Uninspiring Inspiration

13 02 2008

As mentioned last week, A.T.B. McGowan’s most recent book ‘The Divine Spiration of Scripture‘ is causing something of a stir in evangelical circles, mostly because of its ‘novel’ approach to the issue of inerrancy. I’m not fond of judging a book by its cover (nor by its controversy) and have been working through the text, seeking to get to the root of what he has to say about the inspiration of Scripture. The end result of McGowan’s research seems to me to be a mixed bag, providing thought provoking analysis in some areas, and mind-numbing non-argument in others.

On the positive side, McGowan writes with a passion to think clearly and intelligently about how evangelicals use and describe Scripture. Some of his early thoughts are genuinely helpful as he seeks to set the work of the Holy Spirit in breathing out God’s Word at the centre of his theological task. He offers some novel and cogent thoughts about the vocabulary used to speak of inspiration. Rather than divine ‘inspiration’ he urges the use of the term divine spiration. McGowan contends that most translations of Scripture have adhered to the KJV ‘inspired’ rather than a literal translation of ‘theopneustos’ or ‘God breathed’ (cf. NIV;ESV). He also takes issue with the phrase inspiration because of its modern English usage as applied to other works of literature or art, where inspiration is reduced to a merely human process. His argumentation here is linear, lucid and helpful. I think he makes a good case.

McGowan also argues that the traditional phrase for the meaning of Scripture being revealed to the mind, ‘illumination’, be replaced with recognition. Here, again, the logic applied is persuasive in that as McGowan suggests illumination can make it sound as though Scripture is lacking in clarity and must be ‘illuminated’, whereas it is the mind of man which is lacking in spiritual understanding and must be enabled to understand or recognise what the Bible teaches.

He also proposes the replacement of ‘perspicuity’ with comprehension. Perspicuity, he contends, has the potential to make it seem that spiritual truth can be discovered solely by human reason, whereas we need the Holy Spirit to make its meaning known to us.

McGowan then begins an overview of theological history, showing the Englightenment roots which underlie much of liberal theology, and demonstrating responses to this both in terms of neo-orthodoxy (a la Barth and others) and conservative evangelicalism (a la Machen, Van Til etc.) This chapter is excellent, and would serve as a very good in-road for undergraduate students seeking to get a handle on the history of critical thought.

It is following this chapter, however, that McGowan’s arguments become less defined, a little fuzzy, and much less convincing. He assesses Fundamentalism and inerrancy, providing a brief history of the movement’s roots, and showing how certain theories about the inspiration of Scripture emerged. While McGowan seeks to show a measure of balance in his analysis of those who uphold inerrancy (referencing Carl Henry and others who did not fall into the ‘Fundamentalist’ camp) his assertions do at times lapse into caricature. He cites some who uphold inerrancy in terms of the KJV being the only inspired English translation, those who uphold inerrancy only in the Textus Receptus, and finally those who hold to inerrancy in the original autographs. For me, McGowan fails to make an adequate distinction between the first two (somewhat irrational) theories of inerrancy, and the latter which is backed by solid scholarship and research. Whilst he acknowledges that the last kind of inerrantists do not hold to a dictational concept of inspiration, he regularly alleges that they have an implicit leaning towards this, which handicaps their view of Scripture.

In the pivotal chapter of the book, ‘Infallibility: An Evangelical Alternative’, McGowan seeks to elucidate his own view of the inspiration of Scripture. He takes as his starting point the work of Scottish theologian James Orr, along with Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck. My issue in this chapter is not so much with what is asserted through quotation of these scholars, as with what is left out. McGowan appears to be wrestling a straw man throughout. His caricature of inerrancy leaves him free to continually assert that leaving aside this view means that one is free to emphasise not only the divine origin, but the human agency by which Scripture came about. McGowan does not meaningfully engage with any modern inerrantists in this chapter but continually asserts that infalliblity means that both aspects can be justly served by forgetting about the original autographs. As a scholar he is not denying the authority of God’s Word, but he is also not really offering any credible alternative to the traditional view of inerrancy as held and explicated by most Reformed theologians. The problem is that McGowan sets up an unneccessary dichotomy of his own, which flings the door wide open for lower views of Scripture than he himself epouses or asserts. His alternative is not so much leaning toward non-inspiration as it is to non-inspiring – he leaves a glaring void in our understanding of the origin and power of Scripture which the remainder of his argument leaves unfilled.

