Christianity,  Theology/Bible

More on the Poison Pill: Responding to Stanley, McKnight, and Bird

Last week, I wrote a blog post critiquing Andy Stanley’s brief remarks about the historicity of Adam and Eve. In short, I concluded that his remarks were a “poison pill” for the doctrine of scripture. Even after Stanley responded in the comments underneath that post (here, here, here), I believe that my concerns still stand.

Since then, both Scot McKnight and Michael Bird have suggested that I have erred in my critique of Stanley. Bird says he was “deeply frustrated” by what I wrote while McKnight said my reflections were a “failure to think theologically.”

This has been an interesting exchange, to say the very least. And I hope that carrying it forward will be clarifying and helpful to readers. So I want to respond to each of these in turn and invite further discussion and response. If you haven’t done so already, I encourage you to read my original post as well as those by McKnight and Bird.

Response to Andy Stanley

Stanley’s comments were very brief, but he still tries to clarify his earlier remarks by saying this:

Perhaps the confusion stems from the fact that I was suggesting an approach to talking about “The Bible” in a culture that is no longer moved by “The Bible says.” But I do believe the epicenter of the faith is something that actually happened.

If I understand him correctly, Stanley is saying that he was not articulating a doctrine of scripture but a strategy for engaging people who don’t believe in the Bible. Is he suggesting that we can evangelize people in ways that call into question the reliability and authority of scripture? I cannot imagine a scenario in which it would ever be helpful or right to tell someone that I believe something but “not because the Bible says so.” When trying to convince someone that the Bible’s message is true, why would I tell them that,

The foundation of our faith is not the Scripture. The foundation of our faith is not the infallibility of the Bible… The Scripture is simply a collection of ancient documents.

These kinds of statements do not engender confidence in God’s written word. If anything, they seem to denigrate scripture. I cannot imagine speaking of the Bible like this to anyone, much less to unbelievers.

One final thing: Stanley affirms another commenter who says that “believing in verbal plenary inspiration is not required for being an evangelical.” I wonder if Stanley really meant to communicate that verbal plenary inspiration is a “take-it-or-leave-it” option for evangelicals. If he did, I ardently disagree.

Response to Scot McKnight

McKnight contends that I have a “Word problem” and a “canon problem.” My Word problem is that I have failed to “think theologically about the Bible as the Word, and the Word as Christ.” I am frankly not sure where this critique is coming from. My post says nothing to disaffirm the reality of both the written word and the living word. In fact, I affirm both. My point is simply that we cannot know Jesus apart from special revelation, and that special revelation comes to us as the written word of God. McKnight seems to agree with this when he says that we know what we know about Jesus because “the Everlasting Word Before Time, chose to ‘Word’ the Word into words.” In short, we can only know Jesus through the Bible. Since that’s precisely the point I was making, I’m not sure why McKnight cites this as a disagreement.

My canon problem—according to McKnight—is that I have failed to recognize that Jesus’ authority is both logically and chronologically prior to the existence of the canon. He writes, “So any articulation of our faith that is not first God in his authority before Scripture’s authority makes a fundamental mistake.” Again, I am not sure where McKnight is getting this from. Of course Jesus precedes the canon. He precedes everything (John 1:1-3)! I think we all agree on that. My point is simply that we cannot know this preexistent Christ apart from Scripture, so it’s not helpful to suggest that we might (as Andy Stanley does).

Response to Michael Bird

Bird takes issue with my statement that the Bible is the “foundation” for Christian faith. He believes such a formulation to be a “recent post-Protestant innovation” that assumes a “mass produced Bible-culture” and that ignores the masses of Christians throughout the ages who have not owned Bibles.

But I would argue that Bird has a non sequitur embedded in his critique. To speak of the Bible as “foundation” does not imply that everyone can read or own a Bible. I would say that Christians who followed Athanasius against Arius were standing on a biblical “foundation.” I do not mean by that that every peasant in fourth century North Africa owned a Bible. That’s absurd. I simply mean that the faith that they held derived from scripture, however it was communicated to them (either through preaching, the reading of scripture in church, or any other means of transmission).

As I mentioned in my original post, the “foundation” language drives from scripture itself. On more than one occasion Paul referred to the apostolic message as the “foundation” (1 Cor. 3:10-12; Eph. 2:20). If Paul spoke that way, I think we can as well. In that sense, we are on solid ground in calling the Bible the “foundation” for Christian faith. This is hardly “a recent post-Protestant innovation.”

