Dr. Craig examines whether a prominent pastor is denying the authority of the Bible.
KEVIN HARRIS: It’s a big church, and the pastor is well-known. What exactly did Andy Stanley mean in a recent sermon at North Point Community Church? Did Andy Stanley deny biblical authority? Dr. Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, seems to think he did. Welcome to Reasonable Faith with Dr. William Lane Craig. I’m Kevin Harris. It is certainly not big news when Christians and Christian leaders disagree with one another. It is to be expected. But this disagreement between Mohler and Stanley brings up some important issues, and Dr. Craig is anxious to dive right into it. I’m going to play an audio clip of Andy Stanley’s sermon to give you an idea of what has Dr. Mohler upset. The clip is about five minutes long, and I want to encourage you to go to North Point Church’s website and listen to the entire sermon to get the context. And of course read Dr. Mohler’s entire article criticizing the sermon on his blog. If you want to check them out, we’ll have the links on our website and the transcripts of this podcast at ReasonableFaith.org. Here’s a portion of the message from Andy Stanley that caused a little theological dust-up.
ANDY STANLEY: If you are like me, many of you were brought up to believe this: Jesus loves me, this I know. Right? It is a fabulous song. Most of our kids are still singing this song. We sang this song. “Jesus loves me, this I know.” What is the next line? Right! “For the Bible tells me so.” And this is where our trouble began. It really did. This is where our trouble began. Because – don’t leave! – because the implication is (this is important!) the Bible is the reason we believe. In other words, I can believe Jesus loves me because it is in the Bible.
I grew up in a church where basically the byline – the subtitle – for everything was if the Bible says it, that settles it. So we send kids off to college with a “if the Bible says it, that settles it” and, oh my goodness, they discover that that didn’t settle it. Then they come home and they say, mom, dad, grandmom, grandad, uncle, aunt, did you know, did you know? It’s like I don’t ask those questions. The Bible says it, that settles it. The Bible says it, that settles it. The problem with that is this. If the Bible is the foundation of our faith, as the Bible goes so goes our faith. In other words, Christianity cannot survive if the Bible goes away. Christianity cannot survive if somehow every single part of the Bible isn’t absolutely true if the Bible is the foundation of our faith. If the Bible is the foundation of our faith, it is all or nothing. This is why when you were growing up every once in a while you would bring information to your parents or your grandparents or maybe somebody else who was raising you and you said, Today at school we learned and they just kind of shut you down: we don’t believe that, we don’t believe that. We are Christians. We don’t believe that. It’s like yeah, but it’s true. Well, we don’t believe that. What was that about? Why are Christians so afraid? Why are Christians so fearful? Why are we not the most curious people and scientifically-oriented people in the world?
I’ll tell you why. Because you were raised in a culture like I was raised in, and it was all or nothing. If anything proves that something in the Bible isn’t actually, absolutely, historically, scientifically reliable, uh-oh, the whole thing comes tumbling down because this version of Christianity is a house of cards. All you have to do is pull out one card and the whole thing comes tumbling down. Christianity becomes a fragile house of cards that comes tumbling down when we discover that perhaps the walls of Jericho didn’t. When we discover or are told that perhaps there was no exodus from Egypt to the Promised Land, that there is no historical evidence of that. When we are told in school and in graduate school that there is no evidence for a worldwide flood. When people point out apparent contradictions in the Bible. When in school we are told there is no way the Earth is six thousand years old; it is 4.5 or 4.55 billions years old and the universe is 14.5 billion years old. And all of a sudden the tension is around. The Bible says, the Bible says, the Bible says, but science has said, science has said, the Bible says, science has said, the Bible says. All of a sudden there is this extraordinary tension.
