Friday, July 27, 2012

A Tribute to John Stott One Year after His Death

John Stott on the coast in his native land
(image @

Today marks the first anniversary of the death of John R. W. Stott, CBE, the Anglican clergyman and chaplain to Queen Elizabeth II of whom journalist David Brooks once wrote , "if evangelicals could elect a pope, Stott is the person they would likely choose."  Despite his distinct Englishness (or perhaps because of it?), Stott was an almost universally respected figure in American evangelical circles.  Upon his death, tributes poured forth, memorial services were conducted, and a general sense ensued that evangelicalism had lost a champion who would be, if not irreplaceable, a man whose shoes would be exceedingly difficult to fill.

In the ensuing year, some reassessment of Stott's legacy has taken place, most significantly in a short biography by Alister Chapman of Westmont College.  Carl Trueman of Westminster Seminary has also had a lot to say, lamenting the "uncritical adulation" and lack of "critical appreciation" manifested by Stott's hagiographers.  Though positively disposed to Stott, Trueman finds fault (his words: "the problems with him were") with Stott's "protology, eschatology, and ecclesiology," comparing him unfavorably to the two men he considers the most significant for 20th century British evangelicalism, J. I. Packer and Martin Lloyd-Jones.  He likewise compares Stott unfavorably to Packer in his "suspicion of systematic theology" and "increasing interest in social activism."  He even ties some of Stott's perceived faults to his upper class background, particularly his sense of noblesse oblige (would that more of the American upper class retained such a sense) and his favorable disposition to the notion of conditional immortality:
It seems more than coincidental that the great Anglican evangelical advocates of conditional immortality -- (probably) Stott, Wenham and Hughes -- were all public school chaps who no doubt played cricket in their heyday and would have had a sense of what was and what was not fair play instilled into them at an early age. English public school natural theology is somewhat different to that of the state schools.

Well, no one is perfect, after all, and Trueman is right to remind us of this.  Nevertheless, Trueman's absolute statement of Stott's putative theological deficiencies presumes an established position from which to cast judgement.  Was Stott's decision to remain within the Anglican Church a better thing to do than heed Lloyd-Jones's call in 1966 for evangelicals to leave their liberal denominations?  Perhaps, perhaps not.  One thing I do know is that evangelicals have had a more prominent role in that church recently than they did back in the 1960s — indeed, one of them, Tom Wright, even ascended to the bishopric of Durham.  Trueman is perfectly entitled to disagree with Stott, but this is not simply a black-and-white issue.  The same goes with his condemnation of Stott's protology and eschatology.  With the former I suppose he is referring to Stott's advocacy of theistic evolution, and from the case of Pete Enns at Westminster we know where Trueman stands on that issue.  But this is a hermeneutical and interpretative issue, not one of biblical authority, especially considering Stott's insistence on the historicity of Adam in his Romans commentary (Stott indeed once told me he was an "inerrancy man").  And as an Anglican, we must remember, Stott was never beholden to the Westminster standards Trueman, as an Ortodox Presbyterian, must uphold.  Similarly, it is difficult for me to claim that an "eschatology" that involves a possible advocacy of conditional immortality — "annihilationism," for those unused to the terminology is "problematic."  Such a position may or (more likely) may not be correct.  But the point is this: anyone who doesn't feel any moral or intellectual difficulties with the doctrine of eternal conscious torment is either unreflective or heartless.  Perhaps Stott's "public school" background and Cambridge education influenced him in this regard.  But I likewise have certain misgivings about what I still think is the likely teaching of the Bible on the matter — and, I must remind you, I attended Haverford High, not the Haverford School.

I count it one of the privileges of my life to have met this man and conversed with him back in 1987 at the home of my late friend and teacher, Harold Hoehner.  In contrast to Trueman, I consider Stott one of the three most significant British evangelicals of the 20th century, along with New Testament scholars F. F. Bruce and I. Howard Marshall (no doubt due to my being a New Testament guy rather than a confessional church historian).  In particular, I appreciate Stott for the following:

1.  Stott wedded a strong sense of scholarship to clear proclamation of the Word and evangelization of the lost.  There are lots of good preachers with silver tongues.  But of all I have ever heard, Stott is only matched by James Montgomery Boice as one whose clarity and deceiving simplicity of proclamation reflected an academically responsible understanding of the biblical text.  And from his early work on university campuses in the UK, he never lost sight of the imperative to "make disciples of all nations."

2.  Stott had a global vision for mission.  Whether or not this was tied to his upbringing in imperial Britain and the legacy of Empire, he understood rightly that the gospel message is not a peculiarly "Western" message, but must be taken to the ends of the earth.  Stott may have remained an "upper class" figure his entire life, but he used his means for the furtherance of the gospel.

