The Old, the New, and Andy Stanley

February 4, 2019 at 5:15 am Leave a comment


It’s not easy leading in a church.  And when a church has an average of almost 40,000 people a weekend in attendance, the challenges of leadership become utterly unique.  Yet, these are the challenges that Andy Stanley, pastor of North Point Ministries in Alpharetta, Georgia, is faced with on a day-to-day basis.  In this church are not only people who are firm in their faith, but people who are questioning faith or even people who have no faith at all – at least in Jesus.

Reaching people who are on the outskirts of faith is Andy Stanley’s passion and a big motivating factor behind why he wrote his latest book, Irresistible.  In it, he explains:

The decline of Christianity in America, the popularity of the New Atheists, and the meteoric rise of the nones underscore something that’s been true for generations but didn’t matter much until now.  Modern, mainstream Christianity is fatally flawed.  These flaws make it fragile and indefensible in the public square. (17)

Stanley’s desire is to make Christianity defensible and, as the title of his book declares, even irresistible to a modern’s ears.  It is a noble desire and one which he and I share.  Indeed, I have learned a lot from Stanley and have a great deal of respect for him and for all he has given the church-at-large.  I do, however, have some concerns with – and have received some questions about – his book.  His central claim, in his own words, is that:

…our current versions of the Christian faith need to be stripped of a variety of old covenant leftovers … We are dragging along a litany of old covenant concepts and assumptions that slow us down, divide us up, and confuse those standing on the outside peering in. (92)

In other words, out with the Old (Testament), and in with the New (Testament).

Stanley does not lack boldness in his proposal.  He claims:

The church fathers…immediately went to work harmonizing the old covenant with the new to make it play nice with the teachings of Jesus and the apostles.  The reinterpreted, allegorized, and rebranded them to make them line up with developing Christian thought and theology. (155)

The church fathers are certainly not infallible.  Some of their interpretative moves are questionable.  But to dismiss their collective wisdom on how the Old and New Testaments work together in favor of some long-lost insight you have just recently discovered strikes me as awfully dangerous.  Stanley goes on:

The church fathers’ primary interest in the Jewish Scriptures was neither historical nor cultural.  Their primary interest was Christological.  They were convinced the Jews did not recognize and thus accept Jesus as Messiah because they didn’t know how to interpret their own prophets.  No surprise, the church fathers had little interest in the interpretation of Jewish Scriptures.  So they went looking for Jesus.

And they found Him.

Everywhere.  (155)

This is true.  The church fathers did have a habit of finding Jesus under every rock.  Kind of like the apostle Paul:

The Israelites all ate the same spiritual food  and drank the same spiritual drink; for they drank from the spiritual rock that accompanied them, and that rock was Christ.  (1 Corinthians 10:3-4)

Wait.  What?  Christ was with the Israelites in the desert as they wandered on their way to the Promised Land?  If you believe Paul, He was.  The church fathers were simply doing what Paul had already done.

It is also true that the church fathers thought the Jews did not know how to interpret their own Scriptures.  Kind of like Jesus:  “If you believed Moses, you would believe Me, for he wrote about Me” (John 5:46).  Maybe the church fathers were on to something.

Stanley makes other questionable claims about why we should unhitch our faith from the old covenant.  For instance, he argues that the Old Testament has no real concept of life after death:

If you asked an ancient Jew how one could know for sure they were going to heaven, they may have responded by asking you what made you think anybody went to heaven.  Most ancient Jews didn’t believe in an afterlife.  Why?  Their Scriptures didn’t assume one.  In the Old Testament, when people died, it was assumed they went to Sheol.  But Sheol wasn’t an actual place.  It was the term used to describe the realm of the dead. (165)

It seems as though Stanley may have conflated “going to heaven when you die” with any kind of an afterlife.  Just because ancient Jews didn’t necessarily believe in “going to heaven when you die” doesn’t mean they didn’t believe in an afterlife.  Many of them – indeed, most of them – believed in a resurrection from death after death, à la the prophet Daniel:

Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.  (Daniel 12:2)

In fact, the resurrection was a major bone of contention between two religious groups in Jesus’ day:  the Pharisees, who did believe in a resurrection, and the Sadducees, who did not (cf. Acts 23:8).  So, I’m not sure how my promise of a resurrection from Jesus is better than the promise of a resurrection in Daniel.  They’re the same promise.  Probably because they were made by the same God.

Stanley spends a great deal of time arguing that Jesus, Paul, Peter, John, and others argued that it was time for the old covenant to go.  But is this really what they argued?

