From time to time, I’ll be mining the archives around here. I’m digging up my blog’s best posts from the past. I hope these reruns will still serve my readers.
Today’s post was originally published March 17, 2006.
This post is long but covers this issue well. I have taken the liberty of slightly editing the original post and shortening it here for the re-post.
The main point of the book that may be the best theological defense of KJV-onlyism — Thou Shalt Keep Them: A Biblical Theology of the Perfect Preservation of Scripture edited by Kent Brandenburg — can be summarized as follows.
- God has promised to preserve every word of Scripture perfectly. (Matt. 5:17-19; Matt. 4:4; Matt. 24:35; Isaiah 59:21; Ps. 12:6-7; 1 Pet. 1:23-25; and also the perfect passive form of the words “It is written” throughout the NT)
- God has promised that these words will be available to His people. (Dt. 30:11-14; Matt. 4:4; Jn. 12:48; 2 Pet. 3:2; Jude 17; and Is. 59:21)
- God has ordained local New Testament (Baptistic) churches be the means by which He preserves His words through their reception, recognition, and propagation of them. (The Hebrew words natsar and shamar and the Greek word tareo; Jn. 17:8; 1 Cor. 6 [church invested with judgment authority]; Jn. 16:13)
Believing in these three points, however, does not automatically make one a KJVO-ist. Many people believe that all of God’s words have been preserved in the totality of the manuscript evidence. They would also contend that God’s Word has generally been available wherever His people have been found (although it may not always be available in the vernacular language). The fact that God uses churches to help preserve His words is agreed on in the sense of canonization, and probably realized in the prevention of clearly heretical readings or obviously spurious readings (for instance Marcion’s canon). Most conservative Bible believers have not agreed with a strict local church only theology [editor’s note: the idea that the Bible does not teach that there is a “universal church” but that God works through local churches only], and so they would look to the universal church and how they received and helped propagate God’s Word. In fact today, most churches allow varying English translations, and it has been a rare event in history for churches and denominations to forbid the use of other translations or the comparing of texts and variants. So these 3 points do not necessarily demand a KJVO position.
The proponents of KJV-onlyism seem to have a particular purpose or spin for each of these points as it relates to the KJV only issue. Point 1 is what lets them hold to an all-or-nothing mentality in regards to Bible versions. If you do not hold to the KJV you are not holding to the Bible (although most do not take this as far as Ruckmanites do, or as far as some who insist people can only be saved from the KJV). Point 2 is what allows them to write off any other text except the TR. All other texts are later than the TR and so were not available before 1881 (Wescott and Hort’s first widely accepted critical text). This also allows them to discount the readings of papyrii or MSS like Sinaiticus only recently discovered. Point 3 is what further authenticates and validates the choice of the TR against any claims that it is a poor representative of the Byzantine Text family. The churches used the KJV and it was based on the TR, therefore the TR must be God’s preserved Word.
The third point centers on the role of the church in KJVO-ism, and is what I intend to focus the rest of this post on. This point at first glance, appears to give authentication to the KJV-only position. Since the churches used the KJV for 350 years and since they used the TR then this settles the issue. Any other text was not authenticated and is trying to restore the text, when in fact the churches received the text (textus receptus) already. Also, this point is used to specify which form of the TR is to be viewed as the best (usually called perfect). Since the church accepted the KJV and used it, they then verified the form of the TR which was its basis. This form was later put together in one Greek text (since they used more than one Greek text for the KJV) by Scrivener in 1894.
The KJVO position depends on a certain handling of historical and textual evidence. This belief that the church received the KJV and thus authenticated the TR is making a historical judgment. It is not something Scripture directly states (“the TR is where the preserved words are”). I contend that this historical judgment is flawed and full of huge assumptions. Let me first list the assumptions and then explain them briefly.
- That the church’s use of the KJV/TR is a positive textual choice.
- That the church’s choice to use the KJV/TR was a unanimous and definitive choice.
- That the choices of English Christians are more important than those of others.
- That some differences between TR editions or between the KJV and the Masoretic Text are okay and do not negate the availability of every word, yet the differences between the TR and other non-TR texts do deny the availability of every word.
- That we can assume whatever we need to, historically, since we can trust totally in the church’s choice of text on every individual reading.
In the history of the English Bible, gradually the KJV replaced the Geneva Bible as the Bible of choice for the church. Why? It became apparent that it was a better translation than the Geneva. There were virtually no other major English translations attempted and consequently the church just used what it had. [Editor’s note: I would now add that the political climate of England during and after its civil war was a boon to the KJV since the Geneva Bible’s notes were considered treasonous.] Is this a positive choice or a default choice? The use of the TR also was due to its being the only commercially available text. Stephanus’ editions of it became very popular because of his list of textual variants. Presumably a text based on a different Greek family would have been popular as well, but remember this era was still the renaissance of Greek literature. MSS were being discovered, and facts were being compiled concerning the history of the transmission of the Greek text. The Believing church understandably preferred Greek to the Latin Vulgate which was sanctioned by the Roman church, viewed as antiChrist by most Protestants. But beside the fact that only the TR/KJV was available, stop and ask yourself this question. Does using the best available translation necessarily mean you affirm each and every textual decision it made with regard to textual variants? As I mentioned above, church leaders and scholars did not uniformly accept each reading but often it was the conservative scholars and pastors, even, who dutifully compiled the lists of textual variants and favored many of the same decisions reached by the editors of the modern critical text (see this article as an example of this with regards to Tregelles’ defense of several significant variant readings before the discovery of Sinaiticus).
