Does "one, perfect, once-for-all" translation even make sense?

by Luke Wayne
10/31/18
Return to King James Onlyism

The thrust of most forms of King James Onlyism is in the claim that the KJV is the one, perfect, once-for-all translation in the English language. It is the "perfect" English translation, and therefore any other translation that differs from the KJV in even the smallest and most insignificant way must be guilty of an "imperfection." Even if the new translation says the exact same thing as the KJV, just in different words, those words must be inferior because they are not the words used by the KJV. Since the KJV is "perfect," the wording in any other translation, even if saying the same thing, must be "imperfect." Likewise, since the KJV is "perfect," it is the translation that ought to be used not only by English speakers of its own time, but rather of all times. Everywhere and in every time that English is spoken, they can do no better than the KJV because, after all, the KJV is perfect, and one cannot improve on perfection.

One Translation Over All Others?

Among the presuppositions that lie behind this assertion, a crucial one is the idea that a sentence or passage in one language can only be correctly translated into another language in exactly one way. Anyone who has done any serious translating or interpreting, however, can tell you this just isn't true. Languages are not identical to each other, and so there is no one exact way to translate something from one language to another. While it is true that some phrases are so precise that there are relatively few right ways to translate them, and thus most translations will be almost identical in these places, others allow quite a variety of options that are all equally correct translations. One translator may choose a word like "happy" and another may choose "glad," and both will be correct translations saying the exact same thing. One is not more perfect than the other. Both are equally right. Thus, when dealing with something as lengthy and complex as the Bible, it is simply absurd to think that only one completely correct translation is possible into English (or any other language, for that matter). More than one correct translation is possible, and the differences between two good translations are not "imperfections." They are different ways of saying the same thing in English.

Indeed, having more than one translation can often enrich our understanding of a passage. Take, for example, John 3:16:

"For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life," (KJV).

"For God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life," (CSB).

"For this is the way God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life," (NET).

The KJV is quite correct in its translation here. It is perfectly accurate. Yet, by itself, we might misunderstand it. Its opening line "For God so loved the world..." is often misread to mean "for God loved the world so much..." While it is certainly true that God does indeed love the world very much, that is not what this verse is saying. The other two translations help clarify this by saying the same thing in different words. "For God loved the world in this way," and "For this is the way God loved the world," are other ways of saying "For God so loved the world," and by reading them together, we better get what John meant. The word "so" here is used in the same way as in James 2:12:

"So speak ye, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty," (KJV).

"So speak" and "so do" mean "speak in this way" and "do in this way." They aren't talking about speaking excessively and doing excessively, but rather speaking and doing in a particular fashion. It's not "speak so much" and "do so much," but rather speak and do in the manner as those judged by the law of liberty ought to speak and do. Speak and do in this way. The same thing is going on in John 3:16, when the KJV rightly says that God "so loved" the world. God loved the world in a particular way; He sent His own Son. Indeed, we see this later when John says the same thing in slightly different words in one of his letters:

"In this was manifested the love of God toward us, because that God sent his only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through him," (1 John 4:9).

The coming of Jesus is the way in which God's love was displayed or manifested. It is the way in which God loved us. Thus, all of these translations of John 3:16 are saying this same thing, and all of them are correct. Their different wording actually helps us to better see exactly what John meant. It is not a matter of one perfect translation and a bunch of perverted or corrupted ones. Rather, it is multiple fine translations enriching one another and clarifying each other. This is the beautiful reality we find when we realize that more than one translation can be correct, that more than one version can both be God's inerrant word!

One Translation for All Time?

