Andy Stanley and the “NEW Hermeneutic”

Stanley suggests Christian belief does not depend on the biblical record. but by trusting the account of the witnesses to the resurrection.

Stanley has not dealt persuasively with the so-called obstacle of “The Bible says.” He has only moved the authority for belief to autonomous reason. One wonders, then, what kind of belief Stanley is advocating. There is natural belief in “every drop of rain that falls.” But then there is saving faith, which is the gift of God. This “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17). Minus the Word of God, Stanley re-presents Thomistic dualism for modern evangelical use: belief is the product of rational process beginning in disbelief.

 

The problem of faith and reason is longstanding in the history of theology. Augustine held that faith aids reason (credo ut intelligam) and that reason aids faith (intelligo un creadam). The church father is, however, inclined to stress the later over the former. It was with Thomas Aquinas, and his Summa Theologica, that the effort to reconcile faith and reason reached its apex. Rejecting the medieval doctrine of double truth, he placed natural reason prior to faith in effectively every area of the Christian life. The restrictions are the mysteries of the faith that reason cannot penetrate.

Thomas’ affirmation of the high role of native reason in Christian belief is linked to his stress on dialectical method in study, seminally set forth by Peter Abelard. The form of study is dependent largely on logic to argue both sides of a theological question. Christian belief is thus the proper result of process or synthesis. Faith then assents to the final proposition arrived at by reason.

Thomistic theology was not only dialectical in method, but also in mission. Thomas’ effort to reconcile faith and reason looks back to Augustine who felt the pressing need to reconcile the Christian gospel with culture—“culture” understood as the manifestations of the intellectual achievements of the Greeks. Ironically, Plato and Aristotle were caught up in their own set of dialectical tensions in the form of particularization and abstraction. With the world setting the agenda for the Church, the blind were leading the blind, and both fell into a ditch.

This brief overview of key points in Thomistic theology provides entrée to Andy Stanley’s view of the Bible. Although the leap may seem a bridge too far, Stanley is a contemporary example of how one can easily fall into the “ditch” should one try to present the gospel to the secular mind, not on the foundation of God’s Word, but on the basis of autonomous reason.

Stanley’s view of the Bible, and his low view of expository preaching, have already attracted attention. So my purpose here is not to rehearse these general critiques. It is rather to focus on one particular idea of Stanley’s that he presented in a series of sermons delivered at Northpoint Church, titled, “Who Needs God-The Bible Told Me So.” My particular interest is Part 3 of his series.

I will restate Stanley’s main thesis this way.

The Bible does not exist because of Christianity. The Bible exists because of the Christian faith. Therefore, the basis of belief is not the Bible, but the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The witnesses to the resurrection are a sufficient basis of Christian belief.

Specifically, Stanley suggests that because “Christianity made its greatest strides 282 years before the Bible even existed”, Christian belief does not depend on the biblical record. How then did people become Christians before the Bible took final shape? By trusting the account of the witnesses to the resurrection.

Motivating Stanley is an apologetic concern. Like Augustine and Thomas, he wants to bridge the problem of faith and reason, or faith and culture, but in a fresh way. He fears that the problem of “de-conversion” especially among postmodern people is not helped in a dogmatic milieu of “The Bible says.” Assertive claims to inerrancy will only worsen matters given the conflict between the Bible’s record of a 5000-year history of mankind and science. The mistake, according to Stanley, has been to wed faith to the Bible rather than to the resurrection. He warns,

If the Bible isn’t true, Christianity comes tumbling down. Consequently, Christians have felt compelled to defend the Bible because the only way to defend the Christian faith is to defend the Bible. It is next to impossible to defend the entire Bible.

Thus, according to Stanley, if you de-converted from Christianity because you believe part or all of the Bible isn’t true, “you left Christianity unnecessarily.”

I will call Stanley’s idea the NEW Hermeneutic (No Exegesis Warranted). Stanley does not offer a new formula for hermeneutics. He offers a pathway beyond hermeneutics. He does so by inverting classical Protestant interpretation. Instead of seeking to know the biblical situation of the resurrection through the glasses of special revelation, the Bible, he assumes the situational storyline of the resurrection, as if it is somehow independent of the biblical text, and then makes the biblical record mere history. While Stanley’s method is similar in contour to contemporary Romans Catholic theology (and to nineteenth-century Higher Criticism), he is not so sophisticated. Still, to Stanley the Bible is a posteriori to faith in the witnesses to the resurrection, not constitutive of faith, to wit, a priori.

