Josh, why are you doing this?
Friends and detractors alike have asked me this same question over the last few weeks. Why enter the decades-old debate regarding KJV-Onlyism? Why go public with my views rather than keeping them to myself and my church?
It’s because I want to stay in unity and fellowship with my brothers who use the KJV, but some of them have made exclusive use of the King James Version into a test of fellowship—and even of doctrinal orthodoxy. They need to know that I have good and even biblical reasons for why I have moved away from using the KJV in public ministry. Mainly: I believe the Bible should be accessible to the plow boy.
I will give three reasons for my viewpoint.1
1. The Bible says we should use words people can understand.
The first and most important question we should ask is the same one I was taught growing up in a Baptist church: what does the Bible say? In the midst of all the discussion on Bible translation, we often forget to reference the Bible. So then, what does the Bible say about Bible translation? Well, surprisingly little. HA! Don’t you wish there were a verse in the Bible that said it clearly? “Thou shalt never translate the Bible out of its original language.” “Thou shalt forevermore use the King James Version.” Or even better, “Yo bro! God’s Words are legit! Just get ’em out there. It’ll be lit.” And though the Bible says little about its own translation, it does say a few things that are important to remember when approaching God’s Word.
The Bible says we should use words people can understand if we want to edify them. I have come to realize that people we serve—and I myself—do not really understand the KJV. Not fully. Not as fully as I would have if I had lived in Elizabethan times and spoke their English.
This doesn’t mean that I don’t understand any of the King James Version. It just means that throughout my thirty-year Christian journey I have found myself often needing to reference newer translations of the Bible in order to understand God’s inspired words.
The Bible hints at the importance of using people’s common speech in several places, such as Nehemiah 8:8 and Acts 2. At Pentecost, Parthians, Medes, Egyptians, and a host of other nationalities heard God’s word in their own languages (Acts 2:8–10). This miracle was a testimony to the truth of the disciples’ Spirit-inspired message—and to God’s intent to bless all the families of the earth. God’s power is not limited to one geographic location, to one time period, or to one human language. If God can speak Elamite, he can speak contemporary English.
Paul supports this principle, too, when he argues with Corinthian believers who are abusing the gift of tongues that the Spirit gave at Pentecost. They were using words others couldn’t understand. Paul says repeatedly in 1 Corinthians 14, in various ways, that if you want to edify people you have to use words people know.
Unless you utter by the tongue words easy to understand, how will it be known what is spoken? For you will be speaking into the air. (1 Cor. 14:9 NKJV)
The KJV is not as unintelligible as a completely foreign language, an “unknown tongue.” But Paul’s principle still applies: if we use words people can’t understand, they will not be edified.
Language changes over time. Elizabethan English has slowly become, at places, difficult or even impossible for the modern plow boy to understand.
Noah Webster, author of the dictionary trusted and used by many KJV readers, saw this very thing in his day. He said a few years after his dictionary released in 1828,
Some words [in the KJV] have fallen into disuse; and the signification of others, in current popular use, is not the same now as it was when they were introduced into the version. The effect of these changes is, that some words are not understood by common readers, who have no access to commentaries, and who will always compose a great proportion of readers; while other words, being now used in a sense different from that which they had when the translation was made, present a wrong signification or false ideas. Whenever words are understood in a sense different from that which they had been introduced, and different from that of the original languages, they do not present to the reader the Word of God.
What Webster said is even truer today, and if we didn’t all feel social pressure to deny it, we would see it, too. Every generation must continue the cause Luther, Wycliffe, and Tyndale fought for. We must get the Word of God into the language of the common man. That task didn’t end in 1395 (when Wycliffe’s Bible was completed), or in 1611 (or 1769!). We must get the Word of God into the living hands of what the KJV translators called—in their oft-forgotten preface—the “very vulgar.” We must give God’s words to the plow boy for whom Tyndale gave his life.
2. The KJV contains not just “dead words” but also “false friends.”
Webster’s point above is why the most important chapter in Mark Ward’s book, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible, is entitled “Dead Words and False Friends.” This chapter answers the most common objection raised by those disinclined to acknowledge new English translations of the Bible: Why don’t you just give your folks a good dictionary and let them look up the words they don’t understand?
For one thing, isn’t it a little strange that we insist people look up the word besom when they already know “broom” (Isa 14:23)? And why should plow boys have to look up chambering when they already know “immorality” (Rom 13:13)? Why make English speakers look up emerod when they already know the word “tumor” (1 Sam 5:6ff)?
These words are what Mark calls “dead words.” Dead words aren’t the KJV translators’ fault. Those words did exist in their English. They just don’t exist in ours. We use different words for those same things.
