by John Frame
Andrew McGowan, The Divine Spiration of Scripture ( Nottingham : Apollos (IVP), 2007).
Reviewed by John M. Frame, Prof. of Systematic Theology and Philosophy, Reformed Theological Seminary, Orlando, FL
I have long appreciated Andrew McGowan as a theologian who seeks to combine Reformed orthodoxy with a forward-looking perspective.1 The present volume exhibits his knowledge and creativity. I have prayed for his ministry as Principal of Highland Theological College, Dingwall, Scotland. There, he is well-situated to play an important role in the re-evangelization of Britain, Europe, and America. I count him as a friend.
Yet I must find some fault with the book under review. I trust that he will receive my comments as “the wounds of a friend” (Prov. 27:6), as “iron sharpening iron” (Prov. 27:17).
He develops here a number of theses about the doctrine of Scripture. In good sandwich fashion, he begins with some points (on encyclopedia and vocabulary) unlikely to raise serious controversy, and he concludes with more of the same (on confessions and preaching). But in between comes the hard part, an argument against the idea of biblical inerrancy, seeking to replace it with a certain concept of infallibility.
I will follow his discussion more or less in the order he presents it. First, his argument on “encyclopedia,” the place of the doctrine of Scripture in the traditional order of topics (loci) in systematic theology. Here he argues that in a systematic theology the doctrine of Scripture should not be placed first, but rather should follow the doctrine of God. If it precedes the doctrine of God, it “takes the primary focus away from God” (28).2 McGowan thinks that the tradition of placing the doctrine of Scripture first arises out of the belief that Scripture is in some sense the epistemological foundation of everything to follow. In McGowan’s view, it is an error “to imply that the Scriptures can stand alone as a source of epistemological certainty, quite apart from the work of God the Holy Spirit” (29).
At one level, the issue McGowan brings up here does not have much interest except for people who are writing complete systematic theologies. If you are writing on only one locus the question of where that locus should be placed in relation to others is somewhat moot. For most ordinary Christians who are not writers of theology at all, this question is even more irrelevant.
But perhaps we can look at this issue from a more helpful angle. When we write and talk about, say, sanctification, we do have to be aware of the relation of that doctrine to justification, adoption, atonement, resurrection, and so on, whether or not we seek to produce a systematic theology. Similarly with other doctrines, including the doctrine of Scripture. This is the real value of McGowan’s discussion: reminding us to consider how the doctrine of Scripture is related to other doctrines.
I think that point is clearer when it is removed from the question of encyclopedic order. In my view, the order of topics is largely a question of pedagogy, rather than theology. A bad doctrine of Scripture does not become good simply by better positioning, by being made Chapter 2 instead of Chapter 1. Nor does a good doctrine become bad by any similar change. But McGowan is certainly right to say that a good doctrine of Scripture must be clear on the important relationships between the written word and the Holy Spirit.
I am not convinced, however, that implying “that the Scriptures can stand alone as a source of epistemological certainty, quite apart from the work of God the Holy Spirit” (29) is a pressing danger for evangelical theology. Of the many theologies of revelation and Scripture I have read, I cannot recall even one that failed to include discussion of the Spirit’s work—in inspiration, illumination, and persuasion. It is good, of course, to remind Christians in a practical way that we should read Scripture as a gift of God, indeed as an encounter with God himself. We are often tempted otherwise. But that temptation, I think, is more emotional than theological. It is not that we are often tempted to a theological denial of God’s involvement, or a theoretical dismissal of its importance. Rather, the problem is that we often read Scripture without a conscious dependence on God. But not every temptation can be overcome by a theological formulation. In the present context the temptation will certainly exist whether the doctrine of inspiration comes first or second in our theology texts.
On 31, McGowan assures us that he does not, however, regard concerns for epistemological certainty as illegitimate. Our persuasion and assurance that Scripture is the word of God comes through the work of the Spirit. This is not “blind fideism” (32), for we can show (following Cornelius Van Til) that “reason, logic and evidence have their place in our thinking only because we live in a world God has created, which is therefore inherently rational” (32). He goes on to discuss other apologetic issues, noting the defectiveness of natural theology and traditional evidentialism.
Certainly I applaud McGowan’s embrace of a Van Tillian epistemology and apologetic. And I am grateful for his mentions of my work in this connection. In view of what comes later, however, I would remind the reader that Van Til had no hesitations about the inerrancy of Scripture. And Van Til often emphasized the self-attesting authority of the text of Scripture, while acknowledging the necessity of the Spirit’s work for our subjective appropriation of the text. For him, neither the objective side (the biblical text itself) nor the subjective side (the Spirit’s inward witness) can function without the other. That double emphasis does not come through clearly in McGowan’s account, but it pervades Van Til’s work.3 And we should not miss this implication: for Van Til, the text of Scripture (however much we need the Spirit to illumine it) is the ultimate source of epistemological certainty, God’s ultimate standard for human thought and life.4 So perhaps there are, after all, some good reasons for putting the doctrine of Scripture first in our theological systems.5
McGowan’s first vocabulary suggestion is that we replace inspiration with spiration. Inspiration, he says, is too easily confused with poetic inspiration, and in connection with Scripture it suggests that God breathed something into the book. Actually,theopneustos, the word translated inspired of God in 2 Tim. 3:16, the only occurrence of that term in Scripture, means breathed out by God. Here, McGowan accepts Warfield’s well-known analysis, though at later points he is critical of Warfield. The idea of a word “breathed out by God” suggests that expiration, rather than inspiration, would be a good translation. Unfortunately, expiration in English often refers to death! So McGowan, following another suggestion of Warfield, proposes spiration.6 Combining, then, the teaching of 2 Tim. 3:16 with that of 2 Pet. 1:16-21, he provides a long definition of spiration which I summarize: “…God the Holy Spirit caused men to write books…such that although these books are truly the work of human beings, they are also the Word of God” (43). These books have “a unique authority.” But he adds, “In order to avoid misunderstanding, however, it is better to reside the authority in God rather than in the Scriptures themselves.”
I have no objection to this vocabulary change, and I also have no confidence that the church will adopt it. Inspiration is problematic, but it is probably best at this time to make the word conform in meaning to theopneustos, rather than to try to persuade the church to adopt another term.
McGowan is right, further, to “reside the authority in God rather than in the Scriptures themselves.” I presume “themselves” here means “apart from God”7 or some such thing. But even though in one sense the authority does not reside in “the Scriptures themselves,” it certainly does reside in the Scriptures. Readers should not be misled into thinking that God cannot represent his authoritative words in writing. Scripture teaches that he does exactly that, so that we may refer to the text of Scripture as the very authoritative speech of God. There is no biblical reason to think that God’s oral speech is more authoritative than his written speech. Quite the contrary.
I think McGowan slips too quickly past the assertion of 2 Tim. 3:16 that the Scripture, the written text, is breathed out by God and therefore authoritative. He mentions that, but then jumps immediately to 2 Pet. 1:16-21 to speak of the human writers. Certainly we dare not ignore Peter’s description of the role of the human authors. But however we understand that role, the net result of it justifies the assertion that the written Word, the graphe, is God breathed. What 2 Tim. 3:16 says is no less true simply because 1 Pet. 1:19-21 describes spiration from a different perspective.
And what does God-breathed mean, anyway? McGowan’s long definition identifies the writing with the Word of God, and that is correct. But we need to understand how literally Paul understands this in 2 Tim. 3:16. “Word of God” is a bit too much of a theological commonplace. The language of 2 Tim. 3:16 is more striking: For God to “breathe out” words, is simply for him to speak. The text of Scripture consists of words that God has spoken. To say that Scripture is spirated, to say that it is the Word of God, means that God has spoken it. All of it.