In my original post, I contended that apart from the Bible there is no salvation. Bird thinks that this is “Christologically disastrous” and that this suggests that one can be saved by the Bible apart from Christ. This critique pushes language to the brink. I wonder if Bird would offer the same critique of David’s words in Psalm 19:7, “The law of the LORD is perfect, restoring the soul.” Wouldn’t Bird’s objection go something like this if applied to Psalm 19? “Surely David had it wrong. The law cannot restore the soul. Shouldn’t David have said that God restores the soul?” If that objection hits wide of the mark with Psalm 19, then I think it does with my statement as well. We can multiply passages of scripture which speak of the message as the means of salvation (Rom. 1:16; 1 Cor. 1:18). Everyone knows that such language never implies that the message operates independently of the One proclaimed in the message.

Bird also turns his critique upon my denomination’s statement of faith, The Baptist Faith & Message 2000 (BF&M). I hold to this confession without any reservation, and I am happy to defend the BF&M against all-comers. Bird says that he agrees with the 1963 revision of BF&M, which reads, “The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.” Yet this is precisely the section that theological liberals used to pit Jesus against other parts of scripture. The 2000 revision removed that pretext for undermining the authority and integrity of scripture. I wonder if Bird is aware of this history of interpretation of the BF&M.

Bird also objects that the BF&M 2000 “replaces our Deliverer with Doctrine!!” This objection hits wide of the mark as well. The words in question actually refer to the preamble, and not to the confession itself. Anyone reading the confession itself would be hard-pressed to make the case that Jesus somehow gets displaced by “doctrine.” For instance, consider the section on “God the Son” (II.B):

Christ is the eternal Son of God. In His incarnation as Jesus Christ He was conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. Jesus perfectly revealed and did the will of God, taking upon Himself human nature with its demands and necessities and identifying Himself completely with mankind yet without sin. He honored the divine law by His personal obedience, and in His substitutionary death on the cross He made provision for the redemption of men from sin. He was raised from the dead with a glorified body and appeared to His disciples as the person who was with them before His crucifixion. He ascended into heaven and is now exalted at the right hand of God where He is the One Mediator, fully God, fully man, in whose Person is effected the reconciliation between God and man. He will return in power and glory to judge the world and to consummate His redemptive mission. He now dwells in all believers as the living and ever present Lord.

I leave it to the reader to judge whether the BF&M 2000 really “replaces our Deliverer with Doctrine.” I don’t think so.

I am very grateful to Stanley, McKnight, and Bird for taking time to read and interact with my post. These matters are not trivial. The doctrine of scripture is foundational, and at a time when it is so contested it is worth every effort to get it right.


  • Todd Pruitt

    Excellent response. Frankly, I did not understand the responses from McKnight and Bird. They were objecting to things you did not assert. In fact the responses seemed strange as if they were trying their best to object to something, anything. They come too close to Stanley’s error of making Scripture less than necessary to our knowledge of Christ.

    • Dan Narva

      Todd, seeing your name here reminds me of your recent podcast with Carl Trueman on Rosaria Butterfield’s “Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert”; like yourself, I’d seen Dr. Truman’s review and finally broke down and bought the book months later. In fact, I’d just listened to it again last night. Her book and the lessons gleaned from it simply won’t go away!

      Relative to this matter, I’m struck by how powerfully God used the Bible in the process of Mrs. Butterfield’s conversion, prefaced by the hospitality offered to her by the Smiths. I can only surmise that the Smiths were unashamed of the Bible and yet were still able to offer her gentleness and an ability to honestly engage with her many questions, flowing out of their own familiarity with the Scriptures and a rock-solid understanding of the doctrine of Scripture which is rooted in their Scripture-summarizing confession of faith. As for Mrs. Butterfield’s voracious reading of the Scriptures, it puts many of us evangelicals to shame. This is one of those matters that Dr. Trueman hit upon in his earlier review that impressed upon me that “Unlikely Convert” was a book I was going to want to read!

      From my own evangelical perspective, this matter has taken on some significance because of the wide outreach and influence of Stanley’s church and its ministry resources. Many churches use their materials and try to pattern themselves to varying degrees after North Point, so I have an interest in seeing how this matter unfolds as I look after my own family. I understand that not every resource it offers has Stanley’s thumbprints on it, but there’s an implicit association there that is difficult to ignore.

