A few months ago Pastor Andy Stanley caused quite a stir of activity and controversy with his comments about "unhitching the Old Testament" from the Christian faith. He preached a sermon in which he said the following:
"[First century] Church leaders unhitched the church from the worldview, value system, and regulations of the Jewish scriptures.
"Peter, James, Paul elected to unhitch the Christian faith from their Jewish scriptures, and my friends, we must as well."
"Jesus' new covenant, His covenant with the nations, His covenant with you, His covenant with us, can stand on its own two nail-scarred resurrection feet. It does not need propping up by the Jewish scriptures."
Dr. Michael Brown responded to Pastor Stanley at the Christian Post with a piece entitled: "No, Pastor Stanley, We Should Not Unhitch Ourselves from the Old Testament." But Dr. Brown went further. He invited Andy Stanley to come on his radio program The Line of Fire on July 2nd to discuss Stanley's views and seek clarification.
This is not the first time that Stanley has caused controversy. Back in 2016 there was a dust-up regarding Stanley's views on the Bible. Stanley argued that given our post-Christian culture we ought to refrain from saying, "The Bible says..." when trying to communicate truth to those who are skeptical. A number of commentators and pastors responded to this and Stanley subsequently answered with a lengthy piece outlining his perspective in more detail--"Why 'The Bible Says So' Is Not Enough Anymore". At this stage both Pastor Jared C. Wilson and Pastor John Piper offered further thoughts and constructive criticism.
To be sure, some people saw all this back-and-forth among pastors as solely a negative aspect of a divided evangelicalism but as J. Gresham Machen reminds us, "Indifferentism about doctrine makes no heroes of the faith." Constructive criticism can serve the cause of peace and unity in the body of Christ. Towards that end I want to engage in critical interaction with some elements of Pastor Stanley's perspectives and practices.
What Motivates and Moves Andy Stanley?
In light of his recent interview on Dr. Brown's radio program and Stanley's previous piece at Outlook Magazine it is readily apparent that Stanley is motivated by a deep concern to share the gospel with a generation that is "post-Christian." As he states in his recent interview, "I am most concerned about the hundreds of thousands of people who grew up in church and walked away for all the wrong reasons." Stanley notes the increasing percentage of the "nones"—those who choose to be religiously unaffiliated. Some sources show that the "millennials"comprise up to 44% of the "nones." Many of these young people were raised in the church but left due to unanswered questions. Pastor Stanley is "trying to recapture the imagination of adults and students who left because of what else is in the Bible and they are one-click away from misinformation about the Bible." This, according to Stanley, is what "drives" him.
Stanley recognizes that most people's Bible education ends in Sunday School and that it doesn't stand up under the rigors of adulthood. In light of this Stanley attempts to "blend apologetic thinking in every sermon." Stanley is surely correct in his analysis here. Most churches and families do not do a good job teaching and preparing young people for the intellectual challenges that await them in college.
I deeply resonate with Andy Stanley's desire for apologetics. The ministry I am involved with—Ratio Christi—is a "global movement that equips university students and faculty to give historical, philosophical, and scientific reasons for following Jesus Christ." We desire to bring "together faith and reason to establish the intellectual voice of Christ in the University."
So I'm all on-board with Stanley's quest for apologetics for the people of God and for those who have walked away from the church. It is, however, Stanley's apologetic strategy that raises concerns about how he presents the Bible. In other words, it may be that Stanley's apologetic strategy leads him to believe and say things that sound like he is denigrating the Bible and, in particular, the Old Testament.
Apologetic Methodology and Strategy: A Distinction with a Difference
In his interview with Michael Brown, Stanley articulates his apologetic methodology. He states his endorsement and use of the "classical" model of apologetics as he learned it from Norman Geisler. Stanley quickly summarizes this approach in the following manner:
God exists. We first prove this by various arguments.
Therefore miracles are possible.
The New Testament documents are reliable.
These provide the historical basis for the evidential case for the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
If Jesus rose from the dead then everything he said about God is true and everything he said about the law and the prophets is true.
In light of this, Stanley states repeatedly in the interview, "The Old Testament is in the front of our book but it is at the back of our apologetic." With this approach Stanley continually stresses the centrality of the resurrection of Jesus as the event which drove the faith of the early church. As he repeatedly says, "The faith of the early church was event-driven, not book driven."
