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Mere sponge cake

The problems with Stanleyism


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Frequently asked question by WORLD members: What do you think of Andy Stanley’s book, Irresistible (Zondervan, 2018)?

Answer: I’m impressed and depressed. Stanley notes rightly that “skinny jeans and moving lights” won’t keep many young people from abandoning Christianity. But he argues that the way to hold them, and win others who say they’re “spiritual,” is to abandon the hard things in the Bible and emphasize a smiling Jesus. C.S. Lewis brought us Mere Christianity. Pastor Stanley brings us Mere Sponge Cake.

Is that a harsh review? Let’s take a run through Irresistible. Its first 80 pages winsomely and validly critique vanilla church life. Stanley’s complaints get more pointed on page 90 when he complains about Old Testament “leftovers” (and does that five times in five pages). He clarifies this on page 137: “The Ten Commandments have no authority over you. None. To be clear: Thou shalt not obey the Ten Commandments.”

How bad is the OT? On page 144 we learn, “It only takes a small dose of the wrong thing to corrupt the whole thing. Even a pinch of the old covenant will corrupt the taste and texture of the new covenant.” But—page 166—the OT “is a fabulous source of inspiration. Old Testament narratives are rich in courage, valor, and sacrifice. Everybody faces a Goliath or two.”

If we unhitch the church from the Old Testament, we lose its powerful documentation of how deep our sin problem is.

That sounds like Steve Martin’s comically inspirational speech about a bandit leader in Three Amigos: “In a way, all of us have an El Guapo to face someday. For some, shyness might be their El Guapo. For others, a lack of education might be their El Guapo.” How many bad sermons start with a Bible verse, turn to contemporary issues or what the pastor did on his vacation, and never get back to what the Bible is actually saying?

But back to Stanley’s book: His prescription on page 227 is, “If we love well, all is well. Period. That’s it. Love well, and you’re in the light.” That’s different from the OT teaching he describes on pages 251 and 257, “In the Old Testament [God] got so angry, he drowned ’em all. … He allowed his own temple to be torn down and then put everybody in time-out. … [Now,] he’s not angry.”

What’s the problem with Stanleyism? First, his description of the two testaments—anger-suffused old vs. love-infused new—is inaccurate. The OT more than 20 times shows the “angry” God emphasizing compassion. The New Testament concludes with Chapter 9 of Revelation showing one-third of mankind slain, Chapter 14 reporting a 180-mile-long, 4-foot-deep stream of blood, and Chapter 16 describing plagues worse than those in Exodus.

Second, Jesus warns against attacks on the OT. He says in Chapter 16 of Luke, “If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.” Jesus in Chapter 5 of John tells critics that if they don’t believe what Moses wrote, “how will you believe my words?” He declares in the Sermon on the Mount, “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.” Stanley mentions on page 168 one verse countering his thesis, “All Scripture is God-breathed,” but he doesn’t engage with it. Stanley doesn’t even mention other Biblical teaching that undercuts his thesis.

Third, if we unhitch the church from the OT, we lose its powerful documentation of how deep our sin problem is: Choose a people, give them chosen leaders and prophets, give them a land and good laws, and they still mess up. Plus, the OT repeatedly points to the NT: Abraham’s almost-sacrifice of his only son makes no sense unless it’s preparing us for God the Father’s sacrifice of His only Son. Stanley makes it seem he’s discovered something, but he’s largely repeating the 1,900-year-old anti-OT errors of Marcion and the 100-year-old errors of liberal preachers and writers such as Harry Emerson Fosdick.

Fourth, Stanley’s wrong to say that it’s his way or the highway for postmoderns. New York pastor Tim Keller’s full-Bible exegetical preaching has reached thousands of those Stanley sees as unreachable unless we jettison the OT. The intelligent design movement is showing we don’t have to worship Darwin. Maybe Stanley can draw in readers and listeners with sponge cake, but they will need more nutrition.


Marvin Olasky

Marvin is the former editor in chief of WORLD, having retired in January 2022, and former dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism.

@MarvinOlasky

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