Rev. VanBaren is a minister emeritus in the Protestant Reformed Churches.

What about the KJV?

The Protestant Reformed people make use of the King James Version of the Bible. It is used not only in the church services, but also in societies, in catechism classes, and also in Protestant Reformed Christian schools. The obvious value of this is that all learn and memorize from one single translation. But we have other reasons for using this version too.

Although some Protestant Reformed members have one or more of the other translations available within their homes, and compare those translations with the KJV, the prevailing view is that the KJV is the translation of choice. Though the KJV is not a perfect translation, it has been recognized in our churches as that which is the most accurate, though perhaps somewhat dated, translation. Several pamphlets produced by Protestant Reformed ministers accurately summarize the position for the use of the KJV. (Write for free copies of these pamphlets.)

Some within our churches and most churches of other Reformed denominations prefer the NIV (New International Version). It seems as though most Protestant Reformed people are a bit behind the times. They seem unconcerned that archaic words and ancient figures and stories of the KJV are apparently unintelligible to the average individual who reads.

It was, therefore, with great interest that I read an article in Christianity Today, October 22, 2001, titled: “We really do need another Bible translation,” written by Raymond C. VanLeeuwen, professor of New Testament at Eastern College in St. Davids, PA. It is an article worth reading in its entirety. And it has some good things to say about the KJV—as well as some criticism of the modern English translations.

The editor of Christianity Today, David Neff, makes these interesting comments about the KJV by way of introducing VanLeeuwen’s article: “If you look at who cherishes the King James Version (which is Anglo-Saxon at heart), I suspect you will find proportionally more bus drivers (socioeconomically speaking) than professors. They think the Bible is worth the work of careful reading, and they lack the educated elite’s penchant for fastidious vocabulary. The ESV (English Standard Version, a revision of the RSV and recently published—GVB), with its straightforward, businesslike English, should find a wide readership, from the seminary-trained to Joe Lunchbox.”

VanLeeuwen presents first the problems associated with recent translations, and with translations in general:

But translation is also a problem. Every translation imperfectly represents the original, because languages and cultures differ in ways that translation by itself cannot overcome. Translations interpose a fallible human interpretation between us and the infallible Word. These basic problems affect all translations. But the increase in Bible translations during the last 60 years has created new problems for the church.

Newer translations—NLT, New International Version (NIV), New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), Revised English Bible (RED, a revision of the New English Bible), and Today’s English Version (TEV, also called The Good News Bible), among others—are all influenced by a theory called dynamic or “functional equivalence” (FE) translation. Such translations serve their intended purposes and audiences well. More important, they have led many to Christ. But I and a growing number of linguist-translators believe FE theory is inadequate as the only model for translation. (Translations themselves are often better and sometimes worse than their theories.) Linguists argue that the church needs not one but several types of translation, each with its own use. That’s why I’m advocating another modern translation, one that works from a different theory than FE.

…FE theory is closely identified with an evangelical who, over the last half century, has done more to foster Bible translation around the world than anyone else. His name is Eugene Nida, and every translator today has been affected by his work. Even secular translators pay homage to Nida. His theory and practice of translation was first called “dynamic equivalence” translation and, later, “functional equivalence” translation. If you read a Bible translated in the last half-century, you probably read a Bible influenced by Nida.

In the 1940s, Nida and others of the American Bible Society developed practical guidelines for missionary translators working among peoples who often did not have a written language, let alone a Bible, to read. Bible translators learned that they had to make translations understandable to people with little access to preachers and teachers, and whose culture was different from the world of King David or of Jesus and the apostles. They made translations that often supplied the information needed by isolated tribal peoples. In doing so, they often changed what the original said, somewhat like an explanatory paraphrase.

What are some of the problems of these modern translations? Why ought we to have the most literal translation possible? The author points out the following:

FE translations (again, most Bibles today) often change the language, images, and metaphors of Scripture to make understanding easier. But for serious study, readers need a translation that is more transparent to the “otherness” of Scripture. We need a translation that allows the Bible to say what it says, even if that seems strange and odd to readers at first glance. If God is “other” than we are, we should be willing to work at the “otherness” of the Bible, in order to understand what the Lord is saying through his Word. The purpose of the Bible is not to make Jesus like us, but to make us like Christ. The Bible is designed to change us, to make us different, heirs of Abraham according to the promise fulfilled in Christ.

Acts 2

We need translations for people who are eager and willing to make the effort to overcome the difficulty of reading a book that is in fact foreign to us. Indeed, when we come to serious Bible study, whether in a church group, Sunday school, or college class-room, this type of translation becomes necessary, for we are trying to get as close as possible within the limits of our own language. When the martyr and translator William Tyndale did this, he shaped the English language in ways that were biblical. The KJV translators who inherited Tyndale’s work gave the English-speaking world a Bible that shaped its language, life, and faith for hundreds of years. The danger of FE translations is that they shape the Bible too much to fit our world and our expectations. There is a danger that the Bible gets silenced because we have tamed and domesticated it.

