Don’t Be a One-Bible-Version-Onlyist
When you take something bad away from someone, you need to replace that bad thing with something good. The person who stole shouldn’t just stop stealing; he should start working and giving (Eph 4:28). It’s no good casting off the works of darkness if you don’t also put on the armor of light (Rom 13:12).
KJV-Onlyism isn’t always a sin (see my prequel article for what I mean), but it is bad. And it needs to be replaced.
The practical answer for some Christians is that KJV-Onlyism should be replaced with ESV-Onlyism, or NIV-Onlyism, or CSB-Onlyism (thankfully The Message-Onlyism isn’t a thing, as far as I know). And lots of KJV-Only brothers suspect that one of these -isms is what I am secretly pushing for when I gently but persistently point out English readability problems in the KJV. They say to me, “Ok, ok—out with it: which Bible translation do you think is the best?”
It’s been hard to make them believe that, both doctrinally and practically speaking, my answer is, “All the good ones.” I read ’em all; I use ’em all. But my Bible-version-profligacy is indeed the good thing that must replace KJV-Onlyism (and any of the other -isms I’ve just listed).
In the time-honored tradition of Baptist preachers and of the internet more generally, I’ll give you three reasons why we should all self-consciously stop seeking THE ONE BIBLE TO RULE THEM ALL and instead work to enjoy the embarrassment of riches God has given us in all our good evangelical English translations.
1. Bible Translations Are Sets of Human Decisions.
Every Bible translation in any language is a collection of umpteen-thousand—some estimates go as high as umpteen gazillion—human decisions. It starts with textual-critical decisions, and all translators make them. The KJV translators themselves did textual criticism (see my website for more details). Translators today, too, have to make textual-critical decisions. Most are trivial; some not so much. But in the absence of the Spirit telling us which jots and tittles are the right ones, humans must do the hard work of deciding.
Textual criticism generates a ton of the heat in the KJV-Only debate and very little of the light. This is a very sad irony to me, because in my rather obsessively informed judgment, I don’t think textual criticism makes hardly any difference to your life or theology. Translation decisions are more likely to have an actual impact on the way people understand and apply God’s Word. God chose to inspire his perfect word in two very different languages—which fact alone demands Bible translation; and then he chose to operate by a different kind of providence: he left flesh-and-blood us with some work to do. Click To Tweet” username=”credomagazine”]
And humans must make these, too. God himself in his infinite wisdom inspired the Bible to—like all language—include some ambiguities. Either “the Spirit within us lusts to envy” in James 4:5 or “[God] yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us.” The Greek allows for both options. One of them must go in the Bible text and one in the margin. And a group of fallen, finite humans who must use deodorant and who probably got a B on a Greek test once have to decide. They don’t have access to Urim or even Thummim; they have to study hard and do their best. And we have to trust them.
The Proverbs, and all Hebrew poetry, are full of translation ambiguities. We’re not talking about doctrine here; no conceivable responsible Bible translation could come out that undermines Christ’s deity or the necessity of blood atonement. We’re talking about whether “a man who has friends must show himself to be friendly” might not actually mean “a man of many companions may come to ruin” (Prov 18:24). We’re talking about whether to go with “slave” or “bondservant” in Romans 1:1, given how our cultural understanding of slavery differs from that of the ancient Romans.
Maybe we’d all like a situation in which God not only gives us a perfect set of biblical manuscripts with no variants but also a perfect translation for each language, delivered by an angel and opened by the President in a special unboxing ceremony on January 1 of each new century. But God chose to inspire his perfect word in two very different languages—which fact alone demands Bible translation; and then he chose to operate by a different kind of providence: he left flesh-and-blood us with some work to do.
The KJV translators made the same point I’m making. In their amazing preface, in a passage I’ve saved among my frequently-used text snippets, is a little paragraph saying, basically, “Only things that the Spirit inspires are perfect.” If God inspired ambiguities, and if no Bible translation is perfect because fallen humans have to touch my Bible before it gets to me, why should I expect that one set of umpteen-gazillion translation decisions is going to be objectively and measurably better than another? Why would I cut myself off from any insight that another translation might provide?
2. Orthodox Bibliology Does Not Extend the Quality of Inspiration Fully to Translations.
Most mainstream KJV-Onlyists know at some level that they can’t say the KJV is perfect. It’s the followers of Dr. Peter S. Ruckman—the thrice-married patron saint of all KJV-Only internet trolls—who say this, who teach that the KJV is the product of “double inspiration” and that it actually corrects the Greek. Because most KJV-Onlyists today are trying not to say this, and because I frequently find that they aren’t quite sure what they’re saying, I don’t yell, “Heretic!” when they enter the room. I talk to them. I appeal to them. I assume a beachhead of doctrinal agreement from which we can mutually go to war against any remaining confusion in their minds.
