A. T. B. McGowan’s The Divine Authenticity of Scripture: Retrieving an Evangelical Heritage contributes to evangelical discussions on the doctrine of Scripture (9). According to McGowan, evangelicals are in need of renewed examination of our theological language so that we might “clarify precisely what we mean when we speak about Scripture as the Word of God” (9). Specifically, “spiration” will now replace “inspiration”; “illumination” will yield to “recognition”; and “infallibility” will take the place of “inerrancy” (38-49). In order to establish the basis for this latter proposal concerning inerrancy, he first traces how liberal theology, fueled as it was by the Enlightenment’s turn to the subject (51), shaped two respective responses concerning the truthfulness of Scripture from neo-orthodox and conservative evangelical theologians (50-83). According to McGowan, the doctrine of inerrancy grew out of the conservative evangelical response, developed and articulated chiefly by Princetonians Charles Hodge and B. B. Warfield.
A New and Better Way?
As McGowan surveys the debate among evangelicals concerning the doctrine of inerrancy, however, he notes that the discussion itself has forced Christians into a false dilemma. On one side are evangelicals who argue for a doctrine of inerrancy reflected in the CSBI; on the other side are evangelicals who follow a position expressed by neo-orthodoxy generally and articulated by Rogers and McKim specifically (123). But there is a better way, according to McGowan: a more biblical, historically faithful position that navigates between these two extremes (124). McGowan explains this “alternative” view.
My argument is that Scripture, having been divinely spirated, is as God intended it to be. Having freely chosen to use human beings, God knew what he was doing. He did not give us an inerrant autographical text, because he did not intend to do so. He gave us a text that reflects the humanity of its authors but that, at the same time, clearly evidences its origin in the divine speaking. Through the instrumentality of the Holy Spirit, God is perfectly able to use these Scriptures to accomplish his purposes (124).
It appears that McGowan, in order to adequately account for the human element of Scripture, wants to say that there is the possibility of error in Scripture, while not affirming that there are errors in Scripture. If this understanding of his position is correct, the nuance is found in his removing a particular a priori judgment about the nature of Scripture—given God’s character, Scripture cannot err—to allow for the chance that the biblical writers made mistakes in their writings (136-37).
This position, then, helps evangelicals chart a course between the two extremes of inerrancy and errancy (148-49). In light of Scripture’s divine and human composition, McGowan proposes that evangelicals dismiss inerrancy in favor of infallibilty (149). Such a position discourages interpreters from recommending unlikely solutions to apparent discrepancies or proposing strained harmonization of disparate passages for the sake of maintaining the coherence of their theological system (149-50).
Furthermore, in order to maintain the human element of Scripture, McGowan is concerned that evangelicals finally reject any theory of inspiration that involves dictation, and he believes that James Orr and Herman Bavinck’s doctrines of Scripture accomplish this move by emphasizing the reality that God inspired Scripture in concurrence with the author’s personalities, skills, personal research, and other normal features of human writing (156).
An Ambitious Effort that Falls Short
Despite his effort to reconstruct the evangelical doctrine of Scripture, and, more specifically, the doctrine of inerrancy, McGowan’s proposal falls short for several reasons. The problems begin, as James Scott observes, because McGowan is not careful to define what he opposes (see Scott’s excellent article, “Reconsidering Inerrancy: A Response to A. T. B. McGowan’s The Divine Authenticity of Scripture,” WTJ 71 : 186). McGowan appears to reject the notion that Scripture is wholly without error when he states plainly that God did not give us inerrant autographs (McGowan, 124). He challenges evangelicals to be willing to accept all that is implied by the fact of Scripture’s human authorship, and he takes issue with those who hold to a strict view of inerrancy, yet “his arguments against inerrancy would apply to looser views as well” (Scott, 186).
