This article is about Bible translation and the inspiration and preservation of Scripture. The manuscript basis of the King James Version is discussed, as well as the authority and inerrancy of Scripture.

Source: New Horizons, 1983. 5 pages.

The Bible Today

In this day of many Bible translations, which English version is the best? Wouldn't life in the church be easier if there were one version that all English-speaking Christians regarded as authoritative? Many Christians wrestle with these questions as more and more translations are being published. Some Christians have attempted to halt the proliferation of versions by asserting that the King James Version of 1611 is the one authoritative version for English-speaking people-time-honored, inspired and as satisfactory today as it was 350 years ago.

But before anyone asserts which of all the versions is best or uniquely authoritative, it is necessary to understand what translating the Bible involves. How is translation related to inspiration and God's providential care over his Word? This article briefly explores these topics.

The Bible's Inspiration🔗

When the authors of the Bible wrote, God inspired or breathed into them so that what they wrote was nothing less than God's Word. God's Spirit so worked in Isaiah and the other Old Testament prophets that the words they produced were not simply their words, but also the very words of God. “… Prophecy never had its origin in the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter. 1:21).

Likewise when the New Testament apostles and prophets wrote, they were writing precisely what the Holy Spirit intended should be written. Jesus told his apostles,

… the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you… I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come.John 14:26; 16:12-13

Therefore, the canonical books of the Old and New Testaments were immediately inspired by God in the original manuscripts; and as the Word of God, they are authoritative, inerrant and the only infallible rule of faith and practice. (See Westminster Confession, I. 2, 8.)

The Bible's Preservation🔗

While God has not seen fit to preserve the actual manuscripts penned by the authors, God has provided for us a multitude of copies, some of which date very closely to the time of the originals. Far from being cut off from the inspired words of the originals, we have Hebrew and Greek manuscripts which relay to us with remarkable accuracy what was originally written.

Old Testament scholar William Henry Green was right when he said, “No other word of ancient times has been transmitted as accurately as the Old Testament has been” (Skilton, The Infallible Word, p. 159). Sir Frederick Kenyon, a foremost expert on ancient manuscripts, wrote, “The interval between the dates of the original composition [of the New Testament] and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established” (The Bible and Archeology, pp. 288-289).

How thankful we can be that God's singular care and providence has made his Word accessible to us who live thousands of years after it was originally penned. (See Westminster Confession, I. 8.)

The Bible's Translation🔗

Translating the Bible into the language of the people is an urgent task in every age and in every nation. When God gave man his Word, he used the common vernacular of the people so that everyone might clearly hear his message. In the same way he expects us to translate the Bible today in the languages that people are presently speaking, so that no one will miss what his Word teaches. As the Westminster Divines put it, “… therefore they [the Scriptures] are to be translated into the vulgar language of every nation unto which they come, that, the Word of God dwelling plentifully in all, they may worship him in an acceptable manner; and, through patience and comfort of the Scriptures, may have hope” (Westminster Confession, I. 8).

Thus the English versions we propagate must communicate God's Word clearly in the “vulgar” or common English usage of today. We cannot shrink from the Confession's wise instruction when choosing versions for public use.

Making an accurate and faithful translation requires a thorough knowledge of not only the biblical languages but also the many manuscripts available to us. The translator's first job is to decide which manuscripts will serve as the basis for the translation. There are approximately 5000 Greek manuscripts which contain part or all of the New Testament. Due to copyists' errors in word order, spelling or the presence or absence of certain words or phrases, translators and scholars must determine which of these manuscripts and fragments are most authentic. By evaluating a manuscript's age, its relationship to other manuscripts and its general reliability, such determinations can be made.

While it is true that no point of doctrine is perverted or lost in even the most unreliable manuscripts and fragments, nevertheless we desire to have a text that matches as closely as possible the original manuscripts. Therefore, we should use English translations that are based on the most reliable manuscripts available and that reflect faithfulness and accuracy in translation.

The King James Version🔗

The King James Version is a time-honored translation that God's English-speaking people have treasured in their hearts for centuries. God has used its words to convert and disciple millions of people to Jesus Christ. Indeed, it is a literary masterpiece. And yet, it has its limitations and weaknesses as a translation of the Bible for the 1980s.

The first limitation of the KJV is that it does not speak in the vernacular of today. It is a translation reflecting a culture and language of 350 years ago. Because the English language has changed much since then, the King James English is not what we could call the “vulgar” or common language of today's English-speaking people. Those who readily understand the KJV language are either those who have been brought up hearing and reading it or those who have made a special effort to comprehend it.