McGowan’s second terminological proposal is that we substitute recognition for the common theological term illumination (45-46). His point is that the latter term suggests a problem in Scripture (that they are dark and need light) whereas the only problem is a problem in ourselves due to sin.8 Here he discusses Rom. 1, 8:5-7, 2 Cor. 4:4, Col. 1, and Rom. 12:1-2, which speak of the noetic effects of sin and the need of the Spirit’s grace to renew our minds, so that we can recognize God’s word for what it is.9 Certainly in this discussion McGowan makes an important point: we do need supernaturally given ability to use God’s word rightly.
However, we should remind ourselves that the event traditionally called illumination, which McGowan calls recognition, requires both objective and subjective elements. The Spirit acts on the mind, but he does this specifically in an encounter with the word of God (in written, or some other form). It is right to say that the problem to be remedied by illumination/recognition is in ourselves, not in the text. But we should not give the impression that this divine assistance can take place without a text. The Spirit witnesses to the word. There is no “recognition” unless both are present. The text is not the problem to be resolved, but it is a necessary element of the transaction.
I suggested in my discussion of spiration that McGowan seems reluctant to discuss any unique qualities of the text that spiration creates. Similarly here. Certainly it is right to consider our own need as sinners. But it is also important to recognize that the Holy Spirit meets this need through a text. It is the text of Scripture that brings us the gospel message that corrects our sinful distortion of the truth. So it is important in this connection, not only to say that the Spirit meets our own need, but also that there are qualities of Scripture, given by spiration, that make it a suitable vehicle of the Spirit’s activity.10
How should we refer to these qualities? Illumination is not appropriate, so I would agree with McGowan that we don’t need it in this connection. Perhaps it is appropriate here to refer with the tradition to the power of the written word (Isa. 55:11, Rom. 1:16) which operates in conjunction with the Spirit’s witness. And of course the authority and sufficiency of Scripture are also relevant in this context.
McGowan’s next vocabulary suggestion (46-48) is that we substitute comprehension for perspicuity.11 He says, “If illumination as traditionally understood has to do with recognizing the Scriptures as the Word of God, perspicuity has to do with understanding what the Scriptures mean” (47). So, as he proposed replacing illumination with recognition, he here would replace perspicuity with comprehension. His argument is that perspicuity “can be understood to imply an access to the Scriptures that is entirely human and natural.” He grants the traditional concern of the doctrine of perspicuity, that the gospel of Scripture can be understood by untrained believers. But, as with spiration and recognition, McGowan wants to emphasize that our knowledge of Scripture comes through the Spirit’s work, not by some merely natural process. That is, again, something that happens in us, not something inherent in the text.
As with recognition, I agree with McGowan’s description of the human need and of the deeply personal way in which God meets that need. But I don’t see that this divine work can be fully understood without reference to the qualities of the biblicaltext. Granted its deficiencies, perspicuity at least focuses our attention on the text, that it is the kind of text that is capable of yielding a clear understanding of the truth under the Spirit’s ministry to us. If we replace perspicuity with comprehension, the discussion becomes more subjective, about a change that takes place in us, but not about the biblical text itself. But that is misleading. The Spirit witnesses to the word. There is an objective and a subjective side to our growth in the knowledge of God. We need the Spirit, but we also need an objective word of God that tells us what we need to know. The Spirit gives us a clear recognition of the truth, because he witness to a clear message.
To stress the objective clarity of Scripture is not, of course, to say that access to it is “entirely human and natural.” I can’t think of a single writer except McGowan who has drawn such an implication from this use of perspicuity. In any case, no human knowledge is “merely” or “entirely” human. We always need God to guide us. But the distortions of revelation are our fault, not God’s, as McGowan surely agrees. And that is to say that revelation as God gives it is not distorted. It is objectively clear, perspicuous.
McGowan continues his discussion of vocabulary by referring to inerrancy and infallibility, but plainly he intends this discussion to be more than terminological. His proposal that we replace inerrancy with infallibility is in fact the centerpiece of the volume. His discussion of it constitutes most of the remainder of the book, from 48 to 164.
Much of this section analyzes the history of the controversy and the views of individual theologians. I shall cover the historical discussions in less detail than I have employed up to this point in the review. I think that, as in many recent theological writings, the discussion of historical and contemporary alternatives sometimes illumines McGowan’s fundamental argument, but often obscures it. I wish (as I often wish with books on this subject) that McGowan had spent much less time expounding the views of others, and much more time formulating and arguing for his own position. For the most part, I think the history of the controversy is not controversial. And anyone who argues a theological position based on history alone is guilty of the genetic fallacy. So why should we be asked to dwell on history for over fifty pages?
If McGowan ever defines the word inerrancy I have not been able to locate his definition. That is, I think, a major omission, since he invests so much of the book in his critique of the idea. He does say on 48-49 that the term “has represented a turn towards a somewhat mechanical and even rationalistic approach to Scripture, basing its authority on a set of inerrant manuscripts.” But that is a critique of the concept, not a definition. And to say that believers in inerrancy base the authority of Scripture “on a set of inerrant manuscripts” is simply inaccurate. Although inerrant autographs play a major role in inerrantist thinking, they are never the basis of biblical authority. For an inerrantist (as, I think, for McGowan), the authority of Scripture is based on its inspiration/spiration.
He does quote Donald Bloesch on 98:
Scriptural inerrancy can be affirmed if it means the conformity of what is written to the dictates of the Spirit regarding the will and purpose of God. But it cannot be held if it is taken to mean the conformity of everything that is written in Scripture to the facts of world history and science.12
But it is not clear in context that McGowan accepts either of Bloesch’s two definitions. He mentions these only in passing while discussing Rogers and McKim. And I shall mention later that McGowan rejects the “form/content” distinction which lies behind Bloesch’s distinction of two kinds of inerrancy.
James Orr, with whose position McGowan shows some sympathy, defines inerrancy as “…hard and fast literality in minute matters of historical, geographical, and scientific detail…”.13 Orr rejects inerrancy so defined. But so far as I know, no advocate of inerrancy has ever employed such a definition. Indeed, this definition is quite wrongheaded. Inerrancy is not about literality or non-literality. It is about truthfulness. And inerrancy is not a claim about “detail,” as opposed to the broader structures of biblical language, though to be sure claims about detail may be implicit in the larger picture.
I know this is a stretch for theologians, but it might not hurt to go to the dictionary. The American Heritage College Dictionary14 defines inerrancy as ”freedom from error or untruths.”15 I believe that definition captures the basic idea behind the theological use of the term. I could wish myself that we could get rid of the term inerrancy (and most all other technical theological terms as well) and simply speak of truth. That God’s word is true is easily established from Scripture (Ps. 19:9, 119:160, John 17:17). Of course, there is a need to discuss how that truth can be seen in different genres, parts, and aspects of Scripture.
Why, then, should anyone want to use the term inerrancy, when the simpler, more attractive word truth is available? Because theologians have preferred to use truth in more exalted senses: Christological (John 14:6), metaphysical (Heb. 8:2), and ethical (1 John 1:6). These senses are perfectly Scriptural, but they have tempted theologians to devalue truth in a “merely propositional” sense. And some have rejected entirely the notion of “objective” truth, in favor of some kind of relativism. I think these theologians have missed something important. But confusion over the nature of truth is one reason why theologians have searched for other terms to describe the truth of Scripture.
