Evangelical Christianity has a big problem, says Andy Stanley, and that problem is a reliance on the Bible that is both unwarranted and unhelpful. In a recent message delivered at North Point Community Church and posted online, Stanley identifies the evangelical impulse to turn to the Bible in our defense and presentation of Christianity as a huge blunder that must be corrected.
Some years ago, in light of another message Stanley preached at North Point, I argued that his apologetic ambition was, as we saw with Protestant liberalism a century ago, a road that will lead to disaster. No doubt, many Christians might be surprised to see an apologetic ambition identified as an entry point for theological liberalism, but this has held constant since Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of modern theological liberalism, issued his book, On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers in 1799.
In the wake of the Enlightenment, Schleiermacher understood that the intellectual elites in Germany were already turning a skeptical eye to Christianity, if not dismissing it altogether. The Enlightenment worldview was hostile to supernatural claims, suspicious of any claims to absolute truth beyond empirical science, and dismissive of any verbal form of divine revelation.
No problem, Scheiermacher responded — we can still salvage spiritual and moral value out of Christianity while jettisoning its troublesome doctrinal claims, supernatural structure, and dependence upon the Bible. He was certain that his strategy would “save” Christianity from irrelevance.
His ambition, in other words, was apologetic at its core — to defend Christianity against claims of its eclipse. The formula offered by theological liberals is the same now. Save what you can of Christianity by surrendering truth claims. Acknowledge the inevitable hostility that these doctrines face in the modern age and adjust the faith accordingly. No theological liberal declares himself the enemy of Christianity. To the contrary, he offers liberalism as the only means of avoiding Christianity’s demise in a secular age.
Of course, the “Christianity” that remains after this doctrinal surgery bears little resemblance to biblical Christianity and, as Scripture makes abundantly clear, it cannot save.
Let’s be clear — Andy Stanley does not mean to deny the central truth claims of Christianity. In his message, “Who Needs God? The Bible Told Me So,” he affirms the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. But he does so while undercutting our only means of knowing of Christ and his resurrection from the dead — the Bible.
And he does so directly and without risk of misunderstanding. In his message he stated: “So I need you to listen really carefully and the reason is this — perhaps you were taught, as I was taught, ‘Jesus love me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.’ That is where our trouble began.”
That is where our trouble began? What trouble?
Stanley’s apologetic concern is clear from the beginning of this message. He identifies the crisis of “de-conversion” as adults leave the church because they have outgrown their child-like faith and no longer believe. He traces their de-conversion to the fact that their adult, “fact-based” questions were met with only childish, “faith-based” answers.
He goes on to say that the “the Bible told me so” is “one of the threads we hear in de-conversion stories all the time, and I have a feeling for many, many, many of you who are losing faith or have lost faith, especially in the Christian faith, this is a bit of the part of your story.”
Later, he follows by dismissing a “the Bible says it, that settles it” approach to Christianity. “The problem with that is this: if the Bible goes, so goes our faith.”
At this point, Stanley goes on to amplify his concern with a Bible-based Christianity. “If the Bible is the foundation of your faith, here’s the problem: it is all or nothing. Christianity becomes a fragile, house of cards religion.”
And, as he states boldly, “it is next to impossible to defend the entire Bible.”
In short order, Stanley argues that claiming infallibility for the entire Bible is a losing project. Furthermore, he argues that Christianity “made its greatest strides during the 282 years before the Bible even existed.”
There is more in that statement than can be unpacked in his message or in this essay, but the central problem with his argument is that he seems to believe that the church did not have the Bible until the early fourth century. This claim can only refer to the official listing of the canon of the New Testament, but it is clear that the early church recognized the Old Testament as Scripture and that the early church quickly had both the gospels and, even earlier, the letters of the Apostle Paul (see 1 Tim 5:18; 2 Pet 3:15-16).
Indeed, the early church provides abundant evidence of the “for the Bible tells me so” dependence upon Scripture, even if the earliest Christians did not yet have the collected New Testament. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul grounds both the crucifixion and the resurrection of Christ as “according to the Scriptures.”
Perhaps the oddest part of Andy Stanley’s approach to defending the resurrection is his insistence that we have some access to historically verifiable accounts of the resurrection outside of the New Testament. He rests his confidence in recent historiographical work by apologists who defend the historicity of the resurrection by affirming historical sources that are prior to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.
But where do these historians claim to find those sources? In the four gospels.
Stanley seems to base the defense of the resurrection in historical traditions he claims are prior to the gospels, but the Holy Spirit gave the church the four gospels, and the entire New Testament, as verbally inspired, authoritative, and infallible revelation. All of Scripture — the Old Testament and the New Testament — was given to the church so that we would know the rule of faith and everything revealed therein. This is the evangelical Scripture principle, and it is precisely what the Reformers defended as sola Scriptura.
And what is our alternative? Are we to believe that those who are “de-converting” from Christianity can be weaned off of the Bible and on to some other sufficient authority?
In the strangest turn, noted in Stanley’s presentations before this message, he argues that if we can somehow believe in the fact of Christ’s resurrection on the authority of prior historical sources, and then we find that Jesus (presumably as revealed in the four gospels) respects the inspiration of the Old Testament, we should conclude that if one who rose from the dead affirmed the inspiration of the Old Testament, then we should as well.
But Jesus actually pointed to the Old Testament and demonstrated the very approach to the truthfulness and authority of the Bible that Stanley identifies as the problem. When Jesus pointed to the Old Testament and said “these are they that testify of me” (John 5:39), he was effectively saying, “for the Bible tells me so.”
Add to this the problem that Stanley effectively refutes his own argument, undercutting the authority and inerrancy of the very Scripture that he would have us to understand that Jesus would want us to trust.
This is an apologetic disaster and would leave Christians with no authoritative Scripture. Instead, we would be dependent upon historians (among others) to tell us what parts of both testaments we can still believe.
Those parts will inevitably grow fewer and fewer. This is what must happen when the total trustworthiness, sufficiency, and authority of the Bible is subverted.
We are back with Friedrich Schleiermacher, trying to convince the “de-converted” of his day that Christianity can be retained as an intellectually defensible morality and spirituality without its central truth claims and doctrines.
Andy Stanley is no Friedrich Schleiermacher, but the path he charts for the church is a road to abject disaster.
In the end, we simply have no place to go other than the Bible as God’s authoritative revelation. Christ, not the Bible, is the foundation of our faith — but our only authoritative and infallible source of knowledge about Christ is the Bible.
A true defense of the Christian faith has never been more needed than now, but an attempt to rescue Christianity from its dependence upon Scripture is doomed to disaster.
We are left in the same predicament as Martin Luther at the Diet of Worms. If Scripture cannot be trusted, then we are doomed.
“Jesus loves me — this I know, for the Bible tells me so.” A mature Christian faith will say more than that, not less than that. “For the Bible tells me so” does not mean that we do not have reasoned answers to difficult questions, but it does mean that we admit our dependence upon Scripture — and that we confess that God intended for us to be dependent on Scripture.
“For the Bible tells me so” is not “where our trouble began.” To the contrary, it is right where God wants us.