Tuesday, April 22, 2008

A. T. B. McGowan's proposal to reject necessary inerrancy

My four posts on Professor Andy McGowan's rejection of necessary inerrancy were from a draft version of a longer article that has now been posted at Reformation 21.


Augustinian Successor said...

Dear Martin,

Just a quick word: Keep up the good work, brother! I studied at Aber, and attended AP. At CU, I have heard you speak before, and have always enjoyed your insighful, throught-provoking, challenging and enriching talks!

May the Lord bless your ministry for the Reformed truth in the British Isles.

Augustinian Successor said...

The "attack" on the biblical doctrine of inerrancy is inextricably linked to the biblical doctrine of inspiration. Inspiration as "theopneustos", i.e. properly and authentically understood as the DIVINE union between "form" and "content", "medium" and "concept" is necessary to safeguard the OBJECTIVITY of the TRUTH of Holy Scripture.

Denial of inerrancy IS a result of the SUBJECTIVE approach to the Word of God. The hermeneutical model in this case is that of the SINNER standing over the Word of God as the interpreter, and hence he assumes and remains in the position of "subject". The proper hermeneutical model is that of the Word of God standing over the sinner as the interpreter. In other words, we are the object to be "interpreted" by the Word of God as the subject.

In this role reversal, two implications emerges:

1. The *words* themselves as bearers of the divine revelation is the LITERAL truth, in contrast to functioning as signs only. The "vis significandi" (mode of signification) is the "res" (reality) itself. Thus, the meaning of sola Scriptura is precisely the self-sufficiency of the EXTERNAL Word. The movement here is an incarnated top-to-bottom pattern, consistent with the formal claim that the Holy Scripture is the Word of GOD.

2. "Faith comes by hearing the Word of God". Faith is not external to the Word of God, i.e. apart from the Word of God. But faith is CREATED by the Word of God. Inerrancy is a faith claim, made on the basis of the witness and testimony of the Holy Scripture itself. As such, it (i.e. inerrancy) can only be grasped by faith alone (sola fide). By extension, the infallibility (authority) and efficacy (power) of the Holy Scripture are grasped by faith alone. The Word as the legal authority (Scripture alone) constitutes the co-relate of the Word as the evangelical power (faith alone). That is to say, faith is not a "discrete" entity consequent on "understanding" as an evaluative tool. Faith is not a posteriori (subsequent) to nor identical with an explicit analytic conclusion. It is an impossible scenario because of the "bondage of the will". But faith is simply the implicit synthetic presupposition to the Word of God. That is to say, faith means being "reclaimed" by the Word of God itself, according to *its* own judgment (spiritual-deductive method), and not vice-versa, i.e. faith means "reclaiming" the Word of God according to its own judgment (empirical-inductive method). Ultimately, our faith is not dependent on our understanding. But our understanding is dependent on our faith which comes extra nos --- an alien faith as a total gift = alien righteousness. Faith and understanding are simultaneous, not sequential. faith IMPLIES understanding. And faith as a total gift co-exists (simultaneously) with unbelief as a total condition: simul iustus et peccator. There is no middle ground approach to Scripture. Our bondage to sin simply and by default disallows a neutral approach. Both the regenerate and unregenerate encounter Scripture either in a mode of belief or unbelief.

If one wishes to speak of movement, then the movement is not the progression of understanding towards faith, but the progression of faith towards understanding.

"Credo ut intelligam"

Seen from this perspective, denial of inerrancy is simply the denial that Holy Scripture IS the Word of God. Instead, Holy Scripture becomes the means by which we *respond* to God's "self-disclosure" in the course of the divine-human encounter - the movement here reverses the pattern of Divine Revelation and Incarnation, i.e. it is bottom-up, a spiritual ascent according a "ladder scheme". But this produces only subjectivism, i.e. the individual-mystic type or communal-academic type, etc.

Ultimately, scholarly consensus (e.g. science), ecclesial tradition (e.g. magisterium), is elevated into a plus sign alongside Holy Scripture. Denial of inerrancy, to be precise, is a denial that the Word of God is the self-sufficient source of truth.

In short, inerrancy is BOTH a denial (incipient or full-blown) of sola Scriptura and sola fide.

Edwin Tay said...

Dear Martin,
your critique of McGowan's proposal is both incisive and instructive. Thanks!

Jared Hood said...

A helpful review - many thanks. God does use fallen second causes in the accomplishing of his plans, and isn't McGowan emphasising that that is what God did with regard to Scripture, and why should it be presupposed that he curtailed the sinful effects of those second causes? Thus there is the hypothetical possibility of error. I did a review of the book to try and get my own thoughts in order (www.hoodfamily.org.au) and my conclusion was that abstractly speaking, McGowan's argument is permissible - God could have used second causes as he pleased. But it is an inadmissible argument when confronted with the particular Scriptures he has given us. Do you think it would be right to say that God's relationship to Scripture is not the same as God's relationship to providence in general? As Bavinck has it, God is the primary author of Scripture, and the apostles et al come in second.

