The KJV Only Controversy: Some Personal Reflections

by Doug Smith

(This article is also available in a Word document and a pdf file.)

The “Eye-Opener”

I remember seeing a horrifying sight as a child. It was probably one of the scariest things I ever saw in church. It was a tract, one of those small booklets or brochures that are usually about the why one should become a Christian and how to do so. This tract was not about becoming a Christian, but was about something at the very heart of the Christian faith – something that revealed the Christian faith.

The scary tract was written by John Jasper Ray and it was entitled “The New Eye-Opener.” What was so scary about it? It wasn’t that it tried to frighten someone with the doctrine of Hell or that it contained unsettling illustrations. It was scary because it contained a long list of verses alleged to be altered or omitted in modern English versions of the Bible.

In the church I attended on Sundays and those I frequented for revival services and homecomings, we sang hymns which included words like: “What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus” and “He sought me and bought me with His redeeming blood.” Certainly, we were taught, as the Scriptures teach, that there was no remission, or forgiveness, of sins apart from the shedding of blood. This was, and is, a key part of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet, according to “The Eye-Opener,” the modern English versions of the Bible were a direct assault on such Scriptural doctrines and therefore the work of Satan. As such, Christians were warned to avoid the poison of the modern versions and cling to the old landmark of the King James Version.

As I recall, that tract and the affirmations of trusted preachers sealed the deal for me. The King James Version of the Bible was the only legitimate version. It was so clear to me that when I attended an Easter drama in my teenage years, I had to let them know on the comment card that I was very disappointed that they had quoted from a modern version in their presentation.

Defending the Bible

As the years went on and my social circle widened a bit, I began to hear challenges. The teacher who sponsored our high school Bible club encouraged me to keep an open mind about other Bible versions. But who needs to keep an open mind about an issue that’s so black and white? I was right, she was wrong. At least that’s what I thought at the time.

Fast forward to 1995, when I began classes at a professedly Christian liberal arts college. The NIV Study Bible was a required text for our college Bible classes. Obviously, this school was not going to teach from the perspective I grew up with – that we could only trust the KJV and that the modern versions were the work of Satan.

I figured the truth needed to be exposed and people needed to hear it. I sought oversight from a Bible professor to undertake a major paper that would trace the history of the Bible up to its English translations and versions, and show the superiority of the King James Version and corruption of the others. I occasionally participated in Internet chat rooms, and regularly posted on the college’s computer bulletin board system, arguing with peers and professors, or, rather, parroting back to them what I had “learned” from a variety of pamphlets, books, websites, and radio shows about the KJV only controversy. I had found a treasure trove of material, or so I thought – and it was my job to pass it on, or so I thought.

At some point I ran out of steam, although I don’t remember exactly why. I stopped my ambitious paper, and refrained from making waves on the computer bulletin board. Maybe I was burned out and losing interest in this topic that had consumed so much of my time. Maybe it was the growing realization that I wasn’t going to change anyone’s mind. Maybe it was the growing understanding that this college’s Bible department didn’t really trust any version of the Bible or even the Bible’s teaching that Jesus alone was the way to God. Or maybe it was the inevitable acknowledgement that many of my sources weren’t all that trustworthy.

Who Should I Trust?

The trustworthiness of sources was a big deal for me. I did not want to pass along untrustworthy information, nor did I want my views to be based on anything other than the truth. Now, it did not bother me that my professor had written on a bibliography that authors from Dallas Theological Seminary were not from a school known for a commitment to “honest, open inquiry.” (This professor had actually recommended the work of DTS’ Dan Wallace, as a conservative who did not believe in KJV onlyism.) Besides, at some point I came to suspect that those who talked of “honest, open inquiry” would often ignore evidence that contradicted their views – such as the clear teachings of Jesus and the apostles about theological and hermeneutical issues (such as the identity of the suffering Servant in Isaiah 53). I never questioned that a source was not trustworthy just because someone was conservative, or held to a confession of faith, or came from a school that wanted to uphold the Bible as the Word of God and expose false teachers.

But I began to see something just as disturbing as the “Eye-Opener” tract from years ago. A number of the KJV only resources themselves were either: 1) dishonest; 2) mistaken; or 3) otherwise unsupportable in many of their allegations. Many of them merely parroted similar resources and did not rely on original research. At least three things helped me to rethink my position: 1) the history of the Bible and its translation into English; 2) conservative scholars who wrote on the KJV only issue; and 3) applying a bit more critical thinking to what I read.

History of Bible Translation

To come into English, the Bible (originally written in Hebrew and Greek) had to be translated. Studying the history of Bible translation shed light on the King James Only controversy and opened my eyes in at least two ways. First, it showed that it was not unique in church history, as similar claims had been made for the Septuagint, the Latin Vulgate, and even Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible.

