This year, 2011, the King James Bible turned 400! The King James Bible was originally translated by a group of scholars under the authority of King James in England in the year 1611. That Bible translation has been used for four centuries and has really been blessed by the Lord. In fact, the KJV has been called the “text of the Reformation.” The text used by Martin Luther and John Calvin during the days of the Reformation was what would later become known as the Textus Receptus. That is the text used by scholars during the translation of the King James Version.
Stephen Nicholas has written, “Arguably, the King James Version stands as the grandest of the English Bible translations. It has been dubbed a monument of literary translation, considered a sublime text. To be sure, for contemporary audiences the sublime prose can be confusing at times, more obscuring than helpful. Considering that it is nearly four hundred years old, however, it clearly has staying power. The King James Version also provides a good anchor for the history of the English Bible. It’s the result of nearly four centuries of work that led up to it, and has, for another four centuries, continued to cast its shadow. We can frame our history of the English Bible around it.”1
I can remember my first Bible as a boy. It had a blue cover, on the front were the words, “Holy Bible” and on the spine the words, “King James Version” were clearly visible. I recall as a boy asking my dad to explain why the words “King James Version” was written on the spine of the Bible. It was then that I started processing the facts related to the Bible translations, the original languages, and other important issues related to the English versions of our Bible that I would later investigate further while in seminary.
After returning to my home church to serve as pastor, I began wrestling with the issue of the Bible translation that I use for preaching and teaching the Word of God. I grew up in a context where I studied the King James Version (hereafter KJV), heard it preached in the pulpit (most of the time), and memorized Scripture from the KJV. As a young boy (preteen age), my parents bought me my first study Bible. It was a KJV study Bible with bonded red leather. I still have it in my library in my office today. As a pastor, I have preached from the KJV and haven’t really considered any alterations from that until over the past year when I became convicted about my task as a pastor.
The Bible is very clear that as a pastor, I’m called to rightly handle the Word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15). I’m also given the task of explaining the text of Scripture to the people each week, and that is a very humbling job. My job as a pastor is to quote God each week from His Word, point people to Him, and clearly present the facts of Scripture to them so that they can understand. Like many pastors, I stand each week behind the sacred desk of God with trembling knees at my responsibility. It is a thrilling and wonderful calling – but one that I don’t approach lightly. John Piper writes, “Preaching is God’s appointed means for the conversion of sinners, the awakening of the church, and the preservation of the saints. If preaching fails in its task, the consequences are infinitely terrible.”2 Below I want to share with you why I changed from the KJV to the ESV (English Standard Version) in my personal life and public ministry.
The Reality of Translations
One thing that I’ve had the privilege to learn through my studies in seminary and as a pastor is that translations are actually great for the advancement of truth into the language of different people groups and cultures. For us, the English translations such as the KJV and other modern translations serve us well as we use them to read and proclaim the Word of God.
While certain people believe that the KJV is the only inspired Bible in the English language, we must reject that belief based on several key facts.
1. “If it was good enough for Paul, it’s good enough for me.” Certainly some people have actually made similar statements regarding the KJV, but we must reject the idea that the KJV is the only inspired English Bible. The Bible was not written in old English from the 1600s. It was originally written in Hebrew and Greek. All translations, including the KJV, are modern copies of ancient documents into the language of our present day. The fact is – we just don’t speak with an old English style today. There is nothing wrong with reading or preaching from the KJV if that is a decision based on preference, but it should never be a decision that stems from a belief that all other English translations are perverted.
I recall a gentleman who was a member of the church I pastored several years ago coming to my office and railing on me because I was not 100% committed to the KJV. Keep in mind, I preached from the KJV, but because I would allow other preachers to preach from the NASB (New American Standard Bible) or the NKJV (New King James Version) – he was extremely angry. So, I turned to him and pulled off of my library shelf a copy of an original 1611 KJV (not an original – but a copy of an original as it appeared in the 1611 edition). I opened it to the Gospel of John and turned to chapter 3. I asked the man who was arguing vehemently for the KJV as the only English translation to read John 3:16. He looked down at the page and refused to read it. It took several attempts before I could get him to try, and when he finally attempted it – he stumbled over the text. The point I made to him was that the version of the KJV he uses today is merely an edited modern edition of the KJV. So, if the 1611 version is the only inspired version, he should be using that rather than the one he currently uses.
2. If the KJV is the only inspired version of the English Bible, how did anyone get saved through the preaching of God’s Word in England in 1610? The fact is, faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of Christ (Romans 10:17). If someone was converted by the preaching of a faulty translation, we should doubt their conversion – right?
3. If the KJV is the only inspired version of the English Bible, why is God blessing other nations and people groups with modern translations but holding English speaking people to one version that was translated 400 years ago? That seems strange – right?
4. It is a fact that the KJV used a specific family of manuscripts (Byzantine) that are younger than the manuscripts (Alexandrian) used by other modern translations. Since we don’t have one original copy of any Biblical book, we rely upon the copies of the original letters in their original languages. Some of these manuscript families are older than others – and it makes sense that the older and closer to the original letter the more accurate the translation would become – but that is not the view of the KJV Only advocates.
