God's Word In Any Language
by William Kincaid
A comparison of two approaches to the
issue of scripture preservation
in order to help Christians discern God's word in any language.
No permission is required to copy and distribute.
The question of "which Bible" is by no means a settled question for the majority of true believers. But for the minority of us who have come to believe that the old English standard Bible (the King James Version) is God's word without error, the question is settled. However, our "stand of faith" on the old Bible is sometimes difficult to defend in the face of several sincere questions often put to us by those still unconvinced.
Anyone familiar with two or more languages knows that no translation can ever be perfect. Different languages express the same ideas with different phrases, and different ideas with the same phrases. A correct translation which demands absolute faithfulness to the original words is impossible. Only the uni-lingual disagree. So how can we assert that the KJV is perfect? Still, if we grant that the KJV is a perfect Bible we are admitting that before it no perfect Bible existed, which makes it a self-defeating argument. If Christians didn't have a perfect Bible before 1611, what would compel us to believe one exists now? And if the KJV was perfect in 1611, why was it revised? Can perfection be corrected or improved? And on top of all that, we know the KJV translators used every source available to them, incorporating the latest discoveries, and availing themselves of the most expert opinions. How can we today do less?
These questions are valid, and telling. But they are due to a misunderstanding of the principles behind scripture preservation. The KJV is God's word in English, to be sure, but ignorance of the principles that make it so leave honest and reasonable men puzzling over these questions. Nowhere is this more evident than in foreign evangelism. The need to recognize the authority of the Bible is just as great in other cultures as it is in our own, and those Christian workers who find themselves ministering in other languages meet not only the same difficulties we do in English (many different competing versions), but other problems as well (familiar passages translated correctly but differently than our familiar English). Christian workers who believe the KJV in English upon beginning a foreign ministry have reacted in different ways, and there is often a serious dispute about which approach is correct. Some simply use a newer Bible they confess not to believe. Others presume to revise the Bible they consider to be the closest to the KJV in English. Still others seek to reprint some other version they consider superior to any revision in print. Sometimes they find themselves opposing a Bible which is believed and obeyed by the very people they seek to serve, which places them in the role of unbeliever, one more destructive critic, surely a role they are not comfortable with. It is apparent that these problems are owing to a misunderstanding of Biblical perfection and preservation.
Christians, by definition, agree that the Bible is the word of God. The Christian faith in its entirety depends upon that doctrine. Ask a Christian what that statement means and he'll likely reply that "the Bible" is "inspired" by God. It also means, among other things that the Bible is "perfect, inerrant, and preserved". The problem with this definition is that there are many different Bibles. To say "the" Bible is meaningless. Which Bible is "the" Bible? Some Christians respond that "the" Bible refers to the original documents written by the original authors. After all, "inspiration of God" means "God-breathed", or "originated from God." But the very reason that there are so many different Bibles in circulation today is because of the fact that none of the original documents exist, and no two existing copies of these documents are exactly the same. So knowing this, and then claiming that the Bible is inspired or inerrant is dishonest. The honest claim would be that the Bible was originally inspired but is no longer inerrant. But nobody claims that, primarily because it is not useful or compelling information. Our most basic doctrine, the fact that the Bible is God's word, must have some relevance to the present.
The doctrine of "inspiration" and the phrase "God's word" have only one intent in scripture and in practice. It is the establishing of authority. To say the Bible is God's word simply means that the Bible has God's authority. But conflicting authorities cause chaos. A child learns to manipulate his parents when they disagree with each other. He knows that in practice two conflicting authorities is no authority at all. This is exactly the situation with the Bible. No Bible can have any authority over any reader if there is an alternative Bible, or a more preferable rendering. Some persist in pretending that none of this is a problem to the Christian faith, and refuse to submit to any Bible as their final authority. But no amount of rationalization can justify their public claim that "the Bible" is inspired and inerrant knowing as they do that no two Bibles agree on everything, and no Bible available in the world is identical to the originals. Not knowing which Bible is God's authority over us is undeniably a serious problem which essentially denies the authority of any Bible over us.
