Wednesday, June 06, 2007

JOHN STOTT: SOME PERSONAL REFLECTIONS


Prompted by reading the two-volume biography of Stott by Timothy Dudley-Smith (IVP 1999, 2001).

John Stott (1921- ) is the English-speaking world's highest-profile and most acclaimed ‘evangelical’. It has been said that if Evangelicals around the world were to elect a Pope, he would be front-runner. Personally he didn’t like the label ‘conservative evangelical’, preferring something like ‘radical conservative evangelical’. We have lunched together, corresponded a bit, mentioned each other 'in despatches' and in 2001 Jan and I were privileged to attend his 80th birthday celebration at London’s Royal Albert Hall (where he spoke for five or six minutes: a brilliant, carefully crafted summary of his Christian philosophy and commitment) - a great man, who has, with C S Lewis, influenced more undergraduates around the world in the last half-century towards an informed acceptance of the Christian faith than anyone else.

I first encountered John Stott the author through reading his Basic Christianity when at Teachers’ College in 1957. It was lucid, and made sense and with C S Lewis’s Mere Christianity gave me a foundation for understanding Christ’s claims about himself – and Christ’s claims on my life.

Later, when I was an InterVarsity Fellowship staffworker (I think about 1970), I was privileged to have an hour’s lunch with him. Our discussion mainly centred around Charismatic Renewal: and was probably one of hundreds of ‘inputs’ into his thinking between his two publications on the subject - The Baptism and Fullness of the Holy Spirit and Baptism and Fullness. The latter publication had a much more inclusive, accepting and irenic approach to the broad subject. I like to think I might have helped a little with that. I knew that John Stott got a lot of letters (his biographer says about 30 a day, six days a week), and I later – probably a year later – wrote to him, beginning as so many correspondents did, ‘You probably won’t remember me…’ and within a month I got a hand-written, one page response: ‘Of course I remember you…’ He certainly did: he had a prodigious memory for people’s names. We must also have exchanged views on homosexuality: in his note he recommended Davidson’s book The Returns of Love. Fifteen years later he commended me to a Baptist congregation in Vancouver, British Columbia, which called us to pastoral leadership. He also must have read my little book Recent Trends Among Evangelicals: he cited it a couple of times in his book Evangelical Truth: A Personal Plea for Unity, Integrity and Faithfulness (1999).

I’ve sat in his audiences many times – at university missions, in public convention centres, at All Soul’s Langham Place, and, a couple of years ago, at a couple of public meetings in Melbourne (one of them in the auditorium of a church I pastored – Blackburn - now Crossway - Baptist Church). I was one of the 3600 leaders from 190 nations who participated in the July 1989 Lausanne II Congress on World Evangelization in Manila, the Philippines (where John Stott worked so hard as chairman of the drafting committee, trying to incorporate all our theological and missiological ideas into the Manila Manifesto that he was incapacitated with a severe headache).

The influence of someone on your thinking can be measured by what-is-remembered-when about that person. I remember, for example, his brilliant talk on evangelical inclusiveness – ‘Let’s not Polarize’ – at the Pharmacy College auditorium in Melbourne. (The four ‘polarizations’: intellect and emotion, conservative and radical, form and freedom, evangelism and social action – a plea for unity, liberty and charity). I remember where I was (holidaying in Lord Howe Island) when I read the first (513-page) volume of Timothy Dudley-Smith’s biography of Stott. I’ve just Googled our website – it has 172 references to Stott; my ‘Desktop Google’ has 1141.

I am about 17 years his junior, but our journeys have been remarkably similar. We both had fathers who were emotionally distant (his relationship with his surgeon-father was ‘turbulent and elusive’ (Vol.1:333). And mothers who nurtured our faith. When, at the age of 70 John Stott was asked to look back on those who had influenced his life, he chose his mother and father first. I’m 70 this year, and would now respond the same way, and in that same order. Each of us was invited to speak to youth groups/camps at an early age (I at 13; John Stott as a Uni. Freshman). He writes: ‘I blush when I remember some of the na├»ve and even downright erroneous notions I taught.’ So do I. We both love browsing in secondhand bookshops, we’re both ornithologists (I’m much more amateurish), and both wore out a couple of portable typewriters.

