Textual Traditionalism, TR Onlyism, and KJV Onlyism

Introduction

The use of pejoratives in debate is a time tested tactic that works. I imagine that is why people use them. In the case of the Textual Discussion, many employ pejoratives to associate adherence to a particular Greek and Hebrew text with positions that have negative connotations. This has been effective in steering people away from, in particular, the Confessional Text position. Two examples are “Textual Traditionalism” and “TR Onlyism”. Another similar tactic is employed by simply conflating adherence to the Reformation era text to King James Onlyism, as it is defined by Peter Ruckman and Sam Gipp. In any case, for those actually interested in understanding this position and representing it fairly, these terms are unhelpful because they are clear and intentional misrepresentations. The term, “misrepresentation” is often used, but rarely explained. It is important that Christians turn on their brains when they hear the word “misrepresentation” and investigate if somebody is actually being truthful when they say they are being misrepresented. It is often the case that opponents of the Reformation era texts readily employ this language without explaining how they are being misrepresented. Typically, somebody who cries “misrepresentation!” every time somebody disagrees with them is fond of playing victim.

When those in the Confessional Text camp claim that pejoratives such as “Textual Traditionalist” and “TR Onlyist” and “KJV Onlyist” are blatant and uncharitable misrepresentations, those who rabidly attack the Received Text are prone to mock and issue scorn. This may be warranted if there were no justification for the claim of misrepresentation, but the continued use of such pejoratives after ample explanation is a chief example of biting and devouring (Gal. 5:15) and prideful contention (Prov. 13:10). Despite the assertion that we should treat Christian brothers with the least amount of charity as possible if they disagree on a point of doctrine, the Biblical testimony is abundantly clear here – we should endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3). The Bible does not call us to be doctrinal vigilantes, but to exhort with all patience and humility (Col. 3:12-17).

That is not to say that Christians are not called to battle (1 Pet. 1:13), but the way that Christians should do battle should be, well, distinctly Christian (John 13:35). The chief battle Christians fight is against their sin, not each other. So when Christians continue to unabashedly and proudly employ pejoratives in their critique of other Christians, it is clear that something is off. I am not opposed to strong language and rhetoric, so as long as that language and rhetoric is justified. In any case, I thought that I would provide a helpful review of the uncharitable pejoratives which are used as debate tactics against those who adhere to the historical text of the Protestant religion. It doesn’t matter how long these pejoratives have been in use, every Christian has the responsibility to be better than those that came before them and determine if such terms accurately describe the person they are talking about. It is especially condemning if Christians, after seeing how these terms misrepresent brothers and sisters in Christ, continue to use these terms.

Textual Traditionalism

In the first place, Christians should seek to be accurate when describing a theological or perhaps traditional perspective. When the term “Anabaptist” is employed for example, it is not appropriately applied to Particular Baptists, as that is simply historically imprecise. The only reason you would call a Reformed Baptist an “Anabaptist” is if you were trying to bite and sting. Misuse of terminology introduces more confusion into a conversation, which Christians should generally be opposed to in principle (1 Cor. 14:33). If a term is employed that introduces more confusion and chaos than order and structure, it should generally be avoided. So does the term “Textual Traditionalist” introduce more clarity? Does it provide insight to what is being discussed? The answer is clearly no.

The term is unfortunately vague and imprecise. Anybody who is claiming to be a scholar, or make a scholarly argument, would avoid such ambiguity. To use database language, there is nothing that uniquely identifies this term with any particular position. It could just as easily be applied to “red letter Christians” or the “unhitchers” whose textual tradition is offensive to Reformed believers. This term only serves a polemic purpose aimed at the inclinations of the modern church who recoil at the term “tradition.” Traditionalism implies that people adhere to a tradition for the sake of the tradition itself. This is not the case for the Confessional Text camp.

Yet, if you’re Reformed, the term “tradition” should not scare you. It is famously said, “He who says he has no tradition is blind to his tradition.” This holds true to those who employ this kind of language, typically. Everybody has a tradition, and those traditions have specific names. This highlights an important reality as it pertains to this pejorative – it plays to an audience who associates negativity to tradition while also appealing to an audience who supposedly has a great deal of pride in their Protestant heritage. In making use of such a term, one simultaneously appeals to the soft, “tradition is bad” version of Christianity, while also seemingly arguing for an alternative form of “textual traditionalism.”  If our definition of traditionalism is that one only accepts their own tradition as valid, then those who aggressively advocate for the modern critical text are also traditionalists, so it seems. The term is so vague that it might as well apply to anybody who has any thought out tradition on the text of Holy Scripture. It is wise to avoid using terminology that is so imprecise that it practically means nothing at all, if the goal is to be “scholarly.” If the intention is to prevent people from actually understanding the position itself and to paint a brother in Christ as a rabid fundamentalist, then it is quite apt. In any case, it is better to use a precise term than an imprecise term, if a precise term exists. That seems like a simple principle to follow.