Another term, hallowed by its use in the Westminster Confession of Faith (1.5, 9) is infallibility. This is the term McGowan would substitute for inerrancy, although to be sure infallibility has been commonly used in the Reformed churches much longer than the other term. The Dictionary quoted above defines infallible as follows:
1. Incapable of erring. 2. Incapable of failing; certain. 3. Rom. Cath. Ch. Incapable of error in expounding doctrine on faith or morals.16
On the first of these three definitions, infallibility is a stronger term than inerrancy. As suggested by the etymologies of the two terms, inerrant means there are no errors; infallible means that there can be no errors. Inerrant is about actuality, Infallible about possibility. It is what philosophers call a “modal” expression. Infallible not only says there are no errors in Scripture, but it adds that there cannot be any errors in it.
The same dictionary defines inerrant as “1. Incapable of erring; infallible. 2. Containing no errors.”17 On the first definition, inerrant and infallible are synonyms. It is, therefore, linguistically responsible either to use these terms interchangeably or (as in the previous paragraph) to distinguish them, focusing on the modal significance of infallible.
McGowan does offer something like a definition of infallibility, though it is a description of an argument rather than a formal definition:
The argument for ‘infallibility’ is that the final authority for the Christian is the authority of God speaking in and through his Word and that the Holy Spirit infallibly uses God’s Word to achieve all he intends to achieve (49).
The last clause comes close to the second dictionary definition of infallible, above. As for the first clause, however, one wonders (given the focus of the various dictionary definitions) whether McGowan thinks that when God speaks “in and through his Word” he can utter errors. McGowan doesn’t exactly say so here, but if he doesn’t believe that, then it is hard to distinguish his concept infallible from inerrant. If he does believe that God can utter errors, I don’t see how he can embrace any of the dictionary definitions of infallible that we have considered. We shall consider this matter again at a later point.
Now of course theologians rarely allow themselves to be bound to the dictionary. In theology as in many disciplines, technical definitions abound. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. We can define terms any way we like, as long as we do not thereby confuse one another. And of course there have been definitions of infallible that actually make it a weaker term than inerrancy, contrary to all the dictionary definitions we have considered. Perhaps McGowan is thinking in terms of one of those, although these usually depend on a distinction of subject matter, such as in Bloesch’s definition of inerrancy quoted earlier. But McGowan says later (105-106) that he rejects this distinction.
As I said earlier, I do not intend to address McGowan’s historical account in any detail, but I should summarize it. He tells the story of Enlightenment philosophy, rationalist and empiricist traditions brought together in Kant (52-53).18 Liberal theology followed Kant, dismissing the possibility of supernatural interference in nature, reconstructing the concept of revelation in terms of God-consciousness (Schleiermacher, 54) or value-judgments (Ritschl, 56). Troeltsch questioned the uniqueness of Scripture among the religions of the world (56). John Barton and others treated Scripture as any other human book (58-61).
Others reacted against liberal theology. McGowan notes that among the neo-orthodox who rejected the earlier liberalism there was significant discussion about inspiration, verbal inspiration, inerrancy, and so on. J. K. S. Reid thought that inerrantism was a new position in church history. He considered it bibliolatrous (64). Reid argues that Calvin did not believe in verbal inspiration or inerrancy (65-66).19 He thinks later Lutherans and Calvinists reduced the Reformation doctrine to a “literalist and rigid inerrantist position” (68). McGowan, however, observes in a footnote that Richard Muller has “effectively demonstrated the weakness and inadequacy of this view.” McGowan also expounds T. F. Torrance’s position (68-73) on science and Christianity, but it is not clear to me what this discussion contributes to the overall argument. Perhaps McGowan thinks that Torrance’s theology of science presents a significant Christian alternative to the pre-Einsteinian (and anti-supernaturalistic) views of liberalism.
Next in the historical discussion comes American conservative evangelicalism, particularly Machen and Van Til (74-82). I’m happy, again, to see Van Til included, though I disagree with McGowan at a few points.20
McGowan then summarizes the history of American fundamentalism and its view of biblical inerrancy. He is accurate, on the whole, in his account of Warfield and Hodge, of the fundamentalist movement, and of the postwar neo-evangelicalism of Carl Henry, E. J. Carnell, and others. Under “the modern inerrancy debate” (97) he discusses the Rogers-McKim critique of Warfield, including the debate over the influence of Scottish Common-Sense Realism. McGowan also mentions John Woodbridge’s critique of the Rogers-McKim position and the view of Ligon Duncan and others that Scottish Realism had little influence upon the Old Princeton view of Scripture.
In McGowan’s view, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978) was a somewhat definitive formulation, mature in its rejection of divine dictation and its embrace of textual criticism (103).
Then McGowan summarizes the three most common arguments against inerrancy among biblical scholars. (1) Some hold to the “critical paradigm” which implies that it is “intellectually impossible to believe in inerrancy” (105). McGowan replies that this paradigm is based on “Enlightenment presuppositions” that we should not accept today. (2) Others accept inerrancy for “matters of doctrine and ethics,” but believe Scripture contains “mistakes in matters of history, science, and so on, even in theautographa” (105-106). McGowan does not support this distinction (essentially that of Bloesch that I quoted earlier), citing “the difficulty of maintaining a distinction between form and content, or between those parts of Scripture without error and those not” (106). (3) Some reject the word “inerrancy,” as a term of recent origin, and “mistaken theologically.” Significantly, of the three arguments, McGowan endorses only the third.
So we should ask how, in his view, biblical inerrancy is “mistaken theologically.” McGowan lists several arguments:
1. Too many qualifications. In McGowan’s view, the doctrine of inerrancy requires too many qualifications to be useful. Many of these qualifications are spelled out in the Chicago Statement. One qualification often made is that inerrancy does not require precise numbers, e.g., in enumerating Israel’s troops. But McGowan asks, “if numbers can be inaccurate but not affect the claim to inerrancy, then when is an error an error?” (106) He adds,
One gets the clear impression that no matter what objection might be brought against the inerrantist position, it would simply be argued that this is an exception quite permissible within the terms of the definition. (106)
Here I think we need to go back to the fundamental intuition underlying the inerrantist position: Scripture is true. Now truth and precision are not the same thing, though there is some overlap between them. A certain amount of precision is often required for truth, but that amount varies from one context to another. In mathematics and science, truth often requires considerable precision. If a student says that 6+5=10, he has not told the truth. He has committed an error. If a scientist makes a measurement within .0004 cm of an actual length, he may describe that as an “error,” as in the phrase “margin of error.”
But, outside of science and mathematics, truth and precision are often much more distinct. If you ask someone’s age, the person’s conventional response (at least if the questioner is entitled to such information!) is to tell how old he was on his most recent birthday. But this is, of course, imprecise. It would be more precise to tell one’s age down to the day, hour, minute, and second.21 But would that convey more truth? And, if one fails to give that much precision, has he made an error? I think not, as we use the terms truth and error in ordinary language. If someone seeks to tell his age down to the second, we usually say that he has told us more than we want to know. The question, “What is your age?” does not demand that level of precision. Indeed, when someone gives excess information in an attempt to be more precise, he actually frustrates the process of communication, hindering rather than communicating truth. He buries his real age under a torrent of irrelevant words.
