The King James Only Controversy

What is the Controversy?[1]

At various times within the last half century, a controversy has flared up over English translations of the Bible, fueled by a vocal minority of conservative Christians that claims that the King James Version (KJV) is the only legitimate English translation. This movement is known as the “King James Only” (or “KJV Only”) movement. It seems to be most common among fundamental Baptists and Free Presbyterians, but crops up among others as well.

At the extreme end of the movement are those who believe that the KJV enjoys the exact same verbal (every word) and plenary (full) inspiration as did the original manuscripts (MSS). Perhaps the most infamous proponent of this view is Peter Ruckman of Pensacola, FL. Ruckman has gone so far as to claim that the KJV is superior to the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts on which it is based. Whenever there is a discrepancy between the ancient MSS and the KJV, the KJV is to be followed because, in his view, it is advanced revelation. Ruckman’s position has been labeled “Ruckmanism,” and his followers have been labeled “Ruckmanites.” Many who have read his books or attended his school (Pensacola Bible Institute[2]) parrot his erroneous views.


Most KJV Only supporters are not as extreme as Ruckman. Some hold that the KJV is the supernaturally preserved Scripture that differs in no way from the originals, but is not advanced revelation. Many believe the KJV is simply the very best English translation ever made; it is superior to all others. Some hold the KJV as best because of the underlying family of original language MSS on which it is based. Still others hold the KJV in high regard simply because of personal preference or tradition. So there is some diversity among those holding a KJV Only position. Their common commitment is to the KJV as the one and only pure and proper translation of the Bible in English, and that all others are inferior and should not be used.

Advocates of the KJV Only position include various Christian colleges[3], publications[4], writers[5], and pastors[6]. Such a position is common within Baptist fundamentalism but is not the only view found within that branch of Christianity. It seems to be a declining viewpoint, especially among younger people.

Why is This a Controversy?

KJV Only advocates sincerely believe that the Bible itself is under attack by modern translators and their translations. They commonly hold that all other translations are corrupt, perhaps the result of Satanic influence, liberal conspiracy, or spiritual compromise. They strongly assert that use of other translations threatens the true faith. Hence, they see this as a major biblical issue and often separate from and oppose those who do not hold the same viewpoint.

Is the issue of Bible translation a significant one? Are the arguments of the KJV Only advocates legitimate and persuasive? Is it an issue that requires separation? Are the KJV Only advocates on the right side of this issue? In order to answer such questions, we must begin by considering a couple important topics: biblical inspiration and preservation.

The Doctrine of Inspiration

As pointed out earlier in our study, only the original MSS of Scripture were inspired in a direct sense—holy men spoke as they were borne along by the Holy Spirit (2 Pet 1:21). Translations partake of inspiration in a derivative or secondary sense, i.e., to the degree that they accurately reflect the originals, they partake of inspiration. KJV Only advocates often fail to account for the distinction between the direct inspiration of the originals and the secondary quality of inspiration inherent within a translation. Believing that the KJV partakes of the same supernatural inerrancy as the originals, they tend to make it the basis of comparison rather than appealing to the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts. But it is inaccurate to think of a translation as inspired in the same sense as the originals were.

The Doctrine of Preservation

All Christians agree that God has preserved His Word. The disagreement is over how and where it is preserved. KJV Only advocates often believe that the how is miraculous and the where is in the Hebrew and Greek texts behind the KJV or in the KJV itself. Non-KJV Only believers hold that the how is providential and the where is amongst the totality of Hebrew and Greek manuscripts and (secondarily) in accurate translations. Because the Bible does not definitively answer the how and where questions, any answers given to these questions must be placed on the level of opinion or faith, not orthodoxy.

Should This be a Controversy?

The Bible version issue is certainly significant, but not one that rises to a primary, cardinal, or fundamental doctrinal level. Unfortunately, this debate often provides “more heat than light” and leads to division and hostility among those holding differing views. Churches must avoid making this “molehill” into a “mountain.” Beware of any person, church, or institution that makes Bible versions a matter of fundamental doctrine.[7]

Virtually every translation of Scripture has had its critics and supporters. Even the KJV did not enjoy immediate acceptance; it suffered broad criticism upon its publication and for years thereafter. It became popular only many years after its initial publication.

