Pastor Andy Stanley says the Bible is too hard to defend
Evangelical pastor preaches that the Bible isn’t the foundation for the Christian faith
Andy Stanley has a church network of over 30,000 people in the Atlanta area, and his church was rated the fastest-growing in America in 2014 and 2015.1 Recently, he has been criticized by many evangelicals for saying that we need to take the focus off the Bible and put it on the Resurrection, because he claims that gives us a firmer foundation for our faith. As Stanley put it: “We believe Jesus rose from the dead not because the Bible says so. It is way better than that! Christianity does not hang by the thread of ‘The Bible told me so’.”2 And: “The original version [of Christianity], the pre-Bible version, was defensible, it was endurable, it was persecutable, it was fearless, it was compassionate, and it was compelling,” but he claims “it is next to impossible to defend the entire Bible”.2
We actually have no desire to contradict and ‘blow the whistle’ on a well-known Christian pastor. So, it is with a heavy heart that we believe this issue is so important that we must ‘speak up’ to confirm the authority of the Bible’s history.
It is important to understand Stanley’s goal for this 6 part series, because we always want to be accurate when we are offering critiques of someone’s position. And his goal is quite admirable, even though we will disagree with how he goes about trying to accomplish it. In Part 4 of the series, he says, after noting that some critics have misunderstood him:
I want all the people who grew up in church, and then left church because they couldn’t figure out how to reconcile what they learned in school or what they experienced in life with what they learned in church, and decided, you know what, it’s just irreconcilable. Science is irreconcilable with faith, pain is irreconcilable with faith, pain and suffering in the world is irreconcilable with faith, my life experiences are irreconcilable with faith, just what I’ve learned and experienced as an adult is irreconcilable with faith, and so there’s this tension, and I either pretend I believe something I’m not sure exists, or I can go with what’s obvious and with what’s undeniable. I want you to reconsider Christianity because I think some of you, I’m guessing a whole lot of you, but I don’t want to judge, a lot of you, though, you left Christianity for reasons that really have nothing to do with the Christian faith. You left unnecessarily, so I’m inviting all of you to reconsider Christianity, not the Christianity of your childhood, but a grown-up faith with a grown-up God with a little different perspective, because I want you to come back.3
However, Stanley’s message is clear as to the ‘unnecessary reason’ youth have left the faith:
So, if you stepped away from Christianity because of something in the Bible, if you stepped away the Christian faith because of Old Testament miracles, if you stepped away from the Christian faith because you couldn’t reconcile 6,000 years with a 4.5 billion year old earth and something you learned in biology, I want to invite you to reconsider, because the issue has never been, ‘is the Bible true?’.2 (Emphasis added)
While he hopes to persuade people to come back to church, the route he took is actually more likely to deconstruct the faith of the young people he wants so much to keep in the church. In our experience (which to be honest, is much more wide than his own—speaking in over 1000 churches of varying denominations each year), people think the Bible’s historical reliability is one of the most important considerations when it comes to whether they will accept the Bible’s claims about Jesus—and they’re right! If the Bible is demonstrably wrong regarding its history, it is not a reliable record, and the claims the Bible makes about Jesus are so extraordinary that it requires the Bible to be a supernatural, inspired, inerrant book.
What most people have commented on is the third part of his sermon series. Stanley begins that message by saying:
“In Sunday School we learned the song, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.”
He goes on to say,
“You grew up, but your faith didn’t grow up with you. You grew up, but you outgrew your faith. Your childhood god could not stand the rigors of adulthood, the questions of adulthood.”2
The reason he thinks this is a problem is:
“If the Bible is the foundation of our faith, it’s all or nothing. Christianity becomes a ‘fragile house of cards’ religion. Christianity becomes a fragile house of cards that comes tumbling down when we discover that perhaps the walls of Jericho didn’t.”2
To call Scripture a ‘house of cards’ (and elsewhere in the same sermon he calls it a ‘fragile thread’) reveals a troubling attitude for a pastor to have towards Scripture, which Jesus and the Apostles presented as the absolute foundation for our faith. After all, if he cannot be sure about Scripture, how can he be sure about the One that Scripture is ultimately all about, and moreover, the Bible’s history that necessitated Jesus becoming our Saviour.
Too hard to defend it
One reason Stanley argues we need this change in perspective is that Scripture is too hard to defend:
“What your students have discovered, and if you read broadly you’ve discovered, it is next to impossible to defend the entire Bible. But if your Christianity hangs by the thread of proving that everything in the Bible is true, you may be able to hang onto it, but your kids and your grandkids and the next generation will not. Because this puts the Bible at the center of the debate. This puts the spotlight right on the Bible. Everything rises and falls on whether not part, but all the Bible is true. And that’s unfortunate, and as we’re going to discover today, it is absolutely unnecessary.”2
Among the things he specifically states are indefensible and not supported by evidence:
- Israel’s Exodus from Egypt
- The walls in Jericho fell down
- The earth is 6,000 years old
- The chronological information in 1, 2 Kings, 1, 2 Chronicles, and 1, 2, Samuel
- The global flood in Noah’s day
But as apologist James White pointed out in his rebuttal to Stanley, if the Bible is wrong, Christianity is untrue.4 Jesus’ own view was that the Scriptures could not be broken (John 10:35), and the New Testament authors referred to the Old Testament’s history as the foundation for New Testament theology. If the Bible is wrong about historical events, the basis for New Testament teaching vanishes. Worse still for Stanley, if Jesus is wrong about the very Scripture Stanley says is not defensible, then how can he still encourage faith in Jesus and His (historical) resurrection?