Similarly when I stand before a class and a student asks me how large the textbook is. Say that I reply “400 pages,” but the actual length is 398. Have I committed an error, or told the truth? I think the latter, for the following reasons: (a) In context, nobody expects more precision than I gave in my answer. I met all the legitimate demands of the questioner. (b) “400,” in this example, actually conveyed more truth than “398” would have. “398” most likely would have left the student with the impression of some number around 300, but “400” presented the size of the book more accurately.22
So the relation between precision and error is more complicated than McGowan pictures it. “When is an error an error?” seems to him like a very straightforward question, as if errors are always perfectly easy to identify. In fact, identifying an error requires some understanding of the linguistic context, and that in turn requires an understanding of the cultural context.23 A child who says in his math class that 6+5=10 may not expect the same tolerance as a person who gives a rough estimate of his age or a professor who exaggerates the size of a book by two pages.
We should always remember that Scripture is, for the most part,24 ordinary language rather than technical language.25 Certainly it is not of the modern scientific genre. In Scripture, God intends to speak to everybody. To do that most efficiently, he (through the human writers) engages in all the shortcuts that we commonly use among ourselves to facilitate conversation: imprecisions, metaphors, hyperbole, parables, etc. Not all of these convey literal truth, or truth with a precision expected in specialized contexts; but they all convey truth, and in the Bible there is no reason to charge them with error.
Another qualification to the doctrine of inerrancy McGowan opposes is the assertion that inerrancy is consistent with the (inerrant!) citation of erroneous sources (107-8). This qualification is controversial among defenders of inerrancy. I think that in most cases where a biblical writer cites, uses, or incorporates an extracanonical text, he makes a truth claim for that text,26 and I think that claim must be respected. I agree, then, with McGowan, that this sort of qualification should not be made in defense of inerrancy. When it is, it deserves to be criticized.
Finally, McGowan mentions the common distinction among inerrantists between “historical” (or “descriptive”) and “normative” authority. To define this distinction, he quotes Feinberg:
Historical or descriptive authority applies equally to every word of an inerrant Bible. It merely means that whatever was said or done was in fact said or done. No judgment is passed as to whether it should or should not have been said or done. Normative authority, on the other hand, not only means that what was said or done was actually so but also that it should or should not have been said or done. (107)27
Oddly, McGowan does not address specifically the issue of historical vs. normative authority, but rather turns back (108) to the earlier issue of inerrant citation of erroneous sources. I can see why someone would think that this issue illustrates the historical/normative distinction: the erroneous sources would be historically, though not normatively, authoritative. But I agreed earlier with McGowan that this is not persuasive as a qualification of inerrancy. Does that do away with the historical/normative distinction altogether?
I think not, because that distinction is relevant to many questions other than that of possible erroneous sources. There are many contexts where the Bible utters language that is not actually normative. Think of the serpent’s words to Eve in Gen. 3:1-5; Lamech’s song of vengeance in Gen. 4:23-24; the fool’s words, “there is no God” (Ps. 14:1); the boasts of the King of Babylon in Isa. 14:13-14. When we deal with such language, it is not a superfluous qualification on inerrancy to ask “does the biblical writer actually intend us to believe what this character is saying?” and sometimes to answer no. To answer no is to put the language in the category of historical, but not normative, authority. The same is true in regard to actions of biblical characters. Sometimes Scripture exhorts us to imitate Paul (as 1 Cor. 11:1) or Jesus (as Phil. 2:5). But Scripture also describes many sinful actions (even of otherwise admirable characters, like David and Peter), and it does not exhort us to imitate those. Descriptions of sinful acts may be called historically, but not normatively, authoritative.
Certainly this distinction can be abused, as a too-easy resolution of Bible problems. But it is not wrong, when a biblical writer refers to a “three story universe”28 to ask whether he actually wants his readers to believe that cosmology. This too is part of understanding ordinary language. Today, we speak regularly of the sun rising and setting, without dreaming (let alone desiring) that any of our hearers will adopt a geocentric cosmology. These are legitimate questions, not superfluous qualifications.29
So the “qualifications” of inerrancy in McGowan’s list are not ad hoc and arbitrary ways of resolving Bible difficulties, though they can be abused in that way. Rather, these qualifications are merely analysis of what it means to communicate truly in the ordinary language of human beings.30 Inerrancy claims that the Bible speaks truth, when understood in terms of such everyday language. There is nothing esoteric or technical about it. These are the criteria by which we evaluate one another’s speech all the time, and McGowan is wrong to find fault with them.
2. The autographs. Inerrantists have often said that only the original manuscript of a Scripture text, the “autograph,” is perfectly inerrant. Everyone, of course, admits that there are errors in the copies of these texts. McGowan considers this a fatal admission:
If textual inerrancy is so vital to the doctrine of Scripture, why did God not preserve the autographa or precise copies of the same? Indeed, if inerrancy only applies to the autographa (which we do not possess), then surely it is a somewhat pointless affirmation? (109)
Several questions arise here:
a. What is the biblical basis for limiting inerrancy to the autographa? As I pointed out earlier (and as McGowan neglected to say) 2 Tim. 3:16 requires the existence of a God-breathed document. Spiration applies, not only to prophets, apostles, and biblical writers, but, in 2 Tim. 3:16 (the only biblical reference to spiration), to a text. A text created by divine spiration is necessarily a true text, a perfectly true text. And as we have seen, inerrant can be used as a synonym for truth in such contexts.
But then we must ask, where is that true text to be found? Certainly at least what Ex. 31:18 describes as “the two tablets of the testimony, tables of stone, written with the finger of God” would qualify. Few would doubt that those tablets constitute an autograph, unambiguously perfect. But does God promise us that copies of those tablets will also be perfectly true? I don’t believe he does. Indeed, in Deut. 4:2 and 12:32, Moses contemplates that people will be tempted to add to or subtract from the autograph, corrupting the revelation of God.31
The point is not, of course, that only the autograph has any truth or authority. Good copies should also be respected. But if one asks the technical question, what manuscripts of Scripture are 100% inerrant, the answer has to be, the autograph.
b. What constitutes an autograph? McGowan asks,
In any case, what do we mean by autographa? Even if we affirm that Moses was the author of Deuteronomy, he clearly did not write the last chapter concerning the account of his death! In that case at least, an editor or scribe added something. Could not other books have received similar treatment? If so, which is the autographic text? Could further changes have been made to Deuteronomy much later? If so, do these scribal additions or emendations affect the status of these books as Scripture? What is the relationship between the autographic text and the versions admitted to the canon? As these questions demonstrate, a simple appeal to autographa, as made by some scholars, does not solve all of the difficulties. (109)
Good questions! One could also ask about early drafts of the four gospels, possible first drafts of Paul’s letters by amanuenses, etc. A review such as this one is not the best place to try to answer these questions, but here are some points to keep in mind: First, because of its great importance, every inspired book required some attestation to its original audience. In the case of the Ten Commandments, the tablets were attested by the prophet Moses and placed by the Ark of the Covenant. Later parts of the Books of Moses (largely by Moses, but including, as McGowan says, some editorial additions) were warranted by Moses’ prior authorization, and the Levites put them by the Ark as God’s witness (Deut. 31:24-26). Paul’s letters were attested by his distinctive signature (2 Thess. 3:17) and by Paul’s coworkers who were charged to deliver each letter. Similarly with other parts of Scripture. In some cases (especially the poetic literature in Scripture), it is difficult for us to say what kind of original certification was involved. But on any view of the matter there must have been some event or process by which the writing impressed hearers that it was the word of God. So by “autograph,” we mean the original document certified as authentic to its original readers. On this basis, at any rate, “autograph” is not a meaningless concept, invoked to salvage a flawed theological position. It is simply a term for the document that first brought God’s message to his people.
c. “…why did God not preserve the autographa or precise copies of the same?” The answer is that God has not told us why he chose not to do this. He is not obligated to tell us. But the following thoughts are, to my mind, not contrary to Scripture, and they may illuminate the question.
