Posts Tagged ‘Pelagianism’

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.

Adam Hamilton, you’re not helping!

November 20, 2015


I complained in my previous post—just a  few hours ago—that we often risk missing the gospel of Jesus Christ in the four Gospels. I said that we turn scripture passages such as the Good Samaritan and the Sheep and the Goats (which I’m preaching on this Sunday) into messages of works righteousness. The message is “try harder or else!”—or why mince words? “Try harder or be damned for eternity!”

Was I exaggerating? Consider today’s blog post from Adam Hamilton, which is an appeal for us Christians in America to support the immigration of Syrian refugees. Much of what he says is reasonable. But then, like many fellow pastors this week, he badly mishandles the parable of the Sheep and the Goats from Matthew 25:31-46. He writes, “In the parable it appears that the goats thought of themselves as religious.” [Probably true.] “They were therefore surprised when, at the last judgment, they were turned away.” [Definitely true.] He continues (emphasis his):

So, why did the goats turn people away who were in need? I think it was because they were afraid and they allowed their fear to override their compassion and humanity. And the sheep? They found the courage to overcome their fears and to act with compassion and love.

I’m sure the “goats” failed for a host of reasons, which likely included fear, but that’s beside the point. Here’s my problem: Jesus’ words here are about nothing less than Final Judgment, salvation or damnation, heaven or hell. Does Hamilton really mean to say that the difference between those who are saved and those who are lost comes down to our ability to “find the courage to overcome our fears” or not?

Do you see the problem? It’s downright Pelagian! Without qualifying his words, Hamilton is implying that we’re saved or lost based on what we do! This isn’t the gospel of grace; it’s the gospel of good works! It’s the gospel of “try harder or be damned.”

I’m guessing Hamilton doesn’t mean to imply this. After all, like me, Hamilton is a Wesleyan-Arminian. He’s supposed to know as well as I do that while we cooperate with the Holy Spirit (theologically, we’re synergists, not monergists), even our cooperation is made possible by grace, such that none of our good works contributes anything to our salvation.

But if Hamilton isn’t talking about salvation, why does he use this particular parable, in which nothing less than salvation is at stake?

Where’s the gospel? Where’s grace?

As I said in my previous post, if we rely on the gospel of good works, we’re all in trouble. Maybe in the instance of Syrian refugees, Adam Hamilton and others are “overcoming their fear” through their advocacy. But aren’t there plenty of other times in his life when he fails to “overcome his fear”? Aren’t there at least thousands of times in his life when he “did it not to one of the least of these”? Will he be condemned to hell for these failures?

Of course not! Why? Because we’re saved not because of what we either do or fail to do, but because of what Christ has done for us!

Otherwise, we’re doomed. Hamilton knows this. I just wish he would say it!

When we pastors use this parable to say something about works of mercy, which is perfectly appropriate, we need to also say that these works are a sign of salvation, which comes to us as a free gift from God by grace through faith alone.

By all means, there’s a warning here: Saving faith will include good works. And if we’re not doing these things regularly, in spite of our many failures, then it may be a sign that we haven’t truly trusted in Christ. The apostle James makes this point repeatedly.

But this isn’t Hamilton’s point here. Like many others, he’s preaching the gospel of “try harder or else.” And that gospel can’t save us.

“No hands but ours”? I hope not!

May 5, 2011

We’re continuing to look at the resurrection appearances of Jesus in Vinebranch on Sunday. This time, the scripture is Luke 24:36-48. A natural move that I may make in my sermon is something like this:

“O.K., the risen Jesus said to his disbelieving disciples, ‘Look at my hands; touch my hands; look at my feet; touch my feet. It’s really me.’ There was a lengthy period of time during which we could talk to many eyewitnesses who said, ‘I saw the risen Lord.’ And because of that, we can be assured that our faith rests on a firm historical foundation.

“Today, however, we no longer have the ability to touch the hands and feet of Jesus. Rather, we are the hands and feet. We are the evidence. Our lives are the evidence to people to whom we lovingly minister.”

Something like that. I can even relate it to Mother’s Day, as we think about how our own mothers (we hope!) were the hands and feet of Jesus to us.

Having said that, however, I will not make this additional move—employed by one prominent preacher I just read—repeating this oft-quoted drivel, which may or may not have originated with 15th-century mystic St. Teresa of Avila:

Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which to look at Christ’s compassion to the world. Yours are the feet with which he is to go about doing good. Yours are the hands with which he is to bless us now.

Why does this bother me so much? It’s the “nothing but this” aspect that’s wrong. If you want to get theological, it smacks of everyone’s favorite heresy, Pelagianism. By all means, we the Church are the Body of Christ in the world, continuing, however imperfectly, Christ’s ministry and witnessing to his love. But thank God that Christ’s power isn’t limited to us alone! We have the Holy Spirit alive in this world right now, working God’s good plan for this world—in us, through us, and often in spite of us—in ways that go far beyond our imagination. We are not doing the heavy lifting here.

When we love as Christ loves, we empty ourselves of ourselves. We become empty vessels through which the Spirit of Christ moves—and the emptier the better! It’s about what God does through us, not what we do.