Augustinian Successor said...

I believe it is implausible for inspiration to allow for errancy. Inerrancy is grounded in inspiration. The Scripture is inerrant because it is inspired. Under this model, inspiration and inerrancy are fideistic claims. Hence, it is - believe it or not -a concrete claim. The opposite would entail extra-fideistic conditions which is to remain trapped in abstractions.

That is *if* we can prove the plenary inerrancy of Scripture, only *then* we will acknowledge its plenary inspiration. Thus, one has to appeal to subjectivist models to bolster what is supposed to be the objective truth of Scripture. It is a vicious circle because ultimately one can never get round to making a formal affirmation of Scripture as the Word of God. So, by inspiration, it is meant plenary inspiration - a total state.

In terms of the relationship between inspiration and human agency, is monergistic.

Inspiration and salvation are aspects of the same divine revelation which is by grace alone through faith alone. In other words, there is only a single efficient cause (divine) in inspiration, not two (divine and human) - the the divine will is the singular cause (subject) and the human will is the singular effect (object). The difference between inspiration and providence is the difference between supernatural and natural. Inspiration was a supernatural act/event. Providence is a natural act/event. But BOTH involve primary and secondary agencies.

Hence, only limited inerrancy applies to the extra-autographic texts, transmitted in the course of ordinary providence.

Jared Hood said...

Thanks for that. In my mind, you say inspiration, I think inerrancy, and vice versa. There is a host of realities built into inspiration.
To tie that back in with the review under discussion, the only reason that God's power can be played off against his truth with regard to the Scriptures, as MD speaks of, is if the primary-secondary authorship/agency balance is misalinged. That misalingment seems to be the fundamental error we've seen in a couple of evangelical books on Scripture of late.
The language issue to express the balance is interesting here. The previous post speaks of one cause (divine) and one effect (human). Can we relegate the human role to being merely that of 'means', which God is free to work above and against? Don't we need to affirm human causation as well, with the rider that whilst that introduces the freedom to sin, in this case the Spirit otherwise enabled? Otherwise we fall back to the charge of docetism. And can we use vocab that won't leave us intelligible only to the scholastics?

Augustinian Successor said...

Secondary causes (secundae causae) is a legitimate mode of explaining the divine-human relation. After all, Reformation theology never denies that man has a will. What it denies, as a truism, is that the will is FREE. As Luther says, free will is a non-entity.

Esentially, the secondary cause is established and preserved in the "coincidence" between the divine will and human will. Man's will is neither suspended (cancelled) or overruled (coerced).

Thus, the integrity of the human will is preserved in inspiration. However, there is a one step further which needs to be had. And that is appeal to the model resembling and grounded in the hypostatic union (ala Chalcedonian Definition) of the Incarnation. Hence, there are two agencies involved expressing the one divine content. In other words, the ORIGIN or source of the THOUGHTS are DIVINE *by* IMMEDIATE inspiration. *Simultaneously*, the divine thoughts are MEDIATELY composed via HUMAN agency.

"Human mediation of divine thoughts" - "divine contents in human form"

"God speaks to man through man".

As an aside, it is interesting that the Lutheran scholastics refused to limit inspiration to just divine superintendence over the process of composition, to ensure preservation from any error. Rather, inspiration pertains to the "materia" as well as the "forma" of Scripture. The materia relates to the human response to divine revelation - style of writing, choice of words, syllables, etc.; the forma relates to divine revelation/thoughts itself - meaning, sense, intent. Again, the christological model is evident.

laymandad said...

I believe the arguments are missing the point in that they center on the nature and will of God. The discussion should be about the nature of God's "word" and the "means" of transmission. God speaks to us through general revelation (trees), special revelation (text), and more importantly through His Son. The first 2 of these mean by which God speaks to us by implication of the fallen order are by necessity imperfect. Therefore God uses imperfect means to speak perfect truth. To ascribe inerrancy to the autographa is to confuse God's speaking with the imperfect means which he employs. When the Prophets spoke orally, when they stuttered, spit, or sceamed, was the spit or the audio inerrant? In the same way the autographa/text may be err but the message does not. There is no disagreement on the nature of God and his truth.

laymandad said...

