Earlier this week, The Christian Post contributor Mark Creech wrote an op-ed, “Andy Stanley’s tweet about the Bible is seductive and harmful,” referring to a now-deleted tweet by Rev. Andy Stanley, pastor of North Point Community Church, which said:
“The Christian faith doesn’t rise and fall on the accuracy of 66 ancient documents. It rises and falls on the identity of a single individual: Jesus of Nazareth.”
Like Creech, I was involved in the “Conservative Resurgence” in Southern Baptist life in the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s. While it was true that moderates and liberals were badly overrepresented in the denomination’s organizational and educational apparatus, the vast majority of rank-and-file Southern Baptists believed that the Bible was inerrant and had “truth, without any mixture of error, for its matter.”
One reason this representational imbalance developed in the ‘50s, ‘60s, and early ‘70s was precisely because of the confusion generated by affirmations like Rev. Stanley’s Twitter statement.
Andy Stanley’s tweet does surface a vitally important theological issue that at best generated a great deal of doctrinal confusion, and at worst masked significant doctrinal drift. Whatever Rev. Stanley meant by his statement, he violated one of the most important responsibilities a Christian leader must take very seriously — to not be misunderstood.
I will leave it to Rev. Stanley to explain more what he did, or did not, mean by making the statement that he did.
However, I want to pivot from individual personalities to the issue itself, because it raises perhaps the most central epistemological issue in Christianity – “How do we know what we know?” and “How do we know who Jesus is?”
The surface emotional appeal of the statement that our faith “rises and falls” on the person of Jesus, not the Bible is clear. This sentiment has echoed down through the generations of the Christian faith in various forms such as “No King but Jesus!” and “My only confessional statement is ‘Jesus is Lord.’”
However, in reality, what this sentiment does is set up a false dichotomy between Jesus and the New Testament. When people tell me, “I worship Jesus, not the Bible,” I ask them, “I believe in the Jesus who is the virgin-born, incarnate son of God. Which Jesus do you mean? I believe in the Jesus who said, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life, no man cometh unto the Father but by me.’” Which Jesus do you mean?
A popular recent variant of this sentiment is the rise of the “Red Letter Christian” movement, based on the assertion that the “very words of Jesus,” often printed in red in the Gospels, are somehow more authoritative than the rest of the New Testament text. As one Southern Baptist “red letter” advocate once put it to me, rather unctuously, “All the words in the New Testament are important, but we must give preeminence to the very words of Jesus!”
I replied, “Well, let’s do that. In the Gospel of John, Jesus was preparing the disciples for His imminent departure. He told them,
“I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. But when He, the Spirit of truth, comes, He will guide you into all the truth.” (Jn. 16:12-13)
This was Jesus’ prophecy to His disciples of the coming of the Holy Spirit in a new and mighty way at Pentecost. Jesus is telling the Apostles that He was limited in what He could tell them because of their spiritual limitations, not His.
The transformational spiritual change in Simon Peter after Pentecost is illustrative of the revolutionary change of now being permanently indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Observing Peter’s actions and sermon at Pentecost, it is as if he went into a spiritual phone booth and put on a spiritual Superman suit.
As the Apostle Paul explains in his Epistle to the Ephesian Christians, after Pentecost God made of the “twain one new man.” As the great early church father John Chrysostom put it, it was as if God took a statue of silver (the Jews), and a statue of lead (the Gentiles), and melted them down and created a statue of gold.”
So if we are going to take “the very words of Jesus” seriously and literally, we should use the Epistles (revelation that is the fulfillment of Jesus’ promise in John 16), a revelation not restricted by the disciples’ pre-Pentecost spiritual limitations.
Given this instruction from Jesus, we should use Acts through Revelation to interpret Matthew through John in the same way we use the New Testament to interpret the Old Testament.
Furthermore, when we start asserting that we follow Jesus Himself, not any doctrinal understanding of Him, we open the door to fatal subjectivity.
Everyone has an ultimate authority in their lives, whether they are aware of it, or acknowledge it, or not. When you have conflicts and choices in life, whatever your ultimate default position is, is your ultimate authority.
If a person asserts he is following Jesus and that disciple’s faith is untethered from the objectivity of the New Testament text, then he has made his “experience” the ultimate authority in his life. And a person’s experience can be wrong. Over time you can have each person following his own autobiographical Jesus, one that meets his own unique ego needs. And this Jesus may have little, if any, relationship to the Jesus who actually lived, and still lives to make intercession on our behalf.
Experience can be misunderstood. Thus, it should always be subordinate to, and guided by the teachings of the New Testament text. For example, if I have an “experience” that contradicts the teachings of the New Testament, then my experience is to be rejected, not the New Testament. A demonic spirit could come into my bedroom tonight impersonating Jesus, and this impersonator could tell me, “Jesus in His mercy was going to save everyone regardless of their faith. Consequently, don’t worry about evangelizing anyone.” That could be a real experience, but it would be wrong because it contradicts the clear teaching of the New Testament (John 14:6). My experience does not validate or trump the New Testament. The New Testament validates or invalidates my experience.
In the end, such statements seeking to separate the authority of Holy Scripture from the person and work of Jesus Christ can too easily be used to undermine and confuse both the nature of His person and His work.
It must also be said that the Jesus who is revealed in the New Testament must be accepted personally as Savior and Lord. Volumes of theological knowledge will not serve as a substitute for that one-to-one personal relationship which is the necessary beginning point of being born again as a Christian. He must not be just the Lord and Savior, but your Lord and Savior (first person singular). Head knowledge alone will never suffice.
While the journey of salvation in Christ must commence in that first person singular relationship with Jesus, we can never be all that God designed us to be without fellowship, worship, and service with our fellow Christians in the church, which is the bride of Christ. It is only corporately and together that we can plumb the depths, scale the heights, and embrace the breadth of all that Jesus has for us in this life.
Dr. Richard Land, BA (Princeton, magna cum laude); D.Phil. (Oxford); Th.M (New Orleans Seminary). Dr. Land served as President of Southern Evangelical Seminary from July 2013 until July 2021. Upon his retirement, he was honored as President Emeritus and he continues to serve as an Adjunct Professor of Theology & Ethics. Dr. Land previously served as President of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (1988-2013) where he was also honored as President Emeritus upon his retirement. Dr. Land has also served as an Executive Editor and columnist for The Christian Post since 2011.
Dr. Land explores many timely and critical topics in his daily radio feature, “Bringing Every Thought Captive,” and in his weekly column for CP.