protestantism is dying, and I’m not the only person who thinks that erosion of biblical authority is the main reason why. People would rather see the NFL pre-game show than go to church when the latter actually serves up less truth than the former.
Make no mistake, as Machen told us so long ago: this two-part video puts on display a non-Christian religion, a religion based on an authority wholly different from that of orthodox Christianity. That’s why the two female (apparent) conservatives in the audience, the ones who speak up meekly against homosexuality in the Q&A, can have no recourse. The pastor can’t suddenly give the Bible its proper due without changing religions.
Multiple authorities were at work undermining the Bible in that room. One of the church members, an engineer, appealed to the science of brain chemistry as his authority. He cited “Brain Sex,” a documentary film which (he said) proves that gender and sex are not the same thing.
And one of the church elders—an office charged by Paul with keeping the flock safe—appealed simply and directly to his subjectivist authority: his autonomous reason. He claimed Jesus for his side, appealing to the Great Commandments, but in the end he took it upon himself to define what love for God and neighbor means. This is how he explained his vote for inclusion of homosexual persons:
To me we are all children of God. God made all of us. I believe he made certain people gay, that this is not a choice…, that these people were made this way by God. And as children of God we need to love our neighbors as ourselves. Now the Bible says nothing about gay marriage. But for me as a Christian, when Jesus was asked, “What are the most commandments?” He could have said, “Well, all God’s words are all the same.” But he didn’t. He answered, “Love the Lord God with all your might and love your neighbor.” There were no caveats. I’m a Christian. I follow Jesus Christ first. That teaching got me to the position that I’m in now.
All true elders of Christ’s church should be able to answer this argument: I was born with adulterous desires. I never chose them. Was Jesus unloving to me when he condemned lust (Matt 5:27–30)? It’s as if followers of this religion, mainline Protestantism, have (as NT scholar Richard Hays has said) a doctrine of creation but none of fall or redemption.
Christianity Vs. Liberalism
In this era of world history, false religions are permitted to exist and even grow (and, in the case of mainline Protestantism, to shrink). The problem comes when those false religions claim to be Christianity. One of the most effective arguments against Christian opposition to homosexuality right now stems from that false labeling: Plenty of Christians have gotten on our pro-gay parade float, so the only reason you can have for holding out must be that you’re a hateful bigot.
But once you see mainline Protestant liberalism as a different religion entirely, one built on a totally different foundation from biblical orthodoxy, the picture becomes much clearer. There are few if any true Christians on that bandwagon, because Christians don’t belong on the broad road down which it’s careening.
It’s interesting to me that among my professing Christian Facebook friends who have given up their opposition to homosexuality—something they would have considered nonnegotiable a very few short years ago—every one of them has adopted other beliefs along with their newfound support for gay unions. If the Bible really said nothing about homosexuality, then you could expect that equally orthodox Christians might disagree over the issue, just as they disagree over the proper mode of baptism, the timing (or existence) of the rapture, or other second- or third-order doctrines. But all of the supporters of same sex marriage I know (among people who used to be professing evangelicals) have adopted a new view of the Bible at some point before or during their acceptance of homosexuality: the idea that the Bible ought to be subsumed to some other authority—science, human reason, or just whatever the cool kids say.
I did not single out this PCUSA pastor because he is an especially dangerous wolf who is about to devour Christ’s flock, but because he appears to be a standard-issue wolf, the kind to whom Princeton Seminary every year gives out hundreds of sheepskins, the kind who then go on to collect more by fleecing flocks in your town and mine.
You are a subject: you can never set aside your reason, and you shouldn’t. It should simply be submitted to your ultimate authority: God speaking through his word.
You have a tradition: you can never quite step out of it, and you (probably) shouldn’t. It should simply be summited to your ultimate authority, God speaking through his word.
But as Robert Gagnon once said to a PCUSA church body after a public debate over homosexuality,
That’s what this discussion is about that you’re having in this church. You’re having a discussion about whether what Jesus thinks takes priority is to be given priority. You’re [in] a discussion about whether what Scripture as a whole…regards as essential is to be viewed as essential anymore in the church. And if you don’t think it is, then stop playing the game. Stop playing the game with Scripture. Stop making the pretense about the affirmation of Christ as Lord, because it isn’t really Jesus who is Lord. You’re lord. And you’ve used Jesus as a cipher into which you impute your own ideological meaning and make him say, like a marionette puppet, whatever you want him to say. But I suggest to you, that is not a good look for the church. And when the church does that it ceases in any meaningful way to be a representative of the body of Christ in the world. And there are warnings in Revelation 2–3 by the risen Christ to such churches. You do not want to go down that route. Thank you.