The penultimate chapter deals with the relationship between confessions and Scripture. Here, McGowan is incisive and extremely balanced in the way he handles Protestant understanding and emphasis on their own doctrinal heritage. The final chapter gives a stirring analysis of Calvin’s method in preaching and how it emphasised the authority of God’s Word. While both of these sections are interesting, it is hard to discern their relationship to the rest of the book which is so geared towards the ‘evangelical alternative’ to inerrancy that McGowan espouses

In his conclusion McGowan summarises the teaching of the book, and makes a plea for a measured, balanced response to his thesis. He makes it clear that he is not erring towards an errantist position, but that he wishes to modify what he views as dangers inherent within the inerrantist worldview. He pleads that the differences between infallibility and inerrancy represent ‘a family disagreement, rather than a cause for division and mutual condemnation and recriminations’ [p.212].

In summary, McGowan’s book raises some interesting points, particularly in its opening and closing chapters. It must be stated categorically that he is not intentionally or explicitly identifying errors in Scripture, nor lowering its authority or status. It is to be wondered, however, if the arguments outlined in this book may not provide a springboard for others to do just that. For me, McGowan does not provide a coherent or beneficial alternative to inerrancy, and for that reason this is a flawed book which carries a somewhat confusing, problematic and potentially dangerous message.




6 responses

12 02 2008
Exiled Preacher

Thanks for this thoughtful review. I ordered the book earlier today. I had heard on the grapevine that McGowan has some new proposals on inerrancy. I look forward to getting to grips with what he has to say. But I will probably share some of your misgivings.

13 02 2008
Singing Bear

A plea from the less well versed in these matters:Can someone please explain the diferrence between ‘inerrancy’ and ‘infallibility’ for me? I’m sure you can show me a subtle semantic gap between the two but, as someone with an English degree (not that it means much!), I’m not able see it.Looking at the argument in the post, I get the feeling that there is a lot of semantic knot twisting going on that ultimately could distract people from the Truth that The Bible reveals.You write that Mr. McGowan:’…proposes the replacement of ‘perspicuity’ with comprehension. Perspcuity, he contends, has the potential to make it seem that spiritual truth can be discovered solely by human reason, whereas we need the Holy Spirit to make its meaning known to us.’Again, I’m not sure about the difference between ‘perspicuity’ and ‘comprehension’ but he is surely correct if he argues that human reason alone is insufficient to make God’s meaning known to us. Without Divine guidance from the Holy Spirit it might as well just be a pile of dry words. This appears to suggest that it is possible to argue that Biblical Truth is infallible without having to always be ‘literal’ (as fundamentalists would have it). I’m not taking a Bishop of Durham stance here; I don’t believe the Resurrection was a ‘conjuring trick’, I believe it to be utterly true but it just might be possible that without the guidance of The Holy Spirit we are not able to see the wood for the tress in much Scripture (e.g. The Creation in Genesis, Adam and Eve, Jonah and The Whale). Indeed, many of Christ’s parables are not homely ‘folk-tales’ for the ‘everyday folk’ but cut deeper theological furrows that can be revealed to us by The Holy Spirit.Just a few thoughts from an amateur in these things.Peace and Love.

13 02 2008
Andrew and Carolyn

Guy,Many thanks for your comment. I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts on the book.Singing Bear,Thanks for your continued engagement on these issues.Without writing another post here in the comments section I’ll try to briefly sum up the difference between infalliblist and inerrantist positions: those who assert inerrancy (among whom I count myself) assert that Scripture as originally given by God in the original manuscripts is utterly without error. This means that any of the differences or anomalies which can be identified in our current copies of the manuscripts (of which there are very few) come from copyists, and do not reflect an error in the Word of God as originally given. Any other apparent anomalies can easily be explained within the borader context of Scripture.The infalliblity position is a little more difficult to define accurately. Some within this school of thinking hold a position on Scripture which is substantially the same as inerrancy, except in the way they phrase their arguments. Others are willing to asser that Scripture is utterly trustworthy in matters of faith and practice, but that scientific and historic details are not as reliable.These issues are a lot more multifaceted than I can portray here. Can I point you to the excellent chapter in Wayne Grudem’s ‘Systematic Theology’ on this issue, as well as Peter Jensen’s ‘The Revelation of God’, published by IVP.The other issues you raise are a litte more complex. I believe firmly in the inerrancy of Scripture, and can happily accept the Bible’s teaching on those areas you highlight as not being worthy of being read literally – Creation, Adam and Eve, Jonah and the great fish etc. I refer you back to the argument I offered in favour of this position in last week’s post ‘Why Inerrancy Matters’.Also, it’s important to identify the fact that the Bishop of Durham you refer to in terms of the Resurrection being a ‘conjuring trick’ was Bishop David Jenkins, and not the current Bishop N.T. Wright who has solidly defended the Resurrection.Thanks for your input here.