  • debirussell

    Just began to follow this discussion. I am asking for clarification on the point you are making about not being able to receive salvation apart from the Bible. If I understand you correctly, you are saying the foundational truth regarding salvation as expressed in the bible is necessary for receiving salvation? If so I agree, but would add that as a wife of a church planting missionary, we are seeing many come to Christ by way of dreams and visions- especially in the Middle East. The experiences are incredible, and yet as the new believers will often say, they knew God would send them someone to help them understand how to begin to follow this Jesus they just put their trust in to save them. So while their faith was received by the truth’s expressed through scripture, it was apart from any knowledge they possessed about scripture in that moment.

  • Donny monk

    Good job, Denny. Your response was presented thoughtfully and respectfully. I also believe that if Stanley was trying to make his statements to present Christ to people who don’t believe in the Bible, he is only furthering their distrust of the written word. Of course, it is because Jesus actually died and rose again that we can be redeemed. But, it is because the Bible relates the story, in light of the whole of Scripture, that we even know it happened, what it means and why it is essential to our relationship with God.

  • Joseph Randall

    Preach on Brother Denny! “Christ is all!” in the Bible! And we would not know “Christ is all!” unless the Bible told us so!! In every inerrant, perfectly inspired jot and tittle of it!

  • steve graves

    I have enjoyed the dialogue – it’s always good to hear challenging conversation about things that matter. I don’t profess to speak for Andy Stanley, but, being familiar with his ministry, I wonder if his original point was “saying that we believe in something ‘because the Bible says so’ isn’t persuasive to people who currently don’t care what the Bible says.” Wasn’t he speaking to pastors about how to communicate with those who do not yet have a personal relationship with God through Christ?
    Would you agree that leading with “because the Bible says so” may not be the most effective evangelistic approach with people who don’t submit to the authority of scripture? That doesn’t mean we don’t want to lead them toward the authority of scripture. It’s just that referencing the authority of scripture isn’t authoritative for people who do not yet believe.
    Hope all is well for you and your family… -Steve

    • Denny Burk

      Hey, Steve! Great to hear from you, bro.

      The Bible has a self-authenticating power that can break through unbelief. So even in evangelistic encounters, I think we can be bold to declare what the Bible says and even to say, “the Bible says…” I do that all the time in evangelistic conversations.

      In evangelistic conversations with those who have a studied unbelief, I still think we should be bold to make direct appeals to scripture. If they question the veracity of scripture, then it would be appropriate to try and persuade critics of the truthfulness and reliability of scripture. If appealing to Jesus’ view of the OT helps toward that end, then by all means we should make that case. I’m for using whatever means of persuasion possible to get people to see the reasonableness of our faith in scripture.

      The problem with Stanley’s remarks is that he seems to go beyond a mere apologetic appeal to Jesus’ view of scripture. He says that “The Scripture is simply a collection of ancient documents” and that “You can believe the Adam and Eve story is a creation myth—so what?” He ends up affirming Adam and Eve, but “not because the Bible says so.” All of this seems to place a disjunction between Jesus and his word.

      If Stanley did not intend to communicate that, I think he should say so. I don’t know why he lets the confusion ride. I think he could clear things up really easily.

      Great to hear from you, bro. I welcome your critical feedback! Blessings!

  • Daniel

    I was a bit confused by McKnight’s piece. It sounded like some kind of bizarre theopoetics instead of a reasoned response. Thank you for your clarifying remarks!

  • Scott Lencke

    Denny –

    Thanks for your continued interaction. It’s good to think through all the aspects of a doctrine of Scripture.

    In your response to McKnight, you say: My point is simply that we cannot know Jesus apart from special revelation, and that special revelation comes to us as the written word of God…….My point is simply that we cannot know this preexistent Christ apart from Scripture

    It seems you are arguing special revelation = the Bible only. While I do not negate that Scripture is a primary part of God’s special revelation (which McKnight, Bird & Stanley would most certainly agree), I think there will always be problems when we make statements that seem to conclude the Bible is the only aspect of special revelation. There are just too many factors that tell us otherwise.

    In my interaction on your previous article, I mentioned the more holistic perspective of the Wesleyan quadrilateral – that it is Scripture, tradition, reason & experience that help us know God’s revelation. It never has been Scripture only that helps us know the revelation of God, and I don’t think God intended it that during ‘Bible times’ or post-first century. Many will speak of the subjective nature of the latter 3 aspects. But we can still very much know truth, even if we cannot function in the realm of absolute objectivity. We walk about each and every day engaging with things on some subjective level, since we are both finite and fallen. However, we can reasonably and adequately know truth. We are fallen and finite, but we can reasonably know God’s revelation in Scripture, as well as through the tradition of church historic, the use of our mental faculties and our experience both directly of God’s work and indirectly in general life.

