Tuesday, June 09, 2009

An interview with Timothy Ward

I speak to Tim about his new book, Words of Life: Scripture as the living and active word of God and we reflect on some of the challenges facing evangelicals today.
GD: Hello Timothy Ward and welcome to Exiled Preacher. Please tell us a little about yourself.

TW: I'm married, we have a young son, and I'm Vicar of Holy Trinity church in Hinckley, which is a mid-sized town between Coventry and Leicester.

GD: Your book, 'Words of Life' was recently published by IVP. What is the main thesis of the book?

TW: That the Bible is the Word of God (a fact which most readers of this blog already probably know). I try to demonstrate and articulate biblically, theologically, doctrinally and practically that to encounter the words of Scripture is to encounter God-in-action - or (the other way round), that Scripture is the means by which God presents himself to us as the faithful covenant-making God.

GD: Kevin Vanhoozer was your doctoral supervisor and his influence can be clearly seen in your work. What was the subject of your doctoral studies?

TW: It was on the sufficiency of Scripture, examined particularly from a philosophical and hermeneutical viewpoint. It was published a few years ago as Word and Supplement: Speech Acts, Biblical Texts, and the Sufficiency of Scripture. My new book, 'Words of Life' represents an attempt to put some of the insights in that book to work in a broader outline of the doctrine of Scripture. (Reading that back makes it sounds rather dull, which I trust it isn't!).

GD: Why do you think that speech-act theory is so valuable when it comes to formulating a doctrine of Scripture?

TW: Speech-act theory asserts that to speak is to act, and that language-use is a variety of interpersonal action. That model of language accords remarkably well with what Scripture has to say about language and about itself, when spoken either by God or by us. The particular cutting edge of this is that many understandings of the nature of Scripture, whether liberal or evangelical, have gone astray in forgetting this basic point. Classic examples would be when we are expected to choose between revelation as either propositional or effective/active, or when the question of biblical inerrancy becomes the thing that excites us most about Scripture.

GD: John Webster and others have criticised the oft used analogy between Christ as the living Word of God and Scripture as the written Word of God (see here). How do you see the relationship between Jesus and the Bible?

TW: Scripture itself gives the same label, 'word', to both Jesus and the proclamation of the gospel (and by extension to itself). That points us to the closest possible relation between the two. Jesus' instructions to the disciples in Matthew 10 reveal that for someone to reject the message of Christ delivered to them verbally simply is the same as rejecting Christ personally (v.40). The word that lurks in the criticism of Webster et al is 'bibliolatry', but strictly speaking that is not something which orthodox believers have been guilty of. Where orthodox doctrine of Scripture has gone astray it has tended more to lead people into obsessiveness about micro-interpretations of Scripture, while being relatively careless about the virtues of love, justice, hospitality, etc. The solution to that problem is not to drive a theological wedge between Christ and Scripture, but instead to insist all the more radically that, if we want to be faithful to Christ, we will be faithful to the whole of his word.

GD: Andrew McGowan has argued that evangelicals should abandon biblical inerrancy in favour of infallibility (see here). Do you agree with him?

TW: No. However I do agree with him that it is never helpful to sound (either to ourselves or to others) as if we thought that the ultimate bedrock of the authority of Scirpture is its errorlessness. As I read his much-discussed book it seemed to me that that was his primary point; his focus was on the use of inerrancy, although he did make some (possibly infelicitous) 'errantist' assertions along the way.

GD: What have you found helpful when it comes to your own personal Bible reading?

TW: No one should imagine that possessing a reasonable level of knowledge of the doctrine of Scripture is automatically evidence of high degree of faithfulness in personal Bible reading. I struggle with discipline in this area as much as anyone in my church family. And that's the key word - discipline... along with regularly asking: "What is the Lord wanting to do to me and in me (not just 'teach' me) through this Scripture?"

GD: Give us three key works on the doctrine of Scripture.

TW: Warfield, 'The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible'
Bavinck, the relevant section in 'Reformed Dogmatics'
Packer, ''Fundamentalism' and the Word of God'

GD: Please tell us how you felt called to the Ministry of the Word.

TW: A few people I trusted said that some Bible-talks I did while still at university weren't too bad. And a conviction grew that if I did anything else I would be running away from what I ought to be doing. And (if this isn't too flippant), I'd get to be doing full-time what I'd probably be doing in my spare time anyway!

GD: How did your theological training help to prepare you for the work of the Ministry?

TW: How long have you got?! In some ways well (preaching, New Testament), in others not so well. I wish I'd had more formal training in solid historic Reformed theology.

GD: What is the best piece of advice that you have received on preaching?

TW: Early on: just tell them what God says in the Bible. More recently: passion is good.

GD: What is the relationship between Word and Spirit in preaching?

