Last Month’s Challenge Explained and Reiterated

Together With Several Statements from Prominent Men & Societies of Old Times, who Deny the Inerrancy of the King James Version

by Glenn Conjurske

In our review of David Cloud’s For Love of the Bible, we offered a challenge to the whole King James Only movement, to produce a single explicit statement, prior to Fuller and Ruckman, ascribing inerrancy to the King James Translation. If anyone, anywhere, can produce such a statement, I will be glad to publish it—-for I hope my readers know that my aim is the truth, and not merely to gain a victory for my own position. Not that one such statement, or a hundred of them, would in any way affect my position, for I do not stand upon the testimony of man. Nevertheless, I aim to establish historical fact as well as doctrinal truth, and to that end I would consider it my obligation to publish any explicit statement, before Fuller and Ruckman, which ascribes inerrancy to the King James Translation. It is worthy of notice that David Cloud has failed to produce any such statement, though he has ransacked history in search of testimony in support of the King James Version. It is certainly legitimate to suppose that if Cloud had found any such explicit statement, he would certainly have included it in his book. The absence of any such statement from his pages no doubt argues strongly against its existence. Nevertheless, Cloud does not know everything, any more than I do, and if any such statement anywhere exists, I would be glad to know it, for my own information, and glad to publish it, for the sake of historical truth.

But let it be understood, I am not looking for the statements of those who were entirely ignorant of all the issues. I suppose there have been some folks who assumed that the English Bible came just as it is directly from God, without any knowledge of the fact that it was first written in Greek and Hebrew, passed down to us through a train of thousands of hand-written manuscripts, then translated into English, and then revised numerous times. Such folks might well believe that the English Bible as it stands is inerrant (and who could fault them if they did?), yet I am confident that David Cloud would disallow such testimony as surely as I would—-and it is certain that such testimony could have little bearing on the question of preservation. I would be glad to see such testimony, but I would deny that it has any bearing on the issue at hand.

Meanwhile I offer to my readers a few statements from prominent men of God which deny the inerrancy of the King James Version, either explicitly or implicitly. I grant at the outset that it is not easy to find such statements prior to the nineteenth century, but this is not because men believed anything otherwise before that date. I believe two things account for the rarity of such statements in earlier works. First, the Christianity of earlier times was more practical and spiritual, and simply did not occupy itself with such matters. James H. Brookes affirms, “The Roman Catholic, the Greek, and the Protestant communion and the various parties and factions in each of these, may have little or nothing to do with one another, but they all unite with one voice in proclaiming that the sacred Scriptures are the word and work of God.

“It is worthy of notice that they advance no theory about the mode of inspiration, nor is any theory held and maintained, so far as is known, for perhaps seventeen hundred years after the death of Christ. They content themselves with asserting in the strongest terms that we are indebted for the writings called the sacred Scriptures to the Holy Ghost, that the words we there read are the words of God, and hence that in the perusal of them we may be assured of entire exemption from the ignorance, the folly and the mistakes of men.” The older generations were occupied more with practical matters than with intellectual distinctions. Their province was to use the book, rather than to exactly define it.

As theology became more intellectual, such distinctions became more prominent. Not that they were not held before, only that they were not explicitly stated, for there was no occasion for it. This I suppose to be the second reason for the rarity of such statements in earlier times. It was common doctrine that inerrancy and infallibility belonged to the originals, and not to any translation whatsoever, but what occasion was there to state what all believed, and none denied? Modern ignorance, or prejudice, is likely to assume that such statements as that which I have quoted above from James H. Brookes are to be applied to the English version, but it is certain that Brookes would not have so applied it, as the quotation from him which I give below will prove. It was generally unnecessary to state what was assumed and believed by all—-for no Protestant held any translation to be without error.

Yet in the providence of God there were some who imputed inerrancy to a translation, and this called forth some early statements denying that claim. Those who imputed inerrancy to a translation were of course the Papists, who imputed infallibility to the Latin translation. In the early controversies between the Papists and the Protestants, therefore, the Protestant doctrine was clearly stated.

