Review Article: A. T. B. McGowan, “The Divine Authenticity of Scripture” (Part 2)

The final change in vocabulary, that of exchanging inerrancy for infallibility is the most controversial in McGowan’s book, not least because McGowan wants to do away with the concept of inerrancy altogether.   However, before we examine this last point – which is the central premise of the book – it would be unwise for us not to mention something about how the author gets us there.   For this we will need to survey chapter 4, “Fundamentalism and Inerrancy.”

One will not read too far into the fourth chapter to get the drift of McGowan’s thought.  In his opening statements he declares, “that evangelicals ought to abandon the word ‘inerrancy’ and use language that is more biblically accurate and theologically constructive.” (84). He will argue for this in earnest in the next chapter, but this statement sets the agenda.  The author needs to show up inerrancy as a bad idea, and so after a couple of pages about Warfield, whose position on inerrancy is widely accepted by both evangelicals and fundamentalists, he proceeds to infer that J. Orr and A. Kuyper and H. Bavinck “rejected this doctrine of inerrancy” (87).[i]

This is really just introduction to the author’s main concern in this chapter, which is “Inerrancy.”  First he aims his guns at Fundamentalism.  He notes correctly that “Fundamentalism was and is primarily an American movement” and then lists a number of histories he has consulted (90).  Unfortunately, he seems to be unaware of the important works of Dollar and Beale, or of the helpful contributions of McLachlan and McCune.  This hamstrings him more than he knows, and coupled with what comes across as a rather rarefied British academic upbringing it impedes his argumentation severely.  As any Fundamentalist will at once recognize, McGowan is criticizing the movement from a distance; a distance he has made little effort to close.  Early fundamentalists supposedly were generally “anti-intellectual” and evidenced “the complete rejection of any form of textual criticism” (91).  Evidently, “many fundamentalists argued that no form of textual criticism was acceptable.” (94). He then ropes together many if not most “fundamentalist inerrantists” into this category by identifying them with the more extreme “King James Only” party[ii] (94, 103-104).  The same unfortunate group of fundamentalist inerrantists is also judged to be guilty of adhering closely to a dictation theory of inspiration (103), although in this case he seeks to bring the same charge against American evangelicalism in general.  As one might expect, McGowan’s documentation for these specific charges is slim.

From pages 105 to 122 McGowan presents three Arguments against inerrancy First, he thinks the definition of inerrancy given in the Chicago Statement to be long-drawn-out and inadequate (my language).  McGowan asks whether the authors of the definition would not have done better had they been given the advantage of starting with a blank sheet of paper instead of being burdened with a problematical term like ‘inerrant.’ (106-107). Besides, he says some inerrantists like P. Feinberg  have so qualified the definition that even a clear error can be smuggled through in the name of inerrancy! (107 citing Feinberg[iii]).  What then is left of the meaning?

In reply we must say that to espouse inerrancy in one place and admit plain errors in another is completely unreasonable.  It is doubtful whether Feinberg actually does this, but Articles XI – XIII of the Chicago Statement admit of no such ambiguity.  To the contrary, the affirmation regarding Scripture in Article XI states that “far from misleading us, it is true and reliable in all the matters it addresses.”[iv] The fact is that the phenomena of Scripture must be judged in terms of the intent of Scripture[v].  Exact precision is not called for in those places commonly produced as instances of biblical errors.  The question one needs to ask in these cases is “is that a true statement?”  Whether it comes from an extra-biblical source (e.g. Paul’s quotations of Greek thinkers) the important question has to do with its truthfulness.  We agree with the author that a “mistake in the genealogy” occasioned, e.g., by the Chronicler’s use of inaccurate sources, would constitute an error (108-109). But we emphatically deny that such a mistake has found its way into the Bible.   For the term inerrancy to be invalidated it would have to be proved that 1. a biblical statement contradicted the known truth, and 2. that in all relevant cases the biblical author intended scientific precision rather than a generally accepted statement of fact.  Such has never been shown.  Therefore, “inerrancy” is a perfectly accurate and acceptable term to use.

