The Battle Lines Drawn

One of the most contentious and divisive questions in fundamentalism today is, "Which is the right Bible?" The combatants have sorted themselves out into two main camps. On one side stand partisans of the King James Version (KJV). On the other stand those who approve at least some of the many modern English translations based on the critical text of the New Testament. (What we mean by "the critical text" will be discussed later.) Both sides, especially the KJV-only side, are demanding that all who wish to remain in their good graces must submit to their point of view. The KJV-only side is branding dissenters as heterodox or heretical. The other side looks upon anyone who rejects the critical text as an enemy of learning.

It is evident that the devil is succeeding in the same ploy he has used many times in the past. To suppress truth, he is creating two false extremes that are monopolizing the territory of debate, eliminating every choice besides themselves. They have identified each other as the evil empire. But neither side seems in danger of losing. The skirmishes that have so far erupted have merely helped each side unite and energize its following. As often happens when two extremes fire at each other, the only casualty has been truth in the middle.

We will examine the KJV-only position in lessons 1 and 2 and the position favoring the critical text in lessons 3 and 4.

Proponents of the KJV fall into two fairly distinct groups. Those in the first have broadened the scope of divine inspiration to include even the process of translation—but not this process whenever it takes place. Rather, they believe that God inspired the translators of only one version, the KJV, and that other versions are reliable only to the extent that they follow the KJV. To my knowledge, they do not grant inspired status to any Bible in a foreign language. Whether or not they admit it, they evidently believe that God is partial to the English-speaking peoples.

Those in the second group of KJV-only fundamentalists back away from claiming that the translation itself is inspired, but they nevertheless believe that the KJV is the best Bible available, and they strongly oppose its replacement with any modern translation. To justify placing the KJV on a high pedestal, they give two reasons.

  1. They say that almost all modern translations rely upon inferior texts. They regard the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Old Testament and the Received Text of the Greek New Testament—the texts underlying the KJV (which we will call the KJV texts)—as the preserved Word of God.
  2. They say that the KJV excels all the others by every measure we should use in evaluating translations. It is, they say, the most accurate, the most reverent and theologically sound, and the most outstanding for beauty and simplicity of language.

We will now show that both forms of passionate adherence to the King James Bible are untenable.

The Heterodoxy in Supposing That Any Translation is Inspired

When I was a boy growing up in the church, my family was attentive to all the currents in Bible-believing Christianity. We attended Bible conferences, listened to the major voices in the church, and watched the important Christian organizations. But I never heard any preacher or teacher say that the King James Version (KJV) is itself inspired and inerrant. No historic creed identifies the KJV as the very Word of God. Orthodox theology has never ascribed inspiration or inerrancy to any copy of Scripture except the autographs. The inerrancy of the autographs alone has been affirmed by all the classic writers on inspiration, including Gaussen (1) and Warfield (2). The idea that the KJV is as good as the autographs is therefore a doctrinal innovation and, like any innovation touching the fundamentals of the faith, should be viewed with grave suspicion.

To show that the KJV-only position has no support in creeds of the past would be pointless, because its proponents recognize that they are breaking new ground. They feel that they are making an advance beyond historic beliefs. True, they think that their position is a logical extension of the doctrine of preservation. This doctrine, as they understand it, affirms that God has preserved His Word so that every believer throughout history might receive a perfect Bible in his own language. But there is a glaring Anglocentrism here. So construed, this doctrine would require an inspired translation in every language, not just English.

The notion that the KJV is a perfect Bible is impossible to sell to serious students of Scripture. Anyone who has compared the KJV with the Greek and Hebrew texts discovers that many of its renderings are mistaken. Some obscure or obliterate the meaning. Some change the meaning. Some actually introduce errors of fact. Lesson 2 provides a small sample of serious faults in the KJV.

Since some of the content of the KJV is human rather than divine in origin, the exaltation of the entire KJV to the status of perfect Scripture disregards the sober warning that anyone who adds to the words of the Bible will incur the plagues written in this book (Revelation 22:18).

