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Radical rethink of the Bible’s message

Many evangelical Christians in recent times have been questioning traditional ‘takes’ on doctrines like the role of women in home and church, the nature of the atonement, the meaning of ‘hell’ etc. I have reviewed books on such topics myself, and most have proved helpful. But this one is a radical rethink of just about all the major evangelical doctrines. It is: What The Bible Really Teaches: A Challenge For Fundamentalists by Keith Ward (SPCK, 2004, ISBN 978-0-281-05680-4).

One-time Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford, Ward is clearly an able scholar, and at the same time he testifies clearly to being ‘a born-again Christian’, with a deep respect for the Bible. It is out of that respect that he writes to challenge the way he perceives many evangelicals to have interpreted it. I found much of what he has to say thought-provoking and challenging, and I find myself in agreement with a good deal of it. But in places he goes too far with the logical implications of his position and, in so doing, risks prompting some readers to ditch the whole book—which would be a great pity.

So read this by all means, but be careful about whose hands you put it into; it could well end up stumbling the Christian walk of someone with a faith less robust than your own.

Paul Callan, a recent contact and correspondent of mine, has written a first-class critique of the book, giving Ward credit where it is due but helpfully highlighting the areas where he believes he goes too far. You can read the critique here. Meanwhile, here are a few excerpts from Ward’s book.

Ironically, perhaps, the view of biblical revelation adopted by fundamentalists is more like that of Islam than it is of Christianity. (p7)

The Bible, while having a uniquely definitive status, points on to future disclosures of God in the community of the Church, in so far as that community is guided by the Spirit. (p16)

It cannot be a requirement of contemporary Christian belief that we should believe just what the first generation of Christians, or the apostle Paul, believed. For they believed Christ would come before Paul died, and it is not possible for us to believe that. We have to say that some of their beliefs were false. (p33)

We need know nothing about any historical Adam to share in the humanity that is estranged from God. We are strangers whether we know it or not. What the Christian gospel reveals is the fact of our estrangement, that all is not well with us, however morally good we may think we are, that we still lack what is necessary for the true fulfilment of human existence. Similarly, we need know nothing about the historical Jesus to share in the humanity that is reconciled to God. We are reconciled whether we know it or not: ‘just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men’ (Romans 5:18).  (p88)

The gospel is not that all are lost unless they meet certain stringent conditions of belief. That is bad news for most people. It is that all are reconciled and united to God in love forever, unless they explicitly, finally and irrevocably reject God. That is good news indeed, and it is what the Bible really teaches.  (p95)

The death of Jesus is not the placation of an angry God. It is the opposite. It is the expression of the unrestricted love of God. It is the full expression of human obedience to the divine calling, and at the same time of the divine humility that shares the human condition. (p102)

The gospel of God’s unconditional love simply is the Christian gospel. And yet many fundamentalists reject it. They deny that God’s love is unconditional and unlimited. Indeed they sometimes place extremely severe limits upon it. The ‘good news’ of salvation in Christ is sometimes replaced by the very ‘bad news’ of eternal hell for almost everyone, unless they happen to have a very specific and explicit set of beliefs about Jesus.  (p129)

There is little doubt that the idea of purgatory, a state of purgative suffering that would lead inevitably to Paradise in the end, developed over hundreds of years in the Church. Is it a biblical teaching? Fundamentalists seem united in affirming that it is anti-biblical. But the biblical evidence does not seem to support such a negative view. [refers to 1 Cor 3:12-15; Matt 18:34-35; Matt 5:25-26; 1 Cor 15:29; 1 Pet 3:18-20; 1 Pet 4:6]  (p137)

Perhaps there are those who will not accept the forgiving love of God. If so, their ultimate end is destruction, for ‘the wages of sin is death’ (Romans 6:23), and when death itself is ‘thrown into the lake of fire’ (Revelation 20:14), they will be consumed by fire; they will cease to be.  (p148)

If Paul, or any other apostle, says that women should be obedient to men – ‘Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord’ (Ephesians 5:22), we are to remind ourselves of his own saying, ‘the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life’ (1 Corinthians 3:6). We must ask if this recommendation is compatible with loving one’s (female) neighbour as oneself, and whether it is true to the character of Jesus, who said that the true leader is one who serves. (p168)

I have shown how limited understandings of Jesus’ teachings abound in the New Testament, and the matter of submission is no exception. One of the most infamous passages is Romans 13, where Paul writes, ‘Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God’ (Romans 13:1). This statement is breathtaking in its myopia...  It is not always right to submit to the authorities, and it is not true that all authorities have been established by God. Paul can only be writing to people whom he wishes to be seen as obedient members of the Roman Empire. Circumstances changed considerably after he wrote that letter, and we can hardly imagine him saying that, for instance, the Emperor Nero’s rule was established by God. (P169)

Mmm. Mind-bending stuff, eh? But the man is totally sincere, and in many of his statements provocatively correct, in my view. Anyway, if you want a clearer overall picture of the book, either to get you to buy it, or to stop you buying it, take a look at Paul Callan’s excellent critique.

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