Atlanta megachurch pastor Andy Stanley has got a bunch of conservative Christians all riled up with his most recent sermon series Who Needs God. The series is quite obviously apologetic in nature; Stanley’s stated purpose is to convince the growing number of religious skeptics, the “Nones,” to reconsider faith in God. In the series he tries to deconstruct what he (rightly) believes to be erroneous and harmful portraits of and arguments for God. One particular sermon in the series, The Bible Told Me So, has roused a great deal of ire because Stanley argues that the historical event of Jesus’ resurrection, and not the written document that records that event (the Bible), is the foundation of the Christian faith.
Conservative, Bible-believing Christians stormed social media with their polemical pitchforks and torches, eager to do battle with this “heresy.” Some responses have been angry and inflammatory while others have been more calm and reasoned. As someone who both has a very high view of scripture (just ask my fellow seminarians) and also follows Stanley’s ministry semi-closely, I am a bit perplexed by all of the backlash and I’m convinced that his critics are either not listening to him very closely or they are intentionally misrepresenting him. For example, Dr. David Prince, in one of the more widely-shared critiques of Stanley’s approach, accuses Stanley of “liberalism.” He writes,
“Theological liberals have always attempted to liberate Jesus from the Scriptures. Stanley argues that our faith is based on the resurrection and not the Bible. Severing the Scriptures from the resurrection is the very thing that Jesus said could not be done, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead” (Luke 16:31).”
This critique is problematic in two ways. First, the scripture he uses to proof-text his point has been ripped out of its context and misapplied. It is taken from Jesus’ parable about the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19-31). The audience Jesus was addressing in that parable is Jews, for whom the Hebrew scriptures (Moses and the Prophets) were already considered authoritative. Compare this with Paul’s evangelistic address to a predominantly non-Jewish audience in Acts 17:22-34. Paul does not appeal to the authority of scripture per se, but to the historical event of Jesus’ resurrection. (When Paul did evangelize Jewish audiences, he did appeal to the scriptures (Acts 17:1-3). In other words, Paul adapted his message to his audience.) If Stanley’s audience was primarily Jewish with an a priori commitment to the authority of scripture, Prince’s point would carry more weight. As it stands, however, that is not the case.
Secondly, if anyone actually listens to Stanley on a regular basis, they’ll see that he is decidedly NOT attempting to “liberate Jesus from the Scriptures,” and certainly not in the way that the theological liberalism of the past has been wont to do. Theological liberalism has historically denied both the historical reliability of the New Testament documents as well as the bodily resurrection of Jesus. In this series (and others), Stanley does quite the opposite. Stanley’s argument is that the New Testament documents ARE historically reliable, and therefore believable, accounts of Jesus’ life, teaching, death and resurrection. This is literally the opposite conclusion of theological liberalism.
To take it a step further, Stanley makes it abundantly clear, both in this series and others, that he himself upholds biblical authority and he does so precisely because the historically verifiable Jesus does so. He says this over and over; it’s a common refrain in his sermons. For example, he affirms a literal Adam and Eve in this way. He will often say something like, “Jesus predicted his own death and resurrection. He also seemed to believe in the Hebrew scriptures. If someone can predict their own death and resurrection, I’m just going to go with whatever they say.” In doing that, Stanley affirms his own belief in the authority of scripture.
The point of all of this is that Stanley is making an apologetic case. He rightly argues that the first gentile Christians came to faith not because they first believed in the authority of scripture, but because they believed the reports that Jesus had risen from the dead. On that basis, they also came to believe in the authority of scripture. In short, Stanley is not attacking the authority of scripture, he is simply helping skeptics to approach the idea in a new way.