James R. White | The King James Only Controversy

by Glenn on January 21, 2020

In 2011, the New International Version was updated. I should get over this, soon (I hope), but there was something that felt underhanded about that update. It wasn’t the fact that there were changes, although I am change-averse. It was that the changes were not clearly announced. Creating a new version of the New International Version and not identifying it as such felt like it was, perhaps, an attempt to make changes and hope no one noticed or at least not make a big deal about it. There was a transition period that I was aware of where both translations were readily available. The website Biblegateway.com had, for a period of time, both versions. But as some point the publisher stopped printing the 1984 version, printing the 2011 version exclusively and, today, a site, like Biblegateway.com now only has the 2011 version without any indication of the fact that there were, at one point, two different translations that were both called the New International Version. (You can still find the 1984 version online here.)

Obviously, many things are updated in the world and I accept it, for the most part, without grumbling. New versions of software, models of cars, textbooks, etc. appear regularly. The thing is, most of those things appear to be clearly marked if not actually self-evident. For example, you can see that the Subaru Forester looks different than it used to and so you ask, “What year is this?”, understanding that things change from year to year. Continuous improvement is the way of the world. [1] I am beginning a course of study at a seminary and so I now have the ninth edition of Turabian’s Manual for Writers on my shelf. I am pretty sure the last time I was in college I was working with the fourth version. It’s clearly marked on the cover that it’s the Ninth Edition.

Part of my issue with the new NIV was what I perceived as a lack of forthright communication, noting that I am not certain exactly how they were supposed to notify consumers of the change. Calling it the NIV 2011 on the cover would have been great in, you know, 2011. But what happens as time moves on and now the name makes it appear dated? The publishers could have included a card with the Bible:

“Thank you for choosing the New International Version for your Bible. For nearly 40 years, this has been the preferred translation for pastors, churches, and Christians around the English-speaking world. The New International Version was revised extensively in 2011 and the copy you are holding reflects our increased scholarship and understanding of the best way to bring the background languages into the English language. One change you will see is more inclusive language.”

I don’t know. That’s a first draft. But something like that would have been an acknowledgement that changes had been made.

I don’t criticize the update itself to reflect less man-centric language when the words in the original languages clearly include both men and women. But the change meant I had a problem. The Bible that I had been using in my study—the one with things marked up and notes included in the margins—was no longer the Bible that was being used in church services. Part of my problem with the change was that I was just plain irritated that I had memorized certain passages in the NIV (1984) which don’t read the same in what was identified on the cover as the same translation but was an extensive revision with a copyright date of 2011 on the inside.

What began as an irritant has turned into a quest. Now that I am a pastor, I have some freedom to choose a translation for public use. I recently asked members of the congregation to complete a survey that included questions about what translation they used personally and if they had a preference for one to be used in services. The NIV is by far what most of them own and read. On the survey I tried to ask for a distinction between the 1984 and 2011 versions. For those who put a year, most of them indicated 1984, which suggests that the purchase of a new Bible is not something that happens regularly, or at least with the members of my rural congregation has not happened in the last eight years. People seem to buy a Bible and then hang on to it. On the survey, most people chose not to make a recommendation in answer to the question of whether there was a particular version that should be used as the version for us to use as a congregation. According to the survey results, I could probably continue using my 1984 version, but I am trying to think all this through.

What translation should I read, study, and memorize? As a pastor, what translation should be read out loud in public worship services? (And is “should” even a part of this?) The NIV (1984) seemed like the obvious alternative thirty years ago in my part of Christendom. As I begin seminary classes, I see that the New Revised Standard Version is referred to quite a bit, though I’m uncertain if it’s the “official” recommendation of the seminary. Is there an obvious Bible translation today? There are many choices. Perhaps there are too many choices.

On the one hand, this is very American, isn’t it? We love our choices. And we think that more choices are good for the consumer. In this case, I’m not so sure. Well, I’m not so sure anyway. According to Malcolm Gladwell—was it in Blink or Outliers?—more choices can actually lower consumer demand. I seem to remember a study having to do with strawberry jam. I think there was also some discussion of this in Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis. At any rate, let’s say you want to go and read a Bible in English, because your understanding of ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek is, you know, non-existent. What do you do? Well, you walk into the book store and find, for starters:

The King James Version (KJV)
The New King James Version (NKJV)
The English Standard Version (ESV)
The New International Version (NIV-2011)
The Holman Christian Standard Bible (CSB)
The New English Translation (NET)
The New Living Translation (NLT)
The New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
The New English Bible (NEB)

All of this just for starters. And then there are Catholic Bibles and various paraphrases like The Message. Which one do you read? Well, in one sense you should read them all to understand better what the Bible is talking about. My own bias is that there is no perfect translation because the process of translation is a difficult one. But which one do you use to make notes and memorize things? That’s not at all clear to me. So I have begun reading about Bible translations.

