Why the KJV Debate Won’t End Soon

I’ve lived long enough to see a variety of phases of the King James Only controversy.  You might think of it like the phases of the moon.  The debate waxes and wanes.  Fifteen or twenty years ago, the debate really grew legs as online forums and blogs took off.  The debate had raged prior to this through books and papers published by respectable institutions of higher learning.  But the rise of the Internet and the popularity of blogs and forums in the early 2000s brought the debate into the living room.  As a result, there began to be some significant movement in one direction or the other.  Believers who had only seen one side of the issue found themselves woefully unprepared for some of the arguments coming from the other side.  There were casualties on both sides of the issue, though the trend certainly favored the anti-King James Only position. 

But the ultimate result of these online interactions was that both sides became more entrenched against each other.  Like most controversies, the debate ebbs and flows.  The rise of Facebook, Twitter, and (even more so) YouTube expanded the debate, challenging a fresh generation to again examine their assumptions and (in more than a few cases) switch their allegiances.  I have not looked to see if there has been any kind of scientific study to see where the majority have landed.  Anecdotally, I would guess that more have left the KJVO position than have come to it.  Advocates for an eclectic text show a great deal of talent for video production, and people prefer a 15-minute video to a longer, in-depth book or blog post.  But once again, as the debate picks up, parties become more entrenched in their position and more unwilling to listen to the other side.

Nobody should think that the migration has been a one-way street.  I have become good friends with a pastor who recently came to embrace the King James Version, who had before used every other version but the KJV.  The rise of the “Standard Sacred Text” position and Jeff Riddle certainly indicates that the anti-KJV faction isn’t running up the score on the KJVOs (note: I’m not saying that Riddle is KJVO – he isn’t).  I have friends in the ministry who embrace the Critical Text (and many versions as a result), who have also admitted to me that there is a significant shift away from the Critical Text towards the TR and the idea of a settled text. 

So, those who think that we are on the cusp of putting the debate to rest forever should probably rein in their horses.  It can be deceptive to spend hours a day on Twitter, where the debate is pretty one-sided.  Many believers stay off Twitter altogether.  I would say that you really don’t get fair representation of both sides of the issue there.  And the proponents of the Critical Text will have a tough time conveying their message to their targeted audience if they are relying on Twitter to do it. 

But my point is not to break down how things are going on the debate front.  I don’t want the Critical Text position to win.  I don’t want to see believers playing hopscotch with the versions or spinning the wheel of manuscripts.  I am committed to the King James, and I believe in perfect – or perhaps better, providential – preservation.  And I believe preservation applies to words, not just the message.  So, if you are wondering where my loyalties lie, well then, there you have it. 

What I want to do with this little essay is to point out that we aren’t likely to end this debate anytime soon – I don’t imagine that it will end in my lifetime or that one side or the other will gain enough of a critical mass to relegate the other side of the debate to Amish-like communities in tiny pockets throughout Christendom.  And, while I wish I could persuade all believers of the importance of a “standard sacred text,” I will also say that some debates are worth having and worth having over many generations.  The Calvinism/Arminianism debate has, for the most part, been good for Christianity.  It has forced us to deal with the nuances of our soteriologies and kept us from a sloppy construction of one of the most important aspects of theology.  It has, in other words, kept Christians honest. 

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Even so, the text issue, with all of its surrounding topics, has forced us to deal with important questions about the Word and words of God.  Christians ought to be taking God’s words seriously.  They ought to care whether or not we have the words of God and whether or not we can be confident in them.  And, while I hope for a day when a Biblical view of preservation will be restored and held consistently, I also recognize that in the providence of God, the debate is helpful.  It prevents us from being sloppy with our doctrine and keeps us honest about our various positions.

Now, I have been pastoring for twenty years and have been in the ministry for more than twenty-five.  I have gotten around to many places and have developed friendships with a variety of pastors.  I know many godly pastors who sincerely believe that textual criticism is a good thing, that it is necessary to identify the words of God.  I don’t question their integrity or their sincerity.  I also disagree with them in the strongest of terms.  They see my position as deadly and dangerous to the cause of Christ.  I return fire.  But this is not the point of my little essay.

By this time, no doubt, you the reader would like me to get to said point.  So, here goes: one of the reasons the debate is not likely to end soon – the main reason as I see it – is because neither side is any good at listening to the other.  And, in hopes that this article will be read by those who oppose my position, I will go ahead and explain the way my side gets ignored.  Who knows?  Maybe that will help the debate along.