But maketh no mistaketh: the KJV-Only world, in multiple ways, tends to treat the KJV as functionally inspired. I talked to a Bible professor at a KJV-Only Bible college one time, and he insisted to me in no uncertain terms that he was not—he repeats, NOT—a Ruckmanite. He did not believe in double inspiration. So I said, “Ok, what in the KJV would you change if you could? I mean, your independent Baptist church doesn’t have ‘bishops’ [1 Tim 3:1 KJV], does it?” A sound of horror came into his voice, and he said, “You can’t change the Word of God!”
Freeze frame. That’s Ruckmanism. That’s doctrinal error. It’s treating a translation as inspired in the ultimate sense, as if any change to it (like changing “bishop” to “overseer,” the way nearly all modern translations do) is altering the Word of God. Translations are the Word of God—the KJV translators say this, too. But they aren’t the Word of God in that ultimate sense. Translations are human efforts to teach God’s Word to people.
And if that’s true, if inspiration (2 Tim 3:16) doesn’t extend fully to translations, if inspiration is properly a quality of the originals, then no good translation is more “inspired” than any other. And you shouldn’t act as if they are.
How can you avoid, practically, being a one-version-onlyist? Well, as Bob Newhart once said, “Stop it.” Read and study multiple Bible translations. This is the simplest way to acknowledge that translations are not (ultimately) inspired. And you’ll find that this practice will inoculate you over time against any idea that one translation really is the best in every respect.
3. All Are Yours.
And that, in turn, is because of the third and final reason that you should use all our good evangelical English Bibles: “All are yours” (1 Cor 3:22)—they were given for your benefit. And you will benefit. The NIV and ESV and CSB and NKJV and NET and NLT and other English Bibles on your local Christian bookstore shelves were produced by evangelical biblical scholars who, like Paul and Peter and Apollos, are God’s gifts to the church. This doesn’t mean these scholars are perfect, anymore than Peter or your pastor is perfect. But it does mean that you are free to enjoy a rich benefit I have taken advantage of pretty much every day for the last 20 years, since I bought my first parallel Bible: you can easily sample the insight of these scholars into the text of Scripture. You can do this by picking up their work. The NIV and ESV and CSB and NKJV and NET and NLT and other English Bibles on your local Christian bookstore shelves were produced by evangelical biblical scholars who, like Paul and Peter and Apollos, are God’s gifts to the church. Click To Tweet
It’s so easy. Just get Logos or go to BibleHub.com. And you just see if you don’t have the experience I’ve had. Like the time that I was reading Psalm 16 and finally figured out what “lines” David was talking about in verse 6. Read the KJV and then read the NIV. See if you don’t get it, too. (This is your homework for today.) The NIV translators were God’s gift to me through their work on that and many other passages. I can’t even begin to count all the times that I’ve understood the Bible better because I read multiple Bible translations.
Now KJV-Only pastors are God’s gift to the church, too, no matter how odd it sounds for me to say it. But I really believe this. I spent a number of years before college within KJV-Only circles, and I had a positive experience. I decidedly did not witness rank hypocrisy in my KJV-Only church. I experienced self-sacrificial Christian love and was taught an admirable confidence that God’s Word is absolutely true.
John Piper and Kevin DeYoung and others have said that evangelicalism has something to learn from fundamentalism. I believe this is true. I do not write off all of KJV-Onlyism as hopelessly backward, unable to teach me anything. If Vern Poythress of the ESV and Doug Moo of the NIV are mine (1 Cor 3:22 again), then so are Scott Tewell and Jeff Amsbaugh—names from the KJV-Only world that you probably don’t know. KJV-Onlyism does have strengths. Its willingness to refuse to be entertained by sins Jesus died to eradicate is good. Its zeal for evangelism (even if I wish I could drain some easy-believism out of it) is very good. “All are yours” goes all ways. It goes to our right and to our left. Eugene Peterson, for example, has given me genuine insight into Scripture through his Bible paraphrase, The Message. I recently delved into his rendition of Psalm 2, and it was glorious.
I don’t go very far to the right or left from what I take to be the center of evangelical orthodoxy; there’s a point on both sides—let’s just call it a ditch—beyond which I just get no benefit. But one-version-onlyism of any kind can be (and often is) a way of saying that “only my tribe has anything worthwhile to say to me.” And I think that’s simply, empirically, self-harmingly not true. All are yours.
A lot of Christians, fearful of being led astray, have cut themselves off from the good gifts of God in the Bibles section at the bookstore. I know of a guy who just left his tiny, struggling church that really needed his help because his pastor moved from the NIV 1984 to the NIV 2011. It cut me to the quick, as King James might say. It was so unnecessary. A ton of the angst about Bible translation is.
Just trust me, the redheaded internet stranger—I’m telling you: read or listen to or study another Bible translation or three in 2021. Cleanse your hands, ye one-version-onlyists, and purify your hearts, ye single-minded. Go get an NIV.