But, my friends, the biggest problem with insisting on the exclusive use of the KJV today is not the dead words. It’s not, as Mark says, the words we know we don’t know. It’s the “false friends,” the words we don’t know we don’t know.
Mark gives a bunch of examples of words (and other things in English beside words) that we all grew up reading and repeating and memorizing that didn’t mean in 1611 what they mean today. They tripped up Webster’s contemporaries 200 years ago; they trip us up, too, without our even knowing it.
Ironically, even the famous verse used by so many of my KJV-Only pals to call for faithfulness to the KJV—“Remove not the ancient landmark”—didn’t mean in 1611 what those words mean today.
Same with, “How long halt ye between two opinions?”
Same with, “But God commendeth his love toward us.…”
(To find out what these mean, you have to read the book.)
It’s one thing to ask people to look up words they don’t know when words they do know are available. That’s not ideal, but at least common people will know when they don’t understand these “dead words.”
It’s another thing to insist that people read a Bible translation that uses words from a different English that they will necessarily misunderstand. These words are “false friends.”
3. The time for change is now.
I’m not criticizing the KJV in the least. The KJV translators did an excellent job translating the Bible into their English. However, they did translate it into their English.
I’m not saying that you don’t understand the KJV at all or that your congregants are incapable of understanding this historic translation at all. And I’m not saying that all use of the KJV is wrong (I still use it in personal study). Furthermore, I’m not saying that those who preach from the KJV are sinning. And I know that modern English and Elizabethan English overlap significantly. So good men can disagree over when the differences between the two become too great and a new translation must take the place of the KJV.
Personally, I think the time is now. What made me come to this conclusion?
Expository preaching was the catalyst that made my heart cry out for a Bible in the language of my mission field. I’ll never forget preaching through the book of Ecclesiastes a few years ago. I was a dedicated KJV preacher who had never delivered a sermon from any other translation. Though I had often referenced other translations in my personal study and had done my personal devotions from modern translations, I had never crossed the line into preaching from another version of the Bible. As I made my way preaching through books in the King James Version, I continually found myself getting tripped up. It wasn’t so much in my time of study, but in the moment of delivery I had the greatest trouble.
I found myself spending several minutes per sermon (a few times up to ten minutes in a forty-five minute sermon) explaining, not the meaning of the text but the meaning of the archaic language and (to our ears) awkward syntax of the KJV. This unnecessary hurdle not only inhibited my delivery but caused confusion in the pews. After I was finished explaining the Elizabethan English I would then begin explaining the meaning of the actual passage. And what I ended up saying the verse meant was often precisely what a modern translation already said. This all left less time for illustration and application. In short, this unnecessary hurdle was consuming too much of my limited preaching time. Since the Bible does not teach me to expect any translation to be perfect (and the KJV translators specifically say that their work was not perfect), I felt free to search for a modern translation that I could trust from a textual source I saw was historically trustworthy.
One-on-one discipleship also convinced me to look for a translation that I could hand to a blue-collar, Las Vegas, newly-minted disciple of Jesus. I often felt badly giving a new believer a copy of Scripture, telling them to read it everyday, knowing that they would comprehend only portions of what they read. The amount of “dead words,” “false-friends,” and archaic syntax found in the KJV worried me. I felt as if I had not given them the very best start in this new Christian faith. Too often I would hear things like, “I never understand anything I read in the Bible, but when I come and hear you teach I finally get it.” I would love to think (and probably did) that this had something to do with my oratory ability, when in fact it had more to do with a modern Christian needing a teacher not only trained in theology, but also conversant in Elizabethan English. I wanted so desperately for my new converts to have a Bible in their own English.
So, I think the time is now, and I ask my brothers who disagree: if not now, when?2
Answers to counterarguments
This case I’m building isn’t new. And as soon as I make it, I know the counterarguments I will hear. I have heard them my entire life.
I will borrow here again from Mark’s book, specifically chapter six.
1. Why dumb down the Bible?
But putting the Bible into our English is not the same as dumbing it down. In some places God inspired the Bible’s content to be difficult; those places should remain difficult. But the English should be accessible to the common man.
2. The KJV sounds like God’s Word. Modern versions are pedestrian.
This begs the question: what does God’s word sound like? God chose the common languages of ancient plow boys; we should use language accessible to plow boys today.
3. The KJV translators chose timeless language. Trust their wisdom.
There is no such thing as timeless language. Language always, always changes. The KJV translators were not KJV-Only; they would have supported the ongoing work of revision—because their own Bible was a revision of a previous translation!
