An Exposition and Evaluation of the McGowen View on the Spiration of Scripture/Part 2

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.

Previous Article

An Exposition and Evaluation of The Divine Spiration of Scripture – Part 2

McGowen’s Neo-Barthian Implication

Although McGowen rightly disowns some neo-orthodox beliefs such as a denial of objective propositional revelation and revelation coming only in acts and not words, nonetheless, he is not without Barthian influence in this matter. In fact, I would call his view neo-Barthian in some significant respects. First, as already noted (and discussed more fully below), McGowen allows for the possibility of errors in the original text of the Bible—the one breathed-out by God. Second, he speaks of the Bible as an instrument through which God speaks—rather than the Bible being the voice of God itself. As to the first he says, “The Scriptures are the record of the revelation that God has given to his church…” (21). He adds, “Our knowledge of the love of God in Christ comes to us through the voice of God speaking in the Scriptures” (31). Again, “God’s Word came to us in the form of human witness” (112). Finally, he cites James Orr with approval, saying, “God has given a historical, supernatural revelation and… the Scriptures are the ‘record’ of this revelation” (132). But what is this but a more euphemistic way to affirm Barth’s scratched record analogy of one hearing his master’s voice through an imperfect recording. This is contrary to Scripture which describes itself as “perfect” (Psa. 19:7) (Hebrew: tamiym, without flaw) which is the same word used of the Passover lamb (Ex. 12:5) that was to be “without blemish.” But the Bible speaks of itself as the revelation of God itself (the very Word of God), not a faulty record of it.

This conclusion is also supported by McGowen’s claim that the Bible has no authority in itself, only God does (45). But if the Bible is the Word of God written, then it has the authority of God in it since it is God’s voice speaking in the words of Scripture. One would think that with McGowen’s emphasis on the “dynamic” nature of inspiration (49), to wit that God is continually speaking through His Word (155), that he would not have fallen into the Barthian error of claiming the Bible is not the revelation of God but merely a human record of it through which God speaks to us. This is undoubtedly why McGowen also claims there is some truth in the Barthian claim that “the Bible becomes the Word of God” to us or is “a subjective revelation” to us (156).

Finally, this neo-Barthianism in McGowen is also supported by his contention that the Bible is only an instrumental revelation. He writes, “The purpose of Scripture is instrumental to the work of the Spirit” (24). Likewise, he speaks with approval that “Barth was arguing that our knowledge of the love of God in Christ comes to us through the voice of God speaking in the Scriptures” (31). Thus, God speaks “by His Spirit through His Word” (31). So, the Bible is “the means” by which he communicates with us (31). In short, the Bible is not the revelation of God; it is the instrument through which God’s revelation comes to us. But once this distinction is made and the wedge is driven between the words of the men who wrote the Scriptures and the voice of God that speaks through these fallible human voices, then we cannot have a true revelation from God.

Faulty Logic in the McGowen Analysis

Part of the reason McGowen is able to come to these wrong conclusions about inerrancy is the faulty logic he employs. A few examples will suffice. Many of them are forms of the notorious “Straw Man” fallacy. First, the false charges that inerrantist hold to mechanical dictation is even rejected by the Fundamentalist John R. Rice repudiated who admits to holding “verbal dictation”.[1] Indeed, no Calvinist, like McGowen, who believes in irresistible grace should have any problem believing that God can work on different persons with their unique styles to produce exactly what God wanted to say.

