When the Bible Becomes an Idol: Problems with the
KJV-Only Doctrine by Robert M. Bowman, Jr.
This outline was covered in a lecture of the same topic at the March 1998 ACAP meeting.
1. The KJV originally contained the Apocrypha. Thus, the Bible that KJV-Only advocates use omits thousands of verses originally contained in the KJV (just over 5,700) – far more than the few verses found in the KJV but omitted in the NASB, NIV, and other modern translations (such as 1 John 5:7). It is true that the Apocrypha was widely regarded by Protestants in 1611 not to have the status of full canonicity. However, in the original 1611 edition no disclaimer was included in this regard (one was added in later editions). Furthermore, if the Apocrypha were to be included today, KJV-only advocates would vehemently object to its inclusion – a sure sign that its inclusion in the 1611 edition is a significant difference.
2. Even excluding the Apocrypha, the KJV of 1611 differed slightly from editions of the KJV in common use today.. We are not referring here to spelling changes and the like, or to misprints in later, single editions. Usually the changes are improvements – for example, Matthew 26:36 now properly reads "Then cometh Jesus," where the original KJV read "Then cometh Judas." Not all the changes are for the better, though – for example, Matthew 23:34 in the KJV originally read "strain out a gnat," which is correct, while subsequent editions of the KJV to this day have "strain at a gnat." These facts prove that the extreme KJV-Only belief that even the slightest deviation from the wording of the KJV results in a false Bible is completely unrealistic. Please note that we are not claiming that the differences are vast or troubling from our perspective. We are simply pointing out that the position that the wording of the 1611 KJV is inviolable logically requires that modern editions of the KJV not be used.
3. The translators of the KJV did not believe in the KJV-Only doctrine.
a. They asserted that "the very meanest [i.e., most common or rude] translation of the Bible in English, set forth by men of our profession . . . containeth the word of God, nay, is the word of God." In other words, any translation of the Bible by Christian scholars is the word of God.
b. They understood their work as a translation of the original Hebrew and Greek text, contrary to some extreme KJV-Only advocates who maintain that the original Hebrew and Greek text is nonexistent and irrelevant.
c. The KJV originally included marginal notes containing alternate renderings – making it clear that the wording of the KJV is not above correction or improvement. They admitted that there were Hebrew words that appeared only once in the whole Old Testament whose precise meaning was a matter of conjecture or debate.
d. They also included variant readings – an extremely important point that contradicts the KJV-Only doctrine that the slightest variation from the KJV text results in an unreliable or false Bible. In at least one instance they placed half a verse in italics because they were unsure whether it was original (1 John 2:23b).
e. They acknowledged that they exercised liberty in rendering the same Greek or Hebrew word in a variety of ways for stylistic purposes, again proving that they did not regard their wording as the only possible or acceptable rendering of the Bible.
f. They took as a guiding principle the belief that the Bible should be translated into the "vulgar," or common, language of the people – implying that as the English language changes new translations may be needed.
g. They asserted that there was value in having a variety of translations of the Scriptures.
4. The KJV Bible itself does not teach the KJV-Only Doctrine.
a. No verse of the KJV indicates that there can be only one translation in any language. Much less does any verse of the KJV teach (as some KJV-Only advocates maintain) that there can be only one language version of the Bible at a time and that the only Bible in the world today is the KJV.
b. The KJV does clearly teach that God's word is pure and that God promised to preserve his word. But in no verse does the KJV indicate that this preservation would occur without variant readings or renderings. To say that God's word is "pure" is not the same thing as saying that there can be no variations from one version of the Bible to another. It is, rather, simply to say that what God has said is absolutely reliable. But we must still determine precisely what God said. Did he say what is in the Apocrypha? Did he say 1 John 5:7? The purity of God's word is an axiom, but it does not automatically answer these questions.
c. The KJV does teach that no one should add to or subtract from God's word. This does place a serious responsibility on the textual scholar and the translator; but it does not tell us which English version is correct about disputed verses such as 1 John 5:7.
