Is Inerrancy Unbiblical, Rationalistic and Presumptuous? A critique of A.T.B. McGowan's proposal for evangelicals to reject inerrancy

Is Inerrancy Unbiblical, Rationalistic and Presumptuous? A critique of A.T.B. McGowan's proposal for evangelicals to reject inerrancy

A. T. B. McGowan's major item for evangelicals to reconsider, in his book The Divine Spiration of Scripture: Challenging evangelical perspectives, concerns the termination of inerrancy.  Not only does he argue for the use of the word infallibility in place of inerrancy but he specifically rejects the claim that the autographs breathed out by God must have been free from error. The italicized word in the previous sentence is an important qualifier.  McGowan's criticism of inerrancy is over what we may call 'necessary inerrancy'; that necessarily what God has written is inerrant. 


McGowan argues that this is too great a claim for evangelicals to make because it rests upon inferences drawn from other doctrines rather than being something taught by Scripture itself.  Inerrancy is not only an unwarranted inference, but inerrantists are also decidedly rationalistic in their assumptions.  Furthermore, inerrancy "underestimates God and undermines the significance of the human authors of Scripture" (p. 114).  Inerrancy then, according to McGowan, is, unbiblical, rationalistic and presumptuous.  Although it is possible to distinguish these three strands they are intertwined.  McGowan groups them together in his concluding chapter:


 I made the point that inerrancy is not a biblical doctrine but rather an implication of 'inspiration', based on an unsubstantiated (and somewhat presumptuous) view of what God could and could not do. (p. 209)


It is stating the obvious to say that rationalism is unbiblical presumption since it claims something to be true and worthy of all acceptance that has not come from the mouth of the Lord. 


These claims need careful examination if his proposal is to be accepted and inerrancy (name and thing) discarded by evangelicals.  It is possible to engage with McGowan's proposal on a number of levels.  For a book on Scripture it is remarkably short on actual exegesis of the relevant texts, and of surveys of the history of exegesis on those passages.  Readers looking for a book that adequately covers the relevant texts on the self-attestation of Scripture will need to look elsewhere.  Likewise, one would wish for greater interaction with the Reformed tradition, and actual interaction with the views of Warfield.  However, this article will not deal with these matters, nor is it strictly speaking a review of the book. 


I wish to examine his claim that inerrancy is unbiblical, rationalistic and presumptuous.  In order to fairly represent McGowan's proposal and supporting arguments I have set it out in his own words.  In doing so I will ask some hard questions about McGowan's theological method, a priori assumptions, doctrine of God (specifically the relationship between God's nature and will), and the overall value of his proposal.


Throughout the relevant sections of the book McGowan is keen to assert that he is neither an "inerrantist" nor an "errantist." He explicitly distances himself from the limited inerrancy views of Rogers and McKim.  He says:


 my rejection of the term 'inerrancy' does not mean that I am arguing for 'errancy'.  I am simply saying that to speak of inerrant autographa is not the way to present and defend a 'high' view of Scripture.  We can believe what the Bible says because God gave us the Scriptures and he does not deceive.  What we must not do is rest its reliability on inerrant autographic text. (p. 210)


Indeed he states that "to speak of the Scriptures as inerrant or errant is to apply an inappropriate classification to them"; rather "We must simply accept the Scriptures as they are and trust that what they teach us is for our good...because they have come from God" (p. 125).  Although he emphasizes the truth that "The Scriptures are God's Word and God does not mislead us" (p. 212), McGowan is more comfortable in connecting infallibility with the purpose of Scripture rather than with the nature of the original text.


Is inerrancy unbiblical?


McGowan points out that inerrancy is not a biblical word (p. 106) and that it does not qualify as a biblical doctrine.  He writes:


One can see the logic of this progression from biblical proposition (Scripture is God-breathed) to implication (therefore Scripture must be inerrant) by means of a conviction about the nature and character of God (he is perfect and therefore does not lie or mislead). Nevertheless, this inerrantist conviction that the doctrine of the divine spiration of Scripture implies inerrancy is the weak point in their argument.  The divine spiration of the Scriptures is undoubtedly a biblical doctrine.  The apostles clearly teach that God 'breathed out' the Scriptures and that their authors wrote as they were 'carried along by the Holy Spirit', but nowhere in Scripture itself is there a claim to the kind of autographic inerrancy Warfield  taught.  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). 


