In his opening chapter, "Reconstructing the doctrine," he states:
The case being made in this chapter is that, within the doctrine of God, the proper place to discuss Scripture is as an aspect of the work of the Holy Spirit. (p. 30-31)After providing a brief survey of the place, and content, of the affirmations concerning Scripture in the ecumenical creeds and some early Reformed confessions, McGowan highlights the turn toward giving the doctrine of Scripture both a primary place and detailed treatment in subsequent Reformed confessions. He makes the following observations and deductions:
In the Reformed confessions and catechisms, then, there was a gradual move towards putting the doctrine of Scripture at the beginning, with everything thereafter being deduced from that first premise. Logically, this makes perfect sense.All errors have consequences, even if we stumble into them with the best of intentions by following a 'logical' as opposed to a 'theological' or 'biblical' method. At the crucial point of elaborating the content and form of confessional Reformed theology did the compilers of the Reformed confessions take a wrong turn? Did they unwittingly obscure the doctrine of God by giving first place to the doctrine of Scripture? If so, what observable errors did this lead to?
The Reformers and those who followed in their tradition wanted to emphasize that all of their teaching was drawn from Scripture; hence they began with a strong statement on the authority, sufficiency and perspicuity of Scripture before dealing with any other doctrine. In this way, they were underlining the fact that when they came to speak about God, salvation, the church or any other matter, everything they said would be drawn from the Scripture principle.
Although making sense 'logically', however, this positioning of the doctrine of Scripture creates many problems when viewed 'theologically'. In fact, this positioning of Scripture at the beginning of the theological system takes the primary focus away from God. (p. 27-28)
McGowan notes that one of the crucial texts in the formulation of our doctrine of Scripture is 2 Peter 1:20-21. Peter, of course, stresses in the passage the sovereign role of the Holy Spirit in the composition of Scripture. From this evidence McGowan makes the following point:
The writing of Scripture, then, ought to be seen as an aspect of the work of the Holy Spirit, and this ought to be reflected in the place Scripture is given in our theological formulations.In a final extract professor McGowan provides an example of the kind of error that the wrong location of Scripture in the theological system leads to:
This means that Scripture ought not to be placed at the beginning of the theological system, to provide an epistemological basis for what follows, but rather ought to be placed under the doctrine of God--more specifically, under the work of the Holy Spirit.
The rationale for this argument concerns the nature of Scripture itself, as part of God's self-revelation. Thus theology proper begins with God, not with the Scriptures. It is God himself who brought the Scriptures into existence. How then can these writings have a logical or theological priority over the God who caused them to be written? (p. 29).
The most serious of these errors is to imply that the Scriptures can stand alone as a source of epistemological certainty, quite apart from the work of God the Holy Spirit. This error results in the Scriptures taking on a life of their own, whereby men and women sometimes imagine (even if they would not express it this way) that they hold in their hands the final written revelation of God that can be read, understood and applied, without any further involvement of God. (p. 29).At this stage it is helpful to note that McGowan's proposal deals with systematic theology and the Reformed confessions. Although related, systematic theology and churchly confessions are not synonymous in form and content. There is no reason why a systematic theology written by an individual author may not adopt a different order as McGowan suggests. I would regard this as a matter of personal choice. As I understand it McGowan is arguing for a relocation of the doctrine of Scripture that would have implications for systematic theology and the confessions, and his criticisms of the current order affect both. Of particular interest are the undesirable consequences that are alleged to be attributable to the wrong location of the doctrine of Scripture. McGowan spells out this aim in his concluding chapter:
...the chapter on Scripture should not be the first chapter in our confessional statements but ought to come after our doctrine of God, as one aspect of his self-revelation. (p. 208)Critique
We will begin by taking up the error referred to in the last quotation, that of Scripture standing alone "as a source of epistemological certainty, quite apart from the work of God the Holy Spirit" and as the "final written revelation of God that can be read, understood and applied without any further involvement of God."
Is the wrong location of the doctrine of Scripture in the theological system to blame (either as a direct cause or contributing factor) in the production of this error? My answer is no for the following reasons.