In His Sermon on the Mount, Jesus declares:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished.  (Matthew 5:17-18)

Stanley comments:

What did He mean by everything?  And what happens to the law after “everything is accomplished”?  The implication is that the law might “disappear” once everything is accomplished.  And clearly Jesus was planning to be involved in the accomplishing. (108)

This is true.  But notice the timer that Jesus sets for His final accomplishment.  Everything will be accomplished when “heaven and earth disappear,” that is, on the Last Day.  When Jesus returns, we will no longer need the law’s guidelines against sin because we will be perfected from sin.  But until that time, the law still matters.  This is why Jesus continues:

Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.  (Matthew 5:19)

Jesus then works through selected passages from the Old Testament and not only upholds them, but strengthens them.  He not only teaches against murder, He gets at the root of murder:  anger (Matthew 5:21-22).  He not only teaches against adultery, He attacks the foundation of adultery:  lust (Matthew 5:27-28).  He not only upholds the principle of not escalating violence, taking only “eye for eye, and tooth for tooth,” He encourages the de-escalation of violence, calling His disciples to “turn the other cheek” (Matthew 5:38-39).

It is true that just because the Old Testament says it doesn’t mean we do it.  For example, I – and, I would guess, you – are not slaughtering and sacrificing animals in our backyards.  But this is not because the sacrificial system didn’t or doesn’t matter.  It mattered and matters supremely because of what it points to:  “the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Hebrews 10:10).

Stanley is correct that, over the years, Christians have misinterpreted and misapplied many passages from the Old Testament.  In an interview with Outreach Magazine, he rattles off a catalogue of popular misuses of Old Testament passages and principles:

Some fundamentalist preachers rail about God’s judgment against America, preaching from the Hebrew prophets. Others view tsunamis as God’s punishment of Muslims, quoting texts about His judgment of “the nations.” Teenagers graduating high school end up thinking Jeremiah 29:11’s “plans to prosper you” is a promise from God straight to them, never mind the context. They’re just being quietly set up to lose their faith when that doesn’t feel like it pans out.

God’s promises to Israel are not God’s promises to Americans.  Cherry-picking our way through the Old Testament just sets us up for problems.

This is most certainly true.  But the misapplication of the Old Testament does not equate to the non-application the Old Testament.

To use Stanley’s own metaphor, what is truly needed in our application of the Old Testament is a professional cherry-picker – someone who knows what in the law continues, what in the law has been abrogated, and what in the law was never meant for us.  Thankfully, we have a professional cherry-picker.  His name is Jesus.  Ben Witherington, in his book The Indelible Image, explains it well:

Jesus, as God’s Wisdom come in person, acts with sovereign freedom when it comes to the law.  Sometimes He intensifies its demands, sometimes He sets aside its demands, sometimes He affirms its demands, sometimes He offers a new teaching that can in some cases supplement and in others supplant previous teaching.  (32)

As I have already noted, Stanley’s concern with our use of and appeal to the Old Testament is in large part an evangelical one.  The stories in the Old Testament are just so weird.  They raise so many questions and are attacked by so many scientists, philosophers, and secularists.  This is true.  But, the story of a man who rises from death is pretty weird, too.  This is why “the message of the cross is foolishness” (1 Corinthians 1:18).  Eventually, we’re going to have to contend with some weird stuff and believe some weird claims.

Stanley is right when he notes that, for most people, even the objections of science, philosophy, and secularism aren’t their real objections against Christianity:

For post-Christians, science, philosophy, and reason are the go-tos for worldviews and decision making.  Post Christians, especially post-Christian millennials, have low to no tolerance for faith-based answers to fact-based questions.  At the same time, like most of us, they aren’t exactly on a truth quest either.  They’re on a happiness quest.  Many walked away from faith because faith didn’t make them happy.  That’s never a presenting reason.  Nobody wants to appear that shallow.  But scratch beneath the surface and you’ll find the quest for happiness plays a big role.  When faith becomes an impediment to happiness, good-bye faith.  (269)

Amen and amen.  So what’s the answer?  How do we call people who are on a happiness quest to Jesus?  By unhitching our faith from the Old Testament?  I believe the answer is in calling people to faith in Jesus like Jesus:

Whoever wants to be My disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow Me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for Me will find it. (Matthew 16:24-25)

Wow.  How many people today would ever take Jesus up on an invitation like this?  By last count, about 2.3 billion.

Perhaps Jesus’ invitation has a power beyond our desire for happiness.

 

 

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