Open Bibles, Burning Hearts

A Response to Andy Stanley

Article by

Founder & Teacher, desiringGod.org

Now that Andy Stanley has responded so fully and helpfully to the critics of his sermon “The Bible Told Me So,” we may be able to sort out a few things about his method more carefully. My aim here is to state what I think Stanley is commending to preachers, and then suggest some questions that young preachers should ask before embracing Stanley’s method. He has important things to teach us, and I was helped by reading his rejoinder to his critics.

(Note: Andy and I corresponded about this article before publication. Just so you know where he is on it, he gave me permission to quote him: “Your response is gracious, thorough, fair, and inspiring. The last two paragraphs made me want to shout, ‘AMEN.’”)

Should We Say, “The Bible Says”?

In a recent conversation with Russell Moore, Stanley made the case that, in preaching to unbelievers and Christians who are struggling with doubts, you can help them get more traction with the truth of Scripture if you do not say, “the Bible says,” but rather say, for example, “as Luke says, who researched everything carefully,” or “as Paul says, who hated Christians, but who died spreading the very message he once hated.”

In the recent sermon, Stanley was making the point that the children’s song, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” is an inadequate foundation for faith as students head off to college. Then, he devotes the lion’s share of his message to giving historical arguments for the credibility of the New Testament writers.

So instead of saying, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” it is more helpful, according to Stanley, to say something like the following:

Jesus loves you, this you know for John, who watched him die and had breakfast with him on the beach, tells you so. Jesus loves you, this I know, for Luke, who thoroughly investigated the events, wrote them down meticulously, and interviewed eyewitnesses, made sure it was so. Jesus loves you, this I know, because a Pharisee who hated Christians, who was going to arrest Christians, who was going to singlehandedly stop the Jesus movement, became a Jesus-follower and risked his life traveling all around the Gentile, Mediterranean rim to make sure that you’d know. Jesus loves you, this we know because his original followers were martyred believing it was so. Jesus loves you this you can know, for the early church defied an empire and the temple because they were convinced it was so.

So Stanley is suggesting that we not quote the Bible as “Bible” but rather refer to its contents by citing its authors along with some historical context that lends credibility to what the author says.

Stanley’s Underlying Viewpoints

Behind Stanley’s decision to move away from “the Bible says” in preaching, and to move beyond “the Bible tells me so” in discipling our young people, lie three pivotal views: 1) a view of culture, 2) a view of how the Bible illustrates contextualization, and 3) a view of how redemptive events behind the Bible relate to faith and preaching.

A View of Culture

First, with regard to culture, he cites the Barna Group that “48 percent of Americans qualify as ‘post-Christian.’” This is different from “non-Christian.” The post-Christian “has been there, done that, and has a closetful of camp T-shirts to show for it. . . . For post-Christians, common sense, science, philosophy and reason are the go-tos for worldviews and decision-making. Post-Christian ‘nones’ have a low tolerance for faith-based answers to fact-based questions. . . . This presents a unique challenge for us in terms of apologetics and evangelism. It requires a new approach.”

In particular the post-Christian view of the Bible is not what it was in Sunday school. Quoting again from the Barna Group,

With each passing year, the percentage of Americans who believe that the Bible is “just another book written by men” increases. So too does the perception that the Bible is actually harmful and that people who live by its principles are religious extremists.

Therefore, Stanley concludes,

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. . . .

Close to half our population does not view the Bible as authoritative either. If you’re trying to reach people with an undergraduate degree or greater, over half your target audience will not be moved by the Bible says, the Bible teaches, God’s Word is clear or anything along those lines.

That is the cultural part of Stanley’s rationale for moving away from citing the Bible per se as our authority to citing witnesses and events behind the Bible.

Insights from the Preaching of Peter and Paul

Second, Stanley argues that putting biblical authority in the background and putting the resurrection in the foreground is founded on Scripture itself. In fact, one of his reasons for responding to his critics was to make clear his commitment to the authority and inerrancy of the Bible:

I believe the Bible is without error in everything it affirms. I believe what the Bible says is true, is true. . . . So for anyone out there who is still a bit suspicious, I affirm The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.

