An Exposition and Evaluation of the McGowen View on the Spiration of Scripture/Part 1

By: Dr. Wayne Barber; ©2009
In His book The Divine Spiration of Scripture: Challenging Evangelical Perspectives Scottish Reformed theologian A. T. B. McGowen provides a thought-provoking evaluation of the ongoing debate between the infalliblist and the inerrantist positions.

An Exposition and Evaluation of The Divine Spiration of Scripture – Part 1

In His book The Divine Spiration of Scripture: Challenging Evangelical Perspectives (InterVarsity Press, 2007) Scottish Reformed theologian A. T. B. McGowen provides a thought-provoking evaluation of the ongoing debate between the infalliblist and the inerrantist positions. A careful reading of his proposal reveals many positive contributions.

The Positive Contributions of McGowen’s Work

There are many commendable features of this book that are well worth contemplating. First of all, it sees this as a “watershed issue” (9). Further, it observes that theopnuestia in 2 Timothy 3:16 should be translated as “spiration” or breathing out is a better rendering. It also affirms the value of the word “infallible” (39, 48). The term “inerrancy” alone is insufficient. After all, there can be inerrant phone books—with no errors—that do not thereby have divine authority. It also sees the ICBI (International Council on Biblical Inerrancy) statement as a “most significant” statement (104) and would choose it, if necessary, over the errancy view of Rogers and McKim (212). Likewise, McGowen would choose B. B Warfield over Jack Rogers of Fuller Seminary (161). He even cites favorably both John Woodbridge’s critique of Rogers and McKim (99) as well as that of Donald Bloesch who agrees (100, 125). Nor does McGowen deny that God can, if He chooses, produce an inerrant text (113-114), as inerrantists have long held. Furthermore, he even says the Bible is a “co-authored” book by both God and human beings (148). Then too, his definition of inspiration hits some important key notes of the doctrine when he affirms that “the Holy Spirit caused men to write books and his supervisory action was such that although these books are truly the work of human beings, they are also the Word of God”(43). He is certainly right in denying the “mechanical dictation” of Scripture (163).

Further, the book is on track in rejecting the neo-orthodox view of Scripture that the Bible merely “become the Word of God” in a moment of encounter with Him through the Bible (29). It is not the Word of God subjectively but is God’s Word objectively (73). Likewise, revelation is not merely an event as many neo-orthodox claim (21). McGowen is also correct in affirming that inspiration is verbal (136) and that there are any degrees of inspiration (134) and that it is not the authors of Scripture that are inspired (39, 133) but the Scriptures they wrote. McGowen also makes an often overlooked but important distinction. He points out that it is not the Bible that needs illumination, but only human minds (45-47). Another crucial point is that one should not claim for the Bible what it does not claim for itself (121). Nor does he reject the view there are implicit or logically entailed claims in Scripture. Indeed, he says the use of logic is “appropriate” (117) and “contradictions” should be avoided (212). More could be added.

An Evaluation of McGowan’s Basic Proposals on the Nature of Scripture

McGowen’s proposal is the first direct and serious proposal by an otherwise conservative Reformed scholar since the ICBI “Chicago Statement” (in 1978) As such, McGowen’s proposals demand attention.

The Claim That the Word “Inerrancy” Should be Discarded

McGowen argues that the term inerrancy should be discarded by evangelicals (13). He offers several reasons for this, one of the most often repeated of which is that the term “inerrancy” implies scientific precision (117). He also believes it is recent in origin, not being found in early creeds but being a result of heated battle between early 20th century Fundamentalist and Liberals (121). Neither does he believe the term is biblical, but he calls it a “violent assumption” (135) of Fundamentalist thinking. “Inerrancy,” he believes, is an apologetic response to the Enlightenment (50, 115). He also argues that it does not have the weight of history behind it.

