In Defence of Andy Stanley
In doing this I’m also defending myself. Two years ago, in my book Unbreakable (which is all about the inspiration and authority of Scripture), I argued, “I don’t trust in Jesus because I trust the Bible; I trust the Bible because I trust in Jesus.” That, in a nutshell, is how I would summarise what Andy is being criticised for saying, although it’s frequently a comment I make in teaching on the doctrine of Scripture or hermeneutics, and when I wrote it, it didn’t seem controversial. The reaction to Andy’s message has made me realise that it is.
The key response which many have made to that summary statement is this: you can’t separate them. You believe in Jesus because of the Bible, and you believe in the Bible because of Jesus. Since the Jesus you believe in is witnessed to in the Bible, you can have both, or neither, but you can’t have one and not the other. Arguing that Jesus is the foundation of our faith rather than the Bible, therefore, is pushing a silly false dichotomy—as if you were to say that you trusted your wife, but didn’t trust her word.
To which I respond: yes and no. Yes, in that as I’ve already said (and written a book about), trust in Jesus does lead us to a very high view of biblical inspiration, authority and truthfulness. Yes, in that framing things this way and then using them as an argument against quoting the Bible in preaching, or affirming it as true, would be bizarre. (I don’t think Andy is doing this, as it happens, but I haven’t heard enough of his sermons to know for sure.) Yes, in that increasing passion for Jesus will lead to increasing passion for the Bible, and vice versa.
But also no.
No, because becoming a follower of Jesus does not require the prior belief that the Bible is completely true. As a simple matter of conversion chronology, people who come to faith today—including, I imagine, virtually everyone reading this—almost always do so before they accept biblical infallibility, even if reading the Bible is instrumental in their conversion (as it often is). We encountered Jesus, whether it was through directly engaging with Scripture or not, and as we came to love him, we were seized by the same passions he has: for justice, for the kingdom of God, for the saving of sinners, and (among many other things) for the authority and honour of the Scriptures. And this is in a culture where Bibles are widely available and literacy is high. In many parts of the world, even today, people follow Jesus for years without ever having read a Bible, having encountered him in dreams, through visions, through missionary preaching or local communities of believers. None of these things would be possible if what the Bible says about Jesus was untrue, of course; I take that as read. But the individual doesn’t have to see the Bible as true before they see Jesus as Lord. My guess is that they hardly ever do.
No, because it would be possible for Jesus to be risen from the dead and Lord of the world, and yet for there to be details in the Bible that are historically or scientifically incorrect. I’ll say it again: I’ve written a book explaining why I don’t think this is actually the case, so keep hold of that rotten fruit for now. But that position is not incoherent. It is perfectly possible to hold that the basic storyline of the Gospel is accurate, and that the best explanation of the appearances and empty tomb is a risen Christ, but that the stories of the Bible are also full of faulty ancient assumptions, mythical accretions and discrepancies. Many in the Roman Catholic Church take pretty much this view. So do an enormous number of biblical scholars, including a sizeable majority of those I see at the British New Testament Conference. (I must say I was surprised to see Mike Kruger say that the vast majority of scholars rejected the resurrection; the UK may be wildly different to the US on this, but I don’t think it’s true here.) Unless we are going to say that such people are not real Christians, we have to concede, surely, that Jesus, rather than the truthfulness of the whole Bible, is the foundation of our faith. Don’t we?
And no, because Andy Stanley is right about one thing: there are an awful lot of people in the secular West for whom Jesus seems wonderful and the Bible seems terrible. This, presumably, is so obvious as to not need defending. So at the level of contextualisation, the argument “X is (or should be) the case because Jesus” is immeasurably more winsome, and likely to gain a hearing, than “X is (or should be) the case because the Bible.” One more time: this doesn’t mean that we fudge the truthfulness of the Bible at all, or that we avoid difficult texts, or that we fail to engage with the heart issues behind people’s objections. I work hard to do none of these things. But as a starting point for the sceptical, Jesus is better than the Bible. I’ve heard enough of Tim Keller, usually regarded as the master on this, to notice that he does this all the time, even if he wouldn’t frame it the way I have here.
So I think there are experiential, theological and missional reasons for defending my statement—“I don’t trust in Jesus because I trust the Bible; I trust the Bible because I trust in Jesus”—as well as a substantial part of what Andy Stanley was trying to say. As it happens, I actually agree with Kruger and others that Andy said a number of confusing and unhelpful things as well, and I’ve said already that Andy and I would have different views on many things, including our approach to preaching. But as so often, there’s a baby/bathwater thing going on here, so I wanted to defend him, at least as regards the foundation of Christianity. “For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ.” You can throw that rotten fruit now.