McGowan’s second argument against inerrancy is from the absence of the autographs.

“If textual inerrancy is so vital…why did God not preserve the autographa or precise copies of the same?  Indeed, if inerrancy only applies to the autographa (which we do not possess), then surely it is a somewhat pointless affirmation?” (109).

At first sight this may look like a strong criticism.  What is the point of building a doctrine upon materials we do not have?  But when the testimony of Scripture to itself is taken into account this objection is muted.  Since all Scripture is God-breathed (2 Tim. 3:16) and its writing was Divinely superintended (2 Pet. 1:21), and its contents were endorsed without scruple by the Lord Jesus, the matter is passé for anyone who has experienced the internal testimony of the Spirit to His Word.  Besides, the degree of accuracy which responsible textual criticism[vi] has brought us effectively pulls the teeth of this objection.

But there is another problem with the criticism about the loss of the autographs.  It is obvious from places like Joshua 8:24-26 (the account of the stoning of Achan) that a later editor or redactor must have played a part in the completion of the final form of the text – the text as we have it in our Bibles.  It is doubtful if the original autograph of Joshua was passed down and later added to by the writer of these verses.  The same point could be made with numerous examples.

What this reveals is that before one can talk about autographs, one must know what one means by the term.  Clearly, God’s methods of preservation and His decision as to when an inspired Book reached its enshrined form in the Canon are matters that we cannot determine with precision, but this is no way detracts from the fact that we have the text of Scripture that God wants us to have.  We have “the Word of Truth” and it has been faithfully represented in our best translations.[vii] If an error (defined within the limits of Scripture’s intent and allowing for discernable copying or translation errors) can be found the text may come under suspicion, but such an outright error has never been uncovered.  Thus, as long as what is asserted to be true is not shown to be untrue, the term inerrancy is an accurate one.  And this will prove to be the case since the Bible is the Word of God.  It does not depend on human verification to be what it is, since without it, as Van Til sought to show, humanity would be unable to affirm veridical truth in any form.[viii]

McGowan’s third argument against inerrancy concerns problems in the text.  It “concerns how we deal with textual issues such as apparent conflicts and contradictions.” (112). He then cites his former teacher, I. Howard Marshall (who, not so coincidentally, is not an inerrantist), who refers us to the difficulty in harmonizing the timing of Jairus’s initial words to Jesus in Matt. 9:18 where he tells the Lord his daughter is dead, with the fact that Jairus only knew of his daughter’s death later (Mk. 5:35f.; Lk. 8:49f.).   This is a fair question, and is often used by those who promote the ‘Two Document Theory’ of Synoptic origins (‘Q’ plus Mark) as demonstration that Matthew edited the Markan account. The root of the problem centers around the apparent conflict between Matt. 9:18 (“My daughter has just died”), and Mark 5:23 (“My daughter lies at the point of death”).  How does an inerrantist answer this?  The first thing to say is that he does not have to answer it definitively.  He only needs to produce a possible scenario in which Jairus’s seemingly contradictory words to Jesus could be harmonized.[ix]

Then comes the burden of this third argument: “if God is able to use the errant copies (manuscripts, translations, editions) that we do have…why invest so much theological capital in hypothetical originals we do not have?” (113). McGowan argues on the next pages that inerrant autographs appear to be an unnecessary rationalistic over-requirement.  And in this he begins to show his hand.  For he is unconcerned about what such a view – for example, that God inspired contradictory or unscientific autographa – does to the doctrine of God’s veracity.  The orthodox position on this attribute of God (that God is Truth), not to mention the attribute of His perfect rationality (God’s thoughts are the source of right logic.  They cannot contradict), demands that one affirm that God cannot do such a thing as McGowan intimates He did.  Thus, the doctrines of God and His revelation are jeopardized.  For if God is capable of producing contradictory statements, He is neither completely truthful nor completely rational.  McGowan is taking his reader to the edge of a precipice.[x] In the midst of giving a theological argument against inerrancy McGowan has undermined every evangelical statement about God and Scripture he has made or will go on to make.  In the nature of the case, the God of the Bible could not produce the kind of non-inerrant autographs McGowan is campaigning for and remain the God whom the Bible reveals.