From this McGowan draws a conclusion:


If we accept this argument that inerrancy, properly understood, is not a biblical doctrine but rather an implication from another doctrine, then it is reasonable to ask if it is a legitimate  implication. (p. 115).


McGowan's own response to the legitimacy of this implication is firmly in the negative.  He states that "this supposed implication (inerrancy) is a rationalistic nineteenth-century response to the developing liberal theology, based on a particularly high view of the notion of scientific accuracy" (p. 115).


It will be immediately obvious from these extracts that in order to qualify as a biblical doctrine inerrancy must be taught directly from Scripture and, presumably, in a form of words where that doctrine is "expressly set down in Scripture" rather than "by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture" (WCF I:VI).  If it is not taught directly then, his argument goes, it is not "properly understood" a biblical doctrine. 


What should we make of this theological method for establishing the biblical status of doctrines?  Are we to suppose that Professor McGowan will only allow the epithet "biblical doctrine" to be given to expressly stated doctrines?  If so then we wonder whether his own commitment to paedo-baptism would qualify.  It is surprising to find this 'biblicist' theological method being advocated in the case of this particular doctrine, since I would have reservations as to McGowan's willingness to apply it consistently to other doctrines. 


Is it not the case that the argument for allowing doctrines to be established as 'biblical' only if they are expressly taught, and not established using inference, is actually undermined in Scripture?  Where does Scripture limit us to explicit statements as the only ones to be counted as constituting biblical teaching?  Can he show us how he arrived at this theological method directly from Scripture?  Does it really matter that inerrancy is an unbiblical word?  Is that even relevant to point out? 


The gravest issue with this approach is that it is itself both unbiblical and, ironically, rationalist, having more in common with the theological methods of the opponents of the Reformation than Reformed theology.  Or, to state the matter baldly, McGowan's theological method here is Socinian rather than Reformed.  With his characteristic clarity and fullness Warfield set out the case for biblical doctrines being composed of the explicit and implicit teachings of Scripture:


Men are required to believe and obey not only what is "expressly set down in Scripture," but also what "by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture."  This is the strenuous and universal contention of the Reformed theology against Socinians and Arminians, who desired to confine the authority of Scripture to its literal asseverations; and  it involves a characteristic honoring of reason as the instrument for the ascertainment of truth.  We must depend on our human faculties to ascertain what Scripture says; we cannot suddenly abnegate them and refuse their guidance in determining what Scripture means. This is not, of course, to make reason the ground of the authority of inferred doctrines and duties.  Reason is the instrument of discovery of all doctrines and duties, whether "expressly set down in Scripture" or "by good and necessary consequence deduced from Scripture": but their authority, when once discovered, is derived from God, who reveals and prescribes them in Scripture, either by literal assertion or by necessary implication.  The Confession is only  zealous, as it declares that only Scripture is the authoritative rule of faith and practice, so to declare that the whole of Scripture is authoritative, in the whole stretch of its involved meaning.  It is the Reformed contention, reflected here by the Confession, that the sense of  Scripture is Scripture, and that men are bound by its whole sense in all its implications.  The reemergence in recent controversies of the plea that the authority of Scripture is to be confined to its express declarations, and that human logic is not to be trusted in divine  things, is, therefore a direct denial of a fundamental position of Reformed theology, explicitly affirmed in the Confession, as well as the abnegation of fundamental reason, which would not only render thinking in a system impossible, but would discredit at a stroke many of the fundamentals of the faith, such e.g. as the doctrine of the Trinity, and would logically involve the denial of the authority of all doctrine whatsoever, since no single doctrine of whatever simplicity can be ascertained from Scripture except by the use of the processes of the understanding.1


McGowan adds a caveat when he asks if inerrancy is a "legitimate implication" from another doctrine.  Presumably, then, he is willing to allow for both legitimate and illegitimate implications to be drawn from the doctrine of inspiration, even if he is not prepared to include the implication of inerrancy.  Although, it is to be kept in mind that his insistence on what counts as a biblical doctrine places a question mark on all inferences from the text.  How can we tell a legitimate implication from an illegitimate one?  What makes the 'necessary inerrancy' of the autographs an illegitimate implication? 