I’m trying to do what wiser people have recommended; I’m trying to critique only the best and strongest representatives of the various KJV-Only viewpoints available. I recently posted a YouTube review of Laurence M. Vance’s 1997 book, Archaic Words and the Authorized Version. Here’s the text.
I hope to show that Laurence M. Vance’s book, Archaic Words and the Authorized Version is simply and fundamentally and clearly wrong, gloriously wrong, infamously wrong, precisely at the point of its central thesis. When it came time to rate it on Goodreads I wanted to give it one star out of five. But I couldn’t. I had to give Vance another third of a star for sheer gumption, another third for the thousands of hours of work needed to put this thick book together, and a last third of a star for being the only person in the KJV-Only world that I have ever run into who demonstrated knowledge of the existence of the Oxford English Dictionary. So: two stars total.
Here’s Vance’s thesis:
The thesis of this seminal work is that the Authorized Version is no more archaic than daily newspapers, current magazines, and modern Bible versions. (viii)
Calling your own work seminal is gumption. And having a thesis like his—one that is so counterintuitive (actually, I will argue, counterfactual)—is double gumption. I gotta hand it to him.
I want first to interact with Vance’s thesis as he stated it, clarifying what “archaic” language is; then I want to look at ten randomly-chosen examples from his book that will demonstrate the book’s gloriously infamous gumption.
“Archaic” vs. “obsolete”; and words vs. senses
There are tons of debates in the world. They never stop, and they never will stop until the eschaton. And perhaps even then we’ll have debating societies: finite people just can’t know exhaustive truth about everything. This alone would lead to disagreements, but then the fall of mankind of got mixed up in there and now debates happen—and go sour—at 5G speeds.
Many debates don’t have an agreed-upon standard; the standard is itself part of the debate. Macs vs. PCs, for example—it’s meaningless to say that one is “better” than the other until you ask, “By what standard?” Mac users tend to prefer the standard of aesthetic appeal, while Microsoft users might prefer the standard of lower cost or of available apps. They can’t agree upon a standard of what counts as a good computer, so they can’t have a debate over which computer is better—not until they establish a standard.
There are two major debates over the King James Version, and “by what standard” is relevant to each of them. One is Greek New Testament textual criticism: which edition is closest to the originals? The originals are the agreed-upon standard. But we don’t have the originals. So that debate is interminable. This is one big reason why I don’t talk much on my YouTube channel about this debate. We have an agreed upon standard, but we don’t have access to it.
But there’s a second major debate over the KJV, and, blessedly, we have an agreed upon standard to guide us and to stand over us as referee. The debate is over the contemporary readability of the King James. And the standard is The Dictionary. Both sides acknowledge it. My KJV-Only brothers acknowledge it every time they say, as I have heard them say to me repeatedly over three decades, “Anybody with a little diligence and a dictionary can read the KJV just fine.” People like me who love the KJV but reject KJV-Onlyism, who argue that edification requires intelligibility—we acknowledge the authority of The Dictionary, too. I have looked up every one of my “false friends” in the OED, the Oxford English Dictionary, and the footnotes in Authorized make this clear.
Laurence M. Vance acknowledges the same standard. In fact, he uses the same dictionary—and he’s the only KJV-Only individual I’ve ever known who did so. The OED is the ultimate English dictionary, the granddaddy of them all, the Sumo wrestler of dictionaries. It’s huge and exhaustive, and it takes extra effort to understand it and use it compared to Merriam-Webster or American Heritage. The OED tries to cover the entire history of English; other dictionaries focus instead on words and senses that are still in use.
Forgive my extended throat-clearing here, but I can’t review Vance’s book until we all understand how this standard, The Dictionary, and particularly the OED, works. We need to distinguish, as The Dictionary does, among “archaic” words, archaic senses, and “obsolete” words and obsolete senses.
“Archaic” words and senses are those that are old but still understandable by people who have some special reason to know them. Here’s the OED on “archaic”:
Belonging to an earlier period, no longer in common use, though still retained either by individuals, or generally, for special purposes, poetical, liturgical, etc. Thus the pronunciation obleege is archaic in the first case; the pronoun thou in the second.
Beeves is another good example. It used to be used to refer to “cows” in the past, and sure enough it appears in the KJV. Beeves is still retained today—but only for “special purposes.” It is a technical term used and known pretty much only by people who work with cows, like ranchers. They might buy some “quality Texas beeves” at a cattle auction. But say beeves to someone who is not a specialist in bovine husbandry—which, according to a recent Fox News poll, means most of us—and you’ll draw a blank.