Second, it revealed that the KJV only idea would have been a strange concept to many throughout church history, such as the 16th century Reformers and even the KJV translators themselves, who relied on a myriad of translations and said that even the worst was still to be regarded as the Word of God. (Their “Translators to the Readers” preface, included in the original 1611 KJV and still printed in some editions, as well as available online, is a wordy but profitable read.) The KJV itself went through numerous revisions, with most modern copies deriving from the 1769 edition. Furthermore, many leaders respected in KJV only circles, including C. H. Spurgeon, C. I. Scofield, and John R. Rice made it clear in their publications, and sometimes their sermons, that they did not believe there was only one legitimate version of the Bible. (Mount Calvary Baptist Church’s booklet, “Trusted Voices on Translations” is a compilation of helpful quotes documenting such leaders on this issue.)

Publications by Conservative Scholars

While a large part of my initial exposure to those in favor of modern versions also exposed me to theological liberalism, I came to see that belief in the legitimacy, usefulness, and even need for a modern English translation did not a theological liberal make. In fact, many theological conservatives (in addition to men like Spurgeon and Rice), advocated the use of such translations.

In addition to seeing such writers as James Montgomery Boice, John MacArthur, and others use modern translations in their preaching and writing ministries, I saw that conservative scholars had researched and written on this very issue, particularly James R. White, D. A. Carson, and a book edited by James B. Williams and Randolph Shaylor, entitled From the Mind of God to the Mind of Men. These resources encompassed those that would be considered broadly evangelical as well as those who were strict separatist fundamentalists. It was also an “eye-opener” for me to see that Bob Jones University had ministry students study the NASB in their Bible classes, and that there were independent Baptist pastors and seminaries that were not KJV only (such as Inter-City Baptist Church and Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary in Allen Park, Michigan). Hebrew scholar James D. Price, formerly of Temple Baptist Seminary in Chattanooga (and involved directly with the New King James Version and Holman Christian Standard Bible), even dealt at length with the relevant issues in a self-published tome entitled King James Onlyism: a New Sect.

The most helpful resource for me was James R. White’s The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust the Modern Translations? He seemed to deal fairly with the evidence, and actually turned the tables on the KJV only approach I was so familiar with. While verse comparisons can appear to demonstrate that modern versions attempt to remove the blood of Christ or the deity of Christ, etc., similar comparisons can “prove” that the KJV has watered down such issues. For example, White pointed out that the text of John 1:18, Philippians 2:6-7, and Titus 2:13 in the NASB and NIV are clearer statements of the deity of Christ than the KJV’s rendering of those passage (while conceding that the KJV is probably more accurate on 1 Timothy 3:16).

Scripture Reference NASB rendering NIV rendering KJV rendering
John 1:18 No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him. No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made him known. No man hath seen God at any time, the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him.
Philippians 2:6-7 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:
Titus 2:13 looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus, while we wait for the blessed hope—the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ;
1 Timothy 3:16 By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness: He who was revealed in the flesh,
Was vindicated in the Spirit, Seen by angels, Proclaimed among the nations, Believed on in the world, Taken up in glory.
Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great: He appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations,
was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory.
And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.

In his article, “The Unlearned Men: the True Genealogy and Genesis of King-James-Version-Onlyism,” Doug Kutilek demonstrated that writers like James Jasper Ray (“The Eye-Opener”; God Only Wrote One Bible) and David Otis Fuller plagiarized other writers, including Seventh Day Adventist sources, and often used selective quotations to make it appear that others (such as Spurgeon) agreed with them when, in fact, they did not. These were serious charges that could not be ignored.

Reading Critically

While not all authors advocating a form of King James onlyism are equal, many have demonstrated an approach based on sloppy or non-existent scholarship or underhanded methods of argument. Some, like E. F. Hills, Theodore Letis, the Trinitarian Bible Society, and, to a lesser degree, David Sorenson (who, unfortunately leaned on some unreliable sources, like Gail Riplinger), tended to be more on a level-headed or moderate end of the spectrum, others consistently resorted to ad hominem arguments (attacking the character of people while failing to adequately answer relevant arguments), unfounded assertions, erroneous information put forward as fact, and absurd interpretations of the Bible.

Many authors resorted to attacking the character of 19th century British Bible scholars, B. F. Westcott and F. J. A. Hort, of practicing occultism and intentionally seeking to corrupt the Scriptures – serious charges, but lacking sufficient proof. Some asserted that God gave the whole Bible to the English speaking people in a way analogous to how He gave the Old Testament Scriptures to the nation Israel. Some attacked the New King James Version for including alternate textual readings in the margin, saying that such would undermine faith in God’s Word, yet even the original King James Version included notes such as “This 36. verse is wanting in most of the Greek copies” (margin of Luke 17:36).

