What, Are You

an ESV Onlyist?

By Christian McShaffrey


“What, are you ESV only?” You have probably never heard anyone pose that question, but I might start asking it because I would really like to see how my brethren answer it.

As a regular user of the Authorized Version and convinced advocate of the Textus Receptus, I have been asked several times whether I was “KJV-only”, but why?  Why do people ask that question? Why does the “___-only” formulation only apply the King James Version?

Having thought long upon these questions, I do believe I have discovered the answer and, to be completely honest, it may be intellectually embarrassing for those who have become accustomed to asking it. I will not be apologizing for that either; because we should expect a certain level of intellectual integrity amongst confessional Presbyterians and Baptists.

Proper Distinctions

Many people use the KJV and they use it for many different reasons. Dr. James White has offered a helpful summary in his 1995 paperback, “The King James Only Controversy: Can You Trust the Modern Versions?”

Dr. White’s categorization of KJV users seems to devolve from the most reasonable position (i.e., in his mind) to the least reasonable.  Please note that while the category titles below are his, the definitions have been abbreviated. See pages 23-29 of his book for fuller definitions.

Group #1: “I Like the KJV Best” – This group of individuals believes the KJV is the best English translation available today.

Group #2: “The Textual Argument” – This group believes the underlying Hebrew and Greek (i.e., Byzantine/Majority/Received) text of the KJV is superior to other texts.

Group #3: “Textus Receptus Only” – This group believes that the underlying Greek text of the KJV has been supernaturally (note: I would use the word “providentially”) preserved over time.

Group #4: The Inspired KJV Group – They believe that the KJV itself, as an English language translation, is inspired and therefore inerrant.

Group #5: “The KJV as New Revelation” – This group basically believes God “re-inspired” the Bible in 1611, rendering it in the English language.

In the interest of full disclosure, my personal position is a combination of numbers 1-3.  I use the KJV because I am convinced that it offers the best English translation of the best Greek text.

As one who has held this position for decades, and especially through my recent work as the administrator of the TR-friendly Church Directory, I have corresponded with hundreds of confessional Presbyterians and Baptists. Not one of them could honestly be placed in category 4 or 5.

Proponents of position 4 and 5 are the true “KJV-only” people and are essentially non-existent in the Reformed camp because they are typically disciples of an Arminian Pastor named Peter S. Ruckman who, besides holding strange views on the text of scripture has also been reported to teach about UFO’s, Extra-terrestrials, and government conspiracies that involve the implantation of transmitters into the brains of American citizens at the behest of the Central Intelligence Agency.

In mentioning some of the late Mr. Ruckman’s quirks, my intent is not so much to criticize him as it is to reveal the rhetorical genius behind the question, “Are you KJV-only?” Through a single inquiry, those who wish to discredit the TR/KJV position are able to associate us with the lunatic fringe of Christendom.

Responsible Rhetoric

Rhetoric is the art of persuasion and, as such, it seeks to employ grammar and logic in public discourse with a view toward changing people’s minds about a particular topic.

Not all rhetorical arguments are respectable and I think the question, “What, are you KJV-only?” serves as a fine example of an intellectually irresponsible inquiry.

Technically speaking, the question is a formal fallacy because it contains, in itself, an unjustified assumption in order to establish guilt.  The classic example of this kind of “loaded” or “complex” question is this: “So, when did you stop beating your wife?”

Do we not owe our brothers a greater measure of intellectual integrity than that? I think we do and that is why I have written this article.

Everyone Has a Favorite

Pastors love Bibles. They love some versions more than others. The one they love the best is probably the one they read on a daily basis and carry into the pulpit. All of this is completely natural.

Furthermore, Reformed Pastors tend not to be careless in their choice of a preferred Bible version. In fact, most of them follow an extremely systematic approach.

First, they wrestle through a theological question: Has God promised to keep his originally inspired words pure in all ages and, if he has, what level of certainty may we have with regard to specific readings?

The next question is more a philosophical and historical one: Through what providential means has God kept his words pure? Through the work of editing done by the ecclesia in the 17th century or through the work done by academia at the end of the 19th century?

How a minister answers these first two questions will lead him toward one of three general text platforms: (1) The Textus Receptus, (2) The Majority Text, or (3) The Eclectic Text.

Once he settles on a text platform, the Pastor then needs to wrestle through questions related to translation philosophy. Again, he has three hypothetical options: (1) Formal Equivalence, (2) Dynamic Equivalence, and (3) Paraphrase. Thankfully, very few Reformed Pastors choose the third option.

There is, as you are hopefully beginning to see, much thought that goes into a Pastor’s choice of a preferred translation. This is both good and proper. In fact, we should expect nothing less from ordained ministers of the word.

Once a minister has completed this intellectually demanding work of discernment, it is downright rude to accuse him of being a thoughtless Ruckmanite by asking, “What, are you KJV-only?”

Turning the Tables

Another rhetorically questionable aspect of the “___-only” question is that it seems to carry with it an accusation of unwarranted exclusivity; as if it is somehow unworthy of a Reformed Pastor to prefer a single translation.

Having worked through the questions listed above (i.e., theological, philosophical, textual-critical, and translation philosophy), why would we not expect an intelligent minister to come to an educated conclusion?

They do… inevitably and always! Again, Pastors love Bibles and they will also love some versions more than others. They might even love one version the best.

Most of my ministerial peers in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church use the English Standard Version in their public preaching and teaching. Some of them have asked me, “Are you KJV-only?”