Now, the Christian religion is a special field. If we had to learn some archaic words in order to read our Bibles, that would not, I think, be an intolerable burden. You have to learn special words to dig deep into any field.
But there aren’t just archaic words; there are archaic senses of words. And this is important. The OED and all other major English dictionaries may give multiple senses for any given word. And only one or two of them might be archaic. “Experimental,” for example, is not an archaic word. We use it all the time. But it has an archaic sense: (AHD) “based on experience as opposed to authority or conjecture.” You see this sense in 18th century English writers such as Jonathan Edwards, who talked about “experimental religion.” This sense still gets used just often enough among Christian theologians that the sense is “archaic” and not “obsolete.”
And all this means that archaisms in the KJV and other Elizabethan texts exist on a spectrum from easy to hard. Ye and thee are archaic, but they are easy to learn and understand. Most people who’ve made it through high school are aware of these archaic forms. But the average person is not likely to know the archaic sense of “experimental.” For him or her, “experiential” would be more readily understood.
Then you have obsolete words and senses. Archaic words and senses are dying, or they are living off a small sidestreet in Limbo frequented only by people who have some special business there. But obsolete words and senses are six feet under in the linguistic cemetery. The OED is their headstone. They have been pronounced dead by The Dictionary. And sometimes it will even give us the hour of death. Merriam-Webster defines an “obsolete” word as one that is “no longer in use or no longer useful”—and in language, those are the same thing. If a word or sense is no longer in use, it’s no longer useful: you can’t use it, because people won’t know it.
Now, finally, we can get back to the thesis of Vance’s book, Archaic Words and the Authorized Version. Again that thesis is:
The thesis of this seminal work is that the Authorized Version is no more archaic than daily newspapers, current magazines, and modern Bible versions. (viii)
I think, here, that Vance is using the word “archaic” to cover words and senses that are archaic and those that are obsolete. Certainly, throughout his book he lists both kinds of words.
For example, he acknowledges that in the sentence “they have done unto him whatsoever they listed,” “Listed is definitely archaic” (214). He doesn’t provide any examples of this word being used in contemporary English—because it isn’t. It’s not archaic, it’s obsolete. Now, I’m not picking on his terminology, I’m really not. I think what he did was fine: he was being non-technical for a non-technical readership. I just think it can also be helpful to be a bit more specific, distinguishing archaic words and senses from obsolete ones.
And now that we have those concepts in mind, I can clarify something. The problem for today’s readers with KJV English isn’t just that it’s archaic, although nearly every KJV sentence outside of “Jesus wept” is worded in at least a slightly different way from how we would do it, and that has to mean something for readability. The problem with KJV English is that some words and some senses of some words have passed from “archaic” to “obsolete.” Again, the problem with insisting that everyone read the KJV exclusively is not that it has quaint language, language with the whiff of the antique mall or the museum but that we might realistically expect them to buckle down and learn. The problem with KJV English for modern readers is two kinds of linguistic obsolescence: dead words and false friends (which are simply obsolete senses of still-in-use words). In other words, it’s English so old it is either unintelligible or, worse, misleading.
As I’ve said, the existence of obsolete and archaic senses is not the fault of the KJV translators! They couldn’t know what would happen to English in the next 400 years after their work was done.
But we, if we’re going to have a productive debate over KJV English, have to understand these concepts I’ve just explained. We’re going to need them as we turn now to Vance’s specific examples.
Ten Random Examples from Vance’s Book
Now: Vance gives 712 examples of words (and a few phrases) he himself judges to be “archaic” in one way or another. How many of them do I have to critique, and how must I select them, in order to represent his methods and judgments fairly?
That’s kind of up to you. Fairness is probably in the eye of the beholder here. All I can do is my best—within the natural time limits of my schedule and of the YouTube medium. I don’t think I can realistically expect you to sit through more than ten examples. That would get tedious. So how do I select them fairly? Well, first I read and read and read, and I looked things up in dictionaries, and then I took notes. You can see them here. Then I asked Siri to give me random numbers between and therefore choose my examples, and these are the ten words Siri chose:
Beeves (I’m not kidding—it picked one of the very words I already talked about! I laughed out loud when I turned to it!)
Word nerds out there can tell right away that we’ve got a mix of archaic words and obsolete words, and of easy archaisms and hard ones. We’ll find, too, that we’ll need the difference between “words” and “senses,” too, in order to fairly evaluate this list. We’ve even got a word or two, I’ll argue, that isn’t archaic at all and shouldn’t have been placed in Vance’s book.
