Review: The Divine Spiration of Scripture by A.T.B.McGowan

BOOK REVIEW: The Divine Spiration of Scripture

[in the USA, The Divine Authenticity of Scripture]

by A.T.B.McGowan

(Apollos, 2007 £14.99 ; IVP, 2008 US$22


Rowland S. Ward

The blurb to the soon to be released USA printing of this book by the Principal of Highland Theological College [HTC] in Dingwall, Scotland, reads in part:

Evangelicals have taken extraordinary care in formulating and articulating a high view of Scripture. And yet the doctrine is not without its inadequacies and its internal critics–both past and present.

Reviewing the evangelical discussion and formulations over the past century and more, particularly in the Reformed tradition in North America, Andrew McGowan is not content with the present state of the question. The way forward is to reach back within the European evangelical tradition, particularly to the work of the Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck. The prescription is to anchor the doctrine of Scripture in the work of the Spirit, the divine spiration of Scripture. And the contested idea of inerrancy should be replaced with an informed concept of the infallibility or authenticity of Scripture.

McGowan was a guest preacher at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Australia in September 2007, but more recently (May 2008) an invitation to lecture on covenant theology at the Presbyterian College in Melbourne has been withdrawn because of the controversy over his book on Scripture.

Reviews have varied. Dr Gregory Goswell of the Presbyterian Theological College in Melbourne gave a very positive review entitled ‘Challenging but Helpful’ in New Life (Melbourne), issue of 21 February 2008. [New Life is edited by Rev Bob Thomas, a recent Moderator-General of the Presbyterian Church of Australia.] Dr Goswell, who teaches Old Testament, trained at Moore Theological College and is a widely read scholar and a former missionary in Jordan. Dr Chris Sinkinson in Evangelicals Now! (UK) for June 2008 has the opposite opinion: his review is entitled ‘Dangerous and Mistaken’.

McGowan is a Church of Scotland minister and in 2006 the Kirk recognised HTC, of which McGowan was a principal founder in 1994, as a suitable training place for its ministers. It might be thought that McGowan’s views are influenced by a desire to please that body, but I doubt this. If it pleased the liberal element in the Kirk it certainly would not please the supporters of HTC, although he probably wants to bring in the more theologically conservative folk who are not strict inerrantists. I think McGowan is the kind of fellow impatient with mere mouthing of the formulas of the past. He wants to see truth stated freshly and relevantly, and bring people together where possible. Who can disagree? The danger is that we can confuse and drift from the right path, even as we seek to strike out a helpful way forward. I think this has happened in the book subject of this review.

McGowan wants some reconstruction of the doctrine of Scripture. (1) He is not happy beginning with the doctrine of Scripture in our theology, but considers we should start with the God who gave us Scripture. (2) He considers ‘inspiration’ is not so helpful in modern usage and ‘divine spiration’ would be more suitable, with ‘recognition’ replacing ‘illumination’ and ‘comprehension’ replacing ‘perspicuity’. (3) He further wants to replace ‘inerrancy’ by ‘infallibility’ as a middle position between, in his view, wrongly polarised errant and inerrant views, and argues that more attention needs to be given to the human voices in Scripture. (4) He wants recognition of a proper evangelical tradition in the church. (5) He wants Scripture’s use in the church to be pastorally appropriate.

(1) McGowan’s argument is that while establishing Scripture as true goes before the doctrine of God drawn from it in point of logic, yet the order is wrong theologically. Scripture cannot rightly be understood as the revelation of God apart from the work of God’s Spirit. The big danger of Scripture first is that people think they can understand Scripture without God’s aid, which encourages rational proofs and evidentialist apologetics which, while not without some value, are not as suitable as Van Til’s presuppositionalism, in McGowan’s view. I think McGowan reminds us of a danger. Nevertheless, in some respects the force of the argument is blunted when we realise that the Westminster Confession’s first chapter, which is on Scripture, emphasises the very point McGowan makes in its 5th, 6th and 10th paragraphs.

