New Testament Christianity by J B Phillips







"New Testament Christianity". The critic will probably ask as he picks up this book: "Is this an attempt to distil the teaching of those early Christian documents which we call the New Testament, or is it an attempt to contrast the vigorous and vivid life of the Young Church with the frequently over‑organised and sometimes laboured movement of the Church to­day?" The critic may well feel dubious as to whether there is such a definite phenomenon as "New Testament Christianity" at all, since evidence of life in the early Church is somewhat scanty. He may further reflect that all the major divisions which so sadly separate the world­wide Church owe their divergence of opinion almost entirely to their interpretations of this same New Testament. He may therefore conclude that the author of this book, in writing of "New Testament Christianity" is describing something which may never have had any real coherent existence. He may also feel that it is most unfair to compare the concentrated vigour of a small newly‑formed sect with a world‑wide organisation con­fronted by problems on a scale unknown to the Young Church and harried by tensions and pressures which could only have existed nineteen hundred years ago in a much simplified form.


Since there is some truth in what this imaginary critic is feeling, I feel there must be an Explanation at the be­ginning of this book. I fear that this must of necessity be somewhat lengthy, but I trust that the reader will read it patiently, for it is necessary for the understanding of the burden of this book.


First, I think I may fairly claim that as a translator of all the New Testament (except the book of Revelation) I am in a somewhat unique position. I do not in the least mean that I am a unique person, and indeed most of my own work of translation has been carried out not in the seclusion of a scholar's study but in the middle of the busy life of a Church of England Vicar. But I am in an unusual position, for not very many people have lived in close contact with the Greek of the New Testament for some fourteen years. The translator is bound to feel the enormous spiritual energy, indeed, in its truest sense, the inspiration of the Gospels, the Acts, and the Epistles. It is not, to speak personally, that particular doctrines, or the seeds of particular dogmas, strike the mind afresh. On the contrary, it is the sheer spiritual zest and drive of the New Testament which fill one with both wonder and wistfulness. It is as though in these pages there lies the secret of human life. The secret is not a mere theory or ideal, but a fresh quality of living worked out in terms of ordinary human life and circumstance. Above all, the general impression is of something supernatural, of supra‑human truth and a supra‑human way of living. The wistfulness arises, of course, from the comparison between the shining, blazing certainty of the New Testament writers and the comparatively tentative and uncertain faith and hope we meet so often in present‑day Christianity.


Let me explain this impression of supra‑human quality in more detail. In translating the Gospels, for example, like every other conscientious modem translator, I emptied my mind as far as possible of precon­ceived ideas and conclusions. "Here," I said to myself in effect, "are four pieces of Greek, comparatively simple Greek, which it is my job to turn into the sort of English which is spoken and written today." I did my best to be detached and disinterested, for it is no part of a trans­lator's job to add colour or give a slant to what he is translating. Yet I find, on comparing notes with other translators, that I am not alone in finding a minor miracle happening. As the work went on, steadily and inexorably there stood up from these pages a Figure of far more than human stature and quality. One tried to sense, and indeed to transmit, something of the difference in the style of the four evangelists. Mark wrote in a down­right "utility" style, with neither frills nor decoration, and certainly with a minimum of descriptive adjectives. Matthew's Gospel is careful and precise, a conscientious and, in a sense, calculated short history to prove to the Jewish mind that the One Whom the prophets fore­told was now a Fact of history. Luke (to whose careful research we owe such unforgettable parables as that of the Prodigal Son and the Good Samaritan, as well as the account of the Walk to Emmaus) writes with warm humanity. He is concerned for the Gentile, for the out­cast and unprivileged, for the poor and for the then largely despised female sex. The Gospel of John, written in all probability much later, adds fresh insight, supply­ing almost another dimension to the Figure simply por­trayed by the first three evangelists. Very naturally, a composite portrait forms in the mind after many months of study of these four remarkable compositions. But to the present translator it is by no means only the Figure that they succeed in creating between them that is so im­pressive. The feeling grows that behind these early at­tempts to set down what was reliably remembered about this Man, there stands the Man Himself! It is His Presence, His Character, which springs to life at the stimulation of these artless pages. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John are nothing but humble instruments (as I am sure they would have been the first to admit), but Who is it, Whose human life is it, they are trying to describe and record? The translator, for all his assumed detach­ment and impartiality, has all his intuitive and imagina­tive faculties set at their most sensitive, or his work would be wooden and mechanical. And it is these very faculties which are set tingling and vibrating by the Presence of Someone Who is almost unbearably near and alive today. That He was properly and thoroughly human is obvious from the records; indeed, He is seen to be more human than one thought, for the solemn majesty of the Authorised Version frequently obscures both His humanity and His humour. But steadily there grows in the mind the disquieting conviction that here is much more than man. Here, through the incomplete and sometimes almost naive records, one is in contact with something so tremendous in its significance that at first the mind cannot grasp it, but only as it were gasps incredulously. Previously one had accepted the teaching of the Church's Creeds ‑ that Jesus was both Man and God, and to say one believed in the "Incarnation" would not raise an eyebrow anywhere. But now from first‑hand acquaintance with these early documents the truth sweeps in afresh, and the indescribable humility of God strikes one with overwhelming awe. This little sphere on which we live and move and have our being is, in fact, a Visited Planet. The Creator of the vast Universe, about Whose Nature we could at the most make intelligent guesses, slipped quietly into the stream of human life in the only way in which that could be possible ‑ by becom­ing a human being. This is the truth that pulses and vibrates behind the steady prose of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, and shines through the more poetic works of John.


