J. W. McGarvey: On Scripture

The following is part of an ongoing commentary on J. W. McGarvey’s Sermons Delivered in Louisville Kentucky. For an introduction to and table of contents for the series, see Happy Birthday, J. W.

It is both ironic and unfortunate that J. W. McGarvey’s collection of sermons should begin with the address entitled “Inspiration of the Scriptures.” It is ironic because this opening salvo in his Sermons Delivered in Louisville, Kentucky was in fact given before the YMCA of the University of Missouri. It is unfortunate because, in spite of my admiration for McGarvey and the great deal of inspiration I draw from him, there could hardly be a subject on which we differ more completely or more profoundly than the inspiration of Scripture. With dry, scientific precision that has fallen out of favor in our contemporary culture of sensationalism, McGarvey seeks to demonstrate that Scripture is inspired, that this inspiration is self-evident, and that it grounds the authority of Scripture. I have no qualms, necessarily, with the first two purposes (though I imagine McGarvey and I would differ over precisely what all the relevant terms mean), but it has been my longstanding mission to correct the erroneous notion in American Christianity that scriptural authority is rooted in special inspiration. McGarvey specifically situates his claim in response to emerging documentary theories of Old Testament authorship and new historical assertions about the authors of the Gospels. With the benefit of hindsight, we know that many of the bloated claims of late nineteenth century scholars require extreme qualification if not outright rejection. For McGarvey, however, there can be only one reply: Scripture is the work of the traditional authors under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. While I think there is value to the sermon outside this main (but misguided) theme, in historical fairness to McGarvey it seems necessary to at least outline his argument.

McGarvey has little trouble establishing from Scripture that the Bible is inspired and passes over that task without fanfare. The main body of his message is dedicated to establishing the self-evident nature of biblical inspiration, a fact which, for him, is manifest in the peculiar nature of the Scriptures. Making his focus specifically the historical books of the New Testament, McGarvey endeavors to show that—deviations in personal style not withstanding—there is a common character to the biblical text which is entirely unprecedented “almost from time immemorial.” He notes the brevity with which the authors write and their calmness in treating extraordinary events. He marvels at their candor about facts which one would expect to be glossed over and their silence about the events and topics the reader most wants to know. Consistent with the spirit of his times, McGarvey even appeals to the quasi-miraculous ability of Scripture to affect good in the world, more or less independently of human agency. With gusto, he exhorts his young listeners to seize hold of the foundational truth of biblical inspiration and to carry their infallible text into battle, into “the field of debate with the ablest of its enemies.” Many of McGarvey’s arguments about a common and unique character can be countered in modern times by discoveries of ancient documents with similar features. To his audience, however, McGarvey was almost certainly convincing.

There is no surprise there; as almost always the case, it is easiest to persuade those who already agree with your position. There is a more essential truth about the Gospel as it is presented in Scriptures that underlies McGarvey’s message and which, I would suggest, is fruitful for ongoing consideration. Regardless of our moment in history and regardless of the culture we inhabit, there is a strong sense when reading Scripture that it refuses to conform to our expectations. Of course, this sense would undoubtedly have been less pronounced to the original audience, but I suspect there are common features of the human condition which come to Scripture with a set of expectations to which the text refuses to conform. McGarvey hits on at least two which possibly have universal application: the reticence of Scripture and the absence of speculation.

With regard to the first, McGarvey marvels at the great omissions in Scripture, its refusal to answer the questions which seem naturally foremost in the mind. He offers, as one example, the extensive treatment given to the martyrdom of Stephen and the equally brief report of the martyrdom of James. Without in any way trying to diminish Stephen, McGarvey rightly observes that the death of James ought naturally to assume a higher priority in the Christian narrative. After all, James was not only one of the twelve but one of three members of Jesus’ “inner circle” (if it is meaningful to talk about such a thing). His death certainly meant more to the Jerusalem community and to the church at large than Stephen’s who is, in narrative terms, merely a flash in the pan. It could be that the original audience had already heard the story of James and needed to be told of the trials of Stephen. More likely, the martyrdom of Stephen functions in the Lukan scheme in important ways that the death of James does not. In either case, there is a longing on the part of any interested reader for a fairer treatment of the material. The lust is always for just a little more information where something is suspiciously lacking, in spite of the knowledge that a comprehensive story would fill the earth. Whether it is glaring omissions, such as the entire adolescence of Jesus, or more subtle silences, the Bible by design or by necessity firmly declares: “You will know this much and no more.”

Similarly, there is a marked rejection on the part of the biblical authors to engage in the kind of speculation that has characterized most great religious thought since. McGarvey speaks of it as the infallibility of the biblical authors, but, when the baggage that term carries is removed, what he is really interested in highlighting is how more-than-human the biblical authors sound. “On all subjects and on all occasions they speak with a confidence which knows no hesitation, and which admits no possibility of a mistake.” With none of the characteristic tentativeness with which all authors subsequent (and many parabiblical authors previous) write, the biblical authors do not invite us to question whether they are right or wrong. They leave no space for disagreement (even in Paul’s insistence that Christians should have space for disagreement), no wiggle room where often times we would want it most. “Was this the result of stupidity and of overweening self-conciousness?” McGarvey thinks not, and I am inclined to agree. He suggests it was inspiration; I suppose it was confidence in the messiah being proclaimed. In either case, people in every time—and increasingly in our age of customization—have always demanded room to maneuver and, if they are wise, have always been proportionally qualified in their assertions as they become increasingly grandiose. (A statement, perhaps, on the wisdom or folly of American politicians.) The biblical authors never offer speculations, however; they offer declarations “on some themes which have baffled the powers of all thinkers, such as the nature of God, his eternal purposes, his present will, angels, disembodied human spirits…”

McGarvey’s list goes on, as could a list of the ways Scripture refuses to bow to our expectations of it. Like Pharisees bring questions to Christ, we find our own demands of Scripture paradoxically and simultaneously met and rebuffed. It answers us in riddles or on questions we had never thought to ask; it answers us with stories we cannot shake and commands we cannot meet (or help but meet because they are commanded of us). Given what it purports to be, the Bible is spectacularly troublesome book. It lacks the fluidity and vagueness of a loosely defined religious philosophy such as many found in the East or manifesting now in the West. It lacks the clarity and exhaustiveness of legal codes, past or present. It demands that we balance its spirit with its letter and recognize that the two are inseparable. Ultimately, it is an icon which directs us to a God who is at once fundamentally inaccessible and lovingly beckoning us to Himself. Of course, this was the not the message McGarvey primarily aimed at conveying, but I would like to think that his image of a Scripture which pointed to the Holy Spirit as its ultimate author would admit an understanding of the text whose unusual nature served as a vehicle for encountering an unusual Father.

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