McGowan, however, never uses the word “error” directly with reference to the original text of Scripture but only with regard to corrupt copies of the autographa. His preferred term is “discrepancy,” and he also speaks of “textual issues,” “textual problems,” and “apparent contradictions.” Yet, because McGowan denies that God has given us inerrant autographa (McGowan, 124), it would seem that the inevitable implication is that there are errors—statements that do not align with reality—in the original text of Scripture. This ambiguity proves detrimental to much of his proposal, for it leads him to offer a solution that suggests there is something between truth (that which corresponds to reality) and error (that which does not correspond to reality).
In his complaint that the debate between Rogers and McKim and John Woodbridge never finally answered the problems posed by each respective side, McGowan claims that the discussion itself has presented Christians with a false dilemma.
On the whole, Woodbridge had the best of the argument, but the problem remains—there are references produced by Rogers and McKim that cannot be accommodated by Woodbridges’s hypothesis, and there are references produced by Woodbridge that cannot be accommodated by Rogers and McKim’s hypothesis. How are we to explain this difficulty? The answer lies in recognizing that we are being offered a false choice here. We do not have to choose between Woodbridge’s inerrantist text and Rogers and McKim’s errant text. There is a third option, namely that the Scriptures we have are precisely as God intended them to be, but we must take seriously the fact that God used human authors to communicate his Word and did not make them into ciphers doing so (125).
McGowan’s neglect to provide even one example of these alleged unanswered references notwithstanding, it is difficult to see how he has offered a genuine alternative that will negotiate a path between an inerrant text and an errant text. Keeping within normal epistemic categories of truth and error, a distinction between these categories must be maintained. McGowan claims that the debate has polarized the two sides, thus presenting a false dichotomy between inerrancy and errancy.
Yet, why must this be a false dichotomy? It appears that McGowan has taken the terms inerrancy and errancy to represent respective theological positions with their various complex arguments rather than seeing the words to denote the basic epistemological categories of truth and error and the question of whether Scripture does or does not contain the latter (see Scott, 193).
Confusing the Categories of Providence and Inspiration
In his proposal, McGowan attempts to transcend this so-called false dichotomy created by the inerrancy debate by positing that in his good providence, God gave his people the Scriptures “precisely as [he] intended them to be” (McGowan, 125). This attempted solution, however, leads to a second weakness in McGowan’s proposal: not only has he still left unresolved the question of whether or not the Scriptures contain error, he has confused the theological categories of providence and inspiration as they relate to the Bible’s authorship.
Both inerrantists and evangelical errantists typically agree that the Scriptures we have are what God intended them to be. The debate lies not mainly here, in God’s providential working to ensure the final text is what he intended, but in the doctrine of inspiration where the question is to what degree God guided the authors of Scripture to write his word and whether or not he guarded them from error as they did so. Actually, to state only that the Scriptures are what God intended them to be says nothing about whether or not they are the word of God, much less that they have been kept from error. Scott explains,
But merely writing what God wants one to say does not make what is written the word of God. Ordinary providence can produce no more than the word of godly men, however much God may endorse its content. Only the direct and immediate influence of the Spirit on a human writer can make God the author, so that what is written can properly be called the word of God (Scott, 206).
McGowan continues to confuse these two categories in his discussion of God’s providential preparation of the biblical authors. Following Herman Bavinck, McGowan affirms that God designed the world and its events to prepare the biblical authors to write what they did. “Nevertheless, in the mysterious providence of God he so overruled providentially in their nature, character, upbringing, education and so on that what they wrote was what God wanted them to say” (McGowan, 149).
By framing his proposal in such a way, where inspiration is conflated with God’s providential preparation of the biblical authors, McGowan is now able to leave open the possibility that the authors did err occasionally because God, in his gracious providence, worked with fallen, error-prone men to bring about his written word. It is reasonable, then, according to McGowan, to conclude that errors did creep into the original text as these fallible men wrote. To this suggestion, Scott responds,
But if after all their preparation, when the actual writing began, the Holy Spirit, in his act of inspiration, directed the human writers to write the word of God, then we may be sure that that direction was such that nothing was written that was inconsistent with the character of God by being untrue or erroneous or misleading (Scott, 206).
