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.