If You Can Give Up KJV English in the Bible, Why not the Confession of Faith?

The recent General Assembly of the OPC established a special committee to study the value of producing a modern English version of the Westminster Standards. Here‘s a little window into the OPC’s deliberations from the daily GA report:

As part of the work of the Committee on Christian Education, on motion, the body approved this: “That the Eighty-fifth (2018) General Assembly notify the member churches of NAPARC and other appropriate church bodies with which we have fellowship that it has erected a special committee to propose linguistic updating of the doctrinal standards of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church and include details of the specific mandate, and that it welcomes any input that such churches might desire to give with respect to such proposed linguistic revision.”

Speeches for and against may have depended too much on how deeply commissioners had dug in their heels. For advocates, a modern version would seem to promise a millennium of broad and popular acceptance of Reformed Protestantism. I’m not so sure. For opponents, the arguments sounded a lot like reasons to retain the King James Version. I’m not so sure. If we can welcome modern English versions of the Bible, why not our Standards? One reason is that they come in English, not German, French, or Dutch. Which is to say that CRC and URC Synods have had no trouble updating English versions of the Heidelberg Catechism, for instance, because those communions are not invested in English the way Presbyterians are. If the original is in English, English-speakers tend to think the text is sacrosanct. Same goes for the Bible. If we talked about modern Hebrew versions of the OT, or modern Greek versions of the NT, after scratching their heads (what’s the point?), commissioners would likely object.

A related concern is a teaching device as opposed to a theological standard. If the Confession were like the chemist’s chart of elements, we would likely not want a modern version, better life through chemistry and all. People using the Standards as a benchmark for theological clarity don’t mind requiring users to suffer with the alien words and forms. “Eat your broccoli.” But if you have a chemistry textbook from the 18th century, revising the language for contemporary use in the classroom makes some sense. In which case, the appointed committee may propose a modern language version of the Standards that functions as a teaching device while recommending the old English version for theological exams and the Constitution. I say “may.” I have no direct access to the committee (which hasn’t even met!).

I would recommend to the committee and everyone else, though, a podcast I heard this week. It is an exchange between linguist, John McWhorter and Mark Ward, a Bible software engineer for Logos, on King James English. Ward is also the author of a book on the KJV which goes through fifty examples of how modern readers, even ones who are well educated, don’t understand the Bible (if only because the only way to discern seventeenth-century meanings is by consulting the Oxford English Dictionary, an expensive addition to any family or church library).

The podcast is a bit of a love fest because McWhorter’s arguments for updating Shakespeare convinced Ward to revise his arguments about the KJV. Here‘s part of McWhorter’s argument (beware the Jesuits):

Most educated people are uncomfortable admitting that Shakespeare’s language often feels more medicinal than enlightening. We have been told since childhood that Shakespeare’s words are “elevated” and that our job is to reach up to them, or that his language is “poetic,” or that it takes British actors to get his meaning across.

But none of these rationalizations holds up. Much of Shakespeare goes over our heads because, even though we recognize the words, their meaning often has changed significantly over the past four centuries. . . .

It is true that translated Shakespeare is no longer Shakespeare in the strictest sense. But are we satisfied with Shakespeare’s being genuinely meaningful only to an elite few unless edited to death or carefully excerpted, with most of the rest of us genuflecting in the name of “culture” and keeping our confusion to ourselves? Should we have to pore laboriously over Shakespeare on the page before seeing his work performed?

At the same time, the exchange has the advantage of listening to a sophisticated New Yorker, professor at an Ivy League university, who seems to have no religious preferences, talking respectfully, even warmly, to an avowed evangelical with a terminal degree from Bob Jones University. You almost think you’ve gone back to the 1950s.

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41 thoughts on “If You Can Give Up KJV English in the Bible, Why not the Confession of Faith?

  1. Is the podcast link correct? It takes you to Slate.com where the top entry is something about the Supreme Court. If that was the wrong URL and you correct it; please feel free to delete this comment.

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  2. I bet this is the correct link. Thanks DGH for letting me know that John McWhorter has a podcast! I love that guy!

    Also I have a longstanding gripe to send the committee, where do I send it? If SC is really meant for memorization, why does Q1 break the general rule of including the start of the answer? Since the answer is “Man’s chief end is…”, the question should be “What is man’s chief end?”, not “What is the chief end of man?” Or vice versa. Help a brother out!

    But I hope the committee doesn’t go overboard. I really love stews. When it’s really cold and nothing else will warm me up, I resort to them. My favorite is beef&barley.