William Chillingworth, 1602-1644, Church of England. “Ninthly, your Rhemish and Doway translations are delivered to your proselytes (such, I mean, that are dispensed with, for the reading of them) for the direction of their faith and lives. And the same may be said of your translation of the bible into other national languages, in respect of those that are licensed to read them. This, I presume, you will confess. And, moreover, that these translations came not by inspiration, but were the productions of human industry; and that not angels, but men, were the authors of them. Men, I say, mere men, subject to the same passions, and to the same possibility of erring with our translators.” The doctrine of this is clear and unmistakable. He insists that the Romanist translations “came not by inspiration,” but were the productions of “men, … mere men,” and so “subject to the same possibility of erring with our translators.” He thus puts the Romanist translations upon exactly the same ground with the Protestant translations, including of course the King James Version, for this was published in 1637. He thus states the common Protestant doctrine that no human translation is directly inspired of God, or without error. This was the doctrine of the Reformation, and most of the early English Protestant versions, including the King James Version, explicitly disclaimed inerrancy or infallibility. This was the common doctrine of all Protestants prior to Fuller and Ruckman, though in the two centuries following Chillingworth it was generally rather assumed than explicitly stated. There was little occasion to state it. Men were not so occupied then as they are now with precise intellectual distinctions. The English version was (very rightly) assumed to be an excellent representation of the original, and adequate for all ordinary purposes, and there was little occasion to affirm (what all believed) that it was not inerrant.

I add, by the way, another pertinent observation from good Mr. Chillingworth, which, if understood, might serve to dispel a little of the mental fog which David Otis Fuller introduced into the ranks of Fundamentalism. Chillingworth says, “For Dr. Covel’s commending your translation [the Latin Vulgate], what is it to the business in hand? Or how proves it the perfection, of which it is here contested, any more than St. Augustine’s commending the Italian translation argues the perfection of that, or that there was no necessity, that St. Jerome should correct it? Dr. Covel commends your translation, and so does the bishop of Chichester, and so does Dr. James, and so do I; but I commend it for a good translation, not for a perfect.”

L. W. Munhall 1843-1934, Methodist, was quoted last month. We have given similar statements from Burgon, Spurgeon, and others in the past. I do not repeat those here.

Andrew Fuller, 1754-1815, Baptist. “Allowing all due honour to the English translation of the Bible, it must be granted to be a human performance, and, as such, subject to imperfection. Where any passage appears to be mistranslated, it is doubtless proper for those who are well acquainted with the original languages to point it out, and to offer, according to the best of their judgment, the true meaning of the Holy Spirit. Criticisms of this kind, made with modesty and judgment, and not in consequence of a preconceived system, are worthy of encouragement.”

English Baptist Union, 1839. In response to the requirement of the British and Foreign Bible Society, that the King James Version should be made the standard for the foreign translations which it was to print, the Baptist Union says, “Still further, they would ask wherein the virtue consists of introducing the faults of the English Version into new translations. Admitting, that under the circumstances of its production, it is an admirable work, and even better executed in the main than might have been apprehended, no admirers of it have yet been so enthusiastic as to pronounce it immaculate. On all hands it is confessed to betray the marks of human imperfection. The Committee [of the British & Foreign Bible Society] themselves say of it, ‘Errors are to be found in it which the humblest scholar could not only point out but correct. Errors too there are which obscure the sense in some important instances.’ Why should these errors be propagated? If there be thought to be a necessity for leaving them uncorrected, at least, let them remain where they are. If we must have them at home, let us not send them abroad. What benevolence is there in afflicting the heathen with our calamities? Every Christian would surely say, give them the unadulterated word, whatever you choose in regard to yourselves.”

The reader should note that “enthusiastic” is here used in its old sense of “fanatical.” Observe also that this testimony does not refer merely to the position of the Baptist Union, but to that of the whole church of God, throughout the whole time in which the Authorized Version had existed. It was confessed on all hands to be a human and imperfect work, which none of its admirers had yet been so fanatical as to suppose immaculate. This statement was made in 1839. L. W. Munhall affirmed the same in 1896, as quoted in our last number. The memorial from which the above quotation is taken was unanimously adopted “At a Special Meeting of the Committee of the Baptist Union, held December 17, 1839.”

And here I must insist upon one important fact, namely, that when the old writers speak of the version being immaculate or perfect, they mean precisely “without error.” No one before the present generation ever dreamed of distinguishing between “perfect” and “inerrant,” and those who hide behind this distinction are really grasping at a straw. They would not dare apply such a distinction to the originals.

British & Foreign Bible Society, 1839. The above quotation from the Baptist Union also contains the explicit statement of the British and Foreign Bible Society (from its 1839 Annual Report) that there are errors in the King James Version, and such errors as obscure the sense in important passages. Further down in their memorial, the Baptist memorialists give a fuller quotation from the same place in the same Annual Report of the Bible Society. Some had faulted the Bible Society for circulating Roman Catholic versions on the Continent. The Bible Society’s committee defends the practice thus: “No version is perfect—-no version is to be found but what contains acknowledged error, and, in a great many instances, error that might be corrected. Your Committee are persuaded that if even the English authorized version were dealt with in the same manner as the Portuguese, an amount of individual mistranslation might be presented, which would, with equal justice, give rise to the question, Can such a version be called the Word of God? Errors are to be found in it, which the humblest scholar could not only point out,” [&c., as above]. Some of this language, in my judgement, is unjustifiably strong, but I do not give it to establish doctrinal truth, but the facts of history. And mark, this is not the language of an opponent of the King James Version, but of a Society which, at that very time, made the King James Version the standard for all foreign translations.