There are intramural debates among evangelicals as to which apologetic methodology is best but I do not want to attempt to adjudicate those issues here. Granting that Stanley's conception of the "classical" model is correct there is still a major concern. This concern revolves, not around the methodology, but around the strategy he uses when he employs the methodology. The strategy revolves around how to answer those who have left the faith or reject the faith due to problems in the Bible—particularly in the Old Testament. Here is one example from a sermon by Stanley:
"When I hear deconversion stories there is a theme throughout where I get faith-based answers to fact-based questions. This is where the trouble began – "Jesus loves me this I know because my Bible tells me so". There was a conflict of facts when we grew up. If the Bible is the foundation of our faith, then as the Bible goes so goes our faith. This is why you sent your kids off to college and they came back with no faith. If the Bible is the foundation of our faith then it is all or nothing. Christianity becomes a fragile house of cards religion. It comes tumbling down when we discover that perhaps the walls of Jericho did not. In archeology class they're told "we excavated the city of Jericho. By the way there is no evidence that a Hebrew people made some sort of trek from Egypt to Canaan. Do you know there are all sorts of contradictions in the OT? There's all these facts and figures that do not add up. By the way, the Bible seems to teach that the earth is only six thousand years old and everybody knows the earth is 4.5 billion years old and the universe is 14.5 million years old. If the entire Bible isn't true then the Bible isn't true and all of Christianity comes tumbling down."
In response to these kinds of challenges Stanley wants to keep the focus on the historical argument for the resurrection of Jesus. He states how he answers this in his interview with Dr. Brown:
"Let's set aside the Bible for a moment. I want to talk to you about an event in history that was attested by eye-witnesses and it just so happens their testimonies were so precious to the early church they were copied meticulously, they were gathered, ...they were put together in a book."
From here he focuses on the resurrection of Jesus Christ. He wants to "keep the conversation there."
As a rhetorical strategy this can be good. The problem comes in when this limited rhetorical strategy becomes one's long-term methodological strategy for dealing with the Old Testament. There are indicators that this may be a problem for Stanley. In the interview with Dr. Brown the absence of archaeological evidence for the exodus of Israel is brought up as an example of an objection against the Old Testament. Stanley illustrates how he responds:
"Even if you don't believe that stuff I've got some great news—it's secondary. The issue is was Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, James and Paul wrong about the resurrection of Jesus. We wrestle that to the ground."
Here is where the problems can begin to creep in if Stanley is not careful. Two substantive problems are deflection and denigration.
Deflection, Denigration, or Direct Answers
The first concern revolves around Stanley's attempt to deflect the Old Testament objections so as to talk in a more focused way about the resurrection of Jesus. Again, as a rhetorical strategy on a case-by-case basis this may have some merit. But eventually the questions cannot be deflected indefinitely. First, people want their questions answered. Even Christians struggle with these issues and there should be some answers given to them. Second, and more importantly, many of these issues are intertwined with Jesus himself. Steve Hays has written critically of Andy Stanley's apologetics moves. In a blog post entitled "The Big Bad Wolf" he anticipates the kinds of replies that a skeptical professor (Professor Wolf) might make in response to Stanley's apologetic.
"Likewise, Prof. Wolf will say Jesus was wrong to believe in:
The creation account (Gen 1-2)
Jonah and the whale
Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch
The miraculous destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah
A personal devil
The Exodus (i.e., manna from heaven)
The historicity of the Patriarchs
The fate of Lot's wife
The prophet Daniel
The fast-approaching end of the world
"Andy's Jesus-centered approach requires its own apologetic."
Now, Pastor Stanley has an avenue of answering these objections. When speaking of the issue of the historicity of Adam and Eve he is clear to say that he does not believe in their historicity because it is taught in the Bible. Rather, in his words, "I believe Adam and Eve were historical characters because Jesus did. When someone predicts their own death and resurrection I go with whatever they say. The issue is Jesus' authority."
This is a good initial response and attempting to situate an Old Testament issue within the larger framework of the rationality of believing in Jesus is appropriate. Nevertheless, these Old Testament issues need to be addressed as fully as one can. As Steve Hays writes, "Andy is seeking an intellectual shortcut. But that's an ambush. That simply relocates the battlefield. You can't eliminate the need for Christian apologetics. You can't avoid defending the Bible." For some, the "fact" that Jesus affirms things the modern world "knows" cannot be true may lead to significant reformulation of the person of Christ himself.
