I’ve become a counselor for a number of young men who have realized that they can no longer in good conscience remain tied to King James Only institutions. Almost without exception, the ones who have reached out to me have shown genuine graciousness and gratitude toward the pastors and teachers in that world who shaped them. It’s really been remarkable to me how few chips on shoulders I have witnessed. I praise God. I always, always urge them to be as gracious as possible, considering themselves lest they also be tempted. Just yesterday I urged one of them not to go public with a complaint he was making about KJV Onlyism—it wasn’t seasoned with grace, just salt. He humbly listened and agreed.
One recurring fear among these men is that they don’t know where they will end up. The King James Version was, in their world and in their hearts, like a concrete wall along the Rio Grande built by Jack Hyles between the United States and full-on theological liberalism. Knock it down and who knows how many theological illegals will make it into the church, or how many Christians will pitch their tents toward Sodom? The KJV was a symbol of all the goodness within their circles and all the evil outside. It was an easy doctrinal litmus test. it was a piece of gnosis that gave them special cachet in theological debate: they didn’t have to take anyone seriously if that anyone was using a corrupt Bible.
When they realize that the viewpoint is untenable, they are unsettled. One adult woman, a highly educated one, read my book and commented to her husband, “I have been lied to my whole life.” That’s not a fun feeling.
It isn’t just people stuck in various conspiracy theories who feel a vague threat from within their own hearts that they might someday change in ways they don’t currently want to. I feel this way, especially when I see people I know apostatizing. I’m scared, frankly. What if someday I stop believing? Those people sure seemed to be like me a few years ago.
When I feel this way, I go back to the brass tacks of the Bible. I go to God. I run to Christ. I know that God created this world and created me. The Bible says so in Romans 1. I know that I’m a sinner and that only forgiveness from outside of nature can save me. I know that the most popular philosophies in American culture are embarrassingly vapid (telling people, “Can’t nobody throw shade on your name in these streets / Triple threat, you a boss, you a bae, you a beast,” isn’t helpful when what they need to hear is “Repent and let Christ restore your personal worth”), and that a great deal of whatever substance they have left has been stolen from Christianity.
I also know that evil dwells within me, as Romans shows, and that good dwells even among my enemies. God causes his common grace to fall on the unjust. And I find this to be such helpful knowledge. It takes from my shoulders the pressures of an impossible worldview.
I use these thoughts when I counsel people leaving KJV Onlyism. Below is what I wrote to someone who has become a real friend, even though I’ve never met him and may never get to until all good does dwell within us and all evil is banished forever. He was very deeply invested in the KJV-Only world. Somehow, however, we became friends on Goodreads and I could tell immediately by the quality of the books he was reading that he was not long for that world. He got great benefits from it, he really did. But he couldn’t stay there. They wouldn’t let him, even if he wanted to. He faced the genuine possibility of the loss of multiple friendships, however, and he wanted to do this the right way. So we talked. These are some things that I said to him. I ended with a verse I have been thinking a lot about for the last few years as I’ve watched and prayed for people who have changed.
I understand the unsettled feeling of not knowing for sure where you’ll land. If all these verities that have been drummed into me are actually falsities, then which foundation stone will crumble next?
I have faced a little of this. Even though my “move” has been about two inches to the “left” from the churches of my youth, I pretty well agonized over each inch—and I took a long time at it. Even now I regularly call out to God for wisdom—and even to pull me back if it was only one and a half inches that I was supposed to travel.
A few thoughts:
1) Not everything in those falsities was false. Your leaders and teachers were often trying to protect something good in a ham-handed way. KJV-Onlyism is a protection of the stability of our faith in God’s word through the ham-handed means of saying that only one translation can really be faithful. Anti-Calvinism is a protection of the precious truth of human responsibility and the genuine reality of our choices through the ham-handed means of denying passages about God’s meticulous sovereignty. Revivalism is a protection of the truth that the gospel is a free offer to all, as well as the truth that conversion is necessary for salvation—through the ham-handed means of pressuring and manipulating people into make decisions. I often think that the reason God’s blessing and Spirit seem (to me) to remain on so many KJV-Only brothers and sisters despite their holding various faulty ideas about the KJV is that they are ham-handed rather than high-handed. Ruckman is high-handed: he was openly hateful toward God’s people. I believe he was unregenerated, and I came to that conclusion after reading a lot of his stuff. =( But all the KJV-Only people I have known personally are true brothers and true sisters who have stumbled and not leapt into their particular doctrinal trap. And in the inscrutable ways of God, I can say with sincerity that they have some strengths I lack.
2) What you realize when you have to leave a given Christian tradition is that it’s possible to compare traditions as wholes, once you get to a place of maturity and have done some good reading. In other words, you can compare forests and not just trees. I love tons of trees in the fundamentalist forest—individual values and viewpoints. I, for example, feel like I need to be around people who are skeptical of watching “prestige television” like Breaking Bad. I get the Kuyperian justification for watching it, and I think there’s real truth in it: excellent art is a great good. But I want the weight of my tradition to be, well, skeptical of attempts to justify worldliness and sin through theology. But overall, the forest of the Reformed tradition seems to me to be a healthier one—by just a bit. It is also larger, and that comforts me. Some of those trees have been growing in there for 1,600 years, I think—the Augustinian soteriology tree, for example. I live in an overlapping part of the fundamentalist and Reformed forests. “All are yours,” Paul said. Minnick and MacArthur, Jones and Carson. I look at other forests, like the dark Catholic forest with skeletons and pickled tongues hiding inside, and the mainline Protestant swamp, and the broader evangelical grove of haphazardly planted saplings, and I don’t see homes anywhere for me. I’ve been asking myself for years: what does a given tradition produce? Roman Catholicism produces people who don’t know the Bible. I know there are exceptions, but the rule has held for me in 99% of my experience. (I’ve had Roman Catholics in the 1% tell me this very thing.) Mainline Protestantism produces the same ignorance, plus creepy art. Broader, mainstream evangelicalism produces too many slick, Madison Avenue, flashes in the pan. Look at the books that come out of the traditions. Roman Catholic books can be deep, but many are obviously flawed by the worship of saints and other unwarranted accretions. Mainliners write some better books (I do love Marilynne Robinson!), but they are often exercises in avoiding two thirds of what the Bible says to our particular culture (though when Robinson gets into the other third, she can write like no other). Mainstream evangelicals write vapid books with a prosperity-gospel or self-helpish feel. It’s the Reformed tradition that gives us biblical, meaty stuff—the kind of stuff my KJVO pastors growing up didn’t know they were pointing me towards (though my pastor in college did), but they truly were. I have some Arminian friends who deserve a shout-out here: they have Grant Osborne (and others, but don’t make me list them!). But I’ve got to go where the food is, and the food is sitting on my shelves right now—including my digital shelves—in book after book by people in the Augustinian, Reformation, Calvinistic tradition. I look at that forest and I see a healthy home.
I’m praying for you. I dedicated my morning bus ride to you. I really feel your pain. Your Master is able to make you stand.
I couldn’t enjoy this book once it became a sprawling set of vendettas—and that was about half the huge tome. I just kept thinking…
You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason frankly with your neighbor, lest you incur sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the LORD. (Leviticus 19:17–18 ESV)
My own opinion, after (admittedly) just one read and (admittedly) no exposure to literary criticism of this classic novel: Dumas makes half-hearted, too-little-too-late attempts at the end to mitigate the sin of Dantès in dedicating himself to years of revenge. And the story fails to show what revenge really does to a man’s heart.
In the very last pages of the book, Monte Cristo suddenly proclaims that he is remorseful, because he, “like Satan, thought himself for an instant equal to God,” and that he “now acknowledges with Christian humility that God alone possesses supreme power and infinite wisdom.”
These words rang hollow for me, because these feelings came to Monte Cristo so very late in the story. A great deal of the book presumed on the reader’s relishing the feeling of revenge. The professions of love from Haydée also rang hollow for me, because people given to revenge become unlovely. Revenge twists a man’s heart.
But the story does show, almost despite itself, why revenge must be left in God’s hands (“Vengeance is mine; I will repay”): it’s because no man is an island. Take revenge on a man twenty years after his sin, and who knows what good you will destroy along with the evil? Maybe the life of a little boy; maybe the livelihood of five clerks, one of whom has an invalid wife; maybe a bill ending the slave trade. I don’t know! Only God does. And only God can sort out the intricacies of guilt and merit and make sure that what people plan for evil, he plans for good (Gen 50:20).
The story makes Monte Cristo into a god; it places too many powers in the hands of one man, powers that even extreme wealth could not provide. He seems to have not a preternatural but a supernatural ability to foresee how people will respond to his actions in complex situations. There is basically only one moment in the story after Dantès’ escape in which something bad happens that he didn’t foresee (read: cause). He’s everywhere he needs to be; he’s everyone he needs to be; he’s a French superhero.
Monte Cristo’s love for the Morrells was a redeeming quality—and his solicitude for Valentine de Villefort. But these did not make up for his years of self-important conniving.
Maybe I will mark myself as unliterary for complaining about this beloved novel, but once you have extreme wealth and your own island country, can’t you appeal to the powers that be, who are ordained by God to execute justice on the wrongdoers who sinned against you? Pray to God and pay lawyers to have your vendetta for you; because they are hirelings, ironically, they won’t get twisted by that desire for revenge.
I do love the florid nineteenth century style; I do wish I could speak as they do, with their vivid metaphors and complicated and elegant syntax. But though I rooted for Dantès when he was the David, I couldn’t find myself liking him or believing him when he was the all-powerful Goliath, the Count of Monte Cristo.
A young aspiring pastor recently asked other pastors in a Facebook group what kinds of doubts they’ve had about Christianity, and what they’ve done with those doubts. I replied…
I went through a several-month period of doubt during my senior year as a Bible major at BJU. I preached weekly at that point in a nursing home. Thankfully, it was an Alzheimer’s unit, so it didn’t really matter what I said… I overcame my doubts through the grace of God and through specific statements in his word. Romans 1 and its argument that creation points to 1) a divine being who has 2) eternal power were especially instrumental.
If anything makes me doubt Christianity now it is the behavior of Christians, including myself, sadly. I struggle with anger toward misbehaving children, with a consistent devotional life, with eagerness to serve my wife in practical ways around the house. Sometimes I look at the words I’ve just said and I shudder. And sometimes I look at the silly, self-harming sins of other Christians and shudder more. Spend a lot of time dealing with KJV-Onlyism as I (for some reason I wish I could explain) do, and this is a genuine spiritual challenge you will face. I also have seen—just like you have—unbelievers acting in a way that wasn’t consistent with what Christians often say about them. Indeed:
For they have no pangs until death; their bodies are fat and sleek. They are not in trouble as others are; they are not stricken like the rest of mankind.
Psalm 73:4–5 ESV
And they’re nicer to be around than some Christians I know.
The concepts of common grace (to explain the goodness of unbelievers) and total depravity (to explain the abiding sin in believers) have really helped me. So has C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters. He showed that I need to consider where a sour Christian has come from and what natural endowments of personality a pleasant non-Christian might have been given. And more experience has helped me, too. I believe I really have seen the grace of God change me and others; and I have also seen the depths of sin and pain that non-Christians can stoop to. There really is a generalizable difference between the two groups, even if I appeal only to experience.
This very day one of my children was distraught over his unsaved friend’s spiritual state. He told us, “I don’t want B. to go to hell!” He told B. that he would go to hell if in fact he didn’t believe. The mother of B. and I had a polite texting conversation about this in which we agreed to the fact of empirical pluralism but in which she said, “I don’t want B. to be told he is going to hell.” Of course, I felt the pressure of my secular culture at that moment. I was literally shaking a little bit. I felt momentarily like the one who had done wrong: I’m the one who told my child there’s a hell; I’m the one who said it’s a good thing to testify to the truth before non-Christians; I’m the one who hadn’t already told the parents that about heaven and hell (to my shame; was hoping and praying for an opportunity, but hadn’t made it happen yet). I was feeling unsettled; I was reminded yet again that I hold a minority viewpoint, one considered foolish and contemptible by the vast majority of people around me—and that I don’t seem to hold it with the kind of consistency I wish I had. Most humans don’t like these feelings, I think.
But then my biblical worldview reflexes, shaped by my Augustinian Christian faith, kicked in. And I remembered to swing the sword back the other direction. What is she saying? She’s saying that one day we’ll all go poof, and, come to think of it, we came from a much larger poof 14 billion years ago—but we don’t believe in miracles except for that one, but that doesn’t count, because Science. She’s saying that God hasn’t really spoken. She’s saying other things personal to her spiritual-but-not-religious worldview that seem openly vapid and foolish to me (though we like her a lot and she is by common grace a good neighbor!). What are the alternatives to Christianity, in other words? I’ve dug deep into the major secular, expressive-individualistic, sexually promiscuous, materialistic (in both senses) worldview on offer in our culture—the worldview adopted by every last apostate I’ve ever known—and mene mene, tekel upharsin. It doesn’t work, even on its own terms. This is why I love Stanley Fish: he has helped me see this better than any theologian except John Frame. Especially powerful for me has been much time spent watching elite, secular non-Christians splutter in response to that same Stanley Fish (and to Steven D. Smith’s The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse) when he makes what are basically presuppositionalist arguments. I wrote a whole paper on that topic. The alternative worldviews out there are not satisfying.
And the alternative worldview that has swallowed up so many of my friends from various Christian schools is now showing its true colors in a way that sends me running to Christ faster and more frequently than before. The cultures of victimhood and, on the other side, of shaming—of revenge and virtue-signaling—make me so grateful for the only religion I’m aware of in which God saves you, and in which that salvation is a model for the forgiveness and grace you are to extend to others (Matt 18:21–35). Without a God to promise justice in the end, and without a Jesus to absorb human sin in the middle, it seems people turn to exacting their pounds of flesh now. And it’s so ugly. It makes me long for the grace of God, and praise God for the grace I have been given in Christ.
The subtitle for this blog used to be “Bible, Tech, Bible Tech.” I haven’t blogged about tech much in a long time. But I still love it. And it’s time for a break from heavy stuff.
One particular piece of tech I love is my new-to-me 12.9-inch iPad Pro. I got it a few months ago, and I got it basically brand new at almost half off the full price—the best tech deal I think I’ve ever scored. (Guy on OfferUp just didn’t find it did what he needed it to do, whatever that was. It was such a good deal that it made me wonder if he was legit, but he was.)