5. The KJV was a modern translation taken from the printed edition of the Greek New Testament by Desiderius Erasmus. Erasmus’ text was eventually called, the Textus Receptus. In fact, it was Erasmus who found himself fighting against the traditional text of his day when he sought to publish his Greek New Testament.
6. Many people who are KJV Only advocates are guilty of worshiping the KJV rather than the God presented in the KJV. Be cautious of those who are constantly trying to hand you tracts about how the KJV is the only inspired version. Isn’t there a better tract that we should be handing out (hint – a gospel tract)?
On another note, we can certainly agree that some translations are weak translations that should be pointed out as such. In recent years, the TNIV translation received a huge opposition as it sought to take the gender neutral position – thus changing the masculinity of God into a neutral position. Other translations such as the NIV are more of a phrase for phrase translation rather than a more rigid word for word approach. When it comes to strict Bible study and memorization, we should search for a more wooden approach to translation such as the NASB, NKJV, or ESV rather than The Message.
The Responsibility of the Pastor
As a pastor, I have been charged to feed the flock of God through His Word. Nothing is more frightening than the task of standing and speaking as God’s ambassador and approaching the sacred desk of God with a lazy attitude toward His Word. If I am called to rightly handle His Word and to feed His flock, then I must choose a solid translation that will enable me to be confident about my work as a pastor.
Each week, I spend hours studying the specific paragraph of God’s Word that I will be preaching the following Lord’s Day. I understand that God has called me and appointed me to explain the single meaning of the text of Scripture to the people. In other words, I realize that we should never approach the Bible with a buffet style line of meanings depending upon who is interpreting the text. With that being established, I have the responsibility to know it and to present it from the pulpit in a way that causes the people to worship God. This process involves many hours of studying the context of the passage, background of the text, specific words, and then lifting out the main idea and meaning of the text to the people.
In an attempt to become more efficient in the pulpit, I have found it necessary for me to go through a single translation method as opposed to a double translation method while preaching the text of Scripture to the congregation. I have discovered that much of my time while preaching from the KJV has been centered on explaining the English word selection of the KJV in comparison to our modern day vernacular. This process is what I term the – double text translation method. I translate and study from the original languages to the modern English, and then while preaching I have to work backward into the old English and explain what “greedy of filthy lucre” (1 Timothy 3:8) actually means in today’s verbiage. Therefore, my task as a preacher is most efficient when I have only one translation level to work through as opposed to a double level of translation to explain to the people who are listening. Preaching from the ESV frees me up to study the original languages and explain what the context and overall meaning is from the text without going back into the history of old English words used in the KJV.
Goals for the Future
One thing is certain, and that is the need for biblically saturated minds and hearts outside of the church sanctuary. One reason that many young people claim that they don’t read their Bible is due to the fact that they don’t understand it. Take that scenario and it intensifies greatly when old English vocabulary is being used as opposed to modern English. In order to cultivate a community of people who have a love for God’s Word, the choice of Bible translation needs to be one that is trustworthy, word for word translation, and utilizes the language of the people. With that as a goal, it seems that the ESV is a better choice for our ministries than the KJV in 2011. If we were living in England in 1611 or 1657, the KJV would be the best option for us – especially if we don’t read Greek and Hebrew. However, since we live in the United States in the year 2011, the best choice for us simply isn’t the KJV.
I have a love for the KJV and often when I quote the Bible – the KJV is what is spoken. However, over the years to come, I will be memorizing the text of the ESV and I am certain that within the next 5 to 10 years, my quotations will sound more ESVish than KJVish. Again, there is nothing wrong with a person who loves the KJV and decides to use it as their preferred translation. I am simply seeking to share my heart and reasons for changing from the KJV to the ESV. In the end, I have become convinced that the ESV is a better translation. It uses a better selection of manuscripts for the translation and it presents the text into a modern day word for word English edition of the Bible.
Whatever your decision is – make sure it is well thought out. Never make your decision on a Bible translation based on the following:
1. It had a really cool cover.
2. It was on sale.
3. It is the KJV and there is no other inspired English version.
4. My friend has this same translation.
It is extremely important to ask good quality questions when choosing a Bible translation. If you are buying a Bible for your child, grandchild, or a family member, I would encourage you to consult your pastor prior to your purchase (especially if you are buying a study Bible). At the end of the day, the choice of your Bible translation is a very important decision and should not be approached lightly. If your goal for your children is for them to know the Bible and enjoy reading it – you may want to try introducing them to the ESV.
J.C. Ryle said, “Be very sure of this – people never reject the Bible because they cannot understand it. They understand it too well; they understand that it condemns their own behavior; they understand that it witnesses against their own sins, and summons them to judgment. They try to believe it is false and useless, because they don’t like to believe it is true.”3
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1. Nichols, Stephen J. The Bible in English, Tabletalk, October 2008, p. 18-19. Used by Permission of Ligonier Ministries
2. Piper, John. The Supremacy of God in Preaching, Baker, 1990, p. 54-55
3. Ryle, J.C. Thoughts for Young Men
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1. ESV (English Standard Version) Bible
2. ESV Study Bible – http://www.esvstudybible.org/
3. John MacArthur ESV Study Bible – http://www.esvmacarthurstudybible.com/
4. ESV Student Study Bible – http://www.crossway.org/bibles/esv-student-study-bible-hconly/