Andy Stanley, a megachurch Evangelical minister (and the son of Southern Baptist minister Charles Stanley) has ignited what may ultimately prove to be a firestorm in the Evangelical faith by contending that Christians, at least, the vast majority of those in his faith tradition, place too much emphasis on the Bible.
While it’s impossible to parse an individual’s motivations, Stanley apparently is well aware of the effects that 200-year-old biblical scholarship have played in eroding ordinary layperson’s belief in the infallibility of scripture — inerrancy, as the Evangelicals typically describe it.
Stanley still maintains that scripture establishes an incontrovertible argument in support of Christ’s literal resurrection. Beyond this, though, he departs from the longstanding Evangelical argument that the Bible serves as the inerrant, infallible and sole rule of faith.
A Scriptural House of Cards
Stanley is one of several Evangelical leaders who acknowledge that increasing numbers of Christians who grew up in the faith no longer accept biblical inerrancy and that this is leading to an acute theological crisis within the church. He even goes so far to characterize inerrancy as a house of cards that invariably collapses when thoughtful Evangelicals encounter historic or scientific details in the Bible that prove inaccurate or contradictory.
In recent weeks, I and the other members of our United Methodist Sunday School class have viewed a series of Stanley’s sermons on this topic. Needless to say, most of us find this emerging debate with Evangelical circles quite fascinating.
Reinventing the Wheel
Speaking as a United Methodist with strong Anglo-Catholic and via media sympathies, I think that Andy Stanley’s arguments, while valid in many notable respects and, for that matter, long overdue, ultimately may turn out to be a calamity for the Evangelical faith.
For starters, he’s essentially attempting a reinvention of the wheel. Older faith traditions worked through scripture-related challenges long ago. Indeed, the Catholic fathers affirmed more than a millennium ago that the episcopacy and the ancient creeds and liturgy of the church serve as sources of authority along with scripture.
And, of course, the same thing could be said about Orthodox Christianity.
For that matter, other facets of Protestantism have dealt with this issue. The basis of Luther’s theology was not scripture but rather the outcome of his Tower Experience: the realization that human beings are utterly powerless in the face of God’s sovereignty and majesty and that God’s grace, secured by the believer only through faith, supplies all.
And, of course, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who began his ministry as a High Church Anglican, articulated what later became known as the Wesleyan Quadrilateral. While regarding himself as a “man of one book,” Wesley believed that scripture must be interpreted with the wider context of faith, tradition and reason.
A Frontier Legacy
However, scripture — generally speaking, a literal reading of scripture — has always supplied Evangelical Christianity with its paramount source of authority.
Small wonder why: Evangelical Christianity grew out of the exigencies of the frontier experience shared among a mobile and highly, democratic-minded people who had little time for ritual and episcopacy. Many of the residual links to historic Christianity were abandoned. Many frontier evangelists even called for the reintroduction of so-called “New Testament” faith and the abandonment of the creeds and liturgy that had defined Christianity for centuries.
Sola Scriptura (scripture alone) doctrine filled virtually all of the void left behind by the abandonment of these older traditions.
(Of course, the deep hunger for pomp and ritual was never extinguished and was reflected in an almost perfervid frontier passion for Free Masonry and, as many of sons of prosperous frontiersmen pursued college educations, social fraternities. But that’s another story.)
Playing with Fire
This is why I think that Stanley is playing with fire. Eliminating the Bible as the sole rule of authority within the Evangelical faith tradition could very well deal it a mortal blow.
In a very real sense, Evangelical Christianity sans biblical inerrancy is a lot like Catholicism without the Mass or a Pope. It’s simply inconceivable.
What essentially follows post-biblical Evangelical Christianity may be something resembling Unitarianism or, at least, something firmly on the path toward Unitarianism
After all, what is there to substitute within a faith that is characterized by little else but praise songs and scripture-based preaching?
Chicago Call Redux?
A handful of thoughtful Evangelicals have seen this problem looming for decades.
Some 40 years ago, a group of Evangelical intellectuals, troubled by the intellectual and spiritual shortcomings of their faith, issued The Chicago Call — an invitation for their fellow churchman to re-embrace the historic creeds and liturgies of the ancient church.
Individual congregations struggle with these issues in their own unique ways. I recall reading about a Pentecostal church several decades ago that abandoned its open-ended worship practices for the discipline of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, eventually affiliating with one of the Continuing Tradition Anglican churches.
With Stanley and his followers, I see this struggle only intensifying as they abandon what essentially has been the only adhesive that has held Evangelicalism together for so long.
In the end, he and other post-biblical Evangelicals may pay a heavy price. I suspect the result will be a faith that becomes even more reliant on the factors that over the years have arguably worked to its detriment: charismatic leaders who come and go, leaving huge voids in their wake, and endless improvisation, namely the constant recycling and reordering of older practices in an unrelenting search for the new “thing” that will finally turn things around and stanch hemorrhaging numbers.
This will only leave growing numbers of disillusioned Evangelicals searching for more substantive forms of faith or leaving faith entirely.