Inerrancy, while fully consistent with the idea that God sovereignly prepared the biblical authors for their task of writing by providing the various means with which to compile the necessary information (memory, external written sources, oral reports, and the like), maintains that during the act of inspiration, the Holy Spirit enabled the writers to record only truth and guarded them from writing anything that did not correspond to actual states of affairs. This careful designation of what inerrancy affirms vis-à-vis the doctrine of inspiration leads us to a third drawback in McGowan’s proposal.
Rejection of Inerrant Autographa
McGowan does not accept the doctrine of inerrant autographa because he believes it is theologically unnecessary to affirm such an idea. McGowan asks, If an inerrant autographa is so essential to the life and health of the church, why did God not preserve those original texts or precise copies of the originals in the first place (109)?
One could offer several good reasons as to why God did not preserve the original texts or precise copies of the originals, but I will only suggest three here. (1) God desired to help his people avoid idolatry and the temptation to worship the original manuscripts. (2) The loss of the original manuscripts causes God’s people to focus on what is most important: the original text rather than the original codex. (3) It may have been better to allow errors to creep into subsequent copies so that the original text might be recovered with a large degree of certainty. Let me explain this last point.
If the claim is made that a pristine text has been handed down from generation to generation (as with the Qu’ran), then this claim can only be taken by faith. That is, there is no way of knowing beyond the claim whether or not it is true; one can only hope that the text has been passed down without error. Errors in the subsequent copies of the biblical text require the comparison of the various manuscripts in order to determine the original reading. Through the work of textual criticism, scholars can determine the original text with a high degree of certainty. It appears, then, that in his infinite wisdom, God allowed for errors to creep into copies of Scripture for the very purpose of providing the apparatus with which to reclaim the text with confidence without having to rely upon a non-falsifiable claim.
But the more important question at this juncture is why evangelicals have insisted that inerrancy be tied to the autographa at all. Historically, evangelicals ascribe inerrancy to the original autographa in order to safeguard God’s character in the inspiration process. Specifically, the argument for inerrant autographa is grounded in the biblical teaching that God, as the ultimate author of Scripture, cannot breath out error. When the autographical text was penned, therefore, it could not have contained any error, for to ascribe error to the autographa would be to ascribe error to the ultimate author, God. It became necessary to affirm this truth in light of the fact that subsequent reproductions of biblical texts contained error as a result of the copying process.
So, if McGowan is going to reject the idea of an inerrant original, then it would seem he is also obligated to explain how a false statement can be truly deemed God’s word. If God did not protect the writing of Scripture at the point of the error, then how can we assert that he truly inspired the text in question? John Frame, for example, believes McGowan’s thesis must be taken to mean that God does “breathe out” errors (See Frame, The Doctrine of the Word of God, 547).
McGowan recognizes that his challenge to inerrancy at the point of the autographa draws him into issues related to the doctrine of God. Indeed, he remarks that inerrantists, in claiming that a truthful God cannot inspire an errant Scripture, have presumed wrongly that “given the nature and character of God, the only kind of Scripture he could ‘breathe out’ was Scripture that is textually inerrant” (McGowan, 113). McGowan is concerned that such a conjecture limits God by implying that God is “unable” to do something.
Surely, inerrantists would agree that it is wrong to draw illegitimate limits upon God’s omnipotence; but to affirm that God cannot do certain things is something to which Scripture attests. As inerrantists themselves have always maintained, God cannot lie (Hebrews 6:18). Yet, such inability to speak falsehood does not constitute an actual restriction upon God or his omnipotence; indeed, it is a beautiful and admirable character quality without which Christians could have no sure hope in divine promises.
So, when McGowan maintains in opposition to these so-called illegitimate assumptions that “God is free to act according to his will” (McGowan, 113), inerrantists can respond by noting that the doctrine of inerrancy affirms that very thing. Specifically, in his act of inspiring Scripture, God works freely and according to his nature as a truth-telling God and breathes out only that which is without error.