Therefore, Stanley points out how the Bible itself shows that Peter and Paul used Scripture differently when preaching in different contexts. For example, when Peter preached in Acts 2 to the Jewish crowds on the day of Pentecost, he explicitly cites Scripture and its authors. This was common ground with his audience. But when he preached in Acts 10 to the Gentile gathering at Cornelius’s house, he mainly narrated events in Jesus’s life that had recently happened, rather than developing an argument from Scripture.

Similarly, Paul preached in Acts 13 to the synagogue by unfolding Scripture, but in Acts 17 he preached to the Athenians without quoting Scripture.

Stanley observes that what was common to all these sermons was the reality of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. Then he says,

This is why I’m absolutely convinced of the following: In the marketplace — not the church — in the public square, in the classroom, we must shift the debate away from whether the entire Bible is true and focus the debate on whether Jesus rose from the dead.

Moving Behind the Bible for Authority

Third, Stanley’s approach to preaching is rooted in a view of what is more compelling: arguments from events and witnesses behind the Bible, or arguments from the Bible itself as the point of authority?

He says that about eight years ago he changed his method of preaching:

As part of my shift, I stopped leveraging the authority of Scripture and began leveraging the authority and stories of the people behind the Scripture. To be clear, I don’t believe “the Bible says,” “Scripture teaches,” and “the Word of God commands” are incorrect approaches. But they are ineffective approaches for post-Christian people.

Behind this shift in what authority will be “leveraged” is the historical conviction that “the Christian faith does not exist because of the Bible (any more than you exist because of your birth certificate).” Rather,

the Bible exists because of the Christian faith. . . . Before the Old and New Testaments were combined and titled “The Bible,” Christianity had already replaced the pantheon of Roman, barbarian, and most Egyptian gods and was the state religion of the Roman Empire.

The reason for this, he says, is that “for the first 300 years the debate centered on an event, not a book.”

It is the events, not the record of the events, that birthed the ‘church.’ The Bible did not create Christianity. Christianity is the reason the Bible was created. . . . I will continue to insist that the foundation of our faith is not an inspired book but the events that inspired the book. (his italics)

The implication he draws for preaching is to put the events and stories in the foreground and the Bible (understood as an authoritative book) in the background. Hence, instead of “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so,” we say something like, “Jesus loves me, this I know for John, who watched him die and had breakfast with him on the beach, tells me so.”

A Surprising Twist

This third foundation of Stanley’s approach to preaching has a surprising twist. It’s surprising because what he wants to foreground is the reality of events behind the Bible. But as part of his defense of the resurrection, he insists that some other events recorded in the Bible need not have happened for the resurrection to still be true.

He mentions, for example, the splitting of the sea at the exodus and the falling of the walls of Jericho. He claims, “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.”

Holding to our faith in the risen Christ, we should not believe, “Everything rises and falls on whether . . . all the Bible is true.” Thinking that way is “unfortunate and . . . absolutely unnecessary.” If we stake our faith on the whole Bible being true, then “Christianity becomes a fragile house-of-cards religion, when we hear that perhaps the walls of Jericho didn’t come tumbling down.”

He fleshes it out like this:

[Some argue that] if the entire Bible isn’t true, the Bible isn’t true. And if the Bible isn’t true, Christianity comes tumbling down. So consequently, during your whole lifetime and my whole lifetime, Christians have felt compelled to defend the Bible. Because the only way to defend the Christian faith is to defend the Bible. And what your students have discovered, and if you read broadly you’ve discovered, is that it is next to impossible to defend the entire Bible.

He concludes that if your Christianity hangs on the whole Bible being 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.”

My Response in Four Parts

I have four responses to the kind of preaching Stanley is commending and the way he makes his case. I would like to put them as questions for younger preachers to seriously consider.

