More on Andy Stanley and the role of scripture in the early church

October 4, 2016


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 14:371 Thess 2:132 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.

13 Responses to “More on Andy Stanley and the role of scripture in the early church”

  1. Grant Essex Says:

    I haven’t seen Stanley’s response. Do you have a link to that?

    I would imagine that he would like to walk this back a little. He was trying to make one point, and ended up creating a much bigger controversy.

  2. brentwhite Says:

    Here’s the response. It’s long! Why ‘The Bible Says So’ Is Not Enough Anymore

    Walk it back? He doubled down!

  3. Grant Essex Says:

    Thanks. I’ve read it through once, and it’s helpful. I’ll look more deeply later.

    My own experience with Andy is only “online”. Love his sermons. What I can say is that while he may not use “because the Bible tells me so” as authority, he does preach directly from it, thereby conferring authority. The last 6 minutes of Message 6, which he directs us to is a great example.

    I thought he might want to walk his view back a little, but I find his defense refreshing. As long as he uses the Bible as the source of authority, I don’t see a problem in directing our attention to the message as relevant today.

  4. bthomas Says:

    Don’t keep up with Stanley. For that matter, don’t pay much if any attention to Mohler. Would say… when it comes to actually moving the gospel forward, the nod goes to Stanley. Will also say, when it comes to actually representing the gospel with fidelity to Scripture, the nod again goes to Stanley. Hard to take Mohler seriously given that his fundamentalist proclivities which greatly hinder his ability to see anything in Scripture that he is not predisposed to find.

  5. Marshall Says:

    I think Stanley’s point is that the Apostles and other first century Christians didn’t read about the resurrection, they were there and they lived it, and then later they preached it and wrote about it. An (…the!!…) essential point of Christianity is that the core events happened in history, yes? That the resurrected God is really real and really walked around and talked with people right there in downtown Jerusalem. That seems unproblematic theology, although it’s not a message that gets preached much these days. I would have thought that was a liberalist issue, avoiding the tender toes of the Jeffersonian rationalists.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I get his point, but the way he arrives at it is misleading. The apostles always had scripture. Find a sermon in Acts that doesn’t draw upon it. It was never enough for the apostles to say, “We were eyewitnesses to the resurrection, so you can trust us,” without also citing scripture. It was always both/and. Stanley said he got to the Bible later in the series—just not in this first sermon. I don’t know how I feel about that… That is neither a traditional nor biblical picture of what church is supposed to be. This is why I’m curious about Stanley’s pneumatology. He and his very clever staff shouldn’t be doing most of the work of winning souls. Feels too much like marketing. “But it works,” a Stanley apologist might reply. Yes, but what is the “it” that’s working? Joel Osteen and Creflo Dollar have very large churches, too. That doesn’t prove anything.

      But what do I know? I’m the pastor of a small Methodist church. Heaven knows I haven’t figured out how to “reach the lost.”

      Nevertheless, I thought the author I cited in the post put it well in his rebuttal.

      • Marshall Says:

        Personally I believe that small face-to-face churches is where Christianity happens. Megachurches, denominations, and TV/internet preaching can be useful aids but they don’t altogether do the job.

        True that the Apostles were (mostly?) raised as Jews, but the crucible of Christianity was the inspiration of the Gentiles in the first century, and the audience for the Gospels were so ignorant that it had to be explained to them that Jews washed their hands before eating (bizarre custom!). Paul’s churches had a literary tradition, but no canon, and there were also heretical documents circulating, such as Thomas. A reliable, generally accepted library telling the Jesus story didn’t emerge until the 2nd c. at least, and it grew out of lived experience. It wasn’t even obvious to the Apostles that the Messiah they got was the same as the Messiah anticipated … Jesus had to explain it to them on the was to Emmaus.

        That’s my take anyway. Personally, the reason I confess is from the word written on my heart and in my life; Scripture is precious to me because it reflects and expands on that Word. Did I mention, like those first generation guys, I wasn’t raised in the church.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        It is true that many people know very little scripture when they come to the faith. The Spirit does that work through various methods. But the salvation is still predicated on the Word even if little is known of it at the time. In other words, the basis for repentance and faith and love being preached or shared which gives rise to the conversion originates in scripture, and must be consistent with it to be valid. Also, growth in spirituality is generally enhanced by scriptural study (and then living it out). “Be ye doers of the Word, and not hearers only.” But in general you have to “hear” in order to know what to “do.”

  6. Tom Harkins Says:

    Brent, I agree with you and Kruger; and, as he is being presented, am disappointed in Andy. I like what you say also about, “What is ‘it’?” Big crowds followed Jesus at first, but dwindled down considerably once the “hard sayings” came along.

    Of course scripture is vitally important. Jesus cited it all the time and considered it authoritative. He also said, “My words will never pass away.” So, where do we get those “words” from? The Scriptures.

  7. Grant Essex Says:

    Okay, since we’re still going on about this, consider the following question. If a devout Christian (maybe even a preacher) was dropped into group of people, who had never heard of Jesus, in a remote location, and he didn’t have his Bible, could he preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ?

    I think the answer is obvious.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      Well, clearly “Bible in hand” is necessary. However, that does not mean “Bible in mind” is unnecessary. While “literal words” are not necessary, the basic biblical concepts of God’s existence, sin, repentance, Christ’s death in our place have to be communicated. The only place that we get those from is the Bible. So, I “stick by my guns” that “the Bible” is essential to Christianity and its propagation and guidance.

  8. Grant Essex Says:

    Okay. You are obviously very invested in this, so I’ll let it go. I just don’t think that you are seeing what Andy is trying to say here. I just finished listening to the whole series and I wasn’t uncomfortable with any of it.

  9. Marshall Says:

    Hi Brent

    I was thinking more about your comment on pneumatology, and it occurred to me that for evidence of the Gospel, besides the Bible we have the transmission of the faith directly from person to person for 2000 years in an unbroken lineage from the Apostles to you and me. Which is how we get the Spirit to read the Word properly. I agree that aspect gets pretty much neglected, even deprecated as “enthusiasm” sometimes. Stanley doesn’t go there in this series.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: