How to Rescue People from the Trap of KJV-Onlyism
One of the most insightful things I’ve ever read about the internet, a piece of wisdom that has helped me (I pray!) be gracious and patient online, came from the fascinating writer behind SlateStarCodex.com. He described the early internet as a place where people joined chat rooms and thought excitedly about the arguments they would soon win. I’m going to have my ideological enemies wriggling in the crushing grip of reason in no time! This is going to be so easy!
We all know how that went. No one on the internet, sociologists agree, has ever been persuaded by anyone else. Once someone logs on he or she becomes, by definition, right.
So it’s not an accident that immediately after Galatians 6:1—“Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness”—comes Galatians 6:2, “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” It is a burden to help people who are wrong to see the light, to assist people who are caught in a trap to break free. And only the law of Christ—“Love your neighbor as yourself”—will give you strength enough to carry that burden over time.
I want to offer you some hard-won counsel on how to carry the burden of love for people caught in one particular transgression, a very widespread trap called “KJV-Onlyism.”
Is it a Sin to be KJV-Only?
My counsel begins with answering the question: What transgression, exactly, are KJV-Only Christians caught in? The answer isn’t immediately apparent. Most KJV-Only Christians are just trusting their pastors, who have told them that 1) the KJV is the only truly trustworthy translation, and 2) the KJV is the only Bible translation based on the pure Hebrew and Greek texts.
Both of these things are, I believe, not true. But it isn’t always a sin to believe things that are untrue. If a trustworthy person makes an honest mistake—say, my doctor pulls up the wrong test results and tells me my white blood cell count is massively high—it’s not necessarily wrong for me to believe this untruth. I am a lowly writer; I have no means of checking my own blood counts. I have every reason to trust this man in the white lab coat. 1 Corinthians 14 says that edification requires intelligibility, and the English of the KJV is no longer fully intelligible. Click To Tweet
Likewise, countless KJV-Only Christians have good reasons to believe that their pastors know what they are talking about when they teach them that the NIV (or ESV or NASB, etc.) has “omitted verses” or has “attacked the deity of Christ.” Where’s the sin in believing someone who ought to know these things, who sure as Sheol seems like he knows these things? Most Christians have no means of checking the Greek. They have every reason to trust this man in the black suit.
Now it’s true, and somebody has to say it: a disproportionate number of KJV-Onylism’s adherents are infamous, especially online, for being, well, jerks. KJV-Onlyists are frequently banned from Christian Facebook groups in a way that credo-baptists or historic premillennialists or Lego aficionados just aren’t. Malice (1 Pet 2:1) and “contention” (Gal 5:20) are sins that many KJV defenders need to be lovingly rescued from.
But I don’t think being-a-divisive-jerk is quite the sin we’re looking for, because it certainly isn’t unique to KJV-Onlyism. And I’ve always been told to critique a position as held by its best adherents. I know some godly and gracious KJV-Onlyists. So, within the logic of the position itself, as held by its most intelligent and careful proponents, What, if anything, is sinfully wrong with believing that the KJV is the best translation of the best texts? What teaching of the Bible is someone violating to prefer, to strongly prefer, to insist upon the exclusive use of, the King James Version?
I’ll tell you in a minute.
What not to Talk About
I kind of have a prophet complex. I think I see a massively obvious truth about the KJV-Only debate that hardly anyone else seems to see; and the louder I shout about it, the more I start feeling like they think I’m the one who’s losing it. But here goes.
I don’t think it’s a sin for lay Christians to believe that the KJV is based on the best texts, and, therefore, I don’t think we should argue with them over this point. The Bible college professors in the KJV-Only world ought to know better, yes, but I just can’t blame the pastors who sat under them, or the laypeople sitting under them, for being confused about perhaps the most demanding and complex academic field in New Testament studies, namely textual criticism.