“The Rev. Dr. Brigham,” Senior Secretary of the American Bible Society, 1858. “Nor is the question whether our old English Bible is perfect, in sentiment or taste, in text or accessories. All will admit, that while excellent as a whole, it has some faults in all these respects.” Observe, a fault in sentiment can only mean a faulty sense, due to a faulty translation. He affirms that all admit this.

C. Van Rensselaer, editor, The Presbyterian Magazine, speaking for the American Bible Society, 1858. “The resolutions attribute no infallibility to erring men, whether printers, collators, or revisers of the Holy Scriptures, in this or in past generations; but simply prefer the old edition as it is…to the proposed emendations of the Committee.”

Observe that both of the preceding statements were made while defending the printing of the old version as it was.

C. H. Mackintosh, 1820-1896, Plymouth Brethren. “We heartily and reverently believe in the plenary inspiration of the holy scriptures, given of God in the Hebrew and Greek languages. No doubt errors are found in various versions, copies, and translations. We speak only of the scriptures as given of God.”

James H. Brookes, 1830-1897, Presbyterian. In a little book entitled The Inerrant Bible Brookes says, “If contradictions or falsehoods, errors or mistakes can be found in the Bible it is foolish to claim that the Book is from God. If even one error can be discovered in the original manuscripts, that one error will disprove its supernatural origin. … Of course it is not claimed that the translations, of which there are hundreds in hundreds of the languages and dialects of earth, are inspired, although as the translators of our common English version well say, ‘The very meanest translation of the Bible in English contains the Word of God, nay, is the Word of God. …’ Nor is it claimed that the copies, of which there were thousands made by stylus or pencil for centuries before the art of printing was discovered, were inspired, although the state of the copies has nothing more to do with the inspiration than the stains in the windows have to do with the light of the sun. A bad man may translate the Bible, if he has sufficient knowledge of Hebrew and Greek. A careless or unconverted man may make a copy of the Bible, and it would be absurd to expect a perpetual miracle to guard such men from intentional or unintentional mistakes. But it is the miracle of literature that so few errors have been found even in faulty translations and imperfect copies. The manuscripts have been ransacked and subjected to microscopic examinations, and in not a single instance has a difference of reading been discovered that in the least affects a fundamental doctrine or essential truth.

“The question, however, is not about translations and copies, but about the writings as they came from the hands of the men God selected to communicate His revealed will.”

David Cloud lists Brookes as a supporter of the Authorized Version, but if so it could only have been in the most general sense. He published a trenchant article against the Revised Version in 1894, but he never hesitated to quote from the Revised Version, or to correct the King James Version from the original, where he saw occasion for it, and in the above quotation he explicitly opposes the notion of the inerrancy of any translation.

J. C. Ryle, 1816-1900, Church of England. In contending for the verbal and plenary inspiration of the Bible, he says, “In making this statement I ask the reader not to misunderstand my meaning. I do not forget that the Old Testament was written in Hebrew and the New Testament in Greek. The inspiration of every word, for which I contend, is the inspiration of every original Hebrew and Greek word, as the Bible writers first wrote it down. I stand up for nothing more and nothing less than this. I lay no claim to the inspiration of every word in the various versions and translations of God’s Word. So far as those translations and versions are faithfully and correctly done, so far they are of equal authority with the original Hebrew and Greek. We have reason to thank God that many of the translations are, in the main, faithful and accurate. At any rate our own English Bible, if not perfect, is so far correct, that in reading it we have a right to believe that we are reading in our own tongue not the word of man, but of God.”

Ryle also explicitly denies the infallible preservation of the text, saying, “No doubt we may have lost a few of the original words. We have no right to expect infallibility in transcribers and copyists, before the invention of printing. But there is not a single doctrine in Scripture which would be affected or altered if all the various readings were allowed, and all the disputed or doubtful words were omitted.”

Observe, Ryle contends for the general accuracy and consequent adequacy of the common English version, in the same paragraph in which he explicitly denies the inspiration or infallibility of its every word. This was the position of all Protestants. In our own day, alas, a great host of men have risen up, none of them worthy to bear Ryle’s shoes, who deny both the accuracy and the adequacy of the old version, and hence we have a rash of new ones designed to replace it—-and hence, as a reaction against that, the exaltation of the old version to the place of infallibility. But this doctrine is as new as the new versions, or a little newer. Let those who believe this new doctrine, and who suppose it to be an old doctrine, let them now prove it old, by producing a single statement from old times which explicitly attributes inerrancy to the King James translation.

Glenn Conjurske