(2) On vocabulary there is not much to object to if we consider what McGowan means by the suggested terms, except for the choice of infallibility over inerrancy. But I do wonder if the discussion on vocabulary achieves much. It is true theopneustos ‘inspiration’ (KJV) would be better rendered ‘God-breathed’ (NIV), which is what the title words ‘Divine spiration’ are meant to represent. The title change for the US edition suggests they are not marketable words for our cousins. To jettison traditional terms might not only cause more confusion and less precision, but contribute to the breaking up of the evangelical tradition McGowan wants to develop (cf. pp. 175ff).

(3) McGowan spends pages 51-122 successively looking at the liberal and fundamentalist developments which, in his view, gave rise to the inerrancy position. In considering the impact of the enlightenment and the rise of liberalism he looks at the reaction to liberalism of neo-orthodoxy (Barth) and conservative evangelicalism (Machen, Van Til). After a brief word on Warfield’s affirmation of inerrancy, McGowan moves to the American movement described as ‘fundamentalist’ from 1920, but which itself had a more rigid position of Scripture than in the books called The Fundamentals published 1910-15 which gave the movement its name.

Faced with inerrant autographs no longer in our hands and variant readings in the surviving manuscripts, some indeed took the line that the Greek text behind the KJV or even the KJV itself should be regarded as the inerrant text and rejected all textual criticism, while others (happily) did not. The neo-evangelicals of the 1950s and later (eg. Carl Henry, Billy Graham) retained inerrancy but affirmed reverent scholarship and social involvement, neither of which were typical of separatist fundamentalism. In reaction to the new evangelicals, writers like Jack Rogers and Donald McKim argued against inerrancy, opposing the Princeton men like the Hodges and Warfield, and claiming the Westminster Confession supported their functional view of the Bible’s inspiration (ie it was inerrant in the matters of salvation but not necessarily on other matters). McGowan reviews the debate that arose, and rightly rejects the historical reconstruction advanced by Rogers and McKim… yet one is left with the lingering fear that the result of McGowan’s reformulation leads in a very similar direction. At any rate he seems to regard ‘minor textual difficulties’ (p. 125) as inevitable given human authorship. He does not identify any ‘errors’ in Scripture, but he doesn’t seem concerned if others find such. This position is quite different from those who recognise variant readings have occurred subsequent to the giving of the autographs, but accept this as a reality of God’s providence.

In his fifth chapter (pp. 123-164) McGowan argues his case for abandoning the term ‘inerrancy’ in favour of ‘infallibility’. Here he pits James Orr and particularly Herman Bavinck against the Princeton tradition of the Hodges and Warfield. I found this an annoying chapter since, while there were some differences of approach as between my favourite systematic theologian, Herman Bavinck, and my favourite Princeton professor, B.B.Warfield, those differences should not be exaggerated. Bavinck does not use the term inerrant and he does criticise the Baconian method of Charles Hodge and others at Princeton, but in point of practical conclusion there is very little difference between them.

Orr does speak of the ‘possibility of minor errors’ (Revelation and Inspiration [1910] 215, speaks of strict inerrancy as on the face of it ‘a suicidal position’ (ibid, 197ff) and does not think inspiration required ‘mistakes’ in genealogies and such like to be corrected (Problem of the Old Testament [1906] 49-50,487). However, importantly, Bavinck does not allow for the possibility of error in the autographs. Just like Warfield he affirms Scripture is ‘totally human in all its parts but also divine in all its parts’ so as to be ‘without defect or stain’ (Reformed Dogmatics I 435). Thus Warfield writes (Selected Shorter Writings II 547): ‘the whole Bible is recognised as human, the free product of human effort, in every part and word. And at the same time the whole Bible is recognised as divine, the Word of God, his utterances, of which he is in the truest sense the author.’

McGowan concedes the closeness of Warfield and Bavinck both specifically (eg. pp. 135, 211-212), and also in the way he does not formally recognise the similarity of some of his quotations of Bavinck with statements of Warfield. In addition, the notion that the inerrancy view of Scripture was developed by Charles Hodge (p. 163) is unsupportable by historic evidence, and is contradicted by the approving citation of Mark Noll on page 85 to the effect that the entire truthfulness of Scripture is the common doctrine of most Christians in most churches in all ages. The inerrancy position gets represented by some straw men along the way.