Second, he alleges a “straw man” of atomistic view “that every isolated word of Holy Scripture is inerrant” (65). This word-by-word revelation which is found primarily in cultic dictation or in orthodox Muslim’s beliefs about the origin of the Qur’an, not in an evangelical view of inspiration who believe is in wholistic inspiration. That is a word taken properly in the context of a whole sentence and a sentence taken in the whole context of a literary unity (and ultimately that taken in the context of the whole Scripture) is inspired and inerrant. In brief, a whole sentence (with all of its parts) is an inerrant revelation from God if understood in its proper contexts. Paul stressed the importance of a singular “seed” in contrast to “seeds” (Gal. 3:16). The absence of a letter can change the whole meaning of a doctrine, as the early Creed discovered. The Greek word for “same” (homoousion) differed from the word for “similar” (homoiousion) by only one letter, the letter “I” (the letter iota in Greek). This one tiny letter was the difference between orthodoxy and heresy on whether Christ was the same or only similar to God. So, in this sense, even letters are inspired, not in isolation from words, sentences and the overall context but as a crucial part of the whole-the wholistic meaning.

Another “straw man” created by McGowen is what he calls “inflexible literalism” (65, 103). He equated ICBI with fundamentalists (103, 123). However, the ICBI “Chicago Statement” on inerrancy went to great lengths to deny this charge—so detailed were the statements that, strangely, McGowen criticized it for being so careful to define its meaning this precisely. Article XIII declared: “We further deny that inerrancy is negated by Biblical phenomena such as a lack of modern technical precision, irregularities of grammar or spelling, observational descriptions of nature, the reporting of falsehoods, the use of hyperbole and round numbers, the topical arrangement of material, variant selections of material in parallel accounts, or the use of free citations.” Article XVIII adds, “We affirm that the text of Scripture is to be interpreted by grammatical-historical exegesis; taking account of its literary forms and devices, and that Scripture is to interpret Scripture.” Likewise, Article VI declares: “We affirm that the whole of Scripture and all its parts, down to the very words of the original, were given by divine inspiration. We deny that the inspiration of Scripture can rightly be affirmed of the whole without the parts, or of some parts but not the whole” (emphasis added). What is this but a whole-istic inspiration?

McGowen also contends that God’s revelation “can never become mere data to be processed by the theologian, rather than the means by which God confronts and communicates to us.” But once again, whoever said that the Bible is “mere data” for us to process. The Word of God is not merely an object to be studied (73). It also the Word of God to be obeyed (Js. 1:22). The very ICBI statements (which McGowen rejects) states the contrary in its very first statement, saying:”God, who is Himself Truth and speaks the truth only, has inspired Holy scripture in order to reveal Himself to lost mankind Jesus Christ . . . Holy scripture is God’s witness to Himself.” (No. 1). Article III declares: “We affirm that the written Word in its entirety is revelation given by God.” How can one conclude from this, as McGowen does (117), that inerrantists believe the Bible is viewed merely as an object to be studied, rather than a revelation to be obeyed?

Fourth, it does not seem to concern McGowen that he admits to logical fallacy of “circular reasoning” in his apologetic (32). This begs the question by saying in essence: “We know the Bible is the Word of God because the Bible (as the Word of God) tells us so.” McGowen cites Bavink with approval that “Holy Scripture is self-attested (autopistos) and therefore the final ground of faith. No deeper ground can be advanced. To the question ‘Why do you believe Scripture?’ The only answer is: ‘Because it is the word of God.’ But if the next question is ‘Why do you believe that Holy Scripture is the word of God’ a Christian cannot answer?” (31) Even Van Til, whom McGowen cites favorably (37), could offer a transcendental argument in response, namely, because nothing else in the world makes sense apart from positing that the Triune God is revealed in canonical Scripture. However, one can be sure that neither McGowen nor any other fideist would accept this reasoning when a Muslim says, “Why should we believe the Qur’an is the Word of God? The only answer is: Because the Qur’an says it is the Word of God.” I am sure McGowen would want some good evidence and reasons before he accepted the Qur’an as the Word of God, regardless of what the Qur’an says about itself.

