What Shall We Say About Andy Stanley’s Hermeneutics? A Response to His Relevant Piece

But for all who are in Christ, who are truly His, we can say this with utter confidence: the old has gone, and the new has come.

Andy Stanley recently published a piece on the relationship between the old and the new covenants. Not long ago, Stanley made major waves with some less-than-careful statements (seen in the best light) about this complex hermeneutical matter. I interviewed theologian R. Albert Mohler, Jr. on my podcast—City of God—to try and help the church work through what Stanley brought to the table.

Stanley’s newer piece is for Relevant magazine. It is definitely an improvement over his previous remarks, though it still leaves us needing clarity in several places. Stanley, we note, is writing on a subject over which there is nothing less than tremendous disagreement in evangelical circles. The complex of matters he is engaging include the relationship between old covenant law and the new covenant church, for example. Does the old covenant law still apply to the believer? Do parts or aspects of it apply, whether its moral, ceremonial, or civil element? Is the Old Testament’s teaching fulfilled, abolished, or outmoded? Stanley is far from the first to enter these conversations. Baptists and Presbyterians have significant and historic disagreements over these matters, but the disagreements do not stop there—there are numerous camps within Baptist circles alone.

The questions Stanley is raising, in other words, are salutary questions. We need not be scared of this conversation. Further, I agree with Stanley when he notes that many Christians do not have a rich understanding of the hermeneutical relationship between the old and new covenants. Our lack of clarity does indeed lead us into odd places, as Stanley suggests. Are we obeying the Ten Words? Is it wrong for me to work on Sunday? Did Jesus fulfill the Sabbath, or do I still obey it? How does this fit into “already-not yet” eschatology given that Jesus indicates he has fulfilled the temple in his person, as one example (even as the fullest fulfillment awaits us in the new heavens and new earth)?

These are not glancing questions or minor concerns. Hermeneutics shapes life. I’ll be making this point in my upcoming Hermeneutics class at Midwestern Seminary (January 7-11, 2019 in Kansas City—maybe you should join us!). We don’t necessarily think about this truth consciously as Christians, but we surely know it at a practical level. I remember wondering as a college-age Christian whether I could work on Sunday, as mentioned above. Was that biblically wrong? Was it fine? Few people seemed to have a good answer, honestly. Confusion reigned in my mind. For this reason, I am deeply thankful for the movement known as progressive covenantalism. I believe this system helps us understand a) the importance of proper biblical theology, b) the indissoluble connection between the covenants, c) the punctuated fulfillment that comes in the New Testament through the person and work of Jesus Christ, the Messiah and d) the way we live as new covenant believers. To read more on this system, see this book and this book and this book and this book.

Back to Stanley. He argues in his Relevant piece that the law of Christ serves “as a replacement for everything in the existing list.” This includes, in his view, the ten commandments. We need to handle with care at this point. At an overarching level, I would not use the language of “replacement,” but would personally prefer that of fulfillment. Jesus has fulfilled the old covenant law. His teaching is the teaching which binds the present-day believer. The old covenant is “abolished” or “obsolete” as Hebrews teaches, but this does not mean that the old covenant law is devalued and of no use to Christians (Hebrews 7:22, 8:13). The New Testament is built upon the granite foundation of the Old Testament. No, the Old does not bind the believer (with thanks to Dispensationalists on this point). Yes, the New is that which directs the life and worship of the Christian. But this in no way entails that the Old Testament God is a different God than the God of the New Testament (with thanks to paedo-covenantalists on this point). Further, the ethical and theological teaching of the old covenant is not outmoded, but rather brought to perfect fulfillment in the teaching of Christ and his apostles.

These are as I have noted very tricky matters. Good-hearted saints disagree over these things. For our purposes, we must take great care that we communicate that the ethics and theology of the old covenant are not rendered deficient by new covenant teaching, but rather are brought to their apex. We must read the relationship between the covenants in terms of promise and fulfillment. We should see that the New Testament does not break with the Old Testament, as if it has a radically different body of theology and ethics to offer followers of God, but rather brings old covenant teaching and symbolism to its God-ordained apex. This is why Christ and his apostles continually cite and draw upon the “Scriptures” (nearly 300 direct citations in all, to say nothing of allusions and other textual connections).

