Anglican philosopher-theologian Keith Ward, recently retired professor of divinity at Oxford, has published a new book called What the Bible Really Teaches (about Crucifixion, Resurrection, Salvation, the Second Coming, and Eternal Life) that is a charitable but firm rebuke to fundamentalist readings of the Bible. Ward considers himself a “born-again” Christian, but says that fundamentalist interpretations of Scripture fail on the Bible’s own terms.
In Chapter 1, “Fundamentalism and the Bible,” Ward investigates the nature of the Bible and argues that it’s incompatible with the doctrine of verbal inerrancy as that is usually understood. He points out that the Bible itself nowhere claims to be inerrant, or that all its stories must be read literally. He contrasts that nature of the Christian Bible with that of the Koran; the latter purports to be a word-for-word dictation from God, while the former is a collection of writings from varied periods and viewpoints that represent a response to God’s self-revelation. Ward’s argument is that the Bible doesn’t even purport to be the kind of word-for-word dictation from God that fundamentalists tend to treat it as.
The oft-quoted text from the letter to Timothy that “All scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” is, Ward thinks, misinterpreted if taken as a proof-text for a doctrine of verbal inerrancy. Instead we should think of God’s Spirit inspiring the minds of the writers of Scripture in such a way that they “build up an authentic and trustworthy testimony to the loving-kindness of God, and to the divine plan to reconcile the world to the divine life” (p. 16). It is a misunderstanding of the Bible to think of revelation as primarily a set of facts or doctrines infallibly set down in the text, rather the Biblical meaning of revelation is “primarily an unveiling and knowledge of the reality of God, especially in the person of Jesus. It is not primarily a communication of true propositions” (p. 18).
In Chapter 2, “Understanding the Bible,” Ward offers six principles of Biblical interpretation that he thinks are truer to the nature of the Bible itself. The principles are contextualization, reading the biblical writings in a way that does justice to their history, setting, genre, etc.; consistency, treating like passages alike, e.g. not invoking certain Levitical laws as binding on modern-day believers while ignoring others; comprehensiveness, taking the biblical witness as a whole and allowing passages to illuminate each other; sublation, the idea that certain biblical teachings are superseded and yet fulfilled by later teachings, such as the lex talionis‘ replacement by Jesus’ command to forgive; the principle of spiritual interpretation, under which Ward subsumes the three traditional non-literal methods of interpretation: moral, anagogical (pointing to a future fulfillment), and allegorical; and finally, and perhaps most importantly, Christ-centeredness, or seeing every part of the Bible as pointing us to Christ (was Christum treibet – that which conveys Christ, as Luther put it). Later chapters will see Ward applying these principles to particular doctrines like the Second Coming and salvation.
Though setting out to combat fundamentalism, Ward isn’t a debunker or revisionist in the mode of Bishop Spong. For one thing, he thinks that a fundamentalist approach to the Bible is actually an aberration in Christian history; he’s not setting himself up as a smasher of the tradition. And his ontological commitments clearly put him in the camp of a robust version of theism. He might be best seen as a kind of liberal broad-churchman who doesn’t see any inherent conflict between faith and reason, somewhat reminiscent of the Cambridge Platonists of the 17th century.
More to come…
p.s. for a sample of Ward’s thinking, check out this essay.