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Book Reviews > Bible, general > Ring of Truth: A Translator’s Testimony

Ray VanNeste

Ray VanNeste
Director of the RC Ryan Center for Biblical Studies and Assistant Professor of Christian Studies

Ring of Truth: A Translator’s Testimony
J. B. Phillips
Details: 1977, Harold Shaw (originally Hodder & Stoughton), Amazon.comISBN: 0877887241
Posted: July 3, 2002

This is a quite interesting little book. Phillips admits at the outset that anger drove him to write this book- anger at the smug so called scholars who flippantly claim to debunk the New Testament without regard to the damage they do to people in the churches. Phillips writes to counter such ‘debunking’ and argue that his experience in working closely with the Greek NT in preparing his translation convinced him more than ever that the NT writings are true. The book, then, is not a technical defense of the NT’s reliability but really a personal testimony of how the experience of translating convinced Phillips, who (as I came to learn) in no way began with strongly conservative leanings.

I think the particular value of this book today is primarily in two places. It is not in its apologetic value. In the day when Phillips was well known and his opinion carried weight it may have been useful in this way. Rather, the books usefulness lies in Phillips well worded statements in defending certain issues, in the light it sheds on Phillips’ personal views (some surprising to me), and in the fact that it is a first person response to the attacks of modernity from a local church vicar.

First, then, I will cite some of Phillips’ felicitous phrasings.

On his purpose in writing:

- ‘I do not write for scholars; they can look after themselves’ (19).

- ‘I am not concerned to distort or dilute the Christian faith so that modern undergraduates, for example, can accept it without a murmur. I am concerned with the truth revealed in and through Jesus Christ. Let the modern world conform to him, and never let us dare to try to make him fit into our clever-clever modern world. I am no anti-intellectual - But I say quite bluntly that some of the intellectuals (by no means all, thank God!), who write so cleverly and devastatingly about the Christian faith appear to have no personal knowledge of the living God. For they lack awe, they lack humility, and they lack the responsibility which every Christian owes to his weaker brother. They make sure they are never made “fools for Christ’s sake”, however many people’s faith they may undermine’ (19-20).

- ‘I do not care a rap what the “avant-garde” scholars say; I do very much care what God says and does’ (20).

On translation theory, troubles of KJV (though he does not dismiss it):

- ‘I suppose that like many another clergyman or minister I had never realised what a barrier beautiful but antique words had imposed’ (29).

- On his own effort at translation: ‘I was not aiming so much at absolute accuracy as to try to produce in modern minds what I imagined the original Greek words produced in the minds of first century readers and hearers’ (75).

Other quotes:

- ‘The New Testament, given a fair hearing, does not need me or anyone else to defend it’ (27).

- ‘once one gets to grips with the actual stuff of the New Testament, its vitality is astonishing’ (31).

- ‘We have lost sight of the fact that Christ is in us, both willing and doing. Consequently we lack that joy, confidence and spontaneity which rightly belongs to the sons of God’ [compare with Packer in Knowing God] (47).

- ‘I have never found a true Christian without a profound sense of awe and wonder’ (59).

- Concerning the writing of the NT: ‘it is the authority which stabs the spirit broad awake. Paul and John wrote because they knew. The Christian revelation was not to them a tentative hypothesis, but the truth about God and men’ (71).

- ‘It is, in my experience, the people who have never troubled seriously to study the four Gospels who are loudest in their protests that there was no such person [as Jesus]’ (79).

Secondly, it was disappointing to discover some of Phillips less conservative stands. While he writes to affirm the truthfulness of the New Testament, he states early in the book, ‘I should like to make it quite clear that I could not possible hold the extreme “fundamentalist” position of so-called “verbal inspiration” (28). Though he argues for the truthfulness of Paul’s writing, still he says that Paul’s own, human, and thus wrong, ideas sometimes come through in Scripture (34). While he argues against some of the modernist scholars that there is a real evil force in the world, he seems to deny any personal evil One (51-54). He explicitly renounces total depravity, even saying he is ‘not at all proud’ of the article in his own Book of Common Prayer which espouses this doctrine (68-69). And his argument is so poor! Also, commenting on 1 John 4:7 (again with poor logic) he writes, ‘those who did give themselves in love to others did in fact “know God”, however loudly they might protest their agnosticism’ (70)- salvation apart from any acknowledgement of Christ! In a non sequitur argument he asserts that the early church had no knowledge of the Virgin Birth since it was not part of the core message along with the resurrection (110).

Thirdly, it strikes me that this is an interesting piece showing the struggle with modernity, not from a philosophical perspective but from the front lines, with a local church pastor dealing with the fall out.

Lastly, it is quite intriguing simply to get a glance into the heart and mind of J. B. Phillips. I did not know that it was the encouragement of C. S. Lewis that caused Phillips to forge ahead with his translation project. It was also very intriguing to read his accounts of two ‘appearances’ of C. S. Lewis (post mortem!) to him in which Lewis spoke a word of encouragement to him.