Friday, February 09, 2007


At the moment I'm reading about 10-15 authors on Christology. They range, via their theological presuppositions, from 'right' to 'left' - or 'high' to 'low' Christologies - respectively: the Creeds of the first five centuries CE, Pope Benedict XVI, Josh McDowell, CSLewis, Leon Morris, John Stott, Gordon Fee, Paul Barnett, Gerald O'Collins, Alister McGrath, Ben Witherington III, N T Wright, B.A. Gerrish, Ernst Kasemann, James Dunn, Karl Barth, L. Michael White, Philip Gulley & James Mulholland, Rudolf Bultmann, Marcus Borg, John Dominic Crossan, and Barbara Thiering.

Some of these, of course, may be, in varying degrees, 'lightweight/ derivative' (especially Josh McDowell), but they mostly (with the possible exception of Gerrish, and maybe Paul Barnett) have a large Christian - and even non-Christian - readership. Neither Stott (a pastor and teacher/ apologist) nor CSLewis (a scholar primarily in the areas of medieval literature and literary criticism) nor Gulley/Mulholland (whose recent book on Universalism - 'If Grace is True: Why God Will Save Every Person' is climbing the Christian best-seller lists in the U.S.) would claim, I think, to be professional theologians. Apart from these all the others would. Anyone want to rearrange my generalized order - from conservative to radical?

John Stott is the English-speaking world's highest-profile and most acclaimed 'evangelical'. We have lunched together, corresponded a bit, mentioned each other 'in despatches' (John Stott commended me to a congregation in Vancouver, British Columbia, which soon after called us to the pastorate there) and Jan and I were privileged to attend his 80th birthday celebration at the Albert Hall in London a couple of years ago: a great man, who has, with CSLewis, influenced more undergraduates around the world in the last half-century towards an informed acceptance of the Christian faith than anyone else. (Watch for my review of Timothy Dudley-Smith's two-volume biography of Stott: generally inspiring, and worth anyone's investing time to read, though you'll have to skim a lot of unnecessary/irrelevant details!).

John Stott's 'The Incomparable Christ' (IVP, 2001) puts into print his A.D. 2000 London Lectures on Contemporary Christianity. The book is divided into four sections: 'The Original Jesus' (NT Gospels, Acts, Letters); 'The Ecclesiastical Jesus' (how the church has viewed Jesus, from Justin Martyr to the Lausanne confessions of the 20th century); 'The Influential Jesus' (how he has inspired people from St. Francis to Tolstoy, from Gandhi to Roland Allen, from Father Damien to William Wilberforce); and 'The Eternal Jesus' (based on ten visions from the book of Revelation).

The then Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. George Carey, wrote in the Foreword: 'John... falls into the classic Anglican tradition of the "teaching pastor"... And... according to no less an authority than David Edwards, "With the exception of William Temple, John Stott is the most influential clergyman in the Church of England of the twentieth century".'

Stott's Introduction is, as you would expect, highly critical of the three scholarly 'Quests of the historical Jesus', especially the work of the 'Jesus Seminar': '[Funk's and Crossan's] book "The Five Gospels: what did Jesus really say?" (the fifth being the apocryphal Gospel of Thomas)concluded that in their view "82% of the words ascribed to Jesus in the Gospels were not actually spoken by him". Now they have turned from an examination of the words of Jesus to his works. Their study is not likely to be any more profitable, however, as their criteria are largely subjective.' Stott is a little less dismissive of form criticism ('preoccupied with the concerns of the early church') and redaction criticism ('preoccupied rather with the concerns of the individual gospel authors'), rather emphasizing that the gospel authors are primarily evangelists, 'consciously proclaiming the gospel, and theologians, developing their own distinctive emphasis.'

John Stott then generally ignores - except for brief quotes/citations here and there - the work of modern scholars/theologians, with the notable exception of N.T. Wright (more on him below). For example, the first chapter on 'The Gospel of Matthew: Christ the fulfilment of Scripture' is classical orthodoxy. You won't find any reference to the problem of 'prophecy historicized' as Marcus Borg and others put it. Matthew's Christ was simply the fulfilment of prophecy, the law and of Israel.

Albert Schweitzer's declaration that he saw no discernible continuity between Jesus and Paul is dismissed in favour of David Wenham's 'massive overlap' between the two. Stott follows the ancient tradition of assuming the Pauline authorship of the 13 letters attributed to him.

