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Proof of what is unseen

Inherited Sin and COVID-19 Epistemology

Mark Ward

One of my walking buddies at work is a statistician who does data analysis for our company. Of statistics, I guess. I always enjoy talking to him; I like the way his mind works. I’ve long been interested in epistemology, the question of how we know—how we justify our knowledge, especially as Christians. COVID-19 has raised the issue again in very personal and insistent ways. I had this conversation with my buddy, and I asked if he’d mind if I posted it on my blog.


Marshall, I could use the help of a statistician who is used to the epistemological questions attendant on the gathering of large amounts of data, far larger than any one person could possibly get a handle on inductively: what, if anything, are we morally obligated to believe about the COVID-19 pandemic? I recently discovered that numbers of my acquaintances back East think it’s a “hoax pandemic” (that’s a direct quote), and that wearing of masks shows one is a dupe. They openly distrust government and, therefore, government sources of information. But it seems to me that the government is the only entity powerful enough to collect COVID-19 data on the broad scale necessary, and we’d have to have really good reasons not to trust them if we were to call it a hoax. These acquaintances don’t seem to want to entertain the idea that, right or wrong, a given state governor may actually be trying to save lives.


Yeah, when this all started I told my wife that I was more scared of this thing turning political (though tribal is probably a better word) than the scariness of some of the initial numbers. It seems like it has done so. I’m definitely connected to people who are approaching the “hoax” camp. I am also not one to just believe all the narratives coming from the “other side.” I feel myself bouncing back and forth depending on who I talk to in many cases. In my experience, the best statisticians I’ve worked with operate in this space.

My statistician brain definitely gets frustrated with these big swings: “It’s the worst thing ever, buy all the TP!”; “It doesn’t exist because…some of the models were wrong or….some news sources were exaggerating!” The data sources have always been inaccurate and flawed to me. It’s almost like in the beginning everyone thinks all the data they hear about is perfectly true, so if something turns out wrong or some figure changes their mind it’s seen as some sort of trick that got played on them, and the whole lot is thrown out. It’s the shame of “being duped” or the pride of “you can’t dupe me” that leads down the road to conspiracy land, where you are always “in the know.” (It actually has me thinking of the early Gnostics—I wonder if anyone has made that connection before?)

I think I have a better understanding of how hard it is to tell the truth using data, especially when data is flowing quickly and the risk is high. The default is that you are (maybe not purposefully) lying with those initial stats. I tend to listen to people, who, from the beginning, acknowledge the uncertainty and live in the humility of “this is what we think we know to the best of our knowledge, but our the data are flawed, and it will change as we improve our understanding—we are trying our best.” It’s hard to get a good tweet to go viral with that though (although some manage to do so!).

But at this point, we are all tired of data that doesn’t fit with the opinions we already hold. It’s just too exhausting to make a decision about how to live without a truth to cling to—so we start leaning on our value systems. We aren’t playing the same “data game” anymore, which makes me mostly disappointed because I think there is some moral obligation to care for each other, and data, with all its flaws, can help us do that better. There is my answer…what was the question again?


That’s excellent. I’m right with you. I have to acknowledge that I, too, have gotten weary of any data that doesn’t fit my opinions—I’m weary of ALL data about COVID-19; it’s just too much. But I can say that I have carefully and humbly (I hope!) maintained all along that there are massive limitations on my ability to “know” about the spread and threat of the coronavirus. I’m not qualified to assess the competing claims of apparent experts. I simply have to trust and obey my God-given authorities while keeping my eyes open as much as possible, which isn’t very much because of the aforesaid limitations!

I’m also used to being a distrusted expert, and I feel some instinctive loyalty to the expert tribe. I’m not an expert on many things, but I really know some things about the King James Version—about English lexicography and Bible translation. I know, I just know, when I’m up against a person who simply doesn’t know what they’re talking about in those areas. And I’ve had plenty such people tell me that I’m the idiot. =) I actually love, I really do, going up against someone in debate/discussion who proves my equal or superior, and who really listens. It’s a gift. But it’s a rare one. And I smell the same kind of, yes, Gnosticism (and no, you’re not the first to name this!) out there among COVID-19 deniers.

