The King James Only View of Edward F. Hills

By James A. Price, Th.D

  [Originally published in Baptist Biblical Heritage, Vol. 1, No. 4]

 

Edward F. Hills (1912-1981) made the first serious attempt at a scholarly revival of the view that the Textus Receptus represents the best text of the New Testament in his book, The King James Version Defended (1956). Though he has not attracted a following among textual critics, his works have been a strong factor in the current controversy over versions. In making this attempt, Hills at least gave the appearance of making the Greek text the issue and became the most scholarly spokesman for that part of the King James Only movement which makes an attempt at having the original text be the issue.

The Providential Agent of God

Hills made a statement which sets forth both that which is commendable in the motive of many of his followers and that which is the source of many of their excesses. He wrote,

“We today who defend the Textus Receptus and the King James version are merely performing the duties of our New Testament priesthood. We are being used of God as His Providential agents to preserve the true text of the Holy Scripture. What an inspiring thought! How it ought to kindle our zeal!” (Edward F. Hills, Believing Bible Study, 2nd ed., Des Moines, Iowa: The Christian Research Press, 1977; p. 142).

In fact, zeal has been kindled by the thought Hills expressed. But zeal, when not grounded in and controlled by truth, only produces conflict and confusion. From such a position the questions of textual debate are cast in terms of black and white, of God against Satan, of good against evil. Since Hills and those who follow him see themselves as the providential agents of God, there is no room for discussion and no room for the possibility that they might be wrong.

Hills proclaimed concerning the KJV that “in it the true text of the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament has been restored” (Hills, ibid., p. 82). This left little room to doubt what the final authority in textual matters was to Hills. It was the text of the KJV.

While not categorically opposing all revision of the King James, Hills insisted that such a revision must not alter the basic text. In his discussion of a modernized KJV, he admitted that a modernized KJV “might well prove useful for children and for others whose knowledge of the English language is deficient.” But he insisted that “if you are a mature Christian, you will want to read the KJV” (Hills, ibid., pp. 84-86). Such a position has the effect of making a command of the English language of almost four centuries ago either a test of or a prerequisite of spiritual maturity.

Perhaps one should not be too surprised at the insistence by Hills that mature believers will want to read the King James. After all, he affirmed that the language of the King James “is not just old English. It is biblical English which has been developed providentially for the express purpose of praising God” (Hills, ibid., p. 86).

Hills has gone even further in his expression of the importance of the KJV to Christian life. He charged that “it is only among the readers of the KJV that due love and reverence for God’s Word may be found” (Hills, ibid., p. 54). Such a statement has the effect of automatically categorizing anyone who disagrees with him and reads the NIV or the NASB as one who does not have proper love and reverence for the Word of God. What an unfair categorization to put upon individuals who, in many cases, are as committed to the inspiration, authority, and inerrancy of the Scriptures as is Hills himself.

One begins to understand how Hills can make such a statement as the one just noted when he realizes that Hills believes it is impossible to defend the Bible without defending the KJV. To Hills, “the providence of God has made it so” (Hills, The King James Version Defended!, Des Moines, Iowa: The Christian Research Press, 1956; p. iii). Unfortunately, Hills was not alone in this way of thinking. Many pastors and laymen today believe the same way. It is precisely for this reason that true Bible believing Christians are often attacked by members of the KJV Only movement as if they were apostates.

The Logic of Faith

An item which is essential to understanding Hills’ position is what he called the logic of faith. Hills connected the textual critical approach with rationalism and with a separation of faith and reason. He claimed that the accepted modern textual approach was connected to the fact that in seminaries

“two entirely different doctrinal systems were taught side by side, namely, a dogmatic system in which Christianity was regarded as true and an apologetic system in which Christianity was regarded as merely probable” (Hills, B.B.S., p. 218).

Hills’ reference to an apologetic system that regards Christianity as only probably true relates to a controversy over whether apologetics should be conducted on an evidential or presuppositional basis. Hills seemed to feel that the acceptance of the modern textual approach has been the result of seminaries having earlier accepted an evidential approach to apologetics.