Stott quotes A.M. Hunter with approval: 'There is a growing recognition of the essential unity of the New Testament... a unity that transcends and dominates all diversities'. And also Oscar Cullmann's condemnation of New Testament scholars who take 'an almost sadistic pleasure' in finding apparent discrepancies.' He is dubious about James Dunn's notion that 'Any attempt to find a single, once-for-all, unifying kerygma [in the NT] is bound to fail' but he does like Dunn's concession that there is a 'unifying element' in the 'unity between the historical Jesus and the exalted Christ'. Stott: 'The four gospels complement each other; they do not contradict each other.' And he likes Bishop Stephen Neill's 'It is the view of many competent scholars today that all the fragments of Christian tradition which we possess in the New Testament bear witness with singular unanimity to one single historical figure, unlike any other that has ever walked [the earth]...'

He concludes the first section with 'We pay our tribute to the original Jesus, the Jesus of the New Testament witness, who is the incomparable Christ.'

In Part II 'The Ecclesiastical Jesus' Stott begins with the assertion that 'In contrast to the "one Lord" of the diverse yet united witness of the New Testament, the church has displayed a remarkable ingenuity in adapting, shaping, and presenting its own images of Christ.' I don't think anyone will argue with the second part of that sentence! Stott then has an excellent summary of (and endorses) the high Christology of the first four ecumenical councils. In summary: 'The Council of Nicea (325) secured the truth that Jesus is truly God, while the Council of Constantinople (381) secured that Jesus is truly human. Next, the Council of Ephesus (431) secured that, although both God and man, Jesus is only one person, while the Council of Chalcedon (451) secured that, although one person, he had two natures, divine and human.'

John Stott's high Christology is then affirmed in a succession of quotes. Samples: 'The debate about Christology was a debate about salvation, for only a Saviour who is fully divine and fully human could represent both sides and reconcile us to God.' The second Anglican Article (1563): 'The Son, who is the Word of the Father, begotten from everlasting of the Father, the very and eternal God, and of one substance with the Father, took man's nature, so that two whole and perfect natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were joined together in one person.' Pope Leo's 'Tome': 'Christ is God and Christ is man. The two natures co-exist. Neither nature diminishes anything or adds anything to the properties of the other.' And paraphrasing the Anglican scholar-pastor Charles Simeon: 'Jesus Christ was neither God pretending to be human, nor a human being with divine faculties, nor semi-divine and semi-human, but fully human and fully divine, the unique God-man.'

The book then takes a journey in Part II through Christian history, from Benedict's 'Christ the Perfect Monk' to N T Wright's 'Christ the Jewish Messiah' and the 20th century missionary councils' 'Christ the global Lord'.

A few comments:

* Stott is critical of the monastic movement 'glorifying retreat from the world; it could be a denial of the incarnation' without noting that many/most conservative Christians may be essentially monastic, having only like-minded Christians for their friends.

* Stott likes 'Abelard's passion' and 'Anselm's logic' and calls for a combination of the two for a more 'Scriptural' view of the atonement (and yet in his book 'The Cross of Christ' the idea of the atonement as demonstrating God's love is, I believe, subordinated to substitutionary/forensic views.

* Dr Tom Wright's championing of 'Christian orthodoxy over against (for example) the radical reductionism of the "Jesus Seminar"' is applauded, but Stott chides Wright's 'ambivalence' about Jesus believing that he was 'in some sense divine'.

The Third section 'The Influential Jesus (or how he has inspired people)' is quite inspiring. I won't refer to those stories here, as they reveal little about the high/low Christology which is my special interest at the moment.

Finally, we take a journey through the book of Revelation. Summary: 'Thus Jesus Christ, who originated all things as Creator, will consummate all things as Judge. For he is 'the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End (Rev. 22:13). These very same titles are attributed both to God (1:8) and to Christ (1:17; 22:13).'

A very challenging and inspiring book. Scholars to the theological left of Stott - particularly those like Marcus Borg and the Jesus Seminar people - will say it's all too orthodox and simplistic. But, then, even most of my clergy-friends don't understand what 'history metaphorized' means, and are not inclined to find such concepts grist for preaching. As Professor B. A. Gerrish puts it a little cynically: 'Is faith really at the mercy of the latest report of the quest for the historical Jesus?' (Christian Century, October 13, 1999, p. 971).

A criticism then a little homily:

It's a pity that Stott mainly uses the sexist (and evangelically-biassed)

NIV throughout. (Eg. 'The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world'; 'The Lord does not look at the things man looks at'; 'The dwelling of God is with men' etc.).

John Stott concludes his book with a story which the late Donald Coggan, former Archbishop of Canterbury sometimes told:

'There was a sculptor once, so they say, who sculpted a statue of our Lord. And people came from great distances to see it - Christ in all his strength and tenderness. They would walk all around the statue, trying to grasp its splendour, looking at it now from this angle, now from that. Yet still its grandeur eluded them, until they consulted the sculptor himself. He would invariably reply "There's only one angle from which this statue can be truly seen. You must kneel!"'

Rowland Croucher

April 2005.

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