Andrew McGowan on Inerrancy (Part 3)

[Continued from Part 2]

McGowan’s Arguments against Inerrancy

I turn now to examine McGowan’s three arguments against the inerrantist view represented by the Chicago Statement, which he takes to be the most defensible version of the doctrine.

1. The Problem of Definition

McGowan introduces his first objection thus:

The first argument against inerrancy, at a very preliminary level, concerns the definition of terms. After all, if it took the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy around twelve pages to define and explain their use of the word ‘inerrancy’ in the famous Chicago Statement, then surely there must be a better word we could use? Any word that requires so much definition, qualification, affirmation and denial must surely have questions as to its value. Not only so, but the definition itself in many ways empties the word of its content. (p. 106)

The most serious problem with this objection is that it conflates definition and explication. The basic idea of inerrancy can be very clearly and succinctly stated (as I tried to show earlier). However, even after a theological term has been defined, it is usually necessary to further explicate it so as to make absolutely explicit and precise what it does and does not entail. This is entirely proper and it’s hard to see why taking “around twelve pages” to do so would suggest any shortcoming in the original definition.[1] The Chicago Statement isn’t merely a definition of biblical inerrancy; it serves as both a definition and an explication. Chicago’s ‘Summary Statement’ consists of only five short paragraphs.[2]

What’s true of the doctrine of inerrancy is equally true of other doctrines, including those McGowan would defend. Consider, for example, the Reformed doctrine of justification by faith alone. The doctrine can be defined relatively briefly, e.g., as the claim that God forgives all our sins and counts us as righteous solely on condition of faith in Jesus Christ. But there is also a need to explicate that definition, so as to clarify exactly what it does and does not affirm, to insulate it against misunderstandings and misrepresentations, to contrast it with different views that perhaps use similar vocabulary, and so forth. What are “sins”? What does it mean to “count” someone righteous? Does that entail actual righteousness in any sense? What kind of “condition” is in view? What is “faith”? Is it mere intellectual assent or more than that? Does justification by faith alone mean that good works are unnecessary or irrelevant for believers? Who is “Jesus Christ” anyway? And so on.

I daresay that if McGowan were to explicate the doctrine of justification, he would need to take at least “twelve pages” to accomplish that to his own satisfaction. Would that indicate a problem with the doctrine of justification? Not in the slightest.

McGowan is also concerned that the various qualifications attached to the doctrine of inerrancy by the Chicago Statement end up evacuating it of all content:

For example, if numbers can be inaccurate but not affect the claim to inerrancy, then when is an error an error? One gains the clear impression that no matter what objection might be brought against the inerrantist position, it would simply be argued that this is an exception quite permissable [sic] within the terms of the definition. (p. 106)

McGowan’s decision to illustrate his point with the example of “inaccurate” numbers is unfortunate, since the Chicago Statement makes no mention of “inaccurate numbers” but rather speaks of “round numbers” (Article XIII). Approximation is not inaccuracy. This brings us back to the importance of the concept of affirmation and of establishing what is and is not being affirmed in any particular instance. If I say to you, “I live three miles from the church,” it’s obvious I’m not expressing the thought that I live 3.0000000000 (and so on) miles from the church. Likewise, it would be quite misguided to suggest that my statement was “inaccurate” or “in error”! What McGowan considers to be an “exception” that illustrates the vacuity of the doctrine of inerrancy is merely a clarification of how the core inerrantist claim cashes out in cases of numerical affirmation.

As to the charge of unfalsifiability, I invite the reader to review my earlier remarks. All I will add here is that the inerrantist isn’t free to merely invent an exception, on an ad hoc basis, in response to allegations of errors in Scripture. Rather, he must offer a plausible argument on the basis of accepted principles of biblical interpretation (semantic range of words, historical context, cultural conventions, etc.) that Scripture does not in fact affirm what the critics takes it to affirm. In my experience, that is what biblical scholars committed to inerrancy do as a matter of course. McGowan and other non-inerrantists may find these arguments unpersuasive, but that implies nothing problematic about the definition of inerrancy.

2. The Problem of the Autographa

McGowan’s second argument against inerrancy takes aim at one of the most prominent qualifications placed on the doctrine, viz., that inerrancy “pertains only to the oral or written proclamation of the originally inspired prophets and apostles.”[3] As Article X of the Chicago Statement clarifies:

We affirm that inspiration, strictly speaking, applies only to the autographic text of Scripture, which in the providence of God can be ascertained from available manuscripts with great accuracy. We further affirm that copies and translations of Scripture are the Word of God to the extent that they faithfully represent the original.

We deny that any essential element of the Christian faith is affected by the absence of the autographs. We further deny that this absence renders the assertion of Biblical inerrancy invalid or irrelevant.

