Is the Bible inerrant?
Now we come to McGowan's controversial proposal that evangelicals abandon biblical 'inerrancy' in favour of 'infallibility'. Before he tackles the subject head on, McGowan sketches the historical context in which evangelicals first used the language of biblical inerrancy. On a chapter on The Enlightenment and Liberal Theology
, he shows that liberalism capitulated to the anti-supernatural mindset of the Enlightenment. This had an impact on how theologians viewed the Bible. Schleiermacher, the father of liberal theology taught rather than being God's authoritative self-revelation, the Bible is an expression of man's consciousness of the divine. Soon the Bible was subjected to radical criticism. It's portrayal of Jesus as the miracle working Son of God who died for sinners and rose from the dead was questioned. How could men and women in the age of the light bulb accept that Jesus walked on water? The Bible's cosmology, history, theology and ethics were all subjected to critical appraisal in the light of 'modern knowledge' and 'the assured results of scholarship'. McGowan details two differing responses to the challenge of liberalism. First the neo-orthodoxy. Karl Barth became disillusioned with liberal theology. Over and against liberalism which tended to collapse God's existence into human consciousness of the divine, Barth emphasized the "Godness of God". God is wholly other and we can only know him because he has revealed himself to us in Jesus the living Word. For Barth, Scripture is a witness to the Word of God, but it is not to be completely identified with the Word of God. The Bible only becomes
God's Word in an event of divine self-disclosure. Next McGowan charts the conservative evangelical response to liberal theology. Biblical scholar J. Gresham Machen insisted that liberalism is a different religion to genuine Christianity. He stressed the authority of Scripture and defended the Bible's account of of salvation from sin by the Lord Jesus Christ. Cornelius Van Til challenged philosophical assumptions of liberalism. He argued that epistemology must begin with God's self-revelation in Scripture, rather than man's autonomous reason.
It is important for McGowan's case that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy was developed in the heat of the battle for the Bible between liberal and evangelical theologians. This is brought into sharp focus in the next chapter on Fundamentalism and Inerrancy. It fell to Princeton Theologians B. B. Warfield and A. A. Hodge to give classic expression to the the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. In an article entitled 'Inspiration' in the Presbyterian Review (1881), they argued that due to the superintendence of God, the original manuscripts of the biblical books, or the autographa were without error. As far as the two theologians were concerned, they were not being innovatory here. They were simply setting forth the historic Christian view of Scripture in the face of the challenge from liberal theology. The word 'inerrancy' was not used in the article, but the key idea that the Bible is errorless was clearly explained and defended. Warfield went on to write several major essays on the doctrine of Scripture.
McGowan goes on to tell the story of fundamentalism. A series of volumes entitled The Fundamentals were published from 1910 to 1915. Each book sought to defend a key Christian doctrine that was under attack from liberal theology. But what began with a series of books soon became a distinct fundamentalist movement. Fundamentalists were extremely hostile to liberalism. They held tenaciously to the inerrancy of Scripture, but they tended to verge on the dictation theory of biblical inspiration. They were often quite anti-intellectual and held scholarship in suspicion. Many tried to avoid issues of textual criticism by holding that the Textus Receputs upon which the King James Version of the Bible is based is without error. Some even believed that the 1611 KJV translation is the inerrant Word of God. Warfield and others in the Reformed tradition may have disagreed with the way in which fundamentalists gave expression to their doctrine of Scripture. But there was basic agreement that inerrancy reflects the Bible's own self-witness and that this has been the default position of the historic Christian church.
This was called into question by Rogers and McKim. They argued that the 'Central Christian Tradition' including the early Church Fathers and Reformers such as Luther and Calvin did not advocate the inerrancy of Scripture. Warfield and others were led to develop this new approach because of their adherence to Scottish Common Sense Philosophy. It has pointed out that liberals too held to Common Sense Philosophy, so that in itself does not prove anything. The Princeton theologians set forth the doctrine of Scripture with fresh precision, making it clear that the Bible is God's inerrant Word. It often happens that false teaching causes the church to state its doctrine with greater clarity and force. McGowan notes that the proposals of Rogers and McKim have been discussed and found wanting by a number of serious scholars. He does not endorse their point of view. But neither is he happy with the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.
So, what is McGowan's problem with inerrancy? He takes issue with the assumption that because God is both truthful and omniscient that the Bible must therefore be without error. It is this assumption that made inerrantists insist that the original autographa were inerrant. Copyists mistakes and errors may be found in the Bibles we have today. But the pristine Word of God was given in the autographa. McGowan says that God could have given us inerrant Scriptures. But he opted not to because the Bible is God's Word communicated to us through human writers with all the limitations that entails. This is deeply troubling. The link between the veracity of God and the truthfulness of his Word is present in the Bible's self-witness. The Lord is "the God of truth" (Psalm 31:5). He "cannot lie" (Titus 1:2). God's self-revelation in Scripture bears the hallmarks of his truthfulness. It is described as "the word of truth" (Psalm 119:43). Jesus prayed, "Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth." (John 17:17). Kevin Vanhoozer, who can hardly be described as a tub thumping fundamentalist writes,
"The basis for the doctrine of biblical inerrancy is located both in the nature of God and in the Bible's teaching about itself. First, if God is perfect – all knowing, all wise, all-good – it follows that God speaks the truth. God does not tell lies; God is not ignorant. God's Word is thus free from all error arising either from conscious deceit or unconscious ignorance. Such is the unanimous confession of the Psalmist, the prophets, the Lord Jesus and the apostles. Second, the Bible presents itself as the Word of God written. Thus, in addition to its humanity (which is never denied), the Bible also enjoys the privileges and prerogatives of its status as God's Word. God's Word is thus wholly reliable, a trustworthy guide to reality, a light unto our path."