Part of me wants to give everybody a break: this is a confusing and unprecedented and scary time. Job loss and church closure and wedding postponements and no NBA and a 24-hour news cycle with nothing else to talk about… It’s all bewildering. So I do give people a break.

But I also remember Proverbs 18:13: Whoever answers a matter before he hears it, it’s a folly and shame to him. And I have repeatedly found myself reading the social media post of someone who already distrusted the government and now believes this pandemic is a big hoax, and I’ve thought, Knowledge is justified belief. What warrant do they even think they have for their belief? No one can possibly count all the COVID cases for himself or herself; we have to trust someone to tell us what’s going on or not going on. But I see those who believe it’s a hoax posting anything that fits their narrative, no matter the source. (Have you seen this from Alastair Roberts?)

My other concern is that Trump and COVID-19 have revealed hitherto invisible (to me) dividing lines among people I love, especially fellow Christians. I can see why people go paedobaptist rather than credo; I get it. But I don’t like being completely unable to understand what people see in Trump, and I don’t like entering a period in which we were all supposed to be in something together only to discover that I’m just not together with people I love and trust. I also don’t like being unable to explain why we’re divided. What was it in my heart that made me impervious to the sway Trump has on others? What was it in their hearts that made them susceptible to conspiracy theories about COVID-19? And I always end with: What are my own blind spots that make others wonder about my own sanity?! I feel like I’ll be exploring these questions till I die. I’ve got to be patient with people but resolute in my own conscience.


Very well said. “Giving everybody a break” definitely resonates with me—especially because I need it from others as well.

I recently heard in a sermon how the word for “original sin” in German is best translated as “inherited sin,” which struck a chord for me. I think the root of all our division is wrapped up in this. We are incapable of generating the grace needed in theory and in practice to get along. It is almost as if we need to be rescued, or “saved” from ourselves. 😉

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When Will the KJV Be Sufficiently Unintelligible to the “Plow Boy” That Change Will Become Necessary?

Mark Ward

The following was written as an appendix to the audio version of Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible. But there’s a longer story: I sent Dr. Jeff Riddle a review copy of my book, and he submitted a review to a theological journal but kindly sent it to me as well (or first—I do not now recall). I suggested a back-and-forth, a review and response in the journal. Brother Riddle liked the idea, and so did the journal’s book review editor. I spent many hours on my response—especially on shortening it after discovering that it was initially far too long! I sent it in, and the book review editor liked it. But the top editor at the journal felt the debate was too touchy for his readership, and he declined to publish either piece. Riddle ended up sending his piece to the Bible League Quarterly (you can read it here at Riddle’s blog). I ended up using my response in the Authorized audio book. I now offer it to my blog readers.

A year and a half after its release, Authorized has been reviewed hundreds of times. But there is one kind of review that I have especially wished for, a review that is both 1) academic and 2) critical. One such review has indeed been published, and the author, Dr. Jeffrey Riddle, was kind enough to share it with me. I wish to respond to Riddle’s review (a response I have, in turn, sent to him) in this special addendum to the Authorized audiobook. Listeners will get a chance to hear me respond to some of the most common objections to my work—objections given by a well-trained source.

I am grateful both that Dr. Riddle took the time to critique my book, and that he listened hard enough to it to understand my argument. Dr. Riddle is correct that my “case against contemporary use of the KJV is primarily … that it is no longer adequately intelligible for modern readers.” I, of course, argue that this is due to no fault in the KJV and no fault in us, but due solely to the ineluctable process of language change.