[i] I intend to explore this assertion, especially as it concerns Herman Bavinck, in the final part of this review.

[ii] Does the author not know that mainline fundamentalists have always opposed the more radical positions of P. S. Ruckman (misspelled ‘Ruchman’ in the book (95, 228) and G. A. Riplinger?  And does he not know that the majority of fundamentalists have not held to King James Onlyism?  Apparently not.

[iii] We pass by the matter of whether P. Feinberg’s intent could not be viewed in a better light.

[iv] One may wish to argue that it is unnecessary to lend nuances to infallible and inerrant. Something the Article does.

[v] This is spelled out in Article XIII of the Chicago Statement.

[vi] There is such a thing as irresponsible textual criticism.  The kind which assumes a naturalistic orientation that discounts both Scripture’s own testimony and any supernatural provenance of the Bible.  The recent books of Bart Erhman serve as examples of this attitude.

[vii] I know there is more to say on this issue, but for present purposes what I have said above will suffice.

[viii] For example: “The Christian holds to the authority and finality of the Bible not because he can clearly, that is exhaustively, show the coherence of every fact with every other fact of Scripture.  He rather holds to this doctrine of Scripture because, unless he does, there is no resting point for the search of facts anywhere.” – C. Van Til, A Christian Theory of Knowledge, (Phillipsburg, N.J.: P&R, 1969), 36.

[ix] Such scenarios (e.g. in Lenski, Glasscock, Hiebert) do seem to require Matthew, who often thematicizes material, giving the gist of the story in Jairus’s words.  This might support an ipsissima vox (‘the very voice”) view of language in the Gospels.  However, it needs to be noted that there is no report of Jairus’ words in Matt. 9:18 anywhere else (so he might have exaggerated initially).  Furthermore, if Matthew gives the ipsissima vox of Jairus’ words (which Jairus may have treated as incidental), it need not follow that he does the same with the words of Jesus (which are not incidental).  And we must insist that we are not to be burdened with explaining every difficulty in the Bible.  We are not in a position to witness what transpired, but only to believe what God has inspired and the Spirit has authenticated.

This is not the same as the ‘eschatological cop-out’ so often utilized by atheistic scientists to avoid awkward data that threatens to overthrow their theories.  Reasonable answers have been given to these “Problem Texts”, even if those answers do not satisfy everyone. .

[x] How ironic it is to see an author extolling Van Til’s thought in one part of the book while advancing opinions in other parts which would turn that thought on its head!

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2 comments

  1. “if God is able to use the errant copies (manuscripts, translations, editions) that we do have…why invest so much theological capital in hypothetical originals we do not have?”

    Ironic that God is able to use so much that is “errant.” I am far from perfect, yet God uses me. (You want to talk about a miracle?) And don’t forget the God who allows Joseph to claim that “you meant it for evil, but God meant it for good.” Our perfect God makes a habit of doing great things with inadequate and imperfect copies of perfect tools.

    But his argument is defective on it’s face. The corollary could be that since God is able to accomplish so much with the evil that men intend, why invest so much effort in trying to become so conformed to the perfect image of Christ?

    God’s ability to use something has no effect on an object’s perfection or lack thereof. Nor should it affect our advocacy of the truth.

  2. Thank you for your comment. Yes, God does have to use imperfect (weak) things to accomplish His work in the world.

    As far as a doctrine of Scripture is concerned, this constitutes a negative argument. We must recall also that Scripture is not being conformed to a higher standard. The problem comes down to what we mean by “inerrant.” This is commonplace parlance that is not supposed to describe mathematical exactitude (since everyday language doesn’t function that way), but does accommodate “truthfulness” and “fidelity.”

    As John Frame points out in his review of this book, and as I will restate it in my closing piece, the term “infallible” which McGowan wishes to replace “inerrant” with, has to be distorted by him so as to be usable. This is basically what the whole book is the subtext for.

    God bless you in 2010

    Your brother,

    Paul

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