If the entire Bible isn’t true then let’s be honest: the Bible isn’t true! I mean, if the whole thing isn’t true . . . because if you grew up like I grew up, if you grew up in a church in the United States, it is basically, The Bible says it, that settles it. Then we grow up. We become adults. We become aware of things that make us wonder if everything in the Bible is true. When we conclude or if we come to the conclusion that may be it is not all as true as we were told it was true, Christianity comes tumbling down. Christians feel – your parents felt, your pastor felt, perhaps you still feel – that the pressure to defend the Bible because if you don’t defend the Bible you can’t defend Christianity. This puts the Bible in the center of the debate. This puts the spotlight on the Bible. This puts the Bible in a place that if we can’t defend everything in it, everything in it goes away. The good news is that that is very unfortunate. The great news is that is absolutely unnecessary. Christianity and the Christian faith is far, far, far more endurable than any of that.
So here’s my plea today, and then we are going to jump into some detail. If you deconverted – if you walked away from Christianity, if you kind of stepped back from the whole thing – because of something you read in the Bible, something you were told about the Bible, I want you to listen carefully. Because at the end, I want to invite you to take a step back toward the faith of your childhood, not childhood faith. It is time that it grows up. But the great news is there is a grown-up version. There is an adult version that is far less fragile than the Bible says it, that settles it, and if the Bible didn’t say it, that doesn’t settle it, and if there is anything wrong with the Bible then the whole thing comes tumbling, tumbling down.
KEVIN HARRIS: Can you see how Dr. Mohler might be a little upset?
DR. WILLIAM LANE CRAIG: Oh, absolutely!
KEVIN HARRIS: That is just one small snippet of this whole sermon that Andy Stanley is delivering. At first brush it may sound like, We don’t believe Christianity because of the Bible is a denial of biblical authority.
DR. CRAIG: That is what it sounds like, but that is not what he meant. As you read the entire article by Al Mohler I think that is very clear. What Andy Stanley is trying to do is make a fundamental distinction that I make in Reasonable Faith between apologetics and theology. When we do systematic theology the basis of theology – the rule of faith – is Scripture. The Scripture is the only authoritative and infallible rule for faith and practice. But when we do apologetics we are attempting to persuade someone who doesn’t accept the authority of the Bible to believe that God exists and that God has decisively revealed himself in Jesus so as to place your faith in Jesus. The apologetic enterprise or task does not depend upon biblical authority, inspiration, inerrancy, and all the rest. Those things are important for doing theology, but when you are doing apologetics those sorts of things are not presupposed lest one be arguing in a circle. So I think what Andy Stanley is talking about is how you approach a non-believer with the message of Christianity and give him reasons for believing or for becoming a Christian.
KEVIN HARRIS: Dr. Mohler says that this reminds him of Friedrich Schleiermacher. Tells us a little bit about him.
DR. CRAIG: Schleiermacher is called the father of modern theology. He attempted to respond to the Enlightenment critiques of Christianity in the late 1700s, early 1800s by basically compromising away the supernatural elements in Christianity. For Schleiermacher the essence of Christianity lay in a feeling of absolute dependence upon God moment by moment. Jesus was merely a human being in whom this God dependence was a dominating factor in his life. He was utterly dependent upon God for everything he did, and we should similarly be dependent upon God. It was a Christianity that gave up all of the central tenets of orthodox Christian belief. This was an apologetic for Christianity that fundamentally compromised the truth of Christianity. Mohler recognizes that Andy Stanley doesn’t do that – that Andy Stanley affirms the central truths of the Christian faith. The only resemblance between the two is that both have an apologetic motivation of trying to reach unbelievers with the message of Christianity. But it is really, really misleading to try to compare Andy Stanley to Friedrich Schleiermacher.
KEVIN HARRIS: Andy Stanley seems to be wanting to say that in today’s world that there are so many who are just not going to listen to you if you just say, The Bible tells me so.
DR. CRAIG: Right.
KEVIN HARRIS: That you better find some other tactics in order to eventually . . .even if you want to get them to the Scriptures.