First of all, in response it is important to note that both sides of the debate can agree that there is nothing sacred about the word “inerrancy.” Indeed, it is not the term so much as the truth of inerrancy that is important to preserve. The basic question is whether or not the Bible is completely without error in all that it affirms. This can be said in more than one way. But before we hasten to throw away the term “inerrancy,” let us remind ourselves of the strength of the word and the weakness of the suggested alternative terms.

Second, we can readily discard the argument that the word “inerrancy” is not biblical. By that same logic, the word “Bible” is not biblical for it is nowhere used of the Bible in the Bible. Further, it too does not have the weight of early history behind it. So should we discard it too? Indeed, the word “Trinity” is not in the Bible and did not appear in the earliest ecumenical Creeds such as the Apostles Creed (2nd cent), the Nicene Creed (A.D. 325), or the Chalcedonian Creed (A.D. 451). Does that mean we should discard it? The answer is “No,” and the reasons are that while the term is not biblical, nonetheless, the truth is biblical, and the term is a good term to describe it. The same is true of the word “inerrancy.”

Third, the term inerrancy need not mean “scientific precision,” as is wrongly alleged by anti-inerrantists. Every term should be understood in its context and with the qualifications given to it by its users. Even McGowen agrees that the ICBI statement makes numerous qualifications on the meaning of the term (106). These qualifications clearly deny the misimplications of modern “scientific precision.” Article XIII of the ICBI “Chicago Statement” declared plainly: “We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision…” (Emphasis added).

Fourth, it is well to remember that the term inerrancy also has some strong features in its favor. For one, it is negative, and negative terms are powerful. Consider, the force of the Ten Commandments many of which are stated in negative terms, like: “You shall not murder” or “You shall not bear false witness” or “You shall not commit adultery. Further, “The Bible is true” is not nearly as strong as “The Bible is without error.” Even McGowen appears to commend the ICBI statement for having “denials” as well as “affirmations” (106). But denials are negative which is the reason they help in clarifying the point at hand. Inerrancy, as a negative term, does the same thing. As is readily apparent the statement “The Bible is without error” is clearer and stronger than the statement “The Bible is true.” For the latter does not make it clear whether the Bible is completely true.

Considering the Alternatives

We readily grant that no term, including inerrancy, expresses all that the Bible claims about itself. Nonetheless, by comparison the term stands tall as compared to most of the alternatives offered.

The Term Infallible

McGowen favors the word “infallible” over the word “inerrant” (48, 123, 125,162). He insists that the word “infallible” is “more dynamic (or organic) and is a less mechanical view of authority” (49). It carries with it the idea that “the Holy Spirit infallibly uses God’s Word to achieve all he intends to achieve” (49). However, this use of the word “infallible” is precisely why the term “inerrant” is also needed.

In response, we acknowledge the strength of the term “infallible,” if it is used the sense of “unerring” in connection with the word “inerrant.” However, the term “infallible” has been rendered fallible by the intentionalist sense in which it is used by non-inerrantists. My Webster’s Ninth Collegiate Dictionary gives the primary definition of “infallible” as “incapable of error; unerring.” In this sense of the term, inerrantists have no problem since it is perfectly compatible with the term inerrant. It is the secondary sense of the term which the inerrantists reject as inadequate, namely, “not liable to mislead, deceive, or disappoint.” Indeed, McGowen speaks of Scriptures which “infallibly achieves God’s purposes” (149). He quotes Bavink’s view with approval,[1] saying: “In his organic view, Bavink focuses not on the text of Scripture as such but upon its meaning and purpose” (158, emphasis added). Likewise, he affirms “that intention [of Scripture] is no other than that it should make us ‘wise unto salvation’” (159, emphasis added).

However, focusing on the intention or purpose of the Bible, rather than its affirmations and denials, does not necessitate the Bible is without all errors in all that it affirms. Many statements with good intentions, even those that achieve their intended results, contain errors. So, by that definition of “infallible” one could have an infallibly correct error. But this is nonsense. Since the term “infallible” carries these connotations for many, it is necessary to add the word “inerrant” to make clear what the Bible teaches on the topic.