As for the claim that in such an answer “we are setting these things as a higher authority than the voice of God speaking in Scripture” we point out that besides confusing epistemology and ontology, he is overlooking the fact that the Bible itself commands us to use “reason” (1 Peter 3:15) and evidence (Acts 1:3) to test truth claims. Moses gave tests for a false prophet (Deut. 13 and 18). John exhorted us to “test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 Jn. 4:1), and Paul “reasoned” (Acts 17:2, 17) with the Jews and Greeks to demonstrate that Jesus was the Messiah. Indeed, Jesus himself used reason and evidence to substantiate his claims to be God.[2] As Augustine said, “Who cannot see that thinking is prior to believing? For no one believes anything unless he has first thought that it is to be believed…?”[3]

Fifth, McGowen is also guilty of taking a text out of its context. He does this with a statement made by B. B. Warfield, the great Princetonian defender of inerrancy. Warfield is careful to stress the humanity of Scripture as well as its divine origin. In so defending the humanity of the biblical authors, Warfield and Hodge state that the authors of Scripture were dependent on human languages that “bear everywhere indelible traces of error” and on human “sources and methods in themselves fallible” and personal knowledge that was “defective, or even wrong” (211). But using this to support McGowen’s errant view of inerrancy is totally unjustified for two reasons. First, it omits the crucial point, namely, that God in his providence overrules these human weaknesses and produces an inerrant product through their human pens. To repeat, this only proves the point that God can draw a straight line with a crooked stick. Second, even in this quote McGowen overlooks the fact that Warfield is not saying that these human sources always err. Indeed, he qualifies it by the phrases “in large measure” and “in many maters.” Finally, Hodge and Warfield clearly say that they are referring to these human sources “in themselves,” not as superintended by a God who cannot err.

Sixth, McGowen sometimes throws the baby out with the bathwater. For example, he lumps “propositional” revelation with the alleged necessity of “scientific precision” and rejects them both together. Thus, propositional truth gets thrown out with modern “scientific accuracy.” But most inerrantists, indeed all who signed the ICBI or ETS statements as defined by ICBI, do not believe that one has to believe in “scientific accuracy” in order to believe in propositional revelation (117). This same unnecessary lumping occurs with “inerrancy” and “fundamentalism” (103, 123) as well as inerrancy and “literalism.” This, in spite of the fact that inerrancy proponents explicitly deny such implications (see above).

Answering Other Objections to Inerrancy Raised by McGowen

There are many other objections McGowen raises to inerrancy. Several call for a brief response since they are held by many as significant obstacles to belief in inerrancy.

Death of Inerrancy by a Thousand Qualifications

Strangely enough McGowen criticizes the ICBI and ETS inerrantist for having so many qualifications to their view. This is odd in view of the fact that the non-inerrantist holds the opposite on all these points and yet they are not criticized for all their qualifications. Further, McGowen actually commends the ICBI statement for making things clearer by having “denials” as well as “affirmations.” But these additional negative qualifications make the doctrine, even clearer.

Basically, inerrancy does not die a death by “a thousand” qualifications for two reasons. First of all, the so-called qualifications do not kill it but enhance it and, thus, keep it alive. In short, they do not negate all meaning in the original claim; they clarify it by negating things from it that do not belong to it.

Second, there are not “a thousand” qualifications; there really are only two: 1) Only the original text is inerrant; and 2) Only what is affirmed as true in the text, is true and not anything else. The rest of the so-called “qualifications” are not really qualifications by inerrantists but misunderstandings by non-inerrantists. Hence, the re-wording is necessary only because opponents have misunderstood or mischaracterized the doctrine. This calls for a denial by inerrantists that helps one to understand what was implied in the original affirmation that everything affirmed as true in the text, is true (and everything affirmed as false, is false). Just as the early Creeds had to grow in order to explain what they meant in earlier more simple forms because later heretics misunderstood, distorted, or challenged it, even so later inerrantists have had to add more “qualifications” to explicate the original meaning as opposed to the heretical challenges of their day.

