Suzanne McCarthy, on the Better Bibles Blog has blogged somewhat about nostalgia for the KJV language and for the standard English Bible that was accepted by everyone in a post titled The 1611 King James Text. I like Suzanne’s work, and this is not intended as a critique of her comments, but she collects the various links quite nicely and I’m saving time (and being lazy) by linking to her and you can follow the rest from there. Besides, Better Bibles is a good blog for you to look at anyhow, and I have a list of posts there that I intended to comment on, but haven’t had time. (Hmmm! Having read this again, I want to repeat that nothing here is aimed at Suzanne’s post; I thank her for the convenient references and for her useful comments.)
I want to examine briefly the key element that most of the nostalgia posts about the KJV have in common, which is the element of moral authority. In the past, the argument goes, there was the KJV which all regarded as a standard, and which was used to settle all arguments. This admirable (to some) state of affairs has now been shattered by the existence of multiple translations so that nobody is sure anymore what the Bible really says.
This reminds me of a young man who came by our booth at a show where I was displaying my book, What’s in a Version?. His major question, repeated often through about a half an hour of discussion (it was a slow show) was this: “What is your absolute standard? Where do you have a book that you can hold in your hand and say, ‘This is the Word of God’?” What he wanted was something in English, accessible to him, that gave the absolute answers.
The answer to his question is that no such book exists, no such standard exists, and none has ever existed.
Previous generations may have been sure that they held the absolute one and only Word of God in their hands when they held their KJVs, and modern KJV only advocates may try to stand in their footprints, but they are both surely wrong! The fact is that even if we had only the KJV to guide us, there would remain substantial differences of interpretation. We might be pointing back at the same book, but we would not be getting the same standard things from it. But that’s not really the issue or the state of affairs.
- When the autographs were penned, there was no Bible, there was just a collection of scrolls. There was no single book that one could hold and say, “This is the Word of God!”
- When the New Testament canon was finally collected, the autographs were probably no longer in existence, and certainly not collected into a book. Differences between manuscripts, sometimes substantial, already existed. There was no single book that one could hold and say, “This is the Word of God!”
- When the New Testament and the Hebrew scriptures (as the Old Testament) were first collected together into books, the version of the Old Testament used was a translation, and one of quite variable quality. There was no single book that one could hold and say, “This is the Word of God!”
- When the KJV was translated, based on several earlier English versions, there were both numerous translation options in English, and numerous variations in the available manuscripts. There was no single book that one could hold and say, “This is the Word of God!”
This search for the supposed “standard” in the form of a book is simply a search for security where none is available. There is no great benefit in being sure but wrong, as our ancestors were in regarding the KJV as the one authority. The weakness of that position is demonstrated by the collapse of that position when contrary evidence was discovered. Now there are many who thought that such assurance was available in Christianity give up because they find that it is not available. It was a false trust, and it failed because it was false. There is no benefit in trying to step back towards an imagined standard.
Let me be blunt. I think the problem here is much the same as the problem with idolatry–we put our trust in something less than God. Stealing from Tillich, we make our ultimate concern the KJV, which is considerable less than ultimate, and thus fall into idolatry.
In supporting this idolatry, we use the standard arguments of idolatry, which go back at least to Exodus 32. Moses is missing. We don’t know where God is. We need something to hold on to, we need assurance, we need a standard. So we make a calf.
There is no such standard, indisputable, not subject to misinterpretation, easily accessible to everyone. It does not exist. Short of God, that is. Inventing an alternative is idolatry and is doomed to failure.
God has given us minds. He has created and he sustains a universe that is susceptible to serious study using those minds. He has given us the Spirit of Truth, the Holy Spirit, as our guide, and he has provided the guidance of the past experience of those who were in communion with Him through the Bible. Now we just have to use the tools God has given us to make good, Godly decisions for our lives and for our communities.
It’s not really that hard. But our natural human laziness asks God to provide us with clearer answers, ones that don’t take work. We are like a man provided with a stream filled with fish, rod, reel, hooks, and bait, who complains that he lacks fish because they won’t jump out into the pan. What God doesn’t provide we simulate, and because God knows that is our tendency he has forbidden us simulation as idolatry. He wants us to have the real thing.
He could make us with finished characters, but he doesn’t. He lets us mature.