DR. CRAIG: Yeah, and that is just good apologetics. The way you do apologetics is you find some common ground between yourself and the non-believer on which you can then argue for the truth of Christianity. Al Mohler just doesn’t seem to understand this in his editorial. I think this emerges in the following paragraph. He says,
This is not at all odd or peculiar. What Andy Stanley is doing is pointing out that contemporary New Testament scholars (not apologists) have been able to identify the traditions or sources upon which the New Testament authors draw thereby closing even more narrowly the window between the original events and the time of the recording of those events.
One of the premier examples is Paul’s quotation of this ancient Christian formula in 1 Corinthians 15:3-5 where he speaks of Christ’s dying for our sins, his burial, his being raised from the dead on the third day, and then his appearances to Peter, and to the twelve disciples. This tradition which Paul is quoting here has been dated to within the first five years after Jesus’ crucifixion. So these resurrection appearances, the burial, the resurrection of Jesus, are not late-developing legends that accrued generations or decades after Jesus was dead and buried. These are traditions that go right back to within five years of the events themselves, and are therefore of incredible historical value.
That would be just one example of what Stanley is talking about where we have these pre-New Testament traditions that have tremendous historical credibility.
KEVIN HARRIS: Is Andy Stanley saying in a way, Hey, even if – and I’m not saying that there is – but even if there were some error found in the Bible, is that going to destroy Christianity? He would say no.
DR. CRAIG: He is definitely saying that. He is saying to be a Christian you don’t have to believe in six-day creationism or in the flood of Noah or, frankly, even in things like the virgin birth or that the Bible is inerrant. The fundamental historical credibility of the claims and resurrection of Christ can be established historically without making a commitment to those other sorts of things. That can be decided later once you have made a commitment to Christ. He is quite right about that. We do have these credible historical sources for the life and teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus, which are not dependent upon a doctrine of biblical inspiration or inerrancy. I don’t think Al Mohler understands this. Again, let me quote from his editorial. He says,
In the strangest turn, noted in Stanley’s presentations before this message, he argues that if we can somehow believe in the fact of Christ’s resurrection on the authority of prior historical sources, and then we find that Jesus (presumably as revealed in the four gospels) respects the inspiration of the Old Testament, we should conclude that if one who rose from the dead affirmed the inspiration of the Old Testament, then we should as well.
That is a very plausible argument for regarding the inspiration as a reliable word of God. Namely, Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, the absolute revelation of God the Father to mankind, this radical claim was vindicated by his resurrection from the dead, and therefore we should believe in what Jesus teaches us about God and about theology. And Jesus teaches us the Old Testament was the word of God. As his disciples, then we accept his teaching with respect to biblical authority. This is not at all strange or convoluted. Again, this isn’t the way you do systematic theology, but we are talking here apologetics – of how one might convince an unbeliever to accept first and foremost belief in Christ and then on the basis of Christ’s teaching the inspiration of the Scriptures.
KEVIN HARRIS: I am sure that ears perked up when you said the virgin birth. You mentioned whether the flood was local or global. Well, OK, we can worry about that later. Let’s look at the claims of Christ. But would some people be alarmed that you would say that you could not worry about the virgin birth? Wouldn’t that be a fundamental or essential? Or can you just say we’ll worry . . .
DR. CRAIG:It may be fundamental to theology, but we are not doing theology. We are doing apologetics. The historical credibility of the crucifixion narrative, the empty tomb narrative, the burial narrative, the appearance stories – those don’t depend in any way on the historical credibility of the virgin birth story. These are independent accounts, and they each need to be assessed in their own right.
KEVIN HARRIS: Andy Stanley is saying that very thing. He is saying, Look, I say things like, “I don’t blame you for thinking that way about the Bible. I don’t blame you for having your doubts about, say, the virgin birth or a global flood or things like that. But let’s talk.
DR. CRAIG: Yeah.
KEVIN HARRIS: He says,
“For listeners accustomed to preachers taking every opportunity to correct, chastise, and reprimand unbelievers, my approach is confusing.”