5. The KJV-Only doctrine contradicts the evidence of the KJV Bible itself.
a. If the KJV-Only doctrine were true, we would expect that quotations from the Old Testament (OT) appearing in the New Testament (NT) would be worded exactly the same. But this is usually not the case in the KJV. Granted, God might legitimately inspire the NT authors to reword certain OT verses. But this explanation does not cover all the evidence.
b. The fact is that the vast majority of OT quotations in the NT differ at least slightly. Why would God inspire NT authors to reword OT statements routinely if there is only one legitimate wording for each OT verse?
c. In some cases in the NT the OT quotation is presented as what a person in NT times actually read, or could read, in his copy of the OT. For example, several times Jesus asked the Jews if they had never read a particular OT text – and then quoted it in a form that differs from the KJV (Matt. 19:4-5 [Gen. 1:27; 2:24]; Matt. 21:16 [Ps. 8:2]; Matt. 21:42 and Mark 12:10 [Ps. 118:22-23]; Matt. 22:32 and Mark 12:26 [Ex. 3:6]). If the Bible is properly worded in only one way and any variant is a corruption of the Bible, then Jesus was asking them if they had read something which, according to KJV-Only reasoning, they could not have read. Elsewhere we are told that a person read an OT text, where the KJV of that OT text differs from what appears in the NT quotation (Luke 4:17-19 [Isa. 61:1-2]; 10:26-28 [Deut. 6:5; Lev. 19:18]; Acts 8:32-33 [Isa. 53:7-8]). These facts prove that the OT text which the Nazareth synagogue, Jesus himself, the rich young ruler, and the Ethiopian ruler had differed in wording from the OT in the KJV.
6. The KJV-Only doctrine is not the historic belief of the Christian faith. In the history of Christianity only two other versions of the Bible have ever been treated as the Bible, and even in these two cases not to the exclusion of other language versions. But those two versions were the Greek Septuagint (OT) and the Latin Vulgate, both of which (especially the latter) are typically rejected by KJV-Only advocates as perversions of the Bible. The Vulgate was treated as the only valid Bible for centuries by the Roman Catholic church in order to maintain uniformity in Bible reading and interpretation. Yet KJV-only advocates commonly regard the Septuagint and the Vulgate texts as false versions or "perversions" of the Bible. To be consistent, then, they must maintain that for over half of church history (over a thousand years) there was no Bible available to anyone outside a tiny number of scholars (if to anyone at all). In Protestantism the belief that the Bible may exist in multiple versions even in the same language has freed the Bible from the monopolistic control of the clergy or the theologians. The KJV-Only doctrine is a reactionary movement, limited almost exclusively to a segment of American fundamentalists (with much smaller followings in other English-speaking countries).
7. The KJV-Only doctrine does not fit the facts about the transmission of the Bible.
a. According to at least some versions of the KJV-Only doctrine, God preserved the Bible against any and all deviations, so that the true Bible has always been the same. But there is no evidence that this has happened. In fact the Bible and portions of it have been freely copied, re-copied, and translated with great freedom in the first five centuries of the church and in the last five centuries (so far). This resulted in many variations and deviations from the original text.
b. The copies of the first 1500 years or so of church history were all produced by hand, and no two extant manuscripts are completely alike. It is unrealistic to expect that before the printing press an absolutely unchanging text would be preserved by anyone – and the evidence from the extant manuscripts proves that in fact it did not happen.
c. In the case of the New Testament, the distinctive Greek text tradition on which the KJV was based, known as the Byzantine text, does not appear to have existed in the early church. The best evidence we have so far suggests that the Alexandrian text tradition is the earliest. This claim is vigorously rejected by KJV-only advocates, and the arguments pro and con are many and the issue too complicated for most non-scholars to follow and appreciate. However, a simple observation can here be made even here. For the KJV-only doctrine to be correct, in every place where the Byzantine and Alexandrian texts differ, the Byzantine must always be right. To base one's doctrine on such an unprovable and dubious assumption is not wise.
8. One need not adhere to the KJV-only doctrine to respect the KJV as God's word. Many evangelical Christians greatly revere the KJV, read it, quote from it, believe it, and seek to live by it, who do not subscribe to the KJV-only doctrine.
9. One need not adhere to the KJV-only doctrine to express criticisms of other translations. Many evangelicals who do not hold to the KJV-only doctrine have specific criticisms of other translations. For example, many evangelicals are critical of gender-inclusive translations such as the NRSV. Many evangelicals have pointed out weaknesses or problems in the NIV. Sober criticism of other translations assumes a humble perspective that recognizes that no translator or translators have produced a perfect translation and that translators who make mistakes are not necessarily corrupting God's word.
10. Advocacy of the KJV-only doctrine is no guarantee of doctrinal truth or interpretive accuracy. A variety of Christian sects of American origin embrace the KJV in more or less exclusivistic fashion.
a. Arguably the "Ruckmanites," a fundamentalist Baptistic movement that looks to Peter Ruckman as its primary spokesperson, is a distinct subgroup of American fundamentalism with almost cultish characteristics. Their basic theology seems sound enough, but it is overlaid with such extremism and legalism in its view of the Bible as to undermine its evangelical view of salvation.
b. Mormonism uses the KJV as its official Bible, even though Joseph Smith produced an "inspired" revision of the Bible (which some Mormons also use). The Mormons have a strong commitment to the KJV because it was the Bible of the early LDS prophets, the Book of Mormon quotes (indeed, plagiarizes) whole chapters from the KJV, and Mormons have found it convenient to use the KJV in evangelizing especially in English-speaking countries.
c. Many Oneness Pentecostals hold to a form of the KJV-only doctrine, especially on a popular level among pastors and laity. In their case they find it convenient to stick with the KJV because in certain places its wording is more compatible with the way the Oneness doctrine is articulated than modern translations (e.g., Col. 2:9; 1 Tim. 3:16). Oneness Pentecostals often object to arguments based on the Greek or Hebrew as vain attempts to improve on the Bible.
11. The KJV-only doctrine requires that we have some sort of faith in the KJV translators. KJV-only advocates constantly complain that if we don't have one sure Bible, the KJV, then we have to trust what scholars say about the text and its translation. But they are placing their faith solely in the KJV translators. A genuinely Protestant approach to the Bible requires that we not trust any one translator or translation team. Lay Christians can compare different translations to help get at the truth about any passage – or at least to become aware of possible disputes over the meaning of the passage.
12. Advocates of the KJV-only doctrine all too commonly exhibit a spiteful and disrespectful attitude toward other Christians. Advocates of a hard-line KJV-only position commonly label all other translations (even the NKJV) "per-versions" of the Bible. They typically accuse anyone defending these other translations of lying, denying God's word, calling God a liar, and having no faith. While there are gracious, charitable advocates of the KJV-only doctrine, in general its advocates have earned a reputation for vicious name-calling, condescension, and arrogance. To quote the original 1611 edition of the KJV, these people "strain out a gnat and swallow a camel." While zealous to defend the KJV, they betray its teachings by failing to exhibit love toward fellow believers in Jesus Christ. All too often they imply that to be saved one must not only believe in Christ, but must also adhere to the KJV as the only Bible. A doctrine that fosters such bad fruit must be bad. There is nothing wrong with loving the KJV and believing it to be the best translation of the Bible. There is something very wrong with condemning other Christians for not sharing that opinion.
Bibliography 1. Fundamentalist KJV-Only (and Related) Works
Burgon, John W. The Revision Revised. Paradise: Conservative Classics, 1977 reprint . Fuller, Daniel O., ed. Which Bible? Grand Rapids: Grand Rapids International, 1978. Hodges, Zane C., and A. L. Farstad, eds. The Greek New Testament according to the Majority Text. 2d ed. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1985. Pickering, W. N. The Identity of the New Testament Text. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1977. 2. Evangelical Works Critiquing the KJV-Only Position
Carson, D. A. The King James Version Debate: A Plea for Realism. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979. White, James R. The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust the Modern Translations? Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1995. 3. On Mormonism and the Bible
Barlow, Philip L. Mormons and the Bible: The Place of the Latter-Day Saints in American Religion. Religion in America series. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.
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