The Gospel Coalition’s Three Glaring Problems With Andy Stanley’s Approach to the Holy Bible With a Mention of the Conversation Between Norman Geisler, Who Died on Monday, and Andy Stanley That Was Rather Telling in a Way Andy Did Not Intend


For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. — 1 Corinthians 1:17

Pack a lunch.

By now, you are probably at least somewhat familiar with the firestorm resulting from NorthPoint Church pastor Andy Stanley’s teaching on the Bible and its suitability for (initial) apologetic/evangelistic engagement, most notably found in his recent teaching series but also in a conversation with Russell Moore at the most recent ERLC conference. He has been called everything from a liberal to a heretic, and not all of the criticism has reflected biblical wisdom and charity. Two of the better critical offerings came from Southern Seminary’s David Prince and Midwestern Seminary’s Rustin Umstattd. (There are many more. Google is your friend.)

Stanley has formally issued a response to the responses at Outreach Magazine. It’s this latter statement I want to spend some time interacting with, as I think his previous statements have been well-parsed and I find that—even after this attempted rebuttal and clarification—there are some glaring problems with Pastor Stanley’s approach to the Scriptures that not many are addressing. Certainly he isn’t addressing them himself. I am not certain he is even aware of them. Here, then, are three nagging problems I still have with Stanley’s use of the Bible:

1. Affirming the Bible’s inerrancy is not the same as trusting its sufficiency

I can’t speak for other critics, of course, but I for one never doubted that on paper Stanley would affirm inerrancy. Indeed, in his Outreach comments, he reaffirms his agreement with the Chicago Statement.

So for anyone out there who is still a bit suspicious, I affirm The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. Heck, I studied under the man who co-authored the whole thing.

He is referring here, of course, to Norman Geisler, and I found this shared exchange between the two rather telling in a way Stanley probably doesn’t intend:

“Andy,” [Geisler] said, “I understand what you are saying but not everybody does. You need to put something in print so they know you hold to inerrancy.” I assured him I would. But I also assured him the they he referred to wouldn’t change their opinion because I’ve been in this long enough to know my take on inerrancy is not really the issue. He laughed. “I know, but you need to put it in print anyway.”

Stanley is right, I think. Inerrancy isn’t really the issue. At least, formal, theoretical affirmation of inerrancy is not the issue. Sure, one can quibble with his statements appearing to undermine the Old Testament accounts of the Jericho wall, and so on, but he is right that it is not his formal commitments that are problematic—it is the way he applies (or in this case, doesn’t apply) them.

As David Prince recently tweeted, “Affirming inerrancy in principle, while rejecting its sufficiency in practice, is like saying your wife’s perfect while having an affair.” This is exactly right. To put it in parlance Stanley’s tribe may be more inclined to consider: as the apostle James says, “Faith without works is dead.” If you say you have faith, but your deeds do not show faithfulness, your faith is under question. Further, affirmation of inerrancy without the practical application of sufficiency is dead. If you believe the Scriptures are totally reliable, why would you obscure them?

Further—and this is by far the biggest error of the entire attractional church enterprise—this approach to teaching/preaching presumes that the Bible is not living and active, that the gospel is not power, that the book is in fact kind of an old, crusty thing that really should be saved for after people have been softened up by our logic and understanding. In other words, Stanley believes the Bible needs our help, that his words are more effective than the Bible’s at reaching lost people. Which is just a way of saying that God’s Word isn’t good enough. A formal affirmation of inerrancy with a practical denial of sufficiency is actually an informal denial of inerrancy.

2. Sharing the gospel necessarily entails leaning on the gospel’s power.

I would be shocked if Stanley believed that anybody was ever argued into the kingdom. Surely he would agree that the best apologetic arguments and logical explanations have never been able to do what the good news of Christ’s finished work can do. Which is what makes it even more fascinating to read Stanley (and others) bending over backwards to explain that the Bible needs to come later in an evangelistic conversation. I can’t speak for all critics, but I agree with Stanley that apologetic/evangelistic conversations can take a variety of forms and begin in a variety of ways. We can ask questions, find common ground with our lost friends, and so on. But there’s never any doubt in my mind that it’s the good news of what Jesus has done that actually saves people. So it’s increasingly strange to hear people whose entire model of “doing church” is built around reaching the lost continually relegating the news of the gospel to codas at the end of sermons or only for special services altogether.

It’s beyond bizarre that in NorthPoint and other churches like it that are predicated on reaching the lost, every week you find not a steady does of gospel but a steady dose of how-to’s (law, basically) that not only can’t save anyone, but can’t even be carried out in a way that honors God unless and until someone’s heart is captured by the gospel.