Therefore it is understandable that many of us have accepted the KJV as God's word. However, authority to be real cannot be based on our opinion. For any Bible to have authority it must have a basis for that authority. On what grounds do we claim the KJV as God's word? A favorable comparison to the original autographs would be sufficient grounds for authority, and many KJV believers try to make that case using ancient manuscript evidence. But even then such authority depends upon someone's opinion or expertise. We contend that the KJV was authorized by God but not by manuscript evidence, rather on a more certain premise.
Before the invention of the printing press the Bible was far less influential in the affairs of men. Handwritten copies were circulated among true Christians since the apostles, of course, but there was no central authority to ensure the accuracy of the copies. No one could claim his handwritten copy was perfect seeing that no two copies were exactly alike. The authority of the Bible rested in constant comparison of manuscripts, and agreement reached between conflicting opinions. These agreements then affected future copies. This process over centuries left us with no individual authoritative copy to be sure, but through it, and not long after the apostles died, a standard text emerged and persevered, balanced and preserved by the faith of the Lord's whole church.
When the time came for the Bible to take its preeminent role in history through the printing press, the men God used to publish it had to first compile a general consensus of manuscript evidence. The same process of comparison and consensus in the making of manuscripts was applied to the making of a standard printed text. Greek manuscripts were sought out, compared together, and the Bible was printed in its original languages. Several revisions were made in the first few printings, but within a century these revisions became less and less significant. By general consensus of the Lord's church, the printed text of the Bible had assumed its standard form. This text is known as the Textus Receptus.
After the Bible had thus reached its standard form the study of manuscript evidence was largely discontinued, for there was a consensus that the Bible in its present form was correct. When this Bible (the Textus Receptus) was translated into common languages these versions also reached standard forms, and became the real and direct authority of believers in their language. Revisions of standard translations were made of course, but only innocent corrections were tolerated. Anyone proposing that the standard Bible was in error in any but the most minor details was recognized as an unbeliever. The Bible in print was God's single most effective blessing to Christianity since the apostles, and the printed Bible morally ruled the world. Scarcely any believer in the world doubted that God himself was the architect of that Bible. In English that Bible is the KJV. Therefore the authority of the KJV is founded not on our opinions, but on the fact that it is the only standard English Bible since the printing press standardized the Bible.
Things have changed. Centuries ago the standard Bible was unquestioningly recognized as the very work of God, but today it is deemed inaccurate or poorly translated because of discrepancies between a few ancient Greek manuscripts. There is more to this than simply new evidence coming to light. The standard Bible was a living, vital authority that was unquestionably brought forth by the providence of God, and yet now it has supposedly been discredited by obscure and crumbling papers and professional opinions about their significance. There is an underlying assumption in this modern approach. The prevailing skepticism of our day is the natural result of assuming what we might call a "static" preservation of Scripture.
Static preservation is the idea that God's word is preserved without variation from the original document. The natural conclusion is that God's word is only found in the original language, and only in the exact original reading. To be fair, static preservation is the plainest interpretation of verbal inerrancy. It is also the plainest falsehood.
Those who claim that there has been no verbal change in the Bible since it was written down in its original documents are simply not facing the facts. The Bible was put together piece-meal over thousands of years. It was constantly compiled and edited by men such as Moses and Ezra. There have been several originals of many parts of the Bible, the most obvious being the ten commandments. We have no evidence that the apostles themselves did not write several different originals of their "general" epistles. The Bible has been anything but static.
But more to the point the assumption of static preservation is simply not Biblical, "jots and tittle" arguments notwithstanding (Mt. 5.18). The apostles quoted the Hebrew scriptures and translated them into Greek for authority insisting they were direct quotations of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1.16, Heb. 3.7). Yet scarcely any quotation we have in the NT is identical to our OT. And it is safe to say they were not reading from the original documents. To insist on a static preservation of the original documents is tantamount to saying God's word does not actually exist, nor has ever existed, for the originals are lost and at no time did they all exist together. If God's word was to be preserved "absolutely" (with no variations over time) then the obvious conclusion is that God failed. God's word is preserved, to be sure, but it is not dead, therefore it must have been preserved alive.