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  3. Thanks for the shout-out! A couple clarifications…

    1) McWhorter didn’t cause me to refine my arguments about the KJV, exactly. He persuaded me to apply to Shakespeare what I’d already concluded about the KJV, namely that it’s no one’s fault that Elizabethan English is now impossible to fully understand without specialized help—especially access to and facility with the OED. Everybody knows that the Bible and the bard use “dead words,” words no longer present in English lexical stock. But what almost no one sees is the danger to readability posed by “false friends,” words whose senses have shifted over time but which we still use, words we therefore don’t realize we’re misunderstanding and don’t know to look up. One would expect linguists to be the first canaries to start dying off in this particular linguistic coal mine: linguists are extra sensitive to the subtleties of language change.

    2) I’m not a Bible software engineer for Logos but a writer and Academic Editor. If I were a software engineer for them I would live in a nicer house.

    My tradition is something close to biblicism and does not require confessional subscription. But I have Beeke’s harmonization of the Reformed confessions on my desk at the moment: I love and use and appreciate those documents. And because I do, I support efforts to place them into contemporary vernacular English. The time has come, because the understanding of the faithful outweighs the feather-ruffling likely to occur among the defenders of traditional wording.

    If my work on the KJV is any indication, the OPC has many long games of whack-a-mole ahead of them if they want to update a single syllable of any revered English document. OPC brothers on that committee, I would *love* to consult with you on 1) how to go about updating Elizabethan English responsibly and 2) how to persuade the skeptical that the updating is necessary and not some effort at fitting the confessions into skinny jeans. My book can help you by providing examples.

    The podcast was a love-fest, I grant. I’m a huge McWhorter fan. I’m still flipping out over his endorsement of Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible.

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  4. I listened to the podcast last night, and it was great. DGH, you should do what you can to make Ward’s book required reading for everybody on the committee, or at least listening to the podcast episode. And they should take Ward up on his offer to consult — at least to have a teleconference to get oriented on the principles.

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  5. Do folks know that a modern English version of the Westminster Standards has just been published by Evangelical Press? The hardback copy includes several essays on the Standards plus the creeds. I don’t know if this lightly modernised edition is available yet in the USA.

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  6. While referencing McWhorter & co. may support an updated version of almost everything does it not have to include “valley-speak?” Not long ago we had the “pleasure” of housing a millennial niece for 2-3 months until she could find permanent housing. During that stressful time whenever I would attempt to engage her in meaningful conversation almost anything I encountered were sentences containing multiple “likes” – I’m like this about that, I’m like that about this, etc., and so-and-so about such-and-such, I’m like…I’m like…I’m like, ad infinitum.

    I went out for a bike ride early this morning and I stopped on my way back at a bagel shop just a few miles short of my destination to enjoy a mid-morning sandwich on their outside dining area only to wind up within earshot of an obviously millennial couple engaging in conversation during their lunch using multiple valley-speak. Ahhhhhhh!

    If you want to incorporate that kind of language in the WCF, forget about it. Or, as they might say in the NE, “fuggetaboutit”

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  7. Paging Dr Ward, somebody needs to “persuade [George] that the updating is necessary and not some effort at fitting the confessions into skinny jeans.”

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  8. In June 2017 I wrote the comment below in response to something said in an episode of Christ the Center over at Reformed Forum. Jim Cassidy said, “…the danger before us is those standards become assumed rather than actively used as a tool for ministry to the people of God” (minute 41:36 or so) in that episode which is linked to at the bottom. I commented,

    “In response to the concern that our Confessional Standards, especially the catechisms, not be assumed but should be “actively used” … I think this is a key issue for all the NAPARC churches but I don’t hear anyone talking about how to guard against it or how to increase their use among the ordinary Christians in the pew.

    Why is there no conversation going on about modernizing the wording of Confessional Standards across all NAPARC? I think many ministers are out of touch with how incomprehensible the phrasing is for twenty first century people. Most people have no clue what phrases like “want of conformity” or “repentance unto life” mean. People sit down to read this stuff and they just get bogged down and turned off because of the archaic phrasing. Why can’t we be clear? Why can’t we modernize wording without changing theological meaning? Is that not possible? I believe it is and should be done if we genuinely want to see the Confessional Standards “actively used” by the ordinary Christians. I do not consider the 1993 Modern English Study Version (MESV) of the WCF to be modern enough. It still retains too many archaic phrases.”

    It seems that there are others in the OPC who recognize this concern and are attempting to begin the arduous process of doing something about it. Thanks be to God!
    Episode here: https://reformedforum.org/ctc494/

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  9. Is KJ English to some Protestants what Latin has been to Catholics—more about religious sentimentalism than understanding? And weren’t the Reformers all about putting the Bible in the common tongue to increase understanding? So why would some of their descendants be so resistant to a serious (not pandering) updating?

