Andrew McGowan on Inerrancy (Part 1)

Challenges to the doctrine of inerrancy from within the evangelical tradition are nothing new. In that respect, Andrew McGowan’s recent book The Divine Spiration of Scripture is not especially noteworthy.[1] It has, however, caused quite a stir in Reformed evangelical circles, mainly because confessional Reformed theologians (such as McGowan) are generally thought to be more firmly committed to inerrancy than other evangelicals precisely in virtue of their confessional commitments (e.g., to the Westminster Standards). The burden of McGowan’s book is to argue that the doctrine of inerrancy is actually a recent development within the Reformed tradition, forged by Old Princeton in response to the challenge of the Enlightenment, and, moreover, that its advocacy was — to be blunt — a big mistake.

In this series of posts, I want to examine McGowan’s main arguments against the doctrine of inerrancy, as that doctrine is articulated in the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.[2] I believe his arguments are weak and evidence a misunderstanding of both the core claim of inerrantists and the core argument for that claim. What follows is not intended to be a full book review of Divine Spiration. I happen to agree with much of what McGowan says in the book, but here I want to focus solely on his case against inerrancy.[3]

Before proceeding, I should make clear McGowan’s own position as I understand it. McGowan doesn’t insist that there are factual errors in Scripture (e.g., as to history or science) — what he calls the ‘errancy’ view. Rather, his claim is a negative one, namely, that we have no good grounds for insisting that there aren’t factual errors in Scripture. He believes that the doctrine of inerrancy is neither biblically warranted nor theologically necessary. As such, he disavows both ‘errancy’ and ‘inerrancy’ (p. 210). One might say that for McGowan the question “Did the biblical authors make factual errors?” is much like the question “Is the number of cows in the world exactly divisible by three?” We don’t know, it doesn’t matter, and we shouldn’t be asking the question in the first place.

The Core Inerrantist Claim

Contrary to what some critics of inerrancy have suggested, the core claim of the doctrine of biblical inerrancy can be succinctly stated. It is simply this:

(BI) The Bible affirms only truths.

Or, to express the same idea negatively:

(BI*) The Bible affirms no falsehoods.

The basic idea is that whatever the Bible affirms to be the case is, as a matter of fact, the case.

Note that the key concept here is that of affirmation.[4] An affirmation is what some philosophers of language call a ‘speech act’.[5] A speech act is something done by an agent through language, either spoken or written. In the case of an affirmation, what the agent is doing is expressing, and perhaps also commending to others, a conviction that something is the case.

Affirmations can be made in many different ways, some more explicit or obvious than others, and whether a particular instance of speech counts as an affirmation will depend on both the speaker’s intentions and the context. The same considerations apply to what is being affirmed, that is, the content of the affirmation. If I were to utter the words, “I want to marry Sarah,” I wouldn’t necessarily be affirming my desire to wed someone called Sarah. I might, for example, be answering your prior question, “What did John say to you that night?” In that case I would be implicitly affirming something about what John said rather than something about my own desires. (Note also that in this example the content of the affirmation is strongly dependent on the context of the utterance. Which ‘Sarah’ are we referring to?) As we will see, an appreciation of the subtleties of affirmation is important when it comes to evaluating the doctrine of inerrancy.

The content of an affirmation is propositional in nature, where a ‘proposition’ (according to philosophical convention) is simply something that can be true or false. Moreover, since an affirmation involves at its core the endorsement of a certain proposition (i.e., a commitment to that proposition being true rather than false) an affirmation can be mistaken in a way that a question or a request, for example, cannot be.[6] It’s for precisely this reason that the doctrine of inerrancy is concerned solely with the affirmations of the Bible, rather than its many other speech acts.

Now, one might object that the core inerrantist claim (BI) is vacuous inasmuch as it says nothing specific about what the Bible affirms. A critic might argue that the doctrine of inerrancy is unfalsifiable, since whenever the inerrantist is presented with an apparent error in Scripture he can simply deny that Scripture affirms what the critic thinks it affirms.

It’s true that BI doesn’t specify what the Bible affirms, any more than the doctrine of divine omniscience specifies what God knows (it merely states that God knows all truths, whatever those truths may be). But that generality is entirely apt, because BI is concerned with the character of the Bible rather than the content of the Bible. What’s more, inerrantists (like non-inerrantists) disagree among themselves as to what the Bible affirms on some points, even while they agree that whatever the Bible affirms must be true. But since evangelical inerrantists are typically committed to grammatical-historical interpretation of the Bible, their claims about what the Bible actually affirms cannot be arbitrary or ad hoc.[7]

The Core Inerrantist Argument

The core inerrantist claim (BI) is a simple, clear, and substantive claim about Scripture. So far, so good. But why think BI is true?