In recent history, the Bible version debate began with the publication of the Revised Version (1881). Since that time, KJV supporters have marshaled arguments defending the KJV while attacking the newer versions. Only since the 1970s has the KJV Only position become a matter of great controversy among conservative and fundamental Christians. For many fundamentalist Christians, the KJV remains the default Bible of choice. Yet many self-professed fundamentalists do not hold a KJV Only position. KJV-Onlyism has not been the historical position of fundamentalism and should not be considered a necessary characteristic of the movement today.

Weaknesses of the KJV Only position[8]

  1. KJV Only advocates often assume what they are trying to prove by making the KJV the basis of comparison rather than appealing to the Hebrew and Greek MSS. Assuming that the KJV is the standard (the thing in question), they compare the modern versions to it (rather than to the original language MSS), declaring the modern versions to be in error because they differ from the KJV. We could just as logically claim that some other English version is the standard (e.g., the Geneva Bible) and find the KJV wanting because of how it differs from it.Likewise, KJV Only advocates often make a strong case for the fact that God has preserved his Word, and then assert that the KJV is the only place where this preservation has happened. The logical linkage between biblical preservation and the KJV as the only place where that preservation has occurred is often weak or simply assumed.
  1. KJV Only advocates often charge that the modern translations deny key Christian doctrines. For example, they claim that modern versions deny or compromise the deity of Christ because they may omit words like “Lord” or “Jesus” or “Christ” (or any combination of the three) in certain verses, while the KJV includes these words. However, even a cursory reading of any of the conservative English translations will show that no doctrine of the Bible is denied, weakened, or compromised by those translations. Such a criticism cannot be sustained by the evidence.Further, at times, the KJV itself omits certain words that the newer translations include. Words are never included or omitted for no reason. Words in English reflect words in the original language MSS. All the conservative English translations retain the original doctrinal teaching of the Bible just as well as the KJV does (in some cases, better).

Titus 2:13 (KJV) Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ

Titus 2:13 (NKJV)  looking for the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ

Literally, “of the great God and savior of us, Jesus Christ”

Revelation 1:8 (KJV) I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.

Revelation 1:8  (ASV) I am the Alpha and the Omega, saith the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.

Which version more strongly upholds the deity of Christ in these verses?

  1. KJV Only advocates often claim that some of the translators who worked on the modern versions were theologically liberal, apostate, or immoral. While such criticism may be valid to a certain degree, we must remember that the KJV translators were all Anglicans who believed in infant baptism, among other doctrinal errors. Further, Erasmus, an unconverted Roman Catholic scholar, and Theodore Beza, John Calvin’s successor in Geneva, were largely responsible for compiling the Greek NT that the KJV translators used. The KJV came directly through the hands of a Catholic, a 5-point Calvinist, and a bunch of Anglicans, among other non-fundamentalists! The Hebrew OT was copied and propagated for centuries by unbelieving Jews! King James himself and the Church of England were hostile to Baptists and their doctrine, often persecuting those like us. Guilt by association can cut both ways. If we use only those translations produced by those “like us,” we’d have no Bible to read.We must recognize that skill in dealing with ancient texts is not entirely dependent upon one’s spiritual condition.[9] Also, some of the newer translations (e.g., NKJV, ESV) are the work of confessedly conservative Evangelicals who cannot be charged with liberalism or apostasy.
  1. KJV Only advocates often claim that the KJV is a literal, word-for-word translation, whereas many of the modern versions are not. It is certainly true that many of the modern translations are much more interpretive (i.e., non-literal, giving the sense or meaning) in style. The KJV is an essentially literal translation. But in some cases, the KJV itself does not provide literal, word-for-word renderings of the text.For example, “God forbid” is found 15 times in the KJV NT (cf. Romans 3:4, 6, 31; 6:2,15; 7:7,13, etc). The phrase translates a negative construction of two Greek words that literally means “not to be” which could be translated as “certainly not” or “in no way.” The words “God” and “forbid” are not there at all. While the phrase “God forbid!” accurately conveys the sense of this phrase, it is certainly not a literal rendering of it. Likewise, in 2 Timothy 3:16, the KJV translates “God-breathed” (theopneustos) as “inspired of God.” The NIV is actually more literal in this case than is the KJV. Matthew 27:44 the KJV says, “They cast the same in his teeth.” The Greek means “they reviled him.” There is no word for “teeth” in any Greek MS of this text. The translators used a phrase current in their day to convey the sense of the original; they did not translate it word-for-word.

