Sunday, December 02, 2018

Getting Unhitched

Andy Stanley wants us to “unhitch the old from the new”.

By “old”, he means our Old Testament. By “new”, he means ... okay, you get that.

By “unhitch”, he means declaring the Old Testament so obsolete, incorrect and potentially faith-destroying that we distance ourselves from it rather than try to explain, defend or rationalize it to others.

To say the least, Stanley’s new book, Irresistible: Reclaiming the New that Jesus Unleashed for the World, is a bit of a grenade in the baptistery. It also sounds to me like a sustained argument for intellectual cowardice, but I’ll leave that to Stanley’s readers to decide.

Wrong at the Most Basic Level

Here is Stanley’s basic claim, and it’s a significant indictment:
“Modern, mainstream Christianity is fatally flawed. These flaws make it fragile and indefensible in the public square.”
The main problem, Stanley says, is that:
“[t]he moment we anchor our story to an old covenant narrative and worldview, we lose our case in the marketplace.”
Now, I’m not Doug Wilson, so I’m not about to dedicate a dozen consecutive posts to undressing a book’s arguments one by one, deftly highlighting the flaws in the author’s logic and his use of scripture. Stanley’s mistakes are many, and others will certainly step up to do that dirty job. But it seems to me the earliest and most obvious point at which Stanley misses the boat is in his basic assumptions about the gospel’s first century impact and the potential there may be for us to re-experience the same sort of widespread and speedy spiritual and societal transformation today.

The problem with Stanley’s thesis is this: the thing he so comprehensively disparages as unnecessary, confusing and problematic is one of the primary factors that enabled the gospel to flourish with such range and rapidity in the first century; that is, widespread familiarity with and respect for the Hebrew scriptures.

In short, the Old Testament.

A Few Bright Spots

Before I get to Irresistible’s negatives, let me give Stanley credit for writing a book that draws attention to a very real problem. It is true that evangelical Christians often “blend” the old and new covenants rather than correctly distinguishing them. Many of us miss the point that the church is not Judaism 2.0, but rather something entirely new. Some Christians use the old covenant in wrong and confusing ways. They yank its quotes out of context and misapply them to Christian experience or church life. They adopt its rules haphazardly and with no logical or theological consistency. And, as Stanley argues, an incoherent treatment of the Old Testament often becomes a stumbling block for new and prospective converts to the faith.

These are all fair criticisms, and Stanley makes these points effectively. We would do well to pay attention.

Further, Stanley offers a couple of observations that have real value. I have often wondered what governing principle motivated James’ four prohibitions to the Gentile churches in Acts 15 (“abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality”). Why choose those four things specifically? Stanley argues, “Those four imperatives had nothing to do with keeping the law and everything to do with keeping the peace.” Good answer. The explanation that James was simply asking Gentile believers to be “sensitive to Jewish sensitivities” makes a great deal of sense. I value stuff like that.

A Few Brutal Negatives

Stanley’s homespun folksiness and simple delivery communicate well. Unfortunately, he often veers into outright flippancy. I’ll acknowledge I’ve been accused of being too colloquial with the scriptures once or twice myself, but, trust me, Stanley takes excessive familiarity to another level entirely. His imaginary dialogue between Father and Son in chapter 10 is profoundly theologically unsound, even borderline blasphemous. Chapter 17’s take on “mutual submission” (a concept I consider at length here) is incoherent nonsense entirely peripheral to his main argument. Stanley also repeatedly conflates the national with the personal (his remarks in chapter 9 about Joshua’s failure to “turn his cheek” are just plain bizarre).

These missteps do not make the book worthless, but they certainly make it more difficult to recommend.

The “Irresistible” Gospel

So was the gospel “irresistible” in the first century? Unlike Stanley, I would argue it was quite resistible, and that many resisted it. While we read of huge numbers of converts, it is evident the preaching of the gospel also triggered wave after wave of violent opposition, both Jewish and Gentile. Any unbiased reading of the book of Acts makes this patently obvious. Even Stanley, under the subheading “The Resisters” in Chapter 1, concedes the teaching of Jesus encountered significant pushback.