    Not to mention that we actually don’t have a canon without the church fathers coming to a decision (not to mention that there are 4 canons of Scripture available). I don’t say any of this to denigrate Scripture (nor am I even trying to put tradition above Scripture). I simply want to point out that it’s not as simple nor clear as we evangelicals try and claim at times. Things are much more fluid & organic, if not also a tad bit messy. I have no doubt of God’s providential work in the forming of a general canon (again, ‘general’, because we were never given a heavenly list of what should go in).

    So we actually can and do know our God in Christ through varying capacities. It was never only through Scripture.

    With Bird’s critique, what I think is more important is that the word of God is normally proclaimed first. Even in Scripture, most of the writings came out of a) knowing the living Word and b) proclaiming the living Word. Not to mention that words such as ‘word’, ‘word of the Lord’, ‘word of God’, etc, very rarely refer to the written graphe Scripture. Again, the written Scripture is very important. But so much of the language we use seems to come from a perspective that forgets that the written word came out of the first proclaimed word, which found it’s life from the living Word. Even Heb 4:12 is speaking more holistically than a canon of Scripture (it’s not even speaking of the OT before an NT was completed).

    This becomes real when we proclaim the word of God today without the quotation of Scripture. Preaching finds the Scripture as a foundation. But the Bible is not an instruction manual with all the details laid out in it. Not to mention that, as a continuationist, I very much believe God can speak a word, his word, in the moment. It doesn’t mean it’s contradicting Scripture, but that it is the preached word para-Scripture, alongside Scripture. Even Scripture shows that not all of the prophetic/preached word of God that cuts like a two-edged sword found it’s way in the pages of the canon. Look at 1 Sam 10:9-13 and 1 Tim 1:18-19.

    You also state: On more than one occasion Paul referred to the apostolic message as the “foundation” (1 Cor. 3:10-12; Eph. 2:20).

    It actually tells us that the people themselves, the apostles and prophets, were the foundation, rather than their message or written down message. Now, of course, these people wrote a lot of things down that became foundational in our Scripture. But, again, they were living people speaking living words, which would later get put into the written graphe of Scripture. So I think your assessment of 1 Cor 3 and Eph 2:20 doesn’t actually fall in line with what the context is communicating.

    I apologise for a lot of words in my comments. I simply think it important to see evangelicals treasure the Scripture, but also to remember that thing are much more holistic and organic than we claim from our more systematic approach. The word of God is found through Scripture. But it’s never been the only place for the kerygma, preached, prophetic and living word to be proclaimed. I think if we keep teaching such very stringent things about Scripture and the word of God, it will keep us from enjoying the larger context of the word of God that is sharper than any two-edged sword.

    And, in the end, we are called ‘Christians’ because our foundation is Christ. As I quoted in the last article: Many Christians today believe in Christ because of the Bible. But the early church believed in the Bible because of Christ. One takes great precedence. It moves like this: Christ –> word of God –> Scripture –> Christ.

  • Tyler Wittman


    I detect some areas where you guys are talking past one another. Perhaps this could be attenuated to an extent if you more carefully drew out precisely *how* Scripture is a ‘foundation’.

    The Protestant scholastics preferred to use the term ‘principle’, rather than foundation, and were very careful to say that God is not only the object of theology but its ontological principle. Following from this, the external principle by which we know God is his self-communication, of which Scripture is the sole instance *in the post-apostolic church* (that’s crucial, obviously). Finally, the Holy Spirit’s vivifying activity is the internal principle by which we know God. By holding together the external and internal principles by which we know, we hold together Word and Spirit. This is commensurate with Calvin and the sixteenth century Reformed theologians, as well as the 17th century divines.

    One of the virtues of these distinctions is that they keep us from attributing some kind of intrinsic power to the Bible by which it moves its readers and from attributing to Scripture the material priority that belongs to God alone. Very few of our Protestant forebears ever went so far as to predicate that the Bible possessed an intrinsic power to move its readers and none of the ones I’ve read (16th/17th centuries) have ever denied that God’s own knowledge was the material ‘foundation’ (rather, read: principle) of our faith. Rather, they stressed that the Bible was an instrument of God (a creaturely reality cannot be anything more) that owed its status and function as an external cogntive principle on God’s self-knowledge (ontological) and the Spirit’s ministry of the Word (internal).

    If you were clearer about these distinctions, you might find more ground with your interlocutors and more clarity with your own concerns.