    In reality, nearly every translation is somewhat interpretive, including the KJV. A purely literal translation would be very difficult to read because of the differences between the original languages and English.

    For those who want an exceedingly literal translation, Young’s Literal Translation (available online) or the ASV of 1901 are about as literal as any available, far more so than the KJV.

  1. KJV Only advocates often claim to follow the “AV 1611,” as if the KJV has remained unchanged since it was first published in 1611. But few if any actually use the 1611 edition of the KJV, which is nearly unreadable to modern eyes. As noted earlier, the KJV has gone through at least four revisions and countless other updates and modifications. Virtually every publisher modifies the text, at least slightly. The 1769 edition (which is most commonly published today) differs in many details from the 1611 edition. The editions currently printed by the major publishers (Cambridge, Oxford, ABS) differ from one another in hundreds of cases. When KJV Only proponents claim supernatural inspiration and preservation for the KJV itself, we should ask, “Which KJV?”[10]
  2. KJV Only advocates often claim that since the KJV is the inspired Word of God, all other translations must be invalid/erroneous. Interestingly, the translators of the KJV themselves would disagree with this sentiment, as the following quotes suggests.[11]

“[We] do not deny, nay, we affirm and avow, that the very meanest [worst] translation of the Bible in English set forth by men of our profession . . . is the word of God: as the King’s speech which he uttered in Parliament, being translated into French, Dutch, Italian, and Latin is still the King’s speech, though it be not interpreted by every translator with the like grace, nor peradventure [perhaps] so fitly for phrase, nor so expressly for sense, every where.”

“The translation of the Seventy [the Septuagint, a translation of the Hebrew OT into Greek] dissenteth from the Original in many places, neither doth it come near it for perspicuity [clarity], gravity, majesty; yet which of the Apostles did condemn it? Condemn it? Nay, they used it . . . which they would not have done . . . if it had been unworthy the appellation [designation] and name of the word of God.”[12]

“Truly, good Christian Reader, we never thought from the beginning that we should need to make a new translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one . . . but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones one principal good one . . . .”

“Therefore as St. Augustine saith, that variety of translations is profitable for the finding out of the sense of the Scriptures.”

  1. KJV Only advocates often criticize other translations for including marginal notes, claiming that such notes only lead to confusion. Yet the 1611 KJV contained 6,637 marginal notes in the OT and 767 in the NT. A cursory glance at a Hebrew Bible will show that Jewish scribes routinely used the margin of their MSS either to note variant readings or to relate opinions about the reading. These marginal notes give translators an opportunity to explain and resolve many of the textual problems readers might discover in the text.[13] 

    Note what the translators of the KJV had to say about marginal notes:

“Some peradventure would have no variety of senses to be set in the margin, lest the authority of the Scriptures for deciding of controversies by that show of uncertainty should somewhat be shaken. But we hold their judgment not to be sound in this point.”

  1. KJV Only advocates often claim the KJV is readable and understandable to modern readers. We admit that modern readers can certainly gain a good understanding of the language of the KJV, but they must make a concerted effort to do so. Because of the archaic words and structure of the KJV language, many readers find it somewhat difficult to comprehend.Example: read the KJV rendering of 2 Cor 6:11-13

    Remember that the original language of the NT was Koine (common, marketplace) Greek, a simpler and less-formal dialect than the older classical forms. It would seem to follow that translations ought to reflect a common form of language, one that average people could understand. The Reformation occurred largely because the Bible was published in the common language (lingua franca) of the people. Translations we use today should employ the common style and vocabulary of average people.

