DialoguesScriptureTheology & Spirituality

Further Thoughts on Keeping the KJV

A few months ago, I penned a piece encouraging contemporary Christians not to abandon the distinctive—if somewhat arcane—lyricism of the King James Bible. In the course of my argument, I mentioned Mark Ward’s recent book Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible, which argues that the modern church should migrate toward the use of more accessible translations. Ward himself was gracious enough to show up in the comments section of that piece, raising a number of arguments that KJV proponents (or, better, KJV aficionados) should probably address. In lieu of giving his points a truncated treatment in comments, I thought I’d discuss them more comprehensively in a separate article.

Ward describes the thrust of his stance as follows:

1) 1 Corinthians 14 says that edification requires intelligibility, and due to the inevitable process of language change, the KJV is no longer fully intelligible to even educated English speakers, even with the help of a dictionary.

2) God had an opportunity to choose higher registers of Hebrew and Greek, and some places in the OT and NT stretch up higher (poetry in the OT, Luke-Acts and Hebrews in the NT), but God chose Koine (common) Greek instead of Attic Greek. He chose the vernacular, and we should, too.

3) To translate into the vernacular is not to dumb the Bible down; it is to do part of the work of the Great Commission, namely teaching people to observe whatever Christ commands.

These contentions seem eminently reasonable to me, and I don’t pretend to be an authority on what’s right for any particular church. (Certainly, the circumstances of ministry and the requirements of pastoral responsibility may differ dramatically across cultural contexts.) But here’s why—Ward’s critique notwithstanding—I continue to use the KJV for personal devotional reflection and appreciate my church’s use of the NKJV for Gospel readings.

First and foremost, to the extent that the style of the Bible, considered in itself, reflects a message that God intended to communicate to the hearers of the Word, I submit that today, the KJV’s use of “archaic” language serves that end more effectively than translations reliant on contemporary language (this point responds, broadly speaking, to all three of Ward’s claims).

The New Testament philosophical milieu emphasized the utter transcendence of divinity—to the point that, in Gnostic theological formulations, multiple intermediaries were posited between the divine One and the “corrupt” material order. Over against Christianity’s Neoplatonic critics, the primary concern of Christian theology was the affirmation that God—as revealed in Christ Jesus—is immanent to, and fully involved with, the created realm. There was no place for a Gnostic spiritual “elitism,” which juxtaposed an ontologically elevated caste against an ignorant remainder of humanity.

What this implies is that linguistic forms pointing toward the genuine involvement of God with the undifferentiated masses of the human race—forms reflecting the principle that “neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free” (Gal. 3:28) enjoy a privileged place in God’s kingdom—played a foundational role in articulating the Christian message. Hence, the rough Greek of Mark placed alongside the finer prose style deployed by Luke and Paul: both degrees of linguistic excellence may fully reflect the coming Kingdom of God, just as the Kingdom of God is open to both elites and slaves alike.

But Gnostic-infected spiritual elitism is not the problem of secular modernity. By contrast, the contemporary mind suffers from a “flattening” immanent sensibility that attempts to collapse all discourse of transcendence. As philosopher Charles Taylor might put it, modern human beings are locked within an “immanent frame” that limits their moral and metaphysical horizons: we do not think in terms of our relation to God, but solely our relation to other finite objects.

The language of the KJV—in the very event of its remoteness and strangeness—startles us out of this “immanentizing” complacency. The thundering cadences of Job 38—where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if thou hast understanding. Who hath laid the measures thereof, if thou knowest? Or who hath stretched the line upon it? Whereupon are the foundations thereof fastened? Or who laid the corner stone thereof; when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?—cannot help but invoke a sense of wonder, of timeless grandeur. In that moment, one is reminded that the Word of God is not like other words; the Bible is no mere self-help manual or literary curiosity, but the utterance of the living God. In that instant, all of the psychological barriers we’ve erected fall away, as we are stripped raw before the Creator of heaven and earth. In short, what people today need is not bare accessibility, but true transcendence.

Likewise, if one is operating on the premise that the Spirit still guides the Church, it seems to me that the gift of the KJV—and its ubiquity in a Western culture that, for much of its lifespan, professed commitment to the Christian faith—is a reasonable, empirical testament to its theological merit. This is true even if the particular rhetorical formulations of the KJV are difficult for modern readers; teaching people to submit humbly to a process of careful reflection, insight, and study—the discipline, or habitus, that may be necessary to understand the KJV in its totality—is part of teaching people to submit to what Christ commands. 

One more point, it seems to me, is worth mentioning. Though Ward doesn’t mention it in his comment, his book also makes a handful of arguments against the textual accuracy of the KJV—many of which are based on ostensible developments in biblical scholarship since the 1600s. As a general rule, I’m loath to assume that the Bible that the church receives—and within which the community of Christians comes to apprehend the truths of faith—is an ever-evolving document tied to the latest scholarship. Along with Brevard Childs, I would argue that one must read the Bible from within the community of believers to fully apprehend its meaning—even where that meaning stretches us beyond what our colloquial language permits. And that principle suggests that there’s no fierce need to pursue an ongoing quest for the “original autographs” or endorse the premise that manuscript age necessarily corresponds to doctrinal integrity. To the extent that the KJV is a product of the same Spirit-led Church that produced the traditional canon, we may properly call it God’s Word.1

Certainly, more could be—and has been—said on all of these points. Nevertheless, though we might disagree on the continuing vitality of the KJV in the life of the church, I thank Dr. Ward for his thoughtful questions and his engagement with these issues—and I hope our paths will cross someday.

1 Perhaps I’m betraying my Protestant roots, but I generally adhere to the hermeneutical principle that Scripture must be read along with the consensus of the “Church catholic”—the orthodox tradition that produced the Nicene Creed, the Formula of Chalcedon, and the dominant biblical canon. This also means that, to the extent that certain features of the Scriptural text—including such apparent textual “oddities” as the long ending of Mark and the Johannine comma—have been received as orthodox by the consensus of the faithful, I have little inherent objection to including them in the Bible. (Matthew Bryan has advanced a similar argument in the specific context of the Septuagint.)

John Ehrett

John Ehrett

John currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where he works as an attorney and writer. He holds an M.A.R. from the Institute of Lutheran Theology and a J.D. from Yale Law School.

Image of a plaque about John Wesley from Savannah, GA
Previous post

John Wesley and Small Groups

Next post

On The Law of Nature: A Demonstrative Method (A Book Review)