Ten Words: Words of Life by Timothy Ward

I just finished Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of God by Timothy Ward, Team Vicar at Holy Trinity Church and doctoral understudy of Kevin Vanhoozer.  Ward’s book is filled with wisdom and clarity.  In it he shows how the doctrine of Scripture arises from the story of redemptive history itself and must be understood as a vital component of God’s covenantal relationship with his redeemed people.

In what follows, I have included “ten words” from the book.  These quotes provide a taste of Words of Life. Hopefully, they encourage some to pick up and read the whole thing, and others will get glimpses of why the doctrine of Scripture must be tethered to God’s self-presentation in Scripture.

God and His Word. There is, then, a complex but real relationship between God and his actions, expressed and performed, as they are, through God’s words. In philosophical terms, there is an ontological relationship between God and his words. It seems that God’s actions, including his verbal actions, are a kind of extension of him (31).

Communication from and communion with God. More mystically minded people sometimes suppose that words by their very nature are an obstruction to the goal of a deep communion with God, but that is just not so. Instead words are necessary medium of a relationship with God. To put your trust in the words of the covenant promise God makes to you is itself to put your trust in God: the two are the same thing. Communication from God is therefore communion with God, when met with a response of trust from us (31-32).

Scripture is by its nature particular. At root, the rejection of Scripture as divine special revelation is often a side effect of the greater rejection of the particularity of Christ as God’s ultimate self-revelation in the world (41).

Particularism and universalism. Of course, the particularity of revelation in Christ leads directly to a universal offer of new life in him. The Old Testament is the story both of the expansion of God’s people, and also of the narrowing of God’s redemptive purposes, as the southern kingdom of Judah stays centre stage while the northern kingdom of Israel disappears; as the ‘faithful remnant’ emerges as more significant in God’s purposes for salvation than the nation as a whole; and as Israel’s hopes for the future become focused on the emergence of a single Messiah figure. This narrowing reaches a climax with the arrival of Christ.  He is the new Moses proclaiming a new law, and the new David establishing God’s reign on earth. Yet he is also representative of the nation of Israel as a whole, tempted by Satan in the desert, just as they were. And he is representative of the whole of the new humanity to which God is giving spiritual birth, a point Paul expounds in Romans 5 and 6 (41).

Form is the problem, not content. Evangelicals may at times have expressed and formulated their doctrine of Scripture in a form and with a content that owes too much to post-Enlightenment patterns of thought. However, it is not correct to conclude that they stumbled into their doctrine while following the siren voice of Renaissance humanism away from orthodoxy, hand in hand with liberalism (63).

God’s Word as divine action. Scripture is related to the Son in the same way the covenant promise is related to the person of the Father, as a means of his action in the world, and thereby also a kind of extension of himself into the world in relation to us (72).

Scripture and speech-acts. Our progress in this theological outline thus far might be summarized in this way. To speak of ‘Scripture’ is to speak of the speech acts performed by means of the words of Scripture. Scripture is the covenant promise of the Father in written form. Because of the unity of the Father and the Son in revelation and redemption, Scripture is at the same time the word by which the incarnate and ascended Word, the one in whom all God’s covenant promises are fulfilled, continues to act and to present himself semantically so that he may be known in the world over which he has all authority. This begins to express what we have meant by describing Scripture as an act of the triune God (78).

Scripture’s sufficiency and God’s covenant promise. Scripture is sufficient as the means by which God continues to present himself to us such that we can know him, repeating through Scripture the covenant promise he has brought to fulfillment in Jesus Christ (113).

A clear (perspicuous) Bible still needs interpretation. Moreover the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture does not claim that Scripture automatically has a power to explain itself whenever a part of it is read. A key function of good expository preaching is to explain the meaning and force of a passage when properly interpreted in the light of its different contexts: (1) the immediate literary context, (2) its context within the unfolding history of God’s revelation, and (3) the context of the Bible as a whole. Such preaching, again, assumes that doctrine of the clarity of Scripture applies primarily to Scripture as a whole, rather than to each individual paragraph. The preacher is not doing something with Scripture that the hearer by definition cannot do, which would be the case if the preacher were appealing primarily to special spiritual anointing or to his holding of an office in the church. He is doing something any Christian reader of Scripture could in principle do, if he or she had sufficient time and knowledge of Scripture (122).

Scripture and tradition. Scripture is the only source of revelation needed for Christian faith and life, but it is not the only thing needed for Christian faith and life. We need the Rule of Faith, as well as the historic creeds of the church, which are a fuller form of the Rule. We need the traditions and practices of the church’s interpretation of Scripture in order to help us to walk faithfully in our understanding of and obedience to Scripture. The Reformers’ conviction of sola scriptura is the conviction that Scripture is the only infallible authority, the only supreme authority. Yet it is not the only authority, for the creeds and the church’s teaching function as important subordinate authorities, under the authority of Scripture (147).

Now that you have heard some of the highlights, let me encourage you to pick up Timothy Ward’s Words of Life.  It will strengthen your confidence in the power and perfection of God’s word and give you a great place to understand how the classical attributes of God (necessity, sufficiency, authority, inerrancy, etc.) fit into the larger redemptive purpose of God, in making covenant with fallen humanity.  It engages church history (esp. Calvin, Turretin, Bavinck, and Warfield) and provides an accessible defense the orthodox doctrine of Scripture.  Tolle Lege.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss 


A Case for Using Commentaries Earlier Rather Than Later

In his lucid book on the doctrine of Scripture, Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of GodTimothy Ward makes a helpful observation regarding the use of commentaries.