I think this question is a specific part of a larger question, namely, why didn’t God choose to give each individual an exhaustive, immediate, and perfect understanding of his revelation? Certainly he could have done this, overcoming the limitations of our finitude and sin. And we may understand, if not condone, the complaint that the lack of such revelation makes the Christian life more difficult. Had God given us immediate revelation of this type, we would not need to teach one another or to make long journeys to foreign countries to preach the gospel. The whole apparatus of biblical and theological scholarship need never have been created. But somehow, for his own reasons, God determined that hearing, understanding, and growing in his word would not be that easy. He determined that we would have to do some hard thinking at times, that some scholarship would be helpful.
Perhaps a large part of God’s rationale was that he intended our growth in knowledge to be a communal affair, not merely individual: fathers and mothers would teach their children; pastors would teach their congregations; scholars would teach the pastors. Our knowledge of God would be a public enterprise, not merely private.
To put this in biblical terms, this is to say that our knowledge of God is covenantal. It is the knowledge of a family, a nation, set apart to God. This covenant community is governed by written texts, as the US is governed by a written constitution. But ascertaining the meaning of those texts is a communal venture.
To say this is to say that there must be a divinely authoritative text, but there also must be a human process (Spirit-illumined, but not Spirit-inspired) to appropriate that text. Where does the divine text end and the human appropriation begin? God might have provided us, not only a perfect autograph, but also perfect copies in Hebrew and Greek, leaving to godly scribes the work of translation. Or he might have given us perfect translations in every language and left it to godly human teachers to teach these translations to us. Or he might have given a perfect understanding of the text to every duly ordained pastor, but not to every church member. God might have chosen any of these methods to create a combination of divinely authoritative revelation and finite human appropriation. But what he actually chose was to give us an inerrant autograph and to begin the finite, fallible human appropriation at that point. Will anyone fault him for making that choice?
If it implausible to imagine God spirating an autograph, but leaving the copies to human labor under the supervision of ordinary providence, then why would it not be equally implausible to imagine God spirating all the copies of the autograph, but leaving it to human beings to translate, publish, preach, and teach them? This objection would make sense on the hypothesis that divine revelation must eliminate every trace of a human factor in God’s communication with us. But nobody would claim that God intends to eliminate the human factor altogether. To suggest that he intends this, or that he ought to intend this, would violate the entire biblical picture of the relation between God’s action and human action.32
d. “What is the point of insisting that there once existed (very briefly) perfect versions of these texts, if we no longer possess them?” (109) (i) The most fundamental answer is that this doctrine honors the truth of God. If we say that God spirated a text that contains errors, we charge God himself with error. McGowan quotes Greg Bahnsen as saying that in this matter “God’s veracity is at stake” (109), but in the following discussion he does not address this point specifically. (ii) Scripture teaches, in 2 Tim. 3:16 and elsewhere, that God inspired a text.33 We have seen that this text is, first of all, the autograph. So we should insist on the existence of perfect autographs because Scripture tells us they existed. (iii) That is to say, Scripture says that it was God’s intention to provide us with an inerrant autograph and then to invite us communally to identify and appropriate it. We should acknowledge that divine plan as a good thing. (iv) The imperfections in the manuscripts we have, as many writers have observed, are very few compared with other ancient texts, are of slight importance, and do not affect any point of doctrine. So excellent are these manuscripts that it is not wrong to refer to them (as biblical writers do) as the word of God. The excellences of these texts can be traced to the original inspiration of the autograph, and because of that we should praise God for giving us the inspired autograph.
3. Textual issues. McGowan’s third reason for saying that biblical inerrancy is “theologically mistaken” is that it forces on us inappropriate ways of addressing problems in the biblical text. Faced with an apparent contradiction in the text, McGowan says,
Either they [the inerrantists] will argue that this is only an antinomy, an apparent but not real contradiction, or they will argue that if we had the autographawe would see that the problem does not exist there, only in errant manuscripts, because of errors in the copying over the centuries. (112)
McGowan ignores a third possibility, that we set the problem aside and postpone our search for an answer. We have no obligation to answer all these problems. Certainly one can affirm biblical authority and inerrancy without having such solutions. We confess the Bible as God’s word, not because we have solved all the difficulties, but because God himself (in the text) and the Spirit (in our hearts) has so identified it. McGowan appeals to the Spirit and the Word on behalf of his own view, so why should he object when the inerrantist does the same thing?
Of course, no Christian should deny that such problems exist, and for the benefit of God’s people we should do what we can to resolve these problems, as God gives us the calling and gifts to do so. McGowan mentions two types of solution that he considers illegitimate, but I can easily think of cases in which they would be entirely proper. (a) Sometimes, certainly, the problematic texts are indeed apparent, but not real contradictions—as when Paul in Gal. 6:2 says “Bear one another’s burdens,” and then in verse 5 says “each will have to bear his own load.”34 (b) It is certainly not impossible that some problems in our present texts are the result of textual corruption. If a passage says A and B, and these appear to contradict, it is always possible that the original text contained A, but not B, or vice versa.
These strategies of resolution are used, not only by inerrantists, but by many others who try to interpret the Bible responsibly. The alternatives would seem to be (a) accepting every apparent contradiction as a real contradiction (b) denying that textual criticism ever sheds light on a problem. It is hard to believe that McGowan or anyone else would recommend such irrational and self-defeating methodology.
Of course, both of these methods can be abused. Sometimes attempts to reconcile apparent discrepancies are hugely implausible (one thinks of the assertion of some that Peter must have denied Jesus six times), and appeals to textual corruption can be an asylum of ignorance, unless actual evidence of textual corruption exists. Often it is better to leave these problems unanswered. And it is almost always wrong to insist dogmatically on a particular reconciliation. But it is equally wrong to insist dogmatically that an error exists, granting that there are always possible ways in which the problem could be solved, if we had more information.35
On the whole, I believe that evangelicals have discussed such matters responsibly, willing to admit when they have been uncertain. McGowan evidently disagrees. But I don’t believe he has shown, or can show, that failures to resolve such problems prove inerrancy to be theologically mistaken. Inerrantism is not based on the claim that all apparent discrepancies can be resolved. It is based on the biblical teaching that God has given us an inspired text.
4. The inerrantist position is rationalistic. Judging from the style of outline and typeface he employs, McGowan evidently considers this argument to be more fundamental than those treated above. He says,
The inerrantists make an unwarranted assumption about God. The assumption is that, given the nature and character of God, the only kind of Scripture he could ‘breathe out’ was Scripture that is textually inerrant. (113)
McGowan grants that God is able to deliver an inerrant text, but he refuses to accept the notion that God “is unable to produce anything other than an inerrant autographic text.”
He argues first that inerrancy is “not a biblical doctrine, but rather an implication from another doctrine” (115), I presume the doctrine that God cannot speak untruth. That inerrancy is an implication of other doctrines should not be a problem for one who subscribes to the Westminster Confession of Faith, 1.6:
The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture…
In the minds of the Westminster Divines, the deductions or implications of biblical doctrines have the same authority as those doctrines themselves. Of course the deduction must be correct (i.e., “good and necessary”). There is room for error here. But there is also room for error in formulating those doctrines that are explicitly scriptural. If inerrancy is indeed an inference from other doctrines, that is not in itself a criticism of it.