One of the most absurd examples of the problems that plague the extreme KJV only publications comes from Gail Riplinger’s publication, “Omissions in the NKJV” (Riplinger also wrote New Age Bible Versions). In her note on the NKJV rendering of 1 Sam. 13:21, “the charge . . . was a pim,” she explains pim as meaning “positive identification microchip.” (The NKJV footnote explains pim as “about two-thirds shekel weight,” rightly identifying it as a form of monetary currency, not as a “positive identification microchip!”) A conspiracy theory on steroids? (James D. Price wrote a lengthy refutation of this document, entitled “The False Witness of G. A. Riplinger’s Death Certificate for the New King James Version.”)

Perhaps the most frightening and eye-opening aspect of the extreme KJV only advocates is that some of them misuse the Bible in order to justify their position. Two examples will suffice. In Dr. Samuel Gipp’s The Answer Book, he argues that “a translation cannot only be ‘as good’ as the originals, but better” (page 90). He plays with the word “translation” to “prove” that the translation of the kingdom of Israel from Saul to David (2 Samuel 3:7-10), the translation of believers into the kingdom of God’s dear Son (Colossians 1:13), and the translation of Enoch (Hebrews 11:5) show that a “translation” can be better than the original. But what would this “prove” about a Bible translation being better than the original Hebrew and Greek from which it was translated? Was God’s Word somehow imperfect and inferior when originally given?

The second example, a common argument in these publications, is that Psalm 12:6-7 proves the perfection of the KJV and reveals God’s promise to preserve His Word. Some even go so far as to claim that since God’s words are pure words, purified seven times, therefore, the KJV is the perfect Word of God since it is the seventh in a line of English translations (their lists vary, as there were actually more than six English versions of the Bible prior to the KJV). Here is the complete text of Psalm 12 in the KJV, to show the context.

PSALM 12

1 Help, LORD; for the godly man ceaseth; for the faithful fail from among the children of men.

2 They speak vanity every one with his neighbour: with flattering lips and with a double heart do they speak.

3 The LORD shall cut off all flattering lips, and the tongue that speaketh proud things:

4 Who have said, With our tongue will we prevail; our lips are our own: who is lord over us?

5 For the oppression of the poor, for the sighing of the needy, now will I arise, saith the LORD; I will set him in safety from him that puffeth at him.

6 The words of the LORD are pure words: as silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times.

7 Thou shalt keep them, O LORD, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever.

8 The wicked walk on every side, when the vilest men are exalted.

While the purity and preservation of God’s Word is an important subject, no one can credibly argue that verse 6 is referring to English translations. If it were, does that mean God’s Word was imperfect before the supposed seventh English translation? Would not His original words be “pure words”? As to verse seven, the promise of keeping and preserving does not refer there to God’s words, but, as a look at the overall context demonstrates, to believers (the godly man and the faithful in verse 1, the poor and the needy in verse 5). God is telling believers here that they can trust His words, namely, His promise to preserve them against the wicked. Psalm 12 has nothing, pro or con, to say about Bible translations, much less the KJV! This method of abusing Scripture to support the KJV only position only serves to discredit those taking this approach.

Where Am I Now?

So, what has this journey through King James onlyism helped open my eyes to see?

The King James Version is a wonderful translation. I love it and want to continue to read from it, study it, memorize it, quote it, and, in certain settings, preach from it. One of the things that makes it so valuable to me is that it preserves a more accurate form of English, particularly its inclusion of plural and singular second-person pronouns. Our modern “you” can indicate that we are speaking to an individual or more than one person. Thee, thou, thy, thine, etc. indicate singular, whereas ye, you, your, etc. indicate plural. Many languages preserve this distinction, whereas modern English has lost it. Although a more generic “you” may not radically distort matters, it can affect interpretation and application of Bible passages. The KJV is a good, reliable translation with much to commend it.

There is more than one edition of the King James Version. Many claim to hold to the “1611 KJV,” but most modern KJV’s are actually the 1769 revision, one of several updates. (I own a replica of the one of the early editions; the original included the apocryphal books which Protestants view as uninspired but historically useful but that Roman Catholics elevate to the level of Scripture.)

There are various types of King James only advocates. Some are smart. Some are kind. Some are well-meaning. Others do not exemplify such qualities, or may demonstrate one at the expense of others. I would not dare lump them all together. There are those who prefer the King James but have no problem with modern versions; there are those who prefer translations based on the same original language texts the King James was translated from; there are those who believe the King James is the only good translation available today; there are those who think any version other than the King James is straight from Satan (and some in this camp tend to argue their case more with ridicule than proof). As one pastor told me, some are “King James only,” and some are “King James ugly.”