McGowan apparently thinks this qualification presents a serious problem for inerrancy. He writes:

The second argument against inerrancy concerns the emphasis placed on the autographa by those in the Warfield tradition. If textual inerrancy is so vital to the doctrine of Scripture, why did God not preserve the autographa or precise copies of the same? Indeed, if inerrancy only applies to the autographa (which we do not possess), then surely it is a somewhat pointless affirmation? Everyone accepts that there are errors in the extant manuscripts and translations. What is the point of insisting that there once existed (very briefly) perfect versions of these texts, if we no longer possess them? (p. 109)

Appropriately enough, McGowan directs his fire at Greg Bahnsen’s essay, ‘The Inerrancy of the Autographa’, commissioned in defence of this feature of the Chicago Statement. He quotes Bahnsen thus:

Only with an inerrant autograph can we avoid attributing error to the God of truth. An error in the original would be attributable to God Himself, because He, in the pages of Scripture, takes responsibility for the very words of the biblical authors. Errors in copies, however, are the sole responsibility of the scribes involved, in which case God’s veracity is not impugned. (pp. 109-10)

Remarkably, McGowan’s response to Bahnsen amounts to one solitary sentence:

This is a curious argument, which implies that God has no further interest in, nor control over the biblical texts after the autographa have been produced. (p. 110)

If Bahnsen’s argument is curious, McGowan’s response is more so. In the first place, Bahnsen nowhere implies that God “has no further interest in, nor control over” the subsequent copies. Bahnsen’s point is simply that scribal errors do not impugn the veracity of God. The reason is obvious: divine inspiration (or ‘spiration’ if you prefer) pertains to the biblical authors and not to the copyists. What Scripture affirms, God affirms; but God does not necessarily affirm what a miscopied text of Scripture affirms, if the affirmations in question are not present in the original. I confess I find it hard to understand why McGowan misses this simple point.

The second curiosity is that McGowan doesn’t actually engage with Bahnsen’s main argument, namely, that factual errors in the originals would impugn the veracity of God. If the biblical authors had made any mistaken affirmations, those mistakes would be rightly attributable to God, since He declares those affirmations to be His own. Where does McGowan think this argument goes wrong? He doesn’t tell us.

McGowan suggests that it is “pointless” to focus on the autographa for the simple reason that “we no longer possess them”. The problem with this line of argument is that it completely ignores Bahnsen’s distinction between the “autographic text (the words)” and the “autographic codex (the physical document)”.[4] Bahnsen goes to great lengths to explain that while in one (trivial) sense we do not possess the original texts of Scripture, in another (crucial) sense we do indeed possess them by virtue of the assured results of textual criticism based on a wealth of manuscript copies.

An analogy may help here. As I write this, I am waiting for an important document to be sent to me by fax. The content of this document has significant legal and personal implications. When I go to the fax machine to pick it up, I will have in my hand a copy (facsimile) of the ‘original’ document. It’s true that I won’t physically possess the original document. So should I be concerned whether or not there are errors in that original? The answer ought to be obvious. In an important sense, the faxed copy is the original document — if the fax machine is working properly. The two physical pages contain one and the same text. What one affirms, the other affirms.

At this point, McGowan will likely object that the analogy is flawed. My fax machine may perform perfectly, but the scribes who made copies of the biblical texts did not. As both inerrantists and non-inerrantists acknowledge, they occasionally made mistakes (and some even made deliberate alterations, however well-intentioned). But the analogy can be adapted accordingly. Suppose instead that I have 200 fax machines, each of which functions less than perfectly. For every document received by fax, a small proportion of the words in the text of the document are obscured, or perhaps even changed to other words. If, however, the original document is sent to me through all 200 fax machines, I will have 200 copies from which (by means of comparison) I can derive a reconstruction of the ‘original’ document with a very high degree of confidence. Indeed, I can be nearly certain about what the original document does and does not affirm. Will it be irrelevant to me whether or not the original document is correct in what it affirms? On the contrary, it will be very important indeed. In the first place, the credibility of the document’s author depends on its accuracy. Moreover, any false affirmations in the original document could have serious practical consequences for me.

The difference between inerrantists and non-inerrantists regarding the original text of Scripture boils down to this. For inerrantists, successful textual criticism uncovers a bedrock of truth. For non-inerrantists, successful textual criticism uncovers… well, that’s precisely the point. We don’t know. For any given affirmation of the original text of Scripture, we have no way of objectively gauging whether or not it is a true affirmation. We can make probability judgements about the results of textual criticism, and those probability judgements look very healthy indeed. But we have no way of making probability judgements about the individual affirmations of the autographa — unless, of course, the core argument for inerrancy is sound.

3. The Problem of the Phenomena

McGowan’s third argument against inerrancy “concerns how we deal with textual issues such as apparent conflicts and contradictions.” Faced with these textual difficulties, McGowan observes, inerrantists “will typically reply in one of two ways”:

Either they will argue that this is only an antimony, an apparent but not real contradiction, or they will argue that if we had the autographa we would see that the problem does not exist there, only in errant manuscripts, because of errors in the copying over the centuries. (p. 112)

I have to wonder from what inerrantist literature McGowan has drawn his conclusions. In my experience, these two ‘escape hatches’ are rarely employed and only then as a last resort. Far more commonly, inerrantist scholars will offer one or more exegetical explanations as to why the conflict is merely apparent. McGowan may not find such explanations satisfying, but it is simply misleading to suggest that they are not offered as a matter of course.