Hills’ view was that textual studies should be conducted on a presuppositional basis. Lewis defined presupposition as “a specific, unprovable assertion postulated to make experience meaningful” (Gordon R. Lewis, Testing Christianity’s Truth Claims: Approaches to Christian Apologetics, Chicago: Moody Press, 1976; p. 345). Hills believed that it was only by proceeding on this presuppositional basis, which he called the logic of faith, that certainty could be attained.

Hills wrote that it was the logic of faith that “the Bible text current among believers is the true text.” He wrote that the logic of faith leads one “to a belief in the Bible text current among believers as the providentially preserved original text” (Hills, B.B.S., p. 187). But the text current among which believers? The text current among believers in different parts of the world has and does vary. While the Majority Text was in use in the Greek speaking world of the early church, the Latin Vulgate was in use in the Western church. Which current text was the original text? They do differ at times and neither is identical with the Textus Receptus or the KJV.

Is it the text current among believers of our day or the text current among believers of the fourteenth century? How can the text current among believers be the test of the true original text? The text current among believers has not remained static throughout church history. It has not been universal during the same time period in all geographical localities.

By Hills’ logic of faith, the text current among believers is the true text. Thus, whatever text is current among believers in our day ought to be the true text. But by this standard the true Greek text ought to be the Critical text. It is certainly the Greek text current among believers today. This writer had to go to great length to find a copy of the Textus Receptus to use in comparing the various texts, whereas the Critical text is available in almost any Christian bookstore. Hills’ position was not the logic of faith. It was a presupposition, which was neither logic nor faith.

Hills insisted that only by beginning with his presuppositions can one be sure that he possesses the true text of the New Testament (Hills, B.B.S., p. 87). According to Hills, if one argued only from the evidence of the manuscripts, the best conclusion one could reach was “that the New Testament text is probably trustworthy” (Hills, ibid., p. 216, emphasis his). Manuscript evidence cannot establish every detail of the text with absolute certainty. However, one should not practice what Montgomery called “invincible ignorance” in refusing any objective test of the true text by refusing to base his view on the evidence and retreating into what amounts to an existential assertion of truth (John Warwick Montgomery, Faith Founded on Fact: Essays in Evidential Apologetics, Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1978; p. xiii). Though the manuscript evidence may not render absolute certainty concerning all the details of the text, it can and does render certainty beyond a reasonable doubt as to the basic trustworthiness of the text. Surely, certainty beyond a reasonable doubt is better than invincible ignorance--the ultimate logical fallacy.

Even if one granted that this method of presuppositional reasoning were correct, the question must still be asked, are Hills’ presuppositions valid? Hills must demonstrate that his presuppositions explain the actual facts as they exist in the manuscripts, which are the historical record of God’s preservation of Scriptures. This fact was recognized by Hills. In stressing the relationship between faith and reason, he stated that believers must start with faith. Then the believer must show by reason that this God-given faith “leads to a consistent, comprehensive, believing thought-system” (Hills, B.B.S., p. 217). But Hills has left out a very important ingredient. In order to have “a consistent, comprehensive, believing thought-system,” in relation to textual criticism, that system must explain the realities of the manuscript evidence. It was precisely at this point that Hills’ system broke down. His system simply did not explain the facts as they existed in the manuscripts.

Unless the facts drawn from the manuscripts, which are the history of God’s preservation of the Scriptures, are self-interpreting without the presuppositions of Hills being imposed upon them, all attempts to know the original text must retreat as Hills ultimately did into an existential assertion of truth which says that it is true because it is true to me! This retreat into virtual existentialism was seen in Hills’ treatment of the topic, “How Do We Know The Bible Is True” in Believing Bible Study. Hills declared, “This then is the basic reason why I know the Bible is true. The Bible is true because it is true for me” (Hills, B.B.S., p. 59). Kierkegaard, the father of theological existentialism, could hardly have said it better.