Stanley spends many paragraphs hand-wringing over the new post-Christian era in America—a phenomenon, I’d argue, his mode of evangelicalism has been highly influential in producing—attempting to lay the case that his approach to preaching and ecclesiology is best-suited for turning the spiritual tide. Here is one statement from this excursus:

I’m not sitting around praying for revival. . . . I grew up in the pray for revival culture. It’s a cover for a church’s unwillingness to make changes conducive to real revival.

Well, it can be. But “not sitting around praying for revival”—apart from being a strawman—can also be a cover for a church’s embrace of pragmatism. Stanley goes on to say this:

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. You may or may not already know what it says. But it doesn’t matter. The Quran doesn’t carry any weight with you. You don’t view the Quran as authoritative.

This is really important. Don’t miss what Stanley is unintentionally revealing here. He is saying that the Bible has the same effect on the lost as the Quran. There is zero room here for the actual reality of the Bible as God’s living Word. There is zero room here for the supernatural reality that the Bible carries a weight with lost people they don’t often expect it to! But this inadvertent nod to materialism and pragmatism is certainly expected from those with a proven track record of treating the Bible like an instruction manual rather than as the record of the very breath of God. If we truly believed the Bible was the very word of God, inspired by the Spirit and still cutting through to the quick, dividing joint and marrow, we wouldn’t for a second save it for special occasions. And we certainly wouldn’t equate its potential effectiveness with the Quran’s.

Stanley says:

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.

This is a big assumption that places Scripture under the authority of “what lost people want.” Certainly Jesus and Paul did not find that “according to the Scriptures” lessened the effectiveness of God’s word for pre-Christian people. I’m not sure why we should expect God’s Word would be less effective for post-Christian people unless we believe the Holy Spirit is at some great disadvantage because people are smarter than they used to be or something.

Stanley’s approach puts the post-Christian in the driver’s seat; they are the ones with the authority, really. This doesn’t mean our preaching shouldn’t address questions and objections skeptics and doubters have. It simply means you don’t let the questions move you off reliance on the gospel’s power. (Tim Keller’s preaching is a good example of that which is undeniably gospel-rich and yet directly applicable to key concerns and challenges lost folks have.)

Later in the Outreach piece, Stanley cites Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 as a defense of using anything to reach people. But this of course is not what Paul says. He says “all possible means.” The hitch here is on what one deems possible. If we take what else Paul has said about sharing the gospel, it is quite difficult to conclude, as Stanley appears to do, that “anything goes.” This is a standard line in the attractional movement: “We’ll do anything to reach people for Jesus”—anything, it appears, but rely on the sufficiency of the Word of God.

No, when Paul says “all possible means,” he is speaking to his personal adaptability, not the gospel’s. In any event, I am not sure what point Stanley is trying to drive here, as I don’t know anybody who would deny the appropriateness of missional adaptability and contextualization. To me, this is another example of Stanley showing little understanding of his critic’s actual concerns or their own methods. Our concern is not about missional contextualization but about the place of the Word of God in the mission, and the place of God in the church (which I’ll get to in a minute).

If I may reiterate here an agreement I have with Andy Stanley (and nearly every other attractional church leader): we want lost people to know Jesus! We want the unsaved to be saved! We agree on this. And we also want to employ whatever is actually the most effective means of accomplishing this.

Stanley earlier said, simultaneously offensively and defensively, which is a neat trick:

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. If that’s the approach to preaching and teaching you grew up with and are most comfortable with, you’re no doubt having a good ol’ throw-down debate with me in your head about now—a debate I’m sure you’re winning. But before you chapter and verse me against the wall and put me in a sovereignty-of-God headlock, would you stop and ask yourself a question: Why does this bother me so much? Why does this bother me so much—really?

Well, he’s just said we can’t use the Bible to argue that the Bible’s authority (sufficiency and potency) are “good enough,” so that’s convenient. He doesn’t want to hear “chapter and verse.” So that’s telling. But I’ll start with this: I did not grow up with the kind of gospel-centered expository preaching Stanley is denigrating here. In fact, I pretty much grew up in the kind of teaching Stanley has been part of pioneering. I was trained to preach and minister actually in the very model he’s espousing. I ate, slept, breathed this stuff and 15 years ago would have been right there alongside him saying everything he is saying. What I’ve discovered, actually, is that, contrary to Stanley’s approach to Scripture, the Bible’s words are powerful. They don’t need my help. And if we will proclaim Christ from the Bible clearly, passionately, and copiously, it will actually have the effect we all agree we want—people being saved by Jesus and growing in their walk with him.

I also submit that it is quite fascinating to discover that you will hear more good news in one of these “traditional”* churches doing gospel-centered expository preaching than you will in the attractional “5 steps to be a better whatever” churches every Sunday. I mean, let’s suppose we actually care about lost people hearing lots of good news. This leads me to my final critique here:

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Source: The Gospel Coalition