In support of his point, McGowan borrows an example from I. Howard Marshall:

In the story of Jairus as recorded by Matthew it is simply said that when Jairus first met Jesus he told him that his daughter was dead (Matt. 9:18). According to Mark and Luke, however, the daughter was merely on the point of death at the beginning of the story and it was only later – after the incident of the woman with the haemorrhage – that Jairus and Jesus learned that she had actually died (Mark 5:3 f.; Luke 8:49 f.). There is a clear contradiction between the initial words of Jairus as recorded by Matthew and the other Evangelists. We can, of course, explain the contradiction quite easily and acceptably by saying that Matthew, whose generally policy was to tell stories about Jesus in fewer words than Mark, has abbreviated the story and given the general sense of what happened without going into details. But the fact still remains that Matthew has attributed to Jairus words which he did not actually say at the time stated. (p. 113)

Unfortunately for McGowan, this example proves either too little or too much. Does he think that Matthew affirmed a falsehood (intentionally or otherwise)? If so, then his insistence that he isn’t arguing for ‘errancy’ falls flat.[5] He must conclude that Scripture contains errors after all (in the sense that the inerrantist defines ‘error’). On the other hand, if McGowan doesn’t believe that Matthew affirmed a falsehood, he can’t reasonably conclude that this example poses any difficulty for the inerrantist.

In fact, his example nicely illustrates why it is important to grasp what I explained earlier about the subtleties of affirmation. What exactly is Matthew affirming through his (written) speech acts? As we evaluate what Matthew wrote, we need to take into account both authorial intention and context, with particular reference to the literary conventions of the time. Did Matthew intend for his readers to take it that Jairus literally spoke the words attributed to him in 9:18? Did the conventions of his day allow for such a degree of paraphrase and narrative compression when recounting historical events? The answers to questions such as these will determine whether Matthew’s affirmations are true or false. It strikes me as perfectly plausible to conclude that Matthew does not affirm anything false or incompatible with what the other Synoptics affirm.

One of the best known recent discussions on apparent contradictions between the Gospels is found in Craig Blomberg’s The Historical Reliability of the Gospels.[6] When I consulted it to see whether it addressed this particular example, I discovered that not only does Blomberg directly address this ‘problem’ text, he also quotes the very same passage from Marshall that McGowan uses![7] Blomberg then contrasts Marshall’s assessment with that of Robert Stein:

In light of Matthew’s tendency toward abbreviation we can better understand what has happened in Matthew 9:18-19, 23-25. Matthew summarized the story of Jesus’ raising of Jairus’s daughter … What he omits are various interesting but unnecessary details such as that when Jairus first arrives his daughter is not yet dead …

Matthew’s account is an inerrant summary of Jesus’ raising of Jairus’s daughter. Difficulties are encountered if the details of this summary are pressed in a way that Matthew never intended.[8]

Blomberg comments:

A synthesis of these two opinions might state that Matthew’s account seems to have a minor ‘error’ according to certain modern definitions of the term but not according to most ancient ones. But surely it is the latter that counts; even the most ardent defenders of biblical inerrancy admit that the original intention of Scripture must be the final arbiter, so Stein’s verdict seems slightly fairer.[9]

Blomberg’s book was published 20 years before Divine Spiration (and Stein’s, 23 years). What’s most disappointing about McGowan’s appeal to the Jairus story is that he appears unaware of — or worse, unconcerned to engage with — standard inerrantist treatments of the issue. His discussion is superficial and unfairly suggests that inerrantist scholars have offered only facile solutions to difficult problems.

McGowan is apparently content to hang his third argument against inerrancy on this one example. He offers no other examples, beyond a reference to Herman Ridderbos pointing out “similar problems in the different versions of the Lord’s Prayer and the Beatitudes.” As such, there is nothing further to say in response, except to express a confidence that any further “textual issues” McGowan might cite can be dealt with along similar lines, based on an understanding of speech acts and commonly accepted principles of grammatical-historical interpretation. In any event, McGowan’s third argument fails as support for his own position over against the inerrantist’s.

[Continued in Part 4]

[1] Of course, “around twelve pages” is rather vague. Were they big pages? Was it small typeface?

[2] 216 words, to be precise, which is around the same length as an English translation of the Definition of Chalcedon.

[3] Carl F. H. Henry, quoted by Greg L. Bahnsen, ‘The Inerrancy of the Autographa’, in Inerrancy, ed. Geisler, p. 157.

[4] Bahnsen, p. 172. In philosophical terminology, this corresponds to the distinction between ‘types’ and ‘tokens’. See, e.g., the article ‘Types and Tokens’ in the online Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (

[5] See, e.g., pp. 13, 124-25, 137, 210.

[6] Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Inter-Varsity Press, 1987).

[7] Blomberg, p. 135.

[8] Stein, quoted in Blomberg, p. 136, emphasis mine.

[9] Blomberg, p. 136, emphasis mine.

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