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Ronald A. Ward (1908 – 1986)

 

Ronald A. Ward

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1908 – 1986

A Tribute to a Spiritual Mentor

Ronald Ward looked at me warmly as he said earnestly, “As you know, Victor, the worst consequence of sin is more sin.” Our conversation in his living room continued to unfold throughout the afternoon. Just before I headed home he remarked in the same gentle, natural manner, “As you know, Victor, the worst consequence of prayerlessness is the inability to pray.”

While Protestants are sceptical of the aura that is said to surround the saints, I knew that I was in the presence of someone luminous with the Spirit of God. In his gracious way this dear saint generously assumed my spiritual stature to be the equal of his. It wasn’t and I knew it. Yet before him I ached to be possessed of that Reality to which he was so wonderfully transparent. Smiling kindly upon me he remarked, on another occasion in the midst of a different conversation, “If we fear God we shall never have to be afraid of him.” His unselfconscious profundity was steeped in the deepest intimacy of his life: his immersion in the God who had incarnated himself for our salvation in Jesus Christ.

Ward was a British-born Anglican clergyman, a classics scholar-turned-New Testament scholar. (He was awarded his Ph.D degree for his thesis, “The Aristotelian Element in the Philosophical Vocabulary of the New Testament.”) Upon emigrating to Canada he was professor of New Testament at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto, from 1952 to 1963. He wrote a dozen books. Long before I knew him, long before I began my own studies in theology, I heard my father speak admiringly of him. In the late 1950s Ward had preached at a noon-hour Lenten service in St.James Anglican Cathedral, Toronto, for downtown business people. My father came home astonished at Ward’s scholarship and aglow over the authenticity with which Ward spoke of his life in his Lord. On my 24th birthday my mother (now a widow) gave me one of his books, Hidden Meaning in the New Testament. The book explored the theological significance of Greek grammar.

Dull? Does grammar have to be dull? I read his discussion of verb tenses, imperative and subjunctive moods, prepositions, compound verbs; his discussion illustrated the truth and power of the gospel on page after page. Greek grammar now glinted and gleamed with the radiance of God himself. Insights startling and electrifying illuminated different aspects of Christian discipleship and inflamed my zeal every time I thought about them.

One gem had to do with the two ways in which the Greek language expresses an imperative. (The two ways are the present tense and the aorist subjunctive.) If I utter the English imperative, “Don’t run!”, I can mean either, “You are running now and you must stop” or, “You aren’t running now and you mustn’t start.” When two different gospel-writers refer to the Ten Commandments, one uses one form of the Greek imperative to express “Thou shalt not” while the other gospel-writer uses the other form. One says, “You are constantly violating the command of God and you must stop.” The other says, “Right now you aren’t violating the command of God and you mustn’t begin.” Both truths are needed in the Christian life; both are highlighted by means of grammatical precision.

Ward left the University of Toronto and found his way to a small Anglican congregation in Saint John, N.B. By now (1970) I was in Tabusintac, N.B., a 400-mile roundtrip away. Several times I sat before him, Greek testament in hand, asking him about grammatical points that had me stymied. What did I gain from my visits? Vastly more than lessons in grammar; I gained an exposure to a godliness I had seen nowhere else, a godliness that was natural, unaffected, real.

Any point in grammar Ward illustrated from the Christian life. One day I asked him about two verses in Mark where Jesus says, “If your hand causes you to stumble, cut it off; if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out.” The verb is skandalizein, to cause to stumble. But in the space of a few verses Mark uses two different tenses: one tense suggests completed action in the past, one occurrence only; the other tense suggests an ongoing phenomenon. When I asked Ward about it he said, “Victor, in a moment of carelessness or spiritual inattentiveness or outright folly the Christian can be overtaken by sin. Horrified he says, `Never again!’, and it’s done with. And then there’s the Christian’s besetting temptation with which he has to struggle every day.”

While Ward spent most of his adult life as either professor in a seminary or pastor of a small congregation, he was always an evangelist at heart. He conducted preaching missions to large crowds on every continent. Despite his exposure to large crowds he always knew of the need to sound the note of the gospel-summons to first-time faith within the local congregation. His conviction is reflected in the concluding paragraph of his book, Royal Theology. Here Ward speaks of the conscientious minister who prepares throughout the week that utterance which is given him to declare on Sunday. Such a minister, says Ward,

“should find that his congregation is not only literally sitting in front of him but is figuratively behind him. When he speaks of Christ there will be an answering note in the hearts of those who have tasted that the Lord is gracious. When he mentions the wrath of God they will be with him in remembering that they too were once under wrath and by the mercy of God have been delivered…. When he speaks of the word of the cross they will welcome the open secret of the means of their salvation. And when he gives an invitation to sinners to come to Christ, they will create the warm and loving atmosphere which is the fitting welcome for one who is coming home.”

Ronald Ward’s thinking invariably converged on the cross and his life always radiated from it. Thanks to him this is all I want for myself. Nothing more, nothing less, nothing else.

Victor Shepherd
March 1998