The Debate on Biblical Authority: Mohler vs. Stanley

Debates are often good. What?!? Yes, I reiterate, debates are good. Disagreements, when handled in a godly, civil fashion, can lead to a furtherance of learning and understanding. No one is perhaps better at debating than Baptists…although some Baptist debates lose their godliness and certainly their civility. In the theological world, a debate has been ensuing between Andy Stanley and Dr. R. Albert (Al) Mohler. Stanley is the son of the great Dr. Charles Stanley (pastor of First Baptist Church of Atlanta) and is senior pastor of North Point Community Church also in Atlanta. Dr. Al Mohler is president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Lexington, Kentucky. The debate surrounds the comments made by Stanley in his message “The Bible Told Me So” (see link below). Stanley essentially states that the Bible is not the supreme authority–Christ is. He further goes on to note that if we are to reach individuals in this post-Christian culture, we must appeal to the evidential sources of Christianity and not the Bible alone (Stanley 2016, NorthPoint.org).

Mohler responds to Stanley’s message with a warning. He claims that another individual sought to do what Stanley is supposedly doing. That person is Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of modern theological liberalism. Schleiermacher, says Mohler, sought to “salvage spiritual and moral value out of Christianity while jettisoning its troublesome doctrinal claims, supernatural structure, and dependence upon the Bible. He was certain that his strategy would ‘save’ Christianity from irrelevance” (Mohler 2016, albertmohler.com).[1] Who is right? Well, without trying to straddle the fence, I do believe that both individuals bring important truths to the table.[2] Mohler and Stanley are correct in at least three areas.

mohler

Mohler is right about the authority of Scripture as it relates to the Christian’s life (2 Timothy 3:16).

If there is a serious problem plaguing the modern church, it is the rise of biblical illiteracy. Biblical illiteracy is not going to be solved by avoiding the Bible. In fact, Christian leaders must engage the Bible even more in their messages and lessons. Quick anecdotes and savvy punchlines will not improve the lack of biblical knowledge in our day. It will take in-depth expository messages to turn the tide. Mohler’s high view of Scripture is justified. The apostle Paul wrote to Timothy that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16-17).[3] Paul was addressing the Old Testament Scriptures (also known as the Hebrew Bible). But the New Testament writings would quickly assume the same status. Paul writes to Timothy, “For the Scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it treads out the grain,’ and, ‘The laborer deserves his wages’” (1 Timothy 5:18). The first quote comes from Deuteronomy 25:4. But the second quote is especially interesting. Paul quotes directly from Jesus as recorded in Luke’s Gospel. Notice that Paul says “For the Scripture says.” Paul elevated the Gospels to the same status as the Hebrew Bible. Peter also elevates the epistles of Paul in 2 Peter 3:15-16 when the aged apostle quips, “And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.” Note here again that the New Testament writings are elevated to the status of Scripture. Thus, Mohler is right to be concerned with the lack of Scriptural exposition taking place in many modern churches. It is the Word of God that will bring a change in the lives of believers.

Mohler is right about the inspiration of Scripture as it relates to the final revelation of God (Titus 1:2).

I also share Mohler’s view of Scripture. I hold to the inspiration, infallibility, and inerrancy of Scripture. The logic makes sense. Paul reminds Titus, “for the sake of the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth, which accords with godliness, in hope of eternal life, which God, who never lies, promised before the ages began” (Titus 1:2). God does not lie. It is not that God chooses not to lie. God cannot lie if He is absolutely holy. With this logic in place, it stands to reason that God cannot speak falsehood. Giving that the Bible is the revelation of God, then it only stands to reason that the Bible is true and cannot be false. Thus, a believer should place a high value on the written words given by God. I still remember, and will never forget, the advice given to me when I first entered the ministry. My mentors would say, “If you keep your messages between the covers of Genesis and Revelation, you’re on solid ground. If you go beyond these covers, you’re on your own.” I agree wholeheartedly.

Mohler is right about the safeguard that comes with a high view of Scripture.

I also share Mohler’s concern with the erosion that comes when the safeguard of Scripture is removed. Schleiermacher’s well-intended liberalism, which sought to spare Christianity from the flood of doubt coming its way from the times, led to one Rudolf Bultmann. Bultmann, a German theologian, sought to de-mythologize the Bible by removing all its miraculous content. Bultmann, who was undoubtedly influenced by Humean philosophy,[4] led a movement that would ultimately give rise to such groups as the Jesus Seminar and the like. Liberal theology has led to the doubts of many. Liberal theology has not led to the strengthening nor the salvation of Christianity. In contrast, it has led to many towards atheism and agnosticism. Mohler is right to be concerned with the lack of biblical exposition in modern churches.

While Mohler is right on several points, I find myself in agreement with some of what Stanley says as well. I agree with Stanley on three points.

andy-stanley

Stanley is right about the authority of the Christian tradition as it relates to the final apologetic (1 Corinthians 15:3-9).

