Three fascinating talks by Tim Ward, lecturer in homiletics at Oak Hill College, delivered at the recent Church Society Fellowship of Word and Spirit conference.

First, on the clarity of Scripture.

The Reformation motto sola scriptura asserts that Scripture is the supreme authority. But if Scripture is to exercise authority, it must be clear. Hence the idea of the clarity of Scripture.

But what does this mean? To whom is Scripture clear, and in what context?

The suggestion in the talk is that evangelicals have often absorbed a model of knowledge derived not from Scripture or from the Reformation, but from the secular Enlightenment movement of the 17th and 18th centuries. Following Descartes, this model of knowledge effectively says that, if we want to understand something, we should go and sit on our own and think about it. It is a model of knowledge that is individualistic and rationalistic.

Evangelicals tend to follow this way of thinking, and assume that, if I want to hear God speaking to me, then the best thing to do is to go and sit on my own and read the Bible for myself. Or, as a kind of collective individualism, that the best thing is to find a group of people just like me, and sit together listening to a preacher who is just like me.

What would be a better way of thinking about the clarity of Scripture? God speaks to us with clarity within the context of corporate discipleship. Scripture belongs within the church, and it is within the church that Scripture displays its clarity.

The second and third talks are on the theological interpretation of Scripture (TIS).

TIS is another attempt to regain Scripture for the church. The Bible is not to be treated like any other book, but its ultimate origin in God means that it can speak to us theologically.

In the talks this is developed so that it becomes clear that the way ordinary Christians instinctively read the Bible is not so bad after all! Christians will typically spot themselves – and Jesus – all over the Bible, even in places that our Enlightenment-influenced methods tell us we shouldn’t. But if the Bible as a whole comes from God, then the full significance of the earlier parts becomes increasingly apparent with the fuller revelation of the New Testament. So Genesis really is about Jesus and the church after all.

The metaphysical basis for this is explored, with Tim Ward speaking favourably of the Platonic notion of participation. (This isn’t to suggest that Plato was right about everything, but one way of thinking about it is to say that, on this point, Plato’s thinking was entirely biblical.) The basic idea is that created things participate in uncreated things. So everything in creation depends on God for its being, and points towards God.

This is true of Scripture. The Bible participates in God in such a way that Christ can be truly said to be present in the whole Bible. So it is not simply that the Old Testament foretells Christ: it forthtells Christ too, because Christ speaks in and through the whole of Scripture.

Tim Ward cautions against taking this too far, for example, by speaking of Scripture participating sacramentally in God. But I wonder whether his reservations are justified. (I am way out of my depth here, and I could easily have misunderstood, so take this with a pinch of salt!) He discusses the influence of the Roman Catholic theologian Henri de Lubac on the Reformed theologian Hans Boersma, but his description of de Lubac – in terms of grace making up for a defect in nature – sounds more like a description of the old theology that de Lubac was seeking to overturn. At least, that is how it sounds to me, on first impressions. For comparison, I’ve included two videos below, featuring Simon Oliver and John Milbank discussing Henri de Lubac. But I don’t think this detracts significantly from the talks in any case. A fascinating discussion.