Just as the core inerrantist claim can be succinctly stated, so can the core argument for that claim:

(1) Whatever the Bible affirms, God affirms.

(2) Whatever God affirms is true.

(3) Therefore, whatever the Bible affirms is true.

The conclusion is simply a restatement of BI. The argument is logically valid, since (3) follows necessarily from (1) and (2). (In Aristotelian logic, it has the form: All P are Q; all Q are S; therefore, all P are S.)

Since the argument is valid, its conclusion must be true if its premises are true. But are they? The second premise seems to follow naturally from the doctrine of God’s essential goodness and omniscience; if God cannot lie or be mistaken, then He cannot affirm a falsehood. I assume that McGowan would want to endorse this premise.[8] (If he doesn’t, I daresay we have much bigger problems on our hands!)

What about the first premise? The support for this premise comes from Scripture’s self-characterization. The classic treatment of the biblical data on this point, at least in the Reformed tradition, comes from B. B. Warfield’s The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible.[9] Most significant for the inerrantist argument is his famous article, ‘”It Says:” “Scripture Says:” “God Says:”‘.[10] Warfield demonstrates — conclusively, in my judgement — that both Christ and the New Testament writers, in their use of the Old Testament scriptures, take for granted an equivalence between “Scripture says X” and “God says X”.[11] In other words: what Scripture says, God says.

There is no need to repeat the details of Warfield’s argument here, since all participants in the contemporary debate over inerrancy will be familiar with it. The only point I want to make here is that the first premise of the core inerrantist argument follows directly from Warfield’s conclusion. If Scripture says X, then God says X; and if X is an instance of affirmation, then God affirms X. What Scripture affirms, God affirms.

So the question I would put to McGowan is this: Do you agree with Warfield that what Scripture says, God says? If you do, on what grounds do you reject the conclusion of the core inerrantist argument? If you don’t, can you tell us where Warfield goes wrong?

Before moving on, it’s worth noting that this argument is an intra-faith one. It’s designed only to persuade or reassure those who are already committed to the inspiration of the Bible (which would include McGowan, of course) because it takes for granted that Scripture is reliable and authoritative in what it says about important matters of faith, such as the location and nature of God’s Word. It isn’t an argument aimed at unbelievers — but it’s none the worse for that.

[Continued in Part 2]


[1] A. T. B. McGowan, The Divine Spiration of Scripture: Challenging Evangelical Perspectives (Apollos, 2007).

[2] The Chicago Statement can be read online at http://www.spurgeon.org/~phil/creeds/chicago.htm. In 2006, the Evangelical Theological Society adopted the Statement as clarification of its position on biblical inerrancy (see http://www.bpnews.net/BPnews.asp?ID=24424).

[3] Since the orientation of this critique is predominantly negative, I should state for the record that I have the highest regard for Dr McGowan as a Christian pastor-scholar. On the one occasion I had the privilege to sit under his preaching, he delivered one of the most thrilling expositions of the imputed righteousness of Christ I have ever heard.

[4] Compare the definitions given by Paul Feinberg and Wayne Grudem: “Inerrancy means that when all facts are known, the Scripture in their original autographs and properly interpreted will be shown to be wholly true in everything that they affirm, whether that has to do with doctrine or morality or with the social, physical, or life sciences.” Feinberg, ‘The Meaning of Inerrancy’, in Inerrancy, ed. Norman L. Geisler (Zondervan, 1979), p. 294, emphasis mine. “The inerrancy of Scripture means that Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact.” Grudem, Systematic Theology (Inter-Varsity Press, 1994), p. 90, emphasis mine.

[5] See, e.g., the article ‘Speech Acts’ in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/speech-acts/).

[6] Compare the following: “John will open the window” (affirmation); “Will John open the window?” (question); “Open the window, John” (request). Only the first of these has the potential to be in error.

[7] “We affirm that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatico-historical exegesis, taking account of its literary forms and devices, and that Scripture is to interpret Scripture.” The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, Article XVIII.

[8] It’s hard to see how denying (2) could be compatible with the Westminster Standards. Consider the answer to Question 4 of the Shorter Catechism: “God is a spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness and truth.”

[9] B. B. Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible (Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, 1967).

[10] The article was originally published in The Presbyterian and Reformed Review, Vol. 10 (1899), pp. 472-510, and later reprinted in Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, pp. 299-348.

[11] Warfield highlights two classes of texts in particular: in the first, “Scripture says” is used as shorthand for “God, as recorded in Scripture, said” (e.g., Gal. 3:8); in the second, “God says” is used as shorthand for “Scripture, the Word of God, says” (e.g., Matt. 19:4-5).