1. What Is Faith, and How Is It Awakened Through Preaching?

Since Christian preaching aims to bring about faith in the hearer, two fundamental and decisive questions behind all views of preaching are: 1) What is the nature of saving faith? And 2) what are the necessary grounds of saving faith? I say “grounds,” rather than “ground,” because there are different kinds of grounds: like historical facts, true interpretation of those facts, understanding of that interpretation, the Holy Spirit’s illumination, and more.

We want people to hear our preaching and be saved and built up in the faith. So we all have some view of what saving faith is, and what we need to give people in our preaching to make well-grounded faith possible.

I don’t know Stanley’s answer to these two questions. But I do see what he emphasizes in the kind of preaching he is commending. He emphasizes the event of the resurrection of Jesus. And events in general. “I will continue to insist that the foundation of our faith is not an inspired book but the events that inspired the book.”

But as he shows, it is not the bare event that serves as the foundation for our faith. Rather, evidences for the event must also be provided. Otherwise we don’t know what the event was, or have any confidence that it happened.

We must shift the debate away from whether the entire Bible is true and focus the debate on whether Jesus rose from the dead. That is the issue. And that is an event for which we have overwhelming evidence. And no, our evidence does not come from the Bible. Evidence for the resurrection comes from the eyewitness testimonies of Jesus’ first-century followers who documented not what they believed but what they saw.

A Happy Emphasis

I am happy for this emphasis on the historicity and verifiability of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. It does surprise me, though. Because it means Stanley, at least on this point, is circling around behind postmodernism to the kind of historical, rational argumentation that marked my days in school, fifty years ago. If that is what he is doing, I think he is right, because I doubt that the vast majority of human beings have ever been so postmodern that they don’t care about whether something really happened or not, and how we can know.

So what Stanley wants preachers to do is shift the focus away from grounding faith by reference to a Book, and rather ground it by reference to an event. To provide evidence for that faith-grounding event, the preacher goes behind the Book and refers to historical arguments for the credibility of the witnesses and the factuality of the event.

What Is Faith?

That is a long-tested apologetic method for helping people come to a well-grounded faith. It is legitimate. But let me challenge young preachers to be aware of the limitations of this approach and to test it against their own view of the nature of faith and its necessary grounds.

Here’s what I mean. Saving faith is not the persuasion that the resurrection of Jesus rose bodily from the grave. That persuasion is essential to saving faith, but not the essence of it. The devil knows that Jesus rose from the dead, and he is not saved (see also Luke 16:31). The essence of saving faith is seeing the supreme beauty of Christ in the meaning of the event, and embracing him as Savior, and Lord, and the greatest Treasure in the universe. Satan does not see the crucified and risen Christ as supremely beautiful, and he does not treasure him. But believers do. That is the essence of saving faith.

You can see this in 2 Corinthians 4:4: “The god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” Satan’s aim is not primarily to keep people from believing Jesus rose from the dead. His aim is primarily to keep people from seeing “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.” There is a spiritual “light” that shines through the gospel, and it is the light of the “glory of Christ.” This is what a person must see if he is to be saved. It is seen with “the eyes of your hearts” (Ephesians 1:18), when the Holy Spirit lifts the veil from our minds (2 Corinthians 3:16).

What Are the Decisive Grounds of Faith?

If that is the essence of saving faith, what are its decisive grounds? To be sure, the historical realities of the death and resurrection of Jesus are essential. But what Paul focuses on is “the gospel” — “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ.” The gospel is more than the events of crucifixion and resurrection. It is a God-given narrative of what the events meant (as in 1 Corinthians 15:3, “for our sins”). It is not merely the assembly of events and evidences. It is a divine interpretation of their meaning. “The gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:11–12).

What young preachers need to be clear about in deciding how they will preach is how God planned for the glory of Christ to be revealed to more and more people as the centuries pass. When Stanley says, “For the first 300 years the debate centered on an event, not a book,” that’s not quite right. The debate centered very largely on which written witnesses provided a trustworthy interpretation of the event. The church realized immediately that everything hung not just on whether the event happened, but on what it meant: What were its roots, and accomplishments, and implications for life and eternity? Who was this man, Jesus? Whom can we trust to tell us? How then shall we live? Who can tell us this with authority? That was the issue, not just the event.

