Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Review: The King James Only Controversy, by James White

James White is a professor and apologist who tackles issues thoughtfully, clearly, and most of all, biblically. The King James Only (or AV Only) controversy is becoming more rare and at the same time more intense as modern versions increase and fundamentalist churches decrease. White admits that rebuttals against AV Only advocates have been written before, but confesses the need for a “broad response to the general claims” (VI) of the AV Only group.

The first chapter sets out to treat the opposition fairly by making a distinction between five general positions in the AV Only camp. This is extremely helpful since too often debates tend to polarize positions as either completely right or completely wrong. The first two or three groups are moderate and would not give rise to this controversy. However the final two groups (“The Inspired KJV Group” and “The KJV as New Revelation”) are the predominate positions and are the focal point of the controversy. It is primarily the arguments of these two groups to which White responds.

Chapter two provides a brief but helpful history of Bible translation from the Septuagint to the King James Version. The primary point of this chapter is to demonstrate that each translation began as revolutionary and eventually became tradition. Jerome’s Vulgate caused an uproar in its time for breaking from the traditional text, then Erasmus created a not so insignificant stir in creating a Greek translation which many thought undermined the then traditional Vulgate. Erasmus’ Greek New Testament became the foundation of the King James Version. As White states, “He who once resisted tradition has become the tradition itself” (17). It is essential to understand the tradition and truth are not synonyms, and while truth never changes, tradition does.

With the various positions and brief history in place, White moves on to provide a foundation for understanding the technical aspects of the debate. Manuscripts, text-types, variants, and other related topics are covered clearly and succinctly. Such information is academic and scholarly in nature, but essential in this debate and White does a superb job explaining the concepts without losing the reader. Often an incomplete treatment of these issues can result in a mistrust of the text we hold in our hands, but White carefully explains how God has preserved the text with very little variation throughout the ages.

The fourth chapter takes the concepts learned previously and takes the discussion to the next level showing how translators decide what variants to use from the different manuscripts available. It also allows the translators to speak for themselves by quoting the preface of the 1611 edition of the KJV and demonstrating that even its translators acknowledged the need for improvement. By asking questions and allowing the translators to answer through portions of the preface White draws out the method and perspective which produced the KJV. He further points out how through many editions the KJV has been revised and corrected primarily with regard to spelling, punctuation and other relatively small changes. However for those who hold to an inspired KJV, White points out that this is a significant issue.

The center of the book, chapter five, is the most disheartening section of the book. In it White gives the unfamiliar reader a broad overview of the popular writings and proponents of the AV Only position. Though Christians disagree and debate over many issues, it is typical for such debates to be relatively cordial, respectful, with the various positions giving reasonable explanations. In the overview which White provides, the AV Only advocates act abusive, disrespectful, unreasonable, and altogether unbecoming as Christians. Misrepresentation, out of context quotations, poor logic, and name calling appear as staples in the arguments White draws out.

Chapters seven through ten of the book deals with the types of differences between the KJV and modern versions. The first type is a difference of translation. White walks through a number of examples that AV Only advocates cite as changes, deletions or additions to the text. He shows how in many of these cases the difference is a legitimate translation which does not in any way change the meaning, and in many cases the modern version is a better rendering that makes the meaning more clear.

The eighth chapter focuses on differences which arise from a textual choice (drawing information from the textual criticism chapter). White goes through how it was determined by modern translators that the Textus Receptus contained a reading which was not original to the text. In many cases modern translators have decided to use a different source text other than the Textus Receptus for any number of reasons believing that the alternate reading was more original. Even in these cases a footnote is often placed to notify the reader of such differences. White ably navigates this sometimes complex field again demonstrating that modern versions have no evil plot behind them, but only a devotion to the text as it was originally written.

One of the major arguments stated by AV Only proponents is that modern versions try to denigrate the deity of Christ, his participation in the Godhead, his Sonship, and even his own name. White clearly shows how these allegations are false and at times could be turned on their head.

The final chapter of the book brings out the difficulties within the KJV itself. These include extremely poor translational choices, the change of terms which cause confusion to modern readers, and even anachronistic terms (Easter, rather than Passover). These problems notwithstanding, White’s desire is not to denigrate the magnificent accomplishment the KJV represents or even discourage people from using it. His single goal is to combat those who claim that it is the only translation you can use while still calling yourself a Christian.

If there were one asset and liability to this book it would be its thoroughness. To the previously unconvinced reader this book supplies more than enough evidence to give a reasoning believer confidence in the preserved Word of God in multiple translations. But to the already convinced reader this book can feel like using sledge hammer to drive a small nail into the wall. There is almost too much information for those who want to take it and “use it” against a KJV advocate. Rather than using what I learned in a personal discussion, I am more likely to simply recommend or give the book to someone who is interested. I am thankful James White has taken the time to treat this subject with care and precision so that even the most uninformed person can pick up this book and benefit from it.