I wrote a blog post a month ago criticizing this meme, taken from a recent Andy Stanley sermon aimed at unbelieving millennials who reject the authority of scripture. My little post was a drop in the ocean: many prominent pastors and theologians have also weighed in. In fact, the overwhelming negative reaction compelled Stanley himself to respond here. His response defends his preaching methodology against critics and assures us that he is an inerrantist.
From my perspective, the issue has never been his personal view of the authority of scripture. A friend of mine directed me to this post. As I told him at the time:
I’m sympathetic with what this writer says, but read the first comment: Stanley was wrong about what the earliest Christians believed about the Bible. This seems to me beyond question. If he wanted to argue (as I know he has in the past) that the historicity of the resurrection proves that Jesus was right about the Bible and therefore the Bible is true, then he can make that argument. But his words about the early Christian view of scripture (which he either misunderstands or misrepresents) don’t bolster that argument. While there are good historical reasons to believe in the resurrection independent of belief in the inspiration of scripture, the apostles rarely if ever proclaimed the resurrection apart from how it fits in the Bible’s grand narrative.
That’s why, for instance, the Nicene Creed says that Jesus was resurrected “in accordance with the scriptures.”
It was never one or the other.
If Stanley wants to teach college kids apologetics, more power to him. But I don’t think the best strategy is to minimize the authority of God’s Word. He’s getting flak right now because that’s what he’s done—whether he intended to or not. If he’s as prone to misinterpretation as you suggested earlier, then he ought to work on speaking clearly.
He hopes that people will follow Jesus first and believe the Bible later. What I fear will happen instead is that, like my particular tribe of mainliners, they’ll follow a “Jesus” who often bears little resemblance to the Jesus of scripture. After all, I’m often told, Jesus is the Word of God, not the Bible.
Stanley only sees the problem through the lens of disaffected former evangelicals or fundamentalists who’ve left the faith or rejected many of its traditional doctrines. (I’m looking at you, Rachel Held Evans.) I guess he knows from whence he speaks. But for what it’s worth, I’m part of a Christian tradition that, generally speaking, hasn’t held to a high view of scripture in its recent history. To say the least, it hasn’t helped us reach the lost for Jesus Christ.
On the other hand, my mainline Protestant experience suggests that when we unmoor Jesus from the Old and New Testaments, we’ll come to believe that there really are no lost people, anyway—or, if there are, the condition is strictly temporary. God will save them in the end. (Sadly, this doesn’t help our churches pay their bills.)
Stanley says in his response that he’s been called a heretic by people who misunderstand his view of scripture. They’re wrong, obviously. But while we’re hunting for heresies, why not start with old-fashioned Pelagianism? No millennial, despite how clever we preachers address their doubts, will come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ apart from God’s grace (see, for instance, John 6:44).
What role, I wonder, does Stanley believe the Holy Spirit plays in his efforts to reach millennials? When Stanley writes about reaching the lost in his book Deep & Wide, as in his recent article, does he ever discuss the work of the Spirit?
Regardless, here’s a more thorough response to Stanley’s controversial sermon, by Michael Kruger. I like this part a lot:
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.