Several times McGowan suggests that inerrancy tends towards a dictation theory of biblical inspiration which undermines the human side of Scripture. But while this may be the case in some fundamentalist writings, Reformed theologians such as Warfield have been careful to give due weight to the fact that God communicated his Word through human beings. Holy Scripture bears the unmistakable stamp of the personalities of its human authors. But what Moses, Jeremiah, Luke and Paul etc. wrote was kept from error by the guiding presence of the Holy Spirit.
Furthermore, McGowan argues that the doctrine of biblical inerrancy was rationalistic attempt on behalf of Hodge, Warfield and others to respond to the challenges of liberal theology by showing that the Bible is scientifically accurate. It is certainly true that Hodge saw theology as a scientific exercise where the theologian's task was to categorise and arrange the raw data of biblical revelation into a coherent theological system. This is no doubt an unhelpful model for doing theology that owes too much to Enlightenment thinking. But responsible advocates of inerrancy have never suggested that the Bible must be accurate to the standards of modern scientific precision in order to be regarded as free from error. The Bible is not a scientific text book and does not purport to be. It uses approximations and generalisations that would not fulfill the strictest scientific criterion. But the basic truthfulness of Scripture is not affected by this. In the face of critical scholarship, Hodge and Warfield were right to insist that the Bible is entirely trustworthy and without error.
Leading on from this, McGowan accuses inerrantists of having a 'propositionalist' view of Scripture. Propositionalists view the theologian's task in terms of extracting factual propositions from Scripture upon which to base their theological systems. In the quest for inerrant propositions, careless theologians may ride roughshod over the differing biblical genres. It has to be said that McGowan is careful to safeguard the value of biblical propositions. Where would we be without propositions like 'Jesus is Lord'? But as he points out, an overly propositionalist approach to Scripture has been rightly critiqued by the likes of Kevin Vanhoozer. It is interesting to note that notwithstanding this, Vanhoozer is still willing to affirm biblical inerrancy. I put this question to him in a recent interview
. His response makes interesting reading,
"GD: Is there room for inerrancy in your theodramatic account of the Bible as the God-given script that the church is to understand and perform?
KV: Yes. I hold Scripture to be the word of God written. I believe that God speaks by means of the human discourse of Scripture and that the Holy Spirit so guided the authors that what they say/do with their words corresponds to the divine intent. God is the divine playwright who communicates his ideas through the voices of the various human authors. It's true that the term 'inerrancy' does not appear in Drama of Doctrine, but it doesn't follow that the idea is absent. To think that it does is to commit the word-concept fallacy.
One reason I didn't employ the word [in The Drama of Doctrine] is that there is confusion about what inerrancy means. It doesn't mean that we should interpret the Bible literalistically, turning a deaf ear to its figures of speech and literary genres. What it does mean is that when we rightly interpret the Bible, taking due consideration of what authors are doing with their words in their speech and literary genres, we can be assured that its truth claims are indeed true. And by 'true' I mean that its claims are reliable because they correspond to God, his creation, and to what God has done, is doing, and will do to renew his creation through Christ."
Vanhoozer's position is a far cry from McGowan's. While the latter does not wish to be identified as an 'errantist', he speaks of 'discrepancies' in the Gospels that are due to God not overruling the humanity of the evangelists (p. 118). He also writes,
"If God can effectively communicate and acts savingly through imperfect human beings who are called to preach the gospel, why is it necessary to argue that the authors of Scripture were supernaturally kept from the slightest discrepancy?" (p.118).
McGowan suggests that discrepancies and apparent contradictions are not merely the product of textual corruption. Such things would have been present even in the original autographa
. This causes him no problems as he has denied that God's inerrant knowledge of all things is reflected in Scripture. Once more he charges inerrantists of running the danger of "so denying the humanness of the authors of the Scriptures that they fall into a 'dictation theory' of Scripture" (p. 119). It is rather sad that McGowan, a noted Reformed theologian seems to be echoing old style liberal objections to the evangelical doctrine of Scripture at this point. He may have shown that there were some flaws in the theological methodology of the old Princeton theologians who developed the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. But I am not persuaded that he has made a good case for abandoning the historic evangelical teaching that the Bible is the inerrant Word of God. McGowan says that if forced to choose between inerrancy and errancy, he would opt for the former. But his view that the veracity of God does not guarantee the entire truthfulness of his Word does not serve to engender confidence in Scripture. [Part 1
, Part 3]