Consider that there are various so-called "evangelical" perspectives which are willing to countenance that Jesus made mistakes. In an essay in the book Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith? A Critical Appraisal of Modern and Postmodern Approaches to Scripture Thomas McCall draws attention to a recent attempt to argue either that Jesus, due to his humanity, is simply mistaken about the authorship of the Pentateuch or, perhaps, that he does know the truth but actively bears false witness to accommodate his views to his first-century listeners. Or consider the review essay by New Testament scholar Robert Yarbrough in which he reviews a book directed to evangelicals in support of various higher critical theories. Yarbrough notes that the authors are willing to assert that even Jesus made a false prediction. I want to be as clear as possible—I am not asserting that Pastor Stanley holds these views. There is no indication of this. I raise these concerns to show that simply arguing for the historicity of the resurrection does not handle all the possible ways that someone in this generation or the next may put these concepts together in ways that compromise the person of Christ.
Second, there is the issue of denigration. The way that Stanley speaks about the Old Testament, at times, seems to lend itself to a dismissive attitude toward it and its difficulties. In the recent interview he does repeatedly endorse the Old Testament as important for the life of the believer and even backs away somewhat from his use of the word "unhitch" to describe the Old Testament and the believer. He also states that the various objections against the Old Testament, like the allegation of Canaanite genocide, have been answered by phenomenal books written "to debunk these myths." But then he adds, that it is in the seminary classroom or a seminar that you can deal with these objections. But why shouldn't these kinds of things be taught in the church or preached from the pulpit? I have preached a sermon entitled The Destruction of the Canaanites: "How Could God Command That?!" Why is it only in a seminary classroom that such things can be addressed? Pastor Stanley feels that in the "marketplace" you have to give short answers so you give the "bottom line" which is the resurrection of Jesus. But even in the marketplace there can be brief answers given and resources given to those who raise these objections. For example, I was able to direct a person to a specific piece I had written on slavery in the Bible when I was challenged in a public forum on this issue—Slavery and the Bible: Is the Good Book Really "Good?" Then Stanley adds, "We can talk about Noah later, talk about two Isaiahs later—those are fun things to talk about." But surely these issues are too important to be relegated to the category of "fun" talk. Perhaps without meaning to endorse any denigration of the text of the Scripture, Stanley unwittingly fosters a dismissive attitude by such cavalier remarks.
Inerrancy: Affirmed... but Expendable?
Pastor Stanley is very clear to endorse the doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture as set forth in the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy in this writings and in his recent interview with Dr. Brown. But, as Steve Hays argues, "It's not necessarily that Andy denies the inerrancy of Scripture; rather, he considers inerrancy to be expendable." Stanley does not want to get bogged down into the details of the text when someone needs to see the centrality of Jesus and his resurrection. This is motivated by a good intention but it may have long-term negative effects on the church. John Piper in his essay "Open Bibles, Burnng Hearts: A Response to Andy Stanley" has an important challenge to offer in light of future generations to come:
"I am encouraging every young preacher to think this through very carefully. I am not suggesting that every sermon must be accompanied by an apologetic for the inerrancy of the whole Bible, nor even that this conviction needs to be named every time we open the Scriptures. I have already said that the Bible carries its own self-authenticating power when its meaning is seen for what it really is.
"Rather, what I am suggesting is that Stanley's view might rescue a doubting believer, and at the same time establish in churches and families a view of the Bible which undermines the faith of the next five generations. In view of what Jesus and the New Testament writers say about the complete trustworthiness of the Old Testament ("Scripture cannot be broken," John 10:35), I doubt that generation after generation of teenagers could read that and yet believe at the same time that it does not matter for my faith whether the events of the Old Testament really happened.
"Notice, I am not saying that a person can't be saved without believing in the inerrancy of the Bible. I am saying that making that possibility an apologetic strategy for making Christianity more plausible to one generation will backfire in the next.
"I think that over time Stanley's fabric of "evidence supporting the resurrection" will unravel as more and more people think that the Old Testament does not need to be completely trustworthy. The evidence for the trustworthiness of the witnesses of the resurrection is too interwoven with the evidence for the inerrancy of the whole Bible. I think Stanley is mistaken to think that in the coming generations the edifice of evidence for the gospel can remain standing while surrounding buildings of evidence for the Scriptures collapse." (emphasis added)
We need to keep this generational perspective in mind as we wrestle through these issues and continue to "contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints" (Jude 3).