Vance lays out his methods in the beginning of his book. He promises us six things in each entry:
A verse of Scripture from the KJV using the word.
All forms of the word in the KJV, like satiated, unsatiable, and satiate.
The etymology of the word.
A definition of the word.
Examples of how the word is used in modern Bible versions.
Examples of how the word is used in contemporary newspapers and magazines.
These last two are important, because without them he can’t prove his thesis. He has to show that these archaic and obsolete words and senses are, in fact, still used—and used commonly—today. He has to, implicitly, correct the dictionary whenever it calls a KJV word obsolete.
Let’s see how he does.
On this first example, I’m afraid he doesn’t do so great fulfilling his own program. We get the verse: “He will set thee as a gazingstock” (Nah 3:6). He does well on the definition, though not so great on the etymology. It seems to me he didn’t dig deep enough into the huge entry for “stock” in the OED, because it explains why “-stock” is the suffix on so many obsolete words like gazingstock, sportingstock, talkingstock, floatingstock, and gauringstock—and one we still use today, laughingstock. The OED says that a “stock” was a trunk of a tree, and that it probably got used (they’re not certain) in these words because the people who are the objects of others’ mirth are pictured as being unfeeling like a tree stump. But Vance couldn’t say everything there was to say about gazingstock, so this omission is not a big deal.
But there was something he was supposed to say, something he promised to say—or there was no point in his writing this book. In the very first example word, selected at random by Siri, Vance gives no examples of gazingstock being used in contemporary newspapers or magazines. Instead he changes the subject and offers a random example of a place where, in his judgment, the KJV uses an easier word than the NIV. Okay, yes, maybe “tranquility” is more difficult than “quietness” for modern readers (though I’d call that a pretty big maybe, and I can’t know unless I look at the context, which Vance does not provide), but surely neither is “archaic.” And that’s what Vance has promised to show us: that the KJV is no more archaic than today’s newspaper than the modern versions. By failing to find a use of gazingstock in either one, what Vance has just done is acknowledged that, in fact, the KJV is more archaic than today’s English—at this one point, the word gazingstock.
When I sat down to read his book, I saw Vance do this repeatedly. And my mouth hung open further and further each time, until it was dragging the floor and my wife had to come and help me put my jaw back in joint. I literally could not believe that such a clearly intelligent man would think he can get away with this. And I’m telling you: I saw him do it over and over. Have readers gotten wise since this book came out, during my senior year of high school? I hope so. If not, I’m trying to wise them here on this humble sidestreet of the internet frequented only by you people who have some special business here.
Vance is 0 for 1, I’m afraid. Let’s move on.
The second word Siri chose at random was importunity. And here Vance again had my mouth hanging open, because importunity simply isn’t an archaic word. It’s a difficult word, sure, but it is a word I know from outside the KJV. “Persistence” is probably a better word for the passage at hand, the short illustration Jesus gives of the man who bangs on his neighbor’s door at night, asking for three loaves of bread. And, sure enough, the modern versions don’t use “importunity.” They use more common words such as “audacity,” “persistence,” and “shamelessness.”
But if The Dictionary is our standard, I couldn’t find one that called importunity archaic, let alone obsolete. The word is listed as current in Merriam-Webster, American Heritage, and of course the OED. No wonder, then, that Vance was able to find an example of this word in the magazine Sojourners in 1990. It’s not an archaic word at all.
I really am trying to be fair here, but so far I’d say Vance is at a clear 0 for 2.
The next word Siri chose for us is farthing. This word definitely has the whiff of the antique mall or the museum, to me at least. But then, if The Dictionary is our standard, none of the three we’ve been checking call this word “archaic” or “obsolete.” They all do say that it is a former monetary unit from Britain. The OED says that the farthing ceased to be legal tender in 1961. It was one fourth of a cent. So, yes, that’s probably close enough to enable us to call the word “archaic.” Clearly, we don’t have farthings anymore.
But… the word has held on, and it appears in another different sense in all three dictionaries. It now means “something of small value.” In fact, the OED tells me that this sense has been around since before the time of the KJV. Just like our phrase “My two cents” uses pennies as metaphors for things of small value, so “farthing” has had both a literal and a figurative sense for many centuries.
Which one did the KJV translators intend when they translated the Greek word assarion, which was a coin valued at one-sixteenth of a day’s wage, with, “Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing?”
I think that quite clearly, given the context, they were picking the literal sense: one-fourth of a cent. They were picking the closest equivalent coin in their culture to the one Jesus talked about from his culture, which is a perfectly good translation strategy.