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  10. If the language must be updated for didactic purposes, why not do the revision of the Confession through a publisher, sell it, and do absolutely nothing with regard to the text of the Church’s confession. The churches that want to use it, will, and yet it won’t have any constitutional status.

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  11. @Z I think it is because th traditionalists fear modernization of the English will open Pandora’s box to changes in doctrine (softening our stance on the Sabbath, images of Christ, and the rpw). The evangelicals fear that clarifying the English without modifying the doctrine will raise too divisive questions about the sinfulness of withholding baptism from covenant children, creation, images, and the sabbath. We have more or less kept the peace by ignoring these issues and quietly allowing exceptions. That would be tougher with the attention brought to them by modernizing the language. It is the same reason both sides of the political aisle resist calls for a constitutional convention. Time it wrong and you might get a Caxit and/or Texit.

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  12. My own sense is that clarity is a good thing and that our standards should reflect our conviction of what the Bible teaches. If nearly *everyone* is taking exceptions (explicitly or implicitly) it sends a terrible message about our purported standards.

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  13. sdb – “My own sense is that clarity is a good thing and that our standards should reflect our conviction of what the Bible teaches. If nearly *everyone* is taking exceptions (explicitly or implicitly) it sends a terrible message about our purported standards.”

    I agree with you. But that being the case, shouldn’t NAPARC develop a new set of confessional standards rather than simply update the English?

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  14. Both providing a modern English version of the standards runs the same risk as not providing one: that of straying from the standards. For while translations run the risk not accurately portraying what the original contributors, everyone who reads the confessions becomes their own translator.

    Straying from the standards isn’t bad per se because the standards were never infallible. Unlike the Scriptures that were breathed out by God’s Spirit, the standards were a human product subject to the cultural and society influences of the day in a way the Scriptures never were. And the understanding of those cultural and societal differences is what seems to be missing when the standards are taught in today’s Reformed churches.

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  15. (I am posting this in parts due to what I assume are character count limitations in the comment boxes)
    #1
    Dr. Hart,
    It was great to see you again and serve with you at this year’s OPC General Assembly.
    I am a couple weeks late to reading this post but I am glad to see an online discussion around the topic and the debate that took place on the floor of this year’s General Assembly.

    As you know I spoke and voted against the formation of a committee to study potential linguistic changes to the Standards (other than theological terms). I hoped my concerns would come out stronger in the Q&A session however we were only allowed one question at a time with the requirement to sit in between questions.

    Reading the Committee on Christian Education report (CCE), listening to the debate, and reading through the comments in this blog, I continue to be surprised by what seem to me to be assumptions by those in favor of revising the language. The two assumptions that seem to be made are as follows:

    1) KJV / Westminster English is not the language of the church today;

    2) Only a minority of Americans try to read KJV English and most people in the church cannot understand it without a dictionary. As we are instructed to keep our Bibles in the vulgar tongue so also our standards, therefore, revise the standards.

    Commissioners will note that there were no church surveys or statistical evidences given to support these assumptions in the CCE report. The evidence given was a study of words that dictionaries considered archaic or obsolete. The case to consider revising was presented as “obvious” and a majority seemed to agree.

    I was puzzled by the lack of data from the church. Where was it? Where were the statistics on the language of the church and the Bible versions lay people are reading? I did not see any. I was simply told that the standards should match the language of the church and currently they do not.

    One of the speeches in favor was simply, “Updating the language is 30 years past due!” I was puzzled by these thoughts before General Assembly and I still am today. Where are these conclusions coming from?
    If the premises were true I would have a hard time disagreeing with the establishment of the committee. However, I have yet to hear any evidence from the church for these premises.

    Consider the following:

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  16. #2

    Early on at the General Assembly the URCNA and the OPC commissioners along with scores of guests and family, perhaps more than 400 ministers, elders, and members sung the following words:

    “I greet thee who my sure Redeemer art
    My only trust and Savior of my heart,
    Who pain didst undergo for my poor sake;
    I pray thee from our hearts all cares to take.”

    Hymn after hymn, psalm selection after psalm selection, in the new OPC/URCNA Psalter Hymnal, I see the same language as is in our standards. “Thee”, “Thou”, “Didst”, the list goes on. During Q&A, the CCE acknowledged that hymns were part of the language of OPC churches.

    Is it satisfactory then for men and women boys and girls to sing hymns with words they do not understand? If our hymns and psalms are prayers to the Lord and we do not understand them, certainly people are praying to the Lord in vain. 2nd and 3rd commandment issue?