Several problems emerge in Stanley’s NEW Hermeneutic.

First, Stanley’s central claim that people were Christians long before the canon of Scripture was complete is a straw man. Protestant theology has never stipulated that the completed Bible was foundational to the faith of the church of Acts to the end of the fourth century. What it does state is that the Word of God—the Law and the Prophets, to the Pauline letters circulated among the early churches—defined and regulated belief and practice (2 Tim. 3:16-17). Just because the Bible was not canonized until years after the resurrection does mean that people were without the Word of God. As Ra McLaughlin with Third Millennium Ministries observes,

It’s preposterous to argue that if no one had a bound copy of our sixty six books, then no one had the books individually. That’s like saying Israel didn’t have the Law because it existed on separate scrolls.

Second, the NEW Hermeneutic repeats a major error of medieval scholasticism. In order to synthesize faith and reason, Thomas adapted the Greek form/matter schema for theology. He drew a distinction between the existence of a thing and itsessence. Existence tells us that something is, while essence tells us whatsomething is. But the essence of a tree (tree-ness) does not guarantee the existence of any particular tree. Thomas brings existence and essence together using the philosophical concept of esse (to be). God’s esse unites his essence with his actual existence.

Thomas’ answer is problematic. By arriving at the existence of God by abstracting reality from form, much like Plato, he depersonalizes God. Thomas tries to abate this problem by assigning indiscriminate Greek (and Roman) concepts of personality to God, but this is very different from how God has revealed himself in Scripture.

Returning to Stanley, were it possible to know the resurrection from the early witnesses without recourse to the Bible, we could only know its existence (that it happened) but not its essence (what it means). That the resurrection occurred tells us little about the rich theological meaning of Easter Day. Stanley presents a historical resurrection but deprived of the life-changing content of Scripture.

Third, by limiting Christian trust to the veracity of the early witnesses to the resurrection, the NEW Hermeneutic relegates the resurrection to church tradition and makes it no more than a dogmatized story for those unwilling to take God at his Word. But on what basis are we to trust in tradition? According to Thomas, what differentiates faith from the other virtues is that faith’s formal object—the First Truth—is revealed in Sacred Scripture and the teachings of the Church (see Summa Theologica II-II Q.5 a.3). Should there be a clash between church tradition and Scripture, it is tradition that has the final say.

Like Thomas, Stanley has elevated tradition above the Bible. But according to the Bible, Stanley is wrong. Paul writes, “For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Rom 15:4-5).

Fourth, Stanley’s NEW Hermeneutic is based in “brute facts.” John Frame explains.

Stanley’s position is so militantly based on brute facts that he actually says it doesn’t matter whether there are errors in the Bible. Well, yes, we do believe the Gospel because it is factually true. But we also have a book that not only records those facts, but which gives a normative account of the facts. Stanley is presenting a situational gospel while trying to deny the normative. Can’t be done. Without a normative Bible, the situational events are based on the authority of the autonomous mind; that is, they are dependent on unbelief. He uses unbelief to prove belief.

Stanley has not dealt persuasively with the so-called obstacle of “The Bible says.” He has only moved the authority for belief to autonomous reason. One wonders, then, what kind of belief Stanley is advocating. There is natural belief in “every drop of rain that falls.” But then there is saving faith, which is the gift of God. This “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Romans 10:17). Minus the Word of God, Stanley re-presents Thomistic dualism for modern evangelical use: belief is the product of rational process beginning in disbelief.

In conclusion, Andy Stanley’s NEW Hermeneutic, although intended to provide postmodern people access to the Christian faith without sorting out the messy issues of biblical inerrancy, authority, and infallibility, subscripts the Bible to the witnesses to the resurrection. Beyond the obvious circularity of this argument is a stark warning to all who would follow Stanley’s teaching. As Jesus put it into the mouth of father Abraham, “If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be persuaded even if someone rises from the dead” (Luke 16:31).

John Barber is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and lives in Jacksonville. Fla. This article appeared on his blog and is used with permission.