Why I Preach from the King James Version of the Holy Bible
By Christian McShaffrey
The King James Version of the Holy Bible [KJV] has been part of my life since the day I was converted. However, my reasons for continuing to use it today are not at all nostalgic. The purpose of this article is to explain why I continue to use the KJV in my public ministry of preaching.
I am not KJV-only
I state this right up front because those who oppose the continued use of the KJV have a convenient straw-man that they like to beat incessantly: “O, so you are one of those theological hicks that actually believes God performed a second work of inspiration in AD 1611 in order to correct the Hebrew and Greek text which the Apostles originally wrote.” No, I believe no such thing.
God’s only work of immediate inspiration involved the Hebrew and Greek scriptures (i.e., with some Aramaic in Daniel, Ezra, etc.). Furthermore, let me also here admit that I also make occasional use of the New King James Version [NKJV] in my ministry. I am NOT a KJV-onlylist.
That point having been established, let me proceed to explain how I came to trust and love the KJV.
A Crisis of Faith
During my first year in seminary, I took a class titled “The New Testament Text” and did well enough in that class. I think I earned an “B”, but it was the most troubling topic I have ever studied. My theological naiveté as a would-be preacher of the Word was shattered into pieces as I discovered that there were tens of thousands of “textual variants” (i.e., disputed readings) in the Greek New Testament.
Our professor did offer the standard assurance, “Most of the variants are minor grammatical issues and affect no fundamental doctrines…” but I was still confounded by the potential implications of this new discovery.
Some of my favorite scripture passages were now in question as to their authenticity. Examples:
– Did Jesus really forgive a woman caught in adultery (John 7:53-8:11)?
– Is the Lord’s Prayer really supposed to end with a doxology or is the last reference to the Evil One (Matthew 6:13b)?
– Do we really have a perfect proof-text for our doctrine of the Holy Trinity in 1 John 5:7 or not?
– Who exactly was manifested in the flesh? Was it indeed “God” or some unidentified “who”? (1 Timothy 3:16)
– Does the supposed earliest Gospel actually end without any reference to the resurrection of Christ? (Mark 16:9-20)
These questions began to plague my soul and I therefore sank myself into the study of textual criticism. Thankfully, the library at my seminary was well-stocked with books representing both sides of the issue.
After a few months, my crisis of faith was settled as I discovered that my Puritan forefathers knew about all these textual variants, had already weighed the evidence, and had come to this conclusion:
“The Old Testament in Hebrew (which was the native language of the people of God of old), and the New Testament in Greek (which, at the time of the writing of it, was most generally known to the nations), being immediately inspired by God, and, by his singular care and providence, kept pure in all ages, are therefore authentical; so as, in all controversies of religion, the church is finally to appeal unto them.” [Westminster Confession of Faith, 1.8]
The key doctrine being affirmed in that paragraph was this: Not only did God inspire Holy Scripture, but he also kept it pure in all ages through his special care and providence. As a brief aside, would we really expect anything less?
Having embraced this conclusion as a matter of personal conviction, I was then left with only two options for a modern English translation because only the KJV and the NKJV translate the full text of the Greek New Testament.
Learning to Translate
As I continued to study the Greek language, the time came to begin translating passages and the assigned rule was this: Balance accuracy with readability. This was a good policy because translating verses too literally can be cumbersome to the reader and unnecessarily hinder comprehension.
Another rule that was established was this: No thee’s or thou’s. I will come back to those antiquated pronouns below, but it was that rule that led me to check my translation work against the NKJV.
As I grew in my ability to translate with accuracy and intelligibly, I also came to appreciate the NKJV very much.
I continued to use the KJV in chapel speeches and other occasions for public reading, but began receiving harsh criticisms from faculty members and peers that pushed me into using the NKJV. I regret my cowardice and capitulation.
Again, the NKJV was not a poor translation. I had seen that for myself. Nevertheless, it was not as accurate as the KJV. Let me try to justify that claim:
The KJV is the Most Accurate English Translation of the Bible
The members of my local church know that I always strive for accuracy and precision in my teaching. This is the main reason I preach from the KJV. It truly is the most accurate and precise translation available. I realize that is a bold claim, but it can be substantiated through the following sub-points:
There are, essentially, three approaches to translating Holy Scripture:
1. Formal Equivalence – This is when the translator endeavors to translate the original text on an essentially word-for-word basis.