    (Please note: I am benefiting tremendously by the new OPC/URCNA Psalter Hymnal and I hope everyone goes out and buys several. You can order through GCP )

    I do not know anyone who agrees that people are taking God’s name in vain while singing because we assume they understand the meaning of the archaic words. How can this be unless the language of our hymns is the language of our churches and the people in the pews?

    While our hymns are very important and a discussion item in themselves, what of this idea that the language of the church is not the KJV / Westminster English? Is it true? A few seconds on Google and I found an article on Christianity Today that surveyed the translations being read in America.

    I was very surprised to find that 55% of Americans that read the Bible, read from the King James Version
    Second in line was the NIV with just 19% readership and “the percentages drop into the single digits for competitors such as the New Revised Standard Version, New American Bible, and the Living Bible.”

    A Washington Post article pointed me to a thorough research report by the Barna Group on Bible utilization. On page 16 of the .pdf, the question is considered around preferred Bible Version. According to this study, 39% prefer the KJV. The NIV comes in second at 13%, NKJV at 10% and ESV at 8%. The KJV is approximately 4x more popular than NKJV and 5x more popular than the ESV.

    For several years, based on $ sales, the NIV is #1, KJV #2, and NKJV is usually in the top 4 with the ESV 5 or lower.

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  17. #3

    Why the references? Because we are being told and it seems most commentators believe that KJV language is not the language of the church. However, it is the language of our hymns, and it is the majority translation for a very wide margin in the United States. Until I looked at these statistics I assumed that KJV use must be a very small minority of our population because that’s the way we talk in Reformed circles. It is almost assumed to now be a minority text. The ESV is being embraced like the NIV once was or at least that was my assumption. But my assumptions were not even close.

    So I come back to this question of the premises that many are making. Who is making these assumptions about the language of the church? Why are they making them? What is the goal? A few minutes on Google and in the new Psalter Hymnal contradicts the assumptions.

    Perhaps the world doesn’t recognize the church’s language. Perhaps the world mocks the language of the KJV, NKJV, NASB, etc… The world may even reference the “thee” and “thou” as an issue for their mocking. But as I meet with people I don’t see those as their underlying stumbling blocks. For the world its much bigger words and not so archaic. For the world its things like, “sin”, “none righteous no not one”, “Savior”, “Redeemer”, “LORD”, “God”, “Judgement”, “Hell”, “Salvation”, “Resurrection”, “Eternal life”, “Jesus”, “Repent and believe” etc that they would like to see changed. I hope those are not up for question in this committee.

    With all this I come back to these questions: What is the revision really for? When the majority Bible translation by a very wide margin of Americans continues to be the language of our standards what is the goal for changing the language?

    We live in a society where little boys are told they can choose to be little girls and vice versa. Reformed churches are coining new terms that put sin in front of the word Christian. The proclamation of the gospel is weak in many places. The light in many corners of our nation is dim. The field is ripe for harvest but the laborers are few. And the OPC, a church the Lord has used for tremendous good, is sending some of her most qualified theologians to consider over the coming months and probably years, new words for the archaic and obsolete words phrases of the standards.

    Why?

    p.s. Personally, for most passages of Scripture I am content to read publicly from the NKJV. If the church prefers it, for most texts, the ESV works as well. However, for some passages (Isaiah 40, 53, Psalm 23, John 10, and about 20-30 others) I can’t help but pull out the KJV for public reading – it’s what Christians and the world recognize and read by a wide majority over any other translation.

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  18. I know I’m not the proprietor of this establishment but…can I please ask that Mr. Stahl never do that again where he posts his comment across three different entries at one time…ANNOYING!

    For clarity: I am not OPC and was not at the OPC general assembly so I’m at a disadvantage in understanding what specifically took place there. I belong to another NAPARC communion.

    I may be misunderstanding but no one is disputing that the language of the church is not the KJV / Westminster English. It is the very fact that this archaic phrasing/idiom IS the language of the church that makes it hard for ordinary people (i.e. not ministers or ruling elders who hold Ph.Ds) to find it accessible/intelligible. Mr. Stahl’s perspective is exactly what I mean when I said, “I think many ministers are out of touch with how incomprehensible the phrasing is for twenty first century people.” But what would I know; I’m forty four years old and I did not grow up on the KJV or in a NAPARC communion.

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  19. MJD,

    I will try not to do that again. My first attempt was one post but it created an error.

    (Ground #2 Given for the Recommendation of establish the Committee)
    “While there may be things in Scripture that are hard to understand, the church’s summary of what Scripture teaches should not use language that is hard to understand. Doctrinal standards by their very nature should use the language commonly used in the church today.”