My brother in Christ, Jeff Riddle, and I agree on a great deal. I am certain he cares deeply, as I do, about the Reformation battle cries of sola scriptura and the priesthood of all believers. I am certain he agrees that vernacular translation of the Bible is an essential correlate of those doctrines—that Tyndale’s plow boy still today deserves a Bible he can read. I even think Riddle would agree, in general, with my use of the apostolic principle, stated repeatedly in 1 Corinthians 14, that edification requires intelligibility.

If with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. (1 Corinthians 14:9 ESV)

What Riddle and I appear to disagree on is something I insist faithful Christians can disagree on: when exactly the effects of language change will render the King James Version sufficiently unintelligible that it needs to be replaced as the main translation of the English-speaking church. I think we have reached that point; Dr. Riddle does not. This is the debate I am trying to have with my brothers who promote the use, even sometimes the exclusive use, of the KJV.

My response below answers Dr. Riddle’s four points, all in an effort to pull us back to that question. When will the KJV be sufficiently unintelligible to the “plow boy” that change will become necessary?

1. An inconsistent argument

Dr. Riddle sees an inconsistency between my assurances in the book that I have no wish to “chuck” the KJV and my conclusion that, nonetheless, “Children and new converts should not be given copies of the KJV.” But there is a way to harmonize these statements, and here it is: ours should be the generation which takes upon itself the burden of change, especially institutional change—for the sake of the plow boy.

I will not tell any individuals who have grown up on the KJV to close its covers forever. I still use the KJV daily in Bible study. But I ask: is it inconsistent to tell existing readers to hold on to the KJV but nonetheless to help engineer a change for the next generation? If the plow boy is struggling with the KJV, when will Protestant institutions (churches, schools, camps, publishing houses), heirs of the Reformation, see the need for change on his behalf?

2. Dead words and false friends

Brother Riddle does not see such a need. He acknowledges that there are “dead words” in the KJV, but, he contends, “these can be easily found in a dictionary and learned.” Because of smartphones, Riddle says, “never has it been easier to read the KJV than now.”

Three thoughts:

Dead words

First, if we want plow boys to know their Bibles better than bishops—Tyndale’s heart cry—we need to choose language average people can understand whenever possible. I do not believe that high-school-educated English speakers should be required to use a dictionary to look up words in a Bible translation when commonly known equivalents are available. Why should I have to look up besom (Isa 14:23) when broom is ready at hand? (See also chambering, gainsay, scrip, strait—etc., etc., etc.)

And are the dead words in the KJV really so easy to look up? There is only one dictionary that reliably, by design, records all English words, including what they used to mean at all historical periods. It is the expensive, twenty-volume Oxford English Dictionary, the “OED.” But I think plow boys should not have to take out £90/year OED subscriptions to fully understand the English in their Bibles.

Difficult words

Second, as I said clearly in my book, the Bible contains difficult words, and it ought to. Yes, “filigree,” “breast piece,” and “ephod” are uncommon, to say the least. I could also add “mandrakes” and “hyrax” and theologically significant words such as “propitiation” and “sanctification.”

I think such words should remain in most English Bible translations. Where the Bible is difficult in Hebrew and Greek, it should be difficult in English. (I will say, though, that having a version such as the NIrV for kids or the functionally illiterate is also beneficial, as I know by long pastoral experience.) I simply do not think we should add unnecessary difficulty by requiring contemporary plow boys to learn obsolete words, syntax, and punctuation when current equivalents exist that they already know.

False friends

Third, all acknowledge that the Elizabethan English of the KJV contains dead words, words we know we don’t know—but far fewer see that it also contains “false friends,” words we don’t know we don’t know. These are words (and syntax, and punctuation, and other even subtler aspects of language) that we use differently than did the Elizabethans, but similarly enough that modern plow boys are unlikely to notice.

“False friends” is the key idea in my book, and I gave thirty-five examples; Dr. Riddle critiqued one. He thinks KJV readers may indeed divine that halt in “How long halt ye between two opinions” (1 Kgs 18:21) meant “limp” in 1611, not “stop.” And even if they misunderstand the false friend here, Riddle says, they will still get the basic point of the passage.