Living preservation is the concept that God's word is alive, and with his church, not only initially, but permanently. It assumes that it is continuously available, not just essentially or theoretically, but practically, and that it survives mass reproduction and even translation precisely because it is alive. Living preservation predicts natural discrepancies between individual copies but recognizes that God's Spirit guides the whole process, thereby preserving not only the words of God as he sees fit, but the authority and power of the whole. It is preserved not in caves or libraries, but in a continual role of spiritual authority over the living church. The differences now found between ancient manuscripts are assumed to be only relics of the process whereby God's word has survived. While these differences indicate that the Bible has changed over the years, faith in its living preservation insists that it has not changed from the mind of God, that whatever God said in the original document, he still says today through the available standard Bible. The form may change, and the language certainly has, but the words are as original now as they were when God first inspired them. The fact that the words have varied over the centuries does not mean that the words of scripture don't matter, or that we may change the words according to our preference. The standard Bible is the established authority of God, and as a living authority it requires submission.
Admittedly the idea of living preservation requires faith in a hidden miracle. We assume that God providentially guided the minds of hundreds of men who influenced the standard Bible, and we assume that the finished product is as perfect as the original documents, even if they were to differ. But to assume otherwise is to practically deny not only the doctrine of inspiration and preservation itself, but the most effective and obvious work of God since the apostles died, the standard printed Bible.
Mind you, faith in living preservation does not make us shrink away from a frank examination of manuscript evidence. In fact, the standard Textus Receptus has impressive credentials and the standard English Bible, the KJV, is a properly translated Bible, based on manuscript evidence as solid and reasonable as any of the new competitors. Nevertheless, the manuscript evidence behind the KJV is not convincing alone. In fact, I know of no one who was persuaded to faith in the KJV by the study of ancient manuscripts. The very reason there is no longer a consensus about the KJV is because of the assumption of static preservation and the importance it places on the unknown original readings. But many KJV believers still don't get it. I've noticed three common errors in their arguments.
1. KJV believers pretend to believe the KJV because of manuscript evidence. They argue as if they objectively studied both sides and became convinced that the KJV was nearer the originals. To begin with, no one has ever come to faith in any Bible by manuscript evidence. Many thousands of believers have lost faith in all Bibles through it though. And don't forget that no Bible can be proven accurate by ancient manuscripts, it requires the actual original autographs. Arguments based on manuscript evidence often point to the fact that KJV believers are also attracted by the honor of education, the desire for expertise, and the praise it brings. But very few KJV believers possess expertise in manuscript evidence. And those who do often give too much importance to a vague science where there is serious disagreement among the "experts" about the principles of the "science". Even among those "experts" that agree on their own principles there is disagreement over the "conclusions". Manuscript evidence should not be ignored, but it can never be conclusive. It is only a small part of the issue. Most of the evidence involved is subjective and uncertain anyway, and the "logic" is often on the other side. Often the evidence points either way, and your conclusion will depend upon your inclination. Arguments over which manuscripts are "older", "better", "broader based", or "less corrupted" do not demonstrate the accuracy or the authority of any Bible, in fact they argue against all Bibles. The only usefulness of such evidence is to demonstrate the reasonableness of our "stand of faith", that no evidence has proven any error in our standard Bible, and that the evidence used against it is both meager and subjective.
2. KJV believers assume that the KJV must be an exact duplication of the "original autographs" to be worthy of faith, and therefore insist that it is. Ignoring the fact that no translation can be identical to an original and the fact that no two editions of the Textus Receptus are exactly identical, KJV believers keep on assuming that the KJV is an "absolute" preservation of the original. So they find themselves defending the sinners responsible for publishing the Textus Receptus, such as Erasmus, or even King James I himself. Some find themselves speculating about the KJV translation "miracle", the superiority of English over all other languages, or some other unlikely reason that English is the only language on earth that has a perfectly preserved Bible.
One thing is certain, and we ought to face it, there is no Bible in existence today that is an exact duplication of the original autographs. If some manuscript by some miracle were an exact replica of an original, we could not possibly know it was, and therefore it would do us no good. The KJV might very well be the nearest possible Bible to the originals, but it doesn't have to be so. If some experts hold out some hope of one day finally recovering the originals even they must admit that for 19 centuries the originals have not existed, and not one Christian in a million ever had an original or an exact duplicate of an original to guide him. Therefore the exact original reading has never been of any use to the post-apostolic church, and apparently wasn't too important to God. The KJV is not exactly like the originals (it's in a different language), nor should it be defended as such. The men responsible for publishing the Textus Receptus did not search for manuscripts presuming to determine the exact original reading, they simply wanted to reconstruct the standard available reading, assuming it to be God's word preserved alive.
