In writing this book Professor McGowan is well aware of the controversy it will stir as he addresses the long-running debate over the doctrine of Scripture. His stated intention is not to offer ‘a final word on the subject’ but to ‘contribute to discussions about the nature and function of Scripture in evangelical Christianity’.
The contours of this contribution are mapped out in the introductory chapter in a call for serious reconsideration of the locus, vocabulary, doctrine and use of Scripture. This is no new debate and Dr McGowan helpfully charts its course through church history – with particular focus on its development during the Protestant Reformation and the centuries that followed. He is, however, especially concerned with the past hundred years or so of discussions.
In a major chapter entitled ‘Reconstructing the doctrine’, he makes the case for relocating the doctrine of Scripture under the locus of the doctrine of God – or more precisely the doctrine of the Holy Spirit – in the overall structure of theology. He points out that in many older creeds and confessions, the doctrine of God comes first.
He goes on to argue for a rewording of this doctrine in four key areas. He calls for ‘inspiration’ to be replaced with ‘spiration’ to more accurately reflect Paul’s articulation of how Scripture was actually given (1 Timothy 3:16). He also argues for ‘recognition’ to replace ‘illumination’; for ‘comprehension’ instead of ‘perspicuity’; and that ‘infallibility’ be preferred over ‘inerrancy’.
In ‘Scripture and Confession’ and ‘Preaching Scripture’ he considers how the proposed revisions would impact our understanding of church and ministry.
Many of Dr McGowan’s reflections are helpful, not least in making Evangelicals wrestle with the hard questions that surround God’s Special Revelation. Many of his suggestions for a clearer and more biblical articulation of this doctrine succeed – notably the claim that ‘spiration’ is a better word than ‘inspiration’.
But whether or not he will succeed in persuading theologians to make a wholesale revision of their terminology is a moot point.
However, significant parts of his argument raise more serious questions. Despite his protestations that he is not affirming Karl Barth’s view of Scripture, the author seems to lean in that direction in more than a few places. For example, his use of an unqualified quote from John Webster – ‘In short: revelation is reconciliation’ (p.20) – sounds distinctly more neo-orthodox than evangelical.
It is, however, the main thrust of his thesis – namely, that a doctrine of the ‘infallibility’ of Scripture should be preferred over ‘inerrancy’ – that will undoubtedly provoke the greatest debate.
If the word ‘infallible’ is used in the sense of purpose – that ‘God will infallibly achieve what he has determined to achieve in and through his Word’ (p.162) – how does the reader know at what points the human authors of Scripture were fallible and where they were not?
Although he claims support for his views from the Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck, it is highly questionable if Dr McGowan faithfully represents his views. It remains to be seen whether or not McGowan’s proposal of ‘authenticity of Scripture’ as a via media will attract support from both sides.
The subtitle of this book is ‘Challenging evangelical perspectives’ and it does exactly what it says. Much of that challenge will be welcomed, even by those who in the end reject it. There will, however, be a very necessary counter-challenge, which no doubt both the author and his publishers will also welcome and, one hopes, will heed.