I recently finished reading The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust Modern Translations? by James R. White (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House, 1995, 2009). I read one book previously on this subject. That approach was sort of a back door, try to persuade the persuadable effort. Maybe there is someone “out there” who is open to the idea that while the King James Version is a beloved and was once a ubiquitous translation, it may not, in fact, be the best or at least certainly not the easiest translation to read today. So that if you want to understand what God is saying through his word, modern translations are helpful.

Translations are translations. One of the things that appears to have happened for some is that the King James Version is not thought of as a translation. For them, it is the actual word of God in English. Not that God spoke and people wrote things down in ancient languages and, good news, we can read them today because smart and respectful people know how to bring those words into the English language. But that this one English language version in particular was not simply an effort to translate the Bible into English, but was a perfect accomplishment. The King James Version is the Word of God. It cannot be improved. It’s as though God wrote the King James Version of the Bible. All at once I admire the high view of scripture but wonder about the ideology that doesn’t seem to allow any thinking around the issue.

It seems to me from my informal survey of YouTube discussions that many scholars can discuss rationally the various translations of the Bible. You will get a mix of history and explanations and opinions about and preferences for certain translations. In general, they will tell you how we got the Bible and why they read the translation they do and what you should think about when choosing a translation. Then you get to decide for yourself. They will express their caution when it comes to certain translations, but they don’t actually elevate any particular one far above others or impugn the motives of people who created other translations. And they don’t tell you that you need to read a certain translation. Most of these people recommend multiple translations. At any rate, those discussions are very satisfying. They feel like attempts to get to the bottom of something. To get to the truth.

Hearing someone with the King James Only perspective feels very different. Rather than inform, they ask: Do you believe the King James Version is the word of God and that other versions are corruptions? It’s a litmus test. You are dealing with a religion or ideology that must be spread and defended and not trying to get to the bottom of anything. You simply establish who is in and who is out; who is for us and who is against us. “You’re with us or you’re with the terrorists,” to borrow a statement from a completely different context, but which sort of captures the mentality. “Really. Are those the only two options people have?”

In fairness, there are people who elevate the KJV because of the history of the manuscripts that were used to create it. I can understand and respect that. The problem is that there are at least two translations which use the same manuscripts that were used to create the KJV—the New King James Version and the Modern English Version—but these versions to one degree or another are treated like other translations which are lesser than the KJV.

The problem with the KJV for me begins with the fact that there are words you don’t know the meaning of. And it’s not so simple as looking them up because when you do, you need a dictionary that has definitions of words as they were understood in 1611 as the meaning of words has changed over time. A further problem is that because the meaning of words has changed over time, there are words that you think you know the meaning of, but you don’t. And you don’t know that you don’t know. And so it’s possible to read a passage of scripture, think you know what it means, and you don’t. Even if you wanted to check that you understood the meaning of a word, you would still need a dictionary with historical or at least a history of meanings so you could make sense of them.

James White’s book goes farther and into greater depth on this issue than the previous book I read. There is nothing subtle about his approach. He is not trying to be, say, diplomatic about what he is saying. Part of that comes from the fact that some of the proponents of the King James Only viewpoint don’t seem to be all that diplomatic. So his book is a frontal assault on the idea that the King James Version is the word of God and that other English translations fail or, worse, are perversions. I feel as though the subtitle is not quite accurate, though. “Can you trust modern translations?” should be something more like “Modern translations get right what the King James gets wrong” or “The problems with a beloved translation.”

Some thoughts about the issue and this book:

1. Who knew this was a thing? I started to watch YouTube and read books because in an attempt to address this personal point of confusion about what translation to read I came across a number of people who put forth this point of view that you should only read the KJV.

In my youth in The Salvation Army, the King James Version of the Bible was replaced by the New International Version (NIV 84). I didn’t realize that that was something of a progressive decision. An organization as idiosyncratic as The Salvation Army (wearing uniforms to church and using an English-style brass band to accompany congregational singing) and with an English heritage was rather brave to say, “Let’s use a modern translation of the Bible.” (I have since discovered that The Salvation Army supported the creation of another English translation, the Revised English Bible.)

I am an experienced church-goer and had never even heard of the King James Only Controversy. But it’s real. And, apparently this has been a thing for a while. I’ve read two books, now, and have another on deck. There are churches whose doctrinal statement includes the idea that The King James Version of the Bible is the word of God—which is to say that not only is the Bible inspired, but that particular translation of the Bible is inspired. Further, that idea of inspiration is inclusive to the KJV only. That’s stunning, if only from the standpoint of my own lack of awareness.

2. I suppose the broader point is that I really don’t know anything. I know what I know. And while some of us may know more than others of us, always we need to bring humility to the learning process and be on the lookout for What don’t I know? In the world of religion, this means there are things that are big things for groups of people and there are big groups of people who gather around certain things, and it’s not just possible, it’s a certainty, that I am simply not aware of them. King James Only is just one of those things.