All doctrines and doctrinal formulations are open to abuse in the minds and lives of sinful people. I do not think that the Reformed confessions 'imply' the kind of error that is imagined above, but we can logically conceive of someone being guilty of this error despite the clear emphasis in the Reformed confessions on how one arrives at a certain knowledge of the truthfulness of Scripture.
Doubtless it is true that some people may find themselves to be guilty of this error. This may be the case because their doctrine and application of the work of the work of the Holy Spirit is in some way deficient (a reflection of their reading or theological background?). Yet I find it hard to believe that a Calvinist who believes in monergistic regeneration could fall into this error, regardless of where the doctrine of Scripture is located in the theological system, since their total theological and experiential grasp of the work of the Spirit in revelation and conversion keeps them from it.
To fall into this implied error is surely a sign that one has practically departed from sola gratia. The fault then is not the location of Scripture in the system but the denial or suspension of belief in the need for the gracious work of the Spirit at the point of ongoing understanding of the Bible. To suppose that Scripture can be "read, understood and applied, without the further involvement of God" is no less than raw Pelagianism. The ordering of the confession, or system, is surely not to blame for a view of the grace of God that is at odds with the Reformed faith as a whole.
In their presentation of the doctrine of Scripture the Reformed confessions are not silent on the role of the Holy Spirit in the production, and believing acceptance, of the written Word of God. The Westminster Confession affirms in I:V that "our full persuasion and assurance of the infallible truth and divine authority thereof, is from the inward work of the Holy Spirit bearing witness by and with the Word in our hearts" and in I:VI that "we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word."
Likewise the Belgic Confession states in Article 3 that "We confess that this Word of God was not sent nor delivered by the will of men, but that holy men of God spoke, being moved by the Holy Spirit, as Peter says" and in Article 5 that "we believe without a doubt all things contained in them...above all because the Holy Spirit testifies in our hearts that they are from God, and also because they prove themselves to be from God." There is no implication given at all that Scripture "can stand alone as a source of epistemological certainty, quite apart from the work of God the Holy Spirit" or that Scripture "can be read, understood and applied, without any further involvement of God." If this happens we must look elsewhere for an explanation, it is certainly not the chapter order of the Westminster or Belgic Confession that is to blame.
Although these confessional statements on Scripture precede their respective statements on the Trinity they evidently presuppose the person and work of the Holy Spirit in the revelation and recognition of Scripture. There is clearly a reciprocal relationship, and an organic unity, in these confessional statements about the being and persons of God and the Word of God written. What remains to be asked then is why the Reformed confessions begin with elaborate statements on Scripture and then move to fuller statements on the doctrine of God? Is there anything at stake in this choice?
Professor McGowan has perhaps provided the key to answering these questions with a very pertinent quote from G. C. Berkouwer, "There is no more significant question in the whole of theology and in the whole of human life than that of the nature and reality of revelation" (p. 18). But which to treat first is the issue, revelation or the One who has revealed himself to us? Richard Muller has written:
The question of order arises immediately upon the identification of the two principia or foundations: should the system proceed from its ontic to its noetic foundation, or should it proceed from its noetic to its ontic principium?In conclusion, the relocation of the doctrine of Scripture in the Reformed system is unnecessary. The organic relationship between the statements about Scripture and the Spirit in the Westminster and Belgic confessions make such a relocation superfluous. Furthermore, as Muller has stated "either order has its justification" given the need for special saving revelation from and about the Triune God. Finally, McGowan's caution about the "serious errors" implied by the present location of the doctrine of Scripture in the theological system, are not of sufficient cogency to attribute their existence to the current system. These errors can be accounted for in other ways. Indeed the specific error that he uses as an example is contrary to the whole Reformed system and not directly, or even indirectly, caused by the particular location of Scripture in that system.
The noetic or cognitive foundation depends for its existence upon the existence and activity of the ontic or essential foundation: there could be no Word of God without God. But the essential foundation could not be known if it were not for the cognitive foundation: there could be no knowledge of God without God's self-revelation. Either order has its justification.
Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics, Volume Two: Holy Scripture, p. 156 emphasis added.