I believe the arguments are missing the point in that they center on the nature and will of God. The discussion should be about the nature of God's "word" and the "means" of transmission. God speaks to us through general revelation (trees), special revelation (text), and more importantly through His Son. The first 2 of these mean by which God speaks to us by implication of the fallen order are by necessity imperfect. Therefore God uses imperfect means to speak perfect truth. To ascribe inerrancy to the autographa is to confuse God's speaking with the imperfect means which he employs. When the Prophets spoke orally, when they stuttered, spit, or sceamed, was the spit or the audio inerrant? In the same way the autographa/text may be err but the message does not. There is no disagreement on the nature of God and his truth.

Martin Downes said...

Augustinian successor,

Thanks or the encouragement!


When I have time I will look at your review.


I don't even know where to begin with your comment!

Augustinian Successor said...

Not necessarily, as inspiration *guarantees* inerrancy. Inspiration is not to be confused with preservation or transmission. Inspiration occurs by divine revelation; preservation occurs by divine providence. The two are not synonymous. Inspiration as divine revelation is *unmediated*; inspiration as inscripturalisation is *mediated*.

In fact, the basis for the providential preservation of Scripture is the inspiration of the autographic texts. For inspiration ensures that Verbum Domini Manet in Aeternum (The Word of the Lord remaineth forever). The sources of the textual transmission have to be inerrant for there to be continuity in doctrinal intent and factual content. Any suspicion in the inerrancy of the divine contents would have "inspired" alteration for the sake of theological errors. Then Rome would have been right in asserting the "massive subjectivism" of its magisterium to certify the validity of a particular hermeneutical approach.

As such, errancy in the original texts lead to *subjectivism*. The loss of confidence in the accuracy or authenticity of the contents can only result in those portions of Scripture being relegated to myths or sagas.

Instead, the Reformed and Reformation understanding is that the narrative or story as an actual event *re-claims* the hearer himself by faith. We become part of salvation history, instead of the myths or sagas being fitted to our personal mythologised history or sagas.

Salvation history catches up with us precisely because it is real. The sovereign God who acted in salvation history extends the narrative of Scripture in time and space to incorporate us also. So, ultimately in order for Scripture to exercise its mata-narrative power, it has to be inerrant as the fountain, source, basis, etc. So, we don't have to "go back in time" to find out the meaning of salvation history. The meaning is as it says. The Words says what it does; the Word does what it says. All because it is the true and infallible Word of God, based on the inerrant Word of God in the autographa. The Word of God is once for all, like the unrepeatable events of salvation history, and not subject to the priesthood of scholars for accessiblity for Scriptura sacra sui ipsius interpres (*Scripture interprets itself*).

Anonymous said...


Thanks for your work on this. I also think there is way too much talk of division between the 17th century confession authors and the the likes of Warfield...the opponents of inerrancy are forever pointing our that the confessions are happy with "infallible", but what they never seem to notice is the word before "infallible"...

BCF 1:1
1. The Holy Scripture is the only sufficient, certain, and infallible rule of all saving Knowledge, Faith and Obedience;

If a car is certainly red, then it is red, not nearly red, not pink, not green....certainty is applied to the absolutes of life. So if we must quibble about infallibility v. inerrancy, let's not miss the word certain.

Also a reading of the entire confession chapters on the Holy Scriptures rather than fragmentary words shows that the authors held to a stringent doctrine of Scripture every bit as strict as Warfield.


Martin Downes said...


Warfield as a remarkable essay where he provided evidence from the Westminster divines to show that they held to the inerrancy of the autographs. Of course to use the word inerrancy is anachronistic, but the substance of the idea is there in their writings.

Have you read John Woodbridge's book Biblical Authority? He labours to show that Warfield/Hodge view has strong historic precedent.

Anonymous said...


I haven't read the book your refer to, perhaps sometime I'll get around to it, I put it on my list (long list not enough time!).

I have to admit that all this stuff really tests my sanctification, I find it hard not to get angry with this constant bleating for attention, and reinventing the wheel (only now it's better and square) and doing so in the name of "the reformed church is always reforming"!

Let's face it no one gets a Phd for saying "The Puritans were right", nor is it likely to be a bestseller.


laymandad said...

Augustinian Successor,

Thank you for your post.


If transmission is “mediated”, does this imply the possibility of error? And if “scripture interprets itself” does it interpret any mediated error for us? Do we not use reason to interpret? As you would probably defer to any number of confessions (priesthood of scholars).

Do you take the position that due to inspiration “unmediated” to presuppose providential transmission inerrancy?

Anonymous said...

Although Martin seems to have shown the inadequacy of McGowan's argument against inerrancy, I believe McGowan is correct in saying that God's truthfulness does not guarantee inerrancy--or at least inerrancy in science. God could and I believe did employ the science of the writers' times to convey inerrant truth. That is, God was free to accommodate his revelation to human notions which lay outside of the scope of his teaching.

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