But all this means that Vance has confused words and senses. Sure, we still have the word “farthing”: he proved that with a reference to Fortune magazine. But he didn’t show that our English still has the sense found in the KJV, that literal sense: one fourth of a penny.
Vance in the beginning of his book says that “to learn and understand the Bible one must be familiar with its vocabulary instead of dragging it down to one’s own level.” He says that we must “learn the vocabulary necessary to understand.” And I say: do I have to learn that the farthing was one fourth of a cent in order to understand my Bible? Would it be so wrong for today’s translators to pick an equivalent coin that is in use today rather than one that was in use in 1611? Like “penny”? Or to be vague like “copper coin,” since we don’t have a true equivalent to one-sixteenth of a day’s wage? Or to just transliterate the Greek word, indicating that there is no contemporary equivalent? It just seems odd that I should have to learn about the historical monetary units of Britain in order to understand my Bible today.
Vance hasn’t proven his thesis with this word; he found the KJV word in Fortune, but he didn’t find the KJV sense of that word. I have to say that I saw him do this repeatedly in other examples I read. And I have to conclude we’re at 0 for 3.
Word 4: Cockatrice. This one comes from Isaiah 14:29:
Out of the serpent’s root shall come forth a cockatrice.
Do you know what a cockatrice is? I don’t. I think based on the contexts in which it appears in the KJV it must be some kind of snake? But I have to admit I’ve never looked it up till today. Vance says that it meant a “hybrid serpent and fowl.” So like a bird-snake? I certainly didn’t know that.
He doesn’t say whether this is an accurate reflection of the Hebrew, and I have to assume it isn’t. The modern translations tend to go with “adder.” That is an English word I do know.
And, once again, on example 4, we have a word for which Vance finds no contemporary uses. My mouth is hanging open again. This book is supposed to prove that the KJV is no more archaic than the newspaper or than modern versions, but Vance has to implicitly acknowledge—by changing the subject, just like he did in example 1—that, in fact, cockatrice is not present in contemporary English. I won’t spend any more time on this one.
I really and truly would like to give Vance a point, because it doesn’t look balanced to give someone a 0%. But blame Siri’s random selection process: we’re at 0 for 4.
Vance does the same thing yet again with word number 5, “verily.” He gives no example uses from current English. He actually explicitly acknowledges that “verily” is archaic. But watch what he does—again:
Verily might be archaic, but is certainly much easier to understand than why the NRSV substituted “remonstrated” for “contended.”
This is like a Red Sox fan saying during a dispute with a Yankees fan over which is the best team, “Okay, maybe the Yankees have won more World Series, but the Red Sox have a better logo!”
Yes, maybe so. But that wasn’t the argument we were told we were having. Vance’s thesis was not that the KJV is easier than modern versions, but that it was no more archaic than they are. So his example from the NRSV is irrelevant to his stated thesis.
Now it may be that he has a second, unstated thesis: that the modern versions are actually harder to understand than the KJV. And I have seen plenty of KJV-Only folks say this very thing. And we could have that debate. But that would call for a different book than the one Vance has given us: different method; different proofs. He stated his thesis so clearly; why is he bringing up irrelevant data? And why does he do it repeatedly at precisely those points at which he fails to demonstrate his thesis?
FWIW, it turns out that the NRSV had a good reason for going with “remonstrated” in Neh 13:17, the passage Vance has to be talking about (just check the commentaries). But even this is irrelevant to the question we’re supposed to be pursuing. Vance’s book was supposed to tell us about Archaic Words in the Authorized Version. Remonstrated isn’t archaic—as The Dictionary will quickly tell you. We’re 0 for 5 here; let’s move on.
And yet I can’t move on. The very next word selected at random, example no. 6, shows precisely the same pattern we’ve been seeing. This time his change of subject actually made me laugh out loud, it was so gloriously cheeky. Look what he does:
Although the word champaign is archaic, it is still the name of a city in Illinois.
Champaign was used twice in the 1611 KJV—once in Deuteronomy and once in the apocryphal book of Judith (remember: the 1611 KJV included the Apocrypha). The word meant “plain” or “field.” Deuteronomy 11:30 speaks of “the land of the Canaanites, which dwell in the champaign over against Gilgal.”
I would think it is obvious that the fact that there is a city in Illinois which bears the name Champaign is of no help to me when I come to Deuteronomy 11:30. I didn’t know what a champaign was until I read Vance’s book. I do have him to thank for teaching me this word. (A YouTube commenter mentioned that he’s from Champaign, Illinois, and yet didn’t know what the word meant.)