In answer to that question McGowan takes us down two paths.  The first of these concerns deductions drawn from the character of God.  The necessary inerrancy position argues that since God cannot lie, and since Scripture is God's Word written, Scripture must therefore be inerrant.  For McGowan this is an illegitimate implication.  It is illegitimate because Scripture does not state directly that God breathed texts are inerrant.  However, when we consider a text like Psalm 12:6 "The words of the Lord are pure words" or Psalm 19:7-9, we begin to wonder whether we are being sold an unacceptably high, and somewhat dubious, criterion.  We also wonder whether McGowan really does allow for any implications at all. 


The second path he takes us down to show that  inerrancy is an illegitimate implication is historical.  Inerrancy, he reasons, is a rationalistic nineteenth century response to liberalism.  However, we find much earlier claims about the necessary inerrancy of the autographa.  The seventeenth-century Dutch theologian Johannes Hoornbeeck affirmed that "For the whole of Scripture to be pure, perfect, and divine, it is necessary that it be without error" basing his argument on Psalm 12:6.2  Similarly Calvin wrote in his commentary on John's Gospel, "Let us, therefore set it down as certain and undoubted, that whatever is from God is right and true, and that it is impossible for God not to be true in all his words."3  Bullinger wrote "And even as God is true of word, and cannot lie, so is his word true and deceiveth no man" (Decades, I.iv), and the Westminster divine Edward Leigh argued that Scripture is infallible "which expresseth the minde and will of God, to whom truth is essential and necessary."4  We will return to the relationship between inerrancy and God's nature later.


A final extract on the unbiblical nature of inerrancy is worth pondering as it concerns the perceived tension between the data of Scripture and our presuppositions about the nature of Scripture:


Like Orr, I think it is wrong to prejudge the nature of the Scriptures through some deductivist approach, based on what we believe Scripture must mean, given God's character. That is to say, it is inappropriate, before we have even considered inductively the nature of the Scriptures, to assume that they must be inerrant because God cannot lie. It is important to stress, however, that Orr did not argue that there were errors in Scripture, simply that one could not rule this out as an a priori impossibility.  It is possible to say that one does not know of any errors in Scripture, to affirm plenary (even verbal) inspiration and yet to deny the Warfieldian doctrine of inerrancy. (p. 136-7, emphasis original).

The problem with dismissing as inappropriate the assertion that "God cannot lie" from our formation of the doctrine of Scripture in general, and inerrancy in particular, is that it is in fact part of the Scriptural data from which we inductively form our doctrine. 


The veracity of God and the purity of his speech are part of the data of Scripture every bit as much as the problem passages that  may appear to truncate our ability to affirm inerrancy.  The nature of God and his relationship to his inspired Word are not a priori philosophical principles that we impose on the text.  If we consider inductively the doctrine of Scripture we will be confronted by the total truthfulness of God's verbal revelation. Not to include this data and bring it to bear on our doctrine of Scripture is surely to be guilty of a narrow inductive approach, too narrow in fact to be sufficiently biblical.  To describe inerrancy as unbiblical on these grounds is far too hasty a judgement, resting as it does on a hermeneutic that can be faulted at more than one point.


Is inerrancy a rationalist implication drawn from other doctrines?


There is considerable overlap between this point and the previous one if implications drawn from Scripture are treated with suspicion for being unbiblical.  McGowan states his case as follows:


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 mistake in the autographa, then God cannot have been the author, because he is incapable of error.


Notice, the argument is not that God, being all powerful, is able to deliver a perfectly autographic text.  On that matter there is no disagreement between us, since I am happy to affirm God's sovereign power.  Rather the argument of the inerrantists is that God is unable to produce anything other than an inerrant autographic text. In other words, 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. (p. 113-4, emphasis original)


For some reason McGowan obscures the point at issue in the second paragraph by introducing God's sovereign power into the discussion.  The issue is not one of divine omnipotence but of divine veracity.  It is not over what God is able or not able to do with regard to his power, but over what he is able or not able to do with regard to speaking the truth. 


