Milton Walsh holds a doctorate in Sacred Theology from
the Gregorian University in Rome. An
expert on Knox's writing, he is the author of Second Friends: C.S. Lewis and
Ronald Knox in Conversation
Knox as Apologist: Wit, Laughter, and
the Popish Creed
. Both titles are
available through Ignatius Press
1) How did you come upon the
writings of Msgr. Ronald Knox? What kind of role has he played in your life,
both spiritually and theologically?
first came across the writings of Ronald Knox in high school, in the late
1960s. I was in the minor seminary at a
very tumultuous time in the Church and society, and with like-minded friends
began exploring the writings of men like Newman, Chesterton, C. S. Lewis, Arnold
Lunn, and Ronald Knox. From that time on
they have been constant sources of spiritual and intellectual refreshment.
few years after I was ordained a priest, my bishop sent me to Rome for doctoral
studies. I had hoped to concentrate in
spirituality, but he asked me to devote my energies to apologetics. This was in 1982, and the word had all but
dropped out of the Catholic lexicon. He
foresaw that in the future we would need people trained in presenting the
Catholic faith in a clear, attractive way.
Knox was, of course, my model for this, and I did my doctorate on his
approach to apologetics. Many years
later I re-worked the dissertation for the general reader, and it was published
by Ignatius Press as Ronald Knox as
have also found Knox to be a sympathetic spiritual guide and a model for
preaching. His sermons were always biblical,
imaginative, and intellectually stimulating … and delivered with a lightness of
touch and occasional humor. I think any
preacher would do well to make Knox’s sermons regular reading.
2) As a high school theology
teacher, one of the classes I teach is Catholic Apologetics. In the
class, we utilize Knox's In Soft
Garments, which is a collection of lectures Knox gave to Catholics
attending Oxford in the 20's and 30's. For many, Knox is known primarily
as the convert who became an eminent apologist for the Church. Yet, as
you have pointed out in your book Ronald
Knox As Apologist, that towards the end of his life he saw a need for a
new kind of apologetics. His death in 1957 left that an open
question. So, what do you think he was aiming at in this new apologetics
and how might that be applicable to the Catholic Church in 2015?
try to give a brief answer to a question which generated an entire
dissertation! Knox did “classical
apologetics” very well, and his Belief of
is still a good resource for those who want a popular
intellectual defense for belief in the existence of God and the unique role of
Christ in human history. This apologetic
approach was the heir to the Enlightenment, and tended to put great emphasis on
rational argumentation. Reason was seen
to be the common ground between believer and unbeliever; Knox and the other
writers I mentioned earlier often approached apologetics from this vantage
we are more than “thinking machines”, and Knox recognized that many
intellectual questions are rooted in more existential realities. This comes across in his conferences to
Catholic students at Oxford, in In Soft
and in The Hidden Stream
. By the 1950s, Knox realized that mere logical
defenses were not sufficient for many people.
He was deeply affected by the invention and use of the Atomic Bomb, and
his God and the Atom
not in print) testifies to an important change in his priorities. He wanted to write “a new apologetics”, but
did not get very far with it. His final
illness from cancer took him very quickly.
had to summarize the direction he seemed to be heading in his new approach, it
would be this: the classical Catholic apologetics relied perhaps too much on
pure logic, and most people are not purely logical. The dilemma was, then, what can be the common
ground for a conversation between believer and unbeliever? His answer was ordinary human experience,
which takes in the intellect but so much more: desire, beauty, heroic ideals,
etc. In fact, Knox incorporated much of
this “argumentation” in his sermons, which addressed not only the mind but the
3) Of all his works, many
people believe to be his greatest achievement is his translation of the
Vulgate. What are your thoughts on the Knox Bible?
think it was the work Knox himself was proudest of, and was a remarkable feat,
especially given the fact that he did the translation singlehanded in wartime
England, with all the limitations that entailed. He admitted that although there were people
who liked him but did not like his translation, he would much prefer to have
people not to like him but like his translation.
venture was star-crossed in several ways.
He had squabbles with some of the bishops over the translation. He was not a biblical exegete himself, and
had limited contact with Scripture scholars. When he took up the work, his
friend C.C. Martindale was pleased because he thought that with his ability to
write in a diversity of styles (witness Let
, which captures the forms of English over several hundred
years), Knox would be able to capture the different styles of diverse books of
the Bible. But Knox himself was aiming at what he called “timeless English”:
his idea was that his translation would be understandable by readers not only
today but in the past. He also wanted
the Old Testament to have a slightly archaic flavor to it. And of course he was translating the Latin
Vulgate, and soon after his work was completed the Church permitted biblical
translations from the original Greek and Hebrew.
result, in my opinion (and I am certainly no biblical expert), is a translation
that is very beautiful in places, but in others it strikes a contemporary ear
as rather idiosyncratic. His English is
elegant, which is a welcome change from some of the more “breezy” translations
that have been produced in recent years.
4) Why should someone today,
with all the translations available, consider reading regularly from the Knox
very pleased that the entire Knox Bible is back in print (Baronius Press), and
it certainly should have a place on one’s bookshelf. It recommends itself for several reasons:
Knox was a master of English,
and his rendering of familiar biblical texts in a new way can offer fresh
insights. (One of his complaints was that some bishops did not like his
translation because it did not sound like the Douay-Rheims; his reasonable
response was that the whole point of a new translation is that it should be
Even those who did not fully
embrace his translation when it came out acknowledged that his translation of
the Epistles of St. Paul was masterly.
