Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Words of Life

Just finished reading Timothy Ward's new book Words of Life. This isn't really a review, but just a couple of things I noticed about it.

Firstly, this book very helpfully begins by looking at the way God's speech works in the Bible itself. This seems to me an essential first step in constructing a doctrine of Scripture. Rather than jumping straight to the Bible, and straight to the question of how the Bible works, we begin by asking bigger questions about language, the relation of God's speech to human speech and the like. Ward's chapter on the subject briefly surveys Biblical records of God's speech, noting primarily that God's speech accomplishes things, God's speech represents in some sense his personal presence, and very specifically that God's speech is covenant-making speech. This is all excellent - I would have liked more detail, but this is a relatively short book. The only issue I had with this whole chapter is the tendency to be reductionist in seeing "God's speech" and "revelation" and "God's presence" as interchangable. This is in spite of Ward's acknowledgement that God's revelation is not always or only verbal. Despite this, the treatment of the ark of the covenant - namely, that it is holy because of the word deposited in it - seems to me an example of this sort of reductionism. It's a minor point, but it highlights a larger one. Although in this book we are taking a step back from the Bible and considering God's speech more broadly, I wonder whether we've stepped far enough back? Might not one more step allow us to place God's speech in the context of God's revelation more generally?

Secondly, I note in passing that Ward treats Barth much more fairly than most evangelicals, tackling his refusal to subscribe to the traditional doctrine of inerrancy on the basis of Barth's own stated theological concerns for the centrality of Christ, rather than blaming him for being tied up by and in awe of critical scholarship. I still don't think Barth's argument is open to the critique offered here, but this is not the place to go into detail on that one.

Thirdly, I find the conclusion interesting. Ward sums up part of his argument thus: "Scripture, by which we mean the speech acts performed by means of the words of Scripture, is the primary means by which God presents himself to us..." (p179). At several other points Ward touches on speech act theory. I am convinced of the usefulness of this tool in building a doctrine of Scripture, but I have trouble understanding what the sentence I've quoted means. It is entirely possible that I am just dense, or possibly it is because elsewhere Ward characterises this presence of God in Scripture as "mysterious in some ways and hard to spell out conceptually" (p65). Either way, I'm not sure I get it.

Fourthly, Ward has a discussion of Scripture and tradition which is very interesting. I actually think that he fails to "set Scripture free" to a sufficient extent. He writes off the radical reformation as making revelation subjective and Biblical interpretation subject to personal whims. Tradition, meaning the subordinate rule of faith derived from Scripture, helpfully guards against this. In all honesty, I think this entrusts too much to tradition. Once again, I find myself to be an anabaptist! It is only in Scripture that we are confronted by the prophets and apostles, and through them by Christ - and every tradition is open to critique. We need to trust the Holy Spirit a little more, I think.

Fifthly, Ward affirms inerrancy, but relegates it to a secondary implication of the main thrust of the doctrine of Scripture, which is inspiration. I agree.

If I were writing a review, I would say that this book offers an excellent overview of the doctrine of Scripture from a conservative evangelical perspective. I would say that I found it a useful read, and that I would be happy to recommend it. Nevertheless, I think a more thorough rethinking - from the ground up, the ground being the content of Scripture itself - of the doctrine of Scripture is needed.

1 comment:

  1. "The content of Scripture" - a hot topic! I find Barth's The Strange New World within the Bible defines the terrain for me.