God was kind enough to bring those authentic, long-trusted Gospels and Epistles together in the New Testament in due time. But their trustworthiness and authority were functioning from the middle of the first century onward. And the most significant reason God provided these Gospels and Epistles from the beginning was so that the compelling beauty and worth of Christ would shine through these God-given writings. That is how people came to faith. They saw the glory of Christ shining through the writings God had given — or the oral heralding or reading of them.

Therefore, what I am suggesting is that in our present New Testament we have the consummation of God’s demonstration of the beauty and worth of Christ. It is God’s own complete portrait of the glory of his Son — the meaning of his work from eternity to eternity, and its implications for human life.

What Does This Imply for Faith and Preaching?

First, it implies that the testimony of God in Scripture to the truth and beauty and worth of Christ is self-authenticating. That is, the decisive cause of saving faith is not human argument (as crucial as that is). The decisive cause is described in 2 Corinthians 4:6: “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” God creates a real illumination of our hearts by lifting the veil so that we can see the glory of what is really there in Scripture.

Second, it implies that God’s portrait of Christ, as he is presented in the inspired Book, is the God-ordained means of creating saving faith.

Third, it implies that preaching that hopes to be used by God to create saving faith will not assume that there is a more compelling portrait of the glory of Christ behind the text of the New Testament, in the historical reconstructions of the preacher.

Fourth, it does not imply that a preacher must say “the Bible says,” or “God’s word says,” or “ . . . for the Bible tells me so.” It implies that the depth and breadth and beauties of God’s inspired word will be so richly unfolded and applied to the consciences of the hearers, in the power of the Spirit, that people will encounter the living God, self-authenticated in his word. It is the divine word, not just the historical event, where the glory shines.

2. Do We Rescue One Generation at the Expense of Five?

A second question young preachers should ask is whether Stanley’s way of trying to rescue one generation might result in losing the next five.

Stanley knows that there are believers who doubt some of the events in the Bible. He mentions the falling of the walls of Jericho, for example. He wants to rescue those believers. One of his ways of rescuing them is to say, “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.” He wants those doubting believers to reject the notion that “everything rises and falls on whether . . . all the Bible is true.”

Such a notion is “unfortunate and . . . absolutely unnecessary.” Unfortunate because “it is next to impossible to defend the entire Bible.” Unnecessary because the resurrection still stands, and “if you believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, that’s all I need to know. And in light of what’s at stake, in light of who is at stake, perhaps that’s all you need to know as well.”

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.

3. What Are the Differences for Inside and Outside the Church?

Third, I would encourage young preachers to think seriously whether the way Stanley works out his method inside and outside the church is best for the health and power of the church over, say, a century.

Here I speak with some hesitation since I do not know the way that teaching the whole counsel of God happens at his church. My question, nevertheless, is how Stanley fleshes out the following statement:

I’m absolutely convinced of the following: In the marketplace — not the church — in the public square, in the classroom, we must shift the debate away from whether the entire Bible is true and focus the debate on whether Jesus rose from the dead.

Clearly, he has a distinction in his mind for how we speak “in the marketplace” but not “the church.” I think this is absolutely right. Stanley’s argument from how Peter and Paul preached differently in different contexts in Acts is compelling.

But the sermon that stirred up so much criticism for Stanley (“The Bible Told Me So”) was preached in his church, not in the marketplace. Now here is where my ignorance may be relevant. Stanley may view his weekend services as marketplace events rather than services of worship for the gathered church.

If so, I would simply encourage young preachers to think seriously about whether that is wise. If a preacher takes all the assumptions and methods which shape his approach to “non-Christians” and “post-Christians,” and then makes them normative for how he speaks regularly in worship with God’s people, will this build a people with enough biblical understanding and strength and ability to suffer joyfully, so that the church can stand for a century of faithfulness and fruitfulness?