Of course, in the good sense of the term “infallible” (i.e., incapable of error), it is not an either/or situation. The Bible is both infallible and inerrant. But, unlike McGowen’s implication, the Bible is not merely infallible in its intentions and achievements but also in its affirmations (and denials). Truth is not found in intentions because humans can, and often do, utter errors with good intentions. So, defining either infallibility or inerrancy in terms of intentions, achieved or not, does not measure up to what the Bible claims for itself which is that truth must be judged by its correspondence to the facts. Indeed, even McGowen seems to admit this elsewhere when he commends “modes of rationality that actually correspond with the nature of its objectively given reality… “(73, emphasis added). Indeed, ICBI clarified the meaning of “truth” as correspondence in an official authorized commentary on “The Chicago Statement,” affirming that “By biblical standards of truth and error [in Article XIII on “Truth”] is meant the view used both in the Bible and in everyday life, viz., a correspondence view of truth.”[2]

The correspondence view of truth is in fact the one which the Bible[3] embraces. For example: It is implied in the ninth command (“You shall not bear false witness”), i.e., don’t misrepresent the facts. It is also entailed in Acts 24 when it says you can “learn the truth” when you “verify [the facts]” (vs. 8, 11). Further, it is manifest in Genesis 42:16 when Joseph said they should look at the facts “so that your words may be tested to see if you are telling the truth.” In addition, it was employed in the test for a false prophet whose prophecy was considered false “if the word does not come to pass or come true” (Deut. 18:22). It is also utilized in everyday conversations when we consider something false if it misrepresents the facts (e.g., we say “check the facts” or “check it out for yourself” and the like). Indeed, the correspondence view of truth is essential to a legal oath when one promises “to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.”

One can and does agree that the word “inerrancy” alone is insufficient to describe what the Bible is.[4] It also has sanctity, infallibility, indestructibility, indefatigability (can’t be worn out), indefeasability (can’t be overcome). Indeed, it can save (1 Pet. 1:23), nourish (2 Pet. 2:2), wash (Psa. 119:9), purify (Jer. 23:29a), shatter (Jer. 23:29), cut deeply (Heb. 4:12), prevent sin (Psa. 119:11), illuminate (Psa. 119:105), comfort (Rom. 15:4), and predict (2 Pet. 1:19). The truth is that no one word covers all that the Bible is, just like no one attribute exhausts all that God is. However, this is not to say that the Bible is not inerrant as well. Nor is this to say we can rob it of this characteristic any more than we can strip it of infallibility.

McGowen Prefers the Word “Authentic”

McGowen prefers the word “authentic” (213) to “inerrant.” However, the term “authentic” as used of Scripture is theologically anemic. The Bible claims much more than this for itself. Jesus refers to the Bible as indestructible (Mt. 5:17-18), unbreakable (Jn. 10:35), the “Word of God” (Jn. 10:35), and as coming “out of the mouth of God” (Mt. 4:4). Paul said, it is “God-breathed” (2 Tim. 3:16). These concepts are insufficiently described by the term “authentic.” After all, one can have an authentic coin minted with mistakes on it or an authentic copy of the famous “Wicked Bible” that translated Exodus 20:14 as “Thou shalt commit adultery”! There is also “authentic” Confederate currency and persons with authenticity-all of which falls far short of what is perfect.

The same goes for terms like “trustworthy” and “reliable.” The Bible is trustworthy like a good friend, but even trustworthy friends make mistakes. It is reliable like a good map, but even good maps can have errors on them. These terms are far too weak to describe what is meant by a God-breathed book that was joint-authored by God. So, both of these terms fail to measure up to what the Bible claims for itself.

Having said all this, there are other good ways to describe what is meant by inerrancy. “Totally free from all error in everything it affirms” is a good phrase. But for a single word it is difficult to beat the word “inerrancy.” And as defined by the ICBI statement, it is clearly the best single word available in English. And it would be unwise to discard it for words like trustworthy, reliable, authentic, or even infallible in purpose. Of course, the proper use of infallible and inerrant in all it affirms is a good and powerful way to express the biblical doctrine.

