Seminary Viewpoints

Let Me Help You Help Your KJV-Only Friend

Guest Author, Mark Ward | October 28, 2021
Theology Thursday

Bob Jones University holds to the verbal, plenary inspiration of the Bible in the original manuscripts and that God has supernaturally preserved His inspired words in the totality of extant manuscript evidence.

The position of the University on biblical translations has not changed since the founding of the school in 1927. Although Bob Jones University does not hold to a KJV-only position, and from the founder to the present administration, we have never taken the position that there can be only one good translation in the English language, we continue to use the King James Version (KJV) as the campus standard in the undergraduate classroom and chapel pulpit.

No one knows how many adherents to KJV-onlyism exist in the world. If it’s any indication, KJV-only extremist Gene Kim of Real Bible Believers has 287,000 YouTube subscribers. KJV-onlyism is most certainly not dead.

The two basic doctrines taught by all forms of KJV-onlyism are as follows:

  1. The KJV is the only trustworthy English Bible translation.
  2. The KJV is the only English Bible based on the pure/preserved/perfect Hebrew and Greek texts.

My work — in many articles, in two books, in a documentary (that I’ll be showing at BJU next week on Tuesday, Nov. 2!), and in more YouTube videos than is probably healthy — has focused exclusively on that first point of contention:

  • Does the Bible teach that the KJV is the only trustworthy English Bible? 
  • Does it teach that we ought to have and use only one Bible translation? 
  • What does the Bible have to say about Bible translation that might be relevant to the KJV-only debate?

I argue that 1 Corinthians 14 teaches us that edification requires intelligibility, and that language change in the last 400-plus years has produced in the KJV many words we know we don’t know (dead words) and many words we don’t know we don’t know (false friends). Would God really demand that we read the Bible in a translation the plowboy — the common man — can’t fully understand?

I have almost entirely avoided engaging that second point of contention in public. Indeed, I have vowed not to argue about textual criticism with anyone who insists on the exclusive use of the KJV. I hope others will join me in this refusal.

But in an upcoming talk at BJU, I will discuss New Testament textual criticism and the KJV-only debate. And I’m here to tell you why — and why you should come hear my talk (or join via stream) Monday, Nov. 1 at 6:30 p.m. in the Davis Room: “Is the Textus Receptus Perfect in Every Jot and Tittle?”

I have two reasons I don’t talk about textual criticism with KJV-onlyists.

1. Answering before listening

This isn’t fun to say, but the biggest reason I don’t talk about textual criticism with our KJV-only brothers is that the Bible tells me it’s foolish and disgraceful for anyone to “answer before listening” (Prov. 18:13 NIV), and the great majority of KJV-onlyists cannot read a single word of New Testament Greek or biblical Hebrew. How could they possibly obey the Bible’s commands about conflict — “Let your reasonableness be known to all men” (Phil. 4:5 ESV); “The wisdom from above is … peaceable, gentle, open to reason” (James 3:17 ESV) — if they can’t read the language of the ancient Greek manuscripts they’re trying to argue with me about? We might as well be arguing about ancient Chinese.

Just once that I can recall has a KJV-only brother said to me, “Well, of course, I don’t know Greek; I may be wrong … .” That note of humility is, in my long experience, almost entirely absent from the KJV-only world.

I’m embarrassed for — I feel real pity toward — the countless KJV-onlyists who make confident assertions to me about “the corrupt Alexandrian texts” in comments on my YouTube channel (comments that are frequently rife with spelling and grammar errors, it must be said). I feel like I’m watching them walk by at the mall with toilet paper trailing from their waistband. My refusal to engage is really just my effort to walk behind them so no one else sees. “Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies,” Paul told Timothy (2 Tim. 2:23 ESV).

2. Remembering what’s important

But there are definitely some KJV-onlyists who know Greek and Hebrew, and some to whom God has given prodigious intellectual gifts. And yet even with them, I don’t debate textual criticism — because it is they, not we, who benefit when the game is played at that end of the field.

