From: Theology’s Impact on Translation: KJV to NRSV Return to Home
By Roland H. Worth, Jr. © 2013
Calvinism in the Translations
Calvinism includes doctrines that are widely popular far beyond the confines of
those who openly claim to be John Calvin’s spiritual descendants, the key
beliefs associated with his system are not confined to one of two “Christian
religions.” Various parts of the system
can be found in systems as different as Presbyterianism, Catholicism, and the
Hence it is quite possible to have a translation committee draw its membership from several different religious communities and yet have a considerable proportion of members sharing parts of the Calvinist creed. Because of the diverse religious origins of the translators, this generalized consensus can create a subtle bias when certain traditional proof texts are rendered into English.
Yet saying that this can happen is not the same thing as asserting that it has happened in a particular translation. And proving that it has occurred in a few renderings is far from proving that the Calvinist bias is so pervasive and clear cut that the use of the version by non-Calvinists is impossible.
1. Calvinism in the King James Version?
I have yet to find any contemporary who would reject the King James Version on this ground. Yet today it seems very widely overlooked that one of the ongoing criticisms of the KJV from the very generation in which it was translated even into the twenty-first century has been its alleged pro-Calvinist bias.
But the texts are there and it is intriguing that some Calvinists continue to argue against a wide selection of modern versions because it is not present as it was in the KJV! One such individual writes, “There is a huge battle going on in these days of falling away [Page 52] from the faith. The authority and truth of God's inerrant, perfect words and the doctrines of grace are under direct attack. Only in the King James Bible are all of God's perfect words of truth found today” (N. 1)
Sometimes the change seems irrelevant. Hence in one case he speaks of how, “This is so subtle, that I believe most Christians have not noticed it.” In another case he presents the changes embraced in a specific text in the NKJV, NIV, and NASB as “one verse among the hundreds that have been messed up. . . .”
Hence he apparently views the Calvinism of the KJV as woven into the very essence of that version. Those who roundly criticize the NIV for embracing Calvinism should find this rebuke of not including it of special interest.
A. The known Calvinist sentiments of a number of the translators
In reprinting the 1790 final edition of John Wesley’s New Testament (N. 2), George C. Cell added a brief introduction commenting on both the merits of the version and why it had been undertaken by the founder of Methodism. He contends that since Wesley utilized a Greek text closer to that of the English Revised Version than that utilized by the KJV, that automatically produced a more reliable translation. Furthermore, “ A considerable number of Wesley’s deviations from the King James Version are, in the second place, due to doctrinal considerations. The common English translation was made by a group of scholars, many of them were strongly Calvinistic. We know this independently, as well as from the quality of the translation” (N. 3).
B. The difference between “shall” and “will”
Cell contends that the KJV’s confusing of these two terms constitutes an ongoing evidence of its translators’ theology: “A catalogue of the numerous cases where ‘shall’ in the common English Version is changed to ‘will’ in the Wesleyan tradition tells a story of two theologies” (N. 4).
C. The KJV can easy be read to deny the Christian’s capacity to choose evil over good
Cell makes the case in this manner, “Practically all the older versions translated Galatians , ‘These are contrary, so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.’ Wesley, anticipating the Revised and the majority of private translations, has it ‘that ye may not do the things that ye would’ ” (N. 5).
D. Hebrews as deliberately hiding the ability of a believer to fall from God’s grace
Adam Clarke’s Commentary, though centuries old, remains popular and useful among conservative religious folk. Hence it is interesting to note that he considered the KJV translators as having intentionally “slanted” their translation of the verse to uphold their Calvinistic doctrine! Clarke is quoted by a nineteenth century critic as writing:
But if he drew back; “he”, the man who is justified by faith, for it is of
him, and none other, that the text speaks. The insertion of “any man,” if done to
serve the purpose of a particular creed, is a wicked perversion of the words of
God. They were evidently intended to turn away the relative from the antecedent,
in order to save the doctrine of final and unconditional perseverance; which
doctrine this text destroys (N. 6).