Interestingly, although McGowan accuses those who hold to inerrancy of “assum[ing] that God can only act in a way that conforms to our expectations, based on a human assessment of his character” (118), he never demonstrates how his view escapes the same accusation (why is his expectation that God could inspire an errant text superior to the inerrantist who says God could not?), nor does he ever ground his alternative view in Scripture. It is difficult to take seriously this accusation when McGowan himself states dogmatically that “God did not give us an inerrant autograph, because he did not intend to do so” (124), while not offering any Scripture to establish his case. Scott makes this very point in his article (see Scott, 196).
Inerrantists, however, typically base their argument for the nature of God’s character and its relation to the inspiration of Scripture on specific Bible texts (e.g., 2 Sam 7:28; Ps 18:30; Ps 119:160; Prov 30:5; Matt 5:18; John 17:17; 2 Tim 3:16; 2 Pet 2:21; Heb 6:13). If McGowan’s position is “more biblical,” (McGowan, 123) it would seem that such a claim would require actual interaction with Scripture—at the very least, with texts that inerrantists have normally employed to establish their view.
Misunderstanding the ‘Humanity’ of Scripture
A fourth problem afflicting McGowan’s proposal is one that I’ve already addressed in my review of Kenton Sparks’s book, God’s Word in Human Words. Like Sparks, McGowan assumes throughout the formulation of his position that in order for Scriptures to be a fully human product, they must contain error. Granted, Sparks is far more straightforward in this claim; however, McGowan at least rejects an inerrant autographa and therefore allows for the possibility of minor errors in the text.
The connection between McGowan’s concern that Scripture retain its full humanity while allowing for the possibility of error is implied throughout his work. For example, McGowan maintains that God gave us a text that “reflects the humanity of its authors,” and that we must “take seriously the fact that God used human authors to communicate his Word and did not make them into ciphers in doing so” (McGowan, 124-125) while upholding the notion that in the act of inspiration, God did not “overrule [the author’s] humanity” (118). Yet, when he mentions the humanness of the Bible’s authors, it is always within the context reaffirming the idea that Scriptures contain “minor textual discrepancies or varying accounts,” (125) or that God did not give us inerrant autographa.
It appears, then, that McGowan is laboring under the assumption that the qualities of error or proneness to error are essential properties of existing as a human: unless one admits that Scripture contains error (minor though it may be), one has not truly affirmed the humanity of the authors or of Scripture itself. As I demonstrated in my review of Sparks’s book, it is not essential in order to retain the status of fully human that one err or that one be prone to error. That is, humans in their fallen condition do err and have a tendency to err, but these qualities are incidental, not necessary properties. I doubt that McGowan would want to argue that in their glorified state, Christians will be any less than human or that their humanity post-resurrection will depend upon their tendency to err.
It is not surprising then, that McGowan has trouble finally establishing his position, for his concern to retain the full humanity of the biblical authors can be accomplished by giving heed to other qualities like the authors’ different styles, their varying approaches to writing, the range of emotions expressed in their poetry, and their distinct theological emphases, to name only a few. None of these aspects of human authorship, however, imply error or a proneness to error. This latter point brings us to the fifth and final weakness in McGowan’s proposal.
Failure to Reckon with the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (CSBI)
As one reads McGowan’s reformulation of the doctrine of inerrancy, one is struck by how often he states the position of inerrantists as though it were something new, or how many times he mistakenly accuses inerrantists of not incorporating key elements into their doctrine. Here I will focus on McGowan’s failure to understand the CSBI and his neglect to give adequate attention to the document’s affirmations and denials in the course of his proposal.
McGowan mentions the CSBI specifically as he presents his arguments against the inerrantist position, claiming that its length and its various affirmations and denials—all required to define what evangelicals mean by the word inerrant—“empties the word of its content” (McGowan, 106). As an illustration, McGowan considers the matter of numerical inaccuracies in Scripture. “For example, if numbers can be inaccurate but not affect the claim to inerrancy, then when is an error an error? One gains a 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).
