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Inspired with Errors: An Oxymoron: A Review Article

Sidney D. Dyer

The Divine Authenticity of Scripture: Retrieving an Evangelical Heritage, by Andrew T. B. McGowan. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2007, 229 pages, $22.00, paper.

In reviewing this book, my primary concern is to safeguard the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture against those who, like McGowan, advocate infallibility without inerrancy. Therefore, I am compelled not merely to review his book, but to offer rebuttal. While Dr. McGowan offers some helpful material, nevertheless, the primary focus of his book requires a critical response.

McGowan's introductory chapter makes it clear that he desires evangelicals to avoid criticism regarding their view of Scripture. He tells us that he had "gradually become concerned that some of the ways of defining and using Scripture within evangelicalism are open to serious criticism and could do us more harm than good if we continue to maintain them in their present form" and that "through a failure to engage with biblical scholarship, and sometimes through sheer obscurantist and anti-intellectual approaches, evangelicals have often damaged rather than helped the case for a high view of Scripture" (11). Critics will not stop criticizing us because we have modified any of our beliefs to please them. They will only stop criticizing us when we cease to be evangelical. So why should evangelicals be concerned about criticism coming from unbelieving biblical scholarship?

McGowan claims that "we should opt for the word 'infallibility' in lieu of the word 'inerrancy' " (48). He presents his concept of infallibility, which is not particularly helpful, with these words, "The argument for 'infallibility' is that the final authority for the Christian is the authority of God speaking in and through his Word and that the Holy Spirit infallibly uses God's Word to achieve all he intends to achieve" (49). In the first part of the statement he has God speaking infallibly in and through his Word while allowing that he spoke errors, slandering the character of God. The second part offers no support for his view. We agree that the Holy Spirit infallibly uses God's Word, but he uses whatever he chooses to use infallibly. While we would not argue that any of our English translations are inerrant, we would argue that the Holy Spirit uses them infallibly as he chooses. Notice carefully that McGowan does not actually argue for the infallibility of the Scriptures themselves, but the Holy Spirit's infallible use of the Scriptures, which leads into his refutation of inerrancy in chapter 4.

In that chapter, McGowan presents three points against inerrancy. The first involves the definition of inerrancy, arguing that since the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy used around twelve pages to define the term, "surely there must be a better word we can use?" (106). He adds, "Any word that requires so much definition, qualifications, affirmation and denial must surely have questions raised as to its value" (106). He is confusing the choice of a word and the choice of a concept. The concept is important, not the word used. Utilizing twelve pages to give a full understanding of the concept does not undermine the concept, nor the word used to represent the concept. Those twelve pages affirm the importance of the doctrine and the need for precision.

His second argument deals with the autographs. According to him, since inerrantists only apply inerrancy to the original autographs and at the same time recognize that "there are errors in the extant manuscripts and translations" (109), why insist that the originals could not contain errors? He actually gives the correct answer by quoting Greg Bahnsen to show that Bahnsen "insists that we must hold to inerrancy because God's veracity is at stake" (109). McGowan refuses to accept that his view impugns the character of God.

The third argument involves what he calls textual issues, "such as conflicts and contradictions" (112). He uses the old claim of scriptural contradiction by referring to the differences between Matthew's account of Jairus and his daughter (9:18) and those of Mark (5:23) and Luke (8:42). Matthew tells us that Jairus told Jesus that his daughter had just died, whereas Mark tells us that Jairus told Jesus she was at the point of death. Luke simply tells us that Jairus came to Jesus because his daughter was dying. Matthew has obviously given us an abbreviated record of the incident. Mark 5:35 and Luke 8:49 both record the message of those from Jairus's home that his daughter was dead. Matthew left this detail out because he chose to immediately introduce the death of the daughter into his account. Because Matthew and Mark record Jairus's words to Jesus and each gave a different account of what he said regarding his daughter, it appears that Matthew put words in Jairus's mouth that he did not actually utter and we must conclude that we have a contradiction. This is to assume that Matthew and Mark intended to give us all that Jairus said to Jesus. Jairus did not know for sure the physical state of his daughter when he came to Jesus. He obviously left her alive, but by the time he got to Jesus, she could have already been dead. Thus, when Mark records that Jairus told Jesus that his daughter was about to die, Jairus had no way of knowing with any certainty that she was not in fact dead. Matthew may have given us one part of what Jairus said and Mark another. Jairus may have told Jesus that his daughter was about to die and added that she may have already died. We learn from Mark that Jairus pleaded with Jesus earnestly. Mark used the present tense for his plea, which indicates that he said much more to Jesus than has been recorded. There is even the possibility that Jairus in his desperate state said some things in Greek and other things in Aramaic. An excellent example that shows the Evangelists did not always give a full account regards the inscription over the cross. Matthew has, "This is Jesus, the King of the Jews" (27:37); Mark, "the King of the Jews" (15:26); Luke, "This is the King of the Jews" (23:38); and John, "Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews" (19:19). The entire inscription undoubtedly read, "This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews." Mark informs us that Jesus addressed the deceased child in Aramaic (5:41), which suggests Jairus most likely spoke to Jesus in Aramaic, even if not exclusively. This means that the difference between Matthew's account and that of Mark may also involve a matter of translation.