TR Onlyism

This is probably the most commonly used pejorative for the Confessional Text position. It dates back at least to 1990, and typically is used to describe those that only accept Bibles which are translated from the Received Greek Text of the Protestant Reformation era. Typically, opponents of this text will misrepresent this position by saying that advocates of the TR “believe it to be inspired” specially in some sort of re-inspiration event. I don’t know a single person in the Confessional Text camp who believes the TR to be re-inspired.

Similar to the first term, it is unfortunately vague, and obviously meant for use in debate, not to provide clarity. In every case that it is used, it is used to conflate the Confessional Text position with King James Onlyism, which is typically defined by way of Peter Ruckman. This is problematic for several reasons. The first is that the Confessional Text position is demonstrably not Ruckmanite KJV Onlyism. The Ruckmanite view of the Bible is dangerously false and it is embarrassing and shameful to apply such a view to a supposed brother in the Lord. The second is that it is far too vague of a title to be used in any way that can be considered scholarly. Scholars are constantly priding themselves on being precise, not intentionally dull. Since those who read Bibles made from the Received Text also read the Old Testament, a more precise title would be “Masoretic Text and Received Text Onlyists”, or “MTRT Onlyists” for short. It is true that those in the Confessional Text camp read translations made from these texts, so the title is adequately descriptive. Though if we’re in the business of calling anybody who has a distinct view on a topic an “onlyist”, I encourage those who rail against the Received Text to adopt the title, “Modern Critical Text Onlyist,” or perhaps, “Historical Critical Text Onlyist.” Whichever suits your fancy.

The major problem with calling every disagreement a controversy and every person who holds a distinct position an “onlyist” is that it is lacking in Christian charity and scholarly candor. Those in the Confessional Text camp do not adhere to these texts by virtue of these texts themselves, but primarily because they are the texts that the framers of the Confessions received. Thus, those in the Confessional Text camp adopt the reasons and logic which caused the Reformed to adopt those texts as well. The reasons and logic for receiving such a text are laid out in chapter 1 of the WCF and LBCF. All of the proof texts for the doctrines within the Reformed confessions are based on the Traditional Text of Scripture. They rejected the readings which have made their way wholesale into the modern Bible versions. This may come as a shock to people, but the framers of the Reformed confessions built their body of divinity on many texts that have been thrown out of modern Bibles. This is not a matter of opinion, but fact. The Reformed Confessions, in their original form, were reliant upon having the text form of the Traditional Text. People can think this was due to their ignorance of the text, or that they were just wrong in establishing doctrine on 1 John 5:7, Mark 16:9-20, etc., but the fact is that they did. You can’t change history simply because you don’t like it. Ironically, this is the charge leveled by those who advocate for the use of the Modern Critical Text against those who adhere to the Received Text. In any case, the name “Confessional Text” is used simply because it describes a position which adheres to the same text as the framers of the Reformed Protestant confessions for the same reasons.

King James Version Onlyism

Maybe it is time that somebody writes a book called the “Onlyist Controversy” where somebody catalogs every Christian position which makes them an “Onlyist.” Some examples might be Psalmody Onlyists, Presbyterian Onlyists, Credobaptist Onlyists, and so on. When I first heard of the term KJV Onlyist, I thought it meant that somebody thinks the KJV, in English, is literally immediately inspired by the pens of the translators. Due to popular works such as the King James Only Controversy and critically acclaimed textbooks such as How to Interpret and Apply the New Testament, the definition of KJV Onlyist has been extended to everybody who doesn’t read a modern Bible, even majority text advocates and people who read the NKJV. If the meaning of KJV Onlyist applies to people who think that somebody has to learn English to read the Bible, then it has a whole lot of meaning. It is a distinct category set apart from all other categories that is applied appropriately to one specific subset of people. If it means everybody who doesn’t read a modern Bible, then the standard becomes extremely arbitrary and vague. It loses its meaning and its specificity, thus transforming it from a scalpel to a bludgeoning rod. 