Hills’ Axioms of Textual Criticism

Hills’ application of “the logic of faith” has led him to what he calls the six axioms of “consistently Christian textual criticism.” He postulated first that providential preservation has as its purpose the preserving of “the infallibility of the original text.” His second axiom was that God’s providential preservation of the New Testament has operated in the area of the Greek text. The third axiom was that this “providential preservation operated within the sphere of the Greek Church.” When axioms two and three are taken together, they say that the true text of the New Testament should be found in the Greek manuscripts which contain the text used by the Greek Orthodox Church. Hills’ fourth axiom was that Divine “providential preservation operated through the testimony of the Holy Spirit.” He stated in his fifth axiom, “The text of the majority of manuscripts is the providentially preserved and approved text.” His sixth axiom stated that the text of the majority of manuscripts was the standard text. The fifth and sixth axioms are basically the same postulate stated in different words. Hills used the phrase “standard text” to justify departure from the Majority Text in favor of the Textus Receptus in some places. Both axioms were the inevitable conclusion from axioms two and three rather than independent postulates (Hills, B.B.S., pp. 29-35).

In examining Hills’ axioms further, the initial point to be noted was that they are not really axioms at all. Lewis defined an axiom as “a self-evident truth with which to begin a system of deductive thought” (Lewis, ibid., p. 340). Hills’ so-called axioms simply do not qualify as axioms. They are not self-evident truths which do not need to be proven; they are presuppositions Hills has postulated.

These so-called axioms must be tested against the facts. All too often such basic presuppositions have been accepted by advocates of the King James Only view and have been treated as if they were not to be questioned or examined as to their validity. It is extremely dangerous to accept such unproven assertions as established facts. It was precisely this circular reasoning that was the major mistake in Hills’ procedure. He started out by assuming that which must be proven. At the very least, one must test Hills’ axioms for their systematic consistency. It is not too much to ask that Hills demonstrate that his axioms can be logically and consistently applied to the evidence of the manuscripts and produce the text which he has proclaimed to be the Word of God.

Hills must be required to demonstrate that his axioms are in accord with and can explain the relevant facts as found in the manuscripts. Consistency may not guarantee truth, but contradiction is a sure sign of error. This is simply the law of non-contradiction (Lewis, ibid., p. 344). When Hills’ axioms are tried by the standard of consistency or non-contradiction, they are shown to be in error. Hills does not consistently apply his axioms to the evidence, and his conclusions frequently contradict his own axioms. The axioms in reality argue for the Majority Text, whereas Hills wants to argue for the text of the KJV.

Hills’ first axiom stated, “The purpose of the providential preservation of the New Testament is to prove the infallibility of the inspired original text” (Hills, KJV Defended!, p. 30). In evaluating this axiom, two extremely important words were noted. The first was the word providential. Hills acknowledged by this word that the preservation of the text was by providence rather than by miracle. In other words, Hills acknowledged the fact that preservation and inspiration have not operated on the same level. One can have verbal, plenary inspiration, which involved a divine miracle and produced an inerrant original text, without insisting on an inerrant preservation of the text in one copy or text type. Inspiration and preservation did not operate on the same level and did not produce the same inerrant results.

The second key word in Hills’ initial axiom was the word “infallibility.” What does it mean “to preserve the infallibility of the inspired original text” (Hills, KJV Defended!, p. 34)? The dictionary defines infallible as meaning

“1. incapable of error; never wrong; 2. not liable to fail, go wrong, make a mistake, etc.,; dependable; reliable; sure; 3. R. C. Ch., incapable of error in setting forth doctrine and morals” (Webster’s College Edition).

Hills at times appeared to use the word infallible in the sense of incapable of error, but at other times the word must be understood in the sense of reliable or without error in setting forth doctrine and morals. For example, Hills wrote, “admittedly the KJV is not ideally perfect. No translation can be.” He even listed three readings in the KJV which he labeled “certainly erroneous” (Hills, B.B.S., p. 83; emphasis his).

In light of Hills’ statement that the KJV is not ideally perfect and that some of its readings cannot be defended, he must not mean by preserving the infallibility of the text that anyone manuscript, family of manuscripts, printed Greek text or translation will always be correct in every detail (Hills, B.B.S., pp. 199, 217-218). In this axiom the word must be understood to mean reliable, or without error in faith and morals.

In accord with his first axiom, Hills wrote concerning the Textus Receptus and the KJV that they were “trustworthy reproductions of the infallibly inspired original text.” Taken in the overall context of his writings, Hills did not appear to mean by “trustworthy reproductions” that they were perfect and without error in every detail, but that they were reliable and without error in matters of faith and morals.

