Film and Book Reviews

Gospel's message is 'radical, universal and absolute love'

BookLove Is His Meaning: Understanding the teaching of Jesus, by Keith Ward (SPCK, 2017)

By Mark Lindsay

August 5 2019Almost exactly 220 years ago, Friedrich Schleiermacher – unarguably one of the most influential theologians since the Reformation – delivered his seminal lectures, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers. His purpose was twofold: on the one hand, to repudiate the popular views about religion that were commonly held by Berlin’s intellectual elite; and on the other hand, to propose a new, and utterly “modern”, definition of religion that would better serve the new century. While Schleiermacher lampooned those “cultured despisers” of his day for their ill-informed assumptions about religion in general, and Christianity in particular, he was not entirely unsympathetic. Indeed, he agreed with them on at least one point; that if religion in fact was what they thought it to be, then they would be right to reject it. But of course, he hurried on to say, they were wrong, and he set about trying to show them how.

Slightly more than two centuries later, English theologian and Anglican priest Keith Ward has done something similar. Taking as his book’s title a phrase from St Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, Ward seeks, in scholarly yet highly accessible language, to up-end five of the most enduring – and damaging – assumptions about Christianity, and to insist, like Schleiermacher before him, that the gospel of Jesus is something entirely different. That the gospel – despite the many popular misconceptions that see in it only narrow-minded prejudice, and despite the many ways in the which the Church’s actions and teachings through the centuries have reaffirmed those misconceptions – is in fact a message of radical, universal and absolute love (p.72). 

Ward’s starting point is to remind us that literalism is the death of true faith. He doesn’t do this by trying to prove that modern science has somehow proven the Bible to be wrong. Rather, he demonstrates that a strictly literal reading of Jesus’ own words leads, not so much to scientific error, but to an almost-hopelessly self-contradictory Jesus. How can “love thy neighbour” and “hate thy father and mother” both be literally true, and equally necessary elements of discipleship? How can Jesus forbid anger, on the one hand, and yet himself get angry in the Temple courts, on the other, without disobeying his own commandment? The point is a simple one: that Jesus’ words are frequently symbolic, and replete with hyperbole.

None of this is especially novel. Most Christians recognise that when Jesus commands us to “pluck out” the offending eye, or slice off the offending hand (Matt. 5:28-30), he is not advocating self-mutilation (p.19). He is speaking hyperbolically. Similarly, the dominical injunction to “turn the other cheek” does not mean, argues Ward, that we ought to “do nothing to stop evildoers.” “Not resisting people who are evil” – which is the literal and logical extension of this command – “means letting them murder, torture, pillage, rape or anything else at will … Few people will think this is wise, or moral” (p.31).

The upshot of all this is that, once we start reading the Gospel narratives with this interpretive principle in mind – that some (much?) of what Jesus said is in the form of poetic, symbolic hyperbole – then it becomes nigh-on impossible to understand Jesus’ teachings as some sort of new moral code.

In similar fashion, Ward argues that Jesus’ pronouncements about the coming Kingdom must also be understood in non-literalistic ways. Again, his reasoning is not primarily on the basis of a more advanced cosmology than what was available in Jesus’ day – in the 21st century, for example, we know that stars do not literally “fall from the sky” (Matt. 24:29). Rather, Ward argues on the basis of the inevitable self-contradiction of Jesus’ message that a literal rendering would require. Noting that much of what Jesus says about the Kingdom that is inaugurated in and by him draws on prophecies from Zephaniah, Zechariah, and Isaiah, Ward highlights the problematically violent nature of those prophetic discourses. The earth, say the prophets, “shall be consumed”; Judah’s enemies “will be devoured” by the Lord who is “mustering an army…” (pp.47-48). In the establishment of his Kingdom, in what way does Jesus fulfil these prophecies? In what way can he fulfil them that does not run counter to his proclamation and embodiment of divine love? Well, says Ward, “it cannot ever be open to Christians to think that God’s purposes will literally come about by violence, hatred or war.” And this is Ward’s most basic, and yet most important, point. “No interpretation of [Jesus’ teaching] that gives any place for hatred…of others can possibly be correct. Jesus’ teaching must always be interpreted in a way that is consistent with the total love of God and of other persons, however evil they are” (p.49 – emphasis added).

Few of us, I suspect, would disagree with the broad outlines of what Ward is suggesting. But, good philosopher that he is, Ward is not prepared to let us stop at that broad, in principle, agreement. On the contrary, he pushes his argument to its logical conclusion, and in the process pushes us into uncomfortable terrain. And this is where the book gets confronting. Because the end result, if we genuinely put an end to our literalistic readings of the Gospels, is that we must grapple with conclusions which tear asunder five of the principles upon which mainstream Christianity has been based. For Ward, those inevitable conclusions are (p.87):

  • The Gospels are not verbally inerrant
  • There is no eternal hell
  • Jesus left no specific moral rules, about sex or politics or anything else
  • There is no imminent end of the universe or physical return of Jesus on the clouds
  • There is no exclusive salvation for Christian believers

As I have already indicated, most Christians would accept, in discipleship practice if not in hermeneutical theory, that Jesus’ recorded words cannot be taken literally. What Ward does in this short book, though, is to urge us to follow that through to its logical conclusion. The confronting reality is that – when we do so – we risk losing much of what we have assumed Christianity to be all about. But then again, that’s the point. Perhaps like the “cultured despisers” of Schleiermacher’s day, our assumptions about what the heart of Christianity is need to be challenged, and even shaken. And just think what might then be the outcome! If the Church actually believed – and lived! – that love both was and is Jesus’ meaning – not exclusion, or pharisaic piety – but love … then we would start to have a message by which the world might be healed. 

The Revd Professor Mark Lindsay is Joan FW Munro Professor of Historical Theology and Deputy Dean, Trinity College Theological School.