My iPad Pro hasn’t replaced my laptop or my desktop; I still need at least a desktop both for graphic design and for serious work at the office and at home. But it the iPad Pro has bridged the laptop and tablet worlds and created something new: a powerful device that can do almost everything I need, but that does those things differently enough that I find myself working differently. It’s always fast. It’s always available; the battery lasts all day. It’s really great for reading Logos and other books: the stylus is a big help. It’s light and barely noticeable and therefore can (and does) go with me anywhere. The keyboard case is fit for good work (though I wouldn’t want to work literally day on this keyboard), and with the addition of a small stand I’ve had forever and a used Bluetooth keyboard I got for cheap, it becomes a great writing device at coffee shops and libraries. I prefer to write on a screen set up in a vertical orientation:
I accidentally forgot my laptop on vacation, and I was able to do everything except actual graphic design just fine. I have no Adobe Illustrator equivalent; once that comes out (?) I should be able to do more—but without a mouse… I’m not sure this will ever be a sufficient design tool. I did, however, love editing a recent photo on it, because never in my life have I been able to draw with Photoshop’s clone stamp tool or any brushes directly on my image.
I also love teaching from the iPad Pro. I can have my sermon open in Ulysses in one pane and a Bible text or two in Logos in another.
I also love taking and marking up screenshots so easily with the stylus. It’s uber quick: just drag from the bottom left corner and you’ve got a screenshot with mark-up tools. You also have a pen in your hand! And the magnetic connection is convenient and brilliant for charging and for storage.
I also love LiquidText, great software for reading PDFs that allows me to use my stylus to good effect, and that saves all my excerpts and makes them easily exportable.
Also, the speakers are pretty loud, and I can play a story or a Bible passage for the kids during story time and/or Bible time, and they can all hear from their beds while the iPad is in the hall.
Also, the device is tall, so I can lie on the couch, rest it on a pillow, and not have to crane my neck to read my Logos books. Now that I have the iPad Pro I’m doing more reading in Logos books than I ever have before. (I’ve always done a lot of checking of reference works; now I’m reading more books “cover to cover.”) Going from working to reading is great for me as an editor. I go from typing on the cover to sitting back in my chair in an instant.
Also, the FaceID is super fast, and filling in passwords with FaceID is a relief.
Also, I’m really not lacking for any apps or utilities; I thought I would be. I was worried about not having TextExpander, especially. But the native iPad OS/iOS text expansion is not only great but syncs across all my Apple devices.
My main complaint is not file management so much as the ability to quickly open files in various apps. I need to get documents into Google Docs and Word and other things, and I often end up doing too much clicking around before I get what I want. This is one of the ways in which I feel that iPad OS is still slightly rough around the edges. Only slightly.
My second major complaint is that some apps, especially the Gmail app, are just scaled-up mobile apps; Gmail’s failure to use keyboard shortcuts is pretty annoying (though I can use them in Gmail in Safari, and that does help). Chrome’s inability to use keyword searches is bad for me. I use them extensively, and it seems to me that they would be such an easy addition on this powerful device. I’m hoping these are obvious fixes that will come soon—as the iPad Pro establishes itself as a new category of work machine.
A last minor complaint is that I can’t type on my lap very well if my legs are bent at a right angle. I have to stretch my legs out, or the cover is too bouncy as I type—not balanced correctly. Stretching is usually doable for me on the bus. But on the plane, the iPad Pro was awesome. I was able to work in the tiny space afforded me in coach.
The benefits of mobility, lightning quickness, full-screen for every app if need be, and a streamlined experience that doesn’t let me have too many apps open at once but can still launch them super quick—that’s what I’ve basically alway wanted without quite knowing it. And I sense that the device is only going to get better with software improvements. In God’s good providence, mine is a 64GB model (smallest size, but plenty for me) that also has LTE. For a tiny price from US Mobile (or for free from FreedomPOP if you can figure out how to do it; I failed and ended up disputing their charge on my card, something I have never done), I can have connectivity at those odd moments when I really need it for email or for syncing Ulysses documents.
Bottom line: I’ve always wanted a computer that was above all quick, and this is it. It launches instantly; apps launch instantly; I barely ever have to wait for anything.
Technology is what we call recent tools invented as a result of and for the furthering of the cultural mandate. I can subdue the earth and have dominion over it more effectively because I have this tool. I’m grateful to God.
I will not and cannot discuss textual criticism with my brothers and sisters in Christ who insist on the exclusive use of the King James Version. I will discuss only vernacular translation. But there are two questions that my KJV-Only friends have consistently asked that necessarily span the divide between text and translation—and that I do feel I must offer an answer to in good faith. The first is, “Doesn’t the NKJV use critical text readings?” That is a fair question that necessarily involves some discussion of text, and I’ve sought to answer it. The second is, “Doesn’t the Bible teach perfect preservation of the biblical text?” That, too, is a fair question, though I confess that some days I think I should not have to answer it: I can direct someone who prefers the Textus Receptus to contemporary translations of that same text. I do not mind if my brothers prefer and use the TR—as long as they use a translation that is as intelligible as possible to the plow boy (1 Cor 14:9), and as long as they do not cause division and strife over this debate (Gal 5:19–20). But I have decided to write on this topic because I myself want to be certain that I am not ignoring or twisting the Bible. If the Bible teaches perfect preservation, I will and must believe it.
Chuck Surrett has recently released a short white paper of sorts, arguing in some detail but in admirable brevity what I’ve also read in his two books: precisely that the Bible teaches perfect preservation of the Hebrew and Greek texts of Scripture. It teaches, he says, “the certainty of the words” (Prov 22:20–21). I have been asked by nearby pastor and friend Jonathan Beazley to evaluate Surrett’s arguments, and my own desire to dig into the relevant passages combined with this request to produce the text below. I beg the reader’s indulgence in starting with a somewhat lengthy introduction; these matters are complicated, and I need a little time and space. Let’s begin.
There are two major issues involved in debates over English Bibles: 1) text and 2) translation.
The debate divides into many smaller issues, but it is at its heart—and, actually, like a heart—irreducibly binary. Defenders of exclusive use of the King James Version (by English speakers) such as Charles “Chuck” Surrett, longtime Academic Dean at Ambassador Baptist College, have to “win” debates on both 1) text and 2) translation if they hope to establish their KJV-Only viewpoint.
If someone like Surrett argues successfully that 1) the KJV is based on the best Hebrew and Greek texts, he must then argue that 2) the KJV is the best translation of those texts.
With me so far?
Now, to use an evaluative word such as “best” implies a standard. How do we know which 1) texts are “best” and which 2) translations are “best”?
We have to look ultimately to Scripture, to God’s special revelation. On this I think all my readers are likely agreed. But this is where those two fundamental issues start dividing into smaller questions. Does the Bible give us direction on which 1) texts are best? Does it tell us how to 2) translate those texts? And when we get translations into our hands, does the Bible tell us how to critically compare and evaluate those translations?
Christians declare the Bible’s “sufficiency.” Scripture is profitable for teaching, for reproving, for correcting, for instruction—so that the man of God might be thoroughly equipped for good works. We don’t need any other divinely inspired language to live the godly lives God has called us to live. We have everything we need for life and godliness.
But what do we mean when we confess the Bible’s complete “sufficiency” as our standard? When brother Surrett sat down to do the many hours of homework that went into his extensive charts contrasting the King James with the New King James in his book Certainty of the Words, was the Bible his standard?
For example, he argued that in Genesis 2:18, the KJV’s “help meet for him” is a better translation of the Hebrew עֵ֖זֶר כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ ( ‘ezer kenegdo) than the NKJV’s “helper corresponding to him.”
This may seem like an odd question, but did Surrett look up the proper meaning of kenegdo (כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ) in the Bible?
The answer is no: he looked it up in a dictionary, a “lexicon” (the academic word for dictionaries). He says he used two Hebrew lexicons and three Greek ones as his standards:
Surrett compared the KJV and NKJV renderings to the standard set by these dictionaries, made by biblical scholars of previous generations.
(I’m going somewhere with this; are you still following me?)
Now, what if I were to say to Surrett, “I refuse to accept your non-biblical standard! Who ‘inspired’ these dictionaries? You must show me from the Bible, and the Bible alone what is the precise, proper English translation of kenegdo (כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ)!”
I think he’d have to say, “Well… the Bible doesn’t tell us precisely how to translate its words into English (or Japanese, or Urdu).”
So I ask, “Then how can we know the right way to translate kenegdo (כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ) in Genesis 2:18?”
(Just keep swimming, just keep swimming… You can follow this!)
Surrett has already implicitly answered this question. By appealing to the lexicons as his standard, he is saying that their method of discovering the meaning of words is right, appropriate, and reliable.
And what is their method? They do look to Scripture, but not only to Scripture. Lexicons look at all the ways Hebrew and Greek words are used, especially but not only in the Bible. We have lots of Greek inscriptions and documents from the time of the New Testament, and NT lexicons look to those. We have relatively little Hebrew from outside the Old Testament, so OT lexicons more commonly look for “cognates” in related languages such as Ugaritic. (This gets complicated.)
Lexicons frequently, and for some words mostly, cite documents other than the Bible, because the only way to know what a word means in any language is to observe the way it was used at the time the speaker spoke it or the writer wrote it.
Here’s a standard entry from the current edition of one of the lexicons Surrett cited—with all the stuff from outside the New Testament highlighted in yellow. This is the entry for malakos, a word that occurs in 1 Corinthians 6:9, a passage Surrett gave as an example when looking for places where he felt that the KJV was superior to the NKJV. I’ve made some notes showing where much of the “extrabiblical” (from outside the Bible) information the lexicographers used came from:
Now, again, I might ask brother Surrett, “Does the Bible tell us the way to translate Koine Greek’s malakos into contemporary English?”
No, it does not. This word malakos occurs in two different senses in the Greek New Testament, just as the lexicon says. The first sense, “soft” (as in soft to the touch, soft clothing) occurs three times (Matt 11:8 twice; Luke 7:25). The second sense, “effeminate,” occurs only once. How do know what the particular sense of a word truly is when it occurs only once? You have to look at how the word is used by writers outside the Bible. And this is just what the lexicon Surrett used did.
The KJV translators talk about this very problem in their excellent preface (a preface which I earnestly and ardently beg all of my KJV-Only brothers to read carefully until they understand every last line).
There be many words in the Scriptures which be never found there but once (having neither brother nor neighbour, as the Hebrews speak), so that we cannot be helped by conference of places.… Now in such a case doth not a margin[al note] do well to admonish the reader to seek further, and not to conclude or dogmatise upon this or that peremptorily? For as it is a fault of incredulity to doubt of those things that are evident: so to determine of such things as the Spirit of God hath left (even in the judgement of the judicious) questionable, can be no less than presumption. Therefore as St Augustine saith, that variety of translations is profitable for the finding out of the sense of the Scriptures: so diversity of signification and sense in the margin, where the text is not so clear, must needs do good, yea, is necessary, as we are persuaded.
The meaning of some Hebrew words, especially, is obscure. The KJV translators do not specifically say how they determine the translation of these words. But quite clearly, they’re not getting their meanings from the Bible itself, even though they certainly appeal to context. They mention in their preface looking to what Jewish scholars have said, but in the end (they say) they simply have to pick something and put the other option(s) in the margin. If they had had access to Ugaritic cognates, surely they would have used them—just as they used the Greek Septuagint and Latin Vulgate as conversation partners.
The KJV translators needed books other than the Bible in order to translate the Bible.
(Here’s a small point I’ve frequently thought of: if what the KJV translators are saying is true, and I think it is, then what does this do to a doctrine of perfect preservation? God perfectly preserved all the words for us, but not all the meanings? Doesn’t that seem a little backwards? Indeed, brother Surrett has wondered how those who believe the Greek New Testament text is not certain in every detail can preach it at all. I might say the same to him about interpretation: how can someone preach any of it if he doesn’t understand all of it? The reality is that I can stand on many precious gospel certainties taught in Romans and John without knowing for sure what Ezekiel’s temple signifies or what Selah means. This is the classic doctrine of perspicuity or clarity: not that the entire Bible is equally clear [it isn’t; see 2 Pet 3:15–16], but that the truths of salvation are sufficiently clear to compel belief and bring salvation.)
All this does not mean the Bible is something other than sufficient for a life of godliness. It also does not mean God has left us high and dry, and that we can’t really know what he said.
It simply means that we have to be content with the level of certainty God gives us—and that scholars (some of the “pastors and teachers” Christ gave to his church) have some work to do. That’s the Christian biblical scholar’s job: to go read all the documents we have from the ancient world and observe what malakos (or selah or authentein) means in them. Surrett does apparently agree, or he would not have cited lexicons in the first place.
I’m not a scholar. That’s a title other people give you, not a title you give yourself. But I’ve worked very hard to understand the word malakos while writing a paper on the word that malakos gets paired with in 1 Cor 6:9, ἀρσενοκοίτης (arsenokoites, “men-bedders”—homosexuals). I went through that same lexicon’s entry on arsenokoites with extreme care, tracing the steps of the lexicographers’ argument.
And do you want to know what I came to? Well, you can read the paper and see. But I’ll describe it briefly: I came to a little bit of uncertainty as to the best way to translate the words malakos and arsenokoites in English. The overall gist is more than clear: unrepentant active and passive partners in homosexual acts will not inherit the kingdom of God. But does the Bible consign “effeminate” men—men with higher voices or artistic sensibilities (or whatever else might count as “effeminate” in a man)—to the same eternal punishment? Is “effeminate” the best translation of the word in that context? And where precisely is the line between “masculine” and “effeminate”? Precisely what did Paul mean by choosing this word?
These are all difficult questions that study of Homer, Josephus, Philo, Chrysostom, and other writers cited in the lexicon can help us answer. But it gets complicated. We can’t know with absolute, exhaustive, 100% certainty the answers to all the questions I just raised in the previous paragraph. We have to use the Bible and other available resources (including systematic theology, namely conclusions derived from synthesis of Scripture); we have to pray for spiritual illumination and do our best scholarly work. We also have to look at our world and see what kinds of dress (earrings?) and movement (certain hand motions?) are associated with effeminacy.
Here’s where I’m going with this, and I warn you that I am about to belabor this point: the Bible is sufficient for a life of godliness, but the way God chose to give us the Bible requires that we study our world carefully, too. The Bible is our ultimate authority, but it gives us other authorities we must listen to, from pastors (1 Pet 5:1–5; Heb 13:7) to politicians (Rom 13). And one of the “authorities” we must consult in order to interpret the Bible accurately is the providence of God in history. This truth comes to us in a different form than that of the Bible. It isn’t inspired and perfectly reliable, as Scripture is. But, as with the meanings of words such as those I discussed above, it is a necessary part of good and faithful Scripture interpretation.
It is right and necessary, as Surrett’s own comparisons of the KJV and NKJV show, to look outside the Bible for help interpreting the Bible accurately.
Back to the opening words of the article, and let me state this just once more: if we are to find the “best” Bible 2) translation, we must look in part to (linguistic and lexical, in this case) standards outside the Bible.
And I believe this basic principle is true of 1) text as well.