If Hills were consistent, he would be able to say concerning the critical Greek text and translations such as the NASB and the NIV that they also are “trustworthy reproductions of the infallibly inspired original text” (Hills, B.B.S., pp. 217-218). The difference between the Textus Receptus and the KJV on one hand, and the Critical text and translations such as the NASB and the NIV on the other hand, are differences of degree of reliability, not reliable verses unreliable. The question of which to use is a question of good verses better, not good verses bad.

Hills’ second, third, fifth, and sixth axioms were so closely related that they must be examined together. He wrote concerning the second and third axioms, “Providential preservation concentrated itself on the Greek New Testament text....Providential preservation operated within the sphere of the Greek Church” (Hills, KJV Defended!, p. 31). Hills was pointed in elaborating on these two axioms, saying,

“In regard to the Greek text God’s providence operates directly, preserving it in its purity throughout all ages...Thus God’s providential preservation of the New Testament concentrated itself especially on the Greek text. Of this text alone we can confidently say that it has been preserved in its purity by God throughout all ages” (Hills, KJV Defended!, p. 31).

He further proclaimed the impossibility that

“non-Greek speaking Churches should be providentially used by God in the preservation of the Greek New Testament. Only in the Greek-speaking Churches was to be found that sphere in which God’s providential care over this text could operate” (Hills, ibid., pp. 31-32).

Hills’ fifth and sixth axioms were just the same postulation stated in two different ways. They set forth the conclusions drawn from the second and third axioms. Hills stated, “The text of the majority of the manuscripts is the providentially preserved and approved text...The text of the majority of the manuscripts is the standard text.” He proclaimed that this text “should be followed almost always in preference to the non-Byzantine texts found in the minority of New Testament manuscripts” (Hills, ibid., pp. 34-35).

Hills also affirmed,

“Today we may be sure that the text found in the vast majority of the Greek New Testament manuscripts is a trustworthy reproduction of the divinely inspired original text” (Hills, B.B.S., p. 34).

But can one really determine the original text simply by finding the majority of manuscripts? One wonders what would happen if one were simply to count the Greek New Testaments in print during this century. If the majority is the determining factor, could not one argue that these represent the God-guided text for our day? In such a case the N-U Text would clearly be shown to be the true text for it is very likely that there are more copies of this critical N-U Text in existence today than all the manuscripts of the Greek New Testament that were ever made. The point is that majority vote of the copies, either handwritten or printed, is simply not a reliable standard, at least not by itself.

Clearly, Hills’ axioms were arguments for the Majority Text. But Hills’ view was not truly a Majority Text view. He was arguing for the Textus Receptus as represented in the KJV as being the restored text of the New Testament.

Hills’ View of the Textus Receptus

Despite repeated reference to the Greek text as having been preserved in the Greek church “throughout all ages” (Hills, KJV Defended!, pp. 25-39), what Hills was arguing for was a restored Greek text as found in the variety of the Textus Receptus translated in the KJV. Hills’ real position called for a restored text rather than preservation of the Greek text throughout the church age. Hills wrote that the Textus Receptus was the “God-guided revision of the traditional manuscript text” which resulted from God’s special providence (Hills, B.B.S., p. 34).

Hills did not base this view of the Textus Receptus on any claim that it always reflected the readings of the majority of the Greek manuscripts, for it does not. He argued that Erasmus was providentially guided by the common faith. Without realizing it, Hills has made an exceedingly important admission. He wrote of Erasmus, “He was not himself outstanding as a man of faith” (Hills, B.B.S., p. 63). But if Erasmus was not outstanding as a man of faith and yet his textual work was good, would that not mean that one cannot properly condemn a text on the basis of the spiritual failings of the editor? Does such a statement not mean that one does not necessarily have to be an outstanding man of faith to do good textual criticism? If Hills is correct about Erasmus, would not the same conclusion hold true for later editors of the Greek text such as Westcott and Hort? It should be noticed that the Hebrew Old Testament was preserved by non-Christian Jews. One almost feels compelled to ask why it is that only Westcott and Hort’s textual work seems to be rejected on the grounds that they were not outstanding men of faith.

Hills faced an insoluble contradiction between his view of the Textus Receptus and his axioms of textual criticism because of the fact that the Textus Receptus is not identical to the text of the majority of the extant Greek manuscripts. In stating that “in all essentials” the text of the Textus Receptus was the same as the Majority Text, Hills was being forced to admit that there are differences between the two texts (Hills, B.B.S., p. 34). These differences are not of monumental importance, but they do not differ in kind from those between the Textus Receptus and the Critical text.

Unless one holds to Hills’ axioms and to his view that the Textus Receptus is the true text of the New Testament which has been divinely preserved, the differences between the Textus Receptus and the Majority Text create no difficulty. But if one follows Hills’ view, the presence of non-Majority readings is a major difficulty.

Hills’ six axioms argued that the text preserved by the Greek church as found in the majority of manuscripts was the true text. Thus, despite Hills’ protest to the contrary, non-majority readings should be rejected. The sudden shift of referring to the majority text as the standard text in axiom six rather than the preserved true text did not adequately deal with the difficulty which Hills faced. He was acting contrary to his axioms when he argued that virtually all the non-majority readings in the Textus Receptus should be retained in the text as either probably or possibly genuine (Hills, KJV Defended!, pp. 121-133).

Most of the non-majority readings in the Textus Receptus are Latin readings. Hills’ axioms would require that these readings be rejected. But he accepted, or at least wanted to retain, these Latin readings even when no Greek manuscript evidence existed for them. Faced with the presence of Latin readings in the Textus Receptus, Hills acknowledged that Erasmus, influenced by the Vulgate, sometimes followed the Latin rather than the Greek text; but he regarded it as inconceivable that providence would have allowed Erasmus to err by including these Latin readings (Hills, B.B.S., p. 196). But why is it inconceivable?

Oddly, though Hills proclaimed the Greek church and the Majority Text to be the special providence of God’s providential preservation of the Scriptures, he also asserted that “there are also a few passages in which the Latin Vulgate has preserved the true reading rather than the Greek Traditional New Testament text” (Hills, B.B.S., p. 109). One was hardly stunned to find out that they were the Latin variants that were later incorporated into the Textus Receptus and the KJV.

Hills’ attempt to retain the non-majority readings of the Textus Receptus was completely out of harmony with his principles as stated in the six axioms. Hills and others are totally inconsistent when they defend the Textus Receptus in passages such as Acts 8:37, 9:5-6, I John 5:7 and others because these readings are not found in the God guided tradition that they have claimed has handed down the pure text. If one were to apply Hills’ principles consistently, he would be forced to abandon non-majority text readings. Hills’ inconsistency at this point clearly revealed that he had not arrived at his views by a careful evaluation of the evidence from the manuscripts. He started with the presupposition that the Textus Receptus was to be adhered to at almost any cost; and he adhered to the Textus Receptus even though it required him to renounce, at least in practice, his own stated principles of textual criticism.

Hills’ treatment of the non-majority readings was nothing more than an exercise in the most extreme form of eclectic methodology which some liberal textual critics have urged for years. He has shown a total disregard for the external evidence to the text at this point. Hills has violated most of his axioms, as well as his emphasis on the common faith.

Conclusion

Hills confidently affirmed that the text found in the majority of the Greek manuscripts was a “trustworthy reproduction of the divinely inspired original text” (Hills, B.B.S., p. 34). The present author has no difficulty with such an affirmation. But the point which must be made is that the same statement could be made about the Critical Greek Text. It also is a trustworthy reproduction of the original text. But neither text is necessarily perfect in its preservation of all the details of the original text. The differences between the two varieties of the text are matters of purity and reliability in the details of the text, not in the message. The contrast between the two texts is not a contrast between perfection on one hand and corruption on the other. Both texts are trustworthy reproductions of the original text. The two texts vary in detail only.

Hills’ position, though presented with the appearance of scholarship, cannot be maintained. He must repeatedly violate his own axioms in attempting to support the text of the KJV when it varies from that of the Majority Text. One simply cannot be both King James Only, in the sense that Hills is King James Only, and support that position with arguments for the Majority Text without violating the principle of non-contradiction.

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