Andy Stanley and the authority of scripture

June 3, 2013

Scot McKnight, whose blog I read daily, highlights a dispute between Andy Stanley and a Southern Baptist professor named Denny Burk (about whom I know nothing, but that’s not Burk’s fault). Recently, Stanley preached about the authority of scripture and said,

The foundation of our faith is not the Scripture. The foundation of our faith is not the infallibility of the Bible. The foundation of our faith is something that happened in history. And the issue is always – Who is Jesus? That’s always the issue. The Scripture is simply a collection of ancient documents that tells us that story…

Stanley went on to say that he believes Adam and Eve were a literal couple, not because the “Bible says so” but because Jesus does. As Stanley said, “[A]nybody that can predict their own death and resurrection and pull it off – I just believe anything they say.” (Unless I’m mistaken, Stanley makes this same point in Deep & Wide.)

Burk objects that “our only knowledge of what Jesus says comes to us from the Bible. There can be no bifurcation between ‘what the Bible says’ and ‘what Jesus says.’ The former gives us the latter.”

Burk isn’t completely wrong. Stanley’s argument is weak. We can’t know, based on “something that happened in history,” that Jesus said what the Bible says he said about Adam and Eve. As N.T. Wright and others (including me), have argued, history (by which I mean, history alone, apart from scripture and faith) can tell us that Jesus was very likely raised from the dead. The resurrection, based on historical evidence alone, is at least as likely as many other historical events that we take for granted as fact. The reason many historians don’t say the resurrection happened is not because they’ve scrupulously followed the evidence and have reached this conclusion; rather, they say the resurrection didn’t happen because of course resurrections don’t happen.

Nevertheless, if history alone can tell us that the resurrection probably happened, then history tells us a lot. Moreover, to Stanley’s point, if the resurrection didn’t happen, no one would know or care what Jesus had to say about Adam and Eve or anything else for that matter.

But even if the resurrection happened (which of course I believe strongly that it did), who’s to say that Jesus predicted it? Many Bible scholars, even some who believe in the resurrection, argue that the historical Jesus didn’t predict it, that his death caught him by surprise—that the apostles or their followers wrote the gospels in light of Easter, and Easter transformed how they viewed the historical events leading up to it. Jesus’ predictions, in other words, were a post-Easter innovation.

Ugh! Even as I describe this argument, it strikes me as ridiculous. But I’m not wrong: this is the kind of stuff you read and hear about in mainline Protestant seminaries. And it is a counterargument to what Stanley says.

My point is, the resurrection doesn’t prove that Jesus said and did the things attributed to him in the gospels. But we may rightly ask, “Since we believe on good historical evidence outside the Bible that Jesus was resurrected, is it also reasonable to believe that the gospels paint an accurate picture of what Jesus said and did?”

Maybe this is what Stanley meant, but he didn’t say it clearly enough.

Another problem with Stanley’s argument is this: If Jesus had never spoken about Adam and Eve in the gospels, we would still have to reach some conclusion about the historicity of the first couple, right? Is everything in the Old Testament that Jesus didn’t speak about up for grabs?

Some of my fellow United Methodists who disagree with our church’s traditional teaching on homosexuality make that argument: “Jesus didn’t say anything about homosexuality, therefore who’s to say that homosexual behavior is sinful?” Aren’t they following Stanley’s logic? Do the red-letter words of Jesus carry more weight, theologically, than Paul’s letters or the rest of the New Testament? I don’t think so.

The missing ingredient in Stanley’s and Burk’s arguments is the Holy Spirit. Why do we have the Bible we have? Why do we believe that it’s a trustworthy revelation from God? It’s because of the Holy Spirit. We have the Bible we have today because God wants us to have it. God is the ultimate authority behind the authority of scripture. This authority can’t be proven from historical events or the extent to which the Bible accurately reflects history; it takes faith, which is itself a gift of the Spirit.

I disagree with Stanley when he says, “The Scripture is simply a collection of ancient documents that tells us that story.” Beware of someone using the word “simply”: it’s rarely that simple. The Bible isn’t simply anything: It is the Holy Spirit’s actively speaking to us through the words on paper. When we read scripture through the eyes of faith, something supernatural happens: We are in conversation with the Spirit of Jesus Christ himself. It isn’t only that God spoke a long time ago through the writers of scripture and we have their words to guide our lives; it’s also that God continues to speak to us through these words today. I think my belief accurately reflects our Wesleyan understanding of scripture—it at least passed muster with the Board of Ordained Ministry! 😉

I think Scot McKnight would agree with me, too. He describes a doctrine of scripture based on Jesus as the Word of God. I recommend the whole post to you, but I’ll leave you with this:

So any articulation of our faith that is not first God in his authority before Scripture’s authority makes a fundamental mistake.

To be sure, we know Jesus because of the Word but we have the Word because God spoke the Word and the Word God speaks has a name, Jesus. So first the Word, the Living Word, and then the Word, the Written Word. And it is really a silly game to think we need to argue about which one is most important: both.

2 Responses to “Andy Stanley and the authority of scripture”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    I agree that Stanley’s argument does not ultimately make sense because we cannot know what Jesus said about things scripture recounts to know that he believed them (and, hence, we should). However, I think there is still force in what Stanley says to this extent–when Jesus is recorded by scripture as saying something happened, then we know that what Jesus said happened “actually” happened, as opposed to being some type of “myth” or some other “repackaging” of the events in the Old Testament. Thus, Jesus recounts something that happened in the Garden–there was a Garden. “As it was in the days of Noah”–the Flood happened (even if we have some question about its “extent”, or whatever). Jonah was in the belly of a whale. Fire did rain down on Sodom. Etc. So, when Jesus said something happened, we no longer have open to us a “mythological” or “allegorical” or “symbolic” understanding of those events. They “miraculously” happened, just as they are recorded to have happened. (Leaving aside the side issue of whether they are “inerrantly” recorded.)

    • brentwhite Says:

      This leaves aside the question of how Jesus understood these events when he referred to them. I don’t think Jesus’ words settle the question as neatly as you suggest, BUT I’m less confident than I used to be, for what it’s worth. 😉

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