Turton does not go quite so far as to openly accuse the translators of doctrinal bias, but makes plain his essential agreement; he cites Clarke’s comments to prove: “1. the importance of the passage; and, 2. the right of the public, at the present day, to expect that the motives for introducing the words ‘any one’ or ‘any man,’ should be distinctly pointed out by the Translator. . .” (N. 7).
In addition to his famous Synonyms of the New Testament, Richard C. Trench also wrote a volume entitled On the Authorized Version of the New Testament In Connection With Some Recent Proposals For Its Revision. In it he concedes, “No objection to the entire good faith of our translators is oftener urged than this” (n. 8). He defends the KJV as possibly correct, but freely admits that he himself does not so regard it.
E. Acts as proof that God has predestined the identity of the individuals He wishes to be saved
Trench tells us that in his day the case for the alleged Calvinism of the KJV resented “mainly, though not exclusively, on the rendering of” Hebrews (presented above) and, secondarily, the text we are currently concerned with (No. 9). As translated in the Authorized Version: “The Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved;” the proper rendering is “those who were being saved.”
Trench concedes that the Greek reading “which would alone have justified this rendering” is not found here (N. 10). He conjectures that the translators
were perplexed with a language which spoke of those as already saved, who only
became saved through being thus added to the Church of the living God. They
probably did not clearly perceive that by this language the sacred historian meant
to say that in this act (Trench’s emphasis, RW) of adherence to the Church, and to
Christ its Head, those converts were saved, delivered from the wrath to come. . . .
They had no wish, except to avoid a fancied difficulty (N. 11).
A conjectural “difficulty” which he in no way pretends to document as having actually existed and which he concedes flies in the face of the plain meaning of the Greek! In the light of this, it is impossible to embrace his conclusion that, “I do not believe that the thought of predestination enter into their minds. . .” (N. 12). He concedes, though, that the KJV translators though (mysteriously blind) to the rendering’s (explicit?) endorsement of a key Calvinist tenet, there is no question that “others have since employed the words as a support for the doctrine.”
[Page 54] F. From a Calvinist’s standpoint: Calvinist passages in the KJV that newer translations have often “wrongly” altered
We began the chapter with a quotation from a Calvinist who is upset that newer versions often weaken or remove the Calvinism that he regards as originally present in the KJV. It would be useful to survey some of the Calvinist KJV texts he regards as having been changed, so we can look at the matter from that viewpoint (N. 14).
1. 1 Timothy 2:4: “Who will have all men to be saved.” Since “what He wills, He does” the text is intended to convey that the salvation decision is wholly in God’s hand. Hence to alter to “desires all” (NASB, NKJV) or “wants all” (NIV) is to fundamentally alter the text for that implies we mortals have a role in the matter.
2. Unspecified texts: Those that mention “to accept the persons of men” or “to respect persons.” It is antiscriptural to render such expressions as “to show partiality” or “to show favoritism” because God does and these changes (falsely) imply the truth of Arminianism’s claim of human freedom of choice as to eternal destiny. True, God doesn’t decide it upon outward criteria (which, we would argue, suggests the propriety of the opposed changes), but to permit such alterations pushes us away from the key Calvinist insight that it is “His own sovereign purpose and pleasure of His will [that] are the only deciding factors.”
3. Those various texts that change the wording “by the faith of Christ” into “by faith in Christ:” Romans ; Galatians , 20; ; Ephesians ; Philippians 3:9; James 2:1; Revelation ; . His root protest is that the change rejects the Calvinist principle that “this faith comes from Jesus Christ and instead implying that it comes from ourselves.” In other words, the change implies we have a role in determining whether we have faith rather than that being strictly God’s decision.
4. 1 Peter 2:25: Unlike the erring sheep you once were, you “are now returned unto the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls.” The NKJV, NIV, and NASB are blasted for preferring “you have returned to,” since this suggests “we had returned on our own” rather than it being the result of Divine intervention.