4. Why Are Our Young People Leaving?

Finally, I would encourage younger preachers not to blow off what Andy Stanley says. Consider this: in this long article I am probably not defending what Stanley is rejecting. I am asking you to question whether his alternative to what he is rejecting is the best alternative.

1) For example, I am not saying we have done a great job in bringing our young people from a simple trust in what Momma said (“The Bible Tells Me So”) to an intellectually credible faith that will weather the university challenges. But I would draw out the truth of something Stanley said which shows how complex this issue is. He explained why so many young people leave the faith like this:

Like most of us, they aren’t exactly on a truth quest either. They’re on a happiness quest. Many walked away from faith because faith didn’t make them happy. That’s never a presenting reason. Nobody wants to appear that shallow. But scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find the quest for happiness plays a big role. When faith is viewed as an impediment to happiness, goodbye faith.

That’s true. Which means — and I’m sure Stanley would agree — that the issues in the family and in the youth ministry are not only epistemological, but deeply personal and spiritual and relational. Children walk away from the faith in the best and worst of families. They leave the faith in the best and worst of churches.

So yes, let us do better. Let us always do better. What that better looks like is what this article is about. It may not be telling the teenagers that Old Testament events need not have happened for faith in the resurrection to stand. It may be a richly relational engagement with the best arguments for the truth of all Scripture between the ages of 13 and 18.

Another Way Not to Say “The Bible Tells Me So”

2) Nor am I defending any particular way of referring to biblical authority when you preach (“The Bible says” or “God’s word says”). I suppose in my own preaching I have most regularly said, “Paul says,” or “Matthew wrote,” or “Jesus said.”

What I am defending is that it is possible not to sound naïve or childish in taking a text — smack dab in front of a “post-Christian” audience — and opening it in the power of the Holy Spirit with such insight into human nature, and such displays of God’s wonder, and such love for lost people, that all their “post-Christian” defenses fall to the ground, and they sense that God is in this place.

I am arguing that a God-breathed, inerrant Bible, with Jesus Christ at the center, is explosive with its own intrinsic and self-authenticating glory. The joyful experience of this glory is what every human heart in the preacher’s audience was made for. This is what Paul was getting at when he said that every human being (including post-Christians) knows God: “Although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking” (Romans 1:21). Everyone in the preacher’s audience knows God.

It may be that the Spirit-empowered heralding of the glory of this God, from the very text of Scripture, will cut through the “futility” of their thinking, and their suicidal love affair with sin (which they also know about, Romans 1:32), and authenticate itself as true. Many Bible-rejecters have testified to such an experience. The Bible itself has often proved to be more powerful than any argument for the Bible.

I think Stanley is only half right when he says, “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.” He is right in that this happens. God’s inspired word is sometimes heard with no effect. But not always, and not usually. It is different from the Quran. It is God-breathed (2 Timothy 3:16). It is not preached in vain — especially not when, in the hands of a Spirit-filled preacher, the truth and beauty of its depths and heights are spoken with clarity and conviction for what they really are.

Paul said that “all Scripture is . . . profitable” (2 Timothy 3:16). He said that the blood of the Ephesians was not on his hands because he “did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27). Vast and glorious stretches of Scripture await the preacher’s exposition for God’s people. This is a great calling, and a great and joyful burden, for every pastor.

Connect the Voltage

So my concluding suggestion is this: join Andy Stanley in caring deeply about winning “post-Christians”; join him in moving beyond simplistic and naïve-sounding shibboleths; join him in cultural awareness and insight into your audience; join him in the excellence of his teaching and communication skills; and join him in his belief in the complete truthfulness of the Bible. And then spend eight years blowing your people’s post-Christian circuits by connecting the voltage of every line in the book of Romans with their brains.

When it comes to preaching, nothing is more powerful and self-authenticating than the Spirit-anointed, passionate, expository exultation over the inspired text of Scripture. If you don’t believe that, perhaps you have never seen such preaching.