But I am not content for people to miss Elijah’s metaphor and get the overall gist when a very simple word change—from “halt” to “limp”—would allow them to get both. (And “stopping” and “limping” are not the same thing.)

Riddle argues that no change is necessary at 1 Kings 18:21. But I have polled dozens of lifelong KJV readers, mostly highly educated ones, and I have run into only four who accurately understood the intent of the KJV translators there. Three had biblical studies PhDs and could read Hebrew; the other was a Bible translator. Everyone else was as surprised as I was, at age 30, to learn what the KJV translators meant by this false friend.

How are even educated people supposed to look up words (and other features of Elizabethan language) they do not realize they are misunderstanding? My conscience is captive to the OED: it has repeatedly revealed lifelong misunderstandings for this KJV reader. And I think the plow boy is in an even weaker position. We, the strong, ought to bear his infirmities rather than insisting that he attain our linguistic competence in Elizabethan English.

3. Omits textual criticism

I studiously avoided textual criticism in my book; Dr. Riddle argued that I should not have. Most modern versions, he says, translate a “completely different underlying text.”

I disagree with Dr. Riddle over textual criticism, and I am not ignorant of debates on this topic. I wrote a Bible Study Magazine cover story on textual criticism not long ago. I also took two years with the help of volunteers to build a website,, that demonstrates how very similar Dr. Riddle’s preferred Greek New Testament edition and mine really are. The differences are, to me, not worth a fight. I will not engage this issue with Dr. Riddle, because I argue that someone who prefers the Textus Receptus tradition, as he does, can agree 100% with the case I make in my book. All such a one has to do is make or use a translation of his preferred Greek and Hebrew texts into contemporary, vernacular English. Sound contemporary translations of the Textus Receptus exist for today’s plow boy: the NKJV and MEV are waiting and ready. One may have his Textus Receptus and read it, too.

4. Focused too much on the individual

I think Riddle’s best point is his final one. He notes that God gives shepherds to help struggling readers. I did acknowledge this in the book, though I think I should have said more. Elders are indeed supposed to be “apt to teach” (and “apt” here is a false friend I cover in my book).

But I do not believe this qualification includes expertise in historical forms of English. Pastors, in my lengthy experience, are just as tripped up by false friends as their people are—and I do not blame them.


The KJV translators said in their excellent preface,

We desire that the Scripture may speak like itself, as in the language of Canaan, that it may be understood even of the very vulgar.

Vulgar is, of course, a false friend, though one that many educated people will recognize. It meant “common” (like Koine, the language God chose for the New Testament). But I wonder if many readers have ever connected vulgar to Vulgate. Yes, the Latin Bible that kept God’s words locked away from medieval European plow boys was originally intended as a gift to them. It became unreadable only over time. And that is what you get when you fail to revise dead words and false friends, slowly but very surely: a new English Vulgate. I fully agree that we are not there yet; I agree that reasonable people can disagree over when the tally of KJV readability difficulties will require change.

Perhaps my language-change smoke alarm is too sensitive and has gone off too early. But over two years after my book was released, I can say that I have had terrible difficulty finding defenders of the KJV who will meet me anywhere near the middle. Literally none will acknowledge that the tally of difficulties is any real cause for concern; rather the opposite. Dr. Riddle thinks, in fact, that the KJV has “never … been easier to read.” The closest I have come to an acknowledgment of my case from a KJV defender comes from a mutual friend of Dr. Riddle and mine, Robert Truelove, who holds views on the KJV very similar to Dr. Riddle’s. Truelove, in a Facebook discussion on my wall that I repeat with his permission, said,

The problem is not that Mark Ward’s examples are not relevant, it’s that these particular problems and the frequency of them are being vastly overstated. … All that said, there will come a time when the overall argument Mark is making will be valid.