4. Thee, thou, thy, and ye are more accurate than modern English pronouns.
I acknowledge the truth in this argument but believe that all translation involves compromise. No known English, for example, has plural and singular versions of whom like Greek does, and no one complains.
5. English has not evolved but devolved into a base and ugly language.
Come on! Look at the works of C.S. Lewis—a twentieth-century English prose master.
6. What about the italicized words?
Italics are helpful to people who know Hebrew and Greek, but they don’t actually help English readers understand the Bible.
7. The KJV is easier to memorize.
Because you started memorizing it when you were a kid, the time of life when memorization is easy!
8. The KJV is a literal translation. Other versions are simply paraphrases.
The NKJV and MEV are literal translations into contemporary English, and they use the very same textual basis as the KJV.
9. Modern versions are based upon corrupted texts.
Fine. Then make or use a translation of whatever texts you prefer into contemporary English accessible to the plow boy. Such as the NKJV and MEV.
10. The problem really isn’t that bad.
Thankfully, the KJV is not (yet) a Vulgate. Simple people can read it and get tons of truth out of it. But they would get more if the Bible were in their English.
Going back to my first post in this series of three: if your real issue is the original language texts, then why not read a translation of those same texts into the English we all speak and the plow boy understands?
Going back to my second post: if independent Baptists have not always believed in the perfection of the KJV, then it is possible for us to move back to the position of John R. Rice: appreciation for good contemporary translations.
Take a step
Here are the action steps I suggest.
1. Allow for autonomy; work toward unity.
It will not be easy for some of my friends to make a switch away from the sole use of the KJV in public ministry. For a few of you—this is probably something you should NOT do. I spoke with an independent Baptist pastor who has been preaching for nearly 45 years. He said to me that I was absolutely right in my writings about this issue and the history of this controversy. But he also said that he was too far into his ministry to personally consider a transition. “Like a carpenter who has used the same hammer for 45 years, I know my tool and how to swing it.” To my elder brothers I say, “Bravo! Do what you must as you continue to reach your community with the gospel of Christ.” But consider this. Make a little room at the table for a guy like me.
I’d love to remain an independent Baptist. I say this on behalf of many non-KJV-Only pastors. I’d love to continue supporting independent Baptist missionaries, sending my students to independent Baptist schools, and attending independent Baptist fellowships. Will my KJV-Only brothers allow this? I’d love to see the independent Baptist movement return to the core value of local church autonomy while being true to the biblical principle of Christian unity. Would my KJV-Only brothers allow us to remain independent Baptist without demanding that we use your preferred version of the Bible?
2. Be bold; use the Bible translation you believe is best for your flock.
To those of you who, like me, have no theological qualms with a modern version of the Bible but have yet to transition away from the KJV—I have a few words. Proceed very slowly and with great caution out of love for your sheep. Many of them have been taught for the last 35 years that the KJV is perfectly inspired and the only trustworthy Bible in the entire world. They will see this transition at the same level of heresy as denial of the resurrection or the blood atonement. Some of those we shepherd have heard more sermons on Bible translations than on substitutionary atonement. Remember what Paul told Timothy.
A servant of the Lord must not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition, if God perhaps will grant them repentance, so that they may know the truth, and that they may come to their senses and escape the snare of the devil, having been taken captive by him to do his will. (2 Timothy 2:24–26)
It may cost you dearly in finances, fellowship, and friendly fire to use the translation you believe is best for your flock. But those who can move forward should not stay where you are: you should take a step in the biblical direction—because the Bible values intelligible language, and the plow boy needs it.
3. Buy this book.
I’m certain you have far more questions than my simple blog series could hope to answer. Therefore, I want you to go and buy my friend Mark Ward’s book, Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible (paper, Kindle, audio, Logos). It’s short and (appropriately!) easy to read. Mark also put out a film version of the same material on Faithlife TV, and it’s now available on DVD.
Thanks for reading these VERY LONG articles. I’m sure there are folks who would like to dialogue. I encourage questions and statements from each of you. Feel free to comment below. Matthew Lyon, Mark Ward, and I will attempt to answer each one.
I relied heavily on my friend Mark Ward, author of Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible (and one of my rafting pals from a creationist trip down the Grand Canyon this past summer!), to put these reasons together. ↩
Ironically, I think the strongest defenders of the KJV have already made my case. Many of them have put out long lists of archaic words in the KJV, along with definitions for modern readers. D.A. Waite has his Defined King James Bible, which is chock full of footnotes pointing out places where modern readers will stumble over Elizabethan verbiage. As I see it, they have diligently collected a bunch of evidence refuting their position. ↩