For instance, it should have been sufficient to simply say: (1) The Bible is the Word of God. This really should be sufficient, but because some have denied the obvious, it is necessary to add (2) the Bible is the inspired Word of God. However, when some use inspired in a human sense, it is necessary to say (3) The Bible is the strong-divinely inspired Word of God. But since some deny such a book is infallibly true, it is necessary to add (4) the Bible is the divinely inspired infallible Word of God. Likewise, when some claim it is only infallible in intent but not in fact, then it is necessary to clarify that it means (5) the Bible is the divinely inspired infallible and inerrant Word of God. Even here some have argued that it is only inerrant in redemptive matters, hence it is necessary to add (6) the Bible is the divinely inspired infallible and inerrant word of God in all that it affirms on any topic. And so on. There is no apparent end to this process. Why? Because when someone denies the obvious, it is necessary to affirm the redundant. It is the not inerrantists’ fault that he seems to be adding when he is explicating what the original statement meant. So, the inerrantist cannot be blamed for the alleged “qualifications” (really, further of the original meaning in the light of later denials). It is the opponents of inerrancy that should be blamed for denying the obvious. If “(1) The Bible is the Word of God,” then of course it is divinely inspired, infallible, inerrant, etc. But if one denies the obvious, then inerrantists must affirm the redundant to make our view clear.

There is No Mention of Inspiration and Inerrancy in the early Creeds

In response to this charge, it is crucial to remember that the belief in a divinely authoritative Bible is everywhere presupposed by the Creeds. Almost the entire The Apostles’ Creed (2nd cent.) is made up phases that are dependent on the Bible. Likewise, the Nicene Creed (A.D. 325) uses many of the same phrases and adds explicitly states that these truths were “spoken through the Prophets.” The Chalcedonian Creed (A. D. 451) uses many of the same phases from the previous Creeds and adds explicitly that “we have the prophets of the old” (in the Old Testament) and what “the Lord Jesus Christ Himself taught” through the apostolic writings in the New Testament. The divinely authoritative basis for the teaching of the Christian Church is evident both implicitly and explicitly in the earliest general Creeds of the Church.

Second, there was little need to mention the Bible more explicitly since it was not seriously challenged. The Creeds grew out of needs. The needs of the day were centered more on the deity and humanity of Christ, the Trinity, and the resurrection. Hence, they were highlighted. Creeds grew out of controversy, and there was no serious controversy in the early church on the divine origin of Scripture.

Third, it is well established that the view of the early Fathers were strongly in favor of inerrancy. Noted authority on the early Fathers, J. N. D. Kelly, characterized the view of the early Fathers when speaking of Tertullian’s view that “Scripture has absolute authority; whatever it teaches is necessarily true, and woe betide him who accepts doctrines not discoverable in it.”[4] St. Augustine summed up the early Fathers well when he declared: “If we are perplexed by any apparent contradiction in Scripture, it is not allowable to say, The author of this book is mistaken; but either [1] the manuscript is faulty, or [2] the translation is wrong, or [3] you have not understood.”[5] What is this but an affirmation of the inerrancy of the original text of the Bible?

Why Did God Not Preserve the Autographs?

McGowen asks: “If textual inerrancy is so vital to the doctrine of Scripture, why did God not preserve the autographs of precise copies of the same?” (109). He adds, “What was the point of God acting supernaturally to provide an inerrant text providentially if it ceased to be inerrant as soon as the first or second copy was made?” (109).

In response, evangelical scholars have long pointed out several things which McGowen nowhere addresses at any length or refutes. First, there are important reasons to have a perfect autograph, the foremost of which is that the God of absolute truth cannot utter error (see above). For “It is impossible for God to lie” (Heb. 6:18). The “Spirit of truth” (Jn. 16:13) cannot utter untruths.

Second, since God did not breathe-out the copies, it is possible for them to error. However, God has providentially preserved them as a whole from any substantial error. In short, we have good copies of the original autographs. Noted scholars have substantiated this. Professor Frederic Kenyon stated, “The interval between the dates of original composition and the earliest extant evidence becomes so small as to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scriptures have come down substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.”[6] The great Greek scholar A. T. Robinson stated that “The real concern is with a thousandth part of the entire text.”[7] That would make it 99.9% free of significant variants. Others have noted that these minor variants do not affect an essential teaching of the Christian Church. Even agnostic Bible critic Bart Ehrman admits: “In fact, most of the changes found in early Christian manuscripts have nothing to do with theology or ideology. Far and away the most changes are the result of mistakes pure and simple slips of the pen, accidental omissions, inadvertent additions, misspelled words, blunders of one sort or another.”[8] So, we have 99+ percent of the text and 100% of the essential truths of the Christian Faith. Hence, we do not need the autographs.