It is intriguing that we have here a very different combination of alleged Calvinist texts. These, however, are proudly presented as such while the other list comes from the critics of Calvinism and those attempting to defend the KJV from such allegations. Especially combined, is not that a rather impressive—and usually overlooked—list?
If the proudly Calvinist can embrace the KJV as authoritative because he finds pervasive Calvinism within the translation, is it any surprise that unfriendly voices have as well? From Adam Clarke and Thomas Turton to George C. Cell and beyond, there has been an ongoing, never quite dying suspicion of the KJV as guilty of needlessly Calvinist leanings—some even being convinced that the taint is pervasive!
Nor were the “dissenting” scholars the only ones to have so considered it. We have several times quoted Trench, a respectable mainline Anglican scholar, in his efforts to salvage the KJV from its critics’ denunciations. However it is worth more than [Page 55] passing notice that even Trench himself had been, at one time, sympathetic to these very accusations!
Then, too, it has been sometimes said, [as] I was inclined at one time to
think with some reason, that other theological leanings, Calvinistic as against
Arminian, were occasionally to be traced in our Translation, modifying
consciously or unconsciously the rendering of some passages in it. These charges
I am now persuaded, are entirely without foundation . . .” (N. 15).
On that I cannot concur with the learned Anglican scholar. Nor does one have to embrace every criticism of the KJV to confidently assert the presence of Calvinism within that translation. What else can Acts 2:47 represent? Whether intended or not, who can doubt that Hebrews serves the doctrinal interests of Calvinism? And what is the most natural meaning of “cannot” in Galatians 5:17 other than that the true believer has an utter incapacity to so sin as to be lost?
If the King James Version were a product of our times would not a goodly number of non-Calvinists be filling the hearts of their listeners with learned dissertations on this “perversion masquerading as a translation”? Would not many a writer be frantically exhorting their listeners against its use—perhaps even intimating a lack of doctrinal soundness as being manifested by any one daring to defend the KJV?
The presence of Calvinist renderings in the KJV should prove to the contemporary non-Calvinist that such versions do not necessarily have to be consigned to the scrap pile. If its merits are sufficiently strong, one can “salvage” its usefulness, utilizing the same tools already utilized with the KJV:
1. When the error is open to the allegation of being particularly blatant (such as in Acts ), we can immediately concede that there has been a mistranslation. “They were human; they made mistakes; etc.”
2. Where a Calvinist implication could easily be meant (such as “cannot” in Galatians 5:17), we can point out that the expression need not have that meaning and that such an interpretation imposes upon the text a meaning that makes the passage contradict other ones.
3. Where a Calvinist reading is likely though one can’t be 100% such of it (say Hebrews ) one can point out that the context must be considered in interpreting a specific word or phrase therein. (In the case of Hebrews , that a believer is the specific type of “man” under consideration.)
Non-Calvinists do not hesitate to take this “but on the other hand approach” in urging the retention of the KJV. Just as they tend to soften the severity of the Calvinist allegation as we did in the above three examples, a generosity often not extended to 20th and 21st century translations. Although perfect consistency is probably impossible to human beings, should we not at least strive for it as we evaluate rival versions?
2. Calvinism in the
New International Version?
There are several reasons that a person might not select the NIV as his primary translation. But if we were to single out one factor as having especially disillustioned and aggravated non-Calvinists, it would surely be the accusation that it is a Calvinist translation. The charge goes even further: that the NIV is guilty of pervasive Calvinism.
That there are isolated Calvinist readings in both the KJV (Acts and NIV (Psalms 51:5, which we will examine later, in our discussion of The Living Bible), one readily concedes. But is the broader accusation valid?
“Nature or Flesh?”