It sounds good initially to say, “All we need is the Bible!” In other words, all we need is special revelation. But God didn’t give us inspired Hebrew and Greek dictionaries in the back of the Bible (and even if he did, we’d have to translate those). When two English translations differ—one says “soft” and the other says “effeminate”—it feels weird, but God gave us a situation in which we have to look outside Scripture (to standards given by his providential preservation of Hebrew and Greek usage from outside Scripture) to determine if either choice is better (or if they’re equally good or equally bad!).
When a possible interpretation of a given passage occurs to me, it is also okay, even necessary, for me to check God’s providence as revealed in my own experience. Experience can never and should never trump Scripture. But if I read “She shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety” (1 Timothy 2:15), and it occurs to me that maybe this is a promise that Christian women won’t die in childbirth, it is right for me to think of the sad stories when this has in fact occurred—and to conclude that I should opt for another interpretation. If I read that God “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim 2:4), it is right for me to consult both my Bible and my experience—clearly, not all people in Scripture or in my neighborhood are saved—in order to come to a right understanding of that passage. We have to look at God’s work in the world as part of our Bible interpretation.
And when two Greek or Hebrew manuscripts from a thousand years ago differ, we have to do the same thing.We have to put on biblical spectacles and then use them to look carefully at our world. Special revelation interprets providence. The Bible comes logically first, before the looking—but the looking must come. Interpretation is a “spiral”: you look at the Bible and then at the world and then on and on until you bring the two together in your understanding.
This is precisely what brother Surrett does. He looks at his Bible, sees promises of perfect preservation, and then looks to God’s providential use in history of the King James Version to establish which textual variants in the manuscript traditions of the Hebrew and Greek testaments are the perfect ones. The particular edition of the Textus Receptus that he regards as “perfect” and “doubly certain” is the one created by the textual-critical decisions of the KJV translators. Why that one? His answer is God’s providential use of the KJV. In Which Greek Text?, he says,
For a pure text, then, one should look to that text which local churches and church leaders throughout their history have used. That text has been, without question, the tradition that produced the Textus Receptus.
He does not have a Bible verse telling him where to find the perfect texts and how to avoid the corrupted ones. He has to look outside the Bible, to (his understanding of) God’s providence in history.
Perfect preservation and ongoing accessibility
That introduction was too long. I apologize, I really do. But I have finally arrived at the impetus for this second lengthy article (here’s the first), namely arguments Chuck Surrett has recently made in a short paper that the Bible teaches perfect preservation of itself, that it teaches Certainty of the Words.
Surrett is not alone in making these arguments. But he makes them with a grace and care (both here and in his books) that makes me prefer him as a conversation partner over countless other “KJV-Only” brothers who, I regret to say, cannot seem to stop being downright mean long enough to have a discussion.
Surrett drives toward the conclusion that the original language texts underlying the KJV are perfect, and notice the way he pits special revelation against God’s providence in history on his way to that point:
It would be foolish for me to try to debate a textual critic, if history were the final authority that decides all issues. But if the Bible is to be accepted as the final authority, I feel secure in the position I take regarding the Word of God.
Let’s get his conclusions firmly in mind before we head to the passages he cites. I see two major conclusions in his piece (and these are consistent with his two books, both of which I have read—I am not basing my critique on an insufficient sampling of his work). Surrett believes that the Bible teaches A) perfect preservation of the biblical text and B) ongoing accessibility of that text. In other words, there are perfect manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible and Greek New Testament, and they have always been accessible to God’s people, despite the “corruptions” that he acknowledges do exist.
A) Surrett on perfect preservation
By “perfect” Surrett does mean “perfect.” Absolutely free from error. As best I can tell, that means we can have absolute confidence about three things: 1) no jot or tittle is missing; 2) no jot or tittle is added; and 3) no jot or tittle is out of place. We have exactly, down to the least stroke of a pen, what the Holy Spirit inspired. Let me quote his writings to show that I’m understanding him correctly. He says, for example,
Prov 22:20-21…indicates that we can have certainty about the written words of truth. The Hebrew words used lead us to the conclusion we can be doubly certain of the written words.
He says in Which Greek Text,
For a student of the Bible to be properly motivated in precise exegesis of the New Testament, he must work with the text under the assumption that every prefix, suffix, stem change, preposition, and root word are precisely known.
He says that preservation without certainty—in other words, the doctrine of preservation taught by the vast majority of evangelicals, which is preservation to a high degree of confidence that falls short of certainty—is not preservation at all. Most Christians today believe that God has preserved his words in the totality of manuscript copies we possess. If there are 144,000 jots and tittles that God inspired, we have maybe 150,000 (so say the great majority of Christian people who write our commentaries and reference works), and it is the job of textual critics to weed out the ones that don’t belong, the ones that got added (and, sometimes, subtracted) for various reasons over the centuries.
Surrett replies to this viewpoint:
I wonder how man would benefit from preservation without certainty? To know that the right words exist somewhere, but to be unclear about how to find them would make it very difficult to live by “every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God (Matt 4:4).” How and why do you do exegesis, if you are unsure?
And he asks penetrating questions (though I could do without the sarcastic scare quotes on the word “scholars”—that was, frankly, unbecoming of brother Surrett and unlike his general character; scholars have done much good for me, refreshing my soul, strengthening my faith, and instructing me more perfectly in the way):
Do you consider every variant to be viable, or do you trust the “scholars” to make those decisions for you? In actual practice, how often in preaching do you indicate to your listeners that you are uncertain? When you use a Greek New Testament that documents all the variants, how do you determine which reading to preach? I think these questions would haunt me, if I were preaching from your perspective.
Surrett insists that we can have perfect and complete certainty about every word of Scripture. We can know which ones belong and which ones (found in some “corrupt” manuscripts) do not.
Is there anything in God’s Word that teaches man would ever have to face the Bible with uncertainty, due to textual variants? What is the Biblical justification for allowing our limited knowledge of history to alter your view of preservation?
Now what would Surrett say to my argument above, that we have to look at both the Bible and the world and fit them together? In other words—as my neighbors-I-still-haven’t-met, Surrett’s former students Jonathan Beazley and Stephen Boyce, have pointed out (Surrett’s statement is a response to their piece)—it is abundantly empirically evident that no two Greek New Testament manuscripts of any significant size are exactly the same. Just as Paul appealed to visible evidence of Christ’s resurrection (dead Jews that arose) in 1 Corinthians 15, and just as John appealed to the tangibility of the incarnation (“That which…we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled”), so any biblical scholar can show you Greek manuscripts that aren’t precisely the same in every detail. (I have put together a project, KJVParallelBible.org, showing every last translatable difference between the Greek New Testament Surrett prefers and the one I tend to use most often. These differences are not secrets.) The natural question arises: how can we possibly know which manuscripts are perfect if they all disagree?
Later I will question his premises, but Surrett’s reply is logically sound:
The statement that there is no perfect manuscript is unproveable, without having the autographa [the original Greek and Hebrew manuscripts penned by the prophets and apostles] to compare. The fact that A and B are different from each other does not necessarily prove both of them wrong. It does prove that one of them is wrong, but not necessarily both, nor does it tell which of them is right.
Note, then, that Surrett is insisting on absolutely perfect preservation. Every other manuscript out there in Hebrew and Greek is “wrong,” but the right text, the perfect one, does exist. I have consistent trouble getting TR defenders to tell me which edition of the TR is perfect, but Surrett, I believe, does clearly name Scrivener’s 1881/1894 text as perfect (although he named Beza’s 1598 text on page 4 of Which Greek Text? and for this I have no explanation: the KJV differs from Beza, according to Scrivener, 126 times in mostly minor ways).
Surrett’s other reply, which we’ll spend more time on later, shows why I wrote such a lengthy introduction arguing for the necessity of looking at God’s providence in history outside of Scripture. This is a telling point, his strongest—if the Bible indeed teaches perfect preservation:
It was that exact same mindset that caused some Bible-believers to think they had to alter their view of creation in order to accommodate the “scientific facts” of evolutionism.
Now in large part I agree: I cannot read Genesis 1–11 with a good conscience and allow any room for theistic evolution (much less deistic or materialistic evolution). I look at what the Bible says, and I look at the world as the evolutionists describe it, and I cannot fit the two together. I stick with Scripture, because the Creator has greater authority than even his most intelligent creatures. I can’t explain how starlight from millions of lightyears away got here or how supernovas that, by our best lights, happened five million years ago (the light is only now reaching earth) are consistent with Scripture. I just trust God and keep working to harmonize the Bible with history and experience.
So why is this matter of textual criticism different? Why don’t I trust in the perfect preservation of every last inspired jot and tittle of Scripture—no more, no less, all in the proper order?
Hang on. We’ll get there. For now, it’s important only to understand that this is what Surrett believes, and has taught thousands (?) of students over decades of teaching: the Hebrew and Greek words inspired by God thousands of years ago have all been perfectly preserved.
B) Surrett on ongoing accessibility
And, he says, they are accessible.
Isaiah 59:21…clearly states that every generation of man will have access to God’s Words, with the plural used to indicate not just a general Gospel message, but the specific words used to communicate that message.
I’m a little unclear on precisely what “accessible” means. How many Christian people in the centuries before air travel had access to perfect copies of God’s words? If I’m understanding Surrett correctly, I think he’d say that even if the available evidence shows manuscript variation, that doesn’t mean people throughout history were unable to access the perfect copy or copies.
Surrett doesn’t say nearly as much about accessibility as he does about perfect preservation (and my reading of his books would yield the same observation), so I’ll stop my summary of his views on that topic here.
Prooftexts for perfect preservation and ongoing accessibility
And now I will begin an examination of the passages that, Surrett says, teach A) perfect preservation and B) ongoing accessibility.
I’m just going to take the passages he cites in the order in which he cites them. The question we bring to these passages is, “Does the Bible teach perfect preservation and ongoing accessibility?”
Brother Surrett, Hast thou appealed unto the Bible? Unto the Bible shall we go.
I will talk below through all the passages Surrett cites, though because this article is rather long already I will deal with some only very briefly. I’ll focus on only the verses that appear to me to be the strongest possible supports for Surrett’s A) and B) viewpoints.
The first passage Surrett cites is the one from which he got the title for his book, Certainty of the Words. It is Proverbs 22:20–21. In it, Solomon writes to his son.
Have not I written to thee excellent things in counsels and knowledge, That I might make thee know the certainty of the words of truth; that thou mightest answer the words of truth to them that send unto thee?
While some may assert that this [certainty] only applies to words that Solomon wrote to his son, rather than to the words that God inspired Solomon (and others) to write, that would lead us to the ludicrous application that Solomon’s words were certain, but God’s were not! I find that hard to believe.
Could any of Solomon’s original readers have ever thought that by referring to “the certainty of the words” Solomon was implicitly promising perfect preservation of Hebrew (and later, Greek) manuscripts of the Bible?
Maybe, but I don’t think so. I think that the overall emphasis in this passage, as in others we’ll look at, is on the truth of God’s words rather than on our perfect possession of all those true words. I acknowledge that it’s hard to be certain that words are true when you aren’t certain you have them all and none others. But I have three reasons for saying “maybe-but-I-don’t-think-so,” and these themes will come up again:
First, the Bible regularly uses language that purposely avoids exhaustive precision. Some of this language we call “phenomenological.” the Bible says that the sun “rises” and “sets”: obviously it is speaking from the perspective of a person standing on the planet, not from that of a person standing in heaven. The sun doesn’t “really” rise. Jesus said that the mustard seed was the “smallest” of all the garden plants. It isn’t; there are smaller seeds. But that’s okay: he wasn’t lying or mistaken. He simply wasn’t speaking with exhaustive and pedantic precision. He was speaking hyperbolically, in a context that (he well knew) limited the application of his words. We all do this all the time.
As one theologian who has frequently helped me understand my Bible better, John Frame, has said,
It is absurd to imagine that Jesus, in the parable of Matthew 13:31–32, was giving his hearers the conclusion of an exhaustive botanical taxonomy, and it is irresponsible to demand that we read the text in such a way.
Frame says that “Scripture generally speaks the way ordinary people speak.” He says that critics of the Bible often misinterpret it by “assum[ing] that Scripture is making a universal statement when in fact it [is] address[ing] only a narrow context” (Ibid.).
That, I think, is precisely what Proverbs 22:20–21 is doing. This is a narrow context focused on the reliability of Solomon’s counsel. It isn’t meant to be universalized and applied pedantically to a totally separate question about copies of biblical manuscripts.
My respected, godly, older acquaintance Vern Poythress, who helped translate the ESV Bible and who has memorized more Scripture than anyone I know, talks about the kind of precision and certainty the Bible provides.
In the Bible God uses ordinary human language rather than a technically precise jargon. He does not include all the technical, pedantic details that would interest a scholar. By doing so, he speaks clearly to ordinary people, not merely to scholars with advanced technical knowledge. What God says is not exhaustive, but it is sufficient to save us and to provide a sure guide for our life.
Hence, the ordinary, humble readers of the Bible do all right. Paradoxically, scholars and would-be scholars can easily get into trouble by overestimating the degree of technical or pedantic precision in the Bible. They will then fall into mistakes that an ordinary reader of the Bible would not make.
Sadly, I believe this is what brother Surrett, despite his stated disdain for scholars, has himself done. He has committed an important error in exegesis, one that he will commit over and over in the list below: he reads his questions into passages that aren’t addressing them. He is expecting the Bible to be pedantically precise. He is thereby making the Bible say more than its Author intended it to say. Liberals’ temptation is to make God say less than he meant; conservatives’ temptation is to make him say more.
Second, in the days before computers, which can copy the entire Encyclopedia Galactica perfectly in less than a second, would it have occurred to anyone to interpret Proverbs 22:20–21 as promising something they’d never seen, and had no way to verify if they did—a perfect copy of a long document? Maybe, but I think not, given the other things I’ve just observed.
And third, I’ve got God’s providence in history. I’ll wrap up this huge article much later by going back to that topic, but all of the Hebrew manuscripts the KJV translators had access to indicate many minor areas of textual doubtfulness. The Masoretes, who made the “Masoretic Text” that Surrett confesses to be perfect, listed many dozens of kethib and qere readings—many of which are textual variants. If they had a perfect text, why would they do this? The scribes who copied New Testament manuscripts also encountered variants—and produced more of them. This is true of every manuscript of any size that we have (tiny scraps may be so small that they do perfectly match other manuscripts). If I’m wondering whether I should interpret God’s words as promising perfect preservation, it is right and necessary for me to look at the world he actually gave me through his providence and see if that’s what I have. It’s not.
2 Peter 1:19
We have also a more sure word of prophecy; whereunto ye do well that ye take heed.
Another generally gracious KJV-Only brother drew the title of his book out of this passage. Does it teach perfect preservation?
This passage says that the words of Scripture, given to us by the apostles, are more sure than the words of God on the mount of transfiguration: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”
Could Peter mean we have greater confidence in the accurate copying—that is, in our possession of—the words of the Bible than we do in our possession of the words the Father spoke to the Son at the transfiguration?
