Is the Bible Foundational to Christianity? Engaging with Andy Stanley

What is the cure that Stanley has offered? In brief, Christians need to stop basing their faith on the Bible.

The sermon itself was deeply confusing and left many questions unanswered about the proper role of God’s Word in our lives. Unfortunately, much of the confusion in the sermon was driven by Stanley’s commitment to a particular methodology about how to reach non-Christians.  For whatever set of reasons, Stanley has become convinced that the Bible gets in the way. I disagree. On the contrary, the strategy of downplaying the Bible for the sake of the Gospel is a false dichotomy.  The two cannot and should not ever be pitted against each other.

 

One of the most profound challenges for Christians as we live in an ever-more-hostile world is how to properly defend the faith against the incessant attacks against it.  And these attacks have taken their toll. We have seen far too many casualties over the years as people leave the church because they had doubts or questions that were never answered.

It is precisely this issue that is behind Andy Stanley’s recent sermon, “The Bible Told Me So” (preached Aug 28, 2016). Stanley, son of well-known Atlanta pastor, Charles Stanley, is the senior pastor of Northpoint Community Church in Alpharetta, GA.

Stanley’s concern in this sermon is for those who have experienced what he calls “deconversions”—people who went to church as a child but have drifted away from the faith as they have reached adulthood. They drifted away because they went to a church that refused to answer their difficult questions and insisted that they were “just supposed to have faith.”

There is little doubt that Stanley has put his finger on a critical issue for the church today, and he should be commended for it. We need to find a compelling way to address the questions and doubts people have about their faith without ducking the hard questions.

But while Stanley has correctly diagnosed the disease, serious questions remain about whether he has offered an adequate cure. Indeed, in many ways, his suggested cure becomes problematic enough that one begins to wonder whether it just might be more troubling than the disease itself.

So what is the cure that Stanley has offered?  In brief, Christians need to stop basing their faith on the Bible.

The cause of these deconversions, Stanley argues, is that Christians, from an early age, are taught the children’s lyric, “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”  Why is this phrase a problem?  Stanley answers: “because the implication is the Bible is the reason we believe.”

Why would it be a problem if the Bible is the reason we believe? Stanley tells us: “If the Bible is the foundation of our faith, here is the problem, it is all or nothing. . . Christianity becomes a fragile house of cards that comes tumbling down when we discover that perhaps the walls of Jericho didn’t.”

In other words, the cure (or at least part of it) for these deconversions is to take the Bible out of the equation.  If we do that, then we don’t have to worry about defending it or upholding it.  Problem solved.

Or is it?

While one sympathizes with Stanley’s desire to remove obstacles to belief in Jesus, his solution does not solve the problem.  In fact, it creates even bigger ones.  It becomes (as we shall see below) the equivalent of sawing off the branch you’re sitting on.

Just a Method to Reach Unbelievers?

Now, before we go further, it should be noted that Stanley’s desire to remove the Bible as the basis for our belief in Jesus is driven by his concern to reach unbelievers (or ex-believers). Since unbelievers don’t accept the authority of the Bible, he thinks he will be more effective if the Bible is taken out of the mix.

Similar sorts of methods have been advocated in the past. Most notably, John Wenham’s Christ and the Bible attempts to prove the inspiration of Scripture by first accepting the NT Gospels as generally reliable historical documents, then moving to the resurrection, then finally to Jesus’ view of Scripture, which would (presumably) lead one then to believe in inspiration.

But even if Stanley is trying to follow a method like Wenham’s, I would argue he has done so in a manner that goes well beyond the language used by Wenham and others like him.  As will become clear below, he makes a number of statements that are provocative enough that when they are not properly nuanced or clarified they can leave both believer and unbeliever deeply confused about the Bible.

The fact that these statements have left people confused (and even worried) is evident from the extensive on-line discussions about the sermon that have already taken place.  I have also seen this personally as numerous people have approached me with concerns about the sermon, asking if I might write something that might clarify the issues.  And that is the purpose of this post.  I have a tremendous amount of appreciation and respect for Andy Stanley, but I wanted to provide some answers to the questions people are asking.

Can the Bible Be the Reason We Believe in Jesus?

So, we turn now to Stanley’s primary claim, namely that the Bible should not be the “reason we believe.”  In order to evaluate this claim, it might be helpful to distinguish between two different questions: (a) Is it possible to believe in Jesus on a basis other than the Bible? and (b) Is itpreferable to believe in Jesus on a basis other than the Bible?

As for the first of these, it is true that a person can believe in Jesus without believing in the Bible. Indeed, they don’t even have to know a Bible exists to believe in Jesus.  Think of the person in the jungles of the Amazon who hears a missionary preach and converts.  He may live for many years not aware of a Bible or even able to read one.

And even for those who have read their Bible, they don’t have to believe all of it to be saved (though, obviously, they have to believe in certain parts to be saved).  A person can reject inspiration and still be a Christian—though it is a very serious doctrinal error.

But, just because it is possible to believe in Jesus apart from believing the Bible doesn’t mean that is the preferable approach.  One does not follow from the other. And it certainly doesn’t mean it is dangerous or problematic to believe in Jesus on the basis of the Bible.

It is worth noting that neither Jesus nor the apostles give us the impression that believing on the basis of the Bible is some sort of problem.  On the contrary, Jesus plainly states, “For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me” (John 5:46).  In other words, belief in the writings of Moses (part of the OT) would actually lead a person to believe in Jesus!

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