TW: He breathed out the word I'm preaching; he's alive to illumine it for me; I must open myself as preacher for him to work through the word in me as a believer in my preparation; and unless he 's choosing to be at work in the hearts and minds of my hearers then they're just powerless sounds in the air.

GD: There has been something of a resurgence of evangelicalism in the Church of England over the last few decades. What factors under God have been used to stimulate this resurgence?

TW: That's an interesting perspective. Some (within the CofE) would say that, although undoubtedly a higher proportion of Anglicans would now own the label 'evangelical' than 60 years ago, it's far from certain that there are more real evangelicals than there used to be - witness the emergence of the sub-group usually known as 'open evangelicals', some of whom are evangelical, and some of whom would simply have been called 'liberals' previously.
What there has probably been a resurgence of is thoroughly confident, more properly theologically educated evangelicals in the CofE. There are two key factors in that, I think:
(1) the influence of Sydney Anglicans and Moore College, especially on Oak Hill (giving confidence and good theology, even though sometimes pretending that they weren't intellectuals). And in all this the long-term influence of Dick Lucas and the ministries he oversaw is certainly very significant.
(2) the emergence of a generation of ministers in their forties who had no first-hand knowledge of Keele or the Stott / Lloyd-Jones debates in the 60s, and so who are less bothered than the previous generation to spend time trying to prove to the Anglican established that they are kosher Anglicans.

GD: How do you see the relationship between evangelical Anglicans and the Church of England as a whole?

TW: I think that as an evangelical I'm a real Anglican, and that liberals and Catholics are more out of place in the CofE than I am. However as regards what happens in the future, I am quite uncertain. A fracturing of worldwide Anglicanism is beginning to happen (see the post-Gafcon launch of the Fellowship of Confessing Anglicans.)

GD: What do you think that evangelical Anglicans and their Free Church brethren have to learn from each other?

TW: evangelical Anglicans have to learn:
- compromise isn't always healthy
- preaching can/should be impassioned to be really faithful to Scripture
- not every new cultural and theological trend needs to be ridden
- to keep repenting of their (often unacknowledged) feelings of cultural superiority towards Free Church people
- to wear posh clothes less often (see previous point)

Free Church people have to learn... I don't think I have any right to say this, but since you ask:
- compromise is sometimes necessary in gospel ministry (I can't enact every consequence of all my principles all the time)
- to leave behind their feelings of spiritual superiority towards evangelical Anglicans ("we're the ones who held the line through time tough times - so where do you bunch of jonny-come-latelies spring from?")

GD: Well, I did ask. Now, if time travel were possible, which figure from post-biblical church history would you like to meet and why?
TW: John Calvin - who else? (and wish him a happy 500th birthday).

GD: What is the most helpful theological book that you have read in the last twelve months. It is a must read because...

TW: Herman Bavinck, 'Reformed Dogmatics'. Large and hard-core, I know - and I had the privilege of a sabbatical (i.e. long holiday) to read it. But it's broad in learning, deep in insight, warm in spirit, praise-inducing and prayer-provoking to a degree that surpasses anything else I know. And for someone whose own training in ministry was lightest in the area of systematics and historical theology, and who's had to play catch-up ever since, I felt like I was reading it 15 years too late.

GD: I second that choice. Care to name your top three songs or pieces of music?

TW: Anything by Bob Dylan will do fine - or Leonard Cohen, if I'm feeling especially cheery.

GD: What is the biggest challenge facing evangelicalism today and how should we respond?

TW: The biggest? No idea. I tend to think mostly about how to keep myself and my church faithful to Christ and his word, and how to hold out the word of life to the people of my town. The temptations that face us here are the same which face evangelicals everywhere, I think: those who are tempted to down-play the crucial inherited biblical doctrines need to hold their nerve and not sell their birthright for a mess of mythical cultural credibility. And those who are tempted to batten down the hatches and declare themselves the faithful remnant need to look up and out and be ready to venture much more in order that the Lord may save some.
Thinking particularly of England, I do think that there is now the opening for a profound rapprochement of evangelicals from free and denominational backgrounds. I hope we explore properly the possibilities of that, but I'm not confident that we will have the largeness of heart to make it work.
GD: I wonder if the increasing hostility that evangelical Christians are facing in the UK will help us to put our differences into perspective. But that just about wraps things up for now. Thanks for dropping by for this chat, Tim. See here for my review of 'Words of Life'.


David Reimer said...

Much to appreciate here (including the effort it took to produce!), but I found this especially helpful:

"The solution to that problem is not to drive a theological wedge between Christ and Scripture, but instead to insist all the more radically that, if we want to be faithful to Christ, we will be faithful to the whole of his word."

Br. Blessings said...

God Bless You my Friend

Anonymous said...

Excellen stuff as always Guy. Really really stimulating. Found the parts about evangelical Anglicanism particularly interesting.

Guy Davies said...

Good to hear from you Andrew. I trust all's well in Peru.