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Several years ago, Travis sent me a distressed letter. His confidence in Scripture was rattled to the point of breaking. He feared he could no longer trust the word of God. I did my best to restore his faith, but the process was long and messy.
I blame the Bible critic, a Bart Ehrman disciple, who made it his personal mission to undermine Travis’s belief that all Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable (2Ti 3:16). He wanted to prove the Bible is fiction. “Not even good fiction,” he claimed. “Just look at all of the inconsistencies and mistakes. The Hebrew and Greek manuscripts are riddled with problems. How can you believe this nonsense?”
To a lesser degree, I also blame KJV Onlyism, at least the particular version of it to which Travis held. He had a cracked foundation under his feet that couldn’t support the weight of the scoffer’s scrutiny. When the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against his house, it nearly fell (Mt 7:27). Travis’s faith in Scripture was merited. Confusing God’s inspired word with a single translation was his mistake.
Thoughts of Travis have moved me to revisit the topic of King James Onlyism from time to time over the last few years. I have nothing against anyone who prefers the KJV over other versions of the Bible. Though I disagree, I don’t even bother to argue with those who state the KJV is a superior translation to all others. I would never suggest the so-called Authorized Version is anything but a good translation, and I encourage everyone to read it, but—
Travis’s flavor of KJV Onlyism is dangerous.
I agree with the Baptist Confession which says, “Under the name of Holy Scripture, or the Word of God written, are now contained all the books of the Old and New Testaments … All of which are given by the inspiration of God, to be the rule of faith and life.” In other words, God’s word is God’s word. He inspired human authors to pen what he revealed to them. From Genesis to Revelation, all sixty-six books of the Protestant Bible are God-breathed.
The doctrine of inspiration, however, leads Travis and others to make unfounded assumptions about God’s preservation of Scripture. We may assume, for instance, God ensured flawless copies of every book of the Bible were always available to every last one of his people for all time. That’s what Travis believed, and he was nearly destroyed after learning the evidence says otherwise. The Bible itself says otherwise. Read the story of Hilkiah finding the Book of the Law for the first time after fifty years of Manasseh’s wicked reign (2Ki 22:8).
Compare the surviving manuscripts. They contain textual variants from one to the next. Should it surprise anyone that scribes hand-copying the Bible on animal skins for 1,500 years would make mistakes?
If we’re talking about the King James Bible, consider the changes Erasmus, Stephanus, and others made to the text before and after it was translated into English. None of the changes are substantial to the point they affect vital doctrines of the church, but a change is a change. How can we believe God perfectly preserved his word?
That’s the point. In light of the facts, facts which unbelievers will attempt to use against us, we need to rethink our understanding of preservation before the rain starts falling on our poorly-built house. I believe God preserved his word, just not in the way we may assume.
Allow me to quote from a sermon I preached last year on the subject:
Bible history and its preservation are a bit messier and perhaps more complicated than what you realized. God hasn’t preserved his word through a perfect line of manuscripts. He hasn’t preserved his word through a perfect translation into English. He hasn’t even necessarily preserved every last word which he originally inspired to be written.
Where does that leave the doctrine of preservation? As I said before, the Bible itself doesn’t explicitly teach the doctrine of preservation, not as we often define preservation. It does, however, indicate that we should expect the good news of his word to remain forever.
Let’s pause for a moment to think about a seemingly unrelated subject. Do you believe God has preserved his church? Have you ever thought about how he preserved his church?
A quick perusal of the New Testament will show that almost every church in the first century had problems. Some had serious theological errors. Others had deep sin and morality issues. Even so, these churches were churches of Jesus Christ confirmed by the apostles.
Today, we all know that a perfect church can’t be found. Charles Spurgeon once said, “If I had never joined a church till I had found one that was perfect, I should never have joined one at all.” He’s right. A perfect church doesn’t exist, yet the church remains.
In the earliest days of the church, God scattered his people across the known world. Why? Wouldn’t the church have been stronger if they had stayed together in Jerusalem? No, God preserved his church by scattering them. If everyone had remained in Jerusalem, their persecutors could have destroyed them all at once. Instead, the persecutors found it impossible to eliminate the church because the saints were everywhere. By the time they could stop the church in Jerusalem, lo and behold, there’s a church in Antioch. By the time they reach Antioch, there are four more in Galatia.
God similarly preserved the Bible. He didn’t providentially oversee the creation of a handful of perfect copies. Rather, he prompted men to make as many copies as possible. Even though they contained mistakes, his word would remain safe because there were too many copies to destroy. The church’s enemies tried. They gathered up every manuscript they could find to burn, but they could never find them all. There were too many copies in too many places.
Does the thought of textual variants bother you? Does it trouble you to think that God’s word was not kept perfectly preserved in every manuscript? If so, let me give you something to think about.
How many times have you heard or seen quotes from notable Greek philosophers such as Plato or Aristotle? Have you ever read Homer’s books? I suspect you have. Have you ever questioned the legitimacy or accuracy of those writings?
Let me put things into perspective for you. The oldest manuscript of Plato is from approximately A.D. 900 (1,200 years after the original). We have seven copies. The oldest manuscript of Aristotle is from roughly A.D. 1100 (1,400 years after the original). We have 49 copies. The oldest manuscript of Homer is from A.D. 400 (500 years after the original). We have a whopping 643 copies. The oldest manuscript of the New Testament is from approximately A.D. 130 (less than 100 years after it was written). We have a grand total of more than 5,700 copies.
By a wide margin, the Bible is the best-preserved work of all ancient literature. While some may question the Bible’s legitimacy because they’ve learned about the textual variants in the manuscripts, the historical evidence says otherwise. Not only do 5,700 copies still exist, dating as far back as the second century, but the textual variants of any significance also represent less than three percent of the overall text. That’s an accuracy rate of more than 97 percent. Do you think we’d come close to that if we tried hand-copying the Bible?
As far as I’m concerned, that doesn’t happen without the providential oversight of God. He may have allowed errors along the way, but he most certainly preserved his word nonetheless.
God preserved the Bible by guiding the creation of thousands and thousands of copies, too many to ever be destroyed by the church’s enemies. He preserved the Bible by never allowing human mistakes to distort a single major theological point. He preserved the Bible by maintaining an extraordinarily high accuracy rate of all the manuscripts despite the propensity of sinners to corrupt pretty much everything they touch.
My comments about KJV Onlyism are not an attack on the King James Version itself. More than anything, I’m motivated by concern for people like Travis who think they’re reading a perfect representation of the inspired word in English. Even the KJV translators didn’t believe that. A good translation, according to them, is not the same as a perfect translation.
One who assumes the KJV is perfect, making every other translation nothing more than misleading counterfeits, is potentially vulnerable. I’ve seen it, and I deem it worth addressing even if I’ll be subjected to scorn from the very people I hope to reach.
Read the KJV. Use it as your primary Bible. Use it exclusively if you feel you must, but please don’t be hostile toward modern versions. Please don’t assume the exact words of the KJV are the perfect English equivalent of God’s inspired text. Study the Bible’s history. Study the languages involved. Prepare yourself for attacks against your faith. They will likely come sooner or later.