In other words, he is saying, I am not going to chastise you. I am not going to correct you. I am not going to jump on you because you are having doubts and you are having trouble believing this biblical teaching. But we can still talk and there is some information I think you need.
DR. CRAIG: Yes. It is a more invitational approach – to invite the non-believer to look at the evidence, to look at the New Testament documents not as inspired, authoritative, words of God but look at them as simply first century documents in Greek handed down to us telling this remarkable story about this man, Jesus of Nazareth. The question is: how credible are these documents? Stanley’s argument is that when you assess these documents by the standards in which ancient historical accounts are normally assessed, the Gospels, the New Testament letters, come out looking very credible as sources for the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.
I must say I tend to wonder how confident Al Mohler really is in the historical reliability and credibility of the New Testament documents. Because he says in his article that on Stanley’s approach,
“we would be dependent upon historians (among others) to tell us what parts of both testaments we can still believe. Those parts will inevitably grow fewer and fewer.”
That is simply not the case historically. Since the time of Friedrich Schleiermacher – the beginning of the 19th century – the confidence of New Testament scholarship and the historical credibility of the Gospels has grown and grown. At the end of the 19th century in the heyday of liberal theology, a person like Bruno Bauer (a German theologian) could doubt that the historical Jesus ever even really existed. Today nobody except these nutty Internet mythicists would propound such a view. Even during the mid-twentieth century a scholar like Rudolf Bultmann could say that all that we could know about the historical Jesus could be written on a 4×6 index card. By contrast, today in the 21st century the Gospels are widely regarded by New Testament historians as fundamentally credible, historical accounts of the life and teachings of Jesus of Nazareth. As I’ve emphasized in my published work, this includes not only Jesus’ death by Roman crucifixion under Pontius Pilate, but his burial in a tomb by Joseph of Arimathea (we actually know the name of the man who buried Jesus), the discovery of that tomb empty by a group of women followers on Sunday morning including Mary Magdalene by name, thirdly that thereafter various individuals and groups of people (including Peter) experienced appearances of Jesus alive after his death, and finally that the very origin of the Christian faith depends upon the belief of these earliest disciples that God had raised Jesus from the dead – a belief to which they sincerely and suddenly claim despite every predisposition to the contrary. These facts are part and parcel of the portrait of the historical Jesus that has been established by the sort of historical criticism that Andy Stanley is talking about.
When we do systematic theology we don’t base our doctrine upon historical studies. We base it upon the Bible. But when we do apologetics and are asking, “Why should we believe what the Bible says?” or even more fundamentally “Why should we believe that Jesus Christ is anybody special or that he rose from the dead?” then we do appeal to the work of these historians which, contrary to Al Mohler, has increasingly established the historical credibility of the New Testament documents.
KEVIN HARRIS: Yeah, we shouldn’t fear historical inquiry and research. We have to keep that away from the Bible or it might destroy the Bible. How much confidence is that?
DR. CRAIG: Yeah.
KEVIN HARRIS: Andy Stanley wraps it up with this quote, and we’ll wrap it up with this as well. He says,
But to recap, yes I believe the Bible is without error in everything it affirms. Yes my approach to preaching is not traditional. Yes, my approach at times leaves those outside our local congregations wondering if I’m still an evangelical. In light of all that, along with the fact that here I am once again having to explain myself, shouldn’t I consider changing my approach? No. Actually, I would like you to consider changing yours. Here’s why. The world has changed.
DR. CRAIG:That’s right. A culture that is more skeptical and more secular and wants to hear credible, non-faith-based reasons to believe. I am delighted that a pastor of Andy Stanley’s stature would be appealing to the sorts of evidence and argument that we at Reasonable Faith are offering to the church.
(This podcast is by Reasonable Faith / William Lane Craig. Discovered by Christian Podcast Central and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Christian Podcast Central, and audio is streamed directly from their servers.)