2. Dynamic Equivalence – Rather than slavishly focusing upon individual words, the translator “takes a step back” and renders things on a phrase-by-phrase or a thought-for-thought basis.
3. Paraphrase – This is when the translator simply seeks to tell you the general idea that the original author was trying to communicate (i.e., without regard to his actual words).
The KJV translators operated under option 1 (i.e., Formal Equivalence) and, as such, they took as few steps away from the inspired words of scripture as necessary. That this was their translational philosophy can be easily observed in my next sub-points:
The Hebrew and Greek languages are not like modern English in that they are much freer when it comes to ordering words in a sentence for the sake of special emphasis.
Sometimes word order is significant, at other times it is not, but a translational board should not make that decision for the reader, student, or preacher. It should simply translate the text as God inspired it.
Here is an innocuous example: “Then came to him the disciples of John, saying…” (Matthew 9:14). That translation follows the exact word order in the original Greek.
We simply do not speak that way any more and that is why modern translations “fix” the archaic sound of it by re-arranging the words so that it reads as we might speak today: “Then the disciples of John came to him…”
Again, it is an innocuous example. No major doctrine seems to hang upon the word order in that particular verse. Nevertheless, the question still stands: Why rearrange words which God himself inspired? What if God was intentionally emphasizing the action rather than the subject?
I do believe there are several passages in which the inspired word order is significant, but I do not wish unnecessarily to offend my readers by impugning the motives of modern translators by mentioning specific examples.
While changing word order is not always necessary, sometimes adding words in the receptor language is absolutely necessary for the sake of readability.
Whenever the KJV adds words to a verse for clarity, it italicizes them so the reader can distinguish between that which is inspired and that which has been added by the editors.
Again, I will offer another innocuous example in an effort to keep this article as irenic as possible: There is no main verb in Psalm 23:1. The Hebrew literally reads, “The LORD my shepherd not shall I want.”
It is certainly reasonable to add the word “is” so that it reads as a complete English sentence and that is exactly what the KJV does: “The Lord is my shepherd…” but do notice how it indicates that addition by rendering the word “is” in italics.
Again, no major doctrine seems to be at stake there, but as a Bible reader, I want to know which words are inspired by God and which words have been added by un-inspired editors. That seems like a reasonable desire.
Thee and Thou
Those two words – thee and thou – attract much attention from the modern critics of the KJV. It is alleged that such “archaisms” as these make the KJV “inaccessible” to modern man.
I might agree that these words are archaic, but there is a common error that deserves to be corrected: The KJV translators did not use these words because that was simply how people spoke in their day. They used these words in order to keep their translation as accurate to the Hebrew and Greek text as possible.
The original languages of inspiration distinguish singular personal pronouns from plural personal pronouns and there is no way to do that in English without using the dreaded archaisms: Thee, thou, ye, and you.
A classic example of the usefulness of distinguishing singular from plural personal pronouns is Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus.
In John 3:3, Jesus says, “I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” The “thee” in that verse indicates that Jesus is speaking directly to Nicodemus as an individual.
Later in that same passage (vs. 7) however, Jesus broadens his appeal to all the Pharisees (or perhaps even to the entire nation of Israel) by saying, “Ye must be born again.”
This shift from the singular to the plural is hidden to all who read the modern translations in which both the singular and plural personal pronouns are rendered as “you”.
A less known example of this is found in Luke 22:31, “And the Lord said, Simon, Simon, behold, Satan hath desired to have you, that he may sift you as wheat.” That plural “you” indicates that Satan was desiring all the apostles.
Interestingly enough, Jesus then shifts from the plural to the singular, saying to Peter, “But I have prayed for thee, that thy faith fail not: and when thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.” (vs. 32)
Again, such nuances in the inspired text remain hidden from those who have abandoned use of the KJV.
Other Reasons to Retain Use of the KJV in our Churches
Besides the invaluable attribute of careful and observable accuracy, the KJV has other strengths which are worthy of brief mention.
