Thursday, April 17, 2008

Is Inerrancy Unbiblical, Rationalistic and Presumptuous? Examining McGowan's proposal (part 3)

Is inerrancy a rationalist implication drawn from other doctrines?

There is considerable overlap between this point and the previous one if implications drawn from Scripture are treated with suspicion for being unbiblical. McGowan states his case as follows:

The basic error of the inerrantists is to insist that the inerrancy of the autographa is a direct implication of the biblical doctrine of inspiration (or divine spiration). In order to defend this implication, the inerrantists make an unwarranted assumption about God. The assumption is that, given the nature and character of God, the only kind of Scripture he could 'breathe out' was Scripture that is textually inerrant. If there was even one mistake in the autographa, then God cannot have been the author, because he is incapable of error.

Notice, the argument is not that God, being all powerful, is able to deliver a perfectly autographic text. On that matter there is no disagreement between us, since I am happy to affirm God's sovereign power. Rather the argument of the inerrantists is that God is unable to produce anything other than an inerrant autographic text. In other words, I agree with the inerrantists that God could have brought into being inerrant autographic texts, had he chosen to do so, but I reject their argument that he must have acted in this way. (p. 113-4, emphasis original)

For some reason McGowan obscures the point at issue in the second paragraph by introducing God's sovereign power into the discussion. The issue at hand, however, is not one of divine omnipotence but of divine veracity. It is not over what God is able or not able to do with regard to his power, but over what he is able or not able to do with regard to speaking the truth. Is McGowan really saying that he rejects the argument that God must have breathed out Scriptures free from error? Given that the veracity of God is part of the data of Scripture (“Every word of God proves true” Proverbs 30:4; “it is impossible for God to lie” Hebrews 6:18; “God who never lies” Titus 1:2) why would it be a rationalist implication to conclude that when God speaks, and when he breathed out Scripture in its totality, that he speaks only the truth? Indeed, it is hard to reconcile his argument that God was not bound by his own nature to breathe out an inerrant Word, and that we should not assert that he did so a priori, with his later claims that God does not deceive or mislead (p. 210, 212). Veracity is not an effect of God's will but of his nature. Could God have chosen to breathe out verbal revelation that may have contained even a small amount of error? If he could do that are we still able to speak of him as being infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his truth (WSC Q. 4)? In its most basic and simple form the question is: must God always speak the truth or is he free to breathe out truth and error? The following statement, already referred to above but worth repeating, is not a reassuring answer on this point:

In other words, I agree with the inerrantists that God could have brought into being inerrant autographic texts, had he chosen to do so, but I reject their argument that he must have acted in this way. (p. 113-4)

In the concluding chapter this point is repeated:

In other words, to argue that the only kind of Bible God was able to give us was one with inerrant autographa is untenable. (p. 209)

These words clearly indicate that McGowan's proposal to reject inerrancy is every bit as much a proposal to separate God's veracity from his nature and to view it as a function of his will. We are being asked here to accept a change in our doctrine of the divine nature. The most remarkable statement about inerrancy and the character of God is the following:

Perhaps the most striking problem with the rationalistic implication concerning inerrancy is that it limits God. It assumes that God can only act in a way that conforms to our expectations, based on our human assessment of his character. It assumes that whatever God does must conform to the canons of human reason...In opposition to these inerrantist assumptions, we must surely argue that God is free to act according to his will. (p. 118)

Whatever Professor McGowan thinks that he may have gained by this statement is lost by the admission that total truthfulness in speech is not guaranteed by God's nature but is variable according to his will. Perhaps stated so baldly such a thought would be horrifying to him, but I cannot see how it can be disallowed by the way that he has constructed his argument.

Furthermore he writes:

If God can effectively communicate and act savingly through the imperfect human beings who are called to preach his gospel, why is it necessary to argue that the authors of Scripture were supernaturally kept from even the slightest discrepancy? In other words we must not tell God what the Bible ought to be like, based on our views of what God could and could not do. (p. 118-9)

What a curious question to ask. Of course God can use imperfect men to preach the gospel, but those men do not stand in relation to God's Word in the same way as the prophets and apostles did. This is surely to confuse preaching what God has revealed with the production of God's Word written. There is a divine intentionality in delivering the latter that we would not seek to claim for the former. Are we to suppose that “God the Holy Spirit caused men to write books and his supervisory action was such that although these books are truly the work of human beings, they are also the Word of God” (p. 43) and yet that supervisory activity does not make it necessary to “argue that the authors of Scripture were supernaturally kept from even the slightest discrepancy”?

A few pages later McGowan confidently asserts that God did not intend to give us inerrant autographs:

My argument is that Scripture, having been divinely spirated, is as God intended it to be. Having freely chosen to use human beings, God knew what he was doing. He did not give us an inerrant autographical text, because he did not intend to do so. He gave us a text that reflects the humanity of its authors but that, at the same time, clearly evidences its origin in the divine speaking. Through the instrumentality of the Holy Spirit, God is perfectly able to use these Scriptures to accomplish his purposes. (p. 124).

One wonders what to make of this. Is this not a presumption that God has in fact given us a less than inerrant verbal revelation? There is certainly some ambiguity in the last two sentences. This comment raises more questions than it answers. Given that in an earlier section of the book he dismisses appeals to the inerrant autographa as special pleading since we do not possess them, how can he be so confident that they were not in fact inerrant? How does he know that God's intentions were not to give us error free originals? Has he arrived at this conclusion from the explicit teaching of Scripture or by inference? And given that he is unwilling to make the veracity of God the guarantor of error free verbal revelation on what does his argument that God does not deceive rest? If the autographs were not inerrant, and God did not intend them to be so, why does McGowan want to prohibit us from drawing the obvious conclusion that the limitations adopted by God in using human authors involved the admixture of error?

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