    The argument is that the language of the WCF is not the language commonly used in the church and therefore proposals should be made by the committee to revise the language to the language of the church.

    As you indicated, this does not seem to be the case as most Bible reading Americans are actually reading the KJV and singing hymns/Psalms with Westminster like language. The language of our standards today, whether we like it or not, would seem to be the language of our church today.

    What about Reformed Christians & Ministers in particular as a subset of American Christians? What are they reading? I haven’t seen any polls, surveys, or research data.

    Perhaps we should conduct some research within NAPARC. Perhaps the question that should be posed is: Is it the church’s desire for Christians to be reading the KJV at the levels they are now – 4x more than the NKJV and 5x the ESV? Should the KJV be the majority text? Do Christians understand what they are reading? What about unbelievers? What would be a better and lasting translation of the Scripture than the majority text? These are fair questions. I am not trying to answer them now. However, these are not the questions that seem to have initiated the study committee.

    Hopefully this is helpful, Ben

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  20. @ Ben:

    I’m somewhat conflicted on the issue, but lean towards revision — translation, really. Either that, or “17th century English” classes for the whole congregation …

    My question for you is, When you say “…most Bible reading Americans are actually reading the KJV and singing hymns/Psalms with Westminster like language”, what level of comprehension does that indicate? Are they reading *and* understanding, singing *and* understanding? Or are they phonetically decoding funny words? How much understanding do they have of what they read?

    If the answer is “Not much”, that suggests that the problem is even worse than just outdated language in the Standards. They are also locked out of understanding their hymns and worse, their Bibles.

    If on the other hand the answer is “Lots”, that suggests that updating is not needed.

    I think your call for further research is a good one. However, I fear that the research might indicate that folk are less like the Bereans and more like the Ethiopian eunuch.

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  21. Ben Stahl – I appreciate your thoughts, but I think there are some flaws in your thinking. First, it is self-evident that a modern translation of the Bible is considerably easier to understand than the KJV – I don’t need a study to tell me that. I seriously doubt most Americans understand that the use of “concluded” in the KJV translation of Galatians 3:22 means to “imprison or enclose” rather than “to end” something. That significantly obscures, if not changes altogether, the meaning of a very important passage. Of course this is but one of many examples in the KJV.

    Second, saying that Elizabethan English is the “language of the church” is a cultural, traditional statement as much as it is practical. My elderly great-grandparents pray very KJV-ish prayers, complete with thees and thous, because growing up all they heard was the KJV being read in church. I’m sure they read the KJV because that’s what they are comfortable with, not because it is easier to understand. They are not unintelligent, but they would struggle to elucidate the theology of the WCF and WLC. Plus, the “language of the Church” strongly echoes Latin language of the RCC until Vatican II. If Catholics can abandon their language of 1900 years for the “vulgar tongue,” then surely we can update our English.

    Third, over 50% of the respondents in the study you cited read the Bible for “health” and “wealth.” That tells me there are a lot of infrequent or new Bible readers in that study, and they may turn to the KJV because the archaic language reads the way they expect the Bible to read.

    Fourth, the best-selling Bibles in recent years – by far – are the ESV Study Bible and Zondervan NIV Study Bible. We should be happy about that because both have a very strong Reformed bent. But note that those are not KJV. Those who read the KJV may read them because those are the only copies around the house and they (or their parents/grandparents) have had them for many years.

    Fifth, citing the archaic language of old hymns as evidence the WCF English is easy to understand is a bit unfair, since the the older English is used to make rhymes and rhythms that would be hard to maintain if the text were modernized consistently. The poetry of Shakespeare and the musicality of older hymns are different from the theological prose of the Westminster Standards.

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  22. I will say that Jeff’s explanation of what a stew is was pretty helpful. I assumed it was not the stuff I eat with a spoon, but had no idea what the WLC meant.

    My dad still prays with thee’s and thou’s. Curiously, in a college course on Shakespeare, I discovered that the “thees” and “thous” were the more familiar version of “you”. My dad thought it was just the opposite. One of us is mistaken, and I’m not sufficiently interested to look into it more carefully. My point is that one of us even gets the meaning of thou and thee wrong.

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  23. Ben, Good to see you at GA also.

    Thanks for your comments.

    It does seem to me that once most of our congregations stopped using the KJV and adopted the NIV and then the ESV, the ship of 17th. century English has sailed. It doesn’t make it right and the KJV only folks may have the most consistent position (though I’m not sure the example of Scripture itself backs this up since it comes originally in a variety of languages that evolved over the course of canon formation). So if we can update the language of primary standards, why not secondary (even though I concede that problems may arise).

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