I have experimented with my retort, “Are you ESV-only?” only a couple times, and realized that it carries very little rhetorical force because there has never been a Ruckmanite movement in the ESV camp. There probably never will be, by the way, since the ESV has been marketed to academic-minded Christians.

Nevertheless, and as I said in my introduction, I may very well begin asking the question more so that my brothers can, perhaps, see how utterly unhelpful it is.

Better Questions to Ask

Rather than immediately dismissing a KJV user with an accusatory question, why not rather seek to understand his position?  Personally speaking, I love talking about the Bible almost as much as I love the Bible itself, so here are a few questions I would be delighted to answer:

–  Which scripture passages convinced you that God has promised to preserve the text of scripture on a “jot and tittle” level?

– Will you admit that there are some readings in the TR that are supported by weak manuscript evidence?

–  Are there any Reformed theologians and dogmaticians that agree with your position?

–  What are some books I could read to learn more about your position?

These kinds of questions would enable us to discuss the matter on a more intellectual level. Feel free to ask me any or all of these questions; I have been waiting for a very long time.

At the same time, I will be honest enough to warn my readers that I have a few questions of my own for ESV-onlyists. You may wish to ponder them prior to our conversation:

– Did God inspire specific words and letters or just general ideas and doctrines?  If the latter, how is that different from the view of Karl Barth?

– Do you only apply the attributes of inspiration, infallibility, and inerrancy to the permanently lost autographa?

– If you believe God is providentially preserving scripture through the agency of textual critics today, when may we expect that work to be completed? Do the critics themselves believe that their work will ever be completed?

– Are you aware of the Coherence-Based Genealogical Method and the changes that will be appearing in the Greek New Testament when it is applied?

–  Have you read what Francis Turretin, John Owen, Richard A. Muller, etc. have written about the authentic text of scripture?

–  Were the Westminster Divines mistaken in their view that they were in possession of the “authentical” text of scripture in A.D. 1646 [WCF I.8]?

–  What did the Divines mean by the phrase concerning God’s “singular care and providence” or “kept pure in all ages” [WCF I.8]?

– Do you know the difference between the autographa and apographa and, if so, are you aware that the WCF I.8 refers to the latter?

– What level of certainty do you have that the Bible you read daily and preach weekly is indeed the inspired and infallible word of God?

An Odd Anectode

I am concerned that many ministers have simply not thought through these questions very carefully.  In fact, as I was sifting through the responses to my invitation to join the TR-friendly Church Directory, one Reformed Pastor actually asked me whether I thought the Textus Receptus was “inspired in some way”.

My response was this: “I suppose that every protestant minister believes his preferred edition of the Greek NT is inspired. If you are asking if I believe in some kind of “second work” of inspiration like the Ruckmanites, I do not.”

Do you see the problem? In a suspected effort to sniff out an anti-intellectual advocate of some second work of inspiration, this minister actually asked whether I viewed the Greek NT as being inspired by God.

We really need to elevate this discussion to a more academic level. That, of course, is the aim of this article. Again, it is also why I might ask you someday, “What, are you ESV-only?”

ESV-Onlyists Categorized

Following the noble example of Dr. White, I would never lay the “___-only” charge without making proper prior distinctions, so here are the categories I will keep in mind as I begin my “ESV-only” inquisition:

Group #1: “I Like the ESV” – This group of individuals believes the ESV is the best English translation available today.

Group #2: “The Textual Argument” – This group believes the underlying Hebrew and Greek (i.e., the Eclectic Text) text of the ESV is superior to the Byzantine/Majority/Received text.

Group #3: “Critical Text Only” – This group has tentative certainty that the Hebrew and Greek text from which the ESV was translated is in the process of being providentially preserved.

Group #4: The Formal Equivalence Convert – After using the near-paraphrase NIV, individuals in this group have realized that it is better to translate scripture on more thought-for-thought basis.

Group #5: The Good Customer – Individuals in this group simply responded as good American consumers to the greatest Bible marketing campaign ever seen in the evangelical world: ESV.ORG

Notice once again that there is no equivalent of a Ruckmanite movement included in the above options. Again, the well-educated demographic of ESV users seems to preclude the very possibility.

At the same time, and especially in regard to 1 and 5, let me suggest that some ESV readers might be as intellectually lazy as the Ruckmanites.

Do You Know the Issues?

This short article has hopefully demonstrated some of the complex considerations that are involved in choosing a Bible version. If, therefore, you do fit into category 1 or 5 above, then it would seem you have some serious homework to do.

For ordinary people, ignorance of issues involving textual criticism and translation philosophy may be somewhat excusable, but not for church leaders. If you are a Pastor and use the ESV simply because it is in the pews or because John Piper loves it, then I would challenge you to find some better reasons.

Furthermore, as you perhaps revisit some of the things you learned in your “New Testament Text” class back in seminary, I need to alert you to the fact that what many of us were taught back at the turn of the century is now outdated.

A new age of textual criticism has dawned and it is no longer based upon the old text families or the classic canons of Westcott and Hort. If you have not begun to read articles and books about the Coherence-Based Genealogical Method or the forthcoming Editio Critica Maior, then you are behind the curve.

Pastors love Bibles. They love some versions more than others. The one they love the most is probably the one they read on a daily basis and carry into the pulpit. So far, so good, but here is the question that has been nagging my soul for many years now: Do they have good reasons?

If so, then well done thou good and faithful servant of the word. If not, you can expect to be asked, “What, are you ESV-only?” the next time we chat.