A Review of Touch Not the Unclean Thing, by David Sorenson

By Jonathan A. Whitmer

The current plethora of modern Bible versions has given rise to an equally voluminous plethora of literature the controversy over the validity of these many versions of the Bible.  The question of “Which Bible?”—to quote one book dealing with this controversy[1]—is a question that will never go away as long as there are a multiplicity of Bible translations on the market, each proclaiming its unique and superior virtues over the others in clearly communicating the message of the underlying texts of Scripture.  With so many choices made available through the endeavors of the ecclesiastically autonomous Bible Societies and publishers, one is left with the choice either to appropriate the vast variety of Bibles available at this textual smorgasbord or to ask whether, perhaps, the Bible has become not much more than a religious trinket to which we pay daily homage.


The evangelical world, to a large extent, has taken the Warfieldian emphasis of the inerrant autographs to its logical conclusion—the mass proliferation of Bibles of every type to fit every segment of society, with the gleaming approval of its many and varied leaders.[2]  The receptor oriented philosophy of translation promoted today both in America and around the world through organizations such as Wycliff Bible Translators and the many Bible societies presents us with a logical quandary.  If the autographs are (as even the average neo-evangelical will claim) inerrant, then should we not feel a bit uneasy with any translation approach or marketing tactic that betrays a less than fervent fidelity for the integrity of both the meaning of the autographs and the form?  Truly the “Pandora’s box” opened by Warfield’s shotgun marriage of scientism with his misrepresentation of historic orthodox bibliology does not result in an intellectually defensible dotrine of inspiration but rather a bibliology more akin to neo-orthodox in its union of fairly orthodox language with modernism.  For example, in many Fundamental, Independent Baptist churches, statements on inspiration—if they are “ecclesio-politically” correct—will boldly declare a firm belief in the “inerrancy of the original manuscripts” followed by the statement that “the Scriptures [not any specific form or recension: is it the autographs only or the multiplicity of translations?] are the sole rule for faith and practice.”  What is said sounds good, but little is really said.  The question of “Which Bible?” remains without an adequate answer.


In the midst of the flurry of books—some good and some not so good—written in this continuing debate, one writer, Pastor David Sorenson has produced a book that seeks to aid his readers in making a truly informed decision amid the turmoil.  His book, Touch Not The Unclean Thing:  The Text Issue and Separation, consolidates many of the primary arguments of other authors[3] in defense of the Authorized Version and the Received texts of the Old and New Testaments.[4]  He presents this overview of a “pro-Ecclesiastical text” position in a way that allows the average layperson to grasp easily some of the key arguments in defense of the Ecclesiastical Text.  For this Dr. Sorenson is to be commended.


However, no book is perfect and this book presents some weaknesses, which may significantly limit its effectiveness in presenting a credible defense of the Ecclesiastical text.


First, as Sorenson admits in his introduction (p.1), “the scope of this volume is from a Fundamental Baptist perspective for those of like mind.”  It is not the perspective from which he develops his material that concerns me (I am writing this review from within the same context) so much as the limiting of his scope to a relatively limited segment of the Church.  Those outside his target audience may use the focus of the book to demonstrate that the defense of the KJV is more a matter of fundamentalist quarrelling than a serious issue worth scholarly investigation.  They can then brush off some of the better points made in the book but not developed sufficiently.  The issue of text criticism and the doctrines of inspiration and preservation are certainly trans-denominational and should be dealt with using better criteria than a minority distinctive (i.e. the Fundamentalist emphasis on separation) that may actually confuse the issue more than clear it up.  A bad argument becomes a ready and effective weapon in the hands of one’s opponents.  The theme of the book is not skewed by the survey of the different positions of the text controversy but by the insistence by the author of linking the issue with separation.  The author plays to the bias of his target audience, perhaps seeking to circumnavigate their resistance to the Ecclesiastical text position.  This poor focus provides KJV believers who may not understand much about the text critical method and other weightier aspects of the debate with a simple, easy to repeat formula for why they insist on the KJV, but little more.  The book does not really contribute to the debate in a constructive way.


Second, by linking the text issue with separation, Sorenson yields himself to two obvious criticisms which opponents of Sorenson’s (and my) position are almost sure to make. 