And there’s more to it. Something I read or heard about recently says that we tend to think of our group, whatever that is, as full of distinctions. You can think about your congregation and easily identify unique qualities that people have which mean your group is not totally homogeneous—”We are very different people.” But then you think about other groups—the Catholic church down the road, the Latter-Day Saints, the Seventh-Day Adventists and sort of think of them as the same. The truth is, those groups, united around a certain set of ideas, are full of very different sorts of people who, I imagine, believe very different things about their beliefs.

And so I continue to discover from time to time, that I am far more insular than I think. There is a Christianity I know. I’m aware of some diversity in it. It is divided (roughly) in three—Catholic, Protestant, and Orthodox. There is high church and low church, one where the pastor wears a robe and one where the pastor wears jeans. (Admitting the possibility that a pastor could wear jeans under his robe.) There are congregations with choirs and congregations with rock bands (and, of course, The Salvation Army with its brass bands). There are mega-churches, with thousands gathering on weekends, and small churches, where one family not showing up on Sunday morning means a significant percentage of the congregation is missing. In some parts of the Church, women are allowed to preach and/or participate in leadership; in others they are not. Some congregations are fully in control of their destiny. They are self-contained entities who choose their own pastor and own their property. Other congregations are part of an association where a governing body owns and is in control of everything, including who will pastor a particular congregation. (With variations, of course, and everything in between.) For some congregations, the pastor is hired to do a job, but is accountable to some sort of board. In others, the pastor is something like the owner of a small business and can say, “It’s my way or the highway” (perhaps, though, practiced and expressed necessarily with a little more nuance and deference to members and attenders, although one can never underestimate the power of charisma to allow people to be controlling and manipulating of large groups of people).

So I’ve felt like I had a reasonable understanding of the Church. And then you run into this idea of King James Only, find out how many proponents there are, and see that there are actual conferences about it,[2] and you wonder what else is out there that I am missing?

A danger, though, is thinking that everyone who holds the King James Only view holds it to the same degree or for the same reasons. For example, there may be people who are defending an ideology. But it’s possible that there are people who have come to their beliefs honestly. So while you address the idea, you need to treat the people who hold the idea differently. White is correct to take on this issue. Groups of people can become possessed of an ideology. But I think White does a good job of not treating everyone the same who holds that point of view. He does refer to and quote extensively a group of people who are proponents of the King James Only viewpoint.[3] It’s a combative group and it sounds like White has taken his fair share of heat from different members of that group. But I get the sense that he thinks of those people as unique. That’s encouraging in the Christian community. He divides them into five groups of people: There are those who: one, “like the KJV best;” two, make a textual argument for the KJV; three, subscribe to the idea of the “received text only;” four, say the KJV is inspired; and five, suggest that the KJV is a new revelation of God’s word. For the latter group, it’s as though they worship the King James Version as “the central aspect of their religious faith.” It’s certainly not a monolithic group. White says that we should not be critical of those who “find its poetic form, its rhythmic beauty, to be preferable to ‘modern language.’” His agenda is with those who don’t speak in terms of preference, but with doctrine.

3. A third lesson from this study is that you can drill down pretty deep in things. I mean really. This is an impressive book that way. It’s well-researched and documented. It has a feel of being definitive. Something I take from this book is the level of detail he’s gone into. As a generalist, I am dependent on people like White, who have drilled down deep into the topic. I have the same thought about biographers, who know their subject so well so that I can have a joyful experience reading what they’ve learned, knowing that there is no subject that I know as well as the author knows this one.

Further, I am really impressed by his efforts to take on this issue and give all sorts of evidence in great detail about why he holds his point of view. If he is correct, the other side doesn’t actually do a good job making its argument. It begins with premises that shape their arguments, which ends up making them circular.

4. Is there another side to this argument? Should I read a book from someone with a King James Version Only point-of-view. I hesitate because it appears when you do, you are dealing with ideology and not ideas. The books I have read thus far, while they are on one side of he issue don’t actually seem overly critical of the King James Version itself. They point out some problems with it, but their main issue seems with those who advocate for it in unreasonable sorts of ways. They recognize there is a problem with the KJV in terms of reading comprehension, for example, but their real issue is with people whose advocacy of the KJV becomes a doctrinal issue. I found White’s arguments utterly fair and compelling. Was I bamboozled by White? How do you know when it’s time to seek out another perspective?

The question I think after reading a book like this—well, any book, actually—is what am I to take from this? What am I supposed to remember? What is worth remembering? I am so impressed by how deep into the weeds he has gone on this and the question is to what extent should I be able to walk into the weeds on this or any other issue. I don’t have a an eidetic memory, so 100% resolution of the text is not really possible for me. So then the next question is how much resolution do I need? I suppose a thumbnail image is fine, knowing that the book is on the shelf and can be consulted when higher resolution is required.



[1] Or at least the stated goal. Sometimes it’s a question of whether things are actually improved by changing them. At some point there are diminishing returns. For example, does the beep in the car that tells you that you are drifting out of your lane make you a safer driver? It keeps you safe in that moment where you are drifting, but does it make you a lazier driver?

[2] For example,

[3] Peter Ruckman, Barry Burton, Gail Riplinger, and William Grady.