Is the KJV Too Archaic for Use?

Prof. Herman Hanko

One of the chief objections to our continued use of the KJV is its archaic language. It is filled with words, so it is said, that could be understood when it was prepared, but are no longer used in contemporary English. This is a barrier to its use among us, especially in teaching children and doing the important work of evangelism. The result of so many archaisms is that the Bible has largely become a mysterious book, the contents of which are hidden from today’s readers by outdated and obscure language.

All the arguments for new translations finally come down to that one argument. Is that objection valid?

If the objection is valid, this would indeed be serious, for if the Bible can no longer be understood, its purpose has come to an end. The result of such a development would be that the Word of God, which the saints need for their spiritual life, would be beyond their reach, placed on an inaccessible shelf too high to be reached.

We must take this objection seriously, for the Bible is necessary for the life of the people of God, the work of the church, and the instruction of future generations. God accomplishes His work of salvation sovereignly by the Spirit of Christ in the hearts of the elect. But the Spirit never works apart from the Word of the Scriptures. If those Scriptures are inaccessible to God’s people, because of archaisms which make the Word difficult, if not impossible, to understand, that would be a barrier to the salvation of the saints.

The argument has a certain force and carries a measure of validity. Everyone with any knowledge of the KJV knows that there are indeed words that are no longer used in contemporary English, and that some words have taken a meaning quite different from what they had in the days when the KJV was prepared. We may not ignore the argument.

Nevertheless, two questions must be asked and answered. Are the archaisms in the KJV a serious barrier to the understandability of the KJV? And do these archaisms warrant a new translation? These two questions are related to each other.

Before one gives a yes or no answer to those questions, one must consider some crucial characteristics of Scripture.

Scripture itself testifies of the fact that there are passages in God’s Word that are difficult to understand. Peter tells those to whom he writes that in Paul’s writings there “are some things hard to be understood” (II Peter 3:16). Everyone knows that the prophets contain many difficult passages, which require much study if one is to penetrate into their meaning. Frequently passages of Scripture are distorted by the efforts of misguided translators to make these passages “understandable” to the modern 21st century man; but in doing so their meaning is distorted beyond recognition.

Furthermore, in an important sense, the meaning of the Scriptures is not accessible to everyone. The Scriptures are God’s Word, written to the church, and intended to be God’s revelation to His covenant people of the mysteries of God’s eternal purpose in Christ. Although from a certain formal point of view everyone who reads the Scriptures can understand what he reads, Luther was right when he said that the Scriptures are a closed book to anyone who comes to them without the Spirit who works faith in God’s people. Luther understood what many today seem not to understand. Only one who comes to Scripture in a Spirit-worked humility, saying in his heart: “Speak, Lord, for thy servant heareth,” is capable of understanding what the Scriptures say.

The point is important. When one possesses the Spirit of Christ and comes to learn the will of God, the Scriptures are open to him. When one lacks faith, the Scriptures are closed to him. To attempt to “open” the Scriptures to the unbeliever by a different translation is an exercise in futility.

The church has confessed, since the time of the Reformation, that one attribute of Scripture is its perspicuity. By this the church has meant that anyone who comes in faith to God’s Word can understand what the Scriptures mean. Neither age nor education makes a difference; the Scriptures are open to the little child on his mother’s knee as well as to the Ph.D in theology.

But the perspicuity of Scripture has never been understood to imply that Scripture is shallow. Scripture is not like a shallow pool on a concrete parking lot after a brief shower, in which one can see the pavement beneath the pool. Scripture is like a deep pool, utterly clear, into which one looks, but can never see the bottom.

The point is worth emphasizing.

The Scriptures do not cater to modern man with his ten-second attention span, his inability to think clearly about almost everything, his need to have any knowledge given in TV-size bits, and his easy slide into boredom and ennui if any prolonged concentration is required.

In his book, What is Faith? J. Gresham Machen makes the following point: “Many persons … seem to have a notion that modern Christians must be addressed always in words of one syllable, and that in religion we must abandon the scientific precision of language.… In pursuance of this tendency we have had presented to us recently various translations of the Bible which reduce the Word of God more or less thoroughly to the language of the modern street, or which, as the matter was put recently in my hearing by an intelligent layman, ‘take all the religion out of the New Testament.’ But the whole tendency, we for our part think, ought to be resisted. Back of it all seems to lie the strange assumption that modern men, particularly modern university men, can never by any chance learn anything; they do not understand the theological terminology which appears in such richness in the Bible, and that is regarded as the end of the matter; apparently it does not occur to anyone that possibly they might with profit acquire the knowledge of Biblical terminology which now they lack. But I for my part am by no means ready to acquiesce. I am perfectly ready, indeed, to agree that the Bible and the modern man ought to be brought together. But what is not always observed is that there are two ways of attaining that end. One way is to bring the Bible down to the level of the modern man; but the other way is to bring the modern man up to the level of the Bible (emphasis mine). I am inclined to advocate the latter way.”