Believers in an orthodox view of Scripture need to understand that it’s the KJV-only side, not ours, that sees the differences among Greek New Testament manuscripts as massive and doctrinally significant. When the most highly credentialed KJV-onlyist I know reviewed my book, Authorized, he dismissed what I said about Elizabethan English intelligibility and changed the subject right back to textual criticism. He claimed in his review that the ESV, NIV, NASB, etc., are based on a “completely different underlying text” than the KJV. This is a divisive overstatement, as I and a team (of mostly BJU grads) have sought to show to the English reader through KJV Parallel Bible. But even if he’s correct, he can have his Textus Receptus and read it, too — in several contemporary English translations that use the TR, namely the New King James Version and Modern English Version.

I’m happy to agree to disagree about textual criticism, a subject the Bible does not directly address. I’d like to see the orthodox side move the ball to our end of the field, to the English-readability-and-language-change end, to the end that laypeople have a chance at grasping. This is also the end that builds common ground with our KJV-only brothers, who of course do want to understand their Bibles, just like us.

A favorite story

I think talk of textual criticism needs to be reserved for those KJV-onlyists who prove that they are willing to listen — by acknowledging my basic arguments about how language change affects contemporary readers’ ability to understand the KJV.

One brother who did this provides a favorite story for me. He went to an extremist KJV-only ministry training school but somehow stumbled into expository preaching. He started taking his church through the book of Hebrews. His Greek was minimal, but it was strong enough that when he arrived at Hebrews 10:23, he knew something was off — the Greek had the word elpis (“hope”); the KJV translated the word as “faith.” — and he knew he had to stick with either the Greek or the English. He went against his KJV-only tradition and sided with the inspired Greek. That proved to be a fork in the road for him.

After several years of humble, careful pondering, he reached out to me over email with questions about textual criticism. I at first deflected his questions and focused my replies on English translation. I truly don’t feel the need to persuade people toward the critical text view I hold. He listened and acknowledged what I was saying and then graciously persisted in his questions about textual criticism. I saw quickly he was sincere — he really did need help processing the complex questions that arise regarding the textual history of the Bible. So I did discuss the matter with him, even though he was still formally “KJV-only.”

I believe that men training for ministry need to know enough about NT and OT textual criticism to help any sincere KJV-onlyists who come to them with questions. And that’s why I’m giving a lecture at BJU on the topic of New Testament textual criticism. I’m even promising a surprise twist during my talk, the sort of thing John Grisham might come up with if he were delivering lectures on New Testament textual criticism at his alma mater. Come hear for yourself on Nov. 1 (or tune in live)!

Your future KJV-only friend

I get messages almost every day from young pastors who were raised in the KJV-only portion of the church, who are grateful for the good they received there (as I am) but now have come to see that Scripture does not bind their consciences to one and only one English Bible translation. Here’s a note I got not long ago from a graduate of the largest KJV-only educational institutions:

I’ve just got to say thank you for your work and ministry. Through your encouragement, I have begun trying several different versions. Interestingly, for this former KJVO guy, I have found a love for the NIV in my sermon prep! Keep up the awesome work!

If you, young seminarian, go pastor anywhere in the U.S., you should reach out to the nearest KJV-only pastor and form as much of a friendship with him as he will allow — and then pray as I have to receive a text like that. To prepare for one such friendship,

But when in your pastoral judgment as his friend you see that he’s able to humbly listen and engage, be ready to help him toward an orthodox view. Come hear my lecture on this orthodox view on Monday, Nov. 1 at 6:30 p.m. I’ll help you help your future KJV-only pastor friend.

Mark Ward will present two sessions live at BJU Seminary Nov. 1-2. For more details and livestream information, see the news post “Alumnus to Present Sessions on Bible Translations.”

Mark Ward (PhD ’11) is the editor of Bible Study Magazine, a product of Faithlife, makers of Logos Bible Software; host of Bible Study Magazine Podcast; and presenter of Word Nerd: Language and the Bible. He is the author of multiple Bible textbooks including Biblical Worldview: Creation, Fall, Redemption and the new Basics for a Biblical Worldview, both by BJU Press. He is also the author of Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible (Lexham Press, 2018).