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 genuine appreciation of (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 it preferable 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!
In the story of the rich man and Lazarus, the rich man begs to rise from the dead to warn his brothers about judgment. But, Abraham states the Scripture are utterly sufficient as a basis for their salvation without needing a miraculous appearance: “They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them” (Luke 16:29).
The apostles regularly convinced others to believe in Jesus on the grounds that he fulfilled the words of that Old Testament (Acts 3:18-19; 17:2; 18:28). Sure, the eyewitness experience of the resurrection was paramount (1 Cor 15:7-8), but the apostles even interpreted that experience in light of the Old Testament (1 Cor 15:4).
Simply put, Jesus and the apostles did not warn us against relying on the OT Scriptures as a basis for our belief.
Now I suppose that one could respond by saying that all of these passages speak to believers and Stanley is speaking to only unbelievers. But, the problem with this response is that Stanley’s advice clearly applies to believers as well. Are we to think his warning about setting up a “house of cards” religion suddenly becomes invalid upon conversion? Is it not believers who are in danger of doubting their faith if they hear a modern scholar critique the story of Jericho?
And it is here that we come to the nub of the matter. Stanley is not merely putting the Bible on the shelf temporarily for the sake of persuading the unbeliever through another means—that is the methodology that Wenham and others follow (which itself is debatable).
Instead, Stanley seems to be setting up a principled objection to making the Bible the reason we believe—an objection that would apply to both believer and unbeliever.
If the Bible Is Not Our Foundation, Then What Is?
So if we don’t look to Scripture as the reason for believing in Jesus, then to what do we look? Stanley answers:
Jesus loves you. This you know, for John who watched Him die and had breakfast with Him on the beach tells you so. Jesus loves you, this I know, for Luke who thoroughly investigated the events wrote them down meticulously and interviewed eye witnesses, made sure it was so. Jesus loves you, this I know, because a Pharisee who hated Christians, who was going to arrest Christians, who was going to singlehandedly stop the Jesus movement, became Jesus follower and risked his life traveling all around the Gentile Mediterranean Rim to make sure that you know.
In other words, we don’t need an inspired Bible to know Jesus loves us we just need the testimony of these men. The problem with this line of reasoning, of course, is that the words and stories of these men come from the Bible! All of the facts that Stanley appeals to—that John watched Jesus die, that Luke investigated these things, that Paul was a converted Pharisee—come from the Scriptures.
Perhaps Stanley would acknowledge this fact but simply insist that he is appealing to these documents not as inspired Scripture but just as reliable historical sources (similar to the kind of apologetic argument made by Wenham).
If so, then his view, in effect, would be, “Jesus loves me this I know, because historically reliable documents tell me so.”
But, this approach runs into its own host of problems. For one, this move doesn’t avoid the problem of making one’s view subject to scholarly attacks. Scholars have not only attacked the story of Jericho, they have also attacked the stories of the Gospels—indeed they’ve attacked the latter with even more vigor than the former. And the center of such attacks has always been the accounts of the resurrection (which the vast majority of scholars reject).
So, what if someone used Stanley’s own argument against him, “Your dependence on the historical reliability of these documents as a basis for your belief in Jesus is just setting up a ‘house of cards’ religion; as soon as critics attack these documents your whole system comes crumbling down.”
In other words, shifting from inspiration to mere historical reliability doesn’t help.
Indeed, not only does not help, it actually hurts. Why would we think our confidence improves when shifting away from inspiration towards mere historical reliability? After all the latter would include mistakes and errors—no historian is perfect.
And then this raises the issue of how we distinguish the true parts from the false parts. We would have to “edit” the Bible according some standard—which one would that be?
Was There a “Bible” in Early Christianity?
In order to bolster his view that you don’t need the Bible to believe in Jesus, Stanley argues that the earliest Christians didn’t have one anyway. There was no Bible until Constantine in the fourth century.
Stanley states, “Christianity made its greatest strides during the 282 years before the Bible even existed.” In other words, between 30 and 312 AD (when Constantine became emperor), Christians did not really have a Bible they could use and quote from.
Thus, Stanley adds the following, “Christianity was not born on the back of the Bible says, the Bible says, the Bible says.”
