Considering The New King James Version

by Rick Shrader

Because I agree with Calvin when he says, “Sacred word does not deserve to be accused of novelty,”1 and also with Thomas à Kempis when he says, “Truth, not eloquence, is to be sought for in Holy Scriptures,”2 I offer this conclusion to my comparison of these two Bible versions.  It will be an annoyance to some and be welcomed by others.

The translators of the King James Version wrote in their preface, “We never thought from the beginning that we should need to make a new translation, nor yet to make of a bad one a good one; but to make a good one better, or out of many good ones one principal good one, not justly to be excepted against; that hath been our endeavour, that our mark” (¶ 16).  Truly, their process of updating the available translations was very much like today’s process of updating the Old KJV to the New KJV.  They even saw their work as a no-win proposition when it came to eventual criticism:  “But we weary the unlearned, who need not know so much; and trouble the learned, who know it already” (¶ 14).  But the criticism was the lesser of two evils, for the greater evil would be not to bring the Word into greater light:  “So, lest the Church be driven to the like exigent [in need of aid], it is necessary to have translations in a readiness.  Translation it is that openeth the window, to let in the light; that breaketh the shell, that we may eat the kernel; that putteth aside the curtain, that we may look into the most holy place; that removeth the cover of the well, that we may come by the water” (¶ 6).

This will not be an exercise in textual criticism.  Obviously, the textual tradition of these two versions is the same, and arguments for and against that tradition is not my objective.  Nor will this be an apologetic for one version over the other but rather a Bible reader’s comparison of what I believe to be the advantages and disadvantages of both. (If, of course, one adheres to a different textual tradition, and I do not rule out such  adherences, he then sees an a priori disadvantage).

I would also beg the pardon of my friends who see no need (indeed, even a real danger) in doing this at all.  As even the translators addressed, I cannot win with either the harshest critics nor with the most zealous advocates.  I’m sure my conclusions will land somewhere between you both.  I love the King James Version and have no desire to disparage it in any way.  That is not to say I am unaware of its difficulties in use.  But I have been reading the New KJV this year (the OT once and the NT about a dozen times) and have learned to appreciate it in many ways, while at the same time balking at some of its newer expressions.

Over the last several months, I have merely kept a paper in the back of my NKJV with one side labeled “Reasons I would use the NKJV” and the other side labeled “Reasons I would use the old KJV.”  I added various references to the entries each time I read.  I will give seven from both lists.

Reasons why I would use the New King James Version

1. I am glad that the NKJV has no “ghosts” and “devils” and I would not miss reading such words in public as “asses” and “bastards.”  There is no different Greek word for “Ghost” than for “Spirit” and there is only one “devil” but many “demons.”  Non-offensive words are updated as well, such as “cheribims,” “disannulled,” “conversation,” etc. to make the meaning more quickly understood.

2. The layout of the text is much easier to follow.  In poetical books, the verse is set aside for easier eye contact.  Quotations of the OT in the NT are set aside as well and become easily recognizable as such.  It is not a paragraph Bible, but these changes in appearance make it easier to follow.

3. Difficult readings are made clearer by changing a few words.  Instead of “that recompense of their error which was meet” (KJV) you have “the penalty of their error which was due” (NKJV) in Rom 1:27.  Instead of “only he who now letteth will let until . . .” (KJV), you have “only He who now restrains will do so until . . .” (NKJV) in 2 Thes 2:7.  These kinds of examples are numerous.  The translators put it, “variety of translations is profitable for the finding out of the sense of the Scriptures” (¶ 17).

4. Many old words in the KJV do need updating if the reader is to immediately grasp the meaning.  The NKJV gives you “clothing” for “raiment;” “useful” for “meet;” “basic principles” for “rudiments;” “desire” and “passion” for “concupiscence;” “precede” for “prevent;” “money” for “lucre;” “annul” for “disannul;” and “teacher” for “schoolmaster.”

5. Specific wordings become more pointed and therefore more powerful and persuasive.  In 2 Tim 1:12, the KJV has “which I have committed unto him against that day” but the NKJV has “what I have committed to Him until that Day.”  In 1 John 5:13, the KJV repeats the first part of the verse and concludes, “that ye may know that ye have eternal life, and that ye may believe on the name of the Son of God.”  The NKJV has it, “that you may know that you have eternal life, and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God.”

6. Most editions of the KJV have not capitalized the personal pronouns for the God-head.  The NKJV always has “He” when referring to any member of the God-head.  In addition, in Rom 8:16, where the KJV has “the Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit” the NKJV has “The spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit.”  The NKJV is consistent in using the masculine pronoun in English though the Greek can express it differently.