3. Bible believers approve or disapprove of certain readings according to their "orthodoxy". This is to assume that if a reading appears doctrinally wrong it could not be the original reading. Now, this error is both common and understandable because comparing the different readings is most effective in pointing out the problem. Where a new Bible changes a familiar passage and through that change undermines sound doctrine we are right in documenting it, suspecting the spiritual motives behind the change, and defending the standard reading. However, in doing this we should not deceive ourselves into thinking we are the judges of Biblical orthodoxy. For example, KJV believers often accuse newer Bibles of denying the deity of Jesus Christ because of several differences in their readings. But in other places these newer Bibles might actually make his deity clearer (as in the NASV, Titus 2:13, II Peter 1:1), yet this does not make us doubt the KJV. The NASV is a newer Bible and therefore every real change it introduces is a challenge to the authority of the KJV. This alone makes it wrong. Whether this disagreement attacks orthodox doctrines is not as important as the fact that the change is due to unbelief in the standard Bible. No reading can prove or disprove a Bible. Sound doctrine is based upon what the Bible says, therefore which Bible is correct cannot be determined by our definition of sound doctrine. We simply cannot judge a reading by its content alone. In fact we believe the KJV even where the new Bibles try to correct supposed "bad doctrine" in it (Mark 16.16-20, Rev. 22.14, etc.). We know which Bible is God's word but not by the orthodoxy of its readings. We submit to its readings no matter what they might seem to teach, or how much manuscript evidence they have to support them.
This brings me to define the two infallible signs of living preservation and therefore the bases for our determination of God's word today. These signs point out which Bible is God's word not only in English, but in every other language.
When trying to determine whether God has authorized a Bible, the first principle to consider is the fruitfulness of God's word. God's word brings forth fruit. "Whereof ye heard before in the word of the truth of the gospel; Which is come unto you, as it is in all the world; and bringeth forth fruit, as it doth also in you..." (Col. 1.5,6). God's word is not sterile, and we can expect it to beget sons and daughters (James 1.18, 1 Pe. 1.23) "So shall my word be that goeth forth out of my mouth: it shall not return unto me void, but it shall accomplish that which I please, and it shall prosper in the thing whereto I sent it" (Isa. 55.11).
Of course any Bible is useful to lead a soul to Jesus Christ, but when attempting to determine which Bible is God's word (the authority of God) in English we must recognize which Bible actually begat the English speaking church. The English speaking church did not just evolve from social interaction and effective evangelistic strategy, it was begotten by the word of God. If a Bible was responsible for this begetting then that Bible is surely God's word in English.
To illustrate fruitfulness, the KJV is responsible for more conversions than any Bible in history, including the originals. It is the most sold and read book in history. It is responsible for the most productive and influential church in history, the English speaking church. It is responsible for the most Biblical and God-fearing governments in history. It is responsible for the greatest awakenings and revivals, for the most extensive and persistent world-wide evangelization in history. In comparison the original autographs are almost inconsequential, they perished before accomplishing a fraction of this. The Greek manuscripts copied later indeed accomplished a great deal, primarily in ancient Asia and eastern Europe, but they also must stand in the KJV's shadow.
The second principle that allows us to recognize the living authoritative Bible is the acceptance of the church. We can know the Bible is God's word only because the spirit filled church as a whole has come to that conclusion. Once again many might reject such a principle rightly insisting that the church is subject to the scripture, and not scripture to the church. But remember the written word of God was not completed until after the church was a worldwide phenomenon. Before the word of God was written down it existed in the ministry of the apostles and prophets (1 The. 2.13, Eph. 2.20, Heb. 2.3, etc.) and the apostles and prophets were part of the church. Furthermore the authority of the apostles themselves depended partly upon the faith of other believers. "Paul, a servant of God, and an apostle of Jesus Christ, according to the faith of God's elect, and the acknowledging of the truth which is after godliness" (Titus 1.1). "If I be not an apostle unto others, yet doubtless I am to you: for the seal of mine apostleship are ye in the Lord." (1Co 9.2).
