Andrew McGowan on Inerrancy (Part 4)

[Continued from Part 3]

Inerrancy: Rationalistic or Just Plain Rational?

McGowan’s final salvo against the doctrine of the inerrancy is his charge that it is a “rationalist implication”. This is a rather surprising accusation, since inerrantists are more commonly accused of irrationalism than rationalism! At the heart of McGowan’s charge, however, is the idea that inerrantists have based their doctrine on an “unwarranted assumption about God”:

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 mistaken in the autographa, then God cannot have been the author, because he is incapable of error. (p. 113)

I have already shown that inerrantists commit no such error. Their core argument makes no unwarranted assumptions about God or about His methods of inspiration. Rather, the argument is grounded in (1) the biblical doctrine of God, which entails that He cannot affirm falsehoods, and (2) Scripture’s self-characterization. Nevertheless, McGowan proposes to prove his point in three ways:

First, I shall demonstrate the inerrancy is, at best, an implication rather than a biblical doctrine. Second, I shall demonstrate that it is rationalist. Then, third, I shall demonstrate that the underlying assumption underestimates God and undermines the significance of the human authors of Scripture. (p. 114)

McGowan’s first argument, then, is that inerrancy is at best an implication of a biblical doctrine. He explains:

Those who advocate inerrancy might well (and do) argue that it is a legitimate and natural implication of the doctrine of divine spiration, but they cannot argue that inerrancy is itself taught in Scripture. (p. 114)

[Carl Henry] recognized that inerrancy is not a biblical doctrine but an implication drawn from another biblical doctrine (inspiration). (p. 115)

McGowan doesn’t seem to realise that an implication of a teaching of Scripture is itself a teaching of Scripture.[1] Likewise, an implication of a biblical doctrine is itself a biblical doctrine. The Westminster Divines clearly recognised this point of logic:

The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture.[2]

I have argued that inerrancy can be deduced “by good and necessary consequence” from what the Bible teaches about God and God’s Word. If this argument is sound, then McGowan ought to accept inerrancy as a biblical doctrine, just as he accepts (say) the Trinity as a biblical doctrine.

Interestingly, however, McGowan seems to back away from his initial argument by suggesting that inerrancy is “not a legitimate implication” (emphasis mine). But as I have pointed out, McGowan nowhere explains what’s wrong with the core inerrantist argument.

McGowan quickly moves on to focus his charge of rationalism:

In the inerrantist argument, truth is largely viewed in propositional terms and theological method is conceived of in scientific terms. Thus the impression is often given that the whole Bible can be reduced to a set of propositions that can then be demonstrated to be ‘true’. (p. 116)

McGowan is quite correct that the core inerrantist argument views truth in propositional terms. I have already explained the philosophical reasons for this, and it’s hard to see what’s problematic about it. The concept of truth involved in the core inerrantist claim is by definition propositional. McGowan doesn’t explain why that’s inappropriate or ‘rationalistic’. Doesn’t he believe that the Bible expresses (among other things) true propositions? Surely he hasn’t bought into the neo-orthodox antipathy toward propositional revelation!

What about the suggestion that the inerrantists’ theological method is “conceived of in scientific terms”? I have no idea how that charge could be made to stick against the inerrantist argument I presented earlier. It should be obvious that the core inerrantist argument doesn’t involve any attempt to reduce the Bible to “a set of propositions that can then be demonstrated to be ‘true’”! Fortunately for inerrantists, the argument for their position is much easier to formulate and defend, as I have tried to demonstrate.

Finally, McGowan maintains that the inerrantists’ “unwarranted assumption” (which we have already seen is neither unwarranted nor an assumption) “underestimates God and undermines the human authors”:

Perhaps the most striking problem with the rationalist 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. It also assumes that our desire for epistemological certainty must be satisfied and that it can be satisfied only through the receiving from God of inerrant autographic texts. (p. 118)

Given what I have already argued, the response to these claims is very simple. The only ‘limits’ inerrantists place on God and His actions are those limits imposed by the teaching of Scripture, as they read it. In other words, McGowan’s objection begs the question against inerrantists by assuming that Scripture doesn’t teach its own inerrancy (either explicitly or by implication). Yet, as I have noted, for all his insistence that inerrancy is an extra-biblical doctrine he has conspicuously failed to engage with the inerrantist arguments on that point (such as Warfield’s famous article). McGowan’s charge of rationalism against inerrantists thus falls flat.

Conclusion

I don’t doubt that Dr McGowan had the best interests of Christ’s church at heart when he wrote The Divine Spiration of Scripture. The doctrine of biblical inerrancy can be difficult to defend and has the potential to divide evangelicals in ways that hinder rather than further the cause of Christ. If you believe, as McGowan does, that the Bible doesn’t teach its own inerrancy and that the main arguments for the doctrine are flawed, naturally you will want to take issue with the prominence given to biblical inerrancy by evangelical scholars and pastors.

Nevertheless, whatever his motives, McGowan’s case against inerrancy is badly flawed in four respects, as I have tried to show. First, he mischaracterizes the core inerrantist argument; second, he fails to explain why the core inerrantist argument (as he represents it) is unsound; third, his main arguments against inerrancy can be readily defused once the core inerrantist claim is properly understood; and finally, his charge of rationalism against inerrantists misrepresents their position and sidesteps their exegetical arguments. Divine Spiration thus provides no good reason to think that inerrantists are the ones in error.

The foundational argument that undergirds the doctrine of inerrancy remains unscathed. What Scripture says, God says. What Scripture affirms, God affirms. Let God be true, and every man a liar.


[1] See Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God, p. 247.

[2] Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter I, 6.

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