Stanley points to the authority of the pre-New Testament traditions and sources. I am surprised that Mohler takes issue with Stanley on this point. The Bible’s authenticity is strengthened by the strong evidence relating to these traditions, creeds, and formulae found in the pages of the New Testament. Perhaps the most important of all these early traditions is that which is found in 1 Corinthians 15:3-9. Here, Paul relates to the Corinthian church what he had received a few years after Christ arose from the dead. Paul writes, “For what I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brethren at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles” (1 Corinthians 15:3-7).

The Bible does not hold authority because it is the Bible. The Bible holds authority because it is the truth. The believer should not worry. Christianity is an evidential faith. Christianity has been tested and it stands on its own. Why? It is because Christ literally rose from the dead. Christ’s resurrection is not a fanciful wish or desire. Christ’s resurrection is reality.

Stanley is right about the primacy of Christ above all else (Colossians 1:15ff).

I also agree with Stanley that we must worship Christ and not the Bible. The reason the Bible is the Word of God is because of God Himself. Thus, the Bible points us to the reality of the triune God. Paul, writing to the church of Colossae, notes that Christ “is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible” (Colossians 1:15-16a). While we must place great emphasis on the Bible, we cannot allow the Bible to itself become an idol. Our worship is of the risen Christ Jesus.

Stanley is right about the need to appeal to evidence to reach the current generation.

I also find myself in agreement with Stanley in the need to provide evidence for the post-Christian generation which we are trying to reach. Most people are not going to listen to what we say about the Bible until they know that there are reasons to accept the Bible as an authentic document. Apologetics is necessary to do evangelism in modern times. William Lane Craig has noted on his podcast, Reasonable Faith, that we are amid an exciting time. An apologetic renaissance has begun. This renaissance is not something to fear. Rather, it is something that Christians, including Mohler, should embrace. This website has noted the resistance that the modern church has held against apologetics, which is quite bizarre.

So, what can one draw from this debate? I think the following conclusion can be made:

Mohler is right in his strong view of Scripture and Stanley is right in his strong view on apologetics: therefore, the appropriate view consists of a blending of both.

Let me say, I respect both Al Mohler and Andy Stanley. Both have contributed greatly to the kingdom of God. However, I think Mohler and Stanley are both guilty of accepting an “either/or” mentality when they should accept a “both/and” approach to this issue. Yes, the Christian should preach and teach the truths found in the Bible. I think Stanley is guilty of taking too low a view of Scripture. 

Yes, the Christian should engage the evidences and promote apologetics. I think Mohler has taken too high a view of Scripture, bordering on the level of fideism.[5] Quite honestly, the modern preacher should seek to find a balance between Mohler and Stanley’s view. The Christian leader would do well to wholeheartedly focus on the truths of God’s Word, discipling people in the truths of the Scripture, while also standing ready to provide evidence for the faith one holds (1 Peter 3:15). Theology and apologetics are two sides of the very same coin. Both are necessary. Both should be sought. Both should be accepted.

© October 3, 2016. Brian Chilton.

Sources Cited

McKnight, Scot. “In the Beginning: The Gospel—Al Mohler vs. Andy Stanley.” Jesus Creed (October 3, 2016). http://www.patheos.com/blogs/jesuscreed/2016/10/03/in-the-beginning-the-gospel/?platform=hootsuite.

Mohler, R. Albert. “For the Bible Tells Me So: Biblical Authority Denied…Again.” AlbertMohler.com (September 26, 2016). http://www.albertmohler.com/2016/09/26/bible-tells-biblical-authority-denied/.

Stanley, Andy. “Why ‘the Bible Says So’ Is Not Enough Anymore.” Outreach Magazine (September 30, 2016). http://www.outreachmagazine.com/features/19900-the-bible-says-so.html/3.

Stanley, Andy. “The Bible Told Me So.” North Point.org (August 28, 2016). http://northpoint.org/messages/who-needs-god/the-bible-told-me-so/.

Notes

[1] For full fairness on this topic and the authors involved, the links to all the writings and resources concerning this debate are posted in the “Sources Cited” section of the article.

[2] In full disclosure, I am a pastor in the Southern Baptist Convention. Even though Mohler is part of the SBC and Stanley has connections to the SBC, I seek to examine the points of view from both participants in this debate.

[3] Unless otherwise noted, all quoted Scripture comes from the English Standard Version (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001, 2007).

[4] Humean philosophy comes from the atheist philosopher David Hume who rejected the miraculous and argued that it was impossible for the miraculous to take place. Furthermore, it assumed that it was impossible to prove that a miraculous event took place in history.

[5] Fideism is the view that faith alone is necessary without any evidence whatsoever. In many ways, fideism is a blind faith and ends up committing a circular reasoning fallacy.

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4 thoughts on “The Debate on Biblical Authority: Mohler vs. Stanley”

  1. Yet the penultimate reality is that JESUS is the LIVING WORD and the Bible is the WRITTEN WORD. JESUS is The CHRIST and the Bible is the Evidence of The CHRIST. There cannot be one without the other within the realm of creation. ‘In the beginning was The WORD’, Living by proclamation and by self-revelation.

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