  1. KJV Only advocates often claim that long-standing tradition and culture should encourage us to retain the KJV. It has been the leading Bible among Protestants and evangelicals for nearly 400 years and has been a major influence on the English language. Millions of Christians have used and profited from the KJV. Admittedly, traditional use by the church is a significant factor. And we readily affirm that the KJV exemplifies the beauty and nobility of the English language. However, we should recognize that the same arguments were made for retaining the Latin Vulgate, which held supremacy as the leading Bible of Christendom for about 1000 years. Ultimately, tradition and common usage are not very strong reasons to support the use of a Bible version.[14]
  2. KJV Only advocates often claim that the original language MSS underlying the KJV are superior to the MSS underlying the modern translations. This is the most significant claim the KJV Only position makes. A translation can be no better than the underlying MSS from which it has been translated, so the quality of those MSS is exceedingly important.Evaluating Hebrew and Greek MSS (i.e., textual criticism[15]) is beyond the scope of this lesson and is beyond the ability of almost everyone else. Unless one knows the original languages and has studied widely on this topic, he likely does not have the necessary background to understand the issues involved. It’s wise to hold your opinions tentatively on this topic. Nevertheless, we can make several general observations.
  1. It is without dispute that the MSS underlying the KJV NT are not the oldest MSS available. Most stem from the Middle Ages (ca. 12th century), while the newer versions rely on MS copies from as early as the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th centuries after Christ. MSS available today pre-date the MSS underlying the KJV NT by nearly a thousand years. Common sense would suggest that the older MSS are more likely to retain the original readings.

The debates over whether the older MSS are “better” and/or whether the majority of MSS include “better” readings is a legitimate debate. Most biblical scholars seem to have endorsed the idea that the older MSS are more likely to retain the original readings. But some disagree, claiming that the majority and/or traditional readings are more likely to reflect the originals accurately. The details of this scholarly debate are best left to the experts.

We should recognize that in the hundreds of years since the KJV was first produced, significant discoveries and advances have been made in textual studies. Likewise, hundreds of older original language MSS have been found that were unavailable to the KJV translators. E.g., the Isaiah scroll from the DSS. It would seem unwise to ignore these advances and findings.

  1. It is without dispute that the KJV NT is based on a Greek NT the Roman Catholic scholar Erasmus compiled from only a handful (perhaps only seven in total; some say ten) of original language MSS in 1516. Erasmus had access to three MSS of the Gospels and Acts, four MSS of the epistles, and one MS of Revelation (contained within a Latin commentary). The last six verses of his copy of Revelation were missing (he back-translated from Latin to Greek to supply the text, making several mistakes in doing so). Erasmus’ Greek NT—the first one ever published—went through five editions, each one correcting and revising the work. The KJV translators most likely used Theodore Beza’s 1598 revision of Erasmus’ Greek NT as the primary text for their translation. But the translators considered other sources as well. Close examination has found that the KJV translators followed the Latin Vulgate in at least 90 places instead of following the available Greek readings. Thus, the textual base for the KJV NT is essentially a few Greek MSS from the Middle Ages and the Latin Vulgate. This is not a “bad” textual base, but it is arguably not the “best” that could be provided today.

KJV Only advocates sometimes imply that the Greek NT (the textus receptus, aka “TR”) underlying the KJV NT is virtually identical with the Byzantine/Majority text (which represents about 90% of available Greek MSS). Yet close analysis reveals about 1800 differences between these two texts (about 3.5% of the NT text). The TR and the Majority are very similar but not identical. The KJV NT is not a translation of the Majority/Byzantine text.

  1. It is without dispute that the KJV includes some interesting (to be charitable) readings.[16] Examples
    • Isaiah 13:15: The KJV reads “joined” instead of “captured.” Not one Hebrew manuscript contains the word for “joined” in this verse.
    • Matthew 23:24: The KJV reads “strain at a gnat” instead of “strain out a gnat.” The Greek verb found in every Greek MS means “strain” or “filter out.” Every English translation prior to the King James translated the verb this way. “Strain at” (object to, balk) is significantly different in meaning from “strain out” (filter, remove).
    • John 8:21: The KJV reads “sins” (plural) instead of “sin” (singular). Every Greek manuscript has the singular.
    • Acts 9:6: The KJV reads “And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him, Arise, and go into the city, and it shall be told thee what thou must do.” The words “And he trembling and astonished said, Lord, what wilt thou have me to do? And the Lord said unto him” are not found in any Greek MS in this verse. They are found in the KJV because they were inserted by Erasmus into his Greek NT, which became the basis for the KJV.