McGowan argues that inerrancy is not a biblical doctrine because it is an implication of a doctrine and not a doctrine itself (114). Should we apply his argument to the doctrines of the Trinity and infant baptism? Our Confession teaches that doctrine "by good and necessary consequences may be deduced from Scripture" (WCF 1. 6). Contrary to McGowan, the doctrine of inerrancy is actually taught in Scripture. Proverbs 30:5 contains this statement, "Every word of God proves true." The same truth is taught in Psalm 12:6, "The words of the LORD are pure words." Paul tells us that God cannot lie in Titus 1:2.

McGowan begins on page 115 to argue that inerrancy is rationalistic and therefore not valid. He sets up a dichotomy between what he regards to be a rationalistic approach to Scripture and his preferred approach. Regarding the rationalistic approach he states, "To reduce the Scriptures to a set of 'facts' for the theologian, who must then 'arrange and exhibit' them, is to change the Scriptures from their true nature as the Word of God into something cold and clinical" (116). According to him, "This rationalistic approach, however well intended, actually undermines the authority of Scripture" (116). How does recognizing that the Bible contains propositional truths undermine its authority? Regarding his preferred approach, he states that "we must insist that the Scriptures are the Word of the living God who uses them to address us, save us, challenge us, teach us, encourage us, feed us, and much more" (116). I agree that we must insist on this, but I also affirm that the Scriptures contain facts. McGowan has fabricated a false dichotomy.

He claims that inerrancy "underestimates God and undermines the human authors" (118). His basic argument regarding how he sees inerrancy underestimating God is that it "assumes that God can only act in a way that conforms to our expectations, based on our human assessment of his character." No, we base our assessment of God on his own revelation of his character. It is actually McGowan who is guilty of expectations of God based on his human assessment of God's character. He is basing his expectations on the notion that God breathed out errors. On the same page, he sets forth his position regarding inspiration and human authors. He believes that when God breathed out the Scriptures using human authors, He "did not overrule their humanity" and that this explains the errors in Scripture. According to him, "this is not a problem because God, by his Holy Spirit, has ensured that the Scriptures in their final canonical form are as he intended them to be and hence is able to use them to achieve his purpose." He argues that since God uses preachers who are not inerrant nor kept by God from making mistakes, his position is valid. Preaching today, however, is not inspired. Consider these words, "The Scriptures are human documents, written by human beings, with all this entails. At the same time, however, these documents were 'breathed out' by God. We must hold these truths in tandem, not emphasizing one over against the other" (121). Paul did not teach this. In 1 Thessalonians 2:13 he wrote, "When you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth the word of God, which also effectively works in you who believe."

McGowan's fifth chapter is a defense of infallibility as an evangelical alternative to inerrancy. He uses James Orr and Herman Bavinck as representatives of his position. James Orr does represent McGowan's position, but Herman Bavinck does not. McGowan claims that

aspects of Scripture that the inerrantists "explain away" pose no problem for Bavinck. He goes so far as to say "the guidance of the Holy Spirit promised to the church does not exclude the possibility of human error." (158)

This quotation is from Bavinck's Reformed Dogmatics[1] and is the only quotation from Bavinck that McGowan claims to show he was not an inerrantist. Bavinck is not referring to the doctrine of inspiration at all, but to the theology of the church! McGowan clearly regards Bavinck as his champion, even though Bavinck does not actually agree with him. In his summary of chapter 5, he presents five positive assessments of Bavinck's doctrine of Scripture. The first of these begins with Bavinck's stress on the infallibility rather than inerrancy of Scripture, which enables us to affirm a strong view of Scripture, without making any particular claims concerning hypothetical autographa that we do not possess and have not seen (162).

Bavinck not only did not stress infallibility rather than inerrancy, he actually affirmed inerrancy when he wrote, "Scripture is true in everything."[2]

McGowan has three more chapters in his book. Since these chapters have no significant part in his argumentation for infallibility, I will not deal with them.

Dr. McGowan's argumentation is seriously flawed, and he has offered an unacceptable alternative to the doctrine of the inerrancy of the Scriptures. He argues that the Scriptures are God-breathed, but he believes God breathed out errors. His view impugns the character of our triune God and undermines the authority of Scripture.


[1] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, vol. 1: Prolegomena (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2003), 32.

[2] Ibid., 447.

Sidney D. Dyer is a minister in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church serving as professor of New Testament at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Taylors, South Carolina. Ordained Servant Online, October 2011.

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