I have sometimes been encouraged by others, both as a preacher and as a Christian who reads Scripture for myself, only to turn to Bible commentaries as a very last resort, when, after much wrestling and searching for myself, I still could not make out the sense of a passage—or perhaps just to check that what I thought was its meaning was not entirely off-beat. There is certainly merit in not simply turning to learned books to find ‘the answers’, as a lazy short-cut to avoid wrestling with Scripture for myself. Yet increasingly, when reading Scripture, I find myself wanting to turn to a good Bible commentary sooner rather than later.

My reason is this: a good commentary will give me an insight into the consensus view on the meaning of each passage held by the generations of believers who have come before me. Working within that framework seems to be a sensible, humble and faithful place to start. For most Christians, who lack the time, resources and perhaps also the inclination to do the research themselves, good preaching will be a crucial means by which that historic consensus on Scripture’s meaning is conveyed to individual believers. For that, of course, the preacher needs to be, as he should be, well educated in biblical, historical and systematic theology (173).

Surely, prudence must be exercised with the use of commentaries and their non-use or delayed-use.  There can be a kind of latent pride associated with not using commentaries, but as Ward points out there can also be an unhealthy over dependence.

Either way, we cannot abandon the tradition of the church.  We must learn how to glean from the past without becoming enslaved by it.  His counsel, therefore, merits consideration and frees us who labor in the Word to turn to the commentators as we need, not just after we have merited their comments.  In the end, we must give a final account for our own interpretations (2 Tim 2:15), but since the church (and its ministerial tradition) exist as a pillar and buttress of the truth, it is good and right to read the Scripture with the Reformers, the Fathers, and others who help us see what Scripture is saying.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

Truth and Tradition: Or what Francis Turretin might say to Pope Francis

In light of the yesterday’s big news—the election of Pope Francis—it is good to be reminded why Protestants don’t have a pope but do affirm authority in the local church.

1 Timothy 3:14-15 reads, “I hope to come to you soon, but I am writing these things to you so that, if I delay, you may know how one ought to behave in the household of God, which is the church of the living God, a pillar and buttress of the truth.”

Paul with apostolic authority is writing a letter with Holy Spirit authority to Timothy, instructing him how to teach with didactic authority a local church that is called to have  ministerial authority as they guard the word of truth which has divine authority.  Sadly, somewhere in church history, roughly between the years 1100 and 1400, the Roman Catholic Church asserted its magisterial authority, arguing that church traditions are authoritative in matters of faith and practice.  Clearly, this went beyond Paul’s instruction to Timothy, and by the time of Martin Luther, the church had had enough.  The Protestant Reformation broke out, and that is why so many in the church today do not call Francis their ecclesial head.

Nevertheless, what kind of authority should the church have?  Timothy Ward in his illuminating book, Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of Godprovides a very helpful treatment on this subject. Discussing the historical debate between Protestants and Catholics, he cites another Francis, Francis Turretin, who lists five functions of the church related to Scripture.

  1. Keeper and preserver of Scripture
  2. Guide that points people to Scripture
  3. Defender of Scripture, vindicating the genuine canonical books from the spurious ones
  4. Herald who proclaims the truth of Scripture
  5. Interpreter given the task of unfolding the true sense of Scripture

These functions can be found in Turretin’s Institutes of Elenctic Theologyvol. 1 (though all citations come from Ward, Words of Life, 152-53).  Turretin closes his explanation of the relationship between Scripture and the church by reaffirming the nature of the church’s authority: “All these [functions] imply a ministerial only and not a magisterial power.”  Explaining what this mean, he states,

If the question is why, or on account of what, do I believe the Bible to be divine, I will answer that I do so on account of the Scripture itself which by its marks proves itself to be such. If it is asked whence or from what I believe, I will answer from the Holy Spirit, who produces belief in me. Finally, if I am asked by what means or instrument I believe it, I will answer through the church which God uses in delivering the Scriptures to me. 

Rightly, Turretin and Ward point out the robust doctrine of church authority which is often missed by Protestants.  Yet, with biblical fidelity they show how the Scriptures are always the final, magisterial authority. No individual, nor any local church, can exist without tradition; the important thing to note, contra the Catholic Church, is that church authority is always delegated and derivative of the greater and higher authority of the Holy Scriptures.  Tradition is always under the review of God’s truth, even if tradition is what leads us to God’s truth.  In this way, it is the difference between the order of knowing (i.e., the church leads us to the truth of God, or it should) and the order of being (i.e., the truth of God creates and corrects the church).

Sadly, many Protestants will harden themselves against the legitimate authority in the church this week as they see the new pope take his seat.  Equally discouraging, many unassuming Catholics will continue to be misled by the vain notion that uninspired men can update and adjust the doctrines of the church, instead of standing on the foundation laid down by the apostles (see Eph 2:20).  May we be those who avoid both errors.

May we hold to Scriptures as the final source of authority, and may we benefit from and exercise the legitimate use of authority that Christ gave to his churches.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss