Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Words of Life by Timothy Ward

Words of Life: Scripture as the living and active word of God,
by Timothy Ward, IVP, 2009, 186pp
Regular readers may have noticed from recent book reviews that I've been reading up on the doctrine of Scripture. I suppose it was being asked to critique Andrew McGowan's proposals on abandoning inerrancy in his The Divine Spiration of Scripture that got me going. The doctrine of Scripture is a fascinating and important area of theological study. There is certainly more to it than simply offering a defence of biblical inerrancy. What we need is a contemporary evangelical treatment of Scripture that sets the Bible in the context of the communicative action of the triune God. Timothy Ward offers us just such a work. He draws on the promising insights of speech act theory to present a fresh and compelling study of Scripture as the living and active word of God.
After a brief introductory chapter, Ward gives attention to the relationship between God and Scripture. paying close attention to the biblical text, he shows that in both Old and New Testaments there is a tight link between God's actions and his words. In creation, providence and redemption, God acts by speaking. God's person is so tied up with his words that to believe and obey his word is to believe and obey him. The human words of Scripture are at the same time God's covenant words to his people. To encounter God's communicative action through the prophets is to meet with God himself. The same is true of Jesus. We encounter the Word of God incarnate through the portrait of his words and actions given in Scripture.
In the next chapter on 'The Trinity and Scripture', Ward moves from laying the biblical foundations of his study to theological analysis. He discusses the doctrine of the Scripture in relation to each person of the Trinity. After creation and in response to the fall, the Father's great work of redemption takes centre stage. Scripture narrates and explains the work of salvation. Indeed Scripture itself is one of the Father's redemptive acts by which he draws his people into saving union with Christ by the power of the Spirit. The Bible is the book of the covenant. God's covenant purposes are unfolded and advanced in and through Scripture. It is a mistake to suggest that the Bible is 'just words'. In Scripture we have the speech-acts of the God of the Gospel. He acts by speaking to make promises, issue commands and threaten warnings. This is one of the reasons why it is right to regard Scripture as the word of God. To believe the Bible's covenant promises is to accept that the God who made them is trustworthy. His word is an expression of who he is as the God who cannot lie. Some, like Karl Barth worry that identifying Scripture with the word of God rather than regarding it as a witness to the word of God will have the effect of divinising a text. Ward is aware of that danger. But as he points out, it is better to think of Scripture as word or message rather than simply a text. In Scripture we have the communicative action of the Father. We should avoid separating God from his self-revelatory speech in the Bible.
Writers such as John Webster (here) and Andrew McGowan (here) have questioned whether it is right to drawn an analogy between Jesus as the divine Word made flesh and Scripture as the word of God through human beings. This matter demands careful handling and theological sensitivity. We must make a clear distinction between the hypostatic union of divine and human natures in the person of Christ and the Bible as a divine/human book. But as Ward points out, both Jesus and Scripture are identified as the logos of God. In his handling of the Old Testament, Jesus himself made it clear that for him, what Scripture said, God said. We cannot downgrade the status of Scripture as God's written word in order to safeguard the uniqueness of Jesus as the Word of God incarnate without disregarding Jesus' own testimony to the Bible. But when we confess that the Bible is God's word through human beings, we are not suggesting that there is a personal union between the divine and human sides of Scripture that is analogous to the union of God and man in Jesus. Rather that Scripture is the communicative action of the living God who speaks to us through the human words of the Bible. This construction safeguards both the uniqueness of Christ and respects what Scripture says about itself as the word of God.
In traditional Reformed dogmatics attention is given to some of the key attributes of Scripture. Ward devotes a chapter this subject. He makes it clear that the attributes of Scripture are best considered in the light of the biblical exposition and theological reflection of the earlier parts of the book. His consideration of the necessity, sufficiency, clarity and authority of Scripture is fresh and illuminating. Under the heading of the Bible's authority, Ward gives a nuanced defence of biblical inerrancy. Inerrancy is an implication of the fact that all Scripture is God-breathed. The doctrine is not dependent on the so-called "common sense philosophy" of Princeton theologians B. B. Warfield and Charles Hodge. The Bible is inerrant because it is the speech act of the faithful and true God of covenant grace.
Finally, Ward gets down to practicalities in 'The Bible and the Christian Life'. It is sometimes assumed that the Reformers swept aside the theological heritage of the church and looked to the Bible alone. But their commitment to sola Scriptura did not mean that the Reformers saw no value in the traditions of the church. They rejected the unbiblical traditions of the Roman Catholic Church on the basis of the supreme authority of the Bible. But they valued the historic creeds and the writings of the church fathers. The solo Scriptura attitude of Fundamentalists who claim to eschew all tradition for the sake of the Bible alone is quite different to that of the Reformers and tends to an individualistic reading of the Scripture. The writer has some helpful things to say about preaching in the life of the church. He emphases the importance of the proclamation of the Word of God in the power of the Spirit. The Holy Spirit gave us the Bible and he continues to speak through Scripture. He transforms the lives of preachers and empowers them to so preach Christ that sinners are saved and the church is built up. God is actively present in the church by the power of the Spirit as the people of God gather to listen to the Word of God being proclaimed.
It is only once he has described the relationship between the church and the Bible that Ward has something to say about Scripture and the individual believer. This is surely right. The Christian reads the Bible as a member of the people of God, informed by the preaching and teaching of the church. It is beneficial to use commentaries and study notes which help to explain and apply the Scriptures. These aids can make prayerful Bible reading more meaningful and helpful. We approach Scripture with the question, "What is God wanting to do to me and in me, through the words I am reading?" (italics original, p. 176-177).
Of all the books that I have read on the Bible in the last few months, this is undoubtedly the best. Ward's study is based on clear biblical exposition and insightful theological reflection. The work is informed by the old masters, Warfield and Bavinck. But what we have here is not simply a rehash of older Reformed treatments of Scripture. The writer's approach is thoroughly up-to-date, drawing on Kevin Vanhoozer's proposals on theology and speech-act theory. Ward offers a cogent defence of Scripture as the word of God against the criticisms of Karl Barth and interacts well with recent writers, John Webster and Andrew McGowan. I heartily recommend this most helpful book on the Book of books.


David Reimer said...

It would be interesting to know the relationship of this book to Ward's earlier work (his PhD) on the subject. My hunch is that this is a more "accessible" re-working, but it might be a bit more than that, too.

Thanks for the review!

Guy Davies said...

In the Acknowledgements, Ward thanks OUP for permission to use material published in 'Word and Supplement' so I guess there is a link between his thesis and the current work. Never mind more accessible, at £9.99 rather than £84.00, 'Words of Life' is affordable!