Don’t Kick the KJV
Over the last few years, there’s been a spate of critiques in the evangelical world (most noticeably, in my assessment, from the broadly Reformed camp) of the continuing use by Christians of the King James Version—the venerable biblical translation that the West has known and loved since its first publication. Perhaps the best example of this line of criticism is Mark Ward’s book Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible—a comprehensive polemic against the church’s continued use of a text deemed outmoded and unreliable. According to its critics, the KJV is not only flawed due to evolutions in translation theory, but virtually inaccessible to modern audiences because it demands a careful reading of particular word uses.
This view, it sees to me, is profoundly misguided. To be clear, I’m no member of the “King James Only” crowd—that crew of Independent Fundamentalist Baptists that treats the traditional English text as a novel form of revelation. But perhaps I’m a little bit biased because I carry a KJV Bible with me to church every Sunday. In that case, I’m guilty as charged.
It’s not incredibly hard to critique the KJV on “accuracy” grounds—at least, when one’s criterion for accuracy is conformity to particular Hebrew or Greek manuscripts. But as Conciliar Post’s own Matthew Bryan has explained at length, this was not how the early church conceived of Scriptural inspiration. Rather, the church treated the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) as, in some sense, divinely inspired—a position hard to reconcile with certain modern evangelical approaches to Scripture that emphasize the “original autographs” above all else. At the very least, the ancient church’s criterion for textual precision was not the same criterion as that currently wielded against the KJV. The mainstream of the interpretive tradition, in short, possessed normative authority over and beyond any particular manuscript’s “remoteness in time.”
But when all’s said and done, perhaps the true power of the KJV is rooted in its very “obscurity,” its resistance to accommodate itself to the lowest common denominator of contemporary sensibilities. Consider, for instance, how the KJV translates Psalm 23:1-4:
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
And then revisit the same passage, as rendered in the Contemporary English Version:
You, Lord, are my shepherd. I will never be in need.
You let me rest in fields of green grass. You lead me to streams of peaceful water, and you refresh my life.
You are true to your name, and you lead me along the right paths.
I may walk through valleys as dark as death, but I won’t be afraid.
You are with me, and your shepherd’s rod makes me feel safe.
Plainly there are crucial distinctions between these two renditions, despite the fact that both translations are ostensibly working from the same source material. For one thing, in speaking of “valleys as dark as death,” rather than “the valley of the shadow of death,” the CEV collapses the language into a kind of universal human experience, rather than identifying the unique ontological phenomenon of human finitude. The CEV’s framing is the stuff of The Secret rather than the truth that compelled Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
More subtly, though, the premodern language of the KJV connotes that this text is different from others—that the words we encounter in the KJV are fundamentally distinct from the words we encounter elsewhere in our lives. Perhaps this is simply an effect of modernity and the transition to an information-based economy, but every time I read the KJV I’m impressed with the sense that this Word is not like other words.
To be sure, one can counter this by pointing that the KJV (at the time of its first promulgation) used the language of the common people, and that this move was radical in its own way. Fair enough. But the KJV’s language is not now our language; it demands an effort of thought and reflection beyond the prose we encounter in our daily experience. To the extent that it reflects—in however limited and imperfect a fashion—the eternality of the God who is beyond time, it is preferable to its dumbed-down successors. (And if absolute precision is the goal, there’s always the original Greek text!) No product of finite humanity is truly everlasting, but some have greater longevity than others.
And this, in my view, is enough to overcome the complaints of the KJV’s critics. The beauty of the language that shaped the contemporary Western order is one thing, but its persistence—its power to stir the soul centuries after its first printing—is something else altogether. A hundred years from now, I have little doubt that the CEV (and the ESV, and the NIV, and the RSV) will be long forgotten; the KJV, however, will not. And that should sober even the staunchest KJV skeptic.