I too was ‘formed’ in terms of both evangelicalism and evangelism at Scripture Union/Crusader camps/missions, and as a leader with the InterVarsity Fellowship. He says ‘I sometimes wonder on which scrapheap I would be today if it had not been for God’s providential gift of the (Cambridge) UCCF… The Christian Union brought the friendships, teaching, books and opportunities for service which all helped me to stand firm and grow up. I am profoundly grateful.’ So am I. We were both ‘traveling secretaries – or Staffworkers – with IVF. He had a ‘great burden’ for the ‘intelligentsia’ of the world, a neglected ‘mission-field’ he thought. (So do I).

He wasn’t used to ‘failing’: he only got a 2.1 in German at University! (I actually ‘failed’ in several undergraduate subjects).

I too was a Dispensationalist until I received more wisdom about eschatological hermeneutics (in his case from his friend John Wenham; in mine by reading Henriksen’s commentary on the Book of Revelation, More Than Conquerers). For both John Stott and myself ‘theological college’ wasn’t an inspiring experience. He writes: ‘Little that we were given by lecturers appeared to be original… most was culled from… books, so it saved lots of time to go straight to their sources. [One lecturer said to him]: “Let me see, you attended one of my lectures once”.’ (I managed to avoid one lecturer for three out of my four years). ‘Theological study did not even pretend to be much of a preparation for the ministry. It was more of an academic… exercise for the solving of intellectual problems. To study theology was to enter a spiritual wilderness… The activities at Ridley Hall [mostly] interfered with the real work I felt called to do. The staff were patient with my spiritual arrogance and critical attitudes and I am sure now that I would have grown in my knowledge of God far more had I been a little more humble and positive in my approach… We used to write letters during… lectures because we didn’t get anything out of them.’ Ditto, ditto, ditto… same here (see the chapter on Narwee Baptist Church and theological college in my blog http://rowlandcroucher.blogspot.com/ .

We both pastored churches that saw 300-400 attending grow into multi-staffed ‘megachurches’. (He stayed as rector of All Souls’ from 1950-1975, and was thereafter Rector Emeritus. I was at Blackburn Baptist Church – now Crossway – for 8 years, 1973-1981). And he (too)

was pained by the opposition and/or jealousy of clergy colleagues who saw their churches shrink while All Souls’ kept growing. We both majored on empowering the church to minister to itself. Stott used to say ‘Appointing ten curates would not get all the ministry done!’ Right on! I too served on a council of the Evangelical Alliance. He and I both admire Billy Graham (though neither of us would agree entirely with what I would call Billy’s simplistic gospel theology). John Stott’s verdict on why so many in the UK responded to Billy Graham’s call for a ‘decision’: ‘I believe Billy was the first transparently sincere preacher these people have ever heard’. If you think that’s a put-down of his country-people, it was. Stott used to talk about his coming across sometimes as an emotionless ‘cold fish’ with the natural reserve of a typical Englishman.

I know or have met many of the people mentioned in these two volumes – Dudley Foord, John Reid, Ian Hore-Lacy, John Prince, J I Packer, Stuart Piggin, Chua Wee Huan, David Watson, James Houston…

We both depend on our diaries to make sense of our programs. John Stott’s ‘large Filofax diary [was] never out of his hand.’ (If I lost my diary I’d lose my mind, I think. The deacons in the first church I pastored – Narwee Baptist, in Sydney – used to play tricks on me by snitching my diary!). John Stott took making promises so seriously that he would repeatedly ask his staff when they were to do a task ‘You have made a note of it, haven’t you?’ And he hated wasting time, so found long car-drives tedious. (So do I. I like Australian intellectual/ politician Barry Jones’ remark that he has only one hate, moving physical objects across the face of the earth, including himself!).