But McGowan appears to misunderstand the inerrantist position, for the CSBI allows for the use of round numbers within the biblical narrative in a way that does not negate the claim that the Scriptures are without error (see Article XIII). When Scripture is read according to the intention in which it was given, and readers are careful not to foist a standard of precision upon the Bible that is foreign to its historical context, then matters like numerical inaccuracies do not pose a problem for inerrancy. If David killed 18,432 Edomites in the Valley of Salt, yet Scripture records 18,000 (2 Sam 8:13), the text does not err; it provides an accounting that is appropriate for the given context.
Yet these issues highlight another problem with McGowan’s interaction with the CSBI. He assumes that the document is a lengthy definition of the term “inerrancy” that contains innumerable qualifications that finally rob the word of any real theological weight. In actual fact, the CSBI provides a concise definition of inerrancy in Articles XII and XIII.
Article XII: “We affirm that Scripture in its entirety is inerrant, being free from all falsehood, fraud, and deceit.”
Article XIII: “We affirm the propriety of using inerrancy as a theological term with reference to the complete truthfulness of Scripture.”
Simply stated, inerrancy is the claim that Scripture is entirely truthful and contains no error. The remaining sections of the CSBI, therefore, do not constitute qualifications to this brief definition as though the framers of the document were simply dismissing the obvious and irremediable problems inherent in their position.
Several of the CSBI articles deal with issues related to inerrancy, like inspiration, authority, revelation, and human authorship; others are the application of the definition to the various phenomena of Scripture and pertinent theological categories.It is no coincidence, therefore, that the discussion of the Bible’s phenomena comes directly after the concise definition of inerrancy found in Articles XII and XIII, for those things listed in the denial portion of Article XIII do not affect the truthfulness of what Scripture affirms. So, to answer McGowan’s question, “When is an error an error?” inerrantists would say, “When it is contrary to actual states of affairs.” The CSBI concisely states this definition and applies it across the relevant theological and biblical categories.
Furthermore, we should also say that the act of qualifying a particular word is not itself inherently misleading or confusing. On the contrary, the qualification of various words of doctrinal import is essential for doing theology. What, for example, do we mean by the word “God” or “Jesus” or “Holy Spirit” or “atonement?” Each of these words requires careful definition and “qualification” so that they are rightly communicated and distinguished from wrong uses. Scott helpfully observes, “The Chicago Statement actually deals broadly with the inspiration, authority, and interpretation of Scripture, not merely with defining and explaining inerrancy. A mere eight words are required to define the word inerrant in Article 12” (Scott, 193).
McGowan also neglects in several instances to acknowledge where the CSBI actually affirms his position. For example, McGowan states that in his choice to inscripturate his word, God chose certain human beings and did not “overrule their humanity” (McGowan,118). Article VIII of the CSBI, however, maintains this very thing. It is difficult to determine why McGowan believes his view in this case actually differs from the inerrantist position.
Later, McGowan restates his position, claiming a high view of Scripture that depends upon God’s spiration of the biblical text but that acknowledges that God chose to use human authors and accepts “all the implications of that decision” (McGowan, 124). Again, however, doesn’t the CSBI also affirm this notion as far as it goes? As I just noted above, the CSBI asserts that God, in his work of inspiration, did not override the personalities of the biblical writers. Moreover, the existence of phenomena like “a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole, and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations” (Article XIII) can legitimately fulfill the concern that we acknowledge the “implications” of human authorship.
There are more flaws in McGowan’s proposal we could note; for example, his imprecise reading of Herman Bavinck or his misuse of the word “infallible.” But the above examples suffice to undermine considerably McGowan’s attempt to reframe the debate and to posit a third view that resides somewhere between inerrancy and errancy. Conclusion? McGowan has not succeeded in articulating a coherent position that somehow solves the impasse between inerrantists and errantists.