The second limitation of the KJV is the manuscript basis for its text. Robert G. Bratcher clearly explains the nature of this limitation:

In our own time recent discoveries of older manuscripts, and more exact methods of studying and assessing the value of different manuscripts, enable scholars to determine with a high degree of agreement the text of the New Testament. Today's editions of the Greek New Testament, therefore, are far more accurate than those which were produced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

In 1611 the Greek New Testament upon which the King James translators relied was the so-called 'Textus Receptus,' which was essentially the work of the Dutch scholar Desiderius Erasmus in 1516. In preparing the first edition of his Greek New Testament, Erasmus had no manuscript older than the tenth century–and some of his manuscripts were as late as the sixteenth century. For the book of Revelation he had only one twelfth-century manuscript; since it lacked the last six verses of the book, Erasmus translated these verses from Latin into Greek and incorporated them into his text.

How greatly the situation has improved since then! We have copies of beautiful vellum (calfskin) editions of the New Testament from the fifth and fourth centuries; even older are the papyri manuscripts, dating back to the third and second centuries. The oldest portion of any part of the New Testament is a small papyrus fragment, containing a few verses of John 18, in the Rylands Library in Manchester, England; this fragile bit of brittle papyrus is dated around A.D. 125, perhaps no more than thirty years removed from the original Gospel of John!

We are getting closer and closer to the autographs [original manuscripts] of the New Testament books, so that a modern translation of the Greek New Testament, strange as it may seem, is in fact a much older New Testament than the 1611 translation.“Why Do We Need New Translations?”,
A Layman's Guide to Bible Versions and Bible Enjoyment, pp. 25-26

In view of these limitations in the KJV, it is most appropriate to carefully study the newer versions on the market, weighing their faithfulness and accuracy in anticipation of finding a translation that is all it should be for today.


  • God the Holy Spirit inspired the authors of Scripture so that what they wrote was the inerrant Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice.
  • God has singularly cared for his Word and has preserved it through the years in a state of essential purity.
  • Faithful translating requires a commitment to communicating, in the common language of the people, an accurate use of the biblical languages and a reliable manuscript text.
  • Limitations in the King James Version urge us to give serious consideration to some of the newer, faithful translations.

The Authority of the Bible🔗

Which Bible translation should English-speaking Christians of the twentieth century use? Is there any single, authoritative version which all evangelical Christians ought to regard best? How can the layman who lacks training in the original languages possibly evaluate the various versions that flood the market?

These questions trouble many Christians today. Since 1881 more than a hundred English versions of the Bible have been produced, and a handful of recent ones threaten to overthrow the favored status of the King James Version.

The Nature of Biblical Authority🔗

One can only rejoice in the concern of Christians for having a Bible version that is both faithful and clear in expressing God's written Word. For Bible-believing Christians have always confessed that God is the primary author of the Scriptures, and those sixty-six books that comprise the canonical Scriptures stand at the heart of Christian faith and practice.

If God is, indeed, the primary author of the Bible, then the Bible shares in the divine characteristics of its author. This is precisely what the Bible teaches concerning itself; the Word of God possesses the attributes of God. In Psalm 119 the Word of God is called righteous (vs. 7), faithful (vs. 86), upright (vs. 137), pure (vs. 140), true (vs. 142, cf. John 17:17) and eternal (vss. 89,160). As professor John Frame has said, “The authority, power, holiness [and] truth of the Word are the authority, power, holiness and truth of God himself, not merely those of creatures” (John M. Frame, Systematic Theology 5111 Lecture Outline, p. 8).

Therefore the Christian must treat Holy Scripture as the supreme authority over his life. This duty is clearly expressed in our confessional standards: “The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scripture” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 1, 10).

Our Lord Jesus confirms the authority of the Scriptures over human life. He regarded the teaching of the Old Testament (Mark 7:8-13), his own teaching (Mark 13:31) and the teaching of his apostles (Mark 13:11; John 14:26; 16:12f) as the teaching of God and, therefore, as wholly true and trustworthy. Thus, the apostles can command the churches to receive the Scriptures as “the very words of God” and as “God-breathed and … useful … so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (Romans 3:2; 2 Timothy 3:16, 17).