Third, there may be a good reason why God did not preserve the autographs. Knowing the human tendency to worship relics, imagine what would happen to the original Bible breathed-out by God! Look what happened to the brazen serpent in the wilderness years later (2 Kgs. 18:4). Further, knowing the human tendency to distort truth and corrupt doctrine with an alleged divine authority, think of what could happen to the autographs if they fell into human hands. But with the autographs preserved in some 5700 mss. that are spread all over the world there is no human way possible that any essential truth of the Christian Faith could be distorted in all these copies.

If Imperfect Copies are Adequate, Why not Imperfect Originals?

Perhaps an illustration will help answer this question. It is not difficult to understand the biblical story of God making a perfect Adam, allowing him to fall and reproduce other imperfect copies of the original Adam. Now all these copies (descendants) of Adam are 100 percent human and imperfect as we all are. So, essential humanity has been preserved even through generations of imperfect copies. Likewise, with Scripture it was essential to have an original that was perfect since a perfect God cannot make an imperfect original. For example, it is inconceivable that a perfect God could have made the first man with a deformed body with cancer growths already on it. But it is not inconceivable that he would make a perfect original man, endow him with free choice, allow him to sin and bring imperfections to his posterity while God, nonetheless, preserves his essential human nature in his posterity. It is for this same reason that God produced a perfect original Bible, and yet preserved the copies of all minor errors so as to protect all the essential truths for posterity.

In short, an adequate but imperfect original is not possible for a perfect God to make. There are many things that God cannot do, even by His sovereignty. He cannot change (Mal. 3:6; Js. 1:13, 17). He cannot deny Himself (2 Tim. 2:13). He cannot cease being God (Heb. 1:10-12). He cannot break an unconditional promise (Rom. 11:29). He cannot lie (Heb. 6:17-18). And, as an absolutely perfect God, He cannot produce an imperfect product either in the realm of truth or morals-because it is contrary to His very nature to do so.

Calling arguments like this “a priori” (111) or purely “deductive” (136) do not make them invalid or false. They are based on the very revealed nature of God in Scripture, and there is nothing wrong with making logical deductions from biblical truths. The Trinity is such a deduction since nowhere does the Bible explicitly teach in any text that there is one God in essence who is three in Persons. Rather, it teaches: (1) There is only one God, and (2) There are three Persons who are God (i.e., who share this one nature). The doctrine of the Trinity is a necessary logical inference from these two clearly biblical premises. Inerrancy, fits into this same category. There are two premises clearly taught in Scripture: (1) God cannot error and (2) The original Bible is the Word of God. The necessary logical conclusion to draw from this is: (3) The original Bible cannot err.

The Argument from Alleged Errors and Contradictions in Scripture

McGowen is believe that there could be errors in the autographs. He says, “if God is able to use the errant copies… that we do have… why invest so much theological capital in hypothetical originals that we do not have?” (113). He adds, “The autographs (if we could view them) might very well look just like our existing manuscripts, including all the difficulties, synoptic issues, discrepancies and apparent contradictions…” (119).

