For quite some time, it has been my personal opinion that the King James Version of the Bible has overstayed its welcome with the modern church–not at all that the KJV was a heretical work of the devil in its time, but simply that its language is much closer to that of Shakespeare than it is to the vernacular of our time. Since its writing, text criticism has developed, and manuscript evidence has become more ample. The Dead Sea Scrolls have been found. Shoot, the KJV originally included the Apocrypha as an addendum to the Biblical canon.
I am a young man still but not so young as not to remember the KJV as having a prominent place in church life. I believe while I was in Bible Drill from 4th-6th grade we were still memorizing verses in King James. I cannot remember if we transitioned to the NIV by the time I was done or if it was the year after that, but I remember the shift. Not that the NIV is the greatest English modern translation, but it is at least comprehensible for preteens. Learning verses from the KJV was a work of double-translation for us. Obviously, we could not speak or read from original Hebrew/Greek texts, but our difficulty was multiplied by the fact that we could not speak the language of the King either. So first, we would have to learn the English-translated verse, but then for any fruit to be borne out of this work, we would have to learn what the King James English actually meant.
All of this being said, I know that for Christians several decades older than I there is a great deal of comfort (perhaps nostalgia?) in listening to a preacher read from the old text. In a sense, this is applicable to me as well. Something about reading from Middle English seems to give the text more weight, more authority–similar to listening to a professor lecture with an English accent in a class on Shakespeare or Dickens at an American university. There is some element of cryptic mystery that harkens from “the grass withereth and the flower fadeth” and “verily, verily I say unto you.” It is completely understandable that seniors still pray to God in the language of “Thee,” “Thou,” “Thy,” “Thine,” and “Ye.” Something about such language just feels sanctifying.
I got a great reminder of the old dialect this weekend at our youth retreat. We hosted a guest panel of a young American pastor (my pastor), a middle-aged expatriate English theology professor who lives here in the South, and an American pastor who said he was ordained into the ministry in 1961…yeah, he has been around a bit. There was something to be said for the power of “Thus saith the Lord.” The profundity of what the older pastor had to say in most of his responses to questions did not reach the level of the other two, and yet there was some element of authority that came from his lips as he spoke. I don’t know if it was from his strict use of the King James or if it stemmed from the fact that the guy had been around the block a time or two and was still ticking along. That being said, I am not about to go pick up my little blue KJV Bible with the zipping cover from my childhood, nor am I going to convert to the little green New Testaments of the Gideons, but I think I tapped into something this weekend that I hadn’t seen in awhile with the King James: a deep connection to the past. Talk about a juxtaposition of eras–my copy of BibleWorks 7.0 comes with Matthew Henry’s commentary on the Bible from around 1710. Reading the Bible from text composed of artificial light from a laptop computer less than a year old with comments compiled 300 years ago–wow! I don’t agree with the KJV-only movement in the least, but I think finally I understand a little piece of it.