I indicated earlier, however, that inerrancy is not merely an inference. For “inerrancy” is only another word for “truth.” And that God’s word is always true or truth is not merely an inference. It is an explicit teaching of the Bible.
But McGowan’s complaint is not only that inerrancy is an inference. The point of his concern is that it is an inference from a false premise, namely that God cannot inspire an erroneous text.
He thinks this premise comes from the rationalistic mindset of such writers as Hodge and Warfield. I agree with McGowan that Hodge carried the analogy between science and theology too far, and that he stressed the propositional character of Scripture at the expense of its other functions of its language (address, challenge, encouragement, etc.) (116) I think McGowan goes too far, however, when he says that Hodge made Scripture “into something cold and clinical, which we possess and which we manipulate” (117).36 Thankfully, McGowan admits that not all inerrantists do this.
He does say that inerrancy “limits God” (118) by assuming that “God must conform to the canons of human reason.”37 How, then, did God inspire the Scriptures? The following sentence is central to the position of McGowan’s book:
God the Holy Spirit breathed out the Scriptures. The instruments of this divine spiration were certain human beings. The resulting Scriptures are as God intended them to be. Having chosen, however, to use human beings rather than a more direct approach (e.g. writing the words supernaturally on stone without human involvement, as with the Ten Commandments), God did not overrule their humanity. (118)
Then on the next page,
We might sum this up by saying that the autographa (if we could view them) might very well look just like our existing manuscripts, including all of the difficulties, synoptic issues, discrepancies and apparent contradictions, because that is what God intended. (119)
McGowan’s central thesis, then, is that God can and does “breathe out” errors as well as truths. To say he cannot do this, McGowan thinks, is rationalistic. He asks, if God can communicate through preaching without making the preacher inerrant, why can’t he do the same with Scripture? (118)
Here I must sharply disagree. Please note:
1. To breathe out words is to speak. To say that God breathes out errors is to say that he speaks errors. That is biblically impossible. God does not lie (Tit. 1:2), and he does not make mistakes (Heb. 4:12). So he speaks only truth.
2. As we have seen, inerrancy is not just an inference, certainly not a rationalistic inference, but an explicit teaching of Scripture: for to say that Scripture is inerrant is to say that it is true.
3. So inerrancy is not a human judgment about what God cannot do. It rather accepts God’s own judgment that he cannot lie or err, and it accepts God’s own account of what he has given us in Scripture.
4. God can communicate with us in non-inerrant ways, such as preaching: indeed, not only preaching (as McGowan says on 118), but also through teaching, songs, drama and many other ways.38 But Christians have always admitted that Scripture has an authority greater than any of these, including preaching. Scripture is the standard that governs preaching.
5. If there are errors in the autographa, then we can no longer claim that there is such a thing as a text breathed out by God.
6. If there are errors in the autographa, then it is unclear why we should look to Scripture as our supreme divine authority, rather than preaching or some other form of communication that God providentially directs.
7. The notion that the written word contains errors is incompatible, not only with 2 Tim. 3:16, but with a vast amount of other biblical data: consider the authority of the (written) statutes and ordinances in Deuteronomy, the praise of the written word in Ps. 19:7-11 and Ps. 119, the ways in which Jesus and the apostles cited the Old Testament, and the claims of the apostles for their own written words, as 1 Cor. 14:37. These and other data have been explored in great depth in the inerrantist literature. It is unfortunate that McGowan largely ignores it.
8. McGowan evidently regards his position as more conservative than Rogers/McKim, because he rejects their distinction between infallible religious content and non-infallible secular content. I am happy that he rejects that distinction. But in one sense he is less conservative than they. Rogers/McKim believed at least that the religious content of Scripture was inerrant. McGowan rejects inerrancy in both religious and secular subject-matter. For him, we should always remember, there is no inerrancy at all, not even in religious, theological, or doctrinal areas. In my view, this leaves the church at sea.
McGowan wants to present to us a positive view of Scripture, not only a critique of inerrancy. His positive view he associates with the term infallibility. The term infallibility has a longer history than the term inerrancy, and McGowan offers it to us as designating “an older and better way to defend a ‘high’ view of Scripture“(123).
As I pointed out earlier, McGowan never presents a definition of infallibility or precisely distinguishes the meaning of the word from that of inerrancy. Certainly he does not defer to the dictionary definitions of these terms that I discussed earlier. As I mentioned then, he does formulate an “argument” for infallibility that may imply a definition:
The argument for ‘infallibility’ is that the final authority for the Christian is the authority of God speaking in and through his Word and that the Holy Spirit infallibly uses God’s Word to achieve all he intends to achieve (49).
But in view of our discussion of inerrancy, we must understand that “the authority of God speaking in and through his Word” may include his speaking errors, according to McGowan. As to the clause about the Holy Spirit, I certainly agree with McGowan that the Spirit does use the Word in that way. But the Spirit uses everything “to achieve all he intends to achieve,” so this statement does not say anything distinctive about Scripture. Again, McGowan’s view seems to be that the Spirit’s work in Scripture is one of ordinary divine providence. There are no special qualities in the text.
McGowan should have considered more carefully the differences between spiration and general providence. Van Til’s Christian Apologetics is a book I respect deeply, and I think McGowan does too. I don’t think it is wrong to say that God speaks to me through that book. That book is general revelation, like all of God’s creation, and it also conveys the truth of Christ, which is something more than general revelation. And certainly the Holy Spirit is involved when I read Van Til’s book. He certainly, infallibly, uses the book to achieve all he intends to achieve. Do these facts make Van Til’s book infallible, in McGowan’s definition? What of other books, like Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics? The fact is that McGowan’s quasi-definition of infallible fails to make any distinction between Scripture and other books.
Other theologians have had similar problems identifying what is distinctive to Scripture. I could make the same criticism of Barth, Moltmann, G. C. Berkouwer, N. T. Wright,40 and Peter Enns.41 But McGowan claims to have a “higher” view of Scripture than such authors, and so his failure adequately to present the uniqueness of Scripture is especially disappointing.
In his discussion of “Infallibility,” McGowan does not add anything much to the clarity of his proposal. Here he reverts to historical analysis, comparing his position to various theologians. As we have seen, he is critical of Berkouwer and Rogers/McKim (124-25) and of the Old Princeton tradition (125-26). He believes that his own view is different from both, akin to the views of James Orr and Herman Bavinck.
I don’t quite understand why he brings Orr into it, except perhaps to honor a fellow Scot. He disagrees with Orr on the content/form distinction, which he also criticizes in Berkouwer and in Rogers/McKim (136). He also disagrees (as I do) with Orr’s view of “degrees of inspiration.” What positive idea does Orr contribute to the discussion? Most likely the following is foremost in McGowan’s mind:
Like Orr, I think it is wrong to prejudge the nature of the Scriptures through some deductivist approach, based on what we believe inspiration must mean, given God’s character. (136)
McGowan thinks inerrantism is deductivist; earlier in this review, I argued otherwise. Inerrantism judges the nature of the Scriptures from what Scripture says about itself and from what it says about God’s character.
McGowan’s main hero, however, is Herman Bavinck. McGowan thinks that Bavinck rejected inerrancy and embraced what McGowan calls infallibility. But in all of McGowan’s long discussion, he does not in my view point out anything in Bavinck that Warfield would have disagreed with. There are differences of emphasis, but I think nothing of substance.