I have spoken a little in regards to assumption 2 above already. But let me note that John Wesley offered several thousand corrections to the TR, and Martin Luther never accepted 1 Jn. 5:7 (excluding it from his translation which was accepted by his followers). Calvin, Beza, Erasmus–they all preferred various textual variants (or even emendations) over and against the TR. Now some would exclude everyone mentioned here and focus only on Baptists. Yet the fact that Baptists attempted correcting the TR in their own translations in the 1800s (which was when Bible Committes and Unions were beginning to form due to a renewed interest in missions) and the fact that Baptists accepted and used the RV and ASV would argue that they had not unanimously viewed the KJV as perfect.
With regard to assumption 3, some might counter that most Baptists were English so that is why English choices are so important. I contend that the Dutch Estates General Version was as revered by the Dutch Christians and it was also solidly based on the TR (Elzevir’s 1633 edition). It seems to be snobbery either for English or for Baptists which would exclude the texts and versions held by other languages. In fact, it is interesting to note that the English held to a priority of the 1550 Stephanus’ 3rd edition, whereas the Europeans held to a priority of the 1633 Elzevir’s–neither of these are Beza’s 1598 which most closely resembles Scrivener’s 1894.
Assumption 4 is a sticking point for KJVO-ists. And they know it. If Beza’s 1598 can differ from Scrivener’s 1894 apx. 190 times, how can you tell which one is perfect? Did the churches accept the 1611 readings of the KJV or the 1769 readings of the KJV (which is essentially your modern KJV). There are differences beyond just spelling and orthography–I think it stands at around 400 differences (by a KJVO-ist’s count). If we assume that we do not need all the inspired words in one document in order for them to be available, we have conceeded the entire premise of the preservation in the totality of the manuscripts view. If the average John in 1600 was dependent on comparing a few English versions and trying to keep abreast with different Greek editions of the TR in order to really have each word that was inspired available to him, how is this any different from the average Joe today? In light of allowing for differences between TR editions, how authoritative can we view the fact that the churches used the KJV. How does that establish which textual readings are correct? If we say only the exact choices of the KJV translators are to be received, how were the churches who used the Geneva Bible before the creation of the KJV to know which readings to choose?
The fifth assumption seems especially egregious. It amounts to a blind trust in one’s historical application of Biblical beliefs. A blind trust in a particular interpretation which is not textually demanded. KJVO-ists basically have a “history-is-unkowable” trump card. They gladly marshall the historical fact that Sinaiticus was only recently unburied as a prime argument against the critical texts, yet they say history-is-unkowable when asked concerning texts like Rev. 16:5. The history we have strongly suggests that Beza conjecturally emended the text to read “shalt be” instead of “Holy One”–so says even KJVO defender E.F. Hills (see his Defending the King James Bible, pg. 208). Yet KJVO-ists can glibly say since we cannot know infallibly that Beza did not have textual support back then, we can gladly assume he did, even though no support (at all in any language) exists today! When history (and facts) say the Greek texts did not contain a reading (as in Acts 9:5-6, Rev. 22:19, or 1 Jn. 5:7–and many others) KJVO-ists can allow for preservation through the Latin translation of the Greek (even though this would make such preservation unavailable to Greek speakers in the Byzantine Empire), as Hills does. When we speak of superiority of texts, KJVO-ists trumpet the majority of Greek texts favoring their text. Yet in many of the examples mentioned above, if just one Greek text or Hebrew text can be marshalled in favor of a reading, they feel that they have successfully defended their position! This assumption is wonderful for them. They can speak out of both sides of their mouth at the same time!
In conclusion, I think I have demonstrated that the church’s acceptance of the KJV by no means infallibly argues for the KJVO position. In fact, the KJVO-ists are glad to allow for a period of formation for their text. After the invention of printing, around 100 or more years are allowed for the development of their text. Yet the fact that the church decided to use that newly available text somehow closes the door to its development. Todays critical texts are in the same line as that text. Much of the preliminary work which allows for their existence today was done immediately after the formation of the TR during the development and refinement of textual criticism methods. The churches today, including the majority of Baptist churches, have accepted the modern versions, just as Charles Spurgeon and the church leaders at the beginning of the modern versions era did. There was no once-for-all acceptance or determinative choice of the TR as the perfect text.
I have no problem allowing the Bible to guide my textual choices. Yet I stand with the majority of God’s people in affirming that the Bible does not specify where its preserved words are to be found. It does not specify how they will be preserved–in other words in one text or in one family, in one book, or in the totality of every copy. KJVO-ists commendably let the Bible’s principles guide their textual choices, but they foolishly refuse to acknowledge that much of their application and decisions made as a result of their presuppositions are not clearly demanded from the text. A few KJVO defenders do acknowledge this, but most exalt their application and handling of historical/factual evidences to the level of Scripture and anathematize (practically) all who hold to any alternative veiw.