The Lutheran Reformation grew from the conviction that the Bible alone (sola scriptura) is the final authority in faith and practice. However, opponents of Lutheran theology were quick to level accusations of setting up Scripture as a “paper pope” and worshipping the Bible instead of Christ. Still today, advocates of plenary verbal inspiration are often derogatorily labeled “literalists” or “biblicists” who render undue honor to a “dead text.”
Ward (writing from a conservative Reformed position) seeks to address such claims. Ward contends that, in the course of defending a “high” view of Scripture, conservative Christians have developed a doctrine of Scripture that is isolated from the Bible itself. He aptly describes many recent treatments of the inspiration and authority of Scripture as “more like an interesting and necessary tangent in theology than part of the heartbeat of theology itself…a kind of theological throat clearing, prior to the main business of actually talking about God” (16). In order to correct this over-emphasis on the doctrine of Scripture as nothing more than a dogmatic prolegomena, Ward is “attempting to describe the nature of the relationship between God and Scripture…why it is the case that, in order to worship God faithfully, we need to pay attention to the Bible” (11).
Ward’s argument plays out in four parts. The first is a biblical outline that seeks to answer the question, “What, according to the Bible, is in fact going on when God speaks?” (20). Drawing examples from many different parts of Scripture, Ward demonstrates the inseparable connection between God’s actions, his person, and his words. The only way to have a relationship or grasp of God’s actions and person is through his words. The section is summarized well when Ward asserts: “Therefore to encounter the words of Scripture is to encounter God in action” (48, emphasis original).
The second major part of the book is a theological outline, in which Ward seeks to connect the doctrine of Scripture to the triune God. In the section relating to the Father’s act of revelation, we are introduced to Ward’s assertion that a “speech-act theory” view of language offers the Christian a powerful tool to describe the doctrine of Scripture. In the section on the relationship of Scripture to the Son, Ward focuses on the ways both Christ and Scripture are “God’s Word.” While acknowledging that the two are not “God’s Word” in exactly the same sense (71), we are reminded that “Paying full and wise attention to Scripture as the written Word of God is crucial if we wish to worship and follow the Word-made-flesh, the Son of God, rightly” (74). The section on the relationship between Scripture and the Holy Spirit emphasizes the unique role of the Holy Spirit in inspiring, preserving, and illuminating the Bible.
The third major division is a doctrinal outline of the commonly recognized attributes of Scripture: necessity, sufficiency, clarity, and authority (including inerrancy and infallibility). Ward clearly, powerfully, and persuasively illustrates the importance of maintaining these attributes of God’s Word and the beauty and comfort they bring the believer. More than any other section of the book, Confessional Lutheran readers will find themselves nodding in agreement and underlining the many helpful arguments for these crucial ideas. Of special note is Ward’s discussion of the difference between inerrancy and infallibility and its application to apparent “discrepancies” in the biblical text.
The final part of the book might be described as a brief excursus in practical theology, as Ward seeks to make applications from his biblical, theological, and doctrinal outlines to the way the believer approaches and uses the Bible. The first major topic in this final section addresses a misunderstanding of the principle of sola scriptura. Rather than seeing this important Reformation principle as a rejection of all extra-biblical data and tradition, Ward asserts that the concept “in its proper formulation as found in the thinking of the mainstream Protestant Reformers…does not deny the necessity of traditions of biblical interpretation, creedal formulations of biblical faith, and inherited church practices that help to express and pass on the faith. Rather, it ensures that all those traditions serve Scripture, the supreme authority, rather than compete with it” (151). The second half of the section describes the implications of the doctrine of Scripture for the preacher of the Bible. Ward reminds us that “the doctrine of plenary, verbal biblical inspiration provides a great practical benefit for preachers. It gives the preacher an authoritative, meaningful content: a speech act with both propositional content and active purpose. It gives him something to say that is clearly not his own word, and at root not a word of purely human origin, because God has uttered it in advance of him” (161). In short, Ward encourages us to preach the text of the Bible with the confidence that we are not just repeating the empty words of human message, but are serving as spokesmen of the saving means of God.
Words of Life will serve the Lutheran pastor well as a short “refresher” for the importance of the doctrine of Scripture. Ward addresses the topic from the perspective of a committed, conservative Reformed theologian – which is reflected in his frequent allusions and quotations of Calvin, Turretin, Warfield, and Bavinck. There are also occasional moments when Ward’s Reformed view leads him to a conclusion that would be unacceptable to a Confessional Lutheran (cf. confusion about the nature of the Abramitic covenant on p. 28; a different understanding of “the image of God” on p. 34; statement about the parable of the sheep and the goats on p. 42; a statement about church fellowship on p. 168). However, the strengths of the volume far outweigh the negatives. This book is a solid defense of the traditional, conservative view of the Scriptures and will richly reward all who read it.
 A full description – much less an evaluation – of “speech-act theory” would go far beyond the scope of this review. The interested reader is encouraged to see Ward’s brief discussion on p. 56-60 and his suggested bibliography in footnote 7 on p. 57.
Timothy Ward is Team Vicar at Holy Trinity Church, Hinckley, England. He is the author of Word and Supplement: Speech Acts, Biblical Texts, and the Sufficiency of Scripture (Oxford University Press).
Words of Life: Scripture as the Living and Active Word of God, by Timothy Ward. Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2009. 179 pages.