See more context here

And I ask: when? When in between now and a new Vulgate should we change? The answer I generally get from KJV defenders is, “By the time Modern English becomes a fully different language, like Beowulf is to us now.” And I find that unsatisfactory. Surely at some point between now and then, maintaining the valuable tradition we call the King James Version will come to stand in tension with Paul’s principle in 1 Corinthians 14, namely that edification requires intelligibility. Some generation has to endure the discomfort of change, lest the beautiful KJV calcify into something it was never meant to be. I think it should be ours.

“Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light,” the KJV translators said. And yet every dead word and false friend is a smudge on that window, obscuring that light. I have read their preface repeatedly and carefully, and I believe the KJV translators would side with me—and with the plow boy. That preface is, in fact, an extended defense of the need for revision of a translation then only forty years old! There are multiple such revisions in the KJV tradition: the NKJV, MEV, ESV, and others (I personally use all good translations). We do not lack for contemporary options, no matter our respective views of textual criticism. We should make contemporary options open in institutional contexts.

Personal postscript

Now, I myself have read negative book reviews and then spirited rejoinders from jilted authors. In these cases, both are smart people who make good points—and I have often halted between their two opinions. I pray for God to give me light, but I tend, as we all do, to fall back to the viewpoint favored by my network of trusted authorities and institutions.

And that is precisely why I urge my readers, many of whom are leaders in Christian institutions (particularly churches), to take upon themselves the burden of translation change. I speak particularly to the many pastors who I happen to know are reading my book. Bible translations are excessively complicated: your people will generally trust that you know best about them. If you use the KJV, they will, too. If you say that it is “more accurate” or the “best English Bible translation,” they will believe you. They will assume that their difficulties in understanding are all their fault, when a good number of them are actually the “fault” of language change. Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible makes a case that has not been made anywhere else to my knowledge: that language change has made the KJV, not entirely unintelligible, but sufficiently unintelligible for today’s plow boy that it is time for change. I do not believe Dr. Riddle adequately countered that case; I think pastors who use the KJV owe it to the plow boys who trust them to read my book for themselves.

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The Truth about Marijuana

Mark Ward

Tell Your Children: The Truth About Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence by Alex Berenson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For every book there is an equal and opposite book. I read Smoke Signals by Martin Lee in preparation for my own small coauthored book, Can I Smoke Pot? Marijuana in Light of Scripture (Cruciform, 2016). I wish Berenson’s excellent book, Tell Your Children: The Truth about Marijuana, Mental Illness, and Violence, had been available then. It was, like Smoke Signals, journalistic in tone and therefore accessible to a non-specialist like me. But what can I say? Unlike Smoke Signals, I found Tell Your Children persuasive; it didn’t feel like a whitewash—or rather, a blackwash. Smoke Signals felt like a thinly veiled cheerleading session for marijuana. It just didn’t bear the signs of honesty, whose major evidence is often acknowledging that your opponents have some good points. Smoke Signals, as I recall, was pretty relentless in refusing to acknowledge this. Instead it called prohibitionists venal or crazy. Berenson, by contrast, was able to acknowledge what benefits CBD might have while still citing study after study around the world that linked THC to psychosis and therefore violence.

Every truth in this world is contested. Every single one. And rigorous empirical methods of determining truth are both 1) rarely absolutely conclusive, because the exact relationship between cause and effect is extremely difficult to untangle in this complex world and yet 2) the best we have. Nonetheless, 3) people widely disbelieve the best empirically established truths for no better reason than that they run counter to their desires. I think the difficulty of discovering some truths ought not blind us to the preponderance of evidence. Anecdotally—which is the first step of empiricism, and was the only step available before the scientific revolution—marijuana produces potheads, dropouts, deadbeats. Empirically, Berenson shows that in many people marijuana does something worse. You can’t know whether marijuana will be a summer fling for you or a lifelong life-sap or an inducement to psychotic and even murderously violent episodes. Chances are that if your life and support network are vibrant, dabbling in marijuana won’t hurt you too badly. But you can’t know even that. And, biblically speaking, dabbling will still almost certainly make you high—and that’s sin. You’re not supposed to lose control of yourself through anything akin to drunkenness (1 Cor 6:12).

So the upshot of Berenson’s book is, on the individual level: don’t even dabble. Tell your kids not to dabble. Marijuana isn’t a harmless drug.

And on a societal level: don’t let the relentless drumbeat of the libertarians cow us all into doing what my own home state has done. For the good of others, especially the weak, we’ve got to keep saying no as a society to legalized recreational marijuana.

If this book had been available in 2015 was I was writing Can I Smoke Pot?, would that book have been different? Yes and no. The basic Creation-Fall-Redemption argument is one I stand by. We have to establish the good in marijuana (whether as rope or as an anti-emetic for chemo patients) before we can fairly name the misuses—and proceed to discover what further benefits it might contain. But I think I would have added in even more paragraphs about potential downsides of the recreational use of marijuana (I and my coauthor already mentioned a number of them), and I would have pointed readers to this book for further study.

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The New ESV Heirloom Single Column Personal Size Bible

Mark Ward

A story in pictures. Because this new ESV Bible—the ESV Heirloom Single Column Personal Size Bible—needs only a one-word review: exquisite.

Bloggers write words when none are needed, however, because the word-count of the internet is not yet full—so I will oblige with some more words.

The slip case with velvet wrapping up the Bible is exquisite.

The gilt embossing is exquisite.

The goatskin is exquisite. Mmm.

The gilt page edges are exquisite.

The single-column, paragraphed layout is, um, you guessed it.

The Bible stands.

The type (the excellent Lexicon) is exquisite, and the line-matching and bright paper commend it well.

The headings are helpful and elegant. I believe in the value and importance of these ESV headings even more now that I have had to write headings for a commentary project.

The paragraphing and page layout are careful and helpful. They are the exquisite culmination of centuries of tradition combined with the power of computer and mechanical technologies.

There are two black ribbons, exquisite ones.

You’re supposed to read the thing.

But I could also well imagine preaching from it, too. The type seemed surprisingly large (in a good way; it was just right) for such a relatively slender and small volume. And though I rarely keep review copies—I find worthy recipients for them instead—this is one I’m tempted beyond any other to keep, even though I just preached about giving to others… It really is everything I need and want. I don’t need large margins, because I no longer write in my Bible; that’s what Logos is for. I don’t need study notes either, for the same reason. I don’t need cross references cluttering up my page or italics doing the same. I just need straight Bible text, laid out in the most natural way possible, given contemporary conventions. The ESV Heirloom Single Column Personal Size Bible does this, with nearly no flaws.


Flaws, flaws… I’ll look like a shill if I don’t try for some. I could imagine it lying a little flatter; I could imagine the type not straying into the “gutter” in places; I could imagine absolutely perfect line-matching instead of near-perfect line-matching. The gutter “problem” is just the nature of this beast: I’m not sure how it could be avoided without the equal and opposite sin of the text block straying too close to the outer page edge. This does incline me away from using this as a preaching Bible, however. I like to be able to keep the Bible open flat on the pulpit—though if I really had to preach from this Bible, all I’d have to do is pick it up in my hand or sort of force down the side that I need to read. Not bad at all.

It is the nature of a reviewer, a critic as they say, to never quite be satisfied, but with this I am satisfied—given the purposes of this edition, namely that of a lifelong reading companion. It is everything it’s supposed to be. It’s exquisite.

The Bible as Aesthetic and Cultural Object

Let me expatiate a little bit, internet. ’K? I’ve gone on and on about the problems that stem from pitching the linguistic level of the Bible too high. Elizabethan English overdramatises (did you catch that fancy British spelling?) the elegance of the Bible. It makes the Bible sound majestic, sure, but also grandiloquent and a bit disconnected. Portions of the Bible were revealed that way: there is elegant poetry in Scripture, for example. Acrostic Psalms; whole acrostic books (Lamentations); mebbe possible chiasms in places; rhetorical flights… But in general, and in particular with the Koine Greek of the New Testament, God chose to use standard, man-on-the-street Greek only slightly gussied up (except in Luke and Hebrews, I’d say). And in general, I think our Bible translations would do well to try to mimic the social register of the language God chose to inspire.

But these many beautiful ESVs are not overshooting the cultural mark and turning the Bible into, well, an heirloom instead of a readable message of God given to the church. I think they are giving the right kind of honor and respect to the Bible. Goatskin leather says that this book is a lifelong companion. Elegant type says that this book is rooted in history (Trinité, which this edition does not use but has shown up in some ESV Bibles is, in my opinion, a touch too elegant). Typographical conventions that enhance readability (paragraphing, headings, etc.) say that this book can and should be read! Ribbons say that you might have favorite places or might have multiple reading or study sessions going.

I’m not going to be so doctrinaire as to complain about ugly or less “classic”-looking Bibles; they’re the word of God, too. The words are what matter most. But they aren’t all that matters. The Bible as a cultural and aesthetic object matters. Bible typography matters, big time. A pastor friend of mine and I were saying to each other the other day that we couldn’t bear to be stuck with some of the editions we grew up with. Not when we’ve been shown a more exquisite way.

Now, Crossway, pretty well literally the only thing I can think of that you still need to do is produce an edition just like this but with the verse numbers in the margins. I’ll review that one, too, and will never give it away.

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Vlogging through Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible

Mark Ward

I have now completed a video series working through Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible—one video per chapter.

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Can Matthew Henry Help You Understand KJV English? Yes and No.

Mark Ward

I recently read a promoter of exclusive use of the King James Version who argued that if anyone has trouble understanding KJV English, they can just go to Matthew Henry’s commentary for all the explanations they need.

I was skeptical. I still am. It’s just not the job or the concern of a turn-of-the-18th-century commentator to help turn-of-the-twenty-first-century readers understand turn-of-the-17th-century English words that have either died or changed in the last 400 years.

So I checked one of my false friends passages, Romans 5:8—and sure enough… If you know what you’re looking for, Henry nails it. 1) If you realize you don’t understand the word “commend,” and 2) if you realize that Henry’s use of the word commend is putting on display his knowledge of 17th century English, you’ll hear Henry explain the word to you.

So stop: what does commend mean in Roman 5:8 in the KJV?

But God commendeth his love toward us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.

Ask ten redheaded Christians what that word means in that context, and I think eight of them will tell you it means “demonstrates” or “shows.” That’s almost what it has to mean in a context like that, even though we never use the word to mean that today. And those are the words modern translations tend to choose.

Two, of the redheads, however, will tell you that “demonstrates” is not what the KJV translators meant when they chose that word. They had the word “demonstrateth” and the word “sheweth.” And they didn’t choose them.

One of those two redheads is me. And the other is Matthew Henry.

(Um, assuming he was a redhead—because weren’t all British people redheads back in the olden days? I like to think so.)

Here’s what he said. Can you divine the meaning of commendeth in Romans 5:8, KJV, just by reading this?

Now herein God commended his love, not only proved or evidenced his love (he might have done that at a cheaper rate), but magnified it and made it illustrious. This circumstance did greatly magnify and advance his love, not only put it past dispute, but rendered it the object of the greatest wonder and admiration: “Now my creatures shall see that I love them, I will give them such an instance of it as shall be without parallel.” Commendeth his love, as merchants commend their goods when they would put them off. This commending of his love was in order to the shedding abroad of his love in our hearts by the Holy Ghost. He evinces his love in the most winning, affecting, endearing way imaginable. While we were yet sinners, implying that we were not to be always sinners, there should be a change wrought; for he died to save us, not in our sins, but from our sins; but we were yet sinners when he died for us. (4.) Nay, which is more, we were enemies (v. 10), not only malefactors, but traitors and rebels, in arms against the government; the worst kind of malefactors and of all malefactors the most obnoxious. The carnal mind is not only an enemy to God, but enmity itself, ch. 8:7; Col. 1:21. This enmity is a mutual enmity, God loathing the sinner, and the sinner loathing God, Zec. 11:8. And that for such as these Christ should die is such a mystery, such a paradox, such an unprecedented instance of love, that it may well be our business to eternity to adore and wonder at it. This is a commendation of love indeed. Justly might he who had thus loved us make it one of the laws of his kingdom that we should love our enemies.

Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume (Peabody: Hendrickson, 1994), 2204–2205.

This is warm and beautiful and piquant writing. “He might have done it at a cheaper rate”! That’s wry and precious! I like Henry.

Did he help you learn the meaning of the word commendeth?

Back in 1611, in a context like Rom 5:8, the word meant, “to set off to advantage with added grace or luster.” It’s what diamond merchants do when they put their gems on black velvet cushions. The Oxford English Dictionary says so. Commend is a great word to use here—though (as I say in Authorized, in the closest I come to a negative word about the decisions of the KJV translators) a touch more eloquent than strictly necessary. The Greek word isn’t that specific; it just means “demonstrates” or “shows.”

So, yes, Henry helped here. But I think you’d have to be a pretty sophisticated reader to realize all that’s going on. And I think you’d still need to check the OED to know it with certainty. I don’t think checking Henry is a substitute for checking the OED, nor do I think checking Henry is a solution to the readability problems in the KJV caused by language change. Are you going to hand the plow boy a KJV—and a six-volume set of Matthew Henry? If you do, I think you will have just made the readability problem worse (no offense, fellow redhead).

More nerding

I can’t stop nerding here. I can’t go to sleep until my pastor’s sermon video (because of coronavirus-induced church cancellation) uploads. So let’s keep going.

KJV English, like contemporary English, uses commend in several different senses. It clearly doesn’t always mean what it meant in Rom 5:8. In Luke 16:8, for example, the KJV uses the word in a way that is just the same as we would use the word today:

And the lord commended the unjust steward, because he had done wisely.

The lord praised the steward in a kind of formal way. We say the same thing.

But I think I found one other place where the KJV translators used the word commend to mean “set off with added grace or luster,” and it’s just two chapters before Rom 5:8.

But if our unrighteousness commend the righteousness of God, what shall we say? Is God unrighteous who taketh vengeance? (I speak as a man). (Rom 3:5 KJV)

That obsolete sense makes perfect sense here: “If our unrighteousness puts the righteousness of God on display for all to see and appreciate, why does God take vengeance on us?”

That’s the only other place I could find commend used by the KJV translators in the way they used it in Rom 5:8.

Last nerding

Last bit of nerding out: Lk 23:46 in the KJV uses commend also, and I’ve always found the use a bit puzzling (though, as often, the overall meaning is pretty clear from context):

When Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit: and having said thus, he gave up the ghost.

That word choice has always seemed a bit odd to my English ears. Without even looking at the Greek, I’d expect “commit my spirit”—and that’s just what most modern translations go with (a few others instead choose “entrust my spirit”). So what did the KJV translators mean here?

I think they meant sense 1 in the OED:

To give in trust or charge, deliver to one’s care or keeping; to commit, entrust

And I don’t think we use the word this way anymore. I checked (this amateur lexicographer does his homework!), and the OED entry hasn’t changed since the 1890s.

Even then they gave hints that the sense was dying (“Formerly in such expressions as…”). And now, certainly, I don’t think we use the word commend to mean commit or entrust—not without helping words. That is, you can say, “I commend my great aunt to your care” in a (very) formal letter to a nursing home, but you can’t say to your babysitter, “I commend my children to you.” That would call up a different sense of the word; it would mean you are “presenting [your children] for approval or acceptance” (NOAD). Merriam-Webster still lists this sense that I’m saying is dead as their first sense; the New Oxford American Dictionary, correctly I think, makes this the third sense of the word and calls it “archaic or formal.”

Hey: any time a person reads this whole nerdy post, a redhead gets its wings.

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