What Did Andy Stanley Say? A Question of Methodology

andy-stanleyAndy Stanley has seemingly gotten himself into trouble again with some evangelicals over his recent sermon “The Bible Tells Me So.” My Facebook page has lit up over Stanley’s most recent comments about the nature of Scripture. David Prince, Professor of Preaching at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, reflected on Stanley’s comments in a blog and concluded that they are not “cutting edge” but “old liberalism.” Rustin Umstattd, who teaches as Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, concludes very similarly in one of his blogs. Even the well known Christian apologist Frank Turek has weighed in on the “controversy” in both a blog and a podcast (“Bad Christian Arguments for God“). Contrary to Prince, Turek concluded that Stanley is actually correct.

What has aroused such a response to Stanley’s sermon? For one thing, as Prince and Umstattd note, Stanley began his sermon by saying that the foundational problem with Christian faith is that it is based upon the idea found in a children’s song: “Jesus loves me this I know for the Bible tells me so.” In other words, a major problem why many people leave the Christian faith is that Christians have often put faith in the Bible rather than faith in Jesus. According to Stanley, the Bible is true insofar as it accurately represents the historical facts concerning Jesus (as well as other events for that matter). The Bible, he contends, did not even arise until the fourth century and there were Christians the entire time leading up to that century. So what was it that made them Christians? he asks. It wasn’t the Bible; it was the testimony of the disciples of Jesus. According to critics, such talk as espoused by Stanley, “severs the Scriptures” (as Prince says) from the reality of Jesus. Critics are going so far as to say that Stanley now believes in “limited” inerrancy, i.e., that the entire Bible is not true.

What are we to make this? To begin, I think it’s important to actually listen to the entirety of his sermon, which you can do here before making conclusions. It is also helpful to listen to Russ Moore’s interview of Stanley on these issues. (I originally listened to the interview on a link provided by Turek, but it has subsequently been taken down. If you wish to watch the interview, Turek directs to contact the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission which Moore serves as president.) As I watched the interview and Stanley’s sermon and then reflected on what others are saying, here is what I came away with.

The Use of the Term “Bible”

For one thing, Stanley uses the term “Bible” in a rather unique, nuanced way, thereby leaving the door open for some to possibly misunderstand him to be saying that the Bible is not the Word of God and cannot be trusted. In fact, I would go as far to say that Stanley does not use the term “Bible” consistently throughout the presentation. However, most of the time, it seems that he uses the word “Bible” to mean “all the collected books of the OT and NT that we have today in one single volume that we call ‘the Bible.'” He definitely uses the term “Bible” in this sense for most of the sermon as can be seen during his historical analysis, indicating that “the Bible was not a single book like we have today.”

As far as this goes, this is a historically accurate statement that all theologians, historians, and apologists have recognized. There is no controversy here. What I think gets Stanley into trouble is that he mentions about only once that this is what he means by “Bible.” Most people when they hear “Bible,” they think of “God’s authoritative Word, whether in part or in whole.” And so when Stanley says things like, “The Bible didn’t exist until the fourth century,” people automatically begin thinking that he means it in a Dan Brown Da Vinci Code kind of way: that there were no NT letters or gospels around at all to serve authoritatively for the church until the fourth century when a council came together and voted what writings should be included in a canon called “the Bible.” Stanley, however, doesn’t mean this at all. This is more clearly evident if one listens to the sermon in its entirety as well as his interview with Moore. He could have, however, avoided the confusion in his sermon by saying (more than once) something like this: “There was not a single volume of collected writings known as ‘the Bible’ in the first 300 years of Christianity. Rather, they had single letters, Gospels, and other writings penned by the apostles and their assistants (like Mark and Luke.) Thus, they had a ‘Bible,’ or authoritative writings, but unlike what we have today in one volume.”

If one is not careful to keep Stanley’s nuanced definition of “Bible” in mind, it can lead to other confusions as well. For example, Stanley refers to Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, and Paul to argue why we know Jesus rose from the dead. He says things like (these are paraphrased) “Jesus loves me this I know for John tells me so,” and “Jesus loves me this I know because Peter saw it so.” In other words, Stanley is actually referring to the “Bible”–in the sense of books of the Bible–to support the verity of Jesus rising from the dead. Thus, Stanley evidently believes that the individual books of the Bible (namely, the NT) are reliable witnesses to the Resurrection. This could possibly leave someone wondering, “How can you use books of the ‘Bible’ to support the Resurrection when you stated earlier that it is NOT the ‘Bible’ that we know that Jesus rose from the dead?” The logical answer is because, as stated above, Stanley uses the term “Bible” to rigidly mean “all the books of the OT and NT that are collected in one volume.” Thus, if he refers to individual books of the NT, he is not strictly referring to the “Bible” as we have it today, but to the individual manuscripts that testify to the Resurrection.