Erasmus frankly admitted that he took the words from the parallel passage in Acts 26:14 and inserted them at this point in the Greek text. He did so because they are in the Latin Vulgate at Acts 9:6, and he thought his Greek manuscripts were defective at this point. Erasmus was wrong; these words do not belong in Acts 9:6.[17]

  • Acts 12:4: The KJV reads “Easter” instead of “Passover.” The Greek word for “Passover” is found in every Greek MS containing this verse. The KJV translators translate it “Passover” each of the 28 other times it is used in the NT. The Christian holiday of Easter did not originate until the 8th
  • Acts 19:37: The KJV reads “robbers of churches” instead of “robbers of temples.” The Greek word for “temple robber” is found in every Greek manuscript containing this verse. There were no church buildings in Ephesus to rob.
  • Hebrews 10:23: The KJV reads “profession of our faith” instead of “profession of our” The Greek word for “hope” is found in every Greek manuscript containing this verse. The KJV translators translated it “hope” each of the 52 other times it is used in the NT.
  • Revelation 16:5: The KJV reads “O Lord, which art, and wast, and shalt be…” The words “shalt be,” should actually read “holy one.” All Greek MSS read “holy one.” There is no MS evidence whatsoever for the KJV’s “shalt be.”
  • Revelation 17:8: The KJV reads “that was, and is not, and yet is.” No Greek manuscript reads “and yet is”; all have “and shall come.”
  • Revelation 22:19: The KJV reads “book of life,” whereas all Greek MSS read “tree of life.” This reading is reflected in the Latin Vulgate and was reproduced in the Greek NT underlying the KJV, where it again appears. By the way, the Byzantine/Majority text has “tree of life.”

These are relatively minor details that normally have no bearing and merit little comment. We are unsure why the KJV translators made these decisions; perhaps they had good reason to do so. Admittedly, we are “nit picking” here.[18] None of these readings alters the value or beauty of the KJV. We could find minor defects in virtually every translation of the Bible. But when KJV Only advocates claim absolute perfection, miraculous verbal, plenary preservation, and inerrancy for the translation itself, these details become significant evidence undermining their claims.

W.B. Riley, longtime fundamental Baptist leader, summed it up well when he once said: “To claim, therefore, inerrancy for the King James Version . . . is to claim inerrancy for men who never professed it for themselves; it is to clothe with the claim of verbal inspiration a company of men who would almost quit their graves to repudiate such equality with prophet and apostle.”

We have no complaints against those who use, love, and prefer the KJV. It is a fine translation that God has been pleased to use for over 400 years. It is an exemplar of Elizabethan English. We should hold the KJV in high esteem. We should not over-exaggerate any apparent problems with it. We are not trying to convince anyone to quit using the KJV or doubt the Bible. Our concern is with those who maintain an extreme KJV Only position that insists that one use only the KJV and that criticizes all other versions. We renounce the hostility and division that an extreme KJV Only attitude often generates. We love the KJV, but find the KJV Only position unsustainable, divisive, and illogical.

Note the Quote from John Gill (1697-1771), Baptist pastor in London and predecessor of Charles Spurgeon:

“This [i.e. inspiration] is to be understood of the Scriptures, as in the original languages in which they were written, and not of translations; unless it could be thought, that the translators of the Bible into the [various] languages of the nations into which it has been translated, were under divine inspiration also in translating, and were directed of God in the use of words they have rendered the original by; but this is not reasonable to suppose. … Only the exemplar is authentic; and not translations, and transcriptions, and copies of them, though ever so perfect: and to the Bible, in its original languages, is every translation to be brought, and judged, and to be corrected and amended; …[Translators] have never failed of producing a translation worthy of acceptance; and in which, though they have mistook some words and phrases, and erred in some lesser and lighter matters; yet not so as to affect any momentous article of faith or practice; and therefore such translations as ours may be regarded as the rule of faith. … Bless God, therefore, and be thankful that God has, in his providence, raised up such men to translate the Bible into the mother-tongue of every nation, and particularly ours; and that he still continues to raise up such who are able to defend the translations made, against erroneous persons, and enemies of the truth; and to correct and amend it in lesser matters, in which it may have failed, and clear and illustrate it by their learned notes upon it.”