It now becomes apparent why, though the work of translating must be done as conscientiously as possible, the translator constantly feels not merely his own inade­quacy but the extreme difficulty of his task, for behind all that he translates is not simply a uniquely important event of history, though that would be a profound under­statement; not simply the story of the greatest man who ever lived, though that again would fall a long way below the truth, but the active Presence of God Himself, God expressed in a form human beings can understand, in a form that can bring both inestimable comfort and surprising disquiet. This astonishing sense of spiritual attack which, it seems to me, must inevitably follow the continual reading of the four Gospels, without precon­ception but with an alert mind, is not the sole privilege of the translator. It can happen to anyone who is pre­pared to abandon proof‑texts and a closed attitude of mind, and allow not merely the stories but the quality of the Figure Who exists behind the stories to meet him afresh. Neat snippets of a few verses are of course useful in their way, but the overall sweep and much of the sig­nificance of the Gospel narratives are lost to us unless we are prepared to read the Gospels through, not once but several times. I would suggest that this be done in an unfamiliar version, not of course necessarily my own! Familiar words and verses have already their stereotyped reactions. It is not the significance of a single verse that we are seeking here ‑ though Heaven knows there are enough single verses to revolutionise our thinking­ - so much as the full meaning that lies behind the total nar­rative. From countless conversations and from a good deal of correspondence, I have become convinced that very few present‑day Christians have allowed the Truth to break over them in this way. What is more, I have a feeling, although it cannot be proved, that most of the critics of the Christian religion have never given their serious adult attention to the Gospel records. It is easy to criticise the many failings of the Church; it is all too easy to criticise the lives of those who profess and call themselves Christians; but I should say that it is almost impossible to read the Gospels thoroughly with adult, serious attention and then dismiss the central Figure as a mere human prophet or tragic idealist. The reaction to such study may indeed prove to be either conversion or open hostility, but it would at least mean the end of childish and ill‑informed attacks upon what is supposed to be the Christian religion.


The total impression, then, of the close study of the Gospels is an indelible conviction that the well‑nigh in­credible has happened ‑ that the Creator has visited this world in human form. He brings with Him confirmation of our highest hopes, He endorses our finest longings, and He confirms many of our intuitions. But of course He does far more than this. First, He introduces a new kind of truth ‑ a kind of "super‑sense" which transcends our earthly viewpoint. We may find sometimes our values disconcertingly reversed, sometimes we find we have been looking at things from the wrong angle. Now that we have this revelation of truth, there is no need to grope or fumble. We have certain basic truths unques­tionably revealed. We have a standard by which our scale of values and our conscience may be adjusted. It is not that all our questions are immediately answered. It is not that everything becomes immediately plain and that there are no more mysteries. But it is true that we now have enough light by which to live; we see something at least of life's point and purpose, and we know where we are going. What is more, the humble and obedient are guaranteed an active, energetic, contemporary Spirit of Truth. In other words, although we see the Character of God focused historically in the time and space set‑up, we come to see and know that that human appearance is only the outcrop of what is eternally true. (That is why the material on which a New Testament translator works is alive under his hands.) It is almost too good to be true, but it is true that the One Who walked and talked in the countryside, the streets and houses of Palestine nearly two thousand years ago, is in every way as alive and active in the world of today.


