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3 Ways to Graciously Engage KJV-Only Believers

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Don Carson pled with them for realism 40 years ago, and James White urged them to trust modern translations 20 years ago. But I sense that conservative evangelicalism has now given up on critiquing King James Version-onlyism.

But there are tens or perhaps even hundreds of thousands of KJV-only Christians around the world, and a new generation is taking leadership in the movement.

It’s time to make another gentle appeal.

But what else can be said? I urge a threefold strategy focused on English translation, not Greek textual criticism. This is the best way to love—and persuade—our KJV-only brothers and sisters.

1. Listen and Understand

KJV-only views tend to fall between two poles. One extreme makes strident claims for the absolute perfection of the KJV, viewing it as the perfect product of divine (re)inspiration. The other pole prefers the KJV out of an aesthetic sense or the belief that valuable, unifying traditions shouldn’t be given up lightly.

More than likely, the KJV-only brothers and sisters you’ll run into are between these poles: they’re part of the mainstream King-James-only movement—which means, if you’ll listen to them, you’ll find they’re not technically KJV-only.

The mainstream KJV-only movement insists that its ultimate concern is not actually the KJV. It’s the full “preservation” of the Greek and Hebrew texts from which the KJV was translated, namely the Masoretic Hebrew Text and the Greek Textus Receptus, or “TR.” KJV-onlyism is actually, officially, TR-onlyism.

Evangelical biblical scholarship looks at all the differences among Greek New Testament manuscripts and, in textual criticism, takes up the complicated challenge of culling out copyist errors. KJV-onlyism looks at those same differences and feels them to be a threat to the stability of Christian faith. So it adopts the TR and rejects modern textual criticism.

2. Don’t Talk about Textual Criticism

I suggest you take a step back: you must refuse to talk about textual criticism with KJV-only Christians.

I’m not saying it’s worthless to teach the truth on the topic; many writers have done so admirably. But now’s probably not the time.

God calls few Christians, KJV-only or not, to learn Koine Greek. This means comparatively few people on any side of the KJV debate have ever examined the evidence. Instead, most people in the church have formed their textual critical views secondhand from authorities they trust. This is natural and not necessarily bad: we all outsource complex judgments to people whose expertise we would have trouble proving exactly.

This means your disagreement with the average KJV defender is not actually about textual criticism, but about which authorities are worth trusting: Carson vs. Ruckman, White vs. Waite. You won’t get him to trust responsible authors by having him read their attacks on his viewpoint; you’ll do this by giving him other edifying books by those who’ve produced our modern evangelical Bible translations, hoping he’ll sense intuitively that they are not his enemies. This is your long game.

But your short game needs to give up on textual criticism. As Dan Wallace has labored to show, only a tiny percentage of textual differences are both meaningful and viable. The difference between “the star came to rest” over baby Jesus and “the star came and stood” over him is not worth a fight.

Graciously agree to disagree with a KJV devotee’s preference for the TR and move on.

3. Talk about English Only

Most laypersons do not need to understand the canons of Greek New Testament textual criticism. But here’s something every KJV reader ought to know: Elizabethan English is no longer fully intelligible, and 1 Corinthians 14 tells us explicitly and repeatedly that intelligibility is necessary for edification.

If with your tongue you utter speech that is not intelligible, how will anyone know what is said? For you will be speaking into the air (1 Cor. 14:9).

Even KJV extremists know it contains “dead words” and obsolete phrases no longer present in the real-life lexical stock of English speakers. We just don’t say or write “amerce,” “bolled,” or “crisping pin.” They are unintelligible, and contemporary dictionaries are hit or miss on these dead words. These are words we know we don’t know.

But there is another category of unintelligible words hiding in plain sight, and the KJV-only movement needs some help seeing them: words we don’t know we don’t know.

These “false friends” are the focus of the strategy that I lay out in Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible. Such words—and syntactical structures and punctuation conventions—trip up today’s readers through no fault of the KJV translators or of today’s readers, but solely because of language change.

Translators could not have predicted the future of words like “halt” and “remove” and “commend,” and English speakers today shouldn’t be held responsible to notice how these words have evolved over the past four centuries. William Tyndale died to give God’s Word to the “plough boy,” not to the specialist in historical Englishes.

Beautiful Translation

Of course, the KJV is not entirely unintelligible. And it surely is beautiful. I have always enjoyed the challenge of reading it. When I encourage my brothers and sisters in Christ to cease insisting on the use of the KJV, I do so, as my favorite linguist John McWhorter said of Shakespeare, “not because we are uncultured or incapable of effort, but because language is always moving.”

If the point of Bible reading were Anglophilic enculturation or Early Modern English decoding practice, then giving people KJVs would be ideal. But if the point is understanding what God said, then people should be given the Bible in their English, not someone else’s.

KJV-onlyism is not a Christian liberty issue, like eating meat offered to idols. It makes void the Word of God by human tradition—one archaizing lexeme at a time (Mark 7:13). I pray that my brethren’s consciences will one day be liberated to read more than just the KJV.

But consciences should not be treated lightly, even when misinformed. The safest way to push people past the unsound objections of their consciences is to appeal directly to God’s Word and let his Spirit illuminate it for them.

Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14 that edification requires intelligibility. This needs to be the united Christian answer to the many people adversely affected by KJV-onlyism.

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