No. As multiple contemporary translations (translating precisely the same Greek words) show, Peter’s point is about the reliability or the efficacy of the words, not our possession of them.
Surrett will ask, How can the words be reliable or efficacious if we don’t have perfect certainty that we have them all? This is a reasonable question.
But I urge my readers to just go look at all the variants between Surrett’s preferred Greek New Testament and mine. I’ve translated them all into English and highlighted them for you—with a little help from Surrett himself and a team of other volunteers representing KJVO and non-KJVO institutions—at KJVParallelBible.org.
Here’s a screenshot from the very first chapter of the New Testament. These two texts clearly differ. But does that affect the reliability of the message being communicated? You be the judge:
Boaz is spelled differently in the two texts, but it’s perfectly clear who is meant. David is called “the king” twice in Scrivener’s TR, and only once in the CT. These are differences that make no difference.
Here are some other differences, chosen at random, between Scrivener’s Textus Receptus and the Nestle-Aland 28 critical text. These two Greek New Testament editions are not perfectly the same here. Do the differences affect the reliability of the message of Romans?
Is there a difference between “Jesus Christ” and “Christ Jesus”? Is there a difference between “Behold” and “But if”? Not one I can discern.
I urge readers to take my TR quiz and look at more randomly chosen variants for themselves. Are the two Greek New Testament editions “massively different” (as Shelton Smith recently said)? I’ve heard defenders of the TR call them “completely,” “radically,” and “totally” different. Look for yourself. Are they?
I understand: it’s scary at first to find out that God has not given us perfect and exhaustive certainty about which words belong in the Old and New Testaments. It feels wrong. As a firm inerrantist, I don’t enjoy pointing it out. But when you actually look at the variants, a lot of that fear goes away. The vast majority of them are excessively minor. Many don’t even show up in translation. The Bible’s message can still be sure even if a few little words on many pages are not.
Surrett says that if you change the words you change the message.
Surrett argues that if you change the words you change the message.
Surrett thinks that if you change the words you change the message.
Surrett thinks that if you alter the words you alter the message.
Surrett thinks that if you alter any words you alter the message.
Surrett thinks that if any words are different, the message is different.
We could do this all millennium. Do you get my point? You can give the same message in slightly different words. If you don’t believe me that that’s what the TR and the critical text are doing, go see for yourself. Never until April 2019 was it possible for English readers to see for themselves. I’ve made it possible (with a little help from Surrett, actually—he cooperated with me for a small portion of the site). Please do go see for yourself.
I esteem all thy precepts concerning all things to be right; and I hate every false way.
I confess I simply don’t see how this verse can be interpreted to promise perfect preservation—unless you assume that inspiration demands perfect preservation, which is the very point at issue. This passage doesn’t prove Surrett’s point; it only corroborates that point if he is right.
Verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.
This passage is absolutely key. Anyone who cites it as proof of perfect preservation is pulling a very specific promise from Jesus’ lips: not one jot or tittle can pass away from the law.
One might quibble: he didn’t say none will be added. He also didn’t say that the jots and tittles would all remain in the same order in a supposed perfect copy. He just said they’d all be there.
But I won’t quibble. I think it is possible to conclude that Jesus is promising perfect preservation here. This, in my mind, is the strongest passages Surrett and other KJV/TR defenders have in their arsenal of prooftexts.
So why don’t I interpret it the way they do?
In large part for the same three reasons I mentioned above: I still think 1) that Surrett’s interpretation is pedantically making Jesus specify something he wasn’t concerned to say; 2) that none of Jesus’ original hearers would have concluded “Oh, there must be a perfect manuscript copy of the Hebrew Bible accessible to believers in every age!”; and 3) that when I look out at the world God gave me, I have no reliable way of knowing where an allegedly perfect text is.
A little word on this third point before I get back to Matthew 5:18. Surrett has set up an absolute standard of perfection. All it takes to break a perfect chain like this is one imperfect link. I ask: “Ok, so there’s a perfect text out there: which one is it?” Surrett, as best I can understand him, argues (along with all other KJV/TR defenders) that God’s use of the KJV constitutes his approval of its textual basis. Surrett makes a big point in his talk (which I explored in my last big article) of the many ways God has used the KJV—and therefore upon the particular edition of the TR upon which it is based.
But God used other translations in other nations that used slightly different textual bases, and he’s using translations now in English at my own church and countless others that have more significantly different textual bases. The equivalent of the KJV in the Netherlands, a translation made in 1637 (which, most historians agree, comes before 1881 =) is De Statenvertaling. It is the one major, historic translation that achieved the most widespread use for the longest time among Dutch-speaking Christians. Its NT is based on the TR. And in Matthew 2:11, the Statenvertaling follows a different edition of the Greek New Testament than the one followed by the KJV translators.
In the TR the Dutch translators used, the wise men “found” (vonden, translating εὺρίσκω) the child Jesus (the TR-based Portuguese Bible does the same). The KJV, following a different TR, says they “saw” (ὸράω) him.
In the Dutch Bible, Jesus warns against Beelzebul (Matt 10:25), not Beelzebub as in the KJV. Maybe this is just a spelling difference, maybe not; we’re not sure. This we know: the jots and tittles are different here between the two TRs.
In the Dutch version of 1 Tim 1:2, Paul wishes grace, mercy, and peace on Timothy from “Christus Jezus,” reflecting a different TR text. In the KJV it’s “Jesus Christ.”
The Dutch used a TR that repeats “their robes” twice in Rev 7:14; the KJV used a TR that has it once.
“Staff” in Matt 10:10 is singular in the Dutch translators’ TR and plural (“staffs”) in the KJV translators’ TR.
There is a formal contradiction at James 2:18 between the TR underlying the Dutch version and the one underlying the KJV. English-speaking believers over the centuries have read, “Show me your faith without [apart from; χωρις] your works”; Dutch-speaking believers have read “Show me your faith by [through; εκ] your works.”
The perfect chain is broken. Which jots and tittles are perfect, and which are corrupt? And how do we know? If God used different Greek texts for centuries before the release of the critical text, how are we to know which one is absolutely perfect in every jot and tittle? I understand the appeal to God’s providence, but God’s providence has not spoken with clarity or definiteness on every last jot and tittle of the testaments. If you, dear reader, respond by saying, “Well, God has clearly chosen English to be the main vehicle for his gospel in the modern world, so we’re back to the KJV as our textual-critical guide”—at least do me the kindness of recognizing how many highly debatable steps of inference you’ve moved away from the statements of Scripture (and how much, frankly, you sound like Peter Ruckman).
I take no delight in talking this way. I am not arguing for total uncertainty; I am arguing against what a friend has called “textual absolutism.” I am arguing for sufficient certainty, for the amount of certainty God actually has given us—which is a lot! There is no ultimate difference in meaning I can discern in the passages I’ve just mentioned; even James 2:18 is making the very same point, just in a slightly different way. Even E.F. Hills, in his book The King James Version Defended, acknowledges that preservation has not been miraculous, only providential. And as my own most important exegetical mentor has said so wisely,
My own weaknesses as a reader expose me to far more significant misunderstanding than the manuscript differences do, so by far the greatest problems that God must overcome in order to talk to me are within me, not within the transmission process.
There were plenty of denominations in existence, all with different understandings of various Bible passages, long before the critical text was released. And today, as my mentor also points out, there is no correlation between what theological viewpoint someone holds (Calvinist, Arminian, credobaptist, paedobaptist) and what Greek New Testament they use. They simply aren’t that different—even given the “big three” passages (Mark 16:9–20; John 7:53–8:11; 1 John 5:7). All Greek New Testament editions teach the same faith. The differences are so minor: “Christ Jesus” vs. “Jesus Christ” is one common difference (see for yourself), and yet my KJV/TR brothers are demanding no differences!
And does a contextually careful exegesis of Matthew 5:18 lead us to the conclusion that Jesus was indeed promising perfect preservation? Look at what Jesus cites in the next verse as the opposite of “every jot and tittle” remaining in the law:
Whosoever therefore shall break one of these least commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
The opposite of their remaining in the law is not their being lost or discarded or textually corrupted; it is their being broken. This is a subtle but important point. It supports my contention that Jesus is not primarily concerned with preservation here but with authority and efficacy.
(A small additional note: the script we know today as the iconic Hebrew alphabet is not the same as the “paleo-Hebrew” script that would have been first used to write the Old Testament. A lot of the jots and tittles changed somewhere between the time Moses and David [etc.] wrote them and the time of Christ [so says Glinert, The Story of Hebrew]. The character ? became ה; the character ? became ח; the character ? became ט. Does this have any relevance to the argument here? Didn’t the tittles all change? Perhaps not: the letters end up being the same. But it is a small point in favor of seeing Jesus’ words as a metaphor for the law’s authority and efficacy and not its letter-perfect preservation. Also, it is my understanding that matres lectiones, Hebrew consonants added to indicate the presence of vowels were placed in the text subsequent to the production of the autographs. Does this have any relevance to the argument here?)
Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth.
I do not see in this verse an affirmation of perfect preservation unless you assume before coming to the text that divine inspiration demands perfect preservation.
2 Samuel 7:28
O Lord God, thou art that God, and thy words be true.
I do not see in this verse an affirmation of perfect preservation unless you assume before coming to the text that divine inspiration demands perfect preservation.
Every word of God is pure: he is a shield unto them that put their trust in him.
I do not see in this verse an affirmation of perfect preservation unless you assume before coming to the text that divine inspiration demands perfect preservation.
The words of the Lord are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times. Thou shalt keep them, O Lord, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever.
Surrett didn’t actually cite verse 7, so I’m not sure why he cited verse 6. In any case, the “them” that God will preserve is clearly, in context, the poor and not the words.
There are two reasons why I don’t believe that this passage is talking about Bible preservation at all, and, interestingly, Surrett mentions both in his book Certainty of the Words (see Kindle loc. 589).
A contextually sensitive reading of this passage will show that it would be a terribly awkward lurch for David to move from talking about the cry of the needy to talking about perfect preservation of biblical manuscripts. Try to read the “them” in verse 7 as referring to the poor; see if it works. It does. It’s the only interpretation that works. Those who take Psalm 12:7 to be referring to preservation are making “them” point to the wrong antecedent.
The Hebrew word for “them” is masculine (Hebrew words, like Spanish and Italian ones, have grammatical gender); but the Hebrew word for “words” in 6 is feminine. Surrett is aware of this problem and in his book cites a paper by Thomas Strouse explaining why the KJV-Only interpretation is possible, but given point 1 (and see what else I’ve argued elsewhere), I simply can’t grant that this verse is talking about biblical manuscript preservation at all.
Because of this controversial grammatical issue, Psalm 12:6-7 may not be the best passage to use when debating with those who deny that the preservation of Scripture is taught in the Bible.
And I agree.
Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ.
Surrett’s argument here is that if Paul is able to make a point based on the plural versus the singular form of a noun (“seed”), then perfect preservation must extend not only to words but to forms of words—singular vs. plural nouns, Qal vs. Hiphil Hebrew verbs, past vs. present Greek participles (etc.).
But I don’t think this follows. As multiple careful students of Galatians have pointed out, Paul knows that “seed” (or “offspring,” Hebrew זֶרַע) in Genesis 22:18, the passage he is apparently quoting, is a collective noun that is grammatically singular but can be either singular or plural in meaning, depending on context. He cites the “seed” promise in Romans 4:18 and sees its fulfillment in the (decidedly plural) “many nations” that came from Abraham. The actual plural form of the word occurs only once in the Old Testament, and that’s in the literal sense of “seeds” (1 Sam 8:15). Paul’s point did not turn on an accurate form of the word being perfectly preserved (although I believe that in this case it surely was); it turned on a neat quirk of many languages, namely the fact that the word “seed” is a collective noun.
Now, the preservation of the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament are truly amazing: you need only look at Jeremiah in the Septuagint to see that it is possible for holy books to be preserved poorly and for rival versions to persist together. We don’t have that with the Bible. What we have is page after page (see for yourself at KJVParallelBible.org) of verses that are identical, sprinkled with mostly minor differences in wording that make no difference in sense—and certainly none in doctrine.
The Bible is more than sufficiently well preserved to permit argumentation like Paul’s. It need not be perfectly preserved for the Bible to hold together. God’s voice is powerful enough to speak over the mild static sometimes generated by textual variants in Hebrew and Greek.
Let God be true, but every man a liar; as it is written, That thou mightest be justified in thy sayings, and mightest overcome when thou art judged.
I do not see in this verse an affirmation of perfect preservation unless you assume before coming to the text that divine inspiration demands perfect preservation. God can speak truly without giving us miraculously perfect preservation of his word.
For ever, O LORD, Thy word is settled in heaven.
I’ve long thought that this is an odd verse to use to support perfect preservation. Heaven is far away. This verse actually might seem to indicate the inaccessibility of the biblical text.
Now we turn to the passages Surrett uses to establish ongoing accessibility. Again, I have a little trouble understanding who gets that access and when and where. Does every believer have a guarantee that if he wants the perfectly pure text of Scripture, he can get it?
But then what does that mean, given that 99.9999⅑% of Christians the world over cannot read Greek or Hebrew? Does it mean they can always access the pure text of Scripture in translation?
But then, that would seem to mean that God promises a perfect translation to every group of believers—and he simply hasn’t done that. He hasn’t promised it, and he hasn’t done it. There are churches around the world who don’t have the Bible in their language. I have many friends who are helping them get one. And Surrett himself has clarified that he doesn’t believe the KJV is perfect or inspired.
God did not promise to extend inspiration to the then-future translations, there can be no Biblical proof for the inspiration of translations. All that the Bible addresses as being inspired (“God breathed”) are the original autographs. Inspiration and new revelation ceased with the completion of the Book of Revelation in 96 AD.
Which Greek Text, 103.
Surrett regards the KJV as the “best translation of the best texts,” but at the back of Certainty of the Words, he acknowledges that sometimes the New King James is more accurate than the King James (according to criteria I don’t grant, but that’s a longer discussion in a previous article).
So do KJV readers not have God’s pure word in those places where the NKJV is more accurate?
What does “ongoing accessibility” mean? I looked again at Certainty of the Words, and I could not find a place where he answers that question.
Maybe looking at his prooftexts will tell me.
This is my covenant with them, saith the Lord; My spirit that is upon thee, and my words which I have put in thy mouth, shall not depart out of thy mouth, nor out of the mouth of thy seed, nor out of the mouth of thy seed’s seed, saith the Lord, from henceforth and for ever.
What does this mean? Surrett is sometimes dismissive of “scholars,” but I had to go to them for help on this obscure word-in-the-mouth metaphor—and they helped me for the thousandth time. Surrett appears to be taking “my words” as a technical term for “the Bible.” But that is the same kind of pedantic, universalizing impulse that he used in passages allegedly teaching perfect preservation.