I’m going to chalk up his repeated use of “irresistible” to rhetorical excess. It simply does not reflect reality.

What we might reasonably concede is that the gospel achieved unprecedented results in the first century and it impacted the entire known world of its day. If that’s all Stanley’s saying, I’d probably be okay with it. However, Stanley goes much further. He argues the first century impact of the gospel is reproducible in our modern world, and that the only thing preventing the gospel from impacting our culture in a huge way is that the message has been adulterated and watered down, becoming an admixture or “blending” of the Old and New Covenants. Thus, having effectively robbed the gospel its transformative power, we Christians should hardly be surprised at the world’s comparative lack of interest in the product we are selling.

The First Century Gospel

Needless to say, I find this a questionable conclusion. But let’s grant Stanley’s point for the sake of argument. If in fact the first century gospel was “irresistible”, why exactly was that?

It was not just because the Lord’s disciples were excessively loving in ways we are not, as Stanley argues. Not initially at least. Love may eventually have been a significant factor in the gospel’s broader appeal, but three thousand people became believers in a single day without seeing Christian love displayed at all. The believers’ reputation for love came later.

It was definitely not because the apostles preached a gospel disconnected from its Old Testament roots so as to maximize the time they spent exploring the subject of Christ and the implications of his life, death and resurrection. Rather, it was always the Old Testament scriptures to which the apostles appealed as authoritative in their gospel preaching.

Spreading Like Wildfire

As I have mentioned elsewhere, the gospel spread like wildfire in the first century precisely because God had put all the necessary pieces in place centuries prior. As James noted when the apostles and elders gathered in Jerusalem to discuss the issue of imposing the Law of Moses on Gentiles, “from ancient generations Moses has had in every city those who proclaim him, for he is read every Sabbath in the synagogues.” In the first century, the prophecy of Isaiah was reading material not just for Jews but for Ethiopian eunuchs.

Ironically, the fact that the whole world of James’ day had access to an obscure set of Jewish laws was a function of Israel’s disobedience. There was no need to preach Moses to the Gentiles in the first century because Jews and Israelites taken captive by successive world powers in previous years had brought their beliefs with them, exporting them across the entire known world. There were (as there are today) synagogues almost everywhere. A foundation had been laid upon which the One who had come to fulfill the Law would, from heaven, build his church.

The pieces were all in place, and the harvest was ready to be brought in. The Lord Jesus said so himself. And it was the Old Testament, with its message of repeated human failure, looming judgment and the promise of atonement, that made the case for the necessity of the Christ whom Peter and the apostles proclaimed.

The Gospel in the Post-Christian West

Our circumstances in the post-Christian West are so far removed from those of the first century as to make any comparison unrealistic. The average person on the street today is almost completely ignorant of the Old Testament, and I would agree with Stanley that we are better to get to the critical aspects of the gospel message as quickly as possible, the things that are necessary for salvation. My go-to book for the unsaved is the gospel of John. New believers need to start with Christ and work backward, I think. In a world of chronically short attention spans and almost no familiarity with the Hebrew scriptures, any other approach is unrealistic.

But Stanley is not just arguing for introducing the content of the Old Testament later on in the experience of discipleship in order to explain, illuminate, expand upon and buttress the knowledge and faith of young believers. He’s arguing for disconnecting from it almost entirely, especially whenever it raises awkward questions or introduces cultural concepts that might offend moderns. “Would you consider unhitching your teaching of what it means to follow Jesus from all things old covenant?” he asks.

To “unhitch” ourselves from the law, prophecy and history that inform the teaching of the New Testament is like arguing that a building can be expected to stand once we have gutted its foundation.

Good luck with that.

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