Recently, both myself and some others have ran into various strains of the King James Only movement, so I figure it might be the right time to look into it. It’s important to point out that someone who prefers using the KJV for one reason or another doesn’t necessarily belong to this movement.
The KJV Only movement insists that anyone who speaks English should use the King James Version exclusively. Reasons for that vary in terms of strength (or wrongness, depending on your viewpoint). The relatively weak reasons are things like saying that it is the most accurate English translation we have, due to the fact that it’s the oldest English translation available, which means it’s closest to the original languages in terms of chronology.
The problem with this is that it is simply wrong. The King James Version was produced in 1611, with a few different printings which we’ll get into later. While that is definitely an old English translation, it is far from the first. While obviously including only modern English translations (as opposed to old English and middle English), it only receives fifth place on being the earliest. Tyndale’s Bible was not exactly a complete Bible, with the New Testament being completed in 1526 and roughly half the Old Testament being completed before he died, with most of that material showing up later in the Matthew Bible in 1537. The Great Bible was released in 1539 and, like the later King James, was an authorized version by a king (King Henry, in this case). Then we have the Bishops’ Bible of 1568 (which became the base text for the KJV) and perhaps the most important of the early translations, the Geneva Bible, arriving in full on 1576.
As well as being factually wrong, there is also another important assumption implicit in the assertion that the KJV is the most accurate because it’s the oldest. Supposing it was true, why would it be the most accurate due to its age? This assumes that the translation process is somewhat like the telephone game. As we know from the childhood game, the message which starts at the front of the line will be wildly different than what ends up at the end of the line, and therefore the closer you are to the front, the more accurate your statement is going to be. So in order to have the earlier age claim to mean anything, the translation process would have to be like the telephone game. This is hugely problematic, as that’s exactly what the Atheists will claim as a reason to not trust the Bible. After all, how do we know what we have in the KJV is what was in the original Greek and Hebrew, even if it was the first in English, especially since English was not the first language to translate from the Greek and Hebrew text? Thankfully, that is not how the Biblical copying process is done, and I wrote about that here.
So I consider that to be the weaker side of the KJV Only movement. It’s a lot less harmful, and is likely caused by pure ignorance. Unfortunately, there are more strident forms which can be more harmful. There are certainly those who say things like “if it was good enough for Jesus and the apostles, then it’s good enough for me!” but there doesn’t need to be any time spent on such silliness. However, there are some who attribute inerrancy in the KJV, and find anyone who reads any other version to be in error (if not sin) or worse. For example, I was recently directed to a church a couple friends of mine were considering attending, and this was found in their statement of faith:
We believe that the KJV 1611 Holy Bible was written by men supernaturally inspired and that it has truth without any admixture of error for its matter; and therefore is, and shall remain to the end of the age, the only complete and final revelation of the will of God to man; the true center of Christian union and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and opinions should be tried.
There’s a lot in this statement, and it’s a good example of just how far some of the people in this movement will go. It is also drastically different from what you will find in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, which was a convening of nearly 300 evangelical scholars (people like R.C. Sproul, J.I. Packer, Francis Schaeffer, and Carl F.H. Henry) to hammer out issues surrounding Biblical inerrancy in 1978. You can find the full statement here, but I would like to highlight Article X in particular.
WE AFFIRM that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original.
WE DENY that any essential element of the Christian faith is affected by the absence of the autographs. We further deny that this absence renders the assertion of Biblical inerrancy invalid or irrelevant.
Notice that both quotes use similar language, but whereas one attributes it to the King James, the other attributes it to the originals (the autographic text). The burden of proof falls on the KJVO persons to support the claim that the 1611 KJV was inspired. While the vast majority of orthodox Christians for the last 2000 years have all acknowledged the inspiration and inerrancy of the originals, it is a giant leap to say that a particular “modern” version carries the same weight. Also, if what they claim is true, then why are there so many different “versions” of the King James? I’m not talking about the NKJV here, but rather, why were there Oxford and Cambridge versions of the KJV? And why were those versions ever produced (in 1769 and 1886, respectively) at all, if the 1611 KJV is all we needed? There have also been a number of editions which changes spelling slightly, which isn’t a problem unless you claim inspiration and inerrancy.
To back off the technicality a bit, why did the translators for the KJV do their work in the first place? They wanted to have a version of God’s Word that the people of the late 16th century and early 17th century would be able to understand and read, and which was based on the most accurate manuscripts they had at the time. I do not believe they intended their text to be used the way this movement uses it today. Not only that, we no longer speak 16th/17th century English! Is it readable? Yes, but there are a number of words in there that even nerdy bookworms like me have no clue what they mean. Also, there have been discoveries made of earlier and more accurate manuscripts than those that the KJV translators had available to them at the time. If you had earlier and more accurate manuscripts, would you not want to incorporate them into your translation process?
Now all this does not mean that we should go to the opposite extreme and say that all the KJVs should be thrown out and never used. The Chicago Statement above applies to the 1611 KJV as much as it does to the ESV or NIV. I really don’t have a problem with people who prefer the KJV for one reason or another. The issue at hand is the KJV Only movement, and its dangers. This is only meant to serve as a primer to the controversy, but hopefully it’s helpful.
James White debate video!