Every Christian's faith depends upon this principle whether it is clear to him or not. Take for example the "canon", the list of books we accept as our Bible. There is no evidence in most of the books of the Bible which would indisputably make them "inspired", or part of the Bible. The fact that all but four of the OT books are quoted in the NT is not so much proof of their inspiration as it is a result of their prior acceptance by the NT authors. The apostles already knew the books of the OT were inspired of God, and therefore quoted them. How did they know? There were literally hundreds of other books among the Hebrews, many of them claiming to be true, but only 39 of them were considered canonical, and only 35 or so were actually quoted as scripture by the apostles. How were these 39 distinguished? By a common recognition among the Hebrews from the time these books were first penned. By the same method the 27 books of the NT were recognized. No apostle left us a list. There is no internal key that proves a book to be a part of the NT. But the fact that only these 27 have been consistently recognized by the church as a whole proves indisputably that they are, and that they alone are God's word. This fact also proves that the church itself is the guardian of God's word (John 17.6-8).
Does this surprise you? The church is called the "ground of the truth" (1 Tim. 3.15). The Bible says that the church knows the things that are freely given to us of God. (1 Cor. 2.12). The Bible says the church knows all things through the "unction of the Holy One" (1 John 2.20). And it says the "testimony of Christ was confirmed in you." (1 Cor. 1.6). Where the whole church agrees on a Bible, that Bible is God's word. Where there is wide disagreement, of course, no conclusion can be made, but when the church as a whole agrees on a Bible its conclusion might as well have been declared by God himself. This proves that God's word must always be the standard Bible among true believers.
To illustrate the faith of the church establishing the authority of the Bible, in English there has been an overwhelming consensus of the church for the better part of 3 centuries that the KJV indeed was God's word. Other languages boast of a similar enduring consensus. The predominance of the KJV was not due to popularity, but to faith. The English speaking church believed it. Therefore the KJV is God's word in English to this day.
Considering the issue of final authority and recognizing the two signs of living preservation we must conclude that the Hebrew and Greek Received Texts are God's word in their respective languages. This is in defiance of the prevailing attitude of textual critics which give no weight at all to the principles of availability and fruitfulness over the centuries. Their favorite manuscripts are precisely the ones which were not much copied, and not much missed, and lay hidden from the living church for millenia. Taking the conclusion a step further, these principles also prove that the King James or Authorized Version, (as found in its latest commonly accepted revision, 1769), is God's word in English. We do not have to prove it more accurate, or more orthodox. And unproven differences from the originals do not in any way lessen the authority of God's word today. We can discern it to be God's authority for today by simply recognizing its place in our own history. It is in fact responsible for us, and it is unreasonable to assume that it was all along corrupt or inaccurate, no matter what subjective evidence might point against it. Unbelievers might doubt it, but how can we who have owed our faith to it for centuries?
How does this apply to other languages? First we must realize that not all languages have the word of God in them. This might be a sad situation, but it is the reality. This means of course that there is no absolute promise that any certain language will have God's word in it. So to apply these principles to another language might be inappropriate. They simply might not apply. A language which is not written down or has no written form cannot expect to have God's written word. Many evangelistic teams have studied tribal languages in order to translate the Bible into them, but almost invariably these languages receive only one gospel, or at most the NT. In nearly all of these cases there is a predominant commercial language within their sphere of influence, and in spite of their appreciation for their own "gospel portion" or "NT" their authoritative Bible will be in practice the standard Bible in the predominant trade language. For example, many Indian tribes in Mexico have some of the Bible in their own language, but in practice the authority of these believers is inevitably the old standard Spanish Bible. This is not to exalt the more dominant languages, this is simply the obvious pattern in all languages. There were several English translations before the KJV predominated, but the practical authority to English speakers before the KJV was the Received Text. Only when the KJV proved itself to be authoritatively from God did it become God's authority in English. By the same token, many languages today have an initial translation attempt, but this does not necessarily mean that this portion or NT is God's word to them. And if it clearly disagrees with the wider authority, it will never practically be considered God's word. So we cannot automatically assume that a Bible is God's word even if it is the only Bible in that language.