The perception of a wide-spread or dominant Calvinist bias centers around the substitution of the expression “sinful nature” for “flesh” in twenty-two places in the New Testament:
Romans 7:5, 18, 25; 8:3, 4, 5, 8, 9, 12, 13
1 Corinthians 5:5
Galatians 5:13, 16, 17, 19, 24; 6:8
Colossians 2:11, 13
2 Peter 2:10, 18
In all these passages (except Second Peter), the New American Standard Bible, the New King James Version, and the Revised Standard Version unanimously translate “flesh.” In 2 Peter the NASB and NKJV use “flesh” while the RSV omits it, rendering the phrase “lust of defiling passion.” In 2 Peter the NKJV and RSV retain the “flesh” while the NASB prefers “fleshly.” Hence, we find a heavy wall of dissent against the usage of the NIV.
The expression “sinful nature” is interpreted by hostile critics to mean inherent, inherited total depravity. Hence, Calvinism, of which this doctrine of man’s nature is central.
As to the motives of the translators, it so happens that we have an explanation from those associated with the translation itself. Kenneth L. Barker edited a modest length volume entitled The NIV: The Making of a Contemporary Translation. Since it is composed of essays by individuals participating in the translating of the NIV, it can be accepted as an authoritative view of their collective intent (though not necessary shared by each and every translator).
Herbert M. Wolf contributed a chapter entitled, “When ‘Literal’ Is Not Accurate,” in which he explains the replacement of “flesh” with “nature.” Read this closely for he overtly stresses one justification but quietly slides into a very different one:
In the New Testament the apostle Paul similarly denounced sexual
immorality as one of “the works of the flesh” (Galatians , KJV). The conflict
between living by the Spirit or by the flesh is emphasized in Galatians 5 and
Romans 7-8. In order to show that “flesh” refers not to the body but to the
sinfulness of man, the NIV has often rendered “flesh” (sarx) as “sinful nature” (cf.
Romans 8:3-5, 8-9). While many readers would properly understand “flesh” in
the sense of “human weakness,” the translation “sinful nature” avoids any
misinterpretation of this key theological term (N. 16).
Note that the initially stated reason is to protect against the misapprehension that “the flesh” in these passages refer to our flesh and blood bodies and that they are sinful. I don’t think any of us would have any problem that far. Indeed one critic suggests if that was really what they were trying to deal with then utilizing “human weakness” might well have been useful (N. 17).
But that isn’t what they do. Furthermore we are immediately told that “the translation ‘sinful nature’ avoids any misinterpretation of this key theological term.” Since when is “flesh” a “key theological term” and, if it is, why is the translation “sinful nature” required for it? Then comes the dawn: It is to a Calvinist, who automatically reads into “sinful nature” their concept of total depraved from birth. Now, all these have to do (in their own eyes) is open to this passages and confidently teach, “See, the Scriptures do teach it!”
Hence the translation is open to quite legitimate assault on grounds that those who pushed it were consciously inserting their own creedal belief—on an issue of major religious difference.
There is a humorous side to this: Working from the rendering “sinful nature” rather than the interpretive spin that Calvinists would put on it, they really aren’t any better off than they began. One anonymous critic who argues against the substitution of “sinful nature” for “flesh,” rightly insists, “Human nature is not sinful because we were made in the image of God and after His likeness (Gen. 1:26-27). Men ‘go astray,’ they are not ‘born astray’ ” (N. 18)
What that critic overlooks is this: So we have an acquired depravity and not a naturally born one. Either way wouldn’t we still have a sinful nature? But it does show what the Calvinist blinds him/herself to: it wouldn’t be the kind of sinful nature the Calvinists assume!
Furthermore, the NIV renderings don’t either.
None of the texts reads “totally sinful nature.”
None of the texts reads “inherited sinful nature.”
None of the texts puts the two together: “an inherited, totally sinful nature.” That is Calvinism and however much the NIV intended to convey the concept it still avoided actually asserting it.
(Did we mention that none of the texts speak of “inheriting Adamic guilt” either, another component of the concept?)