And, y’ know, I am determined to give Vance at least one point. And, despite himself, he earns one here. Because all three of our dictionaries mark this word as still current. I’ve never heard it or read it that I can recall. I’ll bet four farthings that you haven’t either. I also failed to find it in the linguistic corpus I like to check: all I saw there was that city in Illinois. But I have to admit that, apparently, I’m the one who’s ignorant. I guess Vance was, too, though, because he said the word was archaic. But he still gets a point. I’m determined.
Now… if you and I and Vance [and the guy from Champaign] don’t know this word, might it not be better to say “plain” or “field” instead, like Vance acknowledges the NKJV does? But I suppose that’s irrelevant to the thesis again. Back to evaluating Vance’s arguments for this thesis. He’s 1 for 6.
Word 7 is “mess.” The passage Vance cites is in one of my favorite stories in the Bible, the story of Joseph and God’s amazing power in planning good where his brothers planned evil.
And [Joseph] took and sent messes unto them from before him: but Benjamin’s mess was five times so much as any of theirs. (Gen 43:34)
Now let me pause for a second to make a linguistic observation. This sentence is full of archaisms. They aren’t hard to understand if you have some practice and if you understand the context, but at so many points, the way the KJV talks here just isn’t the way we talk or write. It is obviously, undeniably an older way of talking. Without even looking at the Hebrew, I can de-archaize this sentence. I can translate from KJV into modern English; I’ve been doing it my entire life. I can often, not always, do this kind of thing on the fly.
And Joseph had food sent to them all from in front of him, but Benjamin’s portion was five times as large as any of theirs.
There is only one word in this KJV sentence that is archaic: “mess.” So why did I change so many other things when I translated it into our English? Because it isn’t just words that are archaic; it’s word order and syntax and prepositional phrases. And I can’t find anywhere in Vance’s book where he acknowledges these other dimensions of archaism in language. In this book, “archaic” is something limited to words. But his thesis was—again—that “the Authorized Version is no more archaic than daily newspapers, current magazines, and modern Bible versions.” So why did he talk about only one dimension of language? For him to demonstrate his thesis, I think he’d have to find magazines that said “from before him” and “five times so much as.” You and I both know he couldn’t do that—because the KJV uses archaic English and today’s New York Times does not.
Now to mess.
Context makes this word clear enough in the KJV. Mess simply has to mean “food.” And, as I was sure Vance would point out, and he did, good readers today will have heard of a “mess hall”—and, I’d add, of “the Captain’s mess.” “Mess” is a word I associate with soldiers and sailors—which is precisely what the AHD tells me to expect. It is clearly “archaic” in the sense I described toward the beginning of this piece: it is a word that used to be used more commonly to mean “food” but has now stuck around only in specialized uses, namely naval and military uses, neither of which fits the context in Genesis 43.
Vance doesn’t acknowledge any of this. But by appealing to military uses and finding no other kinds of examples, he is actually implicitly showing that the word is archaic in the sense of that word as defined by The Dictionary.
And, I mean, don’t you just know that it is? “Joseph took and sent messes unto them.” No one today would ever say that. This isn’t the fault of the KJV translators: that was perfectly fine in their day. And it isn’t our fault. Language simply changes over time. 1 for 7.
Eighth word: oration. This is another word like importunity, one that simply isn’t archaic. I don’t have a problem with the KJV using the word in the place Vance names, Acts 12:21:
And upon a set day Herod, arrayed in royal apparel, sat upon his throne, and made an oration unto them.
An oration is a formal and elaborate discourse, a grandiose speech, even a pompous one. Every one of The Dictionaries I looked at listed it as current, and indeed it is a word that I personally know and have used. So it’s no surprise that Vance found this word in the Associated Press in 1994. It isn’t archaic.
But I also don’t have a problem with modern translations using what I take to be easier, more commonly known, words here. And that’s just what most of them do. They tend to use “public address” or “speech,” which are certainly also acceptable translations of the Greek word God inspired. And isn’t that the point? If there are two words that are both accurate translations—and there very, very frequently are—and one of them is gold and the other is silver, is it so bad if you use the silver one and not the gold if far more people understand the silver one? In other words, are we obligated to use the most formal synonym currently available when more commonly known, somewhat less formal ones work just as well?
1 for 8.
I already talked about beeves. I’ve talked about it in previous videos, in fact.
Vance did not offer a current use of this word in his brief discussion of it. He, once again (I am not making this up) changed the subject and complained that the NRSV used the more difficult “deference” instead of the easier “fear” in a passage he doesn’t name. Again, maybe he’s right. And again, it’s totally irrelevant to his thesis.