3.  Stott is arguably the most important figure for demonstrating to Western evangelicals that social concern and social justice are non-negotiable aspects or dimensions of the gospel message.  As the primary drafter of the landmark 1974 Lausanne Covenant (see also his  exposition and commentary on the covenant), he is largely responsible for moving evangelicals beyond the dualistic divide that severs the "spiritual" message of the gospel from the eschatological framework in which it must be heard.  And Stott lived his message.  The product of the upper class, he nevertheless lived a simple, unassuming life, taking residence in a two-room mews flat above the All Souls Church rectory garage in 1970, remaining there until 2007 (older dispensationalists may see some similarity here with the life of Lewis Sperry Chafer).

4.  Stott was an unapologetic theologian of the cross.  Indeed, Stott's greatest legacy may well turn out to be his landmark work, The Cross of Christ, which carried on the worthy tradition of fine British expositions such as was earlier manifested in 1903 by James Denney.  In an admirably clear style, Stott defends the notion that the "self-substitution of God" in penal judgment lies at the heart of the New Testament teaching on Christ's death.  But he does not leave the matter there.  He adds the needed, but often neglected, discussion of "living under the cross," tying the cross to Christian behavior and discipleship in a way that was uncomfortable to many American evangelicals, myself included, at that time.  Most importantly, however, he ties the cross to the issue of what it says about God.  In one of the most powerful things he ever wrote, Stott says:
I would never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross.  The only God I believe in is the One Nietzsche ridiculed as 'God on the cross'.  In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?  I have entered many Buddhist temples in different Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of the Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world.  But each time after a while I have had to turn away.  And in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from those thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in God-forsaken darkness.  That is the God for me!  He laid aside his immunity to pain.  He endured our world of flesh and blood, tears and death.  He suffered for us.  Our sufferings become more manageable in the light of his.  There is still a question mark against human suffering, but over it we boldly stamp another mark, the cross which symbolizes divine suffering. [quoting P. T. Forsyth] 'The cross of Christ ... is God's only self-justification in such a world' as ours. (335-36)
5.  Finally, Stott was an unabashed proclaimer of the Lordship of Christ.  In the Christianity in which I was raised (basically, Charles Ryrie-styled dispensational fundamentalism), "clarity" was of the essence in proclaiming the gospel.  That meant a simple presentation of penal substitutionary atonement and justification by faith.  I have had mush to say about this elsewhere.  Here I would like to focus on one thing that defined such thinking, namely, the assertion that the insistence on accepting Christ's Lordship "muddied" the gospel by compromising the doctrine of justification by faith.  As I now see it, such thinking has no more justification (pun intended) than Rudolf Bultmann's notion that tying faith to history compromised the classic Reformation doctrine.  Fundamental to my change of thinking to what I now consider a more biblical view was an address I heard given by Stott in April 1976 at the Philadelphia Conference on Reformed Theology.  Yesterday morning I found my old cassette of that address and gave it another listen.  I close by citing a wonderful section that, for me, epitomises Stott's influence on my life:
It has been customary in some evangelical circles, and as regrettable as it has been customary, to distinguish rather sharply between Jesus the Savior and Jesus the Lord.  It has even been suggested in some evangelical circles that it is possible, and even respectable, to trust in Jesus as your Savior and not surrender to him as your Lord.  I don't hesitate to say that such teaching is biblically indefensible.  For not only is Jesus "our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ," the one indivisible Christ, but his Lordship implies his salvation and actually announces it. ... It is impossible to affirm Jesus as Lord without thereby affirming that Jesus is Savior.  For Christ's title "the Lord" is a symbol of his victory over all the forces of evil.  If Jesus has been exalted, as indeed he has, over all the principalities and the powers of evil, this is the reason why he has been called Lord.  If Jesus has been proclaimed Lord, which he has, it is because all these principalities and powers are under his feet.  He has conquered them on the cross, and therefore our salvation that is to say, our rescue from sin, from Satan, from fear, and from death is due to the victory of Jesus over evil and his consequent Lordship.  And, my friends, it is a failure to recognize the supreme Lordship of Jesus which accounts for the semi-salvation from which so many of us suffer.  And we're only semi-saved because we don't really believe in the Lordship of Jesus, in his victory over evil.  And our salvation is due to his victory over evil.  It's because of his victory over evil that he is Lord and Savior. ... It is because he is Lord that he is our Savior.  So we begin to understand that the notion of a Jesus who is Savior but not Lord is too grotesque to contemplate.  No salvation without Lordship is the doctrine of the New Testament.
Soli Deo Gloria!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful anniversary assessment, which I have just read. You may be interested to know of a newly-published title: 'John Stott's Right Hand: The untold story of Frances Whitehead' (J E M Cameron, Piquant, 2014). It gives unique insights into Stott, and explores the 55-year-long Stott-Whitehead partnership. (It's widely acknowledged that she was closer to him than anyone else, and that he could not have achieved what he did without her at his side.) They were both, in Mark Labberton's words, 'fast, exacting and determined'. This book - 60,000 words - combines a serious view of their joint legacy with laugh-out-loud anecdotes. Frances Whitehead's family history, traced back 200 years, shows the hand of God's providence in bringing them together. It is a story that John Stott himself hoped would one day be told. Available from all internet booksellers. I write as author.