What drives our side absolutely crazy in this debate is the fact that those who take a critical text position act as if it is no big deal that we can’t be certain about the authenticity of the words.  Those on the KJVO side of the debate (like myself) believe that we can be certain about the words and see it as dangerous if the words are up for grabs.  We are told that those on the critical text side of the debate also believe in preservation.  But, we can’t help but notice how carefully this belief in preservation is parsed.  The “message” is preserved, we are reminded, and uncertainty about the words doesn’t affect the message.  Leaving out a verse here or there, changing (or discarding) certain words in certain passages has no bearing on the overall message.  Or so we are told. 

But we contend that if any words are up for grabs, then all the words are.  If discovery in the past of long-lost manuscripts requires a re-examination of words that believers accepted and received for centuries, then a future archeological discovery could do the same thing, putting (perhaps) a different set of words under scrutiny.  This is a problem for us. 

You can tell us that it shouldn’t be.  You can argue all day long the merits and virtues of textual criticism.  But what we hear is, “uncertainty about the words of God is good.”  And we refuse to agree with this notion.

That is why, frankly, English Preservation (my term for it) is still pretty popular among many IFB churches.  I would estimate that a significant number of people in my church take that position, despite what I teach.  For them, it is a simple thing.  God’s word is settled (Psalm 119:89), so it must be settled somewhere.  The average Christian can’t wrap their brain around the issues surrounding the family of texts known as the Textus Receptus.  They don’t know Greek, and they don’t really want to learn it.  They see discussion of the Greek text as elitist (right or wrong), and they wish to keep things simple.  Meanwhile, they are very uncomfortable with the Critical text.  They have heard about variants in both.  For them, therefore, it is just easier to believe that the preserved words of God are found in an English translation. 

My point is not to defend English preservationism.  We should not despise believers who want to believe what they can wrap their brains around.  And nuanced discussion of textual variants can quickly become tedious and (as I said earlier) strikes many believers as elitist – a debate amongst the clergy and seminarians, and not a debate for the average Christian.

My point is to say that believers look for a settled word.  They don’t want to read their Bibles and wonder if a word or phrase or verse or passage is really authentic.  The (often) casual dismissal and off-handed way these concerns are treated don’t help and, in fact, tend to drive Christians into a more entrenched position about the King James. 

I recognize that there are many on the other side of this debate from me.  And that means many believers are okay with the fact that we might not know the exact words of Scripture.  I am pointing out that there are a significant number of believers who are not okay with that and won’t be okay with it, no matter how intelligent people sound when defending uncertainty.  In fact, the more intellectual they sound, the more suspicious these believers tend to be. 

Am I trying to help the other side here?  Perhaps.  I would love to get the other side to take our concerns seriously. 

3 thoughts on “Why the KJV Debate Won’t End Soon

  1. mkpgy8

    Like many, including yourself, I believe in Providential Preservation because without God intervening then the English Bible(KJV) would be subject to the statement which I first heard when I moved to this State “it is ok as far as it is interpreted correctly”. When I responded back, “by whom”, the silence became deafening from those who conveyed the statement to me. Coming from a Catholic background, I believe that the KJV is the settled Word of God in English. Amen!🙏

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  2. Juanita Hockingberry

    My “Moment of Truth” in the KJVO debate came innocently enough. I was in a contemporary church, having re commited my life to Christ after a long, hard journey in the wilderness away from Him. I was saved, and He was faithful, but I was all about me and MY way; His way was of no concern to me. In my surrender, I knew I needed to be in church. I was starving for the Meat of His Word. I chose a church close to home. It would do to help draw my estranged, unsaved husband in to hear the Word. One Sunday morning, the Pastor preached from Romans 8:1 and 2. I had my KJV; it,was all I knew. He was reading from another translation–I’m not sure which–but it read so differently from what I was reading!! KJV: Romans 8:1-2 “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.
    For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.” I read and re-read to make sure…
    NIV: 8:1 “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, (vs 2) because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you[a] free from the law of sin and death. ” I’m no scholar; but it’s only common sense to understand that there are two different concepts given here: that it’s more than salvation that precludes one from condemnation—or is it? It doesn’t take a cap and gown to assume that only one position can be right. But which one? The New American Standard’s version (8:1 “Therefore there is now no condemnation at all for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life [a]in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.”)? Maybe the Wickliffe version (8:1
    “Therefore now nothing of condemnation is to them that be in Christ Jesus, which wander not after the flesh. (vs 2) For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath delivered me from the law of sin, and of death [hath delivered me from the law of sin, and death].”)? I was saved reading the KJV, as was the man who led me to Christ; as was the man who led him to Christ. All of the verses I’d memorized–all of the passages that led my wandering heart back to Him were all KJV. I will die declaring God’s saving claim on me–from that Book. Should I not live by it just as well?? As time goes on, I am delighted to see the undercurrent of strength and the longevity of the KJVO crowd. In the minority? Maybe. But maybe not.

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