Review Article: A. T. B. McGowan, “The Divine Authenticity of Scripture” (Part 1)

A Review of A. T. B. McGowan, The Divine Authenticity of Scripture, Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2007, 229 pages.

There are precious few good books on the doctrine of Scripture or on theological method.  This book by the Principal of Highland Theological Seminary in Scotland, and a Visiting Professor at both Westminster and Reformed Seminaries, which speaks to both of these areas, is naturally of interest to evangelicals.  The book has already caused ripples in certain circles since its release, and this belated review will address some of the same issues, as well as adding one or two things which have, for whatever reason been bypassed in other appraisals.

McGowan purports to be “retrieving” the church’s teaching of a high view of Scripture while circumventing “less tolerant” (14) views of inerrantists, in N. America especially.

The author’s reasons for producing the book are fourfold and are plainly set out in the Introduction.  First, he believes the doctrine of Scripture belongs more properly under the locus of Pneumatology rather than being placed at or near the beginning of Systematic Theology (or, indeed in the theology of the Westminster Assembly, which he thinks made “a mistake which needs to be corrected” (12) when they placed it in the first chapter of the Confession.

The second reason for the book is the advocacy of an overdue change in accepted theological vocabulary.  He believes the terms ‘inspiration,’ ‘illumination’ and ‘perspicuity’ are unhelpful, especially today, and that they ought to be replaced ‘divine spiration,’ ‘recognition’ and ‘comprehension’ respectively.

The third change McGowan wishes to make is in regard to the inerrancy debate.  He thinks the inerrancy/errancy debate as it has transpired in America is a false dichotomy brought about by an ostrich-like mentality within American fundamentalism.  To be blunt about it McGowan does not believe that inerrancy is a biblical doctrine (e.g. 162), but is a rationalistic fabrication fostered on modern evangelicals who were enticed by Enlightenment categories.  In McGowan’s opinion “the apparent discrepancies, contradictions and other difficulties that so trouble inerrantists” (163) should be accepted for what they are.  He believes the discussion about inerrant autographs and their effect on the Bible as we have it leads into “sterile” territory, and he wants his book to be a positive contribution to evangelicals with a high view of Scripture who recognize the need to climb out of the barrenness of the inerrancy debate (164).  (In case you are tempted to think of Rogers & McKim I ask that you hold off judgment until later).

Fourthly, the author wishes to re-examine the role of proclamation in the church.  This review will concentrate on the first three issues rather than this fourth point.

Whatever my personal disagreements with McGowan, which are not minor, I respect what I interpret to be his sincere intentions to move theology forward in this area.  However, some of my observations will call attention to what I believe to be significant lapses in the author’s research.  Significantly, it is these weak areas which provide the very underpinning for the more radical proposals the writer urges us to accept.

Chapter Two is entitled ‘Reconstructing the Doctrine.’  In this chapter the author starts by emphasizing Scripture as revelation.  This is a welcome beginning as too many evangelicals come at Scripture schizophrenically.  Part of their thinking accepts the Bible as from God, while part believes that such acceptance must be arrived at through scientific reasoning.  Thus, Scripture only attains its right and proper status as the Word of God after it has passed the tests devised via human induction.  This makes the Bible’s claims rest finally not upon its own attestation, but upon the more precarious ground of rational approval and defeasibility.

McGowan proceeds to refer to three forms of special revelation: “Jesus Christ (the Incarnate Word), Scripture (the written Word) and preaching (the spoken Word).” (19). It is not the way those of evangelical persuasion have described the doctrine.  Preaching, to be sure, may be equated with the Word of God, but it is not inspired.  But special revelation is inspired.  Moreover, there were various modes of revelation in biblical times, but only Scripture is special revelation today.  Even Jesus Christ is known through the Scripture, not through any extra-biblical disclosure.

McGowan seeks a dynamic approach to revelation and he utilizes his former teacher, Barthian scholar John Webster’s relational method, while avoiding the Barthian dichotomy between revelation and Scripture (20-21).  It is not surprising to find him extolling Kevin Vanhoozer’s “dramaturgical” theory of revelation (in The Drama of Doctrine) while throwing suspicion on propositionalism (116-117).  But it is possible to construe propositional revelation in less static forms than the “concordance” view and yet retain its crucial role in theological method.

