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the holy bible
If it was good enough for the Apostle Paul, it's good enough for me
The King James Bible is celebrating its fourth century, but some Christians are rejoicing in it just a bit too much. Steve Tomkins investigates the believers for whom other Bible versions are from Satan.

There's always someone who's got to go too far and spoil it for the rest of us, isn't there? While we're all raising a glass to the 400th birthday of the King James Bible, and pretty much everyone in the western world seems agreed that it's Basically A Good Thing, the King James Only people turn out to have taken the whole thing to a ridiculous extreme.

They hold that the King James Bible is not just a reasonably reliable translation with a winning turn of phrase, but inspired, infallible and the only Bible it's permissible to read.

Amazing Grace Baptist Church in Waynesville, North Carolina, has an annual book burning night every Hallowe'en, where members destroy copies of any Bible apart from the King James, along with country records and the works of liberal heretics such as Billy Graham. "We are burning Satan's bibles like the NIV, RSV, NKJV..." explains Pastor Marc Grizzard. "These are perversions of God's Word, the King James Bible."

Too extreme, or not extreme enough? Steve Van Nattan of the serene-sounding Blessed Quietness Journal, says: "If you do not burn your NIV, NASB, New KJV, or whatever other slop hog filthy piece of excretion you are reading instead of the King James Bible, YOU ARE GOING TO HELL. I am delighted too."

Proof indeed of the blessings of quietness.

The leaders of this movement include the flamboyant Dr Peter S Ruckman, the founder of Pensacola Bible Institute, ufologist, and one-time Buddhist drummer, who has opposed new translations since the 1960s. He goes so far as to argue that where the KJB mistranslates the Greek or Hebrew, that's God improving the Bible: "Mistakes in the A.V. 1611 are advanced revelation!"

Ruckman calls the New American Standard Version "Satan's masterpiece" and "godless, depraved crap", and those who read modern translations, "stupid little Bible-rejecting apostates".

Another leader is Dr David Otis Fuller, the late minister of Wealthy Street Baptist Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, who was converted from recommending new translations from the pulpit to calling them "the most vicious and malicious attack upon the Word of God that has ever been made since the garden of Eden".

A third leader is the evangelist Rev Samuel "Environmentalists Are Mentally Ill" Gipp, who tells us the Revised Standard Version is the work of "Communistic liberals", and calls the New American Standard Version "a fraud".

All the King James Onlyists start from the Bible's promise that it will always be here: "The words of the Lord are pure words... Thou shalt keep them, O Lord, thou shalt preserve them from this generation for ever" (Psalm 12, KJV). But modern scholarship has found discrepancies between the many different manuscripts of the Bible, turning Bible translation into a detective job which tries to reconstruct the original. (The King James Bible translators worked basically from just one Greek text and one Hebrew.)

But, say the King James Onlyists, of all those variants manuscripts, one must have perfectly preserved the word of God, or Psalm 12 is a big lie. And do you believe God is a big liar? Do you? Think about it.

So the manuscript that lies behind the King James Bible is that one perfectly preserved Bible. Ruckman has made up a version of history to explain this. He says the church of Alexandria was a heretical cult which tampered with the Bible, producing all these different versions, while the church in Antioch kept the true Bible.

What motivates people to take such a transparently batty position? There's certainly an enormous amount of anti-intellectualism in their rhetoric. Gipp calls a Bible college education a "curse", while Gizzard says that having the King James Bible means no one can say, "I'm smarter than you because I know Greek and Hebrew, and you are an ignorant Christian." Ruckman says, "Every 'recognized' church historian and Christian 'scholar' is a member of a CULT."

But the main basis of the phenomenon seems to be a terror of uncertainty. "These are desperate days," says Gipp. "Multitudes of Christians are confused, with nearly a hundred versions, or paraphrases, of God's Holy Word in print."

All these apologists agree, repeatedly, that unless there is just one English Bible there will be ambiguity in the word of God, which God could not possibly allow, obviously. Unless every word of the Bible is certain, the Christian faith collapses.

A similar thing has happened before. In the turmoil of the English reformation, radical puritans, horrified by the different versions of Christianity fighting for the soul of the church, developed the idea of "the plain meaning of scripture": God is able to communicate clearly; therefore the Bible must do so; therefore anyone who finds in it different ideas to me must be wilfully rejecting the obvious truth. There is only one interpretation of the Bible. This naturally led to constant splits, just as King James Onlyism has done.

The Puritans also insisted that anything not mentioned in the Bible, such as stained glass and funeral services, is not left to our discretion, but is unlawful. There is only one biblical kind of church.

Both these onlyisms gradually submerged under the rising tide of pluralism, but the same impulse has re-emerged in King James Onlyism, the new Puritan attempt to ban ambiguity and avoid the need to make intellectual choices.

At root, this recurrent anxiety is a product of the text mania of Protestantism that so easily becomes Bible-worship, especially in evangelicalism. Countless evangelical statements of faith start, before any mention of God, with the Bible. The most important article of faith is not God, but his book. King James Only organisations go one better and start with the King James Bible. The central person of the faith is not Jesus Christ, St Paul, or even CS Lewis – it's James I.

Sane Christianity is above all a relationship with God and with other people. Being a relationship, it develops and changes, it grows and falters, it's provisional and organic, its alive and elusive. Christians have always looked to others to teach them the ways of God, but Protestantism put the final authority for the first time not in living people, but in words on a page.

Unfortunately, the Bible, however mellifluously translated, can't answer questions, clarify earlier statements, arbitrate disagreements or deal with new developments. If we're not going to let popes and councils do these jobs, then we have to do them for ourselves. The fear of these rough edges and tricky patches that King James Onlyism magnifies so grotesquely, is in fact something that all of us know how daunting it is to have responsibility for how we deal with the big questions of life.

You can't kill that uncertainty, even by firing King James Bibles at it.
steve tomkins
Steve Tomkins
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