The Claim That Inerrancy Does not Follow From God’s Nature

Typical of strong Calvinists, McGowen embraces a form of divine voluntarism. Ethical voluntarism declares that something is good because God wills it; God does not will it because it is good. However, this would make all the moral commands of God in Scripture arbitrary. For example, according to voluntarism, God could will that love is wrong and hate is right. But this is not only counter-intuitive, it is morally repugnant, to say nothing of being unbiblical since God is by nature Love (1 Jn. 4:16). Further, voluntarism would undermine unconditional election, a doctrine dear to the heart of a Reformed theologian. For if voluntarism were true, then God could change his mind about who the elect are or even whether the elect will ultimately be saved.

This same kind of voluntarism is evident in McGowen’s argument against inerrancy. In one of the most important sections in the book, he writes: “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 mistake in the autographa, then God cannot have been the author, because he is incapable of error” (113). Thus, McGowen says inerrancy is not a legitimate inference from the Bible (115) but is merely an “a priori” argument (131).

McGowan goes on to say that “the argument of the inerrantists is that God is unable to produce anything other than an inerrant autographic text… I agree with the inerrantists that God could have brought into being inerrant autographic texts, had he chosen to do so, but I reject their argument that he must have acted in this way” (113-114). He concludes, “I think it is wrong to prejudge the nature of Scripture through some deductivist approach, based on what we believe inspiration must mean, given God’s character” (136). We cannot “assume that they must be inerrant because God cannot lie” (137). This could hardly be more clear and, in my view, more faulty. Several observations are in order in this regard.

First, McGowen is a voluntarist on what God could or could not do in producing a God-breathed book. That is, he affirmed that God was free to make an original Bible with or without errors in it. He was under no necessity imposed upon him by his own nature to produce an errorless original. As incredible as this may sound, McGowen’s biblical voluntarism entails the claim that speaking the truth is optional, not necessary, for God! If ever there was a misdirected and over-stated view of God’s sovereignty, this is it.

Indeed, this is precisely where inerrantists sharply disagee with non-inerrantists like McGowen. This disagreement is reflected in the basic statement on Scripture of the Evangelical Theological Society to which McGowan refers. It reads, “The Bible alone, and the Bible in its entirety, is the Word of God written and is therefore inerrant in the autographs” (emphasis added).” The word “therefore” logically connects the word of “God” and “inerrant” to make it clear that neither God nor the Bible errs. This meaning of the word “therefore” has been confirmed by a living framer of the statement, namely, Reformed theologian Roger Nicole.

Further, and more importantly, the Bible makes it clear that God cannot choose, even if He desires to do so, to produce an imperfect original. Why? “Because it is impossible for God to lie” (Heb. 6:18). Paul speaks about “the God who cannot lie” (Titus 1:2). He adds, “God cannot deny himself” (2 Tim. 2:13). Numerous other Scriptures speak of God’s unchanging nature (Num. 23:19;1 Sam. 15:29; Psa.102:25-27; Heb. 1:10-12; Mal. 3:6; James 1:17. No serious examination of all these Scriptures in context can support a voluntarist interpretation that God can change his essential nature, even if He wanted to do so. If this is so, then McGowen’s central thesis fails, and the inerrantists argument stands firm:

  1. God cannot error.
  2. The original Bible is God’s Word.
  3. Therefore, the original Bible cannot error.

To deny this conclusion, as McGowen knows, one must deny at least one or the other of the two premises. McGowen’s attempt to deny the first premise failed. It goes against the grain of God’s very nature as truth to presume that such an unchangeably true Being can error, if He wishes. God is truth (Deut. 32:4; Psa. 31:5) by His very unchangeable nature and, as such, He “cannot lie” (Titus 1:2); “It is impossible for God to lie” (Heb. 6:18). To do so, would be to deny Himself, and “he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim. 2:13).