In fact, Vance could have found a use of the word beeves if he’d looked hard enough in the right places. It is still used today, as I said earlier, in specialized places. But that’s what “archaic” means. Beeves is clearly archaic, or nothing is.
1 for 9.
The tenth and final example word, chosen by Siri at random from Vance’s book, is interesting .It’s translate, which is used only once in the KJV.
[The Lord swore] to translate the kingdom from the house of Saul, and to set up the throne of David over Israel and over Judah. (2 Sam 3:10)
Context is clear enough here that you could use nonsense syllables and people would still know what the sentence means. Let’s try it.
[The Lord swore] to trembulate the kingdom from the house of Saul, and to set up the throne of David over Israel and over Judah.
You get the gist, don’t you?
But why not use a word people actually know, in a sense they actually still use? This is what all major translations do here. They pretty much all go for “transfer.” And, in fact, that’s what Vance said “translate” used to mean. He acknowledges that the word is now used mostly for “transferring” meaning from one language to another. So what’s wrong with saying “transfer”?
There’s one more wrinkle to cover, and this is the interesting part: Vance gives a current example use of “translate” that, he says, shows that the KJV’s use of the word is no more archaic than modern newspapers. Let’s take a look:
However, less strategic dependence has not translated into a loss of United States leverage over China on other policy issues.
That’s from a periodical called Current History. And that is a recognizably current use of the word translate. But we have to pull out the conceptual tools I said you’d need: the difference between words and senses, and between those that are “archaic” and those that are “obsolete.”
All three of the dictionary companions we’ve been relying on give many senses for translate. And they all divide these senses into two groups: transitive and intransitive. Stay with me here. Remember from English class: transitive verbs take direct objects:
Tyndale translated the Bible into English.
The object of the transitive verb in this case is “the Bible.”
And the Bible verse that Vance is citing here uses the transitive sense of the verb:
The Lord swore to translate the kingdom from Saul to David.
And yet the example sentence from contemporary English that Vance chooses uses an intransitive sense of the verb:
Less strategic dependence has not translated into a loss.
There’s no object. Vance says that we still have this word, “translate,” and we do, but we don’t have it used in the sense found in the King James Version in 2 Sam 3:10.
In fact, if you check the Oxford English Dictionary, sense 9 is:
†9. transitive. To transfer (rulership, a country, etc.) from the possession or control of one person or people to another.
And it names this sense as: “Obsolete.”
We’re at 1 for 10, folks. In all honesty, I didn’t expect it to be this way. I bought this book with some fear that it might point out some things I had missed in my own little book. I come away from it feeling more confirmed in my view that the KJV is a translation into an English no one speaks fully anymore. Indeed, it’s hard to see this book as anything but a diligent collection of evidence to refute its own thesis.
I have been seeking out the best trained and most gifted brothers in KJV-Onlyism as dialogue partners; I’ve looked for the best representatives of the position. And I have learned things from them, I have. They’re not always 1 for 10. Even Vance helped me clarify what exactly “archaic” means by picking examples that sharpened my thinking.
Do you want to keep going? We can keep going. We can do this all day today, all day tomorrow. I only went through ten examples out of 712. That’s 1.4%. So I don’t think I “proved” that Vance failed to demonstrate his thesis. That would take more time than most people are willing to spend.
So what have I done? I have given you the conceptual tools to evaluate this book—and many claims like it I’ve seen in KJV-Only literature—for yourself. Armed with the concepts of archaic words, archaic senses, obsolete words, and obsolete senses, I think you can indeed read Vance’s book with more careful eyes. I wouldn’t mind at all if he got a big jump in sales because of this review (and I myself did buy the book with my limited book budget)—if it means that you are reading it with these conceptual tools I’ve tried to give you.
But most of you won’t do this, and I don’t really blame you. You will go on trusting the same people you trusted before you read this, because it takes a lot of time and energy to reevaluate your views. And that’s true whether that’s people who take Vance’s KJV-Only viewpoint or people take my not-KJV-Only viewpoint. So I want to end with a sobering and direct word for those who who trust KJV-Only leaders and who distrust anyone who questions them.
I never want to tell anyone to distrust their pastor; that is a dangerous thing to say unless their pastor is a false teacher. I don’t think that KJV-Only pastors, by and large, are “lying”—purposefully telling untruths to people under their care. I’ve known men like this, and I’ve known them to be godly, careful, evangelistic, and a lot of other good things.
But here’s the sobering things I want to tell you: don’t let anyone degrade you the way the Emperor did with his new clothes. Sometimes people can get away with saying things that aren’t true precisely because the untruths are so glaring. People look around them, and they see a lot of other people nodding their heads, and they assume that they’re the ones who are missing something. But you’re not.
