Andy Stanley & John Piper debate: If the Bible says it, does that really settle it?

by Michael Foust, Guest Reviewer |

ATLANTA (Christian Examiner) – A controversial sermon by author and Georgia pastor Andy Stanley has led him to clarify and explain some of its most-debated points, and it also has sparked several other well-known ministers to speak out, including author John Piper.

Stanley preached the sermon, titled "The Bible Told Me So," in August -- and almost immediately received pushback. During it, he expressed concern over using the Bible alone to support the validity of the Christianity faith. He also said he prefers not to use phrases such as the "Bible tells me so" or "if the Bible says it, that settles it."

"Christianity does not hang by the thread of 'the Bible tells me so,'" he said.

Stanley argued that young people taught such a mentality will go off to college, be exposed to scientific arguments against the historicity and traditional teachings of Scripture, and then abandon their faith. Christians, he said, should move past a "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so" approach.

"There is an adult version" of Christianity "that is far less fragile," said Stanley, pastor of North Point Community Church in Alpharetta, Ga.

"Christianity does not exist because of the Bible ... any more than you exist because of your birth certificate," he said.

At one point during the sermon, Stanley seemed to doubt the validity of some of the miracles in the Old Testament, but in an Oct. 25 article in Outreach Magazine, Stanley said he had gotten sloppy with his words. He does, he added in the article, believe in the inerrancy of Scripture.

"During [the sermon], I wanted educated, dechurched millennials to know that I knew that those who supposedly know everything are convinced there was no worldwide flood or Hebrew migration from Egypt," Stanley wrote. "While addressing them directly, I gave them the benefit of the doubt to make the following point: Even if those events never occurred, it does nothing to undermine the evidence supporting the resurrection of Jesus and thus the claims he made about himself. And yes ... I know Jesus made claims about the Jewish Scriptures. But this was one sermon in a series of six ... I hadn't gotten to that yet."

Stanley said he believes the Bible "is without error in everything it affirms" and acknowledged that his preaching method "is not traditional." His, goal, he said, is to reach a society that is increasingly skeptical of Christianity – or that has rejected the faith outright.

"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 line," Stanley wrote.

He explained that about eight years ago he adjusted his preaching to "compensate for an increasingly post-Christian audience."

"As part of my shift," Stanley wrote, "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. 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," Stanley added. "The stories of the men and women behind the Scriptures are rich, inspiring and, unfortunately, not as well-known as you might think. ... 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."

Stanley's explanation in Outreach was lengthy at more than 7,000 words, and Piper's article also was long, at 5,000-plus words. Piper is founder of Desiring God and former pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, Minn.

Piper said he had communicated personally with Stanley but added he remains concerned with the direction of his arguments.

"In view of what Jesus and the New Testament writers say about the complete trustworthiness of the Old Testament ('Scripture cannot be broken,' John 10:35), I doubt that generation after generation of teenagers could read that and yet believe at the same time that it does not matter for my faith whether the events of the Old Testament really happened," Piper wrote. "... I am not saying that a person can't be saved without believing in the inerrancy of the Bible. I am saying that making that possibility an apologetic strategy for making Christianity more plausible to one generation will backfire in the next."

Over time, Piper warned, Stanley's approach to Scripture could have an unintended consequence within his audience.

"The evidence for the trustworthiness of the witnesses of the resurrection is too interwoven with the evidence for the inerrancy of the whole Bible," Piper wrote. "I think Stanley is mistaken to think that in the coming generations the edifice of evidence for the gospel can remain standing while surrounding buildings of evidence for the Scriptures collapse."

Piper concluded by urging his audience to join Stanley in caring deeply about winning "post-Christians" to faith in Jesus.

"[J]oin him in moving beyond simplistic and naïve-sounding shibboleths; join him in cultural awareness and insight into your audience; join him in the excellence of his teaching and communication skills; and join him in his belief in the complete truthfulness of the Bible," Piper wrote. "And then spend eight years blowing your people's post-Christian circuits by connecting the voltage of every line in the book of Romans with their brains. When it comes to preaching, nothing is more powerful and self-authenticating than the Spirit-anointed, passionate, expository exultation over the inspired text of Scripture. If you don't believe that, perhaps you have never seen such preaching."