Not all arguments from King James only advocates are ridiculous. If one argues for accurate translation of masculine and feminine pronouns, or that it matters whether Isaiah 7:14 should read “virgin” or “young woman,” I must agree, and many others would concur. However, I also happen to find one oft-maligned point concerning the reliability of manuscript families to be very compelling. Modern scholarship tends to assume that, generally speaking, the older manuscripts represent a more reliable text (although they do not hold this view to be absolute, and sometimes do not favor the older manuscripts as the most accurate reading). Some who argue for the KJV or at least for its underlying text also argue that older does not necessarily mean better or closer in accuracy to the original. It could be that later families of manuscripts have more accurately preserved the original readings, particularly if the more reliable of the older manuscripts were worn out from so much copying. I’m not sure that either side has been able to prove its case on this matter of which manuscripts are genuinely more reliable. I do not know if any modern scholars take the objection to the older = more accurate argument seriously, but I think it bears consideration. For this reason, I am not willing to dispense with disputed passages like the woman caught in adultery in John 8 or the ending of Mark 16.

The King James only issue is one of the most divisive issues in certain circles. Christians who begin to question this view or who boldly advance another opinion may quickly find themselves ostracized, vilified, or even expelled from some churches. Many KJV only advocates are not willing to listen to the views of others and see it as compromise to entertain those who use modern versions. However, the reverse can often be true as well. Some unfairly view all KJV only believers as fanatics or as a cult and avoid them at all costs. In situations where one side or the other is prejudiced to the degree that one will not even seek to understand the other side, discussing this issue can only lead to strife.

There are well-meaning people who embrace or tend toward KJV onlyism. Not all KJV only people are “King James ugly,” and some of them are even willing to cooperate with those who do not see things exactly as they do. In longer term situations, some of them may even be willing to change with some patient and loving instruction, though it may take some time to work through this emotionally charged issue. A pastor or friend may have to take great pains to understand why this position is dear to the individual, what concerns hinder change, and what it would take to convince them otherwise. Nevertheless, it may be that the individual will not change. However, that may not need to be an obstacle to cooperation. Our main goal should be to advance the gospel of Christ, and God can still use people who cling to the KJV to help do that.

It is beneficial and generally preferable to use a modern translation for study and preaching. While I love the King James Version, and while my present position is that the traditional texts underlying it are probably the most accurate manuscripts, I believe people of today need a translation in the language of today. We are blessed to have many study tools where we can look up archaic words such as those contained in the KJV, but it makes more sense to use a modern English equivalent if possible. For this reason, I favor the New King James Version of the Bible. I read a variety of translations (KJV and modern ones) in private, but in my weekly pulpit ministry I use the NKJV because it is based on the same texts as the KJV, but uses updated language. This is not an issue in the church I serve. On the other hand, if I am visiting a church, Christian school, or even a home where this may be an issue, I would rather use the KJV than unnecessarily hinder my ministry among those people.

Not all versions of the Bible are equally reliable. For someone to disagree with a KJV only position does not necessarily mean that he must embrace all other versions and translations with open arms. Aside from the obvious need to reject translations from cults (such as the New World Translation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses), there are some versions that are not very useful or reliable because of the liberal bias that went into their translation. I cannot recommend the Revised Standard Version, which translated Isaiah 7:14 with “young woman” instead of “virgin,” nor can I endorse the New Revised Standard Version with its frequent use of a gender-neutral approach to translation. I also have a hard time seeing much usefulness in modern paraphrases such as the Message. The other versions I find useful are those that tend toward a faithful rendering of the text with as much equivalence as possible in English. The New King James Version, the New American Standard Bible, the Holman Christian Standard Bible, and the English Standard Version are the ones I generally consult in addition to the King James Version.

We should not implicitly trust any human authority. If authors seek to argue a point, we need to make sure their conclusions logically follow. If authors make historical assertions, we need to make sure they back them up with appropriate evidence. If authors advance interpretations of the Bible, we need to make sure they are based on sound interpretation. If they cannot make their points by honest and accurate statement of the facts, then they prove themselves untrustworthy.

It is a scary thing when our beliefs about the Bible rest on mere human traditions. We are to “prove all things” and “hold fast that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21) and must be Bereans (Acts 17:11), searching the Scriptures daily to see whether these things are so. When we do that with the help of God’s Spirit, our eyes are truly opened.

——

(If the reader is interested in studying this issue further, I have provided links to a number of useful articles and resources, available byclicking here.)

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