Thursday, July 17, 2008

The Divine Spiration of Scripture by A. T. B. McGowan (Book Review: Part 1)

Locus & terminology
The Divine Spiration of Scripture: Challenging evangelical perspectives,
by A. T. B. McGowan, Apollos, 2007
It is fair to say that this book has attracted some pretty hostile reviews. The author expected as much, writing, "Clearly, some of the argument presented in this book is controversial, particularly that evangelicals should no longer use the term 'inerrancy'." A number of reviewers (here and here) have chosen to concentrate almost entirely on this controversial proposal. But I want to try and review the book as a whole. McGowan has some helpful things to say and evangelicals need to be challenged to set forth the doctrine of Scripture with greater thoughtfulness and care. The review will be split up into several posts.
McGowan begins by questioning the tendency amongst evangelicals to place the doctrine of Scripture first in the locus of systematic theology. This can also be seen in many evangelical statements of faith, which typically begin with a statement on the Bible. McGowan argues that theology should begin with God himself before considering his self-revelation in Scripture. He would like to see Scripture treated as an aspect of the work of the Holy Spirit. The writer no doubt has a point. But the task of theology is to articulate the Bible's witness to what God has done in Christ. We can only know the Lord savingly through Scripture's testimony to the God of the Gospel. So, it is not altogether inappropriate to begin with God's self-revelation in Scripture. As McGowan points out however, there is some diversity on this matter in the Reformed confessions of faith. Some like the Genevan Confession and Westminster Confession of Faith begin with a statement on Scripture, others such as the Scots Confession and the Belgic Confession start with God. At the time of the Reformation, the issue was the authority of Scripture, with Protestants insisting that Scripture alone is out authority over and against the Roman Catholic teaching that Scripture and tradition are equally authoritative. Those confessions that put Scripture first were being upfront about this. Their theology was based on Scripture alone. Post Schleiermacher it is important to establish that theology is based on the witness of Scripture. Theology is not primarily an expression of the subjective religious consciousness. Placing a statement on Scripture first in the locus of theology serves to emphasise that whatever we say about God in his triune majesty and mighty acts must be informed by his written self-revelation. This does not entail an evidentialist approach to theology, whereby we have to prove that the Bible is inerrant before we can say anything meaningful about God. That God exists and that he has revealed himself in creation and [inerrantly] in Scripture should be the basic presupposition of consistently Reformed theology. But in the last analysis, where we place the doctrine of Scripture in our theological systems is less important than what we say about Scripture. I note that John Frame, who like McGowan's is a presuppositionalist, begins his Salvation Belongs to the Lord; An Introduction to Systematic Theology with three chapters on God before discussing Scripture. Herman Bavinck, also a presuppositionalist devotes the first volume of his Reformed Dogmatics to prolegomena, including the doctrine of Scripture before he considers the God and Creation.
McGowan proposes some terminological revision in formulating the doctrine of Scripture. First he suggests that we replace "inspiration" with "spiration". In 2 Timothy 3:16, the apostle Paul writes, "All Scripture is theopneustos [God-breathed]". McGowan notes that "inspiration" literally means to 'breathe into', while "spiration" more appropriately means 'to breathe out'. 'Spiration' therefore captures Paul's meaning, that all Scripture is the product of God's creative breath. Besides, 'inspired' is often taken to mean 'inspiring' as in Shakespeare's 'inspiring' plays. Scripture is far more than a literary classic. It is God's own Spirit-given Word. I agree, then that 'spiration' is a more appropriate designation of Scripture than 'inspiration'. But it is a slightly unwieldy term and I can't see catching on outside the world of academic theology. Better I think to say with the NIV that Scripture is 'God-breathed'. Secondly, McGowan posits that 'illumination' should be replaced by 'recognition'. He rightly insists that Scripture does not need to be illuminated. It is our minds that are darkened due to the noetic effects of sin. But Scripture does speak of God enlightening the minds of believers (2 Cor 4:6, Eph 1:18). 'Illumination' is therefore a useful word when defined as the witness of the Spirit which enables the believer to recognise Scripture as the Word of God. Thirdly McGowan argues that 'comprehension' is more appropriate than 'perspicuity'. The latter could be taken to mean that Scripture is so clear that it can be understood by the human mind without the help of the Spirit. It is better therefore to speak of the Spirit giving us comprehension of the meaning of Scripture. But there is something to be said in favour of perspicuity. As McGowan acknowledges, the concept was originally developed to show that the essential message of Scripture is so clear that can be grasped by believers without the help of specialists. I suggest that perspicuity is a useful concept in our postmodern setting. Postmodern hermeneutics have cast doubt on our ability to access the meaning of Scripture. We need therefore to emphasise that the Bible is capable of being understood accurately, if never exhaustively. But this does not mean that we can truly comprehend the meaning of Scripture apart from the revelatory work of the Spirit. The final and most controversial proposal is that evangelicals should opt for 'infallibility' over 'inerrancy'. McGowan says that 'inerrancy' denotes 'a turn towards a somewhat mechanical and even rationalistic approach to Scripture, basing its authority on a set of inerrant manuscripts.' (p. 48-49). In defining 'infallibility', the writer does not speak of a quality of the biblical text, so much as God's use of Scripture,
"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." (p. 49).
We should not lose sight of God's dynamic use of his own Word. Without doubt the Lord infallibly uses Scripture to fulfill his purposes. But is it true that holding that the Bible itself is without error is necessarily to have 'a mechanical and even rationalistic' view of Scripture? I will discuss McGowan's proposals on biblical inerrancy in the next part of this review series. [Part 2, Part 3]


Groseys messages said...

Wow thank you for the review.. talk about timely, a friend is preseting a paper tomorrow on this very situation to which I have to give response, and is hosting a week long visit here of the Dr. in August.
Thanks for the review and I appreciate the discernment.
Frankly the guy sounds OK with a few interesting factors.

The Pook said...

Yes thanks for the reviews - look forward to seeing the next instalments. I am in the process of writing my own. See my comments on Michael Bird's Euangelion blog at

I am also organising a visit by the good doctor, to Down Under Down Under (Tassie).

Guy Davies said...

Thanks for the comments. Steve, look out for Part 2, where I'll be discussing McGowan's controversial proposals on inerrancy.