Monday, July 21, 2008

The Divine Spiration of Scripture by A. T. B. McGowan (Book Review: Part 3)

Infallibility, confession, preaching, conclusion
So, if McGowan is unhappy with the concept of biblical inerrancy [see Part 2], what does he propose in its place? He devotes a chapter to Infallibility: An Evangelical Alternative. He argues that it is possible to maintain a high view of Scripture without opting for either inerrancy or errancy. He seeks to prove his case by reference to three Reformed theologians, James Orr, Herman Bavinck and C. K. Berkhouer. The Scottish theologian James Orr was a contributor to the Fundamentals series. But rather strangely, he did not believe in biblical inerrancy and advocated the view that there are degrees of inspiration in Scripture. Orr also suggested that God did not keep the human authors of Scripture from including the defects of their sources in the biblical writings. While McGowan rejects Orr's position on degrees of inspiration, he applauds his general approach. Next, the author turns his attention to Bavinck. He has many helpful things to say about the theologian's doctrine of Scripture. Bavinck stressed the importance of the human authors of the Bible and rejected a mechanical dictation theory of inspiration. He placed Scripture in the context of God's self-revelation and gave due weight to the testimony of the Spirit. So far so good. But McGowan also tries to demonstrate that Bavinck rejected inerrancy in favour of infallibility. It is difficult for me to offer a thorough assesment of this thesis. I haven't yet read all that Bavinck has to say on the the doctrine of Scripture, as I've only just taken delivery of the full set of his Reformed Dogmatics. But I did take the trouble to check the context of one of McGowan's Bavinck quotes,
"Aspects of Scripture that the inerrantists 'explain away' pose no problem for Bavinck. He 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.' Such a claim could never be made by an inerrantist." (p. 158).
The Bavinck citation is from page 32 of Reformed Dogmatics Volume 1, Baker Academic, 2003. In context, the theologian is not talking about Scripture at all. He is discussing church dogma. The full quote reads thus,
"In Catholic theology there is thus room left for the question of how far the truth of God has found fully adequate expression in the church's dogma. On the basis of Protestant assumptions, however, this is much more the case, for here the guidance of the Holy Spirit does not exclude the possibility of human error."
As a convinced 'inerrantist' I have no problems whatsoever with that statement. I can't think of any responsible advocate of biblical inerrancy who believes the Holy Spirit guarantees that church dogma is inerrant. McGowan's use of this quote to bolster his position on biblical inerrancy (or the lack of it) is seriously misleading. Bavinck's doctrine of Scripture is rich, nuanced and would repay careful study. But as far as I'm concerned, McGowan in no way succeeds in pitting the Dutch theologian against Warfield on inerrancy. Later in the chapter McGowan reflects on Bavinck's approach, "He was a model of careful and thorough scholarship, showing a determination to understand the views of other theologians properly." (p. 164). Would that McGowan had followed Bavinck's model more carefully himself!
McGowan concludes his foray into historical theology by saying that Berkhouwer's doctrine of Scripture, which is often regarded as Barth-influenced, is actually close to that of Bavinck. He argues that although Berkhouer rejected inerrancy, it is possible to come to a "generous assessment of his position" (p. 162) when put in the context of Dutch Reformed theology.
McGowan's proposals on infallibility underline the value of the human side of Scripture. We must not belittle that fact the Scripture is God's Word to human beings through human beings. The theologian rightly stresses the importance of the witness of the Spirit in relation to Scripture. It is also good to be reminded that God is able to use his Word as it is now to fulfill his purposes, even though the autographa are no longer extant. But in denying that Scripture as originally given was verbally inerrant, McGowan has severed the link between the all knowing God who cannot lie, and his self-revelation in Scripture. If Scripture fails to fully reflect the identity of its divine author, how can we stake our eternal destinies on its promises? (See Is Inerrancy Unbiblical, Rationalistic and Presumptuous? by Martin Downes).
Before the book concludes, McGowan has some helpful things to say regarding Scripture and confessions of faith and Scripture and preaching. He suggests that evangelicals need to work on a constructive account of the relationship between Scripture and church tradition. He rejects both the Roman Catholic view that tradition stands alongside Scripture and the Orthodox position that subsumes the Bible in it's traditions. He also discounts two extreme Protestant views on the value of confessions of faith. One more or less ignores confessional statements in the name of 'freedom of conscience' in order to justify heretical teachings. The other makes confessional subscription so 'tight' that reformation of church confessions in the light of Scripture becomes impossible. McGowan argues that confessions must be valued as faithful expressions of biblical doctrine. But they should be subjected to constant scrutiny, and where necessary