 

  • [1] Some of this material taken from Scott Estell’s notes on Bibliology.
  • [2] Not to be confused with Pensacola Christian College, which supports a less extreme attachment to the KJV.
  • [3] E.g., West Coast Baptist College, Ambassador Baptist College, Crown College, Hyles-Anderson College, Pensacola Bible Institute
  • [4] E.g., Sword of the Lord, Revival Fires, Chick Tracts, AV Publications, Bearing Precious Seed, Trinitarian Bible Society
  • [5] E.g., David Otis Fuller, David Cloud, D.A Waite, Gail Riplinger, Edward Hills, David Sorenson
  • [6] E.g., the late Jack Hyles, Paul Chappell, Clarence Sexton, Phil Stringer, Mickey Carter, David Brown
  • [7] The fundamentals of the faith being doctrines like the deity and resurrection of Christ, the Trinity, the inspiration of Scripture, and salvation by grace through faith. If use of the KJV is lumped in among such doctrines or put on the same doctrinal level, something is amiss. E.g., King James Bible Baptist Church in Moncks Corner, SC, where the first sentence of their doctrinal statement affirms their belief that the KJV itself is “God’s preserved, inerrant word.” Further down in the statement is their beliefs about the Trinity, the virgin birth, and salvation by faith in Christ.
  • [8] We are describing the KJV Only position in general, not claiming that every KJV Only advocate makes all of these claims or fails to understand all the issues. These weaknesses, we believe, are true of the group as a whole, generally speaking, but not necessarily true of everyone holding a KJV Only position.
  • [9] We certainly affirm that understanding and applying the Bible is a spiritual matter (cf. 1 Cor 2:14), but not translation from one language into another.
  • [10]  KJV-Only adherents strongly assert that the changes to the KJV over the years were merely the correction of typographical errors. They claim that such changes do not amount to a “revision,” but merely correct a few minor printers’ errors. In their view, the KJV has been “purified” but not revised. Of course, if a single genuine revision ever occurred in the KJV, the modern doctrine of “verbal plenary preservation”—i.e., perfect preservation of the KJV—is discredited (quoting Doug Kutilek).  In our view, it is indisputable that the KJV has been revised in substantial ways (i.e., through re-translations and deliberate alterations). Things that are different are not the same.
  • [11] Quotes taken from “The Translators to the Reader” in the introduction to the 1611 KJV.
  • [12]When in the NT Christ and the apostles quote from the OT, they usually quote from the Septuagint (80% of the time, according to Ewert, p. 77), a translation (and an imperfect one at that)! If Christ and the apostles had confidence in their translation, so should we.
  • [13] Ronald J. Gordon, Comparing Translations. www.cob-net.org/compare.htm.
  • [14] It is somewhat ironic that KJV Only supporters are often quite non-traditional or even anti-traditional in other ways, but use tradition to support their position on Bible translations.
  • [15] Textual criticism is not criticizing the biblical text, but rather evaluating the available biblical MSS in an effort to obtain what is most likely to be the original reading. Every translation is the result of textual criticism, even the KJV.
  • [16] In most of the following passage, the NKJV either translates the passage correctly or includes a footnote giving another option.
  • [17] William Combs, DBSJ 4 (Fall 1999) p. 152
  • [18] Statistically speaking, the Greek underlying the KJV (i.e., the TR) nearly always agrees with the oldest textual evidence. Only about 2% of the entire NT is disputed as regards the original wording. Only about 40 NT passages contain truly significant variants (differences among the Greek MSS). As a whole, the variations in the Greek MSS of the NT are fairly minor do not alter the overall meaning of it; omitting or including the variants has little impact on doctrine or practice. The TR, the Majority/Byzantine, and the critical/eclectic texts are all doctrinally orthodox.

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