1)  “Pro-KJV fundamentalists are on a mission to divide fundamentalism.”  Those who have study the writing of Edward F. Hills, Theodore P. Letis, or Jakob Van Bruggen should realize that defending the Ecclesiastical text and its derivative translations is consistent with an historic view of inspiration and preservation revived in the Reformation and existing in the early Church.  Warfield is the true culprit for dividing fundamentalism on this issue.  His merging of a humanistic view of the Biblical texts with a basically orthodox-sounding appeal to the inerrancy of the original autographs seemed to many evangelicals of his day as the perfect solution to the textual data being used at that time against an orthodox respect for the authority and integrity of the Bible.  Warfield’s view was pragmatic and intellectually indefensible diversionary paradigm shift surprisingly analogous to the neo-orthodoxy strategy of combining orthodox creedal forms of expression with liberal meaning and insisting on a paradoxical balance of the two.  Thus, Warfield introduced the wedge and those who follow his paradigm drive the wedge all the deeper.  Yet this “limited target audience” has held so strongly to Warfield’s method because the alternative—what is usually termed “Ruckmanitism”—has been the perception many people have of a pro-KJV position.  Many fundamentalists use the KJV but do not defend it because of the illogical arguments that have colored the debate through men like Ruckman.  To appeal to the fundamentalist doctrine of separation certainly does more to raise the defenses of Sorenson’s audience than to convince the skeptics reading the book.


2)  “Anyone who would defend the Textus Receptus does not really know what he is talking about.”   While summarizing material from a number of scholars who have dealt with the issues of defending the Ecclesiastical text in much greater depth, Sorenson really does not develop any new material in support of the Ecclesiastical text.   He rather seeks to establish the need to separate from the apostasy of Westcott and Hort as a primary reason for rejecting the Critical Text.  While this polemic may effectively convince those who cater to sensationalism and conspiracy theories, it really does not supply a satisfying argument.  If we were to follow his paradigm of applying the principle of separation from apostasy to scholarship to its bitter end, we would have to separate ourselves from Thayer’s Greek Lexicon because he was a Unitarian, and some excellent scholarship in support of the Ecclesiastical text, because some of that scholarship is from “unseparated” sources[5].  Likewise, Sorenson leaves himself with the rather convenient situation of answering his eclectic-text critics with the retort that they are “just not separated” and therefore their contentions should be dismissed.  While well intended, Sorensen’s linking of the text issue to separation rings hollow and should be abandoned. 


Third, Sorenson wastes significant space in his book to argue that Erasmus was essentially a fundamentalist.  While Sorenson admits the fact that Erasmus never left the Roman Catholic Church, the comparison of his theological distinctives with fundamental theology (in a broad sense of the term) seems to contradict the first chapter of his book, in which he goes through great pains to establish the doctrine of separation from apostasy as a foundational creed of fundamentalism.  Erasmus did not separate from the Catholic Church, therefore (to apply Sorenson’s separation paradigm) why should we trust his scholarship?  To reject the Critical Text based on guilt-by-association justifies his opponents doing the same regarding the credibility of Erasmus.  It is dangerous to apply contemporary labels to other historic periods, as the sociological, political and ecclesiastical dynamics were radically different then from now.  We might as well call St. Augustine a "Calvinist" (though they were a good millennium of time apart from one another) since both he and Calvin acknowledge the fact that the Bible really does discuss election as a factor in our salvation.  Erasmus, like Luther after him, sought to view church tradition as subservient to Scripture, not the other way around.  While he may very well have laid the foundation for the Reformation (or at least was a major example of Roman Catholics realizing the need for reformation), to compare the ideological results of his theological pilgrimage to “Fundamentalism” leaves the false impression that some of the stereotypes associated with that term might apply to him. Roland Bainton[6] elaborates on some of Erasmus’ ideas:

“There were three elements in Erasmus’ position which the radicals could appropriate.  The first was the way in which he envisaged the restoration of primitive Christianity.  The central point for him was not, as for Luther, the doctrine of justification by faith, but the pattern of New Testament behavior, the exemplification of the Sermon on the Mount, the literal imitation of Christ.  The second point was aversion to dogma, whether cold from Rome or hot from Wittenberg.  Deeds are more important than creeds, and the amount of belief necessary for salvation cannot exceed the comprehension of the most obtuse.  The third principle was inwardness, the spirit against the flesh and the spirit against the letter…. Others went beyond him [Carlstadt, a follower of Erasmus’ ideas] and pitted the inner against the outer world, the spirit against the letter of Scripture, the illumination of the heart against parchment, paper and the ink of the Bible.” [69]


How does Fundamentalism compare with Erasmus?  As with Luther, we hold to the doctrine of justification by faith as our central point, which aligns us closer to Luther on that point.  While many independent Baptists berate the “creedalism” of the Reformation churches, we to have our “creeds,” we just call them “doctrinal statements.”  While Erasmus certainly would have rejected the directions that some took his ideas, he did not fit the label of “fundamentalist-before-his-time.”  Other Fundamentalists have tried to “Fundamentalize” men like Dean John Burgon and it does more harm than help to the Ecclesiastical text position.  It would be better if Sorenson only used the term “Fundamentalism” in conjunction with how that word is understood today rather than in comparison with men who lived 4-5 centuries ago.