Scripture is meant to be studied. One comes to its meaning through pondering its truths, meditating on its words and sentences, and concentrating on the wealth of its thought.

It is not true that little children, still unable to read, are incapable of understanding Scripture in the measure of their own intellectual development. What child who understands the basics of the English language cannot understand Genesis 1 – and usually better than those who try to twist it to include heretical evolutionary teachings? And what child cannot understand the sober and simple, yet totally profound story of the birth of God in Christ in a manger in Bethlehem?

But the more one studies and meditates upon Scripture, the more one understands its riches and truths. The more accustomed one’s eyes become in peering into Scripture’s depths, the more deeply one can see into it. And yet, after a lifetime of study, even learning all that the church in earlier millennia have said about God’s Word, one only penetrates about two inches into the great depths of God’s revelation of Himself in all His wonderful works and ways.

If these things are not remembered and we come to Scripture as we do to a first grade reading book, we have no right to blame our inability to understand it on the use of some archaisms. The fault lies with us.

The archaisms of Scripture are relatively few in number. They are easily explainable or understandable to one who is willing to take the time to look them up in a good dictionary. And parents can easily teach the meaning of them to their children when the family is together for family devotions, or when the children are memorizing parts of Scripture.

When a small child lisps the words of Psalm 23, usually one of the first chapters parents teach their children, is it so difficult to tell these children the meaning of verse 1? “The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want.” “The Lord cares for me as a shepherd cares for his sheep. I will never lack anything in all my life, cared for by Jehovah God.”

While Scripture does have in it archaisms, the real question is not: How difficult is the KJV to understand? The real question is: Why is the KJV so easy to understand seeing it was prepared almost four hundred years ago? If one would compare the plays of Shakespeare, written only a few decades earlier, with the KJV, one will be astounded at the difference in the English. It is extremely difficult to read Macbeth without the help of some translation aids.

God, in His providence, brought into being the KJV at a propitious time in England’s history. Up to this time England had no real English language. Anglo-Saxon invaders from Germany and the Lowlands had affected the early language of the Celts. Scandinavian Norsemen had invaded England, settled in it, and brought their own peculiar language to the country. William the Conqueror had imported French and all but made French the language of diplomacy and commerce. The English spoken in the fields and cottages was different in different parts of the country, and was not that of the nobility. It was hard for one Englishman to understand another from a different part of the country.

But at the time of King James, England was emerging as a world power in its own right. It was coming to a national consciousness, which tended to unify the country. It was becoming a force to be reckoned with in commerce. Its navy ruled the seas. The sun never set on its many colonies. A language spoken nationwide was needed. A uniform English language, which was slowly developing, became, because of the unique development of the English language, the most expressive and influential language in all Europe. It had a depth and range that no other language possessed.

The KJV played a major role in attaining a countrywide and standard English. The translators not only prepared a translation that helped standardize the language, but the translators molded and shaped a standard language, and thus became, in part, the creators of modern English. Luther did much the same with his German translation of the Bible, and the Statenvertaling of the Synod of Dordt had the same effect on Dutch.

In addition to the shaping of modern English by the new translation, the translators made the Bible understandable by all in England because they used English words instead of Latin words about 92% of the time. Latin words are still and cold, rigid and feelingless. English words, of Anglo-Saxon origin, are homey and earthy, expressive and forceful, the language of the people rather than the university.

It is because of these providential workings of God that a version was prepared that can rightly be said to be in “timeless English.” Undoubtedly this is the reason why so many words and expressions of the KJV have entered our everyday language. One need only think of such expressions as “to lick the dust” (Psalm 72:9), “sour grapes” (Ezekiel 18:2), “the skin of my teeth” (Job 19:20), “from time to time” (Ezekiel 4:10).

One scholar wrote about the Hebrew: “The [KJV] is an almost literal translation of the Masoretic text, and is thus on every page replete with Hebrew idioms. The fact that Bible English has to a marvelous extent shaped our speech, giving peculiar connotations to many words and sanctioning strange constructions, is not any less patent. The [KJV] has been – it can be said without any fear of being charged with exaggeration – the most powerful factor in the history of English literature. Though the constructions encountered in the [KJV] are oftentimes so harsh that they seem almost barbarous, we should certainly have been the poorer without it.”

It is but a short time before the Lord returns. For four centuries the KJV has served the church well. Would it not be to the church’s advantage to retain such a precious tradition in the little time that remains? One thing we know. When persecution comes, our Bibles will be taken from us and the only Word of God we shall retain is that which we have memorized and hid in our hearts. What easier translation is there to memorize than the rolling cadences of our KJV? It is the Bible for us and our children.

Prof. Herman Hanko is a retired professor of New Testament and Church History in the Protestant Reformed Seminary, USA)

– The above is reproduced by kind permission of the author, and is taken from his paper, “Our Venerable King James Bible,” published by Peace Protestant Reformed Church, http://www.peaceprc.org/ourvenerablekjv.pdf.