13 02 2008
Singing Bear

Andrew: Thanks for clarifying some of these things for me. Also, I take note of the fact that the Bishop of Durham I referred to is not the current holder of the post!Thanks for bearing with me in all this. Obviously, we do take differing positions as far as Biblical interpretation is concerned but I argue purely in the spirit of Christian brotherhood. I have taken much from the Christian mystics and I expect you could tear apart many of my stand-points quite easily with your greater Scriptural knowledge. You may well consider me to not be Christian at all. Still, I believe we are all brothers and sisters trying to work towards the same ends in our different ways.In the spirit of peace and thanks.

21 04 2008

I am in the middle of reading McGowan. And his arguments on the use of ‘inspiration’, ‘perspicuity’ and ‘illumination’ seem reasonable. I am still reading the chapter on an alternative to inerrancy, and will probably want to reread it. However a couple of thoughts. To speak of inerrant original manuscripts which we don’t have access to seems to be an overly convenient idea. An easy out in a difficult situation. It is not valid to argue against McGowan’s position on the basis that his position could lead to undermining the authority of scripture. JUst about any position held by Christians, if pushed to far can lead too wrong conclusions. That doesn’t mean they are wrong, just that we need to be careful.The idea of the original manuscripts makes sense in the context of the NT but seems less reasonable when considering the OT. Are we talking about the original document of the MT version of Jeremiah or the LXX? Given that the early church used the LXX were they then not using an inerrant text? The NT writers quote sometimes from the MT sometimes from the LXX and sometimes from something else – perhaps a free translation of the MT or a different Hebrew version. If they held the evangelical view on inerrancy would they have been more careful to quote the MT?Like McGowan I am a little uncomfortable with the reasoning that goes ‘God is like this … therefore, in this particular situation he will do this.’ Sometimes you might be right but others maybe not. I keep thinking of JOhn 9 and the healing of the blind man on the Sabbath. Some of the Pharisees reasoned along the lines that Jesus healed on the Sabbath when the illness wasn’t life threatening and so couldn’t be righteous; the healing couldn’t be from God. This is a reasonable conclusion given God had instituted the Sabbath and no work was to be done. They reasoned from something general about God’s character – that he would not act to break his own laws – to how he would act in a particular situation. And it seems a reasonable conclusion, but it is wrong.

21 04 2008
Andrew and Carolyn

Hi Amanda,Thanks for joining in on the discussion here on McGowan’s book. You raise some very strong and interesting points, some of which I feel lend support to the argument of ‘The Divine Spiration of Scripture’, and others which don’t really strengthen the case made by McGowan.With regard to MT and LXX quotation could I point you in the direction of Moises Silva’s excellent piece entitled ‘The New Testament Use of the Old Testament’ in the book ‘Scripture and Truth’ edited by D.A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge. Old Testament manuscript culture is not my strong point and Silva makes some sterling points on the issues you raise in a much more cogent way than I could.With regard to McGowan’s broader argument I wouldn’t want to appear unduly hostile to elements of what he writes. The perspicuity, inspiration and illumination sections which you mention are strong. This is, perhaps, what I find most irritating about the book in that it is capable of profound and important points, but these are mixed in with more problematic statements and sentiments.I cannot accept McGowan’s argument on inerrancy, and that is not merely on the grounds of coming to his work with a priori ideas about ‘if God is like this…then’. His reasoning is clouded in the presentation of inerrancy, taking advantage of the fact that theologians like Calvin didn’t use the word ‘inerrancy’ when they held to its conceptual force. His portrayal of Bavinck and Kuyper is also less than lucid, and I know that Richard Gaffin has written on this in recent days.As you say, any concept pressed too far can be dangerous. But if the concept itself is wrong, then the danger is even greater. We mustn’t confuse genuine and widespread acceptance of scribal errors in Scripture with factual erros in content. It is part of the theological/expository task to wrestle with what the original texts may have said, in the light of certain manuscript corruptions. This is not what McGowan is suggesting, though. The idea that there are factual errors in Scripture does reflect on the concept of inspiration and ultimately on the character of God by virtue of the fact that He is the author of Scripture. I’m not sure how you divide these two issues.Anyway, thank you for calling by. Thank you for your comment, and I’m happy to chat more about these things. You input is valued.God bless,Andrew

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