Is McGowan really prepared to reject the position that God must have breathed out Scriptures free from error?  To do so will exact a high price from his doctrine of God.  He is claiming that it was possible for God to give us errant autographa that are still able to accomplish his purposes.  Therefore, for McGowan, evangelicals should reject 'necessary inerrancy'.  The question is has God done this?  And, even if it were possible, what has God in fact done? 


Given that the veracity of God is part of the data of Scripture ("Every word of God proves true" Proverbs 30:4; "it is impossible for God to lie" Hebrews 6:18; "God who never lies" Titus 1:2) we wonder why it would be a rationalist implication to conclude that when God speaks, and when he breathed out Scripture in its totality, that he speaks only the truth.  Indeed, it is hard to reconcile his argument that God was not bound by his own nature to breathe out an inerrant Word, and that we should not assert that he did so a priori, with his later claims that God does not deceive or mislead (p. 210, 212).


Is veracity an effect of God's will but not necessitated by his nature?  Could God have chosen to breathe out verbal revelation that may have contained even a small amount of error?  If he could do that are we still able to speak of him as being infinite, eternal, and unchangeable in his truth (WSC Q. 4)?  In its most basic and simple form the question is: must God always speak the truth or is he free to breathe out truth and error? 


God may or may not have given us Scripture, but having given us Scripture was God equally free to give us errant or inerrant revelation?  We may wonder why he is pursuing these fine scholastic distinctions.  Does this whole argument really boil down to convincing us that God was not obligated to give us inerrant autographa but that is what he did anyway?  Is this really worth a book?  Of course if God need not have given us an inerrant text how can we be sure that this possibility did not become an actuality?  Can we trust God's words or will our thoughts be haunted by the possibility that God did not give us an inerrant Word at all?


McGowan's proposal to reject 'necessary inerrancy' is every bit as much a proposal to separate God's veracity from his nature and to view it as a function of his will.  We are being asked here to accept a change in our doctrine of the divine nature.  The most remarkable statement about inerrancy and the character of God is the following:


Perhaps the most striking problem with the rationalistic 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...In opposition to these inerrantist assumptions, we must surely argue that God is free to act according to his will. (p. 118)


Whatever Professor McGowan thinks that he may have gained by this statement is lost by the admission that total truthfulness in speech is not guaranteed by God's nature but is variable according to his will. 


At this point McGowan's argument needs to be followed to its logical conclusion.  As he has presented the case against 'necessary inerrancy', it is clear that he thinks God's will can overrule his nature.  God may be said to have the attribute of truthfulness, but he may or may not give us verbal revelation that is in fact totally truthful.  Rather than being able to rely on his unchanging nature we are led to believe that God's nature is subject to an arbitrary will. 


Does God's nature determine his will?  McGowan's answer is no it does not.  If it does not, what does determine God's will?  Is it not the case that McGowan has fallen into a positively rationalist understanding of God's essence, will, and attributes at this point?  Surely God is free to act according to his nature, and it is his nature according to Scripture, not to lie.  I have no doubt in my mind that the thought of God being arbitrary with regard to truthfulness would be horrifying to McGowan, but I cannot see how it can be disallowed by the way that he has constructed his argument.  Furthermore he writes:


If God can effectively communicate and act savingly through the imperfect human beings who are called to preach his gospel, why is it necessary to argue that the authors of Scripture were supernaturally kept from even the slightest discrepancy?  In other words we must not tell God what the Bible ought to be like, based on our views of what God could and could not do. (p. 118-9)


Are we to suppose that "God 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" (p. 43) and yet that supervisory activity does not make it necessary to "argue that the authors of Scripture were supernaturally kept from even the slightest discrepancy"?  Surely the purity of divine speech is secured by the purity of the divine nature, which takes us back to Psalm 12:6 and Psalm 19:7-9.


A few pages later McGowan confidently asserts that God did not intend to give us inerrant autographs.  This admission may take us by surprise since we have been told thus far about what God may or may not have done.  Here he tells us unequivocally what in fact God did do:


My argument is that Scripture, having been divinely spirated, is as God intended it to be.  Having freely chosen to use human beings, God knew what he was doing.  He did not give us an inerrant autographical text, because he did not intend to do so.  He gave us a text that reflects the humanity of its authors but that, at the same time, clearly evidences its origin in the divine speaking.  Through the instrumentality of the Holy Spirit, God is perfectly able to use these Scriptures to accomplish his purposes. (p. 124).


