IN A short book for the general reader, Keith Ward makes a clear case for the impossibility of taking the Bible literally, and for the integrity of understanding the Bible and the teaching of Jesus in a figurative or symbolic way, and he is quite unapologetic: “to take Jesus’ sayings only in a literal sense is to miss their meaning.”
He focuses on the ostensibly impossible moral teaching of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, which he understands to be hyperbolic statements that challenge disciples with a set of ideals for life in the Kingdom of God, which they must now work out how to apply in the world as it is. He takes time to look at just what is meant by the Kingdom of God, and does not ignore eschatology: “I think Christians need to face up to this problem of ‘the time of the end’.
His rejection of biblical inerrancy concludes that there is no eternal hell; that Jesus left no specific moral rules; there is no imminent end of the universe; and salvation is not exclusive to Christians — “And I believe everything truly important about Christian faith will remain.” He ends with words that also provides his title (leaving the reader to recognise their originator): “Love is his meaning.”
This will be a very helpful introduction for a new Christian or enquirer with no background in biblical study, who is seeking an understanding of the Christian faith which is compatible with the modern thought-world without feeling watered down.
My one quibble is Ward’s recurrent use of “allegorical” as a virtual synonym for metaphorical or poetic, when in common use it refers more narrowly to the kind of extended point-for-point correspondence found in Pilgrim’s Progress or the interpretation of the Parable of the Sower.
And when, as a theological populariser, Ward writes that “Spiritual things are not unreal; they are more real than physical things,” I should love to know what Professor Ward, as distinguished philosopher and theologian, would have to say about almost every word in that sentence.
The Revd Philip Welsh is a retired priest in the diocese of London. He was formerly Vicar of St Stephen’s, Rochester Row, Westminster.
Love is his Meaning: Understanding the teaching of Jesus
Church Times Bookshop £9