I have books by many careful students of Isaiah, all of whom can read Hebrew, and none of whom saw “my words” as referring to the Bible. The reference, they say, is to God’s words more generally—just as your own pastor and mine “preach God’s word” even when they’re saying words they wrote (based on Scripture study) and not reading the text of the Bible out loud.
John Oswalt, an excellent commentator on Isaiah, says,
This is surely the covenant of the prophet, in which the Spirit of God comes on the people as a whole (cf. Num. 11:29) to empower them to speak his Word.… The people’s unclean lips will be cleansed so that they may speak the Word of God to the world. It is hardly coincidental that the first result of the coming of the Holy Spirit on the church was that people from all the nations heard the gospel message. That is a clear analogue to what the prophet says here. (531)
And that makes perfect sense in the context of Isaiah 59 (as Oswalt shows). The people at Pentecost were not speaking Scripture, but they were speaking the Word of God to the world.
Surrett is taking a very narrow contemporary question—will God’s people always have access to God’s perfect word—and trying to make this passage answer it when it does not.
The secret things belong unto the Lord our God: but those things which are revealed belong unto us and to our children for ever, that we may do all the words of this law.
The things God has revealed belong to us, that is true. But it doesn’t follow that all believers will have ongoing access to perfect copies of the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts of Scripture.
God’s revelation belongs to me: I have it on my shelf and in my hand and on my computer. I feel perfectly comfortable saying that—while still believing that I have less than 100% certainty over whether the wise men “saw” baby Jesus or “found” him in Matthew 2:11 (these, again, are variants among the TR editions the KJV translators used).
Deuteronomy 30:11-14 (cf. Num 23:12; Rom 10:8)
For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not hidden from thee, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it? Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say, Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, that we may hear it, and do it? But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.
If “the word” here is the entire Bible, what does it mean that the word is “in thy mouth, and in thy heart”? Surrett is universalizing a contextually narrowed promise and giving a too-literal interpretation of a metaphor. What God is saying is (to borrow from a fellow graduate of my alma mater) that God’s words “can be understood by the human mind despite its limitations” (391), not that people will always have all of God’s words in physical proximity to themselves.
Assorted other passages
Surrett listed multiple other passages in which I simply cannot see a divine promise that people will have ongoing access to perfect copies of the Bible. Surrett seems to think that the metaphor of God placing his words in people’s mouths indicates ongoing accessibility. I just can’t in good conscience take that leap with him. You can use Logos Reftagger to read these verses if you wish. I can’t interact with them because I’m not really even sure what the claim is that Surrett is making via these passages.
Hebrews 8:10 (cf. 10:16)
This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people.
Remember what this has to mean to work as a prooftext for ongoing accessibility: it has to mean that “I will put my laws into their mind” means that God’s people will all have all of God’s words, in the right order, with none added or missing, in their minds. Right? I don’t know any other way to try to make this text say what Surrett says it’s saying. And I just can’t read it that way in good conscience. The law on the heart is a metaphor indicating God’s gracious changing of our sinful desires through the regeneration provided by the new covenant (see Ezek. 36:26).
Abraham saith unto [the rich man], They have Moses and the prophets; let them hear them.
To say that this means ongoing accessibility to perfectly preserved copies of the Hebrew Old Testament is to push language, once again, to be pedantically and exhaustively and technically precise. It is to universalize a statement that isn’t addressing ongoing accessibility at all.
I can “have” Moses and the Prophets—I can hear God speaking through them—even if there are a few kethib-qere readings indicating textual doubtfulness in the Masoretic Text, and even if I’m reading them in a translation I don’t fully understand.
To enlist this passage in support of ongoing accessibility is like me texting my wife, “Did you get the yard of mulch?” She says, “Yes; I brought it home in the trailer.” And I say, “No you didn’t get the mulch! Some of it surely dropped out of the trailer in transit!” Abraham is simply not talking about perfect copies. In fact, all the evidence we have suggests that no one has ever had perfect copies—and yet Abraham in heaven is still willing to say that the rich man’s brothers “have” Moses and the Prophets.
Pulling the threads together
In this piece I have tried to demonstrate that we are obligated to use knowledge from outside the Bible to help us interpret the Bible accurately and faithfully. Only Scripture is verbal revelation from God, of course. It therefore brings a clarity and fullness that our readings of providence (I think I feel safe in saying) never do. But that doesn’t mean we are free to ignore God’s providence in history.
Surrett said to me in personal correspondence what he has said in his books (and because he said this in his books, which I have read, I feel free to share):
Unless you deal exegetically with statements in Isaiah and Proverbs and dozens of other passages in the Old and New Testaments that seem to indicate we can be certain about the words of scripture, I would not want to spend much time in historical debate. I have not seen even one Scripture passage that seems to state otherwise, so my conclusion is that our understanding of history is incomplete. If I could see any place in Scripture that would seem to counteract the many passages that teach preservation and certainty, I would be willing to look at that from an exegetical standpoint. But I believe that our knowledge of history is incomplete, and history certainly pales in comparison to the authority of Scripture on this or any other issue.… I want to cling to the clear statements of God’s Word, and follow the concept of Rom 3:4.
So my brother in Christ, Chuck Surrett, is taking his stand on Scripture. And even to write that sentence makes my heart jump. That’s what I want, too. Lord, to whom shall we go? There is no other place where words of life can be found.
And there are times—as in the debate over evolution—in which I am bound by conscience to go with what Scripture says against what people are saying who are far more knowledgeable than I am in relevant areas of biological and astronomical and geological science.
But are the preservation and accessibility prooftexts Surrett supplies so clear in supporting the TR-Only view that he has a right to turn his eyes away from the testimony of divine providence in history? Does Matthew 5:18 so clearly teach perfect preservation that Surrett is justified in deflecting simple questions like, “Which TR is perfect, and how do we know?” Or “Why did God use different TRs in the Netherlands and in England at the same time?”
Surrett is willing to appeal to lexicons (remember my introduction, from about two hours ago?) which look precisely at history, the history of the use of words in and outside Scripture. I believe he ought to do the same with preservation. He ought to give attention to what the evidence actually says.
Matthew 5:18 is, in my mind, the only passage that could be plausibly taken to teach perfect preservation of the inspired Hebrew and Greek (and Aramaic—I have to say that somewhere in this piece just so I don’t get comments!) words of Scripture. Surrett argues that it is inappropriate to look to God’s historical providence as part of our interpretation of that passage. I differ. The world God describes in Scripture will harmonize with the world God has given us in experience. It is legitimate to look at biblical manuscripts, to take note that we do not have access to (or, at the very least, knowledge of) a perfect one, and to conclude that we must interpret Matthew 5:18 to be saying something other than what KJV/TR defenders say it means.
Making connections between the Bible and the world often requires looking as hard at the world as you do at the Bible. I do not believe my KJV/TR-Only brothers have done this.
The best text
So which 1) text is the right one? Which 1) text do I think you should use?
Ironically enough, and I truly don’t mean to be flippant, feel free to use any of them—as long as you don’t create division over it. There is no available printed edition of the Greek New Testament or of the Hebrew Bible that I would tell anyone else not to use. I simply cannot point to any Bible verses which tell me to expect perfect preservation or ongoing accessibility. And even if I did (remember: I don’t), I don’t have any Bible verses telling me how to find that perfect and accessible biblical text. Even TRs have minor differences among them, and God saw fit to use them anyway.
Perhaps, then, I can have an inerrant Bible and yet be less than perfectly certain whether Christ is “our life” or “your life” in Colossians 3:4.
Maybe I can maintain unity with Christians whose Bibles say “then” and with those whose Bibles say “for” in Acts 25:11.
If you, dear reader, prefer the TR, that is truly fine with me. It is God’s Word. Use it. Preach it. Read it.
Well—in translation, of course. And that is an area where I think God gives me some specific guidance.
The ultimate point
2) Translation is why I bothered to write all of this. I want to preserve the ability of good brothers to agree to disagree about 1) text. I wrote because I love God, I love his word, and I love my brothers and my neighbors—and I want people to understand what God saidthrough translations made into their own language, not someone else’s.
Charles Surrett and countless other brothers in Christ have taken a very natural and completely understandable feeling that I share, that is, a loyalty to and a love for a traditional Bible translation that has done them much good, and they have turned it into a doctrine that has divided Christ’s flock and withheld many of God’s words from today’s plow boys.
Brothers and sisters who have made it this far, these things ought not so to be. The Bible does not teach perfect preservation. Even if it did, it doesn’t tell us how to locate the perfectly preserved text among all the variants out there.
What the Bible does tell us is this:
Except ye utter by the tongue words easy to be understood, how shall it be known what is spoken? for ye shall speak into the air. (1 Corinthians 14:9)
1 Corinthians 14 repeatedly teaches that edification requires intelligibility.
Now, somehow TR defense always ends up turning into KJV defense. And though I love the KJV, “the English language has undergone some changes in the past [four-hundred years]…. Since English is a living language, the modern-day connotations of words such as ‘conversation,’ ‘charity,’ and (sadly) ‘gay,’ are much different from their 1611 meanings.”
It was Chuck Surrett, I believe, who wrote that. It’s in the official position statement of Ambassador Baptist College. And it’s true.
The KJV contains “dead words,” words we all know we don’t know—like besom, chambering, and emerod. It’s not unreasonable to ask people to look up archaic words, but it is unnecessary. We could just say broom, immorality, and tumor. We would be using intelligible speech instead of unintelligible—and edification would be the result.
The KJV also contains what I call “false friends,” words we don’t know we don’t know—like halt, remove, and commendeth. It is unreasonable to ask people to look up these words, because they won’t know to look them up. They won’t know where to look them up (answer: the OED). And people who use them will be speaking into the air without knowing it.
The time has come to stop insisting on the exclusive use of the King James Version. English has changed too much. And this insistence is causing undeniable trouble in churches. Strife, rivalries, dissensions, and divisions are “works of the flesh” (Gal 5:19–20). I appeal to my KJV-Only brothers to consider that if the Bible does not teach perfect preservation, they do not have the right to divide from me over their preference for one of the 28 editions of the Textus Receptus. I want unity with them, as much as possible in this vale of tears.
But I’m not actually telling anyone who prefers the TR to give it up. There is another option: use a contemporary translation of it. Surely it cannot be right to officially ban Sunday school teachers and college sophomores and Neighborhood Bible Time kids from using the NKJV or MEV—if “the text is the issue.” They use the same texts as the KJV.
Let me speak then, finally and directly, to Ambassador Baptist College as an institution. I have spoken with Alton Beal, at his kind invitation. I have spoken to Chuck Surrett briefly over email on multiple occasions. If you prefer to use the Hebrew and Greek texts underlying the KJV, rather than the slightly different ones that I use (that teach precisely the same Christian faith), then by all means do so. But please do not divide from me over this extrabiblical preference. Because of the plow boy, because of your students, because of your children and theirs, open up liberty at your institution to make or use a translation of whatever texts you prefer into contemporary English that is intelligible by the plow boy. It is his right and your scriptural duty.
Update (01/30/2020):Two knowledgeable friends pushed back against my idiosyncratic expansion of the theological label “general revelation” in the first edition of this post. I have listened to their arguments and altered my references to general revelation so that I now speak instead of God’s providence in history. The argument remains essentially unchanged, but I now believe my friends were right to question me on this point. It is better to apply “general revelation” to those things that Psalm 19 and Romans 1 tell us God is revealing about himselfthrough nature.
I love my brothers and sisters in Christ who insist on the exclusive use of the King James Version, because we have a “like precious faith” in the biblical gospel—and because certain of those brothers and sisters showed great love to me in high school. They continue to do so.
I wrote Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible to appeal to the great majority of people who use the KJV and no other Bible translation—people who, in God’s good providence, have no facility with Greek or Hebrew and little or no direct knowledge of textual criticism, Bible translation philosophy, or other difficult topics caught up in debates over English Bible versions.
But some Christians who insist that the KJV is the only truly trustworthy English Bible have studied the original languages; they’ve also done some reading on translation philosophy and textual criticism. They put forth some serious points and have cited Scripture in favor of the Textus Receptus underlying the KJV, and against contemporary translations which are based on other editions of the Greek New Testament. They deserve to be answered.
One such man is Charles (“Chuck”) Surrett, longtime pastor at various churches and longtime professor and Academic Dean (now retired, he just told me via email the other day) at Ambassador Baptist College in Shelby, NC. I’ve had several brief correspondences with Surrett, and in each case he has been gracious, clear, and straightforward (Ambassador students who have mentioned him to me always speak of him with respect). He has made key distinctions between his viewpoint and a truly KJV-Only viewpoint. To him, the text is the issue. God promised a “certain” text (Prov 22:20–21 and other verses), and the TR is it. Other English translations might be made from the TR, in his view, but the KJV is still the best available.
I have been asked several times to provide an evaluation of Surrett’s work. I have indeed read both of his books on bibliology, and have listened to two chapel sermons he gave at Ambassador on the topic. I am not aware of any other publicly available writings from him on this topic.
Nearly all advocates of any form of KJV-Onlyism have two separate strands of argument, and it is essential that these be kept separate: text and translation. The most important arguments Surrett has made are biblical, and they are about preservation of the Hebrew and Greek texts. I hope to tackle those arguments in another (shorter) article.
But I wish to keep that discussion completely separate from the topic of this lengthy article (which at one time I considered turning into a small ebook—hence the length; sorry!). The topic here is translation, specifically Surrett’s evaluation of the New King James Version.
Surrett is, by far, the one “KJV-Only” brother I know of who has done the most careful work evaluating the NKJV. He has taken the time to sit down and look at the NKJV rather than dismissing it. He knows that it is based on the same Hebrew and Greek texts as the KJV, and he knows that, given his “the text is the issue” viewpoint, it should be theoretically possible for the NKJV to take over the place of the KJV in the English-speaking church.
Now, I did much of the work below almost two years ago. I sent it to brother Surrett and did not hear back. And then I sat on it. I don’t like appearing to go after people. I have to underscore that I’ve always seen Surrett as different from the run-of-the-mill KJV-Only leader. More careful, more knowledgeable, more gracious. He even worked with me in the construction of KJVParallelBible.org when pretty well every other strong TR defender I talked to ignored my courteous pleas. He’s also an older man with a faithful ministry track record, and the Bible gives me special obligations toward him. I am not to rebuke him but to encourage or exhort or entreat or appeal to him (1 Tim 5:1), depending on what translation you look at! I’d actually prefer a different sparring partner, in good part for this reason.
But I don’t have anyone else to interact with when it comes to KJV-Only critiques of the NKJV, and answering such critiques is an important part of my overall case, which is that because of changes in English over 400-plus years, the excellent KJV is no longer fully intelligible to today’s plow boy. If someone prefers to use an English translation based on the Textus Receptus, the NKJV meets the standard of Scripture: edification requires intelligibility. It uses contemporary English.