The Fallacy in Stamping a Particular Text as the Perfect Word of God

Misuse of the doctrine of preservation

The less extreme form of the KJV-only position understands that no translation is inspired. It nevertheless views the KJV as a superior translation of superior texts. Indeed, it equates these texts to the very Word of God, as originally given to the authors of Scripture. How did a body of revelation thousands of years ago survive intact until the early 1600s, when the KJV was prepared? The answer, according to champions of this form of KJV-only theology, is that God had promised to preserve His Word, and He simply kept His promise.

Now we come to two tricky questions. How do we know that the preserved Word of God is found in the KJ V texts and not in the texts at the basis of modern translations? Here, supporters of KJV-only have a reasonable answer. God preserved His Word so that it could enlighten and help His people. The vast majority of Christians in the English-speaking world have depended on the KJV. Hence, we may suppose that the texts which came to its translators were the ones God wanted them to use.

Another question. Exactly which version of the KJV texts is the preserved Word of God? It so happens that these texts appeared in many different editions. So did the KJV itself. As time went on, new manuscripts in the original languages were discovered, so that the later editions of both the KJV and the KJV texts had a broader manuscript base than did the earlier editions. Some defenders of the KJV-only position have identified the KJV (or AV, meaning Authorized Version) of 1611 as the one embodying the preserved Word of God. But such an identification is arbitrary.

The grounds for alleging that the translators of the KJV had recourse to perfect texts in the original languages is, again, the so-called doctrine of preservation. But what is the Biblical basis of this doctrine? Some years ago, Edward F. Hills, a leading champion of the Received Text, offered the following answer (3):

Every faithful Christian must reckon seriously with the teaching of Christ concerning the providential preservation of Scripture. Our Lord evidently believed that the Old Testament Scriptures had been preserved in their original purity from the time of their first writing down to His own day and that this providential preservation would continue until the end of the ages. There are two passages especially which clearly indicate this. The first is Matt. 5:18, Till heaven and earth pass away, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law until all be fulfilled. And the second is Luke 16:17, It is easier for heaven and earth to pass away, than one tittle of the law to fail. Here Jesus attributes greater stability to the text of the Old Testament than to the heavens and the earth. . . .

Christ also promised that the same divine providence which had preserved the Old Testament would preserve the New Testament too. In the concluding verses of the Gospel of Matthew we find His "Great Commission" not only to the twelve apostles but also to His Church throughout all ages, go ye therefore and teach all nations. Implied in this solemn charge is the promise that through the working of God's providence the Church will always be kept in possession of an infallible record of Christ's words and works. And, similarly, in His discourses on the last things He assures His disciples that His words not only shall certainly be fulfilled but shall remain available for the comfort of His people during that troubled period which shall precede His second coming. In other words, that they shall be preserved until that time. Heaven and earth shall pass away, but My words shall not pass away (Matt. 24:35; Mark 13:31; Luke 21:33). Likewise the Word of Christ is to be the foundation of Christian character down through the ages (Matt. 7:24-27) and the standard by which all men shall be judged at the last day (John 12:48).

Thus it is the promise of Christ that a trustworthy text of the sacred New Testament books shall always be preserved in His Church down through the ages until the last day.

There is much here that is true. But the author jumps from clear teaching to doubtful derivations. To support the idea that a perfect Bible would always be available to the church, Hills cites several sayings of Christ. Other texts often brought to the defense of the same position include the following:

But the word of the Lord endureth for ever. And this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you.

1 Peter 1:25

The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever.

Isaiah 40:8

If he called them gods, unto whom the word of God came, and the scripture cannot be broken; . . . .

John 10:35

But none of these texts is referring to the earthly preservation of God's Word. They are saying from a cosmic perspective that the Word of God is everlasting. It will never be forgotten. It will always be true. It will always demand obedience. But these texts do not say that all men will know the Word of God. They do not even say that it will preserved on the earth. They are expressing the same sentiment we find in Psalm 119.

For ever, O LORD, thy word is settled in heaven.