The writer continues by pointing out various examples of the above. I quote only a few of these:

Biblical metaphors drop into our hearts like a seed in soil and make us think, precisely because they are not obvious at first. The translator who removes biblical metaphors to make the text “easier” for readers may defeat the purpose of the Holy Spirit, who chose a metaphor in the first place. Metaphors grab us and work on us and in us. They have the spiritual power to transform our minds. The abandonment of basic biblical metaphors in many translations follows naturally from FE theory, because the target languages may not use such expressions. But it is the foreignness of metaphors that is their virtue. Metaphors make us stop and think, Now what does that mean?

It is not clear to me that replacing metaphors with abstractions makes it easier for readers. “God is my rock” is just as easy to understand as “God is my firm support” but means far more. “Walk in love” is simple, as is FE’s “live a life of love.”

Eph. 5:2,

NIV). But “walk in love” resonates with the rich system of biblical metaphor rooted in Old Testament wisdom, where life is journey on a good or bad way, and in Acts, where Christianity became known as “the Way.”

Acts 9:2

Metaphors are multifaceted and function to invoke active thought on the part of the receiver. Receivers must think and feel their way through a metaphor, and it is this very process that gives the metaphor its power to take hold of receivers as they take hold of it.

VanLeeuwen points out also that figures used may not be understandable in certain cultures—nevertheless, to change them into that which is “understandable” can in fact spoil the intent of the infallible text. One example is:

Again, most Americans have never seen a sheep slaughtered. To many, animal sacrifice seems like cruelty to animals. Other peoples have no sheep at all and no word for them; they may sacrifice pigs instead. Translators rightly assume that the biblical picture of God as a shepherd will be difficult to understand for people without sheep. What to do?

To translate

Psalm 23

as “The Lord is my pig-herd” will not work! But even pastors (a word that means “shepherd”) often do not realize that “The Lord is my shepherd” is a metaphorical way of referring to Yahweh as King: The Lord is my king; he cares for me as a shepherd cares for his flock.

One translator for a pig-eating tribe apparently rendered John the Baptizer’s cry of “Behold the Lamb of God!” as something like “Behold God’s little pig!” This clearly will not do. For one thing, it is not what John said. What’s more, throughout the Old and New Testaments, pigs are considered unclean, the polar opposite of holiness and a holy God. That is why Jesus casts the “unclean spirits” into the pigs.

Mark 5:1-13

NIV often translates this as “evil spirits,” which misses the point. Sheep are acceptable sacrifices to Yahweh, but pigs are ritually and symbolically abhorrent. One cannot simply translate words into functional equivalents in the target language. Even if sheep are sacrificed in your culture, you still need to learn what shepherd, sheep, and sacrifice are in the biblical world to get the meaning.

The job is even more difficult for Americans. Some of us may love lamb chops, but we don’t offer sheep to God. If we do not come to understand these Old Testament issues, we will never fully understand Jesus as “the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.” Nor will we really know the meaning of “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God.”

Rom. 12:1

Some of the author’s concluding statements make a strong case for our current King James Version—at least until another, better, and more literal translation is made.

My concern has been that the dominance of FE translations has made it more difficult for English readers to know what the Bible actually said. We need an up-to-date translation that is more transparent to the original languages. If the translator’s task is to negotiate the difficult balance between faithfulness to the original text and offering immediate sense in the target language, a direct translation will lean toward the original text.

As a member of Christ’s body and a Bible teacher, I am pleading for a type of translation that is more consistently transparent, so that the original shines through it to the extent permitted by the target language.

A direct translator will in a learned and aesthetically appropriate way use the resources of the target language to richly capture the details of the original, even though readers may be challenged by some of the Bible’s foreignness. The Bible creates a vast context of meaning through cross references and allusions, phrases and metaphors, echoes and types. For readers to discover this type of biblical meaning in their translations, translators of the Bible must be constantly aware of parallel passages, expressions, and images. Where this does not happen, much of the text’s actual meaning may be lost, often to be replaced by modern meanings.

A direct translation will try to preserve meaningful metaphors wherever possible and not turn them into abstractions….

The above, it appears to me, presents a powerful case for the use of the KJV until some better and more literal translation appears. Some of the comments made about the NIV and other FE-type translations should remind us of the dangers of using these translations.

And, incidentally, the editor of Christianity Today presents in this same issue a brief and interesting article concerning the KJV. He writes about “A Translation Fit for a King.” It is worth reading.