Perhaps McGowan’s main issue is that those holding inerrancy usually affirm that in giving us his word God could not give it with errors since to do so would be inconsistent with his holy and sovereign will. McGowan says we should not impose a concept on Scripture or God a priori, but let Scripture itself inform us. But nowhere does he offer any exegetical material on passages, such as Jesus’ saying, ‘the Scripture cannot be broken’. It is not surprising that there is no Scripture index! Warfield himself points to the importance of starting with what the Scriptures teach about themselves and looking at the facts within Scripture in that light, rather than generating a theory of Scripture from our assessments of various facts in Scripture (Works I 214ff). Some things in Scripture may appear contradictory and if we start from them we may formulate a defective view of Scripture, and twist the obvious claims of Scripture as to its own character. Indeed, if Scripture is the word of God through men of his choosing, how can it partake of that which is contrary to God’s nature? It may fall out in God’s providence that textual variants arise or infelicitous translations are made, but can that which is God-breathed, the autographs, contain that which is not true?

Perhaps a further clue to the rather confusing discussion in McGowan’s book is his statement, ‘Inerrancy requires one to demonstrate the scientific accuracy of the autographs’ (p. 84). McGowan dislikes the rather arid debates on inerrancy and attempts at harmonisation which arise from people who forget Scripture is given for a particular purpose. One recalls Augustine’s comment in AD 404: “Nowhere in the gospel do we read that the Lord said: ‘I will send you the Paraclete who will teach you about the course of the sun and the moon.’ For he wanted to make Christians, not mathematicians” (Debate with Felix the Manichee, 1, 10). Certainly, some, even in the Reformed community, are too given to attempting scientific proofs or harmonisations of Scripture due to an excessive literalism that does not give sufficient emphasis to the meaning and intent of Scripture. But a good theologian should aim at clarity and accuracy in his critique.

Taking the most generous approach, one feels that McGowans’ work is well intentioned but likely to add to confusion in this area. Too often we can read Scripture through an interpretative grid owed to polarised positions brought about by past debates. I think some clarifying discussion is desirable, but this pleasantly written work could have been digested into a journal article highlighting with much greater precision the points of alleged difference, and suggestions for the way forward. Unhappily the volume falls short of its intended purpose.

It will bring, if it has not already, a sharp reaction among American conservatives, given McGowan’s standing in conservative evangelical and Reformed churches there hitherto. In Australia also there is already some controversy. I do not consider his views outside the obligations of a minister in the Presbyterian Church of Australia [PCA] in terms of the Basis of Union of 1901, and in that respect a censure of a PCA minister holding such views does not seem appropriate. There are a few of such views in Victoria but a greater proportion in the more diverse New South Wales. The potential for some bitter in-fighting is there, especially given existing strrains between Victoria and New South Wales.

From the more important aspect of the building up of the kingdom of God, one would not like to see McGowan’s views spread. I believe McGowan is a good man. It is not so much McGowan that concerns one, but what others will do with his views. They seem likely to feed into the general lowering of right and clear views of Scripture characteristic of many evangelicals in the present day.

Postscript: Since writing the above I have received my copy of God’s Word in Servant-Form by Richard B. Gaffin Jr (Reformed Academic Press, 2008) which ably discusses Abraham Kuyper’s and Herman Bavinck’s doctrine of Scripture finding it in substantial agreement, certainly on the point of its freedom from error, with the views of the old Princeton school. The volume is a lightly revised version of articles in the Westminster Theological Journal 1982 and 1983. McGowan is aware of these articles and cites Gaffin approvingly on page 138, but confusingly says on the same page that “Following James Orr they rejected the inerrentist position and held to an infallibilist postion”. This is not Gaffin’s conclusion nor does it agree with the facts of history.

Further note (31/7/08): McGowan’s position on Scripture seems very like that of James Orr (1844-1913). Orr was a United Presbyterian minister and then Professor at the UP College (1891-1900) and the United Free Church College (1900-13). He helped draft the UP Declaratory Act of 1879 which weakened adherence to the old Calvinism (and which in modified form is part of the 1901 constitution of the Presbyterian Church of Australia), although his own works generally upheld conservative positions. His best book, The Christian View of God and the World3 [1897] was reprinted by Kregal of recent years. All his work is characterised by wide reading, and clarity of analysis.