Did the early church have the Bible?
Stanley bases his argument that Christianity does not stand or fall with the Bible by his absurd claim that, for the first several hundred years of Christianity, they didn’t have the Bible: “For the first 300 years of the existence of Christianity, the debate centered on an event, not a book.” While they may not have had all the New Testament books bound together under one cover and called it ‘the Bible’, the entire Old Testament and many of the New Testament books functioned authoritatively from the beginning of the Church and were the central source of their theology, used to settle the doctrinal controversies of that time. In fact, there are over 100 references in the New Testament to the book of Genesis, let alone many other Old Testament events. So much of our Christian doctrine, and even Jesus’ own teaching, are centered on those biblical historical events.
Astonishingly, however, Stanley suggests that Peter might have responded to historical questions about the Old Testament as follows:
“Peter would have looked at you like, ‘I’m not really sure what you’re talking about, but I followed a man for three years who spoke like no other man spoke. He was arrested and crucified and we thought, Game over, because he said too much to be a good teacher, he claimed too much about himself to be a good teacher. Game over. We’re all in hiding; a bunch of women come babbling that “The tomb is empty, the tomb is empty”. I looked into an empty tomb, and do you know what I concluded? Somebody stole the body. And a few days later I had breakfast with my risen friend on the beach. So I’m not sure about 6,000-year-old earth, I’m not sure about archaeological evidence, I’m not sure about all that. The reason I’m following Jesus is because I saw him die, and I saw him alive, and I went into the streets of Jerusalem to say, God has done something among us.”2
But this does not match up with what Peter actually said in Acts 2 (by the way, it should be noted that Stanley purposely references no actual Scripture in his first several sermons). In Peter’s sermon as recorded by Luke, he included a lengthy quote from the prophet Joel and two Psalms, because he wasn’t arguing from his personal testimony and experience, but that the history they witnessed was a fulfillment of the Scriptures. And, even when he did appeal to his own eyewitness testimony, he tied this to a confirmation of the Scriptures (2 Peter 1:16–21)—the very Scriptures Stanley argues Christianity didn’t emphasize until 300 years later.
In Part 5 of the sermon series, Stanley dedicates an entire session to the reasons people leave the faith due to injustice in the world. Although Stanley does make some pertinent points, at no time does he state the foundational, historical event of Adam’s Fall as the cause of death and suffering in the world. In a self-labeled ‘footnote’, Pastor Stanley implies that a belief in evolution does not challenge the Gospel’s big picture when he states “Francis Collins actually embraces what we would consider macro-evolution and yet he is still a conservative Christian. If you didn’t think a person could believe in evolution and be an evangelical Christian, you should read this book. If science is the reason you have walked away from faith, I highly recommend his book, The Language of God [see our review].” Francis Collins would agree with Stanley when he stated in this sermon series, “And when religion and science conflict, at the end of the day if you are an honest person, science must win.” When people compromise on the historical account of creation they are unable to effectively explain the existence of death and suffering if God created a very good world. And Francis Collins along with his former organization BioLogos actually believes that Jesus could be wrong about His statements about biblical history and the historical Adam and Eve. See It’s not Christianity!.
Just another ‘New Testament Christianity’
It is interesting to note how Stanley defends the historical reliability of the New Testament and the historical trustworthiness and early composition of the New Testament documents. But as is shown by the list of Old Testament events that he claims are indefensible, he is all too ready to give up on the historical reliability of the Old Testament, which Jesus and the New Testament authors quoted constantly in all sorts of contexts, always taking it as completely authoritative and true.
We have pointed out that you can’t have a New Testament-only Christianity, because the Christians during the time of the New Testament used the Scriptures—the Old Testament.
Will this approach bring people back to the faith?
The saddest thing about this attempt to justify Christianity apart from the Scriptures is that it won’t work. We’ve come into contact with many young people with questions, and most aren’t interested in a ‘squishy’ Christianity that takes all the ‘hard’ passages of the Bible metaphorically while only holding on to some sort of a belief in Jesus.
Andy Stanley is obviously passionate, and we would agree that a simple “the Bible tells me so” faith will likely not sustain people when they encounter objections to the faith. But the answer is not to so easily dismiss the authority and inerrancy of Scripture, but rather learn how the evidence supports the historical account of the Bible.
Many Sundays, after hearing a creation presentation, people will come up to one of our speakers and be so excited that they realize they can trust the entire Bible! By hearing that the Bible’s history is reliable, and that there are answers to all the objections that they’ve heard, believers are more confident to share their faith.
It takes effort, but it is not too hard to defend the entire Bible; we’ve been defending Scripture from the first verse for over 30 years. That is the key to keeping young people in the church. And the effort has eternal consequences. Given the wealth of scientific and archaeological support and information that is available today to support the Bible’s history, it is a shame that Stanley did not take the time to research it, before so readily abandoning the Bible as the inerrant source for the Christian faith.
References and notes
- http://www.outreachmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/02/Updated-100-Listings-download.pdf. Return to text.
- http://northpoint.org/messages/who-needs-god/the-bible-told-me-so/. Return to text.
- http://northpoint.org/messages/who-needs-god/the-god-of-jesus/. Return to text.
- http://www.aomin.org/aoblog/index.php/2016/09/01/get-ready-two-half-hour-long-dividing-line/. Return to text.