J. I. Packer sees the authority of Christ and the authority of the Bible as one: “Scripture comes to us, as it were, from Jesus' hand, and its authority and his are so interlocked as to be one. Bowing to the living Lord entails submitting mind and heart to the written Word. Disciples individually and churches corporately stand under the lordship of Christ, who rules by Scripture” (J. I. Packer, Freedom and Authority, p. 23).

The Nature of Inerrancy🔗

The Christian's belief in biblical authority is based on the principle that the very words of Scripture are inspired. Inerrancy is simply the inevitable implication of the truthfulness of God and of his authorship of the Bible. Inerrancy means that the Bible is “wholly true” (J. M. Boice, Does Inerrancy Matter? p. 13). The International Council on Biblical Inerrancy has formulated this helpful definition of inerrancy: “Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God's acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God's saving grace in individual lives.” To put it more simply, the confession of biblical inerrancy asserts that what Scripture says, God says – through human agents and without error.

Yet there are an increasing number of Christians today who wish to avoid the language of inerrancy. Their uneasiness with the term arises from their view that God does not vouch for the accuracy of material from extra biblical sources which the sacred writers used. In this view, there are errors in the Bible; but they do not overthrow its essential trustworthiness, because they do not belong to the intended, but only the unintended teachings of the Bible.

The once-evangelical scholar Dewey Beegle has taken this notion one step further. He advocates this approach of distinguishing between primary and secondary revelation in Scripture, and he believes it is necessary to determine which “word of the Lord” in the text may be the “most authentic.” He feels that when biblical writers like Paul, for example, move away from their basic insights and begin to delineate the details, they may prove to be less reliable (Dewey Beegle, Scripture, Tradition and Infallibility, pp. 69f).

Such an approach seriously dilutes the authority of Scripture. As Roger Nicole observes, “If God did not guide the sacred writers in the choice of the material that they decided to incorporate into their own text, then it will be forever impossible to distinguish between what is truly God's Word and what may be simply an accurate record of a fallible source. To the extent that any material appears endorsed by the sacred writer, it must be viewed as endorsed by the sacred writer, it must be viewed as endorsed by God as well” (Roger Nicole, “The Nature of Inerrancy,” Inerrancy and Common Sense, p. 89). If God does not always speak in Scripture, then it requires the reader to determine where he speaks and where he does not.

The Nature of Translation🔗

Finally, there are Christians who are threatened by modern translations of the Bible on the mistaken belief that translations inevitably tamper with the original text. It is true that translating the Bible from the original languages is a very difficult and painstaking process. It is often exceedingly difficult to select the precise word or phrase which says absolutely no less and no more than the original and conveys precisely the same impression to the hearer or reader.

Pastor Bob Sheehan observes that a “literal word-for-word equivalent fails to do justice to the idiomatic nature of language.” He continues, “Even the most ardent advocates of dictionary equivalents have to give up sometimes or be completely incomprehensible to their readers.” He gives a literal translation of Genesis 33:14 as an example: “'As for me, let me lead my gentleness to the foot of the business which is to my face and to the foot of the children that I shall come to my lord to Seir.' It is unadulterated gobbledegook when translated, although perfectly intelligible in Hebrew idiom” (Bob Sheehan, Which Version Now? p. 19).

It must be noted that the New Testament writers themselves rarely quoted the Old Testament Scriptures word-for-word. In the majority of cases, the apostles used the Septuagint translation when referring in Greek to the Old Testament. The Septuagint is an early, Greek translation of the Old Testament (from the second century B.C.) and, in terms of modern standards of translating, “far from being a homogeneously excellent translation … but it was well known, and was deemed adequate to convey to Greek readers the meaning of the Old Testament Hebrew” (Roger Nicole, op. cit., p. 79). For the inspired New Testament writers, their concern was faithfulness to the meaning of what God had said rather than finding exact verbal equivalents for the Hebrew text of the Old Testament.

This same concern of the New Testament writers to give a clear and accurate account of God's revelation to men should be present in twentieth-century Christians. Any Christian engaged in ministering the Word of God to others–the pastor counseling in his study, the elder or deacon on a hospital visit, or the Sunday school teacher with his/her unchurched pupils–has struggled to explain the archaisms of the King James Version. The plain truth of the matter is that the Elizabethan English, cherished by many for its poetic style, is obscure, confusing and often incomprehensible to modern people. (For example, compare 2 Corinthians 6:11-13 in the King James Version with any modern translation.)

It is time our pastors and sessions begin a serious study of these matters –mindful of those who still honor the Authorized Version as the Bible they were raised on, yet desiring to proclaim the Word of God in all of its clarity.

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