Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

16 Apr 2012

The Preface and Opposition to New Translations

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In a previous post I noted that the Preface to the 1611 King James Version is an embarrassment to KJV-only advocates because in it the translators of the KJV make a series of statements that argue against the KJV-only position. Since KJV-only proponents insist that only the KJV is the Word of God in English, they are radically opposed to any English translation produced in the last 400 years.

Prior to the KJV, there had been many English translations of Bible: Wycliffe (1382), Tyndale (NT, 1526), Coverdale (1535), Matthew’s Bible (1537), the Great Bible (1539), the Geneva Bible (1560), the Bishops’ Bible (1568), and the Douai-Rheims (1609–10). Since these and other translations were already available in 1611, the translators of the KJV believed there would be hostility to their new translation, and so they are quick to address the issue in the Preface:

Zeal to promote the common good, whether it be by devising any­thing ourselves, or revising that which hath been laboured by others, de­serveth certainly much respect and esteem, but yet findeth but cold enter­tainment [reception] in the world. It is welcomed with suspicion instead of love, and with emulation instead of thanks: and if there be any hole left for cavil [trivial objection] to enter, (and cavil, if it do not find a hole, will make one) it is sure to be misconstrued, and in danger to be condemned. This will easily be granted by as many as know story [history], or have any experience. For was there ever any thing projected, that savoured any way of newness or renewing, but the same endured many a storm of gainsaying or opposition?

This, and more to this purpose, his Majesty that now reigneth…knew full well, according to the singular wisdom given unto him by God, and the rare learning and experience that he hath attained unto; namely, that whosoever attempteth any thing for the publick, (specially if it pertain to religion, and to the opening and clearing of the word of God) the same set­teth himself upon a stage to be glouted [frowned] upon by every evil eye; yea, he casteth himself headlong upon pikes [spears], to be gored by every sharp tongue. For he that meddleth with men’s religion in any part med­dleth with their custom, nay, with their freehold [an estate or office held for life]; and though they find no content in that which they have, yet they cannot abide to hear of altering.

Many men’s mouths have been open a good while (and yet are not stopped) with speeches about the translation so long in hand, or rather perusals of translations made before: and ask what may be the reason, what the necessity, of the employment. Hath the Church been deceived, say they, all this while?…Was their translation good before? Why do they now mend it? Was it not good? Why then was it obtruded [thrust upon] to the people?

The translators righty recognize that it is just human nature to react against change, and this is especially true in religious matters. They anticipate that critics will ask why a new translation is needed if previous translations are accurate presentations of the Word of God? And if previous translations were imposed upon the public as being accurate representations of the Word of God, why would a new translation be at all necessary? The translators answer:

Yet for all that, as nothing is begun and perfected at the same time, and the latter thoughts are thought to be the wiser: so, if we building upon their foundation that went before us, and being holpen by their labours, do en­deavour to make that better which they left so good; no man, we are sure, hath cause to mislike us; they, we persuade ourselves, if they were alive, would thank us.

Here then is the obvious answer as to why there has been a continu­ous stream of English translations—translations can always be improved upon. KJV-only proponents deny that there are any errors in the KJV and insist that it cannot be improved upon. However, the translators of the KJV recognized that all translations, since they are done by fallible men, are not perfect and can indeed be improved. The translators would certainly not have objected to good-faith attempts to improve their own work. The Preface continues:

Therefore let no man’s eye be evil, because his Majesty’s is good; neither let any be grieved, that we have a Prince that seeketh the increase of the spiri­tual wealth of Israel;…but let us rather bless God from the ground of our heart for working this religious care in him to have the translations of the Bible maturely considered of and examined. For by this means it cometh to pass, that whatsoever is sound already,…the same will shine as gold more brightly, being rubbed and polished; also, if any thing be halting, or superfluous, or not so agree­able to the original, the same may be corrected, and the truth set in place.

The translators recognize that previous English translations are “sound” presentations of the Word of God,” but only a fool would think that any human or group of human translators could produce perfection. They acknowledge “nothing is begun and perfected at the same time,” and later scholarship can improve on the work of previous translators. It is obvious the KJV translators would be horrified at the thought their work was perfect and would be the first to commend later improvements and corrections of their work.

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