As a minister of the Word, one of my chief aspirations is to strengthen people’s confidence in Holy Scripture. Every time they sit down to read the Bible at home, I want them to think, “This is the very word of God.”
I serve in a denomination in which the people expect their Pastors to interact with the original languages each week as they prepare sermons and studies.
If I were to teach regularly from any modern translation, I would inevitably end up correcting it on occasion; and that, I believe, would undermine people’s confidence in their personal copy of the Holy Scriptures.
Nevertheless, with the KJV in hand, I do not need to offer many corrections because, again, it was translated with such strict carefulness.
There are some archaic words and phrases in the KJV, but that does not trouble me much because even in the most modern translations there are still things “hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16).
It is the preacher’s calling, duty, and privilege to explain the Bible to people and occasional archaisms in the KJV do not make that overly difficult. Sometimes it is as simple as saying, “The word ‘hitherto’ means ‘up to this point in time’.”
On a more sassy day, I might even quip, “Is it not interesting that it now takes us six words to say what used to be said with one word?”
Even unbelievers recognize the inherent literary beauty of the KJV. The American writer H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) was not a Christian, but he was intelligent and honest enough to write this about the KJV:
“It is the most beautiful of all the translations of the Bible; indeed, it is probably the most beautiful piece of writing in all the literature of the world.”
The outspoken atheist and incredibly intelligent evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins (b. 1941) stated:
“A native speaker of English who has never read a word of the King James Bible is verging on the barbarian.”
How could non-Christians say such things? Answer: because the KJV is objectively beautiful.
God has called us to worship him “in the beauty of holiness” (c.f., 1 Chronicles 16:29, Psalm 29:2, etc.) and reading the KJV in worship is one practical way to keep some objective and experiential beauty in our services of public worship.
Poetry, rhythmic prose, and English sentences that contain even a measure of literary cadence are much easier to memorize than colloquial speech. If you are skeptical of this assertion, please try this experiment:
Pick a few verses from the KJV and pick a brief paragraph from your local newspaper. Try to memorize both word-for-word. You will quickly see how memorable the KJV can be.
Most serious students of the Bible will eventually learn to make use of more technical Bible study tools like the “Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible” or a standard Greek Lexicon.
Due to the formal equivalence of the KJV, as well as the italicized words which indicate un-inspired text, there is simply more immediate correlation between the KJV and these more technical tools.
Even those students who never delve into the original languages will find that most of the classic commentaries on scripture were written from and correlated with the KJV.
While fewer preachers are using the KJV today, it was the preferred translation of America’s favorite preachers: Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, John Wesley, Charles Spurgeon, D.L. Moody, Billy Sunday, Billy Graham, etc.
This, I admit, is no strong argument for its continued use, but it should at least curb some of the modern scorn that people express toward the KJV. Who would ever say, “O, I just love reading Spurgeon’s daily devotionals, but I really wish he used a different translation!”
The names listed above also represent many different denominations because the KJV has been the preferred translation in almost every branch of Protestantism. It truly is an ecumenical translation.
In fact, this is how it came to be. At the turn of the sixteenth century, the Puritans and the Anglicans were at each other’s throats and the King’s decision to begin a new work of translation brought them together.
Granted, all the modern translations claim to be ecumenical, but the KJV continues to be used across denominational lines.
We are living in a day when translating the Holy Bible has become big business. I personally do not mind a good measure of free market capitalism in society, but here is something to consider:
In order to make money, publishers need to copyright their new translations and in order to copyright a new book it has to be sufficiently different from previous works of literature. This is where modern translators run into a major problem.
What if the previously copyrighted version was perfectly accurate in most places? How does the new translation committee avoid copyright infringement and ensure the profitability of their new version?
I fear that many changes are completely arbitrary. Imagine a board of translators consulting a Thesaurus so they can find new synonyms for words that have already been copyrighted by a previous translation. I sincerely hope that is not how it actually works.
The KJV is in the public domain (with only few exceptions due to royal prerogatives in the United Kingdom).
In this brief article, I have endeavored to explain why I continue to preach from the King James Version of the Holy Bible. I do not ask that you agree with my conclusion; only that you understand my reasons.