Tuesday, January 13, 2009

'The Divine Spiration of Scripture' - Review. Part 2

In part one of this series, I noted that Principal McGowan has some good things to say. Unfortunately he also has some downright worrying things to say. It has been rumored that these led, directly or indirectly, to his departure from the Highland Theological College and his return to parish ministry. I trust that the contact with the common people in pastoral ministry will serve to mitigate the effects of his teaching on Scripture.


There are two, maybe two and a half, main issues with this book. They have been addressed by others more able than myself, which is why I did not review the book when it first came out, but having been asked to do so, I will address them here.

1. Should we relocate the doctrine of Scripture?

McGowan proposes that Bibliology, the doctrine of Scripture, should be moved in our creeds and systematic theologies from its customary place at the beginning of the system to be a subset of pneumatology. He argues that placing the Bible at the opening of the theological system takes the focus away from God (P.28). This sounds very much to me like an echo of the old and hackneyed charge of 'Bibliolatry' often hurled at evangelicals. When I meet a person who bows down before the bible and worships it, I will take some notice of this accusation, but until that date I regard the charge as a mere straw man argument. No-one worships the Bible, if we have a high view of the Bible it is because it is the Word of God, in other words, it is because of the author. But McGowan, in his discussion of errors that the placing of the doctrine of Scripture first in the confessions may result in, writes:
"The most serious of these errors is to imply that the Scriptures can stand alone as a source of epistemological certainty, quite apart from the work of God the Holy Spirit. This error results in the Scriptures taking on a life of their own, whereby men and women sometimes imagine (even if they would not express it this way) that they hold in their hands the final written revelation of God that can be read, understood and applied, without any further involvement of God." (p. 29).
It is true that some people imagine this. But the error is just as possible among those who claim 'no creed but the Bible', and can be found among Christians of all confessions and none. All doctrines can be abused, and the doctrine of Inspiration is not free from this abuse. I would argue, in fact, that wherever the doctrine of Inspiration is located in a theological system, this error can creep in. For example, it can be found among Lutherans, whose Augsburg Confession begins with the article 'of God', and Anglicans, whose Thirty-Nine Articles (and therefore theological textbooks based on the Articles) begin with the Trinity.

In fact falling into this error is a result of detaching the doctrine of Scripture from the rest of the system, which can be done wherever a doctrine is placed, beginning, middle or end. This may be a result of unbalanced reading, or a reaction against false doctrine.

The confessions and systematicians are not responsible for this error, any more than God is responsible for it. Sinful man is responsible for his abuse of God's truth. We do not need to relocate the doctrine of Scripture, though we are free to do so if we want to.

2. New Confessions?

McGowan suggests that we should be in the business of revising the Confessions regularly (unfortunately I no longer have the book and neglected to take note of a page reference for this point). This is a proposal that has to be rejected. The purpose of a Confession is to reflect the teaching of the Bible. Now I agree that there are times when confessions have to be added to, and new statements written. Thomas Chalmers described confessions as 'Landmarks of old heresies'. By this he meant that they were established to state the truth against the heretics. If heretics had not arisen to attack the truth, creeds and confessions would not be needed. Thus Confessions may need to be added to as new errors, not dealt with by the framers, arise. But for a Confession to be looked at as a thing in flux means that in reality it cannot function as a standard at all. It is also a confession that a church is 'ever learning and never able to come to a knowledge of the truth', which is not a good thing!

God willing, next time I shall come to the crux of the matter, the doctrine of inerrancy.



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