The second important revelation which God‑become ­Man gave us, and which indeed His Spirit is continually prepared to endorse, is that this little life is lived against a background, at present invisible, of timeless Reality. Some men have always felt that this must be so, since man's longings and intuitions, as well as his sense of justice, go far beyond the limits of life in this present tem­porary existence. To put it in another way, there is an­other dimension to life altogether, the dimension of "eternity". This present life is interpenetrated by the Real World far more than we know. For most of us it is only very occasionally that we get our flashes of conviction, and it is of immeasurable comfort to know, on the authority of that Personal Visit, that our feeble intui­tion was right and that this short, earthly life, important and significant though it may be in its setting, is no more than a prelude to a share in the timeless Life of God.


All this and much more floods our minds as we study afresh the four Gospel records. But this wonder­ful quality of living, this drawing on unseen spiritual resources, this plunging of the sharp sword of truth into the muddle of human sins and stupidities, might have ended with the crucifixion of Jesus. If it had, we should indeed have been left something, for every true seer and poet and philosopher has left us the richer. But the special glory of the New Testament is that we are not merely shown a shining beacon of one perfect human life but we are told of what happened after that human life was ended. The light persists, the power continues, the wind of Heaven does not cease to blow. If you will not misunderstand me, in one sense I have been even more thrilled as a translator to come into contact with the highly‑charged material of the Acts and the Epistles than I was when translating the Gospels. For if God really became Man, the light and power and splendour of the Gospel‑story is only to be expected. But to find that this was not merely a single unique demonstration but the beginning of a new way of living, the founding of a new Kingdom and of a new fellowship, is exciting indeed!


Consequently, the close study of the book commonly called the Acts of the Apostles proved an exhilaration. The ideas and ideals of God‑become‑Man take shape and form: the glory has not departed, it continues and expands. For the first time in human history we are see­ing a group of men and women united in devotion to the unseen King, joined in an unconquerable fellowship. We may be reasonably certain that Luke was a most careful historian and was not prone to exaggeration. Yet we find his story of the Young Church in action bearing the same stamp of supra‑human quality as we find in the Gospels. The sick are not merely prayed about, they are healed, often suddenly and dramatically. Mental and psycho­logical diseases ("possession by evil spirits", in the jargon of those days) proved equally susceptible to the new power in the Church. Perhaps, above all, that miracle which is theoretically unattainable is performed again and again ‑ human nature is changed. The fresh air of Heaven blows gustily through these pages, and the sense that ordinary human life is continually open to the Spirit of God is very marked. There is not yet a dead hand of tradition; there is no over‑organisation to stifle initia­tive; there is neither security nor complacency to destroy sensitivity to the living God. The early Church lived dangerously, but never before has such a handful of people exerted such widespread influence. There is a courage to match the vision; there is a flexible willing­ness to match the divine leadership. And there is that un­shakable certainty against which persecution, imprison­ment, and death prove quite powerless. To put it shortly and in the common phrase, the lasting excitement which follows the reading of this book is this: the thing works! What might have remained no more than a beautiful ideal is set to work in an actual human situation, and with truly astonishing impetus the Church moves for­ward on its way.


All this is without doubt exciting enough, but from the point of view of Christian evidence the best is yet to be. For, after all, it might be argued, and indeed has been argued, that the Man Jesus did exist, but that some years after His death, perhaps after a generation or so, His followers wrote romantic and idealistic accounts of His life. Again, it is possible to argue that Luke's second book, the Acts of the Apostles, is something of an idealisa­tion of the beginnings of the Christian Church. But even if these contentions are true, if both the Gospels and the Acts were propaganda for the Christian sect and there­fore not to be wholly relied upon as unbiased history, the critics of Christianity have still to explain the incontro­vertible evidence of the "Epistles" or Letters. With one or two minor exceptions, these are universally accepted as authentic, and it seems to me that Christians today do not always realise how valuable they are as evidence for the proof of the Faith. For here we have no self‑conscious documents, but vivid human letters, often bearing strong evidence of the emotion under which they were written. There is some case to be made out for arguing that the four evangelists knew what they were doing ‑ they were writing lives of Jesus Christ to be read among Chris­tians and possibly non‑Christians. Although they could not have foreseen the vast weight of authority that would later be accorded to their words, they may well have known that they were in a sense writing "holy Scrip­ture". But this is not true of Paul, for example, at all. For the most part he wrote to certain groups of Christians in certain circumstances, and he had no idea that he was writing holy Scripture at the time. In translating his letters, it is not difficult to picture that solitary, cour­ageous figure, writing or dictating his letters in great haste and urgency. Sometimes he was in prison, some­times he was in poor health, frequently he was torn with anxiety for his new‑born converts. He wrote to meet the needs of those for whom he was writing, completely un­conscious that in years to come millions of people would study his every word with the deepest attention. Yet the inspiration of his words, which I believe to be largely unconscious, strikes us forcibly today. He had no idea, certainly, that he was composing Christian evidence! Yet the life reflected, as well as expressed, in the pages of his unself‑conscious letters is plainly of the supra­human quality.


