John R.W. Stott (1921-2011)

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John Stott died yesterday at age 90, after only four years of retirement. One of the most well-loved among influential evangelicals, Stott rarely drew much criticism from fellow evangelicals, even among those who considered his few controversial positions to be wrongheaded. Stott was the rare pastor-scholar. As a single, celibate minister, he had the time to devote a day each week, a week each month, and a month each year to engaging in scholarly study outside his normal preaching preparation. His popular-level expositional commentaries on books of scripture are among the best in that genre, and his commentary on John's epistles was perhaps the most useful commentary for the actual teaching of scripture for something like two decades after it was published. His popular-level presentations of what the gospel is all about have been among the most influential works in teaching those in a largely biblically-illiterate generation what the basics of Christianity really are. People in the media who are outsiders to evangelicalism tend to see leaders of political movements like the Christian Coalition as the influential leaders of evangelicalism, but nothing could be further from the truth. People like John Stott, John Piper, John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul, Chuck Swindoll, and Rick Warren have far more influence among evangelicals as preachers, spiritual leaders than anyone seeking a purely or largely political agenda.

I can think of three areas of controversy that have led Stott to be criticized by fellow evangelicals. One is his annihilationism. He never denied the reality of hell, but he conceived of hell as the complete annihilation of the person. They simply no longer exist. It's one thing for theological liberals like Clark Pinnock to hold such a view, but Stott was the rare conservative annihilationist. The second is his moderating position on women's preaching. Complementarians typically hold that a congregation's elders should be men, and the primary teaching of scripture should be restricted to men. Stott agreed, except that he had women as elders, and they preached, provided that there was not a majority of women on the elder team, and as long as the person occupying the role of overseeing the elders was a man. More conservative complementarians thought he went too far, and egalitarians didn't think he went far enough. The third is his remaining in the Church of England when numerous Anglicans evangelicals have left over various issues in that denomination that conservatives have disagreed with. He sought to resist change from the conservative direction while remaining an Anglican, and he sided firmly with evangelicals against fundamentalism in not endorsing separatism over such issues.

It's interesting what NPR chooses to focus on in their headlines. I can't find anything on their site about him, but I heard them announce his death least night, and they repeated it this morning. Their emphasis was on his unusual combination of views (to their mind). They said that, despite his conservative views on homosexuality and abortion, he drew criticism from other evangelicals for pursuing social justice issues. Really? I can't think of any evangelical who might have criticized Stott on such concerns. That has played no role in the controversies over his life and ministry. His positions on social justice are recognized by most evangelicals as being perfectly biblical. There might be disagreements among evangelicals about the best methods of pursuing social justice, but evangelicals typically recognize the concern and would laud his efforts to pursue such goals. I realize that the NPR news staff have probably never met an evangelical and don't quite grasp what drives evangelicalism in any way, but it seems they've invented a controversy out of thin air to serve a political narrative about evangelicals when there are actual controversies they could have mentioned. Wikipedia captures at least two of them very well, and I couldn't imagine why they couldn't just use its presentation of the issues to guide their presentation of it if they can't figure out how to understand those issues coherently themselves.

Update 8:12am: There's a great writeup by Tim Stafford that not only gives a much fuller picture of Stott's life and influence but gets the social justice issue right. Also, Justin Taylor quotes Stott's conclusion of his last book (which he wrote two years ago, still by pen and paper):

As I lay down my pen for the last time (literally, since I confess I am not computerized) at the age of eighty-eight, I venture to send this valedictory message to my readers. I am grateful for your encouragement, for many of you have written to me. Looking ahead, none of us of course knows what the future of printing and publishing may be. But I myself am confident that the future of books is assured and that, though they will be complemented, they will never be altogether replaced. For there is something unique about books. Our favorite books become very precious to us and we even develop with them an almost living and affectionate relationship. Is it an altogether fanciful fact that we handle, stroke and even smell them as tokens of our esteem and affection? I am not referring only to an author's feeling for what he has written, but to all readers and their library. I have made it a rule not to quote from any book unless I have first handled it. So let me urge you to keep reading, and encourage your relatives and friends to do the same. For this is a much neglected means of grace. . . . Once again, farewell!

I'm not about to revert to writing books with pen and paper, but I have to agree about electronic books. It's nice to have ready access to stuff online, and I've benefited from not having to go to the library to find journal articles or to look briefly at online portions of books, but I can't read anything of any decent length online. It was torture going through my dissertation on the computer to edit it as a result of my desire not to print it out to save several hundred pages of paper. Thirty-page articles are hard enough for me to read through on PDF. There's something about holding it in your hands, being able to carry it around without having to lug around some proprietary electronic device whose manufacturer can revoke your ability to read it at any time, and being able to mark it up however you like, never mind being able to put it on a shelf near other works of a similar kind in an organized way (not that I've been able to do that part for years for anything but my commentaries).

2 Comments

The one area of controversy you omit is probably the most important: the issue of Baptism in the Holy Spirit. When he was Rector of All Souls, Langham Place, in the '60s, Stott lost one of his curates, Michael Harper, to the Charismatic Movement. He wrote a booklet on the subject of the Spirit's role in Christian initiation, which he later expanded, insisting (against rumours) that he had not changed his position. The controversy has faded now, but at one time it threatened to split the Evangelical movement. Stott, always a peacemaker, stuck to his guns graciously and courteously, always ready to listen to others and to engage in open debate.

I'd never heard of that one, actually.

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