revised as the Spirit gives new insight into the meaning of Scripture. Confessions should also be regularly updated to reflect contemporary concerns. The great seventeenth century documents such as the Westminster Confession of Faith do not address issues like theological liberalism or religious pluralism. McGowan notes that the Theological Commission of the World Reformed Fellowship is currently engaged writing a new statement of faith for the twenty first century. A penultimate chapter, Preaching Scripture commends John Calvin's practice of the systematic exposition of the Word of God. McGowan writes, "The [Minister's] task is to expound Scripture and this should have a central place in worship. It should also be accompanied by much prayer, in recognition of our dependence upon the work of the Holy Spirit," (p. 206). Well, I can say 'amen' to that at least.
There is much that is valuable and thought provoking in The Divine Spiration of Scripture. When speaking about biblical inerrancy we do need to guard against minimising the humanness of Scripture. We also need to stress that God has not simply given us an inerrant Book and left us to get on with the business of interpreting it as we see fit. We must give careful heed to what God is saying through the Scriptures by his Spirit. But we can take all that on board without abandoning the idea that the Bible is without error. However, the standard formula that Scripture is inerrant as originally given in the autographa needs to be qualified a little. As McGowan points out, the original autographa of Deuteronomy presumably did not include Chapter 34. The autographa of Jermemiah was destroyed by king Jehoiakim, and had to be rewritten 'with many similar words added'. Perhaps it would be better to say that the autographa as found in their final canonical form were without error. That would take into account editorial additions such as Deuteronomy 34 and Jeremiah's rewrite. Evangelical perspectives on Scripture certainly need to be challenged, but McGowan's rejection of inerrancy is a step too far. In reading the book, I sometimes got the impression that he was overly keen to avoid some of the standard Barthian critiques of the evangelical doctrine of Scripture. He certainly seems of offer a very sympathetic reading of the views of Barth and Berkhouwer. One slighty strange feature of this work is McGowan's attempt to turn the inerrancy debate into the theological equivalent of golf's Ryder Cup with plucky European infallibists battling it out against uppity American inerrantists. But this doesn't really work. McGown has failed to show that Bavinck had probelms with inerrancy and I know of plenty European theologians who affirm that the Bible is God's inerrant Word .
In his conclusion McGowan summarises the main themes of his book and tries to anticipate the critique of his proposals on inerrancy. He reveals that on reading the book in manuscript form, a friend warned him of the danger of being 'on thin ice' (p. 210). This is true and we would be unwise to follow McGowan onto the 'thin ice' where he denies that the Bible is God's inerrant Word. The inerrancy of Scripture should be one of the fundamental presuppositions of an authentically Reformed theology. God is there. He has spoken. His word is truth from beginning to end. It is this Word that truly, faithfully and without error bears witness to Jesus Christ, the Saviour of the Word. I conclude this review series with the words of Reformed theologian Donald Macleod,
"I believe in the inerrancy of the Bible. Why? Not because I am unaware of current trends in Biblical studies or even because I can vindicate the Bible against all the objections adduced by historians, scientists and literary critics. My belief in inerrancy arises from loyalty to Christ. He said, 'The Scripture cannot be broken'. This position - the fundamentalist position, if you wish - is not bibliolatry. It is Christiolatry. It is an act of devotion to the One we regard as a teacher sent by God". (From Glory to Golgotha, Christian Focus, 2002, p. 153). [Part 1, Part 2]


Andrew and Carolyn said...

A good conclusion, Guy, and a fair-minded assessment of McGowan's overall thesis. Your fuller quotation of Bavinck highlights the serious weaknesses inherent in the approach of the book.

Thanks for your insights on this issue.

Exiled Preacher said...

Thanks for your encouragement. McGowan's misuse of Bavinck was really quite disturbing.

Anonymous said...


I have read these three meticulously written articles very carefully. I have found them helpful.

Thank you.

A pouring forth of your heart I think.

David Mackereth

Exiled Preacher said...

Thanks David. You see, I'm not a crypto-Barthian after all!

Augustinian Successor said...

Yes, the articles on McGowan have been meticulously written, and reflectly a scholarly approach towards objectivity, and are very helpful.

Grosey's Messages said...

yes I must agree.. thank you for your very thoughtful and helpful critique..
I enjoyed my first Bavink in 1982.. and long for the rest..
I like what RC Sproul says.. God is infallible, therefore scripture is inerrant.

Anonymous said...

good review

vpalenyy said...

Very helpful indeed. Thank you for your effort, it is much appreciated (as some have already stated above).

vpalenyy said...

Thank you for a helpful review. You effort has not gone in vain, but is much appreciated (as some have already stated above). Keep up the good work.