This is not really a problem. In fact, it can be very helpful when dialoging with unbelievers. It’s actually a very common method of apologetics.  It is an attempt to gain common ground with an unbeliever by showing that the NT documents began as individual and independent testimonies to the Resurrection. Often unbelievers have the misunderstanding that the Bible, as a collected volume, is either one large book written by a group of conspirators or it is just a hodgepodge of mythical letters that were later collected by a bunch of authoritarian councils to start a religion and control the masses. By pointing out the historical development of the canon rather than saying “I’m a Christian because the Bible says so,” these misunderstandings can be cleared away. This seems to me to be exactly what Stanley is attempting to do: show that the Bible is in fact numerous independent witnesses to the Resurrection and life of Jesus. Anyone who has ever engaged a believer by saying “because the Bible says so” will readily recognize the value in such an approach. A direct appeal to Scripture without giving the nature of it first (that it is actually a collection of numerous independent testimonies) when engaging an unbeliever is apologetics DOA. Unbelievers have no respect for Scripture and do not see it as authoritative or even objectively true. Thus the pat phrase “the Bible says so” is methodologically inferior when engaging the cognitively engaged unbeliever. In other words, one cannot presuppose the inerrancy of Scripture with an unbeliever (although we as believers certainly believe in inerrancy and inspiration).

Stanley Is a Little Sloppy…But He is No Apologist Either

In places Stanley is a little sloppy historically. For example, Stanley has a few inaccuracies regarding the biblical canon. It is incorrect to say that the OT was not a single volume in the first century as Stanley says. It clearly was as even seen by the existence of the Septuagint. Also, I think Stanley is probably historically inaccurate when he says that the people copied the NT letters “because they were true, not because they were infallible.” First, how would Stanley know this? Has he been able to get into the psyche of the copiers in the first century? Second, it seems more plausible to me that they copied them because they were true AND they were infallible, especially in light of the fact that Paul and Peter refer to other NT letters as “Scripture” (see 2 Peter 3:16 and 1 Timothy 5:18).

Stanley is also a little sloppy when explaining how unbelievers view the Bible as a whole. He lists quite a few objections that unbelievers often bring up regarding the Bible: age of the earth, the fall of Jericho, and the Exodus. In this part of the sermon one could certainly be left with the impression that Stanley is affirming that such events cannot be reconciled with present day science or archaeological evidence. Umstattd has definitely understood him this way. It does not, however, appear that this is Stanley’s position. When he mentions these objections it is in the context of what unbelievers have said, not what Stanley himself says or believes. Thus, it appears that Stanley has been misunderstood. Such a misunderstanding could have been more likely avoided if he were to have emphasized the fact that this is what unbelievers are saying, and to say so more than once.

Finally, Stanley expressing that “the burden is just too much” to respond to these objections by unbelievers is a little off the mark. This is what apologetics does: it replies to objections to putting faith in Christ and attempts to clear away any intellectual rubble that is in the way. It seems to me that Stanley is throwing out the apologetics baby with the theological bath water. As some of his critics have pointed out, there are numerous pieces of evidence for much of the biblical record that unbelievers have difficulty with. Many of these objections have been around for centuries, and thankfully many of them have been responded to. Thus it is not too burdensome to engage biblical objections that believers have. At some point, we will have to do so. Sweeping them under the rug won’t make the go away. But I don’t blame Stanley too much here. After all, he is a minister and not an apologist. This certainly doesn’t excuse him, but it helps one understand why there is some sloppiness in the presentation.

Ultimately, what this all comes down to is a different methodology in presenting a case for the verity of Christianity. Stanley desires to focus upon showing that the resurrection of Jesus is a historical fact based upon the idea that there are numerous independent witnesses rather than just saying “because the Bible says so.” Yes, there are some finer points that Stanley gets incorrect and may even have “misspoken” about, but he’s a public speaker and not an apologist like Frank Turek or William Lane Craig. His sermon is not worth all the hoopla it has received. Maybe the controversy has been sparked by those who are just a little too theologically trigger happy to weed out those who may even slightly appear unorthodox. Perhaps we need to be a little more careful. Let’s not shoot Stanley…yet.

The Blade

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