But the NKJV is almost universally dismissed in the KJV/TR world. KJV/TR defenders either lump it in with the critical text Bibles (which simply isn’t true; I note that Surrett doesn’t do this), or they reject it because it includes marginal notes that show how the critical text of the New Testament reads (which is odd considering that the KJV translators themselves included textual variants in the margins of the KJV). I don’t know anyone in the KJV-Only world who has done the amount and kind of work Surrett has done on the NKJV. I want to interact with the very best proponents of a given position. When it comes to opposition to the NKJV, Surrett is it.
I will focus on the book in which Surrett spends the most time on the NKJV: Certainty of the Words. I regret any confusion this may cause, but in my evaluation of Surrett’s work I will actually structure this piece by the arguments he made in a related message he delivered at Ambassador Baptist College (one based on the same research).
Certainty of the Words
The promotional description of Surrett’s book promises
an exegetical evaluation of the old King James Version compared with the NKJV, showing by a study of every word in the books of Genesis, Romans, and Revelation, that the old KJV is a superior translation to the NKJV.
With this conclusion all KJV-Only Christians agree. Why? Shouldn’t we expect that some TR defenders would prefer the KJV and some the NKJV? Why are they not happy with a translation of the TR into contemporary English—if the text is the issue?
Because, they say, the NKJV isn’t as accurate as the KJV. And when you ask for examples, these examples trickle down from someone like Surrett. Surrett, too, is “KJV-Only”—in the qualified sense that he believes the King James Version is the “most accurate rendering of God’s original words” and that other versions are “inferior.” He says, in a kind of thesis statement for his book,
The King James Version, as the best English translation of the TR, should not be abandoned, nor replaced by inferior versions which sacrifice accuracy for readability. (Kindle loc. 91)
And in his book (and that message) he attempts to prove this viewpoint in the most responsible way possible—in what is ultimately the only responsible way possible: by discussing actual examples. I applaud Surrett, because few people have the patience to do this very difficult and time-consuming work. Let me tell you, this work gets tiresome for everybody. But patient examination is the only way a translation can be evaluated fairly: only by discussing a sufficient sampling of the tens of thousands of choices that go into a translation can you form an accurate generalization about them. Shouldn’t this point be obvious? I’m afraid it frequently isn’t. But Surrett understands it.
Now what counts as a sufficient number of examples? I’m not precisely sure; perhaps the 7% or so of the Bible that Surrett looked at—Genesis, Romans, and Revelation—is indeed enough. It’s certainly a far bigger sample size than those taken by anyone else I’ve ever seen in the KJV-Only movement. And in his message he gives examples from outside those three books. Surrett did many hours of homework, and again I applaud him.
But I disagree with Surrett’s ultimate assessment of the New King James Version. I don’t think the NKJV is less accurate than the KJV, or vice versa. I think the only significant, generalizable difference between these two versions—really, the NKJV is just the second-latest (to the MEV) revision of the KJV—is that they translate Scripture into two different English dialects.
I will now pause to note that all of the speakers of one of those dialects are dead.
I also disagree with what I take to be a key underlying premise of Surrett’s work, namely that there’s got to be one best translation of the Bible into English. Indeed, many of the examples Surrett gives are not clear “wins” for either the KJV or NKJV. There are good reasons to take each option. Translation is not a zero-sum game. In quite a number of Surrett’s examples, I don’t really care to pick a clear winner, because each translation is valuable for helping readers understand what God has said. Indeed—why can’t readers use both the NKJV and the KJV? Who’s stopping them?
The answer is: people like Charles Surrett and the institutions he represents (when he wrote Certainty of the Words, he was Academic Dean at Ambassador). Surrett is not responsible for all of the sometimes wild claims made within KJV-Onlyism, and I’m certain he would not endorse or defend them. But he is a key pillar holding up a system in which the KJV is the only acceptable translation. Many people who haven’t done the work to evaluate the NKJV rely on his authority when they warn in dark tones about the errors and dangers of the NKJV. I have heard them do it.
Surrett himself concludes his message with this comment:
Although the New King James has the advantage of using more modern English, I think it is a decidedly inferior translation to the old King James.
Who wants to use a “decidedly inferior translation”? Surrett’s message seems to be that the NKJV is too faulty to be worthy of people’s trust.
My plan in this long article
I want to evaluate a number of of Surrett’s examples. How many do I myself need to discuss in order to demonstrate that I have given his work a responsible evaluation? Do I have to discuss all of the examples he mentions in his own short book? That would make for a full-length book, because many of his examples appear in chart form with no explanation.
So I decided to let Surrett choose a representative sample of his own work. Below I examine all but three of the passages Surrett felt were important enough to include in that message he gave on the contents of Certainty of the Words. He gave fourteen examples of the KJV’s superiority over the NKJV, then listed seven more “samplings” very briefly. (The three I skip are minor, and I give an explanation below.)
If Surrett felt this was a sufficient sample size to be persuasive and just in that message, then for the purposes of this article, I will, too.
I do believe that this sample will prove to be of sufficient size to question Surrett’s conclusion and methodology. I think the NKJV is a fine translation that my TR-Only brothers and sisters ought to be happy with. And yet because I refuse to play a zero-sum game, I don’t see why the KJV has to be set aside and fully “replaced” by the NKJV: I still use the KJV all the time in my personal Bible study. What Surrett and those who follow him should not do is ignore or dismiss the NKJV. They should take it as what it is, and what the KJV is: a good but not perfect gift of God.
1. “He” vs. “he” (Psalm 37:23)
The first passage Surrett cites in his message to show the superiority of the NKJV over the KJV is Psalm 37:23. The NKJV interprets the text for the reader by uppercasing “He” and therefore making God the subject of the clause:
KJV: The steps of a good man are ordered by the LORD: And he delighteth in his way.
NKJV: The steps of a good man are ordered by the LORD, and He delights in his way. (NKJV)
Surrett disagrees with the interpretation assumed by the NKJV here—and, to pick up a theme that comes up repeatedly in his work, he doesn’t like interpretation inside a translation more generally.
Many of the observed differences [between the KJV and NKJV] can be explained by the fact that the NKJV translators often told what they felt the passage meant, rather than strictly translating what the original languages said. It is not that the NKJV should be considered heretical, because it does not teach false doctrines. It could, however, be seen to be considerably less accurate than the KJV. It is supposed to be a Bible, not a commentary. (loc. 976)
So he acknowledges that the NKJV’s interpretations are (generally) not wrong, at least in a doctrinal sense. But he thinks translations should stay out of the interpretation business.
If all I get is one Bible translation, I actually side with Surrett in the particular case of Psalm 37:23. I’d want my one translation not to capitalize deity pronouns (I think that “rule” has lived out its useful life) so that it wouldn’t require itself to make an interpretation in a verse like this. But some readers and writers find these caps helpful sometimes, and I’m actually one of them! As long as readers know that they are “added” later—just like spaces, periods, commas, question marks, and all kinds of other things good printed English demands, caps on deity pronouns can do some good. I like the idea of some translations using them and some not—and if they do, I can see how either interpretation in Psalm 37:23 is consistent with the rest of Scripture. Both God and a good man delight in the good things a good man does. I’m not sure why the NKJV’s interpretation—which they have to make if they are going to capitalize deity pronouns—should be considered in anyway wrong.
We have a case, then, not of good vs. bad but of inspired ambiguity. If it’s not winner-take-all, then the NKJV is doing okay so far.
Another note, however: Surrett (as best I can tell) is assuming that interpretation in a translation is bad; and yet he came up with these examples by looking for places where the NKJV differed from the KJV. So, yes, it may be that many of these examples are instances in which the NKJV is more interpretive—but he’s assuming that wherever the KJV and NKJV agree, interpretation is absent. Do you follow? Just because the NKJV is more interpretive in some instances doesn’t mean the KJV avoids interpretation.
Pick up a book like Dave Brunn’s One Bible, Many Versions and you’ll see that the KJV can be a good deal more interpretive than the capitalization of a deity pronoun. “God forbid” is the classic example, but Brunn offers even more. In general, however, the KJV and NKJV are both widely considered to be fairly literal/formal.
So why not give me both the KJV and the NKJV (and a few other translations), and give me a little training as an English Bible reader in how to spot and then weigh “interpretation”? I myself have benefited from all kinds of translations, and I’ve done so countless times.
Again I ask: why do we have to have one best translation? Why not multiple useful ones?
2. “Repent” vs. “Relent” (Matthew 21:32)
Here’s the second example Surrett chooses in his message: in Matthew 21:32, Surrett doesn’t like the NKJV’s use of relent to translate μεταμέλομαι (metamelomai). (Actually, in the message, he said the word was μετάνοια (metanoia), but I presume he misspoke. It’s μεταμέλομαι in both Scrivener’s TR and in the critical text. Surrett gets this right in his book.)
KJV: For John came unto you in the way of righteousness, and ye believed him not: but the publicans and the harlots believed him: and ye, when ye had seen it, repented not afterward, that ye might believe him.
NKJV: For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him; but tax collectors and harlots believed him; and when you saw it, you did not afterward relent and believe him.
Surrett says, “Relent is a much weaker concept than repentance.” His argument feeds into a narrative already existing in the minds of his KJV-Only hearers in which the modern translations are all part of a conspiracy to “weaken” the teachings of the Bible. I’m not saying he believes this conspiracy; though I’m confident that his audience largely does.
But what does μεταμέλομαι (metamelomai) mean? The standard dictionaries all say it means “regret,” not “repent.” “Relent” is a fine translation.
And it has now taken us only us till example no. 2 to see Surrett tripped up by a “false friend,” the key concept in my book. In 1611, repent didn’t always mean what we mean by it today. The OED has this for sense 1 of repent:
To review one’s actions and feel contrition or regret for something one has done or omitted to do; (esp. in religious contexts) to acknowledge the sinfulness of one’s past action or conduct by showing sincere remorse and undertaking to reform in the future. Formerly also in weakened sense: †to change one’s mind (obsolete).
You can see this weaker-but-now-obsolete sense of repentmore clearly in other passages in the KJV:
And it came to pass, when Pharaoh had let the people go, that God led them not through the way of the land of the Philistines, although that was near; for God said, Lest peradventure the people repent when they see war, and they return to Egypt. (Exodus 13:17 KJV)
The NKJV uses “change their minds” here.
Or look at this one:
Then Judas, which had betrayed him, when he saw that he was condemned, repented himself, and brought again the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders. (Matthew 27:3 KJV)
Did Judas really repent? Or was what he did weaker than the full concept of NT repentance? The word here in Greek is not the standard word for repentance, namely μετανοέω (metanoeo). It’s μεταμέλομαι (metamelomai) again, just like Matt 21:32. The NKJV uses the word “remorseful.” I think the NKJV was right here.
But, to be clear, I think the KJV was right, too. They were translating for a different dialect of English than the NKJV, for a different set of English speakers. They used the senses of the word repent that were available to them, including the stronger and weaker senses it had at the time, senses that had to be discerned from context. The NKJV translators didn’t have the weaker sense of repent when they did their work in the 1970s and early 80s; that weaker sense doesn’t exist anymore. And modern readers can’t be expected to realize that repent used to have a weaker sense long before we were born. We shouldn’t ask English Bible readers today to learn such obscure philological factoids in order to read their Bibles with understanding. People need the Bible in their English, not someone else’s.
And Surrett fails to apply his analysis back to the KJV. The KJV says “early will I seek thee” in Psalm 63:1. The NKJV sticks with the same wording, but most other translations say “earnestly” instead of “early.” The NASB and ESV, then are “stronger,” because earnestly is more intense than early. Are the KJV and NKJV “weakening” the verse? No. Both choices are legitimate; the Hebrew can be translated accurately either way. Bible translation is not a competition.
Comparing Bible translations is hard work that requires knowledge not just of Greek and Hebrew but of English. Bring the KJV into the discussion and you’ve introduced a new level: a different dialect of English that one must master in order to make a just judgment.
3. “Comforter” vs. “Helper” (John 14:26)
Surrett says something similar about John 14:26 that he said about 1 Corinthians 6:9. He says that Comforter is “a whole lot stronger term than Helper.”
KJV: But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things.
NKJV: But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in My name, He will teach you all things.
I’m not sure either word is “stronger” than the other. And again I’m wondering: what does the original Greek word (parakletos) mean? Turns out this is a tough one. The major English translations go different directions. And as long as I’m not straightjacketed by the quest to find The One True Translation of the Bible, I’m free to benefit from all the renderings out there. If gifted, trained, godly people chose different options, perhaps I have something to learn from them. Perhaps parakletos is a rich term whose riches I’ll access best through multiple English angles—provided by multiple English Bible translations.
And I think that’s precisely the case. Translation requires judgment calls. There isn’t always a “right” and a “wrong” choice. Both “Comforter” and “Helper” have something to teach us about the Holy Spirit. And there are more options, too. “Advocate” draws on the use of parakletos in legal contexts. So, perhaps, does “Counselor.” I’ve also seen translations go with “Friend” and “Companion.” I don’t know off the top of my head why certain Bible translations went with those options. I do know that the scholars who chose these renderings were not dummies; they had cogent reasons for their choices, even if, sometimes, I end up disagreeing. A little digging in commentaries and study Bibles will help me find those good reasons, and will increase my knowledge of what Christ was trying to communicate, perhaps even by displaying the ambiguity Jesus chose to use. Is Christ allowed to use a word that can’t be translated easily into one English word? He is Lord of all; he’s allowed.
It’s tempting to believe that there’s only one possible accurate translation of any given passage. Maybe certain Christians feel as if allowing variations in translation will crack the Bible into a million pieces, make it say anything the translators want. But this simply isn’t the case. One sentence in a language is capable of multiple accurate translations, each saying the same thing in slightly different ways. The same can be true of one word, like parakletos. And inside those differences there are insights to be had.
4. “Godhead” vs. “divine nature” (Acts 17:29)
Next up, Acts 17:29.
KJV: Forasmuch then as we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Godhead is like unto gold, or silver, or stone, graven by art and man’s device.
NKJV: Therefore, since we are the offspring of God, we ought not to think that the Divine Nature is like gold or silver or stone, something shaped by art and man’s devising.
Surrett argues, “You and I have the divine nature, according to 1 Peter. But this is not talking about us; it’s talking about God.”
I’m having a little trouble following his point here. I think I can see that someone who isn’t reading carefully could possibly conclude that “Divine Nature” is a reference to humans, since humans are mentioned in the previous part of the verse (“since we are the offspring of God”). And it’s true that this misreading is much less likely in the KJV.
But it isn’t the NKJV’s fault that an accurate translation of the word θεῖος (theios) could possibly be misread. Good translations don’t guarantee perfect interpretation. “Godhead” isn’t a common English word. “Divine nature” is a lot more accessible. And what does “Godhead” mean, according to the OED? “The character or quality of being God or a god; divine nature or essence; deity.”
