Church HistoryScripture

What Andy Stanley Should’ve Said About the Bible

If you’ve been following the evangelical press lately, you’ve probably encountered the latest brouhaha over biblical inerrancy. As part of a sermon series entitled Who Needs God?, well-known pastor Andy Stanley took aim at the idea that appeals to biblical authority could be the foundation for a successful apologetic approach. In other words, Stanley is saying that it doesn’t work to tell people that “the Bible says so” about a particular topic, and assume that the matter ends there. Stanley directs his listeners to place their faith not in “the Bible” but in the event that the Bible recounts (the resurrection of Christ).

(At this point, Catholic and Orthodox readers will probably be nodding their heads sagely, thinking that everything Stanley’s said is quite obvious. Bear with me—this piece is aimed at Protestants who are trying to articulate a more historically and doctrinally cogent approach to the Bible).

Stanley’s sermon drew fire from such dignitaries as Al Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, who accused Stanley of advancing “an entry point for theological liberalism.”

I think Stanley is correct as a matter of doctrine, and his critics are reading his statements with an unfair lack of charity. Stanley’s position is on rock-solid intellectual and doctrinal ground, especially when compared to his detractors. For instance, Mohler argues that “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.” This is a weak attempt to handwave away an important problem for Protestants: since the canon wasn’t even compiled until several centuries past the time of Christ, were those who relied on tradition, letters, and local institutional churches somehow “less Christian” than those who possessed a full canon in subsequent centuries? Clearly, something (oral tradition? written tradition? an apostolic charism of infallibility?) held the universal church together before Scripture existed in any organized form: what was common to the church, however, was a shared belief in the resurrection of Christ. Stanley understands this.

All that being said, however, I don’t think the way in which Stanley’s made his case is particularly effective for several reasons—reasons that make this situation a valuable object lesson for others who may find themselves in Stanley’s position.

First, a bit of personal background. One of the most influential books I’ve ever read was Molly Worthen’s Apostles of Reason, which chronicles the history of American evangelicalism and outlines the ongoing problem of institutional fragmentation: without a single source of magisterial authority, reinterpretations of dogma go uncontrolled. (It’s an excellent book, and everyone should read it). Worthen marshals a devastating critique of the claim by some American Protestants that certain points of doctrine (the Henry Morris view of Genesis, the Chicago formulation of biblical inerrancy, and the eternal subordination of the Son, just to name a few) have a longstanding traditional pedigree. Quite to the contrary: these interpretations of Scripture were in fact serious derogations from the Christian consensus of many centuries past.

I first read the book at what I now view as an important theological tipping point: in the wake of a slow disillusionment with political evangelicalism, my options were 1) digging back into the traditions of historic liturgical Christianity, or 2) heading in the direction of mainline Protestantism. I opted for the former: for me, it was unbelievably liberating to realize that many, many sincere Christians—thousands of years’ worth—had never held to certain ideas I had begun to view as indefensible.

But because I’d simply never heard those voices from the past before, my movement towards orthodoxy had, along the way, felt to me like heresy. All that to say: certain ideas are so deeply encoded into American Christianity—notwithstanding the fact that they differ sharply from actual Christian tradition—that any questioning provokes a visceral reaction.

In a long response to Mohler and others, Andy Stanley explains his position in greater detail—but unfortunately, I think this piece isn’t likely to quell the storm. Instead of taking a Worthen-esque approach and explaining the longstanding problem of “bibliolatry” vis-à-vis the Resurrection itself, Stanley frames this issue in the language of modernity and progress.

This choice of words is a grievous strategic error, and one that will almost certainly prolong the controversy. Stanley’s writing is (almost certainly unintentionally) laden with cues that suggest doctrinal drift to come:

“The world has changed. The approach most of us inherited doesn’t work anymore. Actually, it’s never worked all that well. In a culture that had high regard for the Bible, the traditional approach held its own. Those days are over. They’ve been over for a long time.”

“If we’re going to reach the unchurched, underchurched, dechurched, and postchurched with the gospel in a culture that’s trending post-Christian we must rethink our approach. Changing times call for changing approaches in order to accomplish our unchanging mission of making disciples.”

Stanley’s listeners and readers aren’t stupid: they’ve heard this kind of rhetoric before, usually in the course of someone denouncing longstanding Christian ideas about human sexuality. Because modernity is invoked as a factor justifying change, people who might’ve otherwise been persuaded by Stanley’s argument will immediately relegate him to the camp of “those liberals over there.”

To his credit, Stanley cites specific instances from the New Testament in which the apostles cited the Scriptures in broad strokes to testify to the Resurrection, but this feels like a distraction from the controversy at hand. Stanley’s argument that “I’m calling for us to use the apologetic methodology the apostles used” isn’t without merit, but it doesn’t address the core concern of his readers—a concern better addressed by explaining the theological doctrines about Scripture the apostles and early church professed.

Assuming this controversy continues to unfold, Stanley can (and should) explain that this debate is actually about jettisoning a doctrinal error (“bibliolatry”) that was, from its start two centuries ago, a deviation from the witness of historic Christianity. There is a miles-wide difference between this sort of shift—a shift rooted in a back-to-basics conservatism—and the progressive idea that “the world has changed and evolved, so our teachings must also evolve.”

Since the vast majority of those steeped in evangelical culture have never heard “the backstory” of Christianity, arguments from church tradition and early doctrine may feel alien at first, if not downright heretical (oh, the irony!). But in seeking to rehabilitate the longstanding witness of historic Christianity against errant “Americanizations” of doctrine, those arguments from tradition have far, far more lasting power than appeals to modernity or the demands of contemporary culture.

If this debate rages on, here’s hoping Stanley makes an argument to that effect.

John Ehrett

John Ehrett

John currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where he works as an attorney and writer. He holds an M.A.R. from the Institute of Lutheran Theology and a J.D. from Yale Law School.

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