In the Beginning, The Gospel: Al Mohler vs. Andy Stanley

Before the apostles, during the period of the apostles, and before there were written records, before the Gospels were written, during the time of the apostles writing and yet before there was anything like a canon or what we now call the New Testament … before this and during this… the gospel was alive and well, and the gospel was being preached and taught, and people were being saved. Salvation depends entirely on the truth of the gospel.

What made that gospel the means of redemption was the truth of the gospel, not the written record of it. Because Jesus was God’s Son, because Jesus died for our redemption, because Jesus was raised from the dead, and because he was raised to rule over all creation, the gospel is true. To be saved in the Christian sense is to affirm the truth of who Jesus is, to engage with him from the heart, and to accept what he has accomplished.

I say these things because of the scuffle the Southern Baptist dignitaries seem to want to find with Andy Stanley. Andy Stanley put the emphasis on the truth of the gospel, not the records of that truth. Which is to say, he believes we do not first affirm Scripture in its totality but instead we first affirm the truth of Jesus and his resurrection. Andy questions the theological priority of saying Jesus loves me because the Bible tells me so. He seems (to me at least) to want to say God loves us, Jesus loves us, and that is why the Bible tells us so.

This is what Andy believes in his own words (in response to Mohler’s response), and his entire essay is an exceptional piece:

Years ago our organization made several decisions to better position us to minister to and recapture the attention of post-Christian people. We adjusted our sails. We cast our nets on the other side. We … you get the picture. And why wouldn’t we? The data Barna and others have collected should cause all of us to stop and rethink what we’re doing. Al Mohler’s statement should cause our hearts to skip a beat. As I mentioned earlier, it was about eight years ago that I adjusted my preaching to compensate for an increasingly post-Christian audience. I adapted my approach. An adaptation that, as we’ve seen, left some of my conservative Christian brothers and sisters wondering about my orthodoxy. I get that. I just wish they would ask more questions and make fewer accusations. I’m easy to find.

As part of my shift, I stopped leveraging the authority of Scripture and began leveraging the authorityand 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. I don’t regret teaching my children that the Bible is God’s Word. But my grown-up kids understand their confidence in the Bible is rooted in their confidence in who Jesus is based on the testimonies of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, James and the apostle Paul.

Shifting the conversation away from the authority of Scripture to the authority, courage and faithfulness of the men and women behind our Scriptures has not only enabled me to better connect with post-Christians, it’s done wonders for the faith of the faithful. The stories of the men and women behind the Scriptures are rich, inspiring and, unfortunately, not as well-known as you might think. For my latest example, go to WhoNeedsGod.com and watch the last 10 minutes of part six. To wrap the series, I leveraged the story of James to encourage nones to reconsider the claims of Christ, just as James the Just had to do after the resurrection of his brother. As you’ll see, this in no way undermines the authority of the Bible. It actually underscores the historical roots of our Bible. You’d be shocked by how many students and adults in your church view the Bible as a spiritual book that says true things to live by as opposed to an inspired collection of documents documenting eventsthat actually happened. This is why I will continue to insist the foundation of our faith is not an inspired book but the events that inspired the book; events that inspired writers, born along by the Holy Spirit, to document conversations, insights and events—the pivotal event being the resurrection. While it’s true we would not know these events occurred had they not been documented, two other things are equally true. First, they were documented years before there was a Bible (i.e., New Testament bound together with the Jewish Scriptures). Second, 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. The reason many Christians struggle with statements like these is they grew up on “The Bible says” preaching. And that’s fine as long as one first believes the Bible is inspired.

Notice I said first.

Al Mohler has come back at Andy, which seems to be a Southern Baptist sport for some, and has affirmed that we need to believe …. essentially in inerrancy to believe in Jesus. Yes, he believes in Jesus but the prior affirmation is Scripture because without Scripture we couldn’t believe in Jesus. The issue is order. A few more observations.

Connecting Andy to Schleiermacher is libelous and uncharitable since it relies entirely on a long slide on a slippery slope. Andy Stanley is not a German Protestant Pietistic-raised German liberal. I’ve read enough Schleiermacher to know he would himself not like being connected to Andy Stanley. Furthermore, Schleiermacher’s project is less apologetics than it is revisionism. Nor does Andy undercut reliance upon Scripture: he want to reorder things from the truth of gospel as recorded in inspired Scripture. Yes, Andy needed a more nuanced statement about the process of getting our New Testament canon; it did not happen all at once but grew from the days of the apostles. But once again let’s talk order here: the apostles didn’t preach the Bible but the truth of the gospel that becomes the inspired Scripture.

I believe it is false dichotomy to demand one or the other but instead we should affirm the reality: first Jesus and the gospel as a truth, then apostolic witnessing and writing leading to apostolic authoritative witness and writing, and then eventually a canonized Scripture. But canon itself is the recognition that these writings affirm the one true gospel. The gospel gave rise to the Scriptures. In the beginning, the gospel.

I don’t know why Mohler presses against Stanley’s argument that the sources of the Gospels witness to the resurrection and the truth about Jesus for this has been done for a long, long time among apologists, including folks like William Lane Craig. Mohler’s point that Andy thinks we should affirm Jesus and therefore OT, leads Mohler to a critique: that Jesus believed — this is how I read Mohler — the very point Stanley was denying. No, Al Mohler, he didn’t. You can’t argue that Jesus affirmed what conservative evangelicals today teach about Scripture when it comes to the very issues over which many today struggle with the doctrine of Scripture as taught about such things as science and faith.  Yes, Jesus believe in the Bible and used it to bolster Who he was and what he taught, but that is not the same thing as how the doctrine of Scripture is being taught today. We are back to the same problem: Did Jesus believe he was Messiah because he read the Bible that way or because he knew — in himself — who he was? What is the order. We need both, but in which order?

Mohler’s point is about apologetics, but he’s mistaken here. As many people reject Christianity because of what they were taught about the Bible — like young earth creationism and the necessity of believing in two and only two original human beings called Adam and Eve — when they encounter the sciences as who reject the Bible because of a loose view of Scripture. The #1 reason people leave the faith, according to my own studies of hundreds of apostasy stories, is the conflict of science and how the Bible is talked about in Christian circles.  (I wrote about this in a chp in my co-authored book Finding Faith, Losing Faith.) Yes, it is true that in some circles where a looser view of Scripture is affirmed many come to the conclusion that they can’t trust it that deeply. So, Mohler’s apologetics here are worthy of serious consideration, but his more either-or approach is mistaken.

Oddly enough I like these words of Mohler’s, which I think undercuts some of what he’s been saying about Stanley:

In the end, we simply have no place to go other than the Bible as God’s authoritative revelation. Christ, not the Bible, is the foundation of our faith — but our only authoritative and infallible source of knowledge about Christ is the Bible.

Well, “In the end” I’m not so sure about. The Spirit of God anoints preaching and witnessing about the truth of the gospel in the face of Jesus and millions have believed without reading a word in the Bible. Yes, “Christ, not the Bible, is the foundation of our faith.” That’s Stanley’s very point. Yes, “our only authoritative and infallible source… is the Bible.” At the link above to the long quote from Stanley, Andy affirms inerrancy. It’s the ordering that is the issue, no? Some people seem to think the only way to proceed is the order of prolegomena in theology. I’d agree that order in theology is very useful but the order in theology needs to recognize that before there was that theology and before there was a New Testament there was the gospel. The order of theology is not the order of gospeling or of conversion.

In the beginning was the gospel, and the New Testament comes into existence because of that gospel. Yes, we know that gospel through the New Testament.

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