And insofar as KJV-Onlyism tends to be a conspiracy theory—Bad people are secretly ruining the Bible!—textual criticism is the briar patch of impenetrable detail that every such theory cultivates. There’s no way people ignorant of Greek are going to get argued out of that briar patch by appeals to manuscript evidence. They don’t take their view because of evidence (and you might not either); they take it on authority. Telling them they’re wrong means telling them to distrust their pastor.
Hence my counsel that we all pretty much drop it. Do not get drawn into talking about textual criticism with KJV-Only Christians.
If you are not persuaded, I remind you that I am on the internet right now.
Edification Requires Intelligibility
So what do we talk about with our KJV-Only brothers and sisters? We talk about the thing even laypeople should know, in the moral sense of should: 1 Corinthians 14 says that edification requires intelligibility, and the English of the KJV is no longer fully intelligible. The illiterate plow boy of pre-Reformation England bore no moral responsibility for the state of New Testament textual criticism in his day, but he should have demanded—and he ultimately did, praise God—to have God’s words in English rather than Latin. Christian plow boys knew that Vulgate-Onlyism was bad and William Tyndale’s translation work was good.
The distance between our English and that of the KJV is not anywhere near as far as the distance between the Vulgate and Tyndale’s English translation. I readily and happily grant that. But even by the reckoning of KJV-Only folks, who have produced numerous archaic word lists to help KJV readers, there are hundreds of “obsolete lexemes”—dead words—in the KJV. Four centuries does a lot to a language. We just don’t say besom, chambering, or emerod; we say “broom,” “immorality,” and “tumor.”
And this raises a simple, biblical question:
If with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air. (1 Corinthians 14:9 ESV) I’ve tried to help my brothers see that there are not only “dead words” in the KJV, words we know we don’t know, but “false friends,” words we don’t know we don’t know. Click To Tweet
Remember, we’re not objecting to hard concepts included in the Bible: “mandrakes” are things we don’t have, “Selahs” and “Sheols” are things we’re not sure we understand. Even “Behold” is something we just don’t say. And all of these things can stay. We’re not objecting to difficulties God put in the Bible (2 Pet 3:16) but to difficulties he didn’t put there, difficulties that are the result of language change.
And my work over the past few years has pressed even harder on English readability by appealing to one more concept from linguistics. I’ve tried to help my brothers see that there are not only “dead words” in the KJV, words we know we don’t know, but “false friends,” words we don’t know we don’t know. (I give many examples in Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible and on my YouTube channel.) Language change is a powerful and subtle thing. Even simple words like “halt” and common phrases like “so that” could mean in 1611 the opposite of what they do today.
What we need to press lovingly on our KJV-Only brothers is these questions: How can people be expected to look up words they don’t realize they’re misunderstanding? And how many dead words and false friends need to stack up in the KJV before it’s time for a revision or replacement?
Common Biblical Ground
My argument against KJV-Onlyism builds on common ground: it believes the best, like love is supposed to: it assumes that our brothers in the KJV-Only world want to understand their Bibles, just like we do.
My argument also avoids criticizing the KJV—a sure way to get people to put up walls. It “blames,” not the KJV, and not today’s reader, but the impersonal force of language change.
My argument puts the KJV-Only issue on a level laypeople can access: they know, they just know, that caul and blains are not current English words, while fat and boils are.
My argument doesn’t require anyone to go through the confusing and difficult process of changing their views on textual criticism and thereby distrusting their pastors: the New King James Version and the Modern English Version use the same underlying Hebrew and Greek texts as the KJV, but they use contemporary English.
My argument also focuses on what the Bible focuses on. The Bible never tells us how to reconcile variants among biblical manuscripts; it does tell us that if we want to build people up, we have to use words they can understand (1 Cor 14). It’s always safest, when another Christian’s conscience is trapped by an untruth, to pry open the jaws of that trap with things God actually said. And he said, Edification requires intelligibility.
Lastly, my argument leads, not to a negative such as let’s drop the KJV, but to a positive—a positive I’ll get to in the sequel to this article.
**To watch Mark Ward present his article: click here**