Knox had a facile mind, and
one example of this in his translation was his ability to take passages in the
Psalms and the end of the Book of Proverbs which in Hebrew were “abecedarian”
(that is, each verse began with a different letter of the alphabet) and do the
same in English. A tour de force
Knox was not a biblical
exegete, but he had a profound knowledge of the Scriptures especially because
of his upbringing in an evangelical Anglican family. One biblical scholar compared Knox to the
amateur detective (and remember, he wrote detective stories and was a colleague
of Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and others), who spots the clues that the
Scotland Yard professionals (i.e., biblical scholars) overlook. His translation and commentaries would not
pass muster as “scientific” exegesis, but he does bring out many spiritual
insights in the text. And, after all,
there should be a place for that kind of scholarship. Knox produced a commentary on the New
Testament, and it would be wonderful if some publisher would produce his New
Testament translation with the commentary on the bottom of the page, which had been
his original intent.
sum, I would recommend reading Knox’s translation along with others because he
opens a window that provides freshness to texts which can become stale when
read frequently. It is the work of a man
who was deeply imbued with a love of the Bible, saw it as a whole, and sought
to make its words resonate in the heart.
5) Unlike some of the great
English writers of the twentieth century, like Chesterton, Tolkien, and Lewis
among others, Knox has not seemed to have had the same size of following today
like the others. Why do you think that is the case?
in part to the remarkable work of Sheed & Ward, Ronald Knox’s writings were
very popular both in England and here in America from the 1930s until the early
1960s. A lot happened in the sixties (to
put it mildly!) – many Catholic publishers disappeared and avowedly Catholic
writers went into eclipse, in part I believe because “ecumenism” seemed to make
it somehow poor taste to speak about Catholic particularity. (In fact, I think
convert authors like Knox can be truly helpful to the ecumenical movement
because they bridge the divide.) There
was also a general “dumbing down” in Catholic education, most dramatically seen
in the collapse of the entire catechetical enterprise of the Church. Doctrine was out, good vibes were in. That
reaction was in part due to the overemphasis on purely logical presentations of
doctrine, which was a concern of Knox himself in his later years.
is always Chesterton, and is in a league of his own, so it is no surprise that
his cork popped back up very soon. Lewis has enjoyed something of a Renaissance
largely because of the interest shown him by American Evangelicals; and of
course he is a remarkable writer, dealing with the basic tenets of “mere Christianity”. Tolkien stands on his own as a novelist and,
although there are many theological themes in his works, they are not
part Knox went into oblivion because his books were out of print, and that is
thankfully changing. He tended to be a
bit colloquial in his writing, so at times his allusions seem foreign in a
culture different from that in which we wrote.
Some of his writing is dated. But
I would argue that much of it is not, and in fact he has much to offer
contemporary readers. I associate him
with C. S. Lewis in this way: Lewis is a more engaging writer, but Knox has
more theological depth. Knox’s writings
can serve as a good follow-up to those of Lewis, because Lewis does a good job
presenting a very broad vision of Christian belief, but Knox fills in the
6) If a person wanted to get
started reading Msgr. Knox, where would you advise him or her to start?
would offer a few suggestions, in part because it depends on who the reader is
and what he or she is looking for.
you want a good introduction to the Catholic faith: The Creed in Slow Motion
These were originally talks he gave to schoolgirls during the Second
World War. They are easy reading and
accessible to young people. It is
interesting to think of him spinning these out at the same time he was laboring
on his translation of the Bible.
someone looking for a logical defense of basic apologetical questions like the
existence of God and uniqueness of Jesus Christ, I would suggest The Belief of Catholics
. The first half of the book presents a logical
defense, the second half gives a sense of the mystery of Catholic life from the
next step up as far as apologetics are concerned would be his university
sermons: The Hidden Stream
and In Soft
of the foregoing fall into the genre of apologetics. More importantly, I would urge everyone
to read his sermons, which have
been collected together into a large volume by Ignatius Press (Pastoral and Occasional Sermons
). They make great spiritual reading, throughout
the liturgical year, on the Eucharist, about the saints, indeed the whole of
Catholic life. Knox was able to combine
Scripture, theology, and personal experience in a gentle but compelling way.
retreat conferences are very good, although many are still out of print. Because Knox was so popular in the 1950s,
many of his writings can be found second-hand.
7) Since this blog focuses on
the importance of Scripture, I was wondering what your favorite verse of Scripture
may be as translated by Msgr. Knox?
Here is one selection:
Why then, since we are watched from
above by such a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of all that weighs us
down, of the sinful habit that clings so closely, and run, with all endurance,
the race for which we are entered. Let
us fix our eyes on Jesus, the origin and crown of all faith, who, to win his
prize of blessedness, endured the cross and made light of its shame, Jesus, who
now sits on the right of God’s throne.
Take your standard from him, from his endurance, from the enmity the
wicked bore him, and you will not grow faint, you will not find your souls
unmanned. (Heb 12:1-3)