Within a couple of minutes in a Christian bookstore, someone will inevitably come in and ask the staff for help in purchasing their #1 bestseller: The Bible. Now there’s generally two reasons why someone asks a salesman for help purchasing a Bible. Either the buyer is completely confused by the 2,784 iterations of the Bible lining the bookshelves, including the Dubstep Bible, the Fire Eating Carny Bible and the Duck Dynasty Bible. Or the buyer wants to figure out how to buy a copy of the “real” Bible: The King James Version of the Bible (or the “Authorized Version”). And then browbeat the poor grimacing cashier for selling “fake” Bibles, such as the NIV, to the unwitting public.
Yes, the belief that the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible is the “real” Bible is alive and well in America. It’s a belief that has even generated its own name: KJVOnlyism. Ride through any rural Mid-Western town, and you will likely find a church advertising the singular use of the KJV on the ornate wooden church sign outside. The accompanying claim is that the KJV is the “perfect, pure and preserved” version of God’s word. I remember one young Texas pastor telling me about receiving an invitation to preach a revival at small Oklahoma church, where a giant plaque was placed on the pulpit: “Don’t step into this pulpit unless you use a copy of the 1611 King James Bible Authorized Version.” Unfortunately, he didn’t read the plaque before stepping up to the plate with his trusty NIV.
Before I start turning over dirt about this topic, I want to be careful in not painting KJV Only advocates broadly under the same brush. Many people remember their great-granddaddy reading a giant family-sized KJV or find comfort in a certain familiar soul-stirring eloquence of the KJV. They don’t denounce or decry other Bible translations … They’d just rather stick with the horse they rode in on. On the other extreme, there are others staging book burnings of translations other than the KJV and works of “heretics” such as Billy Graham. It’s this more extreme garden variety of KJVOnlyism that I want to address.
For those less familiar with the KJV Only debate, here’s the history of the KJV in an extremely abridged and (hopefully) non-technical historical nutshell. In 1516, a Dutch scholar named Erasmus hastily produced the first published copy of the Greek New Testament based on a small handful of available Greek manuscripts. Erasmus’ Greek New Testament became a huge hit, because it gave the common man immediate access to the New Testament in its original written language: Greek. After several published editions, Erasmus’ Greek New Testament would subsequently be enshrined as the “Textus Receptus” (which is Latin for the “Received Text”). The “Textus Receptus” takes its name from the preface to its 1633 edition: “You therefore have the text now received by all: in which we have nothing altered or corrupt.” In 1604, King James I of England commissioned a new English translation of the Bible, since other English translations floating around contained terms that he found critical of the monarchy. The Textus Receptus was used as the basis of the 1611 “Authorized Version” of the Bible, which was the only translation King James authorized for use worship in Church of England. This translation would become what we know today as the King James Version (KJV) of the Bible.
At this point, you’re asking: “Yes, yes … Stop the history lesson … So what’s the problem, really?” Well … The problem with the KJV goes far beyond the fact that most people today do not speak in antiquated English like the comic book character Thor or Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The problem is that KJV Only advocates argue that the KJV perfectly and supernaturally preserves the Word of God. The KJV Only position is not about a personal preference for a particular Bible translation. KJVOnlyism is the fundamental belief that the KJV is the faith once for all entrusted to the saints mentioned in Jude 3. The key word for the KJV Only camp is “preservation.” The King James Bible is viewed as the fulfillment of God’s promise to preserve the words of Scripture word-for-word through the centuries. The KJV has endured the test of time for over 400 years, and now (supposedly) preserves the critical words and verses that other modern translations leave out. The translators of the KJV are viewed as being divinely guided by the Holy Spirit to preserve the words of God. Therefore, the actual English words of the KJV are considered not only accurately – but also inerrant. The term “Authorized Version” is tossed around with a MMA swagger, as if God authorized the KJV instead of an English king.
Since this concept of preservation is the central core of this position, it’s no wonder that KJV Only advocates balk at changes from the text of the KJV. Or want to fight you out in the church parking lot when you faintly suggest their Bible is “wrong” on any level. Even worse, more radical KJV Only advocates take preservation to the extreme by arguing:
- Satan himself inspired translations other than the KJV.
- Christians that use the other translations are “spiritual cripples” or – even worse – consigned to Hell.
- The translators of other Bible translators are conspiring to lead believers away from the true faith.
- The proliferation of “new” translations is a sign of the end times. Only true believers follow the KJV. Those that use other translations have been deceived by Satan.
- The English in the KJV is actually more inspired than the other Greek and Hebrew documents of Scripture.