The thesis of this seminal work is that the Authorized Version is no more archaic than daily newspapers, current magazines, and modern Bible versions. (viii)
This is obviously and patently and culpably absurd. There is not a stitch of clothing on that emperor. I’m saying this at the end of the video, after spending a lot of hours trying to show that it’s all absurd. But all that means is I just spent a lot of hours trying to demonstrate something you already knew. When you read contemporary newspapers and magazines—and contemporary Bible versions—the subject matter may be difficult in places, and it certainly will be, but the English is instantly recognizable as your English. When you read the KJV, and this is absolutely not a criticism of the KJV, you can’t not know that its English is archaic. Its differences from our English are visible in nearly every line.
I am absolutely certain that every person who made it this far in this video knows, beyond even the tiniest fleck of shadow of a doubt, that, “If the salt have lost his savour,” is archaic English, and, “If the salt has lost its taste,” isn’t. How do I know this? Because you never talk or write like KJV English in real life. You know that people would look at you funny. They would wonder why you are purposefully choosing archaic and obscure and even obsolete ways of saying things. They would wonder what your subtext was. Are you strange? Are you playing a joke on them? Are you some new breed of hipster NPR hasn’t done a story on yet? Are you trying to appear smart by quoting Shakespeare? KJV English is nothing if it isn’t archaic. And everyone knows it. Vance said that modern versions “drag” the vocabulary of the Bible “down to one’s own level.” But he himself used contemporary English throughout the book rather than Elizabethan. Why? Because the latter is archaic and therefore harder to understand.
That’s far from saying that it’s all unintelligible or useless or impossible to understand. I don’t think it is. I love the KJV, and I use it in some way in Bible study just about every day. But if we ask this narrow question, Is it archaic? the answer has to be a resounding yes. Over and over again, the one standard that we all agree upon, The Dictionary, labels words and senses in the KJV as “archaic” and “obsolete.”
And this matters. This matters because people like Vance are saying, as he said on page viii,
The Authorized Version is the Bible for English speaking Christians and the standard by which all other versions should be judged.
But what does the Bible say? It says,
Except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken?
1 Corinthians 14 teaches us that edification requires intelligibility. Where possible, Bible translators need to use words the plow boy, the man on the street, the average person knows rather than words they don’t. And by definition, an archaic word or sense is one that relatively few people know, and an obsolete word or sense is one that practically no one knows. Don’t let someone tell you do know word when you don’t, or that you somehow should feel deficient for not knowing words that The Dictionary says were laid to rest before you were born. Edification requires intelligibility, brothers and sisters. I beg of you: don’t let someone tell you not to read the Bible in your own English.
In my estimation, “False Friends” is the unanswerable argument in the KJV-Only debate. It’s one thing to say, “Anyone with a bit of elbow grease and a dictionary can read the KJV.” But what if, because of language change, people don’t and can’t know every time they’re misunderstanding a given Elizabethan English word?
Defenses of the KJV rarely get specific, and in my experience they almost never discuss the OED entry for a given archaic word. It’s the rare KJV defender who will talk at length about archaic words. Laurence M. Vance is a real rarity. Most others talk in generalities:
People can understand the KJV just fine.
The KJV uses “Biblical English.”
Accuracy is more important than readability.
People who love the KJV and are inclined to stick with it exclusively nod their heads when these talking points are trotted out. They think in generalities: Other people may have trouble understanding the KJV, but not me. I grew up with it.
But I think there’s a powerful emotional force in simply mentioning dead words and false friends. People know they don’t know the dead words; language is such an intuitive and powerful part of their lives. I don’t think the task of persuading them that these words are dead is very hard. Just say collop, trow, chambering, and they’ll feel the force of the argument.
Getting people to see clearly the concept of false friends is more difficult. Usually the sense the KJV translators intended isn’t terribly far away from the modern sense of the word called up by a particular context. the difference between “limping” between two opinions and “wavering” between them isn’t massive.
But I’m trying my best; I’m trying to win by attrition. If I can’t change everyone’s minds—and I’m under no illusion that any argument will work with people who, in some corner of their hearts I can’t access and have never understood, don’t want any argument for contemporary English translations to work—I truly believe that I will change the conversation. I want textual criticism to recede as “dead words” and (especially) “false friends” take over the KJV-Only debate. I want the truth of 1 Corinthians 14—”edification requires intelligibility”—to be the scriptural appeal my side makes over and over again to our brothers (it’s almost always brothers, rarely sisters) within the various strands of KJV-Onlyism.