In the midst of a multi-part preaching series, megachurch pastor Andy Stanley said, "So I need you to listen really carefully and the reason is this — perhaps you were taught, as I was taught, 'Jesus love me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.' That is where our trouble began."
What exactly did he mean?
For Southern Baptist leader Dr. Al Mohler, these words were a cause for real concern, stating, "If Scripture cannot be trusted, then we are doomed."
He ended his critique saying, "'For the Bible tells me so' is not 'where our trouble began.' To the contrary, it is right where God wants us."
Pastor Stanley has now written a lengthy article explaining his statement, and New Testament scholar Scot McKnight has come to Stanley's defense, concluding that the issue is really one of order. In other words, what comes first, our faith in Jesus, hence in the Bible, or the reverse?
Prof. McKnight writes succinctly, "In the beginning was the gospel, and the New Testament comes into existence because of that gospel. Yes, we know that gospel through the New Testament."
I asked Pastor Stanley about his statement, and he was kind enough to reply immediately and refer me to his new article, which at the time of our interaction, was not yet published.
After reading his article, I told Pastor Stanley that I would discuss the controversy between him and Dr. Mohler in a public, constructive setting, clarifying issues and raising further questions for consideration.
This way, we can make the controversy into a productive, teachable moment.
In short, I appreciate Pastor Stanley's desire to reach the unreached and the "deconverted," I believe him when he affirms his confidence in the authority of the Scriptures, yet I share some of Dr. Mohler's concerns.
First, let's consider what Pastor Stanley does affirm.
To his credit, he immediately addresses the "elephant in the room" (namely, the question of what he believes about the Bible) and he states unequivocally, "I believe the Bible is without error in everything it affirms. I believe what the Bible says is true, is true."
Even Dr. Mohler agrees that "Andy Stanley does not mean to deny the central truth claims of Christianity. In his message, 'Who Needs God? The Bible Told Me So,' he affirms the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. But," Dr. Mohler continues, "he does so while undercutting our only means of knowing of Christ and his resurrection from the dead — the Bible."
Is Dr. Mohler's critique fair? We'll return to that question shortly.
Second, it's important that we recognize what is motivating Pastor Stanley. As he explains, "Changing times call for changing approaches in order to accomplish our unchanging mission of making disciples."
Pastor Stanley's concern is that we are dealing with increasingly large numbers of Americans who do not believe the Bible is God's Word, people who have heard all kinds of attacks against the reliability and historicity of the Scriptures, people who have either left the church or never been part of the church.
To say, "We know it's so because the Bible tells us so," means nothing to them.
Moreover, Pastor Stanley claims, with this approach, we are taking on ourselves the impossible burden of defending every attack against the Bible in order to preserve people's faith, whereas if their faith is grounded in the resurrection of Jesus, they won't feel the need to defend all of Scripture.
Third, Pastor Stanley feels he is following a biblical paradigm, since Peter used Scripture when preaching to Jews in Acts 2 but didn't quote Scripture when preaching to Gentiles in Acts 10. Similarly, Paul quoted from the Hebrew Scriptures when preaching to his fellow Jews in the synagogue (see, e.g., Acts 13) but quoted secular poets when preaching to Gentiles in Athens (see Acts 17). Yes, Pastor Stanley states, "Paul summarizes the Genesis account of creation, including a reference to Adam, without referencing Genesis or Adam. He teaches Scripture without referencing Scripture."
Fourth, Pastor Stanley urges all of his readers to reconsider the effectiveness of their methods, asking with passion, "Are we ready to acknowledge the new normal and adjust? If we genuinely care about the unchurched and the post-churched, we will. If we genuinely care, we will adopt the apostle Paul's mantra: So that by all possible means I might save some."
And, he asks, "What is the faith of the next generation worth?
"What is the faith of your children worth? Your grandchildren? Think about it. What is the faith of the next generation worth? I say everything. I say it's worth any change necessary to ensure the version of faith the next generation leaves home with is the enduring version — the faith of our first-century fathers. The version that was harder than steel and tougher than nails. The version rooted in an event, not a book."
This, then, is the approach that he advocates: "Shifting the conversation away from the authority of Scripture to the authority, courage and faithfulness of the men and women behind our Scriptures has not only enabled me to better connect with post-Christians, it's done wonders for the faith of the faithful."
In response, let me raise five major concerns, all in the context of my appreciation of: 1) Pastor Stanley's reaffirmation of his confidence in the authority of Scripture; 2) his zeal to reach the lost and build up the saved; 3) his penning a lengthy article of explanation with the goal of advancing understanding; and 4) his accessibility despite his busy schedule.
Here, then, are my concerns.
First, Pastor Stanley ends his article saying, "So come on. If you believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, that's all I need to know. And in light of what's at stake, in light of who is at stake, perhaps that's all you need to know as well."
But this begs the obvious question of, "Which Jesus Christ?"
To be clear, I do not agree with Dr. Mohler that our "only means of knowing of Christ and his resurrection from the dead" is "the Bible."
Certainly, the Spirit does bear witness with our spirits that we are children of God (Romans 8:16; Galatians 4:6), and the risen Jesus, by that same Spirit, continues to work wonders on the earth today (Hebrews 13:8). And it is that same Spirit with whom we have intimate fellowship (2 Corinthians 13:14).
There is truth, then, to the old hymn that proclaimed,
He lives, He lives, Christ Jesus lives today!
He walks with me and He talks with me
Along life's narrow way.
He lives, He lives, salvation to impart!
You ask me how I know He lives:
He lives within my heart.
But there were many different Jesus's in New Testament times and beyond (see 2 Corinthians 11:4) — many false Christs and false gospels and false apostles — and there are many different Jesus's today. And it is only by the Scriptures that we can separate truth from error and expose a counterfeit Christ while following the true Christ.