Fourth, regarding the allegation that the doctrine of separation from apostasy was a foundational doctrine of fundamentalism, it might be better said that rigorous confrontation of apostasy is a foundation of fundamentalism, which tends to result in separation.  J. Gresham Machen (who preferred the term "orthodox" over the term "fundamentalist" because he perceived the intention of the focus on the fundamental doctrines of scripture as simply a restatement of the most important elements of historic creedal orthodoxy in the face of theological modernism) thus spoke out against his denomination's acceptance of the ordination of women and was subsequently defrocked.   Luther challenged the Roman Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility and the elevation of tradition above Scripture and was likewise excommunicated.


Fifth, Sorenson never presents a solution to the contention that the language of the KJV is often difficult to understand.  This author has met numerous people who for various reasons legitimately need an updated KJV.  Many fundamentalists who would deny that they hold to a “Ruckmanite” view of scripture have an almost “Ruckmanite” attitude toward the concept of even simply updating archaic words and words that have changed in meaning in the KJV text.  Many opponents of the KJV use this valid need for non-archaic words as their primary argument to promote modern translations such as the NIV.  Pro-KJV leaders respond to this by separating from the recognition of a need to replace archaic words in the text and instead recommend that their congregants keep a glossary of archaic KJV words with their Bibles.  How ironic that pastors and other leaders would recognize the need to replace archaic words enough to publish glossaries but few are willing to update those words in the text that need it.  Perhaps the greatest factor leading fundamentalist lay people away from the KJV and its defense to the NKJV, the NIV, the NASB and others is the resistance of many pro-KJV fundamentalist pastors and teachers to making the KJV more clear by updating archaic words.  There are thus left with three options:


1)      Read the KJV and stumble over every archaic word or idiom or read modern thought structures into archaic idiomatic forms (a Ruckmanite-type refusal to allow the text of the KJV to be altered at all).

2)      Use a glossary of archaic KJV words (a superficial and sometimes distracting concession to #1)).

3)      Read a modern version either by itself or along with the KJV (a concession to Warfield).

I suggest a fourth option, one that does not seem popular among many fundamentalist defenders of the KJV: consider a conservative updating of the archaic words and idioms of the KJV that respects all the syntactical categories of the KJV (e.g. the differentiation in person evidenced in thee / you and thou / ye).  To argue that there is a problem regarding modern versions is only half the job.  Defining the nature and boundaries of the problem is the next step and offering a viable solution should be the goal.  If we are unwilling to reevaluate the nature and boundaries of the textual debate as well as our arguments in addressing different aspects of the text issue, we may find ourselves defending the Ecclesiastical text with weapons that will be used more effectively against us by our opponents.


Jonathan A. Whitmer

BA (Bible, with minor in Biblical languages), Pensacola Christian College

MA (Linguistics:  Great Plains Baptist College / Baptist Bible Translators Institute)

[1] Which Bible?  by Fuller

[2] The author of this review recalls an add for the Living Bible, which appeared a number of years ago in Christianity Today, in which such evangelical heroes as Chuck Colson and Billy Graham lent their imprimatur to that version (a mere paraphrase, at that!) as reliable and useful for not only personal devotional reading but also for in depth Bible study.

[3] i.e. Letis, Hills, Fuller, etc

[4] I will use the term “Ecclesiastical text,” focusing on the means by which God preserved His Word in an authoritative and reliable form, to refer to the historic, “received” texts of the Old and New testaments.  Sorenson prefers the term “Preserved texts,” emphasizing the action of God’s preserving His Word.

[5] i.e. Letis’ compelling application of Brevard Childs’ “canonical method”;  also, Letis’ essay on “The Prologue of John and the Egyptian Manuscripts,” pages 118-126, which discusses how a 19th century Unitarian scholar defended the traditional reading of monogenhs uios, in John 1:18, because many of the “orthodox” of his day were defending the Egyptian Gnostic monogenhs qeos reading.  Also, the works of Dean John Burgon in defense of the Textus Receptus;  Burgon was a high-Church Anglican who believed in Apostolic succession—a position from which any Fundamentalists would  definitely want to separate.  Also consider that the Textus Receptus was preserved primarily in the Greek Orthodox Church, and the Hebrew Old Testament was largely transmitted by medieval Jews who would have nothing to do with Christ.

[6] The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century