However, it is unreasonable to assume that no other language has God's word. The same principles must apply everywhere. If another language has received an "authoritative translation" from God, it would be rebellion to oppose it, even if its readings are different than our own Bible. Several considerations apply.
Since God has demonstrated the living authority of the Textus Receptus manuscripts by their overwhelming acceptance by the church for millenia, and by their undeniable fruitfulness over the same period, for any Bible to be considered God's word in any language it must be a translation of the Textus Receptus. Since there are many slightly different editions of the Textus Receptus it is not necessary that it be 100 percent identical to the KJV in its readings, (an ideal which in itself is precisely impossible), but it is necessary that it be derived from the Textus Receptus. A certain amount of investigation will be necessary to judge the real nature of the discrepancies found, but generally the oldest revision of the Protestant Bible still in print will be the one to consider. This is out of respect to God's choice of the Textus Receptus over the centuries, and in defiance of the unbelief and division in the church since the emergence of modern textual criticism, which exalts those few sterile texts that went unnoticed and were eventually lost in antiquity.
In any language, God's word bears fruit. If the true church is almost non-existent, barely a negligible minority, then the only authority their Bible can have is due to the fact that it is the one most similar to authoritative Bibles elsewhere. Perhaps such a Bible could bear revision, but if you fear to do that (a most reasonable fear), then your confidence must be in the expectation of fruit. On the other hand, if such a Bible exists that has clearly borne fruit and begotten a living church, then it has God's signature.
Finally, in any language, God's word must have proven itself by the general consensus of the church itself. If the Bible in question was always in fierce competition with other revisions or Textus Receptus versions among true Christians, then there can be no conclusion, it remains unproven. But if it predominated, becoming the standard Bible in that language among true believers, then it alone can be considered God's word. It has the seal of God.
To be sure, knowing the principle of living preservation and its signs will not resolve all of the problems in all languages with differing Bibles or no Bible at all, but they remain as guides. Where all of these criteria are met, we can most assuredly gather that this Bible is God's perfect word. We have no right to choose a newer revision or translation just because it is more convenient or popular nowadays. But at the same time we have no right to reject a standard Bible in another language just because it differs slightly from our KJV. A Textus Receptus Bible, having become the standard Bible of the church (even if only in the past), and having borne fruit in that language, is God's word to that people. Even where it has readings differing from your English Bible, or translations differing from your expectations, it is still God's word. To challenge a foreign Bible which has duly earned its authority over its church, to change it, correct it, revise it or explain it away is dishonoring to God, is the fruit of your own unbelief, and is the surest way to shoot yourself in the spiritual foot. You must learn to submit to it in its sphere of influence, and trust God to apply it where and when he wants.
The concept of static preservation has led scholars to seek better and older manuscripts. This is only reasonable, given the starting assumption. The principle of living preservation on the other hand sees the attitude of such scholars as rather blind. It's much like the Pharisees asking Jesus who he claims to be, after trying to kill him for claiming to be the Son of God, or later demanding a sign from him after he heals a multitude of sick folk. The perfect word of God has been "in their face", so to speak, all of their life, and it has borne fruit in them, yet they struggle on to find it. To those of us who live daily by the very available and living word of God, such scholarly exercises seem faithless.
Faith in the Bible must mean more than a general agreement with its overall principles. To believe the Bible must mean serious submission to its very words. And it must mean practical submission to it in our daily lives. Therefore no one can have faith in the "original autographs". No one alive has ever read them. No one "believes" any Bible he "prefers", for to prefer a Bible presupposes an authority over it. The only fulfilment of "faith in the Bible" comes when a believer submits to the authority of the standard Bible which is ultimately responsible for his faith. Today, in English, the only "Bible believers" are those who actually believe that the KJV is God's authority. But in fact, submitting to the available standard Bible has been the "faithful" attitude of God's people everywhere, for all time. It is the true "historic position" of the true church in every language. The principles are clear, and have been the same since the beginning. God's word is always the standard, fruitful, common Bible, beginning as the received text in Hebrew and Greek, and becoming the received text in the common language. In the end, you must either believe that living word, the standard Bible, or wind up believing essentially no Bible at all.