Book Review: Words of Life

Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of God by Timothy Ward

Published by InterVarsity Press

ISBN: 0830827447
ISBN-13: 9780830827442

Many thanks to Adrianna Wright at IVP for this review copy!

There is no question that the issues of inerrancy, infallibility, suffiiciency and general nature of Scripture have been the source of quite a bit of contention in the last few decades of biblical scholarship. Timothy Ward sets out “articulate, explain and defend what we are really saying when we proclaim, as we must, that the Bible is God’s Word.” Specifically, he wants to “describe the nature of the relationship between God and Scripture” (p. 13). This goal Ward achieves most clearly. Ward works toward this goal by arranging the content around three primary outlines: biblical, theological, and doctrinal.  The biblical outline is an attempt to discern the Bible’s “own description of the relationship between God and Christ” and “between the words by which they speak and act.” Ward argues here that “the words of the Bible are a significant aspect of God’s action in the world.” This outline follows three points of discussion: God’s action and his words, God’s person and his words, and God’s words and human words. Naturally, Ward begins the conversation in the Old Testament, drawing on well-known accounts such as creation, Noah and the flood, the call of Abram, and Jeroboam (1 Kings 13), seeing them as clear indications of God’s speech as action. He follows suit with random passages from the Psalter and the prophets. From the New Testament, Ward focuses on justification and effectual calling as illustrative of the intimate connection between God’s speaking and acting. The following few pages travel back to the Old Testament, where Ward ensconces his central point in the context of covenant, arguing that God essentially invested himself in his words that established the covenant. The final section of the biblical outline deals with the relationship between God’s language and human language.

Ward works toward an analysis of the role of Scripture in relationship with each of the persons of the Trinity in his theological outline. This section I found particularly enjoyable for the simple fact that Ward inextricably ties Scripture to the very persons of the Godhead. It was refreshing to read!

The third (and final) outline is doctrinal, in which Ward discusses Scripture under headings that he claims are those “with which evangelicals are usually most familiar,” those being Scripture’s necessity, sufficiency, clarity, and authority. This is the section I most looked forward to given the debate that has surrounded these issues in the last few decades of biblical studies and theology. Ward is clearly a proponent of inerrancy, but is careful to define such as “an outworking of the trustworthiness of Scripture” (p. 130). Ward’s view that Scripture is inextricably tied to the persons of the Trinity indicates that Scripture itself must be trustworthy just as God is trustworthy. Ward approaches the claims of Scripture from the perspective of speech-act theory, which essentially “thinks of language as at root a means by which one person performs actions in relation to another” (p. 57). Again, by binding Scripture to the Trinity, the speech-acts of Scripture are no less than the very action of God. I found Ward’s treatment of hot-button issues such as inerrancy, infallibility, authority, etc. was very insightful and was the one section I anticipated most. Given the general move away from inerrancy in the last few decades, I was glad to read of Ward’s understanding of the issue.

Ward closes his work with a chapter discussing the application of Scripture to the Christian’s life, the aspect of Scripture that is the goal of Bible study for countless masses the world wide. His advice is practical and flows naturally from his view of Scripture.

In sum, I found this book to be very readable, not overly engrossed in academic jargon, and quite enjoyable. Ward is clearly and unashamedly Reformed in his theology and this perspective is obvious throughout the book. However, even those who do not share Ward’s passion for Reformed theology can still read this book with great benefit. Perhaps if there were one criticism I might offer, it would be that Ward does not interact at length with scholars who hold a lesser view of Scripture. That’s certainly not to say that such interaction is absent from the book, only that it doesn’t occupy much of it. Such was likely intentional, and there are many other books that take up that particular conversation. For those looking for a treatment of the Bible as Scripture and takes seriously the implications of claiming it to be the Word of God, look no further than Words of Life.