This entire reconstruction is deeply problematic on a number of levels. For one, Christians did build the Christian faith on the back of the “the Bible says, the Bible says.” They did this because they already had the Old Testament Scriptures from the very start. As observed above, the apostles in the early church repeatedly cited the Old Testament Scriptures as a basis for their beliefs.
As for the New Testament, these books were also functioning as Scripture very early. Even in his own day, Paul’s letters were read and copied as authoritative apostolic documents that the church was supposed to obey and follow (e.g., 1 Cor 14:37; 1 Thess 2:13; 2 Thess 2:15). Even other New Testament letters viewed Pauls’ books as “Scripture” (2 Pet 3:15-16).
This pattern continued in the second century where we see a “core” collection of New Testament Scriptures—four Gospels, Paul’s thirteen letters, Acts, and a handful of other books—functioning as the Word of God in local congregations. They were being read, copied, and cited as Scripture alongside the Old Testament. These New Testament books were even used as the basis for preaching.
So, when Stanley says there was no “Bible” during this time period, and that Christians were not using the Bible, that is simply not the case. On the contrary, the early church was very textually centered and scripturally oriented (for more, see my The Question of Canon).
Perhaps Stanley could respond by saying that there was no “Bible” in the sense that all the Old and New Testament books were bound in a single volume you could pick up and hold. He is technically correct that we do not have a single volume like that until the fourth century.
But, it is unclear why that matters. Just because all these books were not bound in a single volume did not mean they were not known and used as Scripture. After all, in Jesus’ day the Old Testament books were not bound together in a single volume. And yet it was clear that there was an Old Testament canon during that time which both Jesus and the apostles regularly used.
Stanley’s attempt to push the existence of the Bible back into the fourth century also leads to other problematic historical statements. For example, he states, “The men and women who copied these important documents, they did not make copies because they thought they were inspired.”
But, again, this is not the case. We don’t always know, of course, what was in the mind of a scribe when they copied a book. But what we do know points in the opposite direction of Stanley’s claim. For instance, Christian scribes used special abbreviations for the divine names called the nomina sacra (“sacred names”) which echoes what OT scribes did for the name Yahweh. Most scholars are convinced that this indicates they viewed these writings as sacred Scripture (Question of Canon, 101-102).
Does It Matter Whether the Bible Is True?
To further emphasize his point that a person doesn’t need to believe the Bible to follow Jesus, Stanley says, “The issue has never been is the Bible true. The issue has always been who is Jesus.”
On the surface, this sounds compelling—who needs to worry about a dusty ol’ book anyway? Let’s just focus on the person of Jesus.
The problem with this statement, however, is that Stanley never clarifies what he means when he says “the issue has never been is the Bible true.” Do you need to believe it’s true to be saved? No. We already discussed that above.
But, if the Bible is not true then Christianity is a farce. Why? Because Jesus himself declared that he believed the Bible (the OT in his day) was true. And if Jesus is the God of Israel then the Bible is filled with Jesus’ own words. Thus, if the Bible isn’t true then in fact Jesus isn’t true.
To put it differently, a person doesn’t have to believe in the truth of the Bible to be saved, but the Bible has to be true for them to be saved.
And this is where I think Stanley’s sermon has profoundly confused people. He is so eager to remove all the obstacles for the unbeliever that he never clarifies the difference between these two important truths.
And so what happens when the newly converted believer—who was discouraged from believing in the Bible as the basis for his belief—learns that the Bible’s truth is necessary for the truth of Christianity? He was told the Bible isn’t essential, but now it appears that the Bible is essential after all.
Does this new convert just live with the tension? Does he deconvert? Does he change his view and embrace the Bible as inspired? And if he does that, doesn’t he fall back into the trap of creating a “house of cards” religion that could be overturned by later scholarly arguments? We never receive answers to these questions.
Bible vs. Gospel?
In the end, it is understandable why Stanley’s sermon has generated a wide variety of responses from people. He is to be commended for having a heart for the lost and for seeking to bring them to Christ. And I deeply sympathize with his desire to remove the obstacles—as many as possible—that keep people from embracing Jesus. And I am sure he personally would affirm the inspiration and authority of Scripture (I am not questioning that).
However, 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.
What God has joined together let man not separate.