Nor do any of them deny that we also have a “nature” that strives for something better than sin. If it were otherwise, the gospel would never have appealed to us; our [Page 58] “sinful nature” would have had exclusive reign within us and destroyed all of the gospel’s appeal.
Furthermore non-Calvinists can point out with justice that a simple reading of the texts themselves in context is incompatible with the “totally sinful nature / born depraved” concepts that Calvinists want us to assume from the wording. The texts also assert that we play a role in eliminating our sinful nature—thereby undermining the associated Calvinist precepts of irrevocable choice of the redeemed and damned and our having no free and independent role in choosing or rejecting salvation. So whatever the key translators responsible for this rendering intended, what they actually translated still won’t uphold Calvinism!
Let’s examine some of these verses.
Our sinful nature is presented as one we have control over, to curb or to allow to grow: “Those who live according to their sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires” (Romans 8:4). Note the implication that we decide which way we live, our “sinful nature” or those choosing to “live in accordance with the Spirit.” Two choices are set before us. Neither is presented s inevitable.
“Those controlled by their sinful nature cannot please God. You, however, are controlled not by your sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. . .: (Romans 8:8-9). Note how these Christians still possessed a “sinful nature” (note the “your sinful nature”), but that they were in control of it; not their “nature” in control of them.
Verse 12 again carries the implication that the choice is ours to make: “Therefore, brothers, we have an obligation, but it is not to our sinful nature, to live according to it.” Furthermore if they did not have any control over their sinful inclination, then to have an “obligation” to refuse its control would be nothing short of meaningless rhetoric.
Galatians is even blunter in stressing the element of self-restraint that can exist over our sinful impulses: “You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge your sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.” Indeed, Galatians 5:16 takes it even a step further in that they are commanded to control their sinful nature: “So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of your sinful nature.” Verse 24 again bears vivid witness of the capacity to control the worst within us: “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified their sinful nature with its passions and desires.”
Peter indicates that a conscious decision to yield to that evil nature is required; hence its control is far from complete but exists only so far as a person allows it to. It is by “appealing to the lustful desires of sinful human nature” that one is led into sin. The existence of that “nature” doesn’t have to guarantee doing evil.
From the study of these verses it is clear that the “sinful nature” being taught is neither total nor uncontrollable nor is there the slightest hint that it is inherited from Adam (or anyone else, for that matter). Yes, the Calvinist can easily use the term “sinful nature” as a peg on which to hang his doctrine—just as he will the word “predestination.” That in no way automatically proves the doctrine that is read into the text is actually there.
[Page 59] In all fairness there is one verse, Romans 7:18, that deserves our attention because it comes the closest to asserting that man’s “sinful nature” is total and complete, though even here the element of it being inherited sin is still conspicuously missing: “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. . . .” “Nothing good” equals total depravity?
For this to work, then one must have only a sinful nature and nothing within us that can intervene in the opposite direction. To say, in effect, “in evil there is no good” makes excellent sense, but that is still a far cry from assuming that “because there is an element of total evil in me there is nothing in me that fights against it for the good.”
Furthermore Paul is describing himself: “nothing good lives in me.” Not past tense. Now! Is that believable? If not, then Paul was meaning something far different than the Calvinist and the Calvinist is bending the text in a direction the apostle never intended.
Remember that at this point Paul is a believer, an apostle, a part of the redeemed if there has ever been such a person. Paul isn’t talking about how he was when he was born or when he was an unbelieving Jew persecuting the church. He is talking about how he is now: the moment when he is a believer, an apostle, a part of the redeemed. Hence, if this text proves “total depravity” it proves that one of the most faithful Christians who ever lived was totally depraved at the very time he was an apostle and calling men and women to the Lord and writing this epistle to them!
So, at most, Paul is describing how bad the “sinful nature” was when yielded to and not asserting that it is our inherent nature, all of our nature, or inherited. A Calvinist might stretch the language to prove his doctrine; a non-Calvinist would look at it and call it manifest exaggeration.