Memorable quotes

“In Christian living and thinking there is a right place for the mystery of God, as the Lord states forcefully to Job (Job 38-41). However, a necessary focus on God as mystery must not be allowed to obscure the extraordinary act of grace by which God speaks to us human words of promise, such that for us to trust those words is in itself an act of trusting God himself” – p. 32.

“If God is not taken into account as the ultimate solid ground on which all meaning rests, and as the basis on which our language can be said reliably to bear meaning, then we do indeed end up staring into the abyss in which meaning is for ever undecidable” – pp. 64-65

“It is the person of Christ who is primarily the Word. He is spoken of directly in those terms in Scripture; he is ‘the Word of life’ (1 John 1:1). Christ is the one in whom the person of the Son was incarnated in an unrepeatable union of two natures, divine and human. He is the one who was conceived supernaturally, died a substitutionary death, rose physically and ascended to the right hand of the Father, and in whom the life of the believer is hidden. It is to him that our devotion is due, and it is he who ill be exalted for eternity as the Lamb who was slain for our redemption. No Bible is referred to in the Bible’s apocalyptic vision of the new creation, because the dwelling of the Father and the Son with renewed humanity will be sufficiently intimate, presumably, to make Scripture unnecessary for life in relationship with God (Rev. 22:3-5)” – p. 72.

“God’s aim in Scripture is to lead us to true devotion to Christ, and obedience to him and love for him, impinging on every area of life and thought” – p. 73.

“Behind many objections to the evangelical understanding of the action of the Holy Spirit in the authoring of Scripture lie objections to divine providence that lean more towards deism than they do towards a biblical doctrine of God, which states, however unfathomable it may ultimately be to us, that an action can simultaneously an act of God and a genuinely human act” – pp. 88-89.

“Through the Spirit the church therefore did not create the canon of Scripture, but came to recognize it” – p. 92.

“Whenever we encounter the speech acts of Scripture, we encounter God himself in action. The Father presents himself to us as a God who makes and keeps his covenantal promises. The Son comes to us as the Word of God, knowable to us through the words. The Spirit ministers these words to us, illuminating our minds and hearts, so that in receiving, understanding and trusting them, we receive, know and trust God himself” – p. 95.

“The evangelical doctrine of Scripture is therefore an outcry against Roman Catholic understandings of revelation, and against any practice that effective regards the as yet unfulfilled predictions about the future made by a contemporary prophet as equally authoritative as God’s words in Scripture” – p. 103.

“Right and healthy doctrine cannot always be read easily off the pages of Scripture, but instead has to be worked for” – p. 114.

“However, for the time being we should note that each new generation of Christians does not come to Scripture with a clean slate. Whether it acknowledges it or not, each generation approaches Scripture wearing spectacles coloured by centuries of inherited beliefs and practices. Where Scripture has faithfully shaped that inheritance, Scripture proves itself sufficient again by being the means through which God speaks again. Where that inheritance includes purely human and thus unbiblical elements, the sufficiency of Scripture stands as a call on us to open up all our most cherished beliefs and practices, especially the ones we use to mark our Christian subculture off from other subcultures, to correction by the voice of God in Scripture” – p. 114-15.

“The idea that the Bible is ‘infallible’ means that it does not deceive. To say that the Bible is ‘inerrant’ is to make the additional claim that it does not assert any errors of fact: whether the Bible refers to events in the life of Christ, or to other details of history and geography, what it asserts is true” – p. 130.

“Thus the term ‘inerrancy’ may be of recent origin, but the idea of inerrancy is not” – p. 132.

“Everyone who reads the Bible does so with a set of expectations and assumptions, some consciously held and some subconscious, that heave been handed on to them. It is dangerous, of course, if these are misleading expectations and assumptions. What is often equally dangerous is to deny that one has them at all” – p. 150.

“At heart he is reminding them of the one thing that has been undeniably true of them ever since they first devoted themselves to the apostolic gospel: that by the work of the Spirit of God they are not what they once were” – p. 169. (referring to preaching to a congregation)

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