Psalms 119:89

God has never promised to give every believer in every time and place a perfect Bible. The only Bible available in many circumstances throughout history has been very imperfect. For a time before Josiah ascended to the throne of Judah, the Book of the Law (likely referring to the Books of Moses) was lost. This portion of Scripture had completely vanished from the kingdom. In the early Middle Ages, few believers had whole Bibles in good versions. In the late Middle Ages, the only Bible available was the Vulgate, a mediocre translation in a dead language.

Proper use of the doctrine of preservation

Yet, as a matter of fact, God has promised to preserve His Word even for man. To formulate the doctrine of preservation correctly, we must consider its twofold Biblical foundation.

1) In many separate promises scattered throughout His Word, God has committed Himself to guiding us through all the moral and intellectual confusion of a sinful world.

Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee.

Psalms 119:11

Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.

Psalms 119:105

But in fulfillment of this promise, God does not necessarily give every believer a perfect Bible. At the very least, however, He gives him as much truth as he needs to meet all the testings that will come into his life.

2) Jesus said,

Howbeit when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth: . . . .

John 16:13

Again, we cannot draw from this promise the idea that God would give a perfect Bible to every believer, or even to every English-speaking believer since 1611. Nor can we deduce that God would keep His Word intact and easy to find so that the church would be spared any work of scholarship. The promise, rather, is that God would give us the Holy Spirit so that we, the church, might ferret out and recognize the true writings of Scripture as well as their true texts. If we could not determine these, we would fail of attaining "all truth," which is exactly what God assured us is attainable through the Holy Spirit.

In our day, translators are blessed with thousands of manuscripts in the original languages. It is very likely that every reading in the autographs of at least the New Testament books has been preserved somewhere in the manuscript heritage. Our problem is to separate the true readings from the false.

We cannot rule out the possibility that God has Providentially furnished us with one or more manuscripts containing only true readings. Yet this is extremely doubtful. No single manuscript is free of readings that, by virtue of being defective or idiosyncratic or poorly attested, appear to be false. Even if we had a perfect manuscript, how could we recognize it? Only with supernatural help. Any choice guided by the Holy Spirit would, however, lead to consensus in the true church and among Spirit-filled scholars. But there is no such consensus. Indeed, there is not even one scholar who feels that he has found a perfect manuscript.

We also cannot rule out the possibility that God has Providentially furnished us with an edited text containing only true readings. Yet this too is extremely doubtful. In the process of comparing the readings of different manuscripts and distilling them into a single text, a critic cannot simply follow some rules guaranteed to produce infallible decisions. He must exercise his own judgment, and human judgment is prone to error. Even though he were led by the Spirit to reconstruct the very Word of God, others could not recognize his achievement without supernatural help. But again, a work of the Spirit to focus attention on a perfect text would cause Spirit-filled scholars and, beyond them, the whole true church to accept it. But there is no such consensus. That is to say, the church in its creedal statements has never marked any extant text as the infallible Word of God. Although it has defined the canon and affirmed the doctrine of preservation, it has stopped short of giving any extant text the same standing as the autographs.

Must we conclude that the Spirit has done nothing to help the church find the true text of Scripture? Certainly not. Exactly what He has done, and what He has led the church to believe, will be addressed in lesson 5.

Must we conclude that it is impossible to reproduce the original Bible? Again, certainly not. As yet, the church does not know with certainty all the true readings of Scripture. But we dare not minimize the ability of the Spirit to lead the church into all truth. We cannot say that He will never give us a perfect Bible.

But for now, we cannot point to a certain translation or manuscript or edited text and say, "There they are, the ipsissima verba, the exact words of God." Every such text, manuscript, and translation is faulty. We should not despair, however. Rather, we should rejoice in our privileges. Living as we do in the modern world, we can, with a high degree of accuracy, both reconstruct and translate the original manuscripts of the Bible. A few small imperfections remain in our best Hebrew and Greek texts. To sift these out in the future—and coming finally to realization of all truth—will require much digging and diligence. Yet we must not resent putting ourselves to a little trouble. The spiritual basics come easy. But the deeper we wish to probe the mind of God, the harder we must work. It was never God's intent that the quest for spiritual knowledge should spare us the beneficial use of our faculties.