7. Sometimes the NKJV is simply more accurate in giving the sense.  In Prov 19:27, the KJV has “Cease, my son, to hear the instruction that causeth to err from the words of knowledge.”  The NKJV has, “Cease listening to instruction, my son, and you will stray from the words of knowledge.”  In 1 Tim 6:5 the KJV has, “supposing that gain is godliness” where the NKJV has “who suppose that godliness is a means of gain.”  But by far the most important are the changes in statements referring to Christ’s deity!  In Rom 9:5 (see also Tit 2:13, 2 Pet 1:1) the KJV has “Christ came, who is over all, God blessed for ever” but the NKJV has “Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God.”  Quite a difference!

When someone in my church just cannot understand the older language of the KJV, I urge them to use the NKJV, especially when following me or a teacher who is using the old KJV.  A newer language Bible will change the entire verse or sentence, where the NKJV will simply replace a single word or two and the reader will follow more easily.  Also, of course, the “thees and thous” and all the older endings are removed.  Less experienced Bible readers find this a welcomed change.

Note of caution:  I must be sure a change to the KJV is for clarity and not (necessarily) for accommodation to lesser biblical interests.  I still think it is not wrong for people to struggle some in their Bible education!  It did not hurt most of us (rather it helped greatly).  However, as the translators wrote, “Now what can be more available thereto, than to deliver God’s book unto God’s people in a tongue which they understand?” (¶ 12).

Reasons why I would use the old King James Version

1. One of the most compelling reasons for remaining with an English text is the familiarity for reference and recall.  How many of us will ever quote John 3:16 in anything other than the old King James English?  When reading the older version I am so familiar with the wording that meditation and cross-referencing become second nature.

2. We may not have noticed, but much of English literature, hymnology as well as well-known commentaries include great amounts of quotation from and allusion to the King James Version.  When we sing “Here I raise mine Ebenezer—Hither by Thy help I’m come,” it just wouldn’t be the same with “Thus far the LORD has helped us.”  The fact that we don’t sing hymns much anymore, nor actually read the commentaries or classics, and therefore have lost much affinity with the KJV wording, is not a compliment to our modern age.

3. One of the most noticeable differences in the NKJV from the old, is the dropping of the emphatic sentence order.  This is one place where I think the “style” of the older version is much better!  The texts lose a lot when we read otherwise familiar phrasing in very plain English word order.  For example:  “for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Lk 12:40); “even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus” (1 Thes 4:14); and “because He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 Jn 4:4).

4. In addition to the sentence order is the loss of dignity in language that the older version retains.  I would rather have, “and so shall we ever be with the Lord” (1 Thes 4:17), than “and thus we shall always be with the Lord.”  I would rather have “then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child” (1 Thes 5:3), than “as labor pains upon a pregnant woman.”  Sometimes the meaning gained does not warrant the dignity lost.

5. I also miss a few of the old dynamic equivalents of the older version!  Somehow “certainly not!” does not bring the same effect as “God forbid!”  Although I know that “God” is not in the text, and we probably can’t picture an old Englishman or Puritan giving his ghastly expression, I like them anyway.

6. For my part, what I would call “faddish” changes add nothing to the reading.  Why have “do not be drunk with wine, in which is dissipation?”  Why not “excess?”  I don’t get any more out of “as no launderer on earth” (Mk 9:3), than I do out of “fuller on earth.”  I’m not sure about “drinking parties” (1 Pet 4:3) instead of “banquetings” except that today’s school kids have no vocabulary to compare.  “Who came in by stealth” (Gal 2:4) may give an odd image today rather than “who came in privily.”

7. Technical terms such as “ten minas” (Lk 19:13) are no improvement over “ten pounds.”  Nor is “a denarius a day” (Mt 20:2) over “a penny a day.”  Does a transliteration of an old term help our understanding over a translation of the term?  It may spare some misunderstanding but doesn’t add much to the reading.

Note of caution:  When my love for the older language surfaces, and my disappointment with the new, I must be sure I am not sacrificing the benefit to my hearers (in preaching) for the sake of my own preference.  The translators wrote, “If we will be the sons of the truth, we must consider what it speaketh, and trample upon our own credit, yea, and upon other men’s too, if either be any way a hinderance to it” (¶ 15).

And So . . .

I hope you have not faulted me in too many places for simply giving the observations of a Bible reader.  I see many of my own inconsistencies! (but I remember R.W. Emerson’s retort:  “Foolish consistency, the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by statesmen, philosophers and divines”3).    A more important element in this subject is what D.L. Moody expressed, “A man filled with the Spirit will know how to use ‘the sword of the Spirit.’  If a man is not filled with the Spirit, he will never know how to use the Book.  We are told that this is the sword of the Spirit; and what is an army good for that does not know how to use its weapons?”4 For the sword of the Spirit IS the Word of God!

1. Quoted by Thomas G. Lewellen in an article in Vital Theological Issues, Roy Zuck, ed. (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1994) 163.
2. Thomas à Kempis, The Imitation of Christ (Chicago:  Moody, 1984) 32.
3. Quoted by F.F. Bruce, Acts (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979) 323.
4. Dwight L. Moody, Spiritual Power (Chicago: Moody Press, 1997) 37.