Russell Moore invited Andy Stanley into a discussion at the 2016 National Conference for the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Of all the lectures and panels at that conference, this one was probably my favorite. This post is based off my memory of what transpired during the exchange between Moore and Stanley. I did not take notes. I have not watched the video. I have not read any other reactions to the discussion with the exception of this excellent post by David Prince. This post offers some thoughts on the exchange, not an exhaustive critique of Stanley’s methodology.
Witnessing theological and philosophical give and take through discussion and debate provides me with the greatest opportunity for learning. Some (probably more sanctified) believers favor more biblical and/or postmodern approaches to articulating disagreements than what the old, cold, clearly two-sided debate can accommodate, but I genuinely benefit from seeing different viewpoints placed in strongest opposition to one another. In terms of learning, nothing helps me more, and I suspect others learn better this way as well.
In seminary a professor would often commence with the ax-grinding during a lecture and leave me profoundly frustrated as I tried to discern what the “other side” was saying. Good views are strengthened and more easily comprehended when they’re presented as distinct from their opposites. (“Teach the controversy.”) The best systematic theologies are set up so as to interact with opposing viewpoints and grant the learner something closer to 360 vision concerning a topic. Understanding falsehoods grants clarity for discerning where truth begins and ends. So, I was grateful Dr. Moore arranged this exchange even though it certainly was not any sort of traditional debate (nor was it intended to be), and even though some have questioned his wisdom in doing so. The exchange helpfully highlighted disagreements between Moore and Stanley and thereby served as a catalyst for understanding methodological concerns in preaching and, I would argue, in apologetics, as Stanley’s approach to preaching is little more than consistent evidentialism.
Preach the Word
Knowing very little about Stanley, I was immediately impressed with how well he analyzed the topics of discussion and articulated his points. But as his conversation with Moore continued, my feelings grew closer to horror as Stanley described preaching “sermons” that never appeal to the text of Scripture and intentionally avoid the gospel.
Stanley calmly spoke of two-week-long sermon introductions that never ‘get to’ Scripture or the gospel. His comments brought to mind the story about D. L. Moody and the night of October 8, 1871. That night, Moody preached to his largest audience up to that point and asked his audience to contemplate what they might do with Jesus. The plan, if I’m not mistaken, was to offer a more evangelistic sermon and invitation the following week, but before the worship service was over, the tragic Chicago fire of 1871 had begun.
From the standpoint of loving lost people, denying them the gospel is anything but loving. On a more fundamental level, if we are not preaching the Word of God, then we are not actually preaching.
Stanley’s approach is God-honoring and right insofar as it attempts to focus on Jesus and the resurrection (τὸν Ἰησοῦν καὶ τὴν ἀνάστασιν). We have the gospel, the good news of a crucified and risen Savior, so yes and amen, preach the gospel. Stanley’s appeals to the evidences of the resurrection, eyewitness testimony, early beliefs of the Church, and the like have a rightful place (we need to hear this) in the preacher’s repertoire as much as in the apologist’s. Presenting such evidences adds to the persuasive force of the preaching of the gospel. We are rational creatures, and historic Christianity is rich with evidences which appeal to the intellect. We must keep the flesh on our faith. Unfortunately, Stanley wants the flesh of the faith without its biblical bones.
Revisit Van Til
Who is Jesus? What is sin? What does a resurrection have to do with anything? Stanley’s Scripture-less gospel is not merely methodologically problematic, it’s no more persuasive than any other claim that’s based on a less-than explicitly biblical worldview. Stanley finds the historical evidence for the resurrection persuasive because Stanley is a believer, but Bart Ehrman would have a field day with his arguments.
Paul’s preaching of τὸν Ἰησοῦν καὶ τὴν ἀνάστασιν on Mars Hill is hardly devoid of Scriptural authority. Paul explicitly appeals to sweeping claims about God from the Old Testament while engaging with . . . pagan philosophers. Mind you, Paul’s explicit methodology matches his ubiquitous underlying authority, the Word of God. For example, in 1 Corinthians 15 Paul bases his entire argument concerning the resurrection of Jesus Christ not upon the mere testimony of men (as important as that testimony may be), but upon the very Word of God, as his claims are “according to Scripture.” The problem for Stanley is that the preaching of τὸν Ἰησοῦν καὶ τὴν ἀνάστασιν is not actually τὸν Ἰησοῦν καὶ τὴν ἀνάστασιν if it’s preached from a contextual void. Contrary to the evidentialist’s implicit claim, stripping away authoritative revelation doesn’t leave us with a historical point by which to reenter the Christian worldview. Instead, we are left with nothing.
It’s only through the Bible we even know Jesus. The Bible isn’t merely the biography of Jesus, it’s the redemptive Word of God. It’s impossible to begin with a historical figure quite apart from supernatural, authoritative revelation and inductively reconstruct the authority and inerrancy of Scripture.
But let’s assume it’s not impossible to reason inductively from Jesus to the authoritative revelation of God. If the brute fact of Jesus Christ of Nazareth somehow entails theological conservatism with respect to the doctrine of Scripture – as evidentialists claim in response to those concerned about theological liberalism – then why are we patronizing unbelievers by saying there’s no need for us to defend the Bible against their objections to it? Of course there is.
Evidentialists seek to set the authority of Scripture aside when engaging with unbelievers, and rush to pick it back up when defending against charges that their methodology implies the worst sort of theological liberalism. Can’t we just be straightforward about this? Stop trying to be cute. Preach the Word as the Word. Jesus didn’t apologize for the Bible, and neither should we.
The exchange between Moore and Stanley puts a number of points in stark contrast and brings clarity to the relationship between apologetic methodology and preaching. Stanley rightfully applies consistent evidentialist apologetics to the persuasive element of his preaching. Note well Stanley has rejected the tendency to atomize theology, apologetics, and preaching. He should be commended for this, even if we disagree with where it leads him. Stanley is right to be so consistent. In doing so, he reminds us of the importance of presenting and defending the gospel first and foremost, and of the crucial practice of presenting rational evidences as outlined above. However, we are to preach and defend the gospel upon the basis of the authority of the Word of God. The authoritative nature of the Word of God should not lead Christians to blush, it should lead us to be bold.