Further, the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth (Jn. 15:26). And the Word of God is the utterances of the Spirit of Truth. Jesus said, “But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth” (Jn. 16:13). Peter added, “But know this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation, for no prophecy was ever made by an act of human will, but men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God” (2 Pet. 1:20-21). David confessed, “The Spirit of the LORD spoke by me, and His word was on my tongue” (2 Sam. 23:2). Now by simple logical inference,

  1. The original Bible is the utterance of the Spirit of Truth.
  2. The Spirit of truth cannot utter error.
  3. Therefore, the original Bible cannot utter err.

Here again, to deny inerrancy one must deny at least one or more of the two premises. McGowen’s attempt to deny the first premise fails. Truth is not an option with God. It is a necessity.

McGowen also believes that the copies of the Bible are inspired (159). Given that inspiration means “spirated” or “breathed out” of God and given that he recognizes errors in the copies, McGowen is left with explaining just how God can breath out errors. Indeed, according to this analysis, it is not only possible for there to be errors in what God breathes out, but it may be actual as well. But this is contrary to the very nature of God as truth to breathe out error. He cannot overrule his unchangeable nature by his sovereignty any more than He can will Himself out of existence!

An Implied Accommodation Theory

Upon closer analysis McGowen also seems to reject the second premise of the argument for inerrancy as well, namely, that “The Bible is the Word of God.” According to this view, God must accommodate Himself, not only to human finitude, but to human error in the production of Scripture. But nowhere in Scripture is there support for the view that God accommodates Himself to human error rather than merely adapts Himself to human finitude. In short, a truly human book, such as the Bible is, can still avoid errors. Were this not so, then by the same logic, one must conclude that the divine accommodation in the Incarnation means that Christ sinned. This is the way McGowen attacks the so-called incarnational model often used by evangelicals to illustrate their view.

The err at the root of this view appears to be based on a Barthian and neo-Gnostic view of human fallenness in which any contact with this fallen human world makes sin unavoidable. It is to argue that since the Bible was written by fallen human beings in fallen human language, it too must inevitably partake of errors as well.

There is another serious problem with this radical view of divine accommodation.[5] If contact with a fallen world makes error inevitable, then not only does this mean there can be (and probably are) errors in the original Bible, it also means that the Incarnate Christ too must partake of both the same proneness to error and to sin. But the New Testament makes it very clear that Jesus did not sin (Heb. 4:15; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 1:23; 1 Jn. 3:2). Likewise, it would mean that the very teachings which came from Jesus lips would have been tainted with error since he too was speaking in a fallen human language. But this belief would precipitate a Christological crisis unacceptable to orthodoxy. Surely, no one who believes in the union of two natures in the one Person of Christ, the Second Person of the Godhead, thereby affirms error in his human words. Hence, McGowen’s view of divine accommodation to err in the production of Scripture must be rejected. The fact is, however, that finitude does not necessitate fallenness. If it did, then not only would the Son Himself have partaken in sin and error, but the beatified saints in heaven would not be free from sin and error, as the Scriptures teach they will be (1 Cor. 13:10;1 Jn. 3:2; Rev.21:4).

Rejecting the “Incarnational” Analogy

According to this inerrantists reasoning, just as God in His Living Word (the Savior) has united with the human nature of Christ without sin, even so God is united with His written Word (the Scripture) yet without error. McGowen objects to this analogy with two basic arguments (118-121).