Now, if we were to compile a history of any place or nation, one of our most valuable discoveries would be a packet of letters reflecting the life of a certain part of that history. Newspapers, broadsheets, pamphlets, and any other printed matter would have their value, of course; but because they were written for the public eye and probably to prove a particular point, we should be very wary of accepting them as unbiased evidence. But that would not be true of a bundle of private letters simply because they were not being written for the pub­lic at all and the writer had no particular axe to grind. They would, in all probability, reflect most accurately the customs, habits, and thoughts of the times in which they were written. Now, if this is true in the field of purely secular history, it is just as true, though of far deeper significance, when we study historically the beginnings of Christianity. It is what the Letters say and what the Letters imply, it is the new‑quality life revealed by these human unself‑conscious documents, which gives us, to my mind, our most valuable Christian evidence. What impression is left upon our minds, or, if I may again be personal, what impression is left upon my mind after spending some years in translating these letters? Above all, I think, that men and women are being changed: the timid become brave, the filthy‑minded become pure in heart, the mean and selfish become lov­ing and generous. It is quite plain that the writers of these letters took it as a matter of course, as a matter of observed experience, that if men and women were open to the Spirit of God, then they could be and were trans­formed. The resources of God are not referred to as vague pieties but as readily available spiritual power. Quite clearly a positive torrent of love and wisdom, san­ity and courage, has already flooded human life, and is always ready to flow wherever human hearts are open.


Now, critics of Christianity have somehow got to ex­plain this if they are to have a leg to stand on. Let them read these Letters for themselves, and attempt to explain these transformations of character. No one had anything to gain in those days from being a Christian; indeed, there was a strong chance that the Christian would lose security and property, and even life itself. Yet, reflected in the pages of these Letters, both men and women are exhibiting superb courage and are growing, as naturally as fruit upon a tree, those qualities of the spirit of which the world is so lamentably short. To my mind we are forced to the conclusion that something is at work here far above and beyond normal human experience, which can only be explained if we accept what the New Testa­ment itself claims; that is, that ordinary men and women had become, through the power of Christ, sons and daughters of God.


With all this lengthy, but I think necessary, pre­amble, I now come to define my use of the term "New Testament Christianity". I am not in the least concerned with what may or may not be proved by the dexterous manipulation of texts. Indeed, I think we are all of us indoctrinated more than we know by being led tenden­tiously from one text to another in our impressionable years. But I am concerned with this new quality of living which has as its spearhead the personal visit of God to this planet in the Person of Jesus Christ. It does not, thank God, exist only in these pages or in the lives reflected in these pages. It exists today, and I myself have seen it in people of all ages and of many different occupations. It has been my privilege to mix freely among many de­nominations, and I can truthfully report that I have found New Testament Christians exhibiting the same stamp of supra‑human quality in them all. What is even more important is that I have found something very like this first‑century fellowship among Christians of widely differing nationalities. There are the same essentials of New Testament Christianity to be found in men and women whatever the colour of their skin, and for the fact that I have observed this I am profoundly thankful.


It has been my privilege during the last few years to preach, lecture, and generally join in the fellowship of Churches, both in this country as well as for a few weeks in the United States. I have mostly been asked to speak about the New Testament and its translation, and that has invariably led on to the discussion of what we mean by "New Testament Christianity" ‑ its distinguishing marks, its qualities, and its roots. I have been enormously heartened by the fact that there are thousands of people who are sick of narrowness and churchiness, and who long for the fresh air of the New Testament, I am greatly encouraged, too, by the obvious fact that thousands of people deplore the spiritual loss that the Church has plainly sustained since the days of Pentecost. There is, I find, a hunger, sometimes almost a desperate hunger, to regain the shining certainties and revel in the freedom and power of the new‑born Church. My own experience is necessarily small, but I am firmly of the opinion that so great is the longing for New Testament Christianity that it will be along this line that true spiritual revival will come.


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