- Those that use a “new” translation are heretics preaching “another gospel” as mentioned in Galatians 1:6-9.
Bible translations really do matter, because we want to the get the divinely inspired words of the Scripture right. Because we love God and want to correctly hear what He has to say to us, we want to get every divinely inspired word and nuance breathed into the New Testament authors right. Today, we have access to thousands more Greek manuscripts than the small handful manuscripts that Erasmus used in the early 17th century. Many of these manuscripts are actually older and more reliable than the mutilated ones Erasmus used. In short, the King James Version is not theologically heretical, badly written, misleading or impractical, but most translations produced in the last 100 years do a better job at reflecting the original documents of the New Testament. And if we love God’s voice, authenticity in every little nuance and detail matters.
If believers are going to be beholden to any text, it should be the word of God as breathed into the Bible’s authors in their original manuscripts in Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic. And we should not be beholden to a document written in Old English 1600 years after Jesus and the apostles walked the earth. While we do have any of the original Greek, Hebrew or Aramaic manuscripts that compose the Bible, we do have a certainty of what these texts say due to prevalence of reliable manuscripts available. And languages change over time. Just consider the fact that our teens speak in text message jargon (“LOL”) and not in 80s valley girl (“Grody to the max!”) anymore. Also, languages change from location to location. In rural Indiana, we never use the word “wicked” as an adjective, but they sure do in New England. If language varies based on time and location, there will always be a need to communicate the Gospel message of the original documents into languages where the Gospel message can be clearly understood.
But let’s not allow the argument essentially gets lost in the weeds … So let’s take a timeout and be clear about what we’re advocating. The vast majority of critics of the KJV (including me) aren’t arguing that you should burn your KJV. You will not be misled to a false god by reading your KJV. If you find some sort Shakespearean eloquence in the Old English rhetoric and phrasing of the KJV, then go ahead and use the KJV. If you find comfort and peace in reading the same words that brought new life to your ancestors, then – by all means – take, eat and be filled. God has saved many through the 1611 Authorized Version and many more be saved through it. More importantly, there is no massive doctrinal shift between the KJV, NIV, ESV or any other Bible translation. Last time I checked, Jesus died on the cross to rescue sinners and then rose from the grave in every translation. Aside from – you know – being written in modern English, there are not earth-shattering textual differences between the KJV and other modern translations. So delight in the Gospel found your KJV … Just don’t consider it a perfectly supernatural preservation of God’s Word.
One of my church members who comes out of a KJV Only background says this: “I love the KJV and I still read it. It is a familiar and dear friend. It has nourished me, it has edified me, it has taught me. But it has done these things not because it is the KJV, but because it is a translation of the Word of God.” And that’s the correct attitude in a nutshell: The treasure of the Gospel is exceedingly more valuable than the packaging it comes in.
More importantly, the whole argument about KJVOnlyism is short-sighted because it is so Americanized. In an assured future where people from every tribe and tongue will fall down at the feet of Jesus in worship, there is an incredible arrogance in stating that there is divine inspiration of late English words. Or that the Bible found in Heaven is Ye Olde English KJV. Frankly, many believers throughout the world would just love to have ANY translation of the Bible. Wycliffe Bible Translators estimate that just under 2,000 of the 6,800 languages throughout the globe do not have available Bible translations. And there are millions of blind and deaf persons throughout the world that need the Word of God conveyed through varying non-written means. From the house churches of China to the Islamic world, our brothers and sisters in Christ are persecuted and imprisoned just for possessing any copy of the Bible. Just consider the collective weeping, fervent prayer and unhindered rejoicing in the video clip below of the Kimyal tribe of Indonesia, who are receiving a translation of the Bible in their language for the 1st time:
In our safe and cushy American churches, we do so much squabbling over the “proper” translation of the Bible and not enough to ensure that the words of life are available throughout the globe. We have such a luxury in driving down to the neighborhood Christian bookstore in our gaz-guzzling land yachts and being able to choose between the 2,784 editions at the Bible that range from an absurd $50-$100 in price (not including engraving and monogramming). And as much as we harp on the KJV Only tendencies of many traditional churches, the same translation snobbery goes on in many “hipper” churches, caring more about the Message, NLT, NIV, ESV, Holman or whatever translation flavor of the week than the Gospel message it contains. Shame on us. Bible translations do matter, but the Gospel matters more. Overall, the translation argument is the theological equivalent of Nero fiddling while Rome is burning. Regardless of whether you read the the KJV, NIV, ESV or even The Message, the startling weight of the Gospel should drive us to let go of our petty little personal preferences and get on with the real business of carrying the message of Christ to the ends of the earth.