So “nature” or “flesh”?
I must confess that I vigorously dislike that term “sinful nature.” It’s not one I’m used to. It’s one that can be seriously abused and even given the veneer of “endorsement” to a doctrinal system it doesn’t vindicate.
But I must also confess that part of my objection goes far deeper than either of these matters. It offends my pride and my preference to regard myself as having a “good nature.” Like all of us, I would rather dwell on the “good” in me and not the “bad.”
Yet the reality is each of us has both. No matter how righteous we may become, there will always remain an obstinate mule-headed part that wants to slip the leash because it prefers self-indulgence and sin to moral character and righteous behavior. Is it either inappropriate or inaccurate to call that part of us our “sinful nature"?
The NIV, in its later printings, met our objections part way by adding a footnote on each usage, saying, “Or, flesh.”
Yet “flesh” surely does not always do the point justice. For example in Colossians 2:11 the NIV has, “In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the sinful nature, not with a circumcision done by the hands of men but with the circumcision done by Christ.” And if we render it “In him you were also circumcised, in the putting off of the flesh,” well—do we still have our fleshly bodies?
[Page 60] Could “flesh” possibly be what it actually means, even though it does use that word? Doesn’t it stand for something else? Hence “flesh” is literally accurate—but not adequate, at least not here.
One may reasonably object that “sinful nature” is a potentially misleading expression, though I believe we have amply shown that what Calvinists attempt to graft onto that phrase is far more “weight” than the text itself will permit to be carried. But taking its potential for misrepresentation as adequate to lay it totally aside, what then will the critic (including me) propose as a better substitute, especially when in at least some texts “flesh” will clearly not be adequate?
We are fortunate to live in a world where the thesis that flesh is inherently sinful, is not a popular one. In the post-apostolic centuries there was a considerable body of opinion that so viewed the literal flesh.
If that frame of mind were still popular would we not be frantically seeking a substitute phrase to bring out the “true, deeper” meaning of “flesh”? And would it be all that improbable if we settled on the expression “sinful nature” as the best, though not perfect, substitution?
N. 1 -- Will Kenney. “Calvinism and the King James Bible.” At: http://www.scionofzion.com/calvinism_kjb.htm. [September 2012.]
N. 2 -- John Wesley’s New Testament. Introduction by George C.
N. 3 -- Ibid., page xi.
N. 4 -- Ibid.
N. 5 -- Ibid.
N. 6 -- Thomas Turton
(?). The Text of the English Bible as
Now Printed by the Universities Considered with Reference to a Report by a
Sub-Committee of Dissenting Ministers.
Second Edition: “Corrected and
N. 7 -- Ibid., pages 125-126.
N. 8 -- Archbishop Richard C. Trench. On the Authorized
Version of the New Testament in Connection With Some Recent Proposals for its
N. 9 -- Ibid., page 168.
N. 10 -- Ibid.
N. 11 -- Ibid., pages 168-169.
N. 12 -- Ibid., page 169.
N. 13 -- Ibid.
N. 14 -- Will Kenney. “Calvinism and the King James Bible.” At: http://www.scionofzion.com/calvinism_kjb.htm. [September 2012.]
N. 15 -- Archbishop Richard C. Trench. Page 168.
N. 16 -- Kenneth M. Wolf. “When ‘Literal’ Is Not Accurate.” In Kenneth L. Barker, editor, The NIV: The Making of a Contemporary Translation. Page 130.\
N. 17 -- Brent Kercheville. “Looking at the Bible Versions – NIV (1984).” Part of the Christian Monthly Standard website. At: http://www.christianmonthlystandard.com/index.php/looking-at-the-bible-versions-niv-1984/. [September 2012.]
N. 18 -- [Anonymous.] “The New International Version (NIV) and English Standard Version (ESV)—Full of False Doctrine.” At: http://www.trustingodamerica. com/NIV.htm. [September 2012.]