    Kind regards,

    • Scott Lencke

      Tyler –

      You stated: Following from this, the external principle by which we know God is his self-communication, of which Scripture is the sole instance *in the post-apostolic church*

      The interesting thing is that the Scripture that was canonised ‘post-apostolic church’ never communicates that Scripture would be the sole instance of God’s self-communication. Now, the trajectory could have been set-up in Scripture, which makes us conclude this would be the conclusion. But we’ve got to work out that trajectory in some form.

      Having said that, the interesting things is that, as you also recognise, the Scripture is never solely understood on its own terms. You say the Bible has no ‘intrinsic power’, and I would agree. Scripture is understood ultimately through the work of the Spirit who gives it its God-breathed character. But this, then, technically means there is an ‘external principle by which we know God’s self-communication.’ Now, as I don’t want to pit Jesus and Scripture against one another, neither do I want to do so with the Spirit and Scripture. But there will always be THE absolute by which we engage with Scripture, that being our Triune God himself. And, I’d even argue epistemologically that our understanding of Scripture, though maybe not always coming from a direct enlightening work of the Spirit, still is understood through ‘external principles’ such as tradition, reason, study, natural theology/general revelation, etc.

      Our God has been communicating from the beginning, now inscripturated in Scripture (though also communicating para-Scriptural while the canon was being formed). God will continue to be a communicative living person in the age to come. Why would be not continue in this period from, say, second century AD until the consummation of all things? This is his nature, why would it be any different now?

      • Tyler Wittman

        Scott, thanks for the interaction. We probably simply disagree on some of the finer details and I’m happy to just leave it at that; these issues have been debated by finer minds than ours and I’m sure you’d agree that we more wisely consult those records than hashing things out on a blog. Whatever we make of tradition, reason, or ‘natural’ theology, Protestants have no choice but to place them beneath God’s inscripturated revelation. As Turretin says, ‘God indeed was not bound to the Scriptures, but he has bound us to them’.

        • Scott Lencke

          Tyler –

          Thanks for the interaction back. I hope I’m not sounding argumentative. Doctrine of Scripture is my passion, what I’m hoping to do my PhD dissertation on at this point. I love Scripture with a passion, have given so much of time to reading, studying, and submitting my life to its teaching. However, I think we, as evangelicals, can pull the strings a bit too tight at times. I think it can cause problems. As you said: Whatever we make of tradition, reason, or ‘natural’ theology, Protestants have no choice but to place them beneath God’s inscripturated revelation. And I greatly believe in the primacy of Scripture. However, you stated in your first comment that Scripture is the sole instance of God’s self-revelation in the post-apostolic church. It is primary, but never sole.

  • Mike DiVita

    Thank you Denny for teaching Sola Scriptura, because without Scripture Christians have no real guidance or arguments. Even McKnight and Bird use Scripture to comment and make points. The Berean’s in Acts 17 used Scripture to test what Paul was saying. Is there any other way for us to know the truth that Jesus wanted us to follow? (ll Tim 3:16)

  • Robert Hogue

    I’m looking for insight not confrontation.

    Just before I came here I read something about apostasy which said:

    > In any case, the move from orthodoxy to apostasy occurs over time and starts at the top. The leadership, usually adjusting their theology in order to “stay in step” with society, begins by conforming their beliefs and churches and ministries down in order to “stay relevant.” <

    To me is appears that Andy Stanley's original statement and his subsequent clarification both show his desire to stay in step with society and be relevant.

    Would it be right to consider this an example of the beginnings of apostasy?

  • Judi Bennett

    Andy is such a wonderful communicator and doesn’t intimidate new “visitors” with heavy scriptures, complicated theology in Hebrew, Greek or Aramaic. He makes them feel comfortable enough to listen and not bail out after 10 minutes. Its effective and has helped me in explaining things to my friends. Thank you Andy. He doesn’t slight the bible or gloss over issues. He has a very intuitive grasp on what new church goers or recovering Catholics need to hear upfront.

  • Bill Smith

    Andy Stanley is obviously a good communicator. It is difficult to argue with this statement. Having said this, it is good that Andy is being challenged about his understanding of Scripture and theology. Part of what this discussion brings out is that we have underlying beliefs about the importance of clear theological thinking. I find it interesting to see how readily Mcknight comes to Stanley’s defense in this case but does not say anything about the fact that Andy’s gospel message fits squarely within the gospel Mcknight severely critiques in his book The King Jesus Gospel.

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