This stress on a “directed” revelation leads to talk about repositioning bibliology within the doctrine of the Third Person.  McGowan thinks the serious lack of emphasis upon the Holy Spirit is explicable in part by the fact that “Western rationalism and secularism have affected Christian theology more than we would …care to admit.” (22). So McGowan proposes to “reconstruct the doctrine of Scripture in light of our doctrine of the Holy Spirit.” (24).

Quite apart from the admissibility of the practice (which seems to me to be more subjective than objective), the question that arises in this reviewer’s mind is whether one ought to construct any doctrine on the basis of another.  This surely introduces human reason too soon in the theological process.  The doctrine of Scripture – wherever one chooses to put it in his system – must be arrived at first and foremost by the same process that any other doctrine (e.g. the doctrine of the Holy Spirit) is arrived at, not as a perceived deduction from other corpora.  This is to systematize before doing the exegetical groundwork.[1] In any case relocating the doctrine of Scripture within the doctrine of the Holy Spirit would be unnecessary in a system which was less scholastic in its insistence on rigid divisions, but rather threaded the theme of revelation throughout the presentation (e.g. Calvin, Frame).[2]

As an advocate of presuppositionalism I was happy to find McGowan using the work of Cornelius Van Til to establish a biblical epistemology (32-38) and to critique Kant (77-83).  Evangelicals who say they hold to the final authority of the Bible and who yet insist on employing reason independently of the Bible would benefit from these discussions.  Nevertheless, it should be noted that the primary function these discussions (in chapters 2 & 3) is to ground the critique of fundamentalism which comes up in chapter 4.

Before surveying the fourth chapter I should say something about the author’s recommendation of new vocabulary in the last half of chapter 2.  He wishes to replace inspiration with spiration.[3] As everyone knows, “inspiration” denotes breathing-in, not breathing-out.  But given that many words change their meaning over time, and that technical usage sometimes differs from normal usage, this change seems hardly worth the effort; especially when one considers the problems connected with the word ‘spiration’ – which sounds very odd.  It is doubtful whether the prescribed change will incite much enthusiasm.  The most important thing is to recognize the God-givenness of the text of Scripture.

Next he wants to substitute recognition for illumination and comprehension for perspicuity. With the first substitution I have some sympathy.  “Illumination” is an awkward term precisely because it implies “that the Scriptures need to have light shed upon them…The problem, however, is in the human mind and not in the Scriptures.” (44). Of course, other terminology has been used: ‘witness’; ‘testimony,’ etc.   Is “recognition” preferable?  More important is to define what we mean.  The Scriptures were written as a Self-disclosure of God and His works.  They are perfectly adequate for the task.  They constitute the Book of God, to be read and memorized and pondered and preached.  The problem, as McGowan notes, is with us.  Hence the need for the Divine Author to bring the reality of inscripturated truth home to us by an inner witness.  Does “recognition” better describe this action than “illumination”?  Well, certainly it throws light on the human acceptance of the theopneustic character of Scripture as the Word of God, but it does not elucidate the central tenet of illumination which is to seal the truth upon the heart and mind.

As for swapping “perspicuity” or “clarity” for “comprehension,” the author’s intention is to remind us of “the fact that only God the Holy Spirit can give us understanding (comprehension) of the Scriptures.” (47). This is good, but again this reader remains unimpressed with the proposal.

The final change in vocabulary, that of exchanging inerrancy for infallibility is the most controversial, not least because McGowan wants to do away with the concept of inerrancy altogether.


[1] Everyone is prone to this practice, and it is common to find it within the tradition of covenant theology of which McGowan is a part.

 

[2] I do not think the author’s approving reference to Stanley Grenz (24-25) helps his argument much here.  It seems to me Grenz had other reasons for advocating this maneuver.

[3] This reflects the original title of the book when it appeared in the UK, viz. The Divine Spiration of Scripture.

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