Friday, March 28, 2008

Why Not KJV?

I use the Ambleside Online curriculum, and for our daily Bible reading AO suggests we use the KJV.  In an article on the AO website, the use of the KJV is defended on literary grounds.   The argument is that since the KJV uses big words and rich language, and since it is often quoted in great literature, we are intellectually improved by reading it.

I do not disagree with that argument.  Familiarity with the KJV is almost certainly useful in reading literature and in generally improving one’s intellect and grasp of language.  However, I think that this quote from early in the article is key:

"Decisions about which version a) is the more correct translation or b) will most readily help your child understand the truth of God’s Word, should be approached individually, intellectually and prayerfully."

Now, the article goes on to immediately add a third criterion, that of enhancing a literary education, but it is my contention that this criterion has no place in a discussion of Bible translations.  When selecting a translation to use for Bible study (rather than for some school-related reading that is in addition to regular Bible study), the two questions given in the quoted selection should be the primary considerations.

I am not going to advocate for any particular translation.  I am, however, going to argue that the KJV is singularly unsuited to effective Bible study today.

As far as question a) is concerned, which is the more correct translation, the old KJV is certainly out of the running as we now have available much better texts.  However, the NKJV has made changes based on the newer information.

Some sites which offer information to compare available translations (I have not extensively reviewed these sites, so I can’t vouch for them; on cursory review they looked helpful):
Question b) holds quite a bit of weight for me, assuming no significant issues were found with question a).  In other words, after we’ve determined that  a particular set of translations are acceptably accurate, then we need to grapple with which one is going to best convey the meaning of the text, which is of course the point of Bible study–understanding.

The KJV uses archaic language.  That of course is the attraction for those who wish to use it as a tool for improving our minds, and I understand that appeal.  But for the purpose of Bible study, using archaic language represents an obstacle to understanding.  It’s not just that the KJV uses big words and complicated sentences.  If those big words and complicated sentences fairly communicate the sense of the original, particularly if the original also used big words and complicated sentences, that would not be problematic.  The problem arises more from the fact that the KJV also uses words not in use today at all, as well as words whose meaning has changed so that what the word means today is not what it meant in the past.  That latter group creates the most barriers to understanding, since we read the word and assume we know the meaning because we have no way of knowing that its meaning has changed.

Can a child learn to read and understand the KJV?  Certainly.  I contend, however, that the Bible study done with this version will not reach the child’s heart as effectively as study done with a version using modern English.  I donate money each month to support Bible translation internationally.  These translations are being done in areas where Bibles are available in a language spoken in that area, but not in the "heart language" of the particular people group.  In other words, those people grow up speaking one language, but learn another for purposes of communicating with the larger world.  They have a Bible available in their second language but not their first.  The Bible translation effort is necessary because God’s word is not effectively reaching their hearts when it comes through a language that does not reach their heart.  How ironic would it be if I helped these people receive God’s word in their own language but gave my children God’s word in a language we do not speak in our home?  I have yet to meet anyone who speaks KJV English in their home.

Ambleside is a Charlotte Mason curriculum.  Charlotte Mason used the KJV, but she used it because it was the only option at the time.  Also, the language used in homes at the time she wrote wasn’t nearly as far removed from KJV English as the language used in homes today.  She doesn’t discuss Bible translations much because that wasn’t an issue in her day.  She suggests that children can understand Bible language better than we give them credit for, and that they should not be given watered-down retellings.  She does, however, emphasize the idea that spiritual training is about helping children develop a relationship with God and suggests in at least one place that KJV English interferes with that process:
From Volume 2, pp.56-7:
But the little English child is thrust out in the cold by an archaic mode of address, reverent in the ears of us older people, but forbidding, we may be sure, to the child. Then, for the Lord’s Prayer, what a boon would be a truly reverent translation of it into the English of to-day! To us, who have learned to spell it out, the present form is dear, almost sacred; but we must not forget that it is after all only a translation, and is, perhaps, the most archaic piece of English in modern use: ‘which art,’ [Catholics say 'who art'] commonly rendered ‘chart,’ means nothing for a child. ‘Hallowed’ is the speech of a strange tongue to him––not much more to us; ‘trespasses’ is a semi-legal term, never likely to come into his every-day talk; and no explanation will make ‘Thy’ have the same force for him as ‘your’. To make a child utter his prayers in a strange speech is to put up a barrier between him and his ‘Almighty Lover.’ Again, might we not venture to teach our children to say ‘Dear God’? A parent, surely, can believe that no austerely reverential style can be so sweet in the Divine Father’s ears as the appeal to ‘dear God’ for sympathy in joy and help in trouble, which flows naturally from the little child who is ‘used to God.’ Let children grow up aware of the constant, immediate, joy-giving, joy-taking Presence in the midst of them, and you may laugh at all assaults of ‘infidelity,’ which is foolishness to him who knows his God as––only far better than––he knows father or mother, wife or child.
Choosing a Bible translation to use can be daunting.  There’s no one right answer.  In our home we use several versions in different contexts and for different purposes, and the KJV is available to the children as well.  I do agree with the statement quoted above, from the AO article, that a translation should be selected after much study and prayer.


  1. Kathy, I have read this post many times over the years since you wrote it and never commented. I just want to say I agree with every single jot. Thanks for writing it.

    This year for the first time we are reading the KJV for literature. We are enjoying it. It will never have a place in our devotions though, except for curiosity and comparison.

  2. I just want to say a big THANK YOU for writing this!

  3. This is the first time I have seen this post, Kathy, and I must say that it is incredibly well-written in a very respectful and positive tone -- despite the fact that it is disagreeing with a largely accepted idea. That is not always easy to do, and I commend you for accomplishing this here. I found this post enormously helpful in sorting out things I have been pondering of late, too. Thanks!

    1. Dawn, I'm sure I could have been more tactful. That's never my strong suit at all. But I'm glad you found it helpful.