McGowan points out that Bavinck (1) rejected natural theology while embracing general revelation, (2) held to an “organic” relation between word and fact in revelation, (3) acknowledged both divine and human authorship of Scripture42 (4) emphasizes the testimony of the Holy Spirit, (5) places inspiration within the broader context of revelation, (6) organic inspiration: God using all the human qualities of the writers in his spirating of Scripture, (7) inspiration (contra-Berkouwer) is not limited to doctrine and ethics, as opposed to other areas of science. Again, I would say there is nothing here that any inerrantist would object to.
It is significant that McGowan produces no evidence in Bavinck of agreement with McGowan’s own most distinctive positions. Bavinck never says that God can speak errors, or that there can be errors in the Bible.
McGowan does quote Bavinck in a way that suggests otherwise:
He [Bavinck] goes so far as to say that ‘the guidance of the Holy Spirit promised to the church does not exclude the possibility of human error.’43 Such a claim could never be made by an inerrantist.
This appeal to Bavinck is terribly misleading, bordering on slander. In the context quoted, Bavinck is not talking about biblical inspiration at all, but rather about God’s guidance of the church in the formulation of dogma. His point is familiar to Protestants, that church theologians, even councils and synods, sometimes err. It has nothing to do with the question of how God inspires Scripture.
It is true that Bavinck does not speak directly of biblical inerrancy (so far as I can tell), and that he does not distinguish in authority between autographa and copies. In part, this difference owes to the fact that Bavinck worked in a continental theological context and was not familiar with American developments. And it is not irrelevant that he wrote his Dogmatics in Dutch, while Hodge and Warfield wrote in English. But I know of no passage in Bavinck that contradicts the doctrine of autographal inerrancy. I think McGowan would have shown us such a passage if it existed, and he has not. And my own study does not reveal anything like this either.
I think the main issues related to McGowan’s view of biblical “infallibility” are now on the table. I shall not take the time here to discuss his views of Calvin, Kuyper, Berkouwer, and others.
Scripture and Confession
We have discussed the main thrust of McGowan’s view of Scripture. I shall not spend as much time on the last two chapters, on Confession and Preaching. I consider them less controversial. Indeed, I agree with them in large measure.
McGowan opposes those who reject confessions altogether in the name of “Scripture alone” (166-68), and those who use the vagueness of confessional subscription formulae to reject basic principles of the Reformed faith (168-171). He also rejects the “strong confessionalism” that makes the confessions equal to Scripture (173-5). Then he argues the need for a more sophisticated understanding of the relation of Scripture and tradition (175-187).
The only troubling thing to me in this discussion is McGowan’s reference toward the end (187) to Barth’s The Theology of the Reformed Confessions.44 McGowan says that he was
…challenged by [Barth’s] argument that the Westminster Confession of Faith heralds a departure from earlier creedal and confessional statements in that its main preoccupation is not with God but with personal salvation and the doctrine of assurance. Barth goes so far as to suggest that it represents an attempt ‘to make Reformed theology into anthropology’. Whether or not one agrees with his whole argument, it clearly deserves serious consideration.
“Not with God??” “Makes Reformed theology into anthropology??” I am not one who regards the Westminster Confession as infallible, or as the final word on anything. But in my judgment these statements of Barth are preposterous. Certainly they do not deserve “serious consideration.” I hope that there aren’t too many of us who will be “challenged” by Barth’s argument.
The final section of McGowan’s book deals with preaching. We recall that earlier in the book (118) McGowan used preaching as an example of a word of God that is not inerrant.45 Here, he favors preaching that is based on Scripture, systematic, doctrinal, applied to the needs of people. Hard to argue against that.
McGowan concludes with a summary of his argument and discusses three possible objections to his position. The last two of these I have already discussed. The first, I find perplexing: The question arises, “If the Bible is not inerrant, how can we believe what it says?” (210) He replies that this question is inappropriate. He opposes inerrancy, but he is not arguing for biblical errancy. “We can,” he says, “believe what the Bible says because God gave us the Scriptures and he does not deceive.” But if God speaks erroneous words, how can we escape the conclusion that he deceives us?
That pretty much sums up my own problems with McGowan’s view of spiration. McGowan clearly implies that God’s speech, his spiration, includes errors. But this is contrary to Scripture’s evaluation of God’s character and of his word. God is truth. He never deceives nor is deceived. The written word is his own speech, and that word also is true.
I would recommend that McGowan give much more attention to the effects of divine spiration on the text of Scripture. So far as I can tell, McGowan regards that text as like any other human book. It is spirated, but that spiration does not make it true. I confess that this absence of attention to the nature of the text seems to be a trend in evangelical theology these days. The same serious flaw, in my judgment, occurs in N. T. Wright’s The Last Word46 and in Peter Enns, Inspiration and Incarnation47. I hope that future writings in this field will discuss this important issue.
1 See, for example, McGowan, ed., Always Reforming (Leicester: Apollos (IVP), 2006.
2 As I have argued elsewhere, I don’t find much value in theological arguments about emphasis or focus. For one thing, it is impossible for a theological writing to reproduce the focus or emphasis of Scripture. Theology is not Scripture. It varies from Scripture in word, structure, and emphasis, in order better to communicate Scriptural truth. For another thing, it is odd to say that God must be mentioned first if we are to place proper emphasis on him. The Book of Genesis does begin, of course, with a reference to God, at least to an action of his. The book of Exodus, however, doesn’t mention God until verse 1:21. Does this fact betray an improper emphasis? The book of Esther doesn’t mention God at all. Is there some evil in that? There is, I think, a certain woodenness in McGowan’s theological methodology at this point.
3 This emphasis is particularly evident in Van Til’s A Christian Theory of Knowledge, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, and The Protestant Doctrine of Scripture.
4 Van Til also, contrary to McGowan, defends the view that the ultimate authoritative text is to be found in the autographa or original manuscripts of Scripture. See Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Privately published, 1974), 153.
5 I have, however, chosen the same procedure as McGowan in my Salvation Belongs to the Lord (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2006) and in my seminary systematics course. But I justify my approach for its pedagogical value, not because of any theological necessity.
6 I’m reminded of the jest of George Gobel, “I can’t say that I was overwhelmed. And I really can’t say that I was underwhelmed, either. Let’s just say I was whelmed.”
7 “Apart from,” “in abstraction from,” “separated from,” etc. are favorite expressions of theologians but usually too vague to shed any clarity on a discussion. Here, I guess the expression would mean that Scripture would have no authority unless God had chosen to inspire it and to move believers to recognize it.
8 He thinks that illumination usually means an illumination of the text of Scripture. In my judgment, the theological literature more often uses the term to refer to an illumination of the mind. But I would agree that McGowan’s term recognition is less ambiguous.
9 On 46 he opposes truth to emotion in a way that I would dispute, but to discuss this issue would take us too far afield.
10 I think this is especially important in our present theological context. Modern theologians often reject the idea that inspiration/spiration confers any special qualities on the biblical text.
11 Perspicuity, of course, is a ten-dollar word for clarity.
12 McGowan here quotes Bloesch, Holy Scripture: Revelation, Inspiration and Interpretation (Downers Grove: IVP, 1994), 107.
13 Orr, Revelation and Inspiration (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1969; originally printed 1910), 199.
14 Boston, NY: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2000).
15 Ibid., 695.
16 Ibid., 695. Something like the second definition is sometimes invoked in discussions of Scripture. Taken literally, it encompasses the first, since erring is a kind of failure. Certainly it cannot be invoked as an alternative to the first, as some may want to do.