First, he argues that unlike Christ whose two natures are united in one person, there is no such union of the divine and human in Scripture. But McGowan misses the point, even on his own grounds. For elsewhere he speaks of a co-authorship of Scripture (148). He cites with approval the following: “This enables Bavink faithfully and clearly to emphasize both sides of any orthodox doctrine of Scripture, namely that God is the author but yet the human beings are the authors” (148). This would mean that both the human and divine aspects of Scripture are united in one set of propositions (better, sentences) or verbal expression in like manner to the divine and human being united in Christ in one person. This conclusion is borne out also by the fact that McGowen holds to “verbal” inspiration by affirming that “I disagree with him [James Orr] on [his denying] verbal inspiration. It seems to me that there is no good reason for arguing that the content but not the form of the Scriptures have come to us from God” (136). But if the verbal form of Scripture is “breathed-out” from God, as McGowen claims it is, then there is a propositional (better, sentential) unity that combines both the divine and human elements of Scripture in one and the same verbal structure.

Even McGowen’s own definition of Scripture supports the Incarnational model for he says “the Holy Spirit caused men to write books and his supervisory action was such that although these books are truly the work of human beings, they are also the Word of God” (43). Again, there is a unity between the human and divine in God’s written Word (the Scripture) that is analagous with the union of the divine and human in His Living Word (the Savior).

Further, McGowen argues wrongly that the word “divine” does not apply to Scripture, as it does to the divine nature of Christ in the Incarnation. He wrote: “Only God is divine and therefore only God can have a divine nature” (120). But in a very important sense this is not so. Even Peter affirmed that in some real sense “we are partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 1:4). Surely, this is not in a metaphysical sense (e.g., we can’t be infinite) but in a moral sense (we can be true). McGowen seems to unwittingly answer his own question when he admits that “I am not denying that the Scriptures (like human beings) can share some of the divine attributes” (120). But that is all that is necessary for the analogy to be a good one, namely to have strong similarities which it has.

As for the Bible not being God, of course it is not. That is why the Incarnational model is an analogy (similar but not identical). No informed evangelical ever held that the Bible was God and should be worshiped. The Bible is like God in his moral attributes (like the necessity to be truth and holiness), not in his non-moral (metaphysical) attributes (like infinite and eternal). In view of this, the Incarnational reasoning can be stated as follows:

  1. God’s Living Word (Christ) and His Written Word (the Savior) are similar in that:
  1. They have a divine and human dimension;
  2. These two dimensions are combined in one unity.
  3. Thus, both are without flaw.
  1. Hence, both God’s Living Word and His Written Word are without flaw morally in that:
  1. God’s Living Word is without sin:
  2. Written Word is without error.[6]

The remaining question is: How can the effect (an inerrant Bible) be greater than the cause (errant humans)? Of course, it cannot, but the ultimate (primary) Cause is God; the human writers are only the secondary causes. Their imperfection and tendency to err does not bleed through to the effect because God can draw a straight line with a crooked stick! Or, in biblical terms: “No prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” (2 Pet. 1:21). In theological terms, to cite McGowen himself, “the Holy Spirit caused men to write books and his supervisory action was such that although these books are truly the work of human beings, they are also the Word of God” (43). Since the Scriptures did not originate from “the will of man,” but of God, and since the superintending Spirit of truth “cannot lie,” then what He uttered in these human words cannot err.


  1. McGowen agrees with Herman Bavink more than almost any other author, saying, “My argument, then, is that Herman Bavink…[who] offers the finest model for an evangelical doctrine of Scripture” (212).
  2. See R.C. Sproul, Explaining Inerrancy: A Commentary (ICBI, 1980), 31.
  3. For a defense of the correspondence view of truth see the article titled “Truth, Nature of” in Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1999) by N. L. Geisler.
  4. N. L. Geisler, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2002),Vol. 1.
  5. It is acknowledged that many orthodox theologians have used the word “accommodation” to mean adaptation to finitude, but it is denied that they meant this to include error or sin. However, since the term “accommodation” now carries this connotation for many, I recommend that we speak of divine “adaptation” to finitude and leave the word “accommodation” for the neo-orthodox (and neo-Gnostic) view of God acquiescing to error.
  6. I would argue that the Bible “cannot” err insofar as its divine dimension is concerned and “did not” err insofar as its human dimension is concerned.

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