Stott somewhere noted this comment about London’s three best-known Methodist preachers (who were at their peak when he also began preaching in a West End London church): ‘Sangster loved the Lord; Weatherhead loved his people, while Soper loved an argument!’ Sangster is one of my heroes; I’ve read quite a bit of Weatherhead; and I’ve heard Soper preach in Hyde Park, London, which he did regularly for many years. Interesting about Leslie Weatherhead: John Stott got this letter from him: ‘Thank you for writing Basic Christianity. It has led me to make a new commitment of my life to Christ. I am old now – nearly 78 – but not too old to make a new beginning’ (1:457). I agree with Stott about the primacy of the authority of Scripture over other spiritual authorities, and have a similar hesitancy about affirming the Bible’s inerrancy (something which the Bible does not assert for itself). Stott’s preferred form of words (from the Lausanne Covenant, for which he was criticized by North American evangelicals in particular): ‘Scripture is without error in all that it affirms: not everything contained in Scripture is affirmed by Scripture’.

But we are a little apart on some other theological matters. He’s an Anglican, I’m Baptist, so we have differing ‘ecclesiologies’. He tends to major on the forensic/ substitutionary aspects of the Atonement; I’m broader on that whole question. Stott doesn’t like the idea of a woman being a rector or a bishop: Jan and I were the Australian Baptists’ first ‘clergy couple’.

On the question of hell, he rejects both universalism and the terrible notion of ‘eternal conscious torment’, and holds to a ‘conditional immortality’ view: ‘the annihilation of the wicked’ (for which he was scolded by J I Packer, but commended by F F Bruce, who wrote to him, ‘annihilation is certainly an acceptable interpretation of the relevant New Testament passages’). I’d lean more towards universalism: how could creatures made like God be wiped out forever? (But I don't call myself a 'universalist', though I would not be surprised if God is!).

He’s skeptical about the contemplative tradition (his idea of a ‘desert retreat’ is to catalogue the birds he spots!): there’s no suggestion, I think, anywhere in these two volumes of ‘a mind at rest’: John Stott’s active mind roams from theology to ornithology and back again (he can sit for 10-12 hours at a stretch studying and writing at his retreat-place, so long as he has his binoculars handy!). He didn’t like the terms ‘spirituality’ or ‘spiritual formation’: ‘the biblical idea is discipleship.’ And he is dismissive of habitual auricular confession: ‘God’s normal and natural way is not to send us to the confessional but to confront us with himself through his Word.’ I wonder what he does with James 5:16? Stott also has a slightly more critical appraisal of the ecumenical movement than I do: ‘the World Council of Churches uses Scripture as a drunk uses a lamp post, namely for support, rather than for illumination’ (2:204). John Stott says that in his early adulthood he had no literary ambitions. I think I did…

He was very human: he too had the classical preacher’s dream of mounting the pulpit and believing he’d not prepared his sermon. And he was humble: he resisted being lionized and thus had a practice of disengaging himself from the high opinions others have of him.

Several times in these two volumes there’s a reference to Stott’s sexuality (eg. 1:329ff.): was he single because of a ‘latent homosexual inclination’ (factor in his difficult relationship with the same-sex parent; his bachelor-mentor; his habit of swimming naked with boys at his retreat-place, his close relationships with his male research assistants etc.)? No, he was heterosexual: twice he met women he could have married; but ‘I’m not in favour of vows of celibacy’. I remember hearing him joke about all this… ‘I study birds… the feathered kind!’. He often says ‘I could not have traveled or written as I have done if I had had the responsibilities of family’ (1:330). True.

Like John Stott I’ve been something of a ‘lone ranger’ in terms of an accountability group: he did not set one up until he was 65, but wished he had done so earlier (1:264).

Criticisms by fellow-evangelicals over this and that ‘got to’ John Stott. He quotes Lord Shaftesbury, the great evangelical social reformer: ‘High Churchmen, Roman Catholics, even infidels, have been friendly to me; my only enemies have been Evangelicals.’ My ‘enemies’ (too strong a word, I think) have been those to the right of my theological stance, not those to the left.

I thank God regularly for the privilege of knowing John Stott, the man and his ideas.

Rowland Croucher

John Stott by Timothy Dudley-Smith (IVP 1999, 2001) is available from Ridley College Bookshop

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