17 Ibid., 695.
18 I have a few disagreements with his account here and there. I’m inclined to think, for example, that he exaggerates Hume’s skepticism. Hume did not think of himself as rejecting cause and effect (52), but only as denying the “necessary connection” between them. And it is probably not best to equate Kant’s phenomenal realm with the “real” world (53). The phenomenal world is, after all, only phenomenal, for Kant, and the noumenal is the realm of things in themselves.
19 Again, I am not going to take much time with this historical account of the inerrancy discussion, but I should say that some of Reid’s arguments, as McGowan presents them, make no sense to me. To say, for example, that Calvin does not “identify the Holy Spirit with the Word of God” (66) certainly has no bearing on whether or not Calvin believed in inerrancy. Does Reid honestly think that the fundamentalist, or any party to the discussion, identifies the Spirit with the Word?
20 I don’t think it is accurate to say that Van Til rejected “any point of contact in the natural man” (79). Van Til said that there is indeed a point of contact, namely the knowledge of God that unregenerate man has, but suppresses. Further, although McGowan’s parallels between Van Til and Torrance are interesting, it is important also to point out the vast differences between Van Til’s theology of Scripture and Torrance’s Barthian understanding.
21 Even that would be somewhat imprecise. What of milleseconds and nanoseconds? Of course, when one tries to give his age that precisely, he finds his age has changed before he gets the words out of his mouth! So in this case absolute precision is impossible in principle.
22 One notes that grocery and department stores often take advantage of this psychological quirk in their shoppers, by pricing goods at $3.98 or $398, rather than at $4.00 or $400. The first digit of the number makes a far greater impression than the others.
23 In debates about Scripture, those who oppose inerrancy often charge those who defend it with ignorance of culture and the dynamics of language. In this case, however, the shoe is clearly on the other foot.
24 I qualify this statement merely out of abstract scholarly caution, not because I have any actual exceptions in mind.
25 It is interesting that liberals often complain that conservatives read the Bible as a “textbook of science,” imagining it to address the technical issues of modern life. Sometimes that sort of criticism is fair. But both parties should recognize that it is the genius of the inerrantist position to see the Bible asordinary language, subject to ordinary, not technical, standards of truth. So here, as in the matter mentioned in the previous note, the shoe is on the other foot.
26 There are some obvious exceptions, such as Paul’s citations from letters sent to him by the Corinthians or the letter possibly alluded to in 2 Thess. 2:2. But in these contexts the apostle clearly tells us the truth value of these documents.
27 McGowan quotes Feinberg’s article in Norman L. Geisler, Inerrancy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1979), 297-298. Interestingly, Herman Bavinck, who McGowan places before us as an advocate of his view, clearly distinguishes between “descriptive and prescriptive authority,” though he warns against abuses of this distinction. See Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 459-461.
28 Note McGowan’s reference to Gerstner on 107.
29 Again, I think it evident that it is McGowan, not his inerrantist opponents, who has the less sophisticated understanding of how language operates.
30 Critics regularly castigate inerrantists for neglecting the “human side” of Scripture, the contribution of the human writers. In this case, it is the inerrantists who better understand the humanity of Scripture. And once we have understood the human side in this way, we discover that it fits together with the divine nature of Scripture very comfortably indeed. When we construe Scripture as ordinary human language, we discover that it is at the same time divinely true.
31 Now of course there are many ways of “adding to” and “subtracting from” God’s word. Usually we use these expressions in regard to teaching: e.g., some teachers, like the Pharisees in Matt. 15:6-9 add to the word of God by claiming ultimate authority for their traditions. But it is also possible to add to the word by adding our own ideas to a manuscript of Scripture, or to subtract from it by removing something, i.e. by corrupting the text. Often, of course, textual corruption is not intentional. But Deut. 4:2 and 12:32 are clear that the authority of God resides in the text as God has given it, not in any changes made by human copiers.
32 As in previous comments, I would point out that here it is the inerrantists, not their opponents, who have a clearer and more biblical grasp of the nature of the human factor in the revelatory process.
33 Readers should notice a continuing theme in this review of emphasis on the text. I believe it is McGowan’s chief error to ignore the bearing of inspiration/spiration on the text of Scripture.
34 As McGowan implies, it certainly is true that on the inerrantist view there are no real contradictions. Nobody should be surprised, then, that when an inerrantist deals with an apparent contradiction he concludes that it is only apparent. Why does McGowan imagine that there is something wrong with this? Evidently, he here begins with the assumption that Scripture is not inerrant. On that assumption, but only on that assumption, it would be wrong to conclude that all contradictions are apparent.
35 Inerrantists have often made the claim that nobody has succeeded in proving the existence of an error in Scripture. Of course, to some extent this is a circular claim: once we assume inerrancy, we must logically believe that no errors have been proven to exist. But to an extent this claim is also based on the great difficulty of proving error in Scripture: to do that, one must prove the negative proposition that no solution can possibly be found. McGowan acknowledges the validity of this point at the top of 137.
36 The “possess” and “manipulate” rhetoric comes from Barth, Bultmann, and other dialectical theologians. Frankly, I think it amounts to a slander against evangelicals. In any case, I think the dialectical theologians are as guilty of trying to possess and manipulate Scripture to suit their purposes as any evangelicals have been. Trying to possess or manipulate Scripture is a moral and spiritual issue. It is a heart attitude affecting our use of Scripture. I do not believe we should charge someone with such a sinful attitude simply because of his doctrinal formulations. People can be guilty of this sin no matter what view of Scripture they hold. I do think, however, that inerrantism discourages this sin, as no other view does. For it exhorts us to place ourselves fully under God’s written word, not to find fault with it or try to master it.
37 Small editorial faux pas: the sentence inserts “does” before “must.”
38 We should add general revelation to this list. God can communicate with us through the starry heavens and the grassy fields, and through our own nature as the image of God.
39 I pass over McGowan’s discussion of the “incarnational analogy” (119-121), evidently motivated by the controversy over Peter Enns’ Inspiration and Incarnation (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005). There is not much difference between McGowan’s position and mine in this regard. My own review of Enns’ book can be found at https://frame-poythress.org/frame_articles/2008Enns.htm.
40 See my review of his The Last Word, https://frame-poythress.org/frame_articles/2006Wright.html.
41 See my review of his Inspiration and Incarnation, https://frame-poythress.org/frame_articles/2008Enns.htm.
42 Here McGowan points out that for Bavinck “if we find passages that are in apparent contradiction, we must not try to force them into some artificial agreement” (149). Evidently McGowan thinks that inerrancy requires us to force texts to agree in this way. In my view, some inerrantists (and some noninerrantists) have been guilty of this, but this is by no means required by the doctrine of inerrancy. Cf. my earlier discussion to the effect that it is perfectly legitimate for an inerrantist to set such problems aside until a non-artificial resolution becomes apparent.
43 He quotes Bavinck, op. cit., 32.
44 Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002.
45 In my judgment, when the Second Helvetic Confession, I, says that “the preaching of the Word of God is the Word of God” it means, not that the sermon as a sermon is divinely inspired, but rather that what the sermon preaches, the Scripture, does not cease in that context to be the word of God. It says, “the Word itself which is preached is to be regarded, not the minister that preaches; for even if he be evil and a sinner, nevertheless the Word of God remains still true and good.”
46 See my review of his The Last Word, https://frame-poythress.org/frame_articles/2006Wright.html.
47 See my review of his Inspiration and Incarnation, https://frame-poythress.org/frame_articles/2008Enns.htm.