The Fallacy in Exalting the KJV as a Translation

There is no doubt that the KJV deserves its reputation as a great work of literature. The KJV together with the other great translations that preceded it helped to shape the English language we now use. Its unique achievement was to combine elegance and simplicity in a way that satisfied all readers, whether barely literate or highly educated. Some of its passages have earned a place in the treasury of greatest English compositions. We must therefore concede that in literary quality, the KJV is preeminent among translations.

We must concede also that it is preeminent in theological correctness. Whenever they were faced with obscurities in the original text, the translators always chose the rendering that would exalt God and support sound doctrine.

Moreover, we can applaud the KJV for consistently striving to attain a word-for-word equivalence in translation.

But in two respects the KJV is not a good translation by modern standards.

  1. It is not outstanding in its accuracy. The men who produced it were the best scholars of their day. Their practical knowledge of Greek or Hebrew exceeded that of most scholars engaged to produce modern translations. They not only could read the original language fluently; some could speak it. Nevertheless, their understanding of the Biblical text was imperfect. Four hundred years of historical and linguistic research have augmented our knowledge of ancient Greek and Hebrew, and the work of godly commentators during the same period has illuminated the meaning of many difficult passages. It is possible in our day to produce translations that are much more accurate than the KJV.
  2. It is not readable. The decline in education has left modern adults with poor reading skills. Although scholars refer to the language of the KJV as modern English (if it were Old English, nobody could read it), the difficulty of this version is still a huge obstacle to someone who is not well educated. Any secondary teacher in a Christian school knows that students from public school backgrounds can hardly read many portions of our standard Bible. The language of the KJV is both different from and harder than the language they actually speak. Those who insist that we use the KJV despite its opaque complexities and antiquated usages are therefore reserving the blessing of Bible-reading for the diminishing few who can understand this particular version. Clinging to the KJV is a violation of the fundamental Protestant principle that every man deserves a Bible in his native tongue.

The Decline of Learning

Recent veneration of the KJV has two causes.

  1. For the first time in history, most of the pastors shepherding the church in America are monolingual. They do not speak any modern language other than English, and they have very limited knowledge of the Biblical languages. Hence, they do not understand that any translation from one language to another is necessarily imperfect.
  2. The church has been swamped by cheap, inaccurate, and even irreverent English translations.

Admittedly, the critical text at the basis of many popular translations today is indefensible, and many of these translations are irresponsibly loose in their renderings of the original words. But to embrace the KJV as the perfect Word of God is an overreaction to the crisis.

The Pressures of Pragmatism

The chief argument that persuades many pastors to uphold the KJV is pragmatic. Supposedly, we must deny any imperfections in the KJV, or else the man in the pew will not trust and believe his Bible. But at the root of this thinking is a very condescending attitude toward the man in the pew, a view which imagines that he does not have enough sense to grasp the following simple propositions.

  1. Nearly the whole KJV is a reliable translation.
  2. Seriously wrong renderings are infrequent.
  3. The great majority of seriously wrong renderings nevertheless state what is true.
  4. Even those renderings that introduce errors of fact do not contradict any principle of morality or any major tenet of theology.

As a teacher, I would judge that these propositions require only an hour's worth of instruction. Not only can the man in the pew readily understand them, but he can also readily accept them without injury to his faith. They loom as a stumbling block only to that person whose conscience has been bound by a preacher from the KJV-only school.


  1. Louis Gaussen, The Divine Inspiration of the Bible, trans. David D. Scott (repr., Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications, 1971), 153.
  2. Cornelius Van Til, "Introduction" to The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, by Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield (Philadelphia, Pa.: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1948; repr., Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1960), 3.
  3. Edward F. Hills, "Introduction" to The Last Twelve Verses of Mark, by John Burgon (repr., Grand Rapids, Mich.: Associated Publishers and Authors, n.d.), 17.