A little over a month ago, Andy Stanley created controversy throughout the evangelical world by comments that he made in a sermon regarding the Bible. He questioned the Bible as the foundation of the Christian faith, and argued that it is “next to impossible to defend the entire Bible.” He added that “Christianity does not exist because of the Bible any more than you exist because of your birth certificate. Your birth certificate documents something that happened. If you lose it, you do not go out of existence.” And, “Christianity does not hang by the thread of ‘the Bible tells me so.’”
The response was swift and overwhelming, if a little polarising. Some understood what Stanley was trying to say, but most proclaimed him a heretic or a liberal. Many debated exactly what Stanley believes regarding the Bible.
Recently, Stanley responded to his critics by clarifying what he believes about the Bible:
I believe the Bible is without error in everything it affirms. I believe what the Bible says is true, is true. Neither of those statements is original. I learned the first one from Dr. Norman L. Geisler and the second one from the late Dr. Charles C. Ryrie. I was fortunate enough to study under both of these distinguished scholars. But long before I made the acquaintance of either, I was already convinced of the infallibility of the Scriptures. I was convinced for the same reason the late Dr. E. V. Hill was convinced. During our commencement address, he held up his big, black, well-worn, leather preaching Bible and declared loud and proud, “I believe the Bible is the inerrant, infallible, unchanging Word of God. And the reason I believe … is my momma told me!”
He added, “So for anyone out there who is still a bit suspicious, I affirm The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.”
If that is true, why did he say what he said in that sermon? Basically, because “the world has changed.” He thinks that “the approach most of us inherited doesn’t work anymore. Actually, it’s never worked that well.” That approach, of course, is the approach of declaring God’s word as absolutely authoritative. Because we live in a world in which people do not assume biblical authority, says Stanley, we cannot preach with the assumption of biblical authority. Explaining his approach in that particular sermon,
I wanted educated, dechurched millennials to know that I knew that those who supposedly know everything are convinced there was no worldwide flood or Hebrew migration from Egypt. While addressing them directly, I gave them the benefit of the doubt to make the following point: Even if those events never occurred, it does nothing to undermine the evidence supporting the resurrection of Jesus and thus the claims he made about himself. And yes, as noted above, I know Jesus made claims about the Jewish Scriptures. But this was one sermon in a series of six … I hadn’t gotten to that yet.
The point he was making has some validity. Affirming the historicity of a worldwide flood or the exodus is not essential to salvation. I’m not convinced, however, that his approach is particularly helpful. He claims, “If we’re going to reach the un-churched, under-churched, de-churched and post-churched with the gospel in a culture that’s trending post-Christian, we must rethink our approach.” He openly questions those who still operate from the assumption that biblical authority is a persuasive tool to use in sharing the gospel.
Appealing to post-Christian people on the basis of the authority of Scripture has essentially the same effect as a Muslim Imam appealing to you on the basis of the authority of the Quran. You may or may not already know what it says. But it doesn’t matter. The Quran doesn’t carry any weight with you. You don’t view the Quran as authoritative. Close to half our population does not view the Bible as authoritative either.
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.
Stanley wants us to return to “the faith of our first century fathers,” which “was harder than steel and tougher than nails.” In order to do that, we need to abandon assumptions of biblical authority in our gospel preaching, even if we personally hold to those assumptions. But the problem is quite simple, really: the faith of our first century fathers was rooted in biblical authority—and assumptions of biblical authority! To address Stanley’s parallel, the difference between the Quran and the Bible is that the Bible is authoritative; it doesn’t just claim to be.
Paul was quite clear:
For “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!” But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Isaiah says, “Lord, who has believed what he has heard from us?” So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.
Stanley thinks that we should forego claims about biblical authority and instead present Christ to our audience, but Jesus said that it is the Scripture that testifies of him (John 5:39). Stanley thinks that assuming biblical authority alienates people, that it lessens the impact of your ministry. He seems to assume that this is a new thing—as if earlier generations were all happy to listen to assumptions of biblical authority. Interestingly, Billy Graham tells of a time in his ministry when a friend made the same claim. His friend told him, “People no longer accept the Bible as being inspired the way you do. Your faith is too simple. Your language out of date. You’re going to have to learn the new jargon if you’re going to be successful in your ministry.”1 Graham’s response was telling:
I have observed when I preach the Bible straight, no question, no doubts, no hesitation, then I have a power that’s beyond me. It’s something I don’t completely understand. But I just know I’ve found when I say ‘the Bible says’—God gives me a power, this incredible power.2
We can hardly doubt that Graham had a “successful” ministry! The fact is, the Bible is authoritative, whether people accept it or not. And it is by the preaching of the word of Christ that God has pleased to save the lost. We are told to “preach the word” (2 Timothy 4:2) because it has been breathed out by God (2 Timothy 3:16–17). Scripture has the power to make people wise for salvation (2 Timothy 3:15). The Bible was inspired of God and is therefore fully authoritative for all matters relating to faith and practice. We should therefore unapologetically preach the Bible as authoritative and trust God to change hearts so that the lost see and bow to its authority. Stanley may well fully affirm the authority of Scripture, but if he does not preach the Bible as fully authoritative, he is ultimately, at least in practice, denying the authority he claims to believe. The gospel is true, and it is based in historical fact, but we know that because the Bible tells us so. And we should tell people what the Bible tells us because the Bible tells us to.