I can’t see Surrett’s objection as anything but what the KJV translators called a “cavil.”
5. “Require” vs. “Request” (1 Corinthians 1:22)
Here’s another one Surrett brings up, 1 Corinthians 1:22.
KJV: For the Jews require a sign, and the Greeks seek after wisdom.
NKJV: For Jews request a sign, and Greeks seek after wisdom.
Surrett sees here another “weakening” of the Bible. But Surrett got tripped up here by another “false friend,” one I hadn’t noticed until he brought it up—I speak the same version of English Surrett does and have had to train hard over years to notice false friends in the KJV; I still regularly miss them. Require in 1611 in a context like 1 Cor 1:22 just meant “ask,” not “demand.” And the Greek word here, αἰτέω (aiteo), is indeed most commonly translated “ask,” not “demand.” (See OED, s.v. ask, sense 2.)
To see places where require in the KJV meant only “ask” and not “demand,” you just do a word search. For example, Ezra says in Ezra 8:22, “I was ashamed to require of the king a band of soldiers and horsemen to help us against the enemy.” Priests within captive, subjugated nations don’t “require” kings to give them things in the modern sense. Ezra was talking about “asking,” “requesting.” To make matters more complicated, a number of modern translations do go for “demand” at Ezra 8:22, while others stick with “ask.” It’s about evenly split. But this is yet another judgment call, not a matter of right or wrong. The KJV translators themselves included alternate translations in the margins. Why is it so bad for two translations to choose different viable options? At the very least, it is not necessary to declare a clear “winner” here at Ezra 8:22—and not at 1 Cor 1:22 either, once you realize that by require the KJV translators meant request.
6. “Effeminate” vs. “Homosexuals” (1 Corinthians 6:9)
The sixth example of the NKJV’s superiority that Surrett attempts to adduce in his message is actually a good example of a less-than-fully-literal translation in the KJV—something Surrett, in my judgment, doesn’t account for in his book or his message. It’s 1 Corinthians 6:9.
KJV: Know ye not that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor effeminate, nor abusers of themselves with mankind.
NKJV: Do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived. Neither fornicators, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor homosexuals, nor sodomites.
The most literal translation of μαλακός (malakos) would be “soft.” That’s how the word gets translated at its two other occurrences in the KJV, Matthew 11:8 and Luke 7:25, where Jesus speaks of “a man clothed in soft raiment.” But when the word is put in a pairing with (Paul’s new coinage) ἀρσενοκοίτης (arsenokoites), it refers to the passive male partner in a homosexual pairing, the man taking the feminine role in a sexual encounter.
No doubt, such a person is effeminate, at the very least in that respect. But the choice between “effeminate” and “homosexual” is a judgment call; I’ve studied it in some detail (I wrote a paper on ἀρσενοκοίτης for a little colloquium of Bible PhDs) and I could go either way. “Effeminate” is definitely legitimate: it’s the gloss chosen by BDAG, the standard Greek-English lexicon. But the word chosen by the NKJV arguably makes it clearer to modern readers what Paul is really talking about. In a way, the NKJV is “interpreting,” but so is the KJV. Each interpretation has pros and cons. It’s not a zero-sum game in which one wins the title “accurate” and the other goes home in shame with “inaccurate” stamped on its cover.
(And don’t forget the next phrase: I think the KJV’s “abusers of themselves with mankind” is a lot less clear to modern readers than the NKJV’s strong and blunt “sodomites”).
7. “Heretick” vs. “Divisive Man” (Titus 3:10)
Another passage Surrett discusses is Titus 3:10.
KJV: A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject.
NKJ: Reject a divisive man after the first and second admonition.
Here Surrett got tripped up by the appeal of using an English cognate, because the Greek word is αἱρετικὸν (hairetikon), the etymological source of our word heretic. He assumes that the transliteration of the word (he mentions this explicitly) is necessarily a more literal and accurate translation.
But our word heretic has taken on a very specific meaning that it didn’t have in Paul’s day. Today heretic means, “a person believing in or practicing religious heresy,” or “a person who differs in opinion from established religious dogma.” In Paul’s day the related Greek word meant something more general, “pertaining to causing divisions, factious, division-making” (BDAG). The same root shows up elsewhere in the NT speaking of the “party” or “sect” [αἵρεσις, hairesis] of the Pharisees or Sadducees.
It is possible that Paul meant the specific heretic here and not the more general divisive man. The famed Theological Dictionary of the New Testament goes that direction; it thinks the word was a technical term (i.e., heretic) from the first, even in the NT. But other authorities go a different direction, and given that we have only one NT occurrence to go on, I lean pretty strongly toward the NKJV—and other English Bible translators are with me overwhelmingly.
Nonetheless, seeing both options is valuable. Neither one has to be the winner when we all have easy access to both. God chose to use a word whose meaning is not exhaustively certain. The KJV translators themselves say in their justly famous preface that this is precisely the reason why they offered alternate translations in the margins. And that’s all the NKJV is in this case. It is not inferior and perhaps not even superior, just different.
8. “Satan” vs. “Accuser” (Psalm 109:6)
KJV: Set thou a wicked man over him: and let Satan stand at his right hand.
NKJV: Set a wicked man over him, And let an accuser stand at his right hand.
Hebrew allows for a double meaning here, but English requires the translator to choose between the proper name Satan and the word satan’s literal meaning, an accuser. By siding with Satan over an accuser, Surrett again feeds a narrative in which the modern translations are all trying to soften the teaching of the Bible—here, I suppose, they’re undermining the reality of Satan?
But it just isn’t so.
The modern translations interpret the text as speaking of a court room, which makes a lot of sense in context. In fact, here Surrett is standing with the KJV against every major English translation in existence, including some such as the Geneva that are older than the KJV. At the very least this ought to lead to humility and not a clear “score” in the KJV column.
Surrett is staking out a rather lonely position in which the “votes” of dozens of scholars don’t count for much. He repeatedly expects me to trust his judgment over theirs. He does explain his judgment in many places, but frequently when I dig in to his explanations I discover that I disagree, or that the matter is more complicated than he makes it seem. He is a gracious man, but let’s get something clear: when he says that the NKJV “weakens” a given rendering, he’s not talking about a nameless and faceless object, an NKJV Bible. He’s talking about people, about the brothers and sisters in Christ who sat down and did the work to create the NKJV. A person—a person who attends a church not wholly unlike Surrett’s—made that decision. So to say the NKJV “weakens” the message of the Bible is to charge a fellow believer with that sin. This is serious stuff.
Second, he’s building up to an application: the NKJV is “inferior” and suspect; it ought not generally be used. The official policy of Surrett’s institution says that the school must “use only…the KJV translation in our classrooms and chapel services.” But in the case of Psalm 109:6, if you can’t read Hebrew and yet use only the KJV, you will likely miss what’s going on here. The only way an English reader can get the possible double meaning is by having both options. Maybe a reader will conclude that, indeed, the KJV is better capturing the intent of David in Psalm 109:6. But maybe not. Translations are not perfect or inspired.
9.“Generations” vs. “History” (Genesis 2:4)
Genesis 2:4 is the first of eleven occurrences of a much discussed and debated “toledoth formula” that the Moses uses to structure his book: “These are the generations of…” The KJV renders them all the same way; the NKJV varies them a little. All but two are rendered with “genealogy.” The first last are rendered with “history”:
KJV: These are the generations of the heaven and of the earth.
NKJV: This is the history of the heavens and the earth.
The NKJV footnotes the KJV rendering and calls it “literal.” It is indeed literal, but there are two big reasons not to use it:
First, it’s a fairly classic example of a literal rendering that doesn’t mean anything to the average English speaker. To some readers it probably means the wrong thing. “Generations” are periods of time, or groups of people living in those periods: “the Boomer generation”; “a change that took four generations.” “Generations” in English aren’t what they are in Hebrew: the genealogical line generated by a given figure (see Ex 6:16; Num 1:20). In order to understand the special use of this word, you’re going to have to do some study, no matter which translation you use. And for that reason, I think the KJV’s “generations” is fine. They could have called them “toledoth” and left all interpretation up to the reader.
Second, what follows Gen 2:4 and 37:2—the first and last occurrences of the formula—are not genealogies but histories. So translators are justified in concluding that toledoth must have a broader meaning than “genealogies.” And it’s in precisely these two places that the NKJV translators do in fact opt for that broader meaning. “History” is a perfectly acceptable rendering.
I think I myself would prefer the KJV’s approach if I had to make one and only one choice. I’d rather translate the Hebrew word with the same English word each time it appears in these key moments in Genesis. I’m willing to put a little more burden on the reader in a place that’s tough already—if by doing so I can actually make it more possible that he or she will get the meaning without more help (from commentaries or teachers or such like).
But I don’t have to make only one choice. I can do what the NKJV translators did: help more casual readers in the text and help more serious ones (or those same casual readers when they decide to enter a specific study) in the footnotes. And I can use the KJV and the NKJV; I don’t have to use only one. Both can be “right.”
I relied heavily on Kenneth Mathews’ discussion of this matter on pages 26ff. of the first volume of his NAC commentary on Genesis. I looked in vain—I even read all the footnotes in Certainty of the Words—for any indication that brother Surrett checked commentary literature to access the reasoning that may have influenced the NKJV translators. His description of his methodology mentioned only lexicons, but lexicons may or may not hint at the reason why toledoth might be rendered differently in Gen 2:4 and 37:2 than it is elsewhere.
10. “Help Meet” vs. “Helper Comparable” (Genesis 2:18)
Genesis 2:18 is the one place where Surrett got the most seriously confused, I’m afraid.
KJV: And the LORD God said, It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him an help meet for him.
NKJV: And the LORD God said, “It is not good that man should be alone; I will make him a helper comparable to him.”
I want to quote Surrett’s book here (he says basically the same in his message):
In Genesis 2:18, where the KJV speaks of the woman as an “help meet” for her husband, the NKJV calls her a “helper comparable” to him. The quoted portions show each version’s rendering of one Hebrew word, עזר, which means “helper.” The KJV emphasizes that this helper is “meet,” or sufficient for the man, but the NKJV seems to reveal a desire for “political correctness,” attempting to focus on the equality of the man and woman. There is no reason to see this word as indicating “comparable,” especially since it is used many times in the Old Testament to refer to God as man’s Helper. In each of those cases, it is very clear that God is a “sufficient” Helper to man, and not “comparable” to him. There is certainly no justification from the Hebrew language for this change being made in the NKJV.
This is all rather confusing, because Surrett made a basic error here: “help meet” and “helper comparable” are not translating just one Hebrew word. They are translating two Hebrew words: 1) עֵ֖זֶר ( ‘ezer), which means “helper,” and 2) כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ (kenegdo), which means “corresponding to him” or “comparable to him.” Literally, it’s “as before him,” which is meaningless when translated literally. So all translations, including the KJV, interpret it. The KJV’s meet is now what I call a dead word. We don’t use it anymore (the verb meet, as in I’m about to meet my wife, is a different word entirely). In 1611 in a context like this, meet meant “suitable, fit, proper for some purpose or occasion.” That’s what the NIV and many other translations go with: “suitable.” My best guess is that the NKJV translators are leaning a little harder on the context: the animals Adam named didn’t match him; Eve did. I prefer the KJV (and NIV) over the NKJV here, but there is certainly no egalitarian plot involved in the latter. When I’m studying an important passage like this carefully, I want to see all the viable options among my Bible translations. The truth is that we don’t know with perfect certainty what kenegdo means. And the KJV translators themselves said that in cases of uncertainty, it’s better to have options in the margin—or, in this case, in another edition.
(I must also point out that in the midst of Surrett’s unfortunate confusion, he cites an argument I’ve only ever heard coming from gender egalitarians, namely that God is called a “helper.” I can’t make any sense out of the conclusion he draws from this, because he’s confused the terms of the argument by apparently thinking that “help meet” is rendering one Hebrew word.)
In my document right now I’m at 9,200 words. I’m going to skip three minor examples here that Surrett didn’t spend much time on, because I am tired. Ok?
“His” vs. “It” (Genesis 4:7)
“By sevens” vs. “Seven each” (Genesis 7:2–3)
“Asher” vs. “Nimrod” (Genesis 10:11)
14. “City of Rehoboth” vs. “Rehoboth-Ir” (Genesis 10:11)
Now Genesis 10:11, part of a somewhat obscure passage full of genealogies.
KJV: Out of that land went forth Asshur, and builded Nineveh, and the city Rehoboth.
NKJV: From that land he went to Assyria and built Nineveh, Rehoboth Ir.
Surrett doesn’t offer guesses as to why the NKJV translators would make this revision, but in fact all the major modern translations go for Rehoboth Ir. There must be a good reason, and before I go discover it, I’d like to point out that when a lot of smart evangelical Bible scholars do something I don’t understand, I tend to default to assuming that they had a good reason for it that I will discover via further study. I think that’s healthier than the maximum skepticism KJV-Onlyism nearly always shows toward contemporary English versions. As I listened to Surrett and read his book, I was frequently left with the impression that the NKJV translators were making unaccountable, inexplicable changes just for their own sake. Why in the world would they change “city of Rehoboth” to “Rehoboth Ir”? Why indeed? Does it advance some liberal cause? Are they just playing around with the Bible? Isn’t it possible that they had good reasons?
The standard evangelical commentaries do offer reasons. I did go and look this up—and it’s so complicated that I’m tempted not to get into it here. I’m going to just quote a standard evangelical commentator and let you decide whether to bother with the complexity:
Rehoboth Ir poses another problem for translators since, if taken as a place name, the city is unexplained. This has prompted alternative readings of the Hebrew (rĕḥōbōt ʿîr). It can be translated “open places [plazas] of the city,” referring to Nineveh’s public squares (see NIV text note). The plazas would refer to various districts in the environs of the city (cf. the circuitous travels of the prophet Jonah). Or the phrase, if taken as a parallel usage to the Akkadian expression “open spaces in a city” (rēbît ali), can be understood as unbuilt areas around Nineveh. A related option is taking the phrase as a superlative, rendered “broadest among individual cities,” which would correlate well with the final phrase, descriptive of Calah, “that is the great city.” Another recommendation is taking Rehoboth Ir as an interpretation of the Sumerian name (AŠ.UR) for the famous ancient city “Asshur,” which one would expect in this catalog of Assyrian cities. It would seem best to take the Hebrew as the place name, as we find in the LXX [Septuagint] tradition (Roōbōth polin), since it occurs in a sequence of sites and all are introduced by the direct object marker ʾet, which in the case of Rehoboth Ir should not be explained away as some have.
“That is the great city” concludes the verse, but its antecedent is uncertain since it may refer to the immediate Calah or to the earlier Nineveh. Many prefer Nineveh due to the same report in Jonah (1:2; 3:2–3; 4:11), yet the expression is used of other citadels (e.g., Gibeon, Josh 10:2). K. A. Mathews, Genesis 1-11:26, vol. 1A, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 452.
Surrett in his book and in his message didn’t hint at any of this; did you catch it all? If you did, I think you’ll agree that this passage does not provide a clear “win” for anyone. Both options are viable. Clearly, however, neither of them could fairly be called “inaccurate.” There doesn’t have to be a winner.
If the NKJV translators can’t even get away with a tiny, insignificant change that only the most attentive reader would ever notice, one that has no bearing on any conceivable doctrinal issue, one begins to think that they are playing uphill on a tilted field.
At this point in his message, Surrett shifted to seven very quick “samplings,” including a few New Testament passages (in Romans, the one NT book he checked in his study of the NKJV).
I’ll try to keep my comments brief on these as well. Also, I am still tired. I’m on a flight that just took off after a four-hour delay!
I think, also, that if you’ve lasted this far with me, we’ve established together some categories we can use.
Gen 14:15 “north of Damascus” (NKJV) vs. “on the left hand of Damascus” (KJV). Surrett says of the NKJV, “Far too often it’s interpreting rather than translating.” And I just have to ask: does any English speaker ever say “on the left hand of” to indicate cardinal directions? And Surrett fails to note (I never saw him note this regarding any passage, though it happens several times among the examples he chose) that the NKJV footnotes the KJV’s more literal rendering.
Gen 18:11 “Sarah had passed the age of childbearing” (NKJV) vs. “it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women” (KJV). Does anyone in English ever say what the KJV translators said? Is it really so wrong to translate Hebrew phrases into English phrases rather than make up something one might call Hebrewlish? And, once again, Surrett does not note that the NKJV footnotes the KJV’s more literal rendering.
Finally we move to the New Testament.
Romans 2:26 “the righteous requirements of the law” (NKJV) vs. “righteousness of the law” (KJV). The NKJV, Surrett says, is again interpreting and not translating. The word “requirements” is not present in the text. But I’d argue that the KJV rendering is a classic example of a translation that is so accurate that it is meaningless in the target language. I have a hard time being upset about a little interpretive help. By comparing the KJV and NKJV, I’m liable to come up with a good interpretation.
Rom 2:27 “written code” (NKJV) vs. “letter” (KJV). The NKJV footnotes the KJV’s more literal translation. And “letter” is an obscure enough metaphor (a metonymy) that I wouldn’t actually be quick to call the NKJV’s rendering “interpretive.” It’s a viable translation.
Rom 3:25 “by his blood through faith” (NKJV) vs. “through faith in his blood” (KJV). Surrett says, “The old King James emphasizes that the faith has to be in his blood.” Surrett is assuming that the order of phrases in Greek must be retained in order for the translation to be accurate, but this simply isn’t so. Both translations are viable. Surely the fact that Christ’s bloody death propitiated the wrath of the Father is just as essential to the gospel message as the idea that we must have faith in that bloody death.
Rom 4:18 “descendants” (NKJV) vs. “seed” (KJV). If I have to make only one choice, I’d prefer retaining the metaphor as the KJV does. But each translation is legitimate, and many contemporary translations opt for explaining the metaphor rather than giving it. This is a standard issue in translation, one that every translator must face—and this has always been true in every translation from any given base language to any given receptor language. Surrett is giving a lay-level discussion, but he still ought to have acknowledged this. Neither choice is “wrong.” Both are right.
Rom 7:7 “lust” (NKJV) vs. “covetousness” (KJV). This is an odd example to pick, because it’s the New King James that upholds the principle I thought Surrett would prefer, the principle of “concordance.” Two instances of the epithum- root occur in this verse: one noun (“covetousness”), one verb (“you shall not covet”). The KJV misses an opportunity I believe they usually take to translate the same Greek root with the same English one. They go with “lust” for the noun (which is perfectly fine) and “covet” for the verb (which is perfectly fine). Neither the KJV or NKJV is inaccurate here. The KJV is just a little less “literal.”
A Concluding Surprise
At the very end of Charles Surrett’s book, tucked in an appendix evaluating the NKJV’s handling of Romans, I found this rather surprising summary paragraph:
There are 163 discrepancies between the two versions [the KJV and NKJV]. Of these, 91 times the Greek supported the KJV, and 72 times it supported the NKJV. Thus, 56% of the time, the KJV is superior, despite the fact that many of the cases where NKJV is preferred are due to antiquated English words. If adjustments are made for “antiquated” English terminology, the percentages change to 63% in agreement with KJV and 37% in favor of NKJV.
And I say, after all my wading through his examples, wha…? The KJV is superior just over half the time in Romans? Might it be a good idea to revise the KJV in those places, in such an important doctrinal book?
And should adjustments indeed be made to the stats to correct for (scare-quote alert) “antiquated” English terminology? Surrett hasn’t convinced me of this. In fact, his work shows that he’s tripped up by archaic terminology just like readers who don’t teach Bible at Bible colleges. He didn’t spot the “false friends” I pointed out above.
And now I want to know: even under Surrett’s criteria, what might the ratio of “accurate” to “inaccurate” be if you compare the KJV and NKJV in the Gospel of John, or Hosea, or Deuteronomy, the books he didn’t check? Could any of them be at 70/30 in favor of the NKJV? Should we switch out the KJV books for the NKJV’s in those places?
Evaluating Bible Translations
The work of evaluating Bible translations is exceedingly complex and tedious. There are so many factors to consider. Fair consideration of these factors requires five things:
It requires expertise in at least three languages—1) Greek, 2) Hebrew, and 3) English. (And if you’re including the KJV, don’t forget 3a) contemporary English and 3b) Elizabethan English.) And it requires 4) using all that knowledge to actually sit down and evaluate a given translation in numerous places in order to form an accurate opinion of it. Then it requires 5) using that knowledge to evaluate multiple other English translations in numerous places in order to form accurate opinions of them.
And all this means—I find I keep having to say this—that very few people in the church have the capacity to make just judgments about the relative quality of English Bible translations. That means that everybody else has to trust somebody. I’m loathe to say, “Don’t trust Charles Surrett.” Again, he seems to me like a gracious Christian man. I will not guess at Surrett’s motives, as if it’s impossible for a man representing a KJV-Only institution to make honest arguments. I do believe Surrett has made honest arguments; I do not question his integrity. But I will point out that his position is not fully gracious toward other people with Greek and Hebrew knowledge—in fact, with more knowledge than he possesses (Surrett’s terminal degree is pastoral and not academic; he humbly said this to me himself in an email exchange just last week as I write). He keeps guessing at their motives: they’re trying to soften the Bible, they’re trying to insert human judgments rather than letting God speak, they’re trying to introduce feminist ideas into Scripture.
This I see constantly in the King James Only movement: people speaking confidently about the alleged errors of the work of men with more, even far more academic training. But—and I say this straightforwardly, without any joy or arrogance—every last one of the NKJV translators has more training than every last one of the professors at all the KJV-Only Bible colleges in existence. I’ve actually, personally, obsessively done the research on this, and if you want to see it I’ll send it to you. This obvious educational disparity in itself does not mean that the KJV-Only folks such as Surrett are wrong. But it means they ought to be extra humble. I frequently disagree with people who are smarter than I am—evolutionary scientists; political theorists; economists; even theologians and biblical scholars. But I tread more and more lightly 1) the further their intelligence or education rises above mine, and 2) the more judgment calls are involved in our disagreement.
And I can’t think of many fields where more judgment calls are required than in Bible translation. So many literary, contextual, lexicographical, grammatical, euphonic, and other considerations go into the translator’s choices. Inevitably, translators will end up finding different solutions to the translation difficulties they come across. This is all a good reason to be humble, to look for the good reasons someone may have before we dismiss their work.
But I have never seen an attitude of deferential humility in KJV-Onlyism; I have never seen a KJV-Only brother say, “Admittedly, I don’t have the Greek and Hebrew and English expertise of the NKJV translators, but I’m still compelled to disagree.” Surrett is among the humblest and best-trained KJV-Only brothers I know, but in case after case he seems unable to charitably place himself in others’ shoes. The NKJV translators aren’t permitted to come honestly to different conclusions than the KJV translators did: they have to be motivated by something malign. At one point Surrett speculates that the NKJV translators of Genesis 2:18 were “womens-libbers.”
Philippians 4:5 says that we should let our “reasonableness” or “moderation” or “gentleness” be known to all men. One commentator glossed the phrase as “meeting people halfway.” Surrett did do this by openly acknowledging places where the NKJV was superior to the KJV. But overall, I must sadly say that he failed this test.
A Winner-Take-All Champion
I’ve tried to show in my review of Surrett’s work that fair consideration of the issues related to English Bible translation also requires not expecting (or, certainly, not anointing) a winner-take-all champion before doing the work. And where I think I can demonstrate that Surrett has erred is in assuming that there must be ONE RING TO RULE THEM ALL in the English Bible wars. These wars shouldn’t exist in the first place. Why can’t Christians use all the good English Bible translations there are for their Bible study? If the NKJV is more accurate than the KJV in some places—as Surrett himself says—then why does Ambassador Baptist College insist on exclusive use of the KJV in “classrooms and chapel services”? Could the NKJV be used in classrooms and chapel services at those places where Surrett himself thinks it’s better than the KJV? Over and over again throughout my adult life I have understood the Bible better because I used multiple contemporary translations. Why cut Christian students at a Bible college off from this embarrassment of riches? Why not help them access it instead?
The KJV translators said in their wise and even astounding preface, which is the greatest set of arguments against King James Onlyism ever written,
Some peradventure would have no variety of senses to be set in the margin, lest the authority of the Scriptures for deciding of controversies by that show of uncertainty should somewhat be shaken. But we hold their judgement not to be so sound in this point. For though ‘whatsoever things are necessary are manifest’, as St Chrysostom saith, and as St Augustine, ‘In those things that are plainly set down in the Scriptures all such matters are found that concern faith, hope, and charity’: yet for all that it cannot be dissembled that partly to exercise and whet our wits, partly to wean the curious from loathing of them for their everywhere plainness, partly also to stir up our devotion to crave the assistance of God’s Spirit by prayer, and lastly, that we might be forward to seek aid of our brethren by conference, and never scorn those that be not in all respects so complete as they should be, being to seek in many things ourselves, it hath pleased God in his divine providence here and there to scatter words and sentences of that difficulty and doubtfulness, not in doctrinal points that concern salvation (for in such it hath been vouched that the Scriptures are plain), but in matters of less moment, that fearfulness would better beseem us than confidence, and if we will resolve, to resolve upon modesty with St Augustine (though not in this same case altogether, yet upon the same ground), ‘Melius est dubitare de occultis, quam litigare de incertis’: it is better to make doubt of those things which are secret than to strive about those things that are uncertain. There be many words in the Scriptures which be never found there but once (having neither brother nor neighbour, as the Hebrews speak), so that we cannot be helped by conference of places. Again, there be many rare names of certain birds, beasts and precious stones, etc., concerning which the Hebrews themselves are so divided among themselves for judgement that they may seem to have defined this or that, rather because they would say something than because they were sure of that which they said, as St Jerome somewhere saith of the Septuagint. Now in such a case doth not a margin do well to admonish the reader to seek further, and not to conclude or dogmatise upon this or that peremptorily? For as it is a fault of incredulity to doubt of those things that are evident: so to determine of such things as the Spirit of God hath left (even in the judgement of the judicious) questionable, can be no less than presumption. Therefore as St Augustine saith, that variety of translations is profitable for the finding out of the sense of the Scriptures: so diversity of signification and sense in the margin, where the text is not so clear, must needs do good, yea, is necessary, as we are persuaded.
Surrett does say in his chapel message, “There are a few times when I felt that the NKJV was superior.” This is commendable. I’ve never heard any other KJV-Only brother say this. But in the end he calls it “decidedly inferior” to the KJV. I couldn’t find a place in his book or his message in which he concluded—as the KJV translators say they did—that a given translation issue is a toss-up, that there is more than one viable option. It seems as if, in his mind (as in the minds of every other KJV-Only brother and sister I have known) one translation has to win—in each comparison passage, and overall. If brother Surrett could only eliminate this one idea, his more-refined and careful and gracious brand of KJV-Onlyism might give way to a proper liberty, a freedom to use all the good English translations God has given to the church.
No Translation Is Perfect
The KJV translators also said,
Things are to take their denomination of the greater part…. A man may be counted a virtuous man, though he have made many slips in his life, (else, there were none virtuous, for in many things we offend all) [James 3:2] also a comely man and lovely, though he have some warts upon his hand, yea, not only freckles upon his face, but also scars. No cause therefore why the word translated should be denied to be the word, or forbidden to be current, notwithstanding that some imperfections and blemishes may be noted in the setting forth of it. For whatever was perfect under the Sun, where Apostles or Apostolic men, that is, men endued with an extraordinary measure of God’s spirit, and privileged with the privilege of infallibility, had not their hand?
In other words, no translation is perfect. And it’s best to judge something by its predominant character, not its exceptions. I would suggest to Surrett that he adopt the KJV translators’ magnanimous approach toward the NKJV. Charles Surrett and Ambassador Baptist College should give liberty to their students and teachers to use the NKJV. It uses precisely the same textual basis as the KJV, and it’s a good translation into current English.
My brother in Christ, Charles Surrett, does not like the textual critical principles that gave us the modern critical text of the Greek New Testament. I am happy to agree to disagree with him. I really don’t mind if he prefers to use one of the twenty-eight printed Textus Receptus editions out there.
My brother in Christ, Charles Surrett, also does not like the NKJV, even though it uses the very same Greek New Testament he prefers (Scrivener’s TR). I do not follow his judgments.
So I conclude with an appeal. Brother Surrett is trusted and respected in the Ambassador Baptist College community, and in the KJV-Only world more generally. Might he take his list of places where the NKJV is superior to the KJV and use it to help me and as large a team as possible of biblical scholars make a revision of the KJV that uses understandable, contemporary English? My book, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible, says not one critical word about the choices of the KJV translators. They are not my opponents but my friends. My book, however, makes the very case that they made: the case for revision.
Surrett is dismissive of my viewpoint (though to be fair to him, when he wrote/spoke, my book wasn’t even a gleam in my eye). He says, “[The KJV] is not too difficult for us to understand, even today, dumb as we are.” But English has changed in the last 400-plus years. The KJV is littered with what I call “dead words” and “false friends”—words we know we don’t know like besom, chambering, and emerod; and words we don’t know we don’t know, like halt, commendeth, and remove.
And 1 Corinthians 14 says that edification requires intelligibility. People need, they deserve, to have God’s words translated into their own English, not someone else’s. If the NKJV doesn’t satisfy my TR-Only brothers such as Charles Surrett, I urge them to check out the Modern English Version—or to make their own new revision, using whatever texts they prefer, into fully intelligible, contemporary English. I’ll happily help.