Essay / Theology

Timothy Ward, Words of Life

I can imagine a better book on the doctrine of Scripture, but that’s just because I’m imaginative. I cannot actually find a better book than Timothy Ward’s Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of God. This is the best thing out there, the one to use in class, the one to recommend to people who ask for a good, fresh treatment of what we should know and believe about Scripture. I may assign other, more adventurous, or more historical books on bibliology, but for the time being, Ward’s Words of Life will be pedagogical home base.

The most helpful thing about Words of Life is that it has all the standard, conservative evangelical topics that I want to teach (necessity, sufficiency, authority, inerrancy), but it delivers them with a keen awareness of possible abuses. Against these abuses he launches devastating pre-emptive strikes. For example, after linking Scripture to God’s own divine authority (“what the Bible says, God says,” and “to encounter the words of Scripture is to encounter God in action”), Ward deftly makes the necessary distinctions (the Bible is not God) and warns about the real dangers of lapsing into book-worship. Another example of the same caution is in Ward’s defense of Sola Scriptura, which (following Keith Mathison) he disentangles from the “tradition-zero” mentality. As Kevin Vanhoozer has said, “Sola scriptura is not the answer to the question “How many sources should one use in doing theology?”” Sola Scriptura, Ward reminds us, is about the supremacy of Scripture over other doctrinal norms. A third example of Ward’s pre-emptive strikes against conservative abuses of conservative doctrinal positions is Ward’s insistence that the communal use of the Bible trumps individual use. The Bible is a book for the Christian community first, and then for individual Christians within that community. Ward’s discussion of this dynamic is nuanced and lengthy, and he writes like an evangelical Anglican who’s learned good lessons from all the right Baptists.

One last pre-emptive strike by Ward, and an important one: He argues for the inerrancy of Scripture, alerting his British readers to the fact that American evangelicals are a bit obsessed with the doctrine, but are basically right about its necessity. But he also warns that “inerrancy ought not to occupy a central place in our doctrine of Scripture,” because to assign it such a role would be “taking just one aspect of Scripture’s content, its propositional statements, and building our doctrine of Scripture on it.” Ward is not surrendering to trendy anti-propositionalism. Elsewhere he insists that God gave us words because a propositional delivery system is the only one appropriate to the message: “the reality of the Trinity, and the purpose of the incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension are sufficiently complex that they cannot be mimed, or communicated through a religious impulse or sensation; they need to be spoken.” But he also knows there’s more to the gospel than words (not less: more), and a well-proportioned doctrine of Scripture has its center of gravity elsewhere than in the sub-sub-sub-doctrine of inerrancy.

These preliminary concessions and nuances greatly increase the value of Words of Life. Teaching the doctrine of Scripture is a difficult balancing act. Students need their confidence in the authority of Scripture to be established and fortified, but they also need to develop less wooden, more realistic, and more flexible accounts of what Scripture is and how it works. Ward manages both: He is conservative enough to earn the evangelical reader’s trust, but he also steals the thunder from evangelical bibliology’s most incisive critics. This is the traditional stuff, uncut, but with all the necessary qualifications already in place.

Ward’s overall approach in Words of Life is to take up the worthwhile task of placing the doctrine of Scripture inside the larger doctrine of God as a speaking, communicating God. “Claims that ‘the Bible is the Word of God’ must be explicitly related to God’s speech and actions in this history,” and consummately in the history of God sending his Son and pouring out his Spirit.

The task is one that Karl Barth made mandatory for moderns in Church Dogmatics I:2, but Ward’s way of working at the task has little in common with stereoptypical Barthian doctrines of Scripture. In the English-speaking world, pop-Barthians have drawn the wrong conclusions from the distinction between Jesus-as-God’s-word and Bible-as-God’s-word. “It is not primarily the Bible that is the word of God, but Jesus Christ,” Ward quotes one biblical scholar as arguing. “Christians are not those who believe in the Bible, but those who believe in Christ.” Ward quickly flags that as a false dichotomy, and refuses to choose between Jesus and the Bible as the word of God. Ward’s doctrinal lineage runs not through Barth but (as he says up front, p. 18) through Calvin, Turretin, Warfield, and Bavinck, which gives the book a more classical tone of voice.

Ward may appeal to speech-act theory more than is strictly necessary for his target audience. He used that theoretical armament to good effect in his book Word and Supplement, exploring God’s verbal presence and covenantal work. But that was a more scholarly treatment. Here in Words of Life the pages on speech-act seem awkward, and give students the impression that they don’t really have the right to embrace Ward’s doctrine of Scripture until they go out and read a body of technical literature. I also have a suspicion that these sections will be the first to seem dated; future generations will look back at speech-act theory as something a lot of people did with words at the turn of the century.

One gripe about organization: The table of contents divides the book into a biblical outline, a theological outline, and doctrinal outline. These are pretty opaque section titles! I’ve had dozens of students outline the book, and it’s the rare student who grasps what Ward intended by these distinctions. He does explain it, and it makes sense, but those labels are utterly unhelpful.

Is anything missing from Words of Life? In terms of answering the kind of questions that many intelligent Christians are asking on a day to day basis, perhaps a discussion of “how we got the Bible” could have been included. People with Bibles today want to know just a little bit about things like textual transmission, canon formation, and translation theory. But it’s hard to give readers the right amount of information about these issues without distracting them from the main theological point, and Ward knows to keep his eye on the ball. He does in fact make very brief sallies into these areas, and the resulting discussions suffer from compression. If you write one page about translation theory, you’re bound to offend. A dozen pages might have done the job, though.

But these light complaints are just an attempt to let you know what you’ll need to work around when you use this book, because as far as I can tell, this is the book you ought to use. For the doctrine of Scripture, I recommend Ward and supplements.

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