One of the things that Christians, especially within the Calvnistic apologetic realm, value, is consistency. If the goal is consistency, I’d like to apply the “onlyist” standard equally across the board. If you are a Christian that only reads an ESV, you are an ESV onlyist. If you are a Christian who only reads a Bible based on the modern critical text, you are a Modern Critical Text onlyist. Note that when this standard is applied equally across the board, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Thousands of Christians only read one translation. Simply adding the term “Onlyist” to the end of something somebody believes is simply useless in terms of conveying meaning. It has nothing to say about why the person only reads that version. What it does convey is the idea of “badness” or “wrongness” by ironically appealing to modern idea that exclusivity is bad. The term KJV Onlyist has actually lost all meaning because it has been applied so broadly, and doesn’t make sense at all when the same standard is applied to everybody else. If we were to apply that term to only Ruckmanites, then perhaps it would have meaning. Due to the broad application of the term, it’s difficult to determine if being an “onlyist” is even a bad thing. It’s just a thing. Is being an ESV Onlyist bad? Well I suppose that is dependent on why you only read an ESV. Is being a KJV Onlyist bad? Well I suppose that is dependent on why you only read the KJV. Ironically, the grossly wide application of the term “KJV Onlyist” to quite literally everybody who doesn’t read a modern Bible has resulted in the term becoming ambiguous. This is what happens when we aren’t consistent, things stop making sense. So if the goal is specificity, the term KJV Onlyist simply means that somebody only reads the KJV. In the same way, an ESV Onlyist is somebody who only reads the ESV.

So I propose a solution. If the only qualifier for being a translational onlyist is that you only read one Bible, then I say we apply the onlyist standard across the board. In any case, the terminology in itself does not explain the why so it is simply a synonym for KJV reader or ESV reader. That is not to say that the term “KJV Onlyist” doesn’t have certain negative connotations, but according to the books on the matter, there are four or five different kinds of KJV Onlyists, and they all are very different. Since these different groups are so radically different, it seems appropriate to use more specific terms. In fact, in every case, there are terms that can be used for these different types of “KJV Onlyists”. Here they are:

1. “I like the KJV the best” – KJV Preferred

2. “The Textual Argument” – Majority Text Advocate or Confessional Text Advocate

3. “Received Text Only” – Nobody holds this position as it is defined in the literature, as nobody believes the TR was “re-inspired”

4. “The KJV as New Revelation” – Ruckmanite KJV Onlyism

It is not that hard to define these distinct groups, and it takes very little effort to do so. Some people proudly tote the KJVO title, but are not Ruckmanites. In any case, believe it or not, people have legitimate reasons for reading the KJV other than by the reasoning of Sam Gipp or Peter Ruckman.

Conclusion

Relying on pejoratives to apply the “boogeyman effect” on a group of people is an effective tactic, I’ll grant that. It becomes a problem when there are more specific terms that adequately describe a position that actually convey meaning. This of course is assuming that we are all Christians here. If the goal is rational, Christlike discussion, then perhaps let’s be rational and Christlike. Mark Ward was able to do it when he employed the term Confessional Bibliology to describe the Confessional Text position. The term is concise, accurate, and not a pejorative. Simply making up nicknames for people or groups you don’t like may be popular on the playground, but as Ward has shown, it’s not the way things are done in the scholarly world. Dirk Jongkind shows the same scholarly care when he employs the term “Textus Receptus proponents” in his book. It’s amazing how readily scholars use terminology that actually conveys meaning. Both Ward and Jongkind use terminology that is recognizable, specific, and descriptive. Perhaps they are not fans of wasting words, or perhaps they are actually concerned with representing their brothers in Christ fairly. In any case, it seems that it is possible to discuss the issue without being pedantic. 

So what will you say, Christian? Will you employ the terminology used by scholars, or continue using pejoratives which convey very little meaning and add confusion to the conversation? At least, for the sake of consistency, pick something meaningful and specific.   

4 thoughts on “Textual Traditionalism, TR Onlyism, and KJV Onlyism

  1. A lot here that needs to be said, hopefully this will spur those take the name of the Lord upon their lips to be less intellectually dishonest in their representation of other positions.

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  2. You said that nobody claims the TR is re-inspired; I disagree.

    Recently Dr. Charles Surrett, who has written a couple of books on the text issue, engaged in an online debate with a couple of his former students (Ambassador Baptist College).
    Surrett believes that the TR is every letter and every word of the original. When pushed, he identified Scrivener’s TR as the correct edition, saying: “I cannot answer every question about Beza or Scrivener, because I wasn’t there when they did their work (by the way, neither were the textual critics)! My faith is not in Beza or Scrivener; it is in the God who promised to preserve His Word and make it accessible. I would rather have questions I cannot answer about history than to adopt a position that is refuted by Scripture.” And later: “I assume (by faith) that Scrivener got it right, but that faith is in the Bible, not in Scrivener.”

    What is this other than re-inspiration?

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    1. I don’t know much about Dr. Surrett, but the confessions distinguish between immediately inspired and inspired. Only the originals were immediately inspired. The providentially preserved text is inspired because it is preserved, preserved meaning “not changed.”

      Reinspiration would mean that the new words written by Beza or Scrivener were freshly worked by the Holy Spirit. It does not appear that is what the quote is saying, “I assume (by faith) that Scrivener got it right” – that’s not any argument for re-inspiration. He may have argued for it elsewhere, I don’t know, but in the quote you posted, nowhere does he argue for reinspiration.

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