Languages change over time. It is a universal reality. It is not necessarily a matter of the language getting "better" or "worse," but just a simple fact that the way people speak to one another changes over time.  New words are invented or borrowed from other languages. Old words fall out of use. Still other words remain popular but change in meaning. The way we structure our sentences changes, as do some rules of grammar in a given language. Conventions for punctuation and spelling can change quite a bit. Idioms and figures of speech fall in and out of use. Thus, the perfect way of saying something in one generation will eventually become completely incoherent in a later generation and may use words and phrases that didn't even exist yet in a previous generation. The implications of this for Bible translations are obvious. As C.S. Lewis noted:

"There is no such thing as translating a book into another language once and for all, for language is a changing thing. If your son is to have clothes it is no good buying him a suit once and for all: he will grow out of it and have to be re-clothed."1

To admit this obvious fact does not mean that there is anything wrong with the KJV or that there was anything particularly deficient in Elizabethan English. The fact of the matter is, though, that no one speaks Elizabethan English anymore, and no grand social or religious movement is ever going to bring Elizabethan English back and hold it as the static, permanent language of the people. Languages change, and if the purpose of translation is to make the Bible available to everyday people and not shrouded in an archaic language known only to an expert class, then we need new translations from time to time for the same reason that we need translations at all! Take, for example, how 2 Timothy 2:12 has been rendered in English over the centuries:

"if we suffren, we schulen regne togidere; if we denyen, he schal denye vs," (Wycliffe, 14th Century).

"Yf we be pacient we shall also raigne wt him. If we denye him he also shall denye vs," (Tyndale, 1526).

"If we suffer, we shall also reign with him: if we deny him, he also will deny us," (KJV, 1769 Blayne Revision).

"if we endure, we shall also reign with him: if we shall deny him, he also will deny us," (ASV, 1901).

"If we endure, we will also reign with Him; If we deny Him, He also will deny us," (NASB, 1995 Revision).

Carefully examined, all of these translations are saying the same thing. If we go back to the 14th century Wycliffe Bible, however, the text is so difficult to read that it would present us with a significant barrier to reading and studying. We could demand that people learn to read such 14th-century English, and it would be possible, just as we could also demand that people just learn Greek and Hebrew and it would be possible, but it is not a good solution. The same could be said to Tyndale's translation from the 1500's, though slightly less so. The 1769 Revision of the KJV (the version printed as the "King James Version" today) is much clearer, but presents more subtle challenges. The word "suffer" has changed in usage. It once could mean to endure, put up with, or allow. Today, it no longer carries that range of meaning. It only means to experience agony, pain, or intense discomfort. Thus. "if we suffer" was once equivalent to Tyndale's "If we be patient" or the modern "if we endure," but the phrase "if we suffer" has now lost that possible meaning and thus has moved from being clear (as it was when it was translated) to now being somewhat misleading. This is not a fault in the KJV, it is just the natural way that languages change. Thus, the ASV is clearer to us than the KJV was, and the NASB is even clearer still. Though all are translating the same passage, and translating it rightly, they are doing so into the English of different eras. Modern translations are suited to modern readers. One day, English will have changed to the point that the NASB will itself become difficult and need to be supplemented or replaced. That is just the nature of language and translation over time. As C.S. Lewis again explained:

"The Authorized Version has ceased to be a good (that is, a clear) translation. It is no longer modern English: the meanings of words have changed. The same antique glamour which has made it (in a superficial sense) so 'beautiful', so 'sacred', so 'comforting', and so 'inspiring', has also made it in many places unintelligible. Thus where St Paul says 'I know nothing against myself,' it translates 'I know nothing by myself.'2 That was a good translation (though even then rather old fashioned) in the sixteenth century; to the modern reader it means either nothing, or something quite different from what St Paul said. The truth is that if we are to have translation at all we must have periodical re-translation."3

There is no such thing as a once-for-all translation. If our Bible translations are to mean what the Apostles really said and to be readable to the everyday Christian, we need to render them into a form of English that people are still actually speaking. Only then will they read with understanding.

  • 1. C.S. Lewis, The Timeless Writings of C.S. Lewis (Family Christian Press) 456, from "God in the Dock" Chapter 10
  • 2. 1 Corinthians 4:4
  • 3. C.S. Lewis, The Timeless Writings of C.S. Lewis (Family Christian Press) 456, from "God in the Dock" Chapter 10