Elsewhere, he concludes with Bavink that “the guidance of the Holy Spirit promised to the church does not exclude the possibility of human error” (158). He seems to be fearful of saying there are “actual contradictions and errors,” but it follows from the very logic of his comparison. For the copies have actual errors and contradictions and God uses them for His purposes. Further, since he claims that the copies are inspired (159), he is faced with the contradictory belief in God-breathed errors anyway. Again, he says that he “reject[s] the implication that thereby the autographs must be inerrant” (124). That certainly means that they can be errant. Again, there is not a “third way.” Either the original can have errors or else they cannot have errors. The undeniable Law of Non-Contradiction (see above) demands this conclusion

Before concluding it will be instructive to examine McGowen’s example of an alleged error in the Bible which he gets from I. Howard Marshall (112). He calls it “a very good example” of an error in the biblical text. He alleges that Jairus told Jesus in Matthews 9:18 that his daughter was dead. But in Mark and Luke Jairus told Jesus she was only “at the point of death” (Mk 5:23) but not dead. Luke said she was only “dying” but not yet dead (Lk. 8:42). McGowen hastily concludes that “there is a clear contradiction between the initial words of Jairus as recorded by Matthew and the other Evangelists” (113).

However, there is in actuality no contradiction between anything Jairus is recorded to have said. For this apparent discrepancy can be explained by the fact “while he [Jairus] was still speaking, someone from the ruler’s house came and said, Your daughter is dead’” (Lk. 8:49). Matthew did not mention that detail, but included the report of the girl’s death in Jairus’ request.[9] The fact is that Matthew did not say Jarius said anything that in fact he did not say. He merely combines the two parts of the conversation, thus stressing the point that the girl actually died by that time.[10] Having analyzed some 800 alleged contradictions in Scripture in The Big Book of Bible Difficulties,[11] I have concluded after a half century of study that the Bible is without error but the critics are not.


McGowen offers many positive insights into the nature of Scripture that are worth pondering (see above). However, in attempting to offered a “middle way between inerrantist and errantist he falls into serious errors. For one, he adopts a radical voluntaristic view of God being sovereignly able to utter error in the original mss. This is combined with an unbiblical view of divine accommodation to error, rather than divine adaptation to finitude without error. This is connected with his rejection of an “incarnational” model of inerrancy which rejection, if applied consistently to Christ, would lead to the conclusion that even the human words and actions of Christ would not be without sin and error.

As for his offer that Americans forsake their long-standing commitment to inerrancy for the weaker European non-inerrancy view, we would remind him of the decline of a vital European church based on the latter and the greater vitality of the American church based on the former. In brief, McGowen’s proposal to reject the term (and concept) of inerrancy should be graciously but firmly rejected because of its unbiblical, unreasonable, and unorthodox implications. In spite of the above stated positive aspects of his view, his central theses may seem more broad and attractive (neither of which is a test for truth), but in the end it is a dangerous deviation from the orthodox view of inerrancy taught in the Bible, affirmed by the church down through the centuries, demanded by orthodox theology from time immemorial, and which has provided a fruitful basis for a vital Christian church. Hence, rather than tempt one to give up either the concept or term inerrancy to describe God-breathed Scripture, McGowen’s gives us more reason to hold on to them.


  1. See John R. Rice, The God-Breathed Book: The Bible (Murfreesboro, TN; 1969), 9.
  2. For a treatment of the many ways in which Jesus used reason and evidence to substantiate his claims see our book, The Apologetics of Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2009).
  3. St. Augustine, On the Predestination of the Saints, 5.
  4. J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrine (NY: Harper & Row, 1960), 39.
  5. See St. Augustine, Reply to Faustus 11.5.
  6. Sir Frederic Kenyon, The Bible and Archaeology (NY: Harper, 1940), 288.
  7. Archibald T. Robertson, An Intro to Textual Criticism of the New Testament (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1925), 22.
  8. Bart Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus (NY: HarperOne), 55.
  9. See The Bible Knowledge Commentary, New Testament (Wheaton, Il: Victor Books, 1983), 40.
  10. For McGowen’s to insist that it is an error because Matthew’s record represents the ruler saying it at a different time is and example of the very “literalistic” view he elsewhere deplores in inerrantists. Further, it begs the question by assuming that conflation is not a legitimate literary style which the ICBI view on Inerrancy allows.
  11. Baker Books (2008).

Leave a Comment