The dust-up surrounding Andy Stanley’s sermon The Bible Told Me So and the related interview with Russell Moore at the ERLC national conference provides the preaching professor a great opportunity to think about the nature of the Word. And this blog is about just that, the nature of the Word, not Stanley’s recent sermon. However, some context is in order.
In his sermon, Stanley contends that even if people have trouble with the age of the earth or the lack of archaeological evidence for the Exodus, this should not stop them from coming to faith. On that we agree. People can, as we all do, come to Christ without all their biblical questions answered. The reason he cites is that Christianity predates the Bible. In other words, you can believe in Christ without having the questions of the Old Testament resolved because many came to faith in Christ before the books of the Old and New Testaments were canonized.
However, the passages of the Bible many find troubling, mainly in the Old Testament, predate the New Testament believers. Not to mention the fact that the first significant response to the Gospel (Acts 2) was in response to a sermon from Psalm 16, Joel 2, and Psalm 110. Evidently, the listeners embraced the argument that Jesus of Nazareth was, in fact, the Messiah that was prophesied about in the Old Testament—in their Bible. Peter had enough confidence in his Old Testament to lead people to Christ from it.
Practically speaking, the trouble with Stanley’s logic is that what we attract people with is what we will sustain people with. Stanley seems to concede, without actually doing so verbally, that the veracity of the Old Testament is not an issue, and we should not have to accept its truthfulness in order to come to Christ. But if you look at what Christ asks His followers to do—die to themselves; financially divest in this world and invest in the life to come; love their enemies; follow Christ even if they have to break with tradition—these are really, really hard things.
Personally, I like Stanley. He is a family friend, and I have a great deal of respect for him and his family. He is not the enemy, nor is he a rival tribe. He has a genuine love for lost people that, as Moore pointed out on his podcast, is a quality worth imitating.
As someone who has given his life to text-driven preaching, my issue however is a related one: the place of the Word in Christian worship. This is the real issue.
If you examine the worship of the early Christian church, as recorded in Scripture or early Christian history, it is clear that they carried the tradition of reading the Scripture and explaining it. That’s always been there in the life of the church. By “explaining,” I mean, broadly, expositing Scripture, which includes both explaining proper (explanation with illustration) and exhortation (applying and defending). This is the tradition of the church. It always has been.
From the witness of Scripture, and from the witness of the earliest followers, I think one can make the case that the explanation of Scripture is central to Christian worship. This does not mean it is the most important thing, but rather, to borrow a metaphor, it is the heart that pumps truth to all other facets of worship and ministry. Scripture is central to Christian worship. Sure, the New Testament believers were living while the canon of Scripture was still being formed. Yet, they believed they had God’s Word. The early church had enough Bible to lead them to Christ. This is why Paul told Timothy he could trust his Old Testament, because it is “able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:15).
As any counselor will tell you, the real issue is most often not the presenting issue. The presenting issue seems to be strategies for preaching and evangelism in the local church setting. But the real issue is a global confidence in the Word of God.
Should we assume that believers trust Scripture when we preach? Of course not. We, therefore, reason with them. We argue for the text. However, in assuming they do not believe it, should we concede that is it unbelievable? Of course not.
And this deeper issue is what really concerns me. This is the issue with which evangelical churches in general, and SBC churches in particular, need to grapple. We, collectively, have a tendency to verbally support the perfection of Scripture while questioning its function in corporate worship. We do this when we selectively preach Scripture; when we selectively choose topics to preach; when we sing songs that are inconsistent with Scripture; when we develop a “canon within a canon” and ignore major chunks of Scripture as irrelevant so as to only preach the interesting parts; when we do not counsel from the Word; when we do not allow the Word to influence our finances or our politics. The list is endless. Stanley, acting here as provocateur, has unnerved us because we already function as if there is a canon within a canon.
The strategy of downplaying Scripture is not an aberration we should mock; it is our immediate history we should mourn. It’s just really uncomfortable when someone says out loud what so many of us already practice. We have, in so many ways, already taken the spot light off the Bible. When the Word is not central in our counseling, in our worship practice, in our financial practice, in our approach to preaching, or in our political engagement, it should not bother us when someone says the Word is not central. But it does. It bothers us because we are hearing someone label our practice; it exposes a sort of moral licensing that says, “As long as we yell loud enough about morality on certain things, we have the license to be silent on others.” But God is not silent, Scripture is not silent, and we cannot be silent. Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word.