These things may seem obvious, but they are not necessarily so. For example, when you try to understand the theology of sexuality in Scripture, you should not only look at the New Testament. Instead, you should work cross-biblically. That is, you should see how the Old Testament approaches homosexuality, and then you should see how the New Testament handles it. There is as I have already noted an indissoluble connection between the two. The teaching of the New is built upon the foundation of the Old. But only the New binds the believer, for Jesus is the figure in whom all the promises of the Old come to fruition and flowering (Matthew 5:17-20). The old covenant no longer binds us, but take care here: the old covenant still teaches us. That is, it shows us the moral will of God. Neither jot nor tittle of the Old Testament is devalued, outmoded, or purposeless. To the contrary, the New brings the teaching of the Old to its rightful conclusion in Christ.

Some of what Stanley says, therefore, I as a Baptist can affirm. Others of his propositions still need rounding out for me to fully grasp his meaning. He says this at one point: “We have an incessant habit of reaching back into old covenant concepts, teachings, sayings, and narratives to support our own teachings, sayings, and narratives.” If this means that we sometimes pick and choose which OT directives to obey, then I basically agree with Stanley’s critique here. But if he means that we should not source the OT to form a full-orbed, biblical-theological ethic and worldview, then I must disagree with him (see previous couple paragraphs).

Then there are statements Stanley offers that set my theological hair on edge:

The justifications Christians have used since the fourth century to mistreat people find their roots in old covenant practices and values. Imagine trying to leverage the Sermon on the Mount to start an inquisition, launch a crusade, or incite a pogrom against Jews. But reach back into the old covenant, and there’s plenty to work with.

This deserves much fuller fleshing out. As it stands, it is at best inadequate and unhelpful. At worst, Stanley seems to be in danger of making the very serious mistake we found in his interview during the summer months. We must reiterate—as Mohler and I did in our podcast conversation—that the “values” of the old covenant have not been replaced by better values, as the above comment seems to suggest. The law which binds the believer in the new covenant era is the law of Christ, the law of love per 1 Corinthians 13 and 2 Corinthians 3 and 5, but we dare not affirm any system that represents new covenant “values” as improving those of the old covenant. Here we are on very dangerous ground, ground that is roiled by Marcionite destabilization. We are perilously close to the view that new covenant theology proper shows God to be pure love and old covenant theology proper renders God angry and unhinged. This we can in no way affirm. The justice God wreaks upon the earth due to sin in the Old Testament is but a dim shadow of the justice with which God will visit the earth in the last days (see Revelation 19-21). Sinners do not deserve God’s love; sinners deserve God’s wrath. The unleashing of just divine wrath for sin does not disappear in the New Testament, but rather comes to full and terrifying conclusion (praise God for the Son, who fulfills in his death the words of Isaiah 53:10).

There is much more one could say about Stanley’s brief Relevant piece. His piece, by the way, offers itself up as public teaching on Scripture, and thus is deserving of public response (just as this humble blog is). It is not the case that Stanley gets to teach publicly, but that anyone who would respond to him must schedule a Starbucks sitdown with him personally (If I was personally and privately wronged by Stanley, or he by me, then we would initially need to address things privately, yes—see Matthew 19). I note as well that I have Stanley’s new book, Irresistible, and I hope to engage it soon.

For now, it is enough to analyze Stanley’s shorter writings and comments. He is a leader of considerable reputation in the evangelical community; he is obviously a gifted communicator. For this reason, we must hope and pray that he will speak with great carefulness and—above all—biblical fidelity. This is no easy task for any of us, and we all stumble in many ways. But for all who are in Christ, who are truly His, we can say this with utter confidence: the old has gone, and the new has come.