Having assured us that he is neither an "inerrantist" nor an "errantist" Professor McGowan appears to have changed his mind.  He knows that God has not given us an inerrant autographical text and that God did not intend to do so.  How does he know this?  Are copyist errors then really attributable to the work of the original human authors? Are we not also obligated to attribute them to the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, too, as the ultimate and sovereign author (2 Peter 1:20-21)? 


Having sought to persuade us that Scripture is not necessarily inerrant, but may be inerrant, on what basis does he hold that in fact the autographa were not inerrant?  This admission raises more questions than it answers.  Precisely how does he know that God's intentions were not to give us error free originals?  Has he arrived at this conclusion from the explicit teaching of Scripture or by inference?  And given that he is unwilling to make the veracity of God's nature the guarantor of error free verbal revelation on what does his argument that God does not deceive rest?  If the autographs were not inerrant, and God did not intend them to be so, why does McGowan want to prohibit us from drawing the obvious conclusion that the limitations adopted by God in using human authors involved the admixture of error?


McGowan's proposal is either that God did inspire an inerrant Word when he need not have done so, in which case his argument is over a tiny (and costly) scholastic point about possibilities, or else that "he did not give us an inerrant autographical text, because he did not intend to do so."  The latter assertion conflicts with his claim that "The Scriptures are God's Word and God does not mislead us."  Either way we hope that he clarifies his position on the divine nature and will, and his position on whether the Scriptures as originally given were in fact inerrant.




McGowan's reasons for rejecting necessary inerrancy are bound up with his doctrine of God.  Ultimately the burden of his argument does not rest upon the textual details that errantists and inerrantists seek to account for in formulating their respective views of Scripture.  It is the relationship between the divine spiration of Scripture and the character and will of God that differentiates McGowan's approach from that of  the Hodges, Warfield, and Packer.  I would argue too that it differentiates him from the default position of the Reformed tradition. 


McGowan operates from the basis that the truthfulness of the autographs should not be inferred from God's unchangeable nature and attribute of truthfulness.  Rather he is "free to act according to his will" and must not be assumed to be bound to breathing out only inerrant autographs. Let us be clear, McGowan's argument requires every bit as a priori a claim as the inerrantists he criticizes.  They assume that the divine nature necessarily secures the total truthfulness of divine speech.  Conversely, McGowan assumes that the divine will is not determined by the divine nature.  This is an a priori claim, an assumption, indeed a distinctly rationalistic assumption, and it is contrary to the data of Scripture at this point. 


I have tried to tease out some of the implications of McGowan's position on these points since I would hope that he would not wish to follow the logic of his own argument.  Furthermore McGowan builds his case by forbidding inerrancy to be arrived at as an implication of inspiration, and by treating inerrancy as a deduction based on the character of God as if this were not part of the data of Scripture from which we inductively build the doctrine.  As we have indicated, this move is questionable hermeneutically and theologically.  Curiously he does not build his argument about God's arbitrary will, and its implications for inerrancy, from Scripture.  What he freely criticizes in inerrantists he is at least equally guilty of. 


I conclude that the strongest point of his argument against the inerrantists, that they assume that God's character leads to the divine spiration of error free autographa, is at the same time the weakest point of his own theological position.  God cannot lie, and his words are pure.  This is his nature, not an effect of his will.  McGowan argues that it is an effect of his will and not secured by his nature.  For this reason, above all, his proposal ought to be firmly rejected.


Martin Downes is minister of Christ Church Deeside (North Wales, UK).  He has contributed a chapter to Reforming or Conforming? (Crossway) due out this Fall, and has written a chapter on theology and preaching in Keeping Your Balance: Approaching Theological Studies (Apollos).  He is the author of


1    B. B. Warfield, "The Westminster Doctrine of Holy Scripture" in The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield Volume VI The Westminster Assembly and its work, (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1991 reprint), p. 226-7

2    Quoted in Richard A. Muller, Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics Volume Two: Holy Scripture, The Cognitive Foundation of Theology, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, second edition, 2003), p. 307

3    Quoted in Richard A. Muller, Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics Volume Three: The Divine Essence and Attributes, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), p. 513

4    Muller, PRRD: Volume Two, p. 302-3