Tuesday, June 10, 2014

John Stott's Evangelical Truth: A Personal Plea for Unity, Integrity, and Faithfulness

John Stott (1921-2011) was an Anglican preacher, and an evangelical. Stott has had and will continue to have a profound and international influence on millions of people through his thoughtful works. He is the author of the bestseller Basic Christianity (first published in 1958) and also of the fun, yet profound The Birds Our Teachers: Biblical Lessons from a Lifelong Birdwatcher (1998). An  alternative titled, tongue-in-cheek no doubt, is Lessons from Orni-Theology. Clearly John had a sense of humor besides being a world-traveler, prolific theologian, preacher, writer and photographer! A Collector’s edition of Birds was published by Candle Books in UK in 2007 together with a DVD, containing an audio of the text, and audio-visual recording of John Stott’s account of his 70th birthday trip to the Falkland Islands and Antarctica, and illustrated with his own photographs taken while birdwatching around the globe. Here are some reflections and excerpts from the slim booklet, Evangelical Truth, written for the Christian Doctrine in Global Perspective series and the winner of the 2000 Christianity Today Award of Merit. This is a MUST read.

 John starts with an Introduction on Evangelical Essentials, which are essentially laid out in three chapters on The Revelation of God, The Cross of Christ, and The Ministry of the Holy Spirit, and Conclusion, The Challenge of the Evangelical Faith. Since I have the revised edition, I am also blessed to be able to read his Postscript, The Preeminence of Humility.  David Smith was the editor and John the consulting editor for this Christian Doctrine in Global Perspective Series. Together, they describe the vision in the Series preface: a major shift has occurred and there are now more Christians in Africa, Asia, Latin America than there are in the United States and Europe. Thus, theological texts by voices that reflect their own cultures but writing not just for their own peoples but also for Western readers are needed. A book preface is additional in which John explains his motivations in writing the book.

Although the book is titled Evangelical Truth the subtitle gives us a clue about the problem that is on John's mind: A Personal Plea for Unity, Integrity, and Faithfulness. In a nutshell, the book is about evangelical identity. Specifically, the problem of fragmentation:  "Some Christians go on everlastingly splitting until they find themselves no longer a church but a sect." [p. 9-10].

"I have at least two conscious motives," in writing this book to an international audience. [p. 11]. "First, I continue to be profoundly grieved by our evangelical tendency to fragment. During the last half-century the evangelical movement worldwide has grown out of all recognition in numbers, church life, scholarship, and leadership - but not, I think, in cohesion. Nowadays people refer to the multiple "tribes" of evangelicalism, and like to place a qualifying adjective in front of evangelical... conservative, liberal, radical, progressive, open, Reformed, charismatic, postmodern, and so on. But is this really necessary? While holding with a good conscience whatever our particular evangelical faith may be, is it not possible for us to acknowledge that what unites us as evangelical people is much greater than what divides us?" [p. 12].

"I am not so naive as to imagine that this little book will solve the problems of our uncertain evangelical identity or our debilitating  evangelical disunity, or will provide a flag under which we can all rally. Yet, I do hope and pray that it will lay some misunderstandings to rest and will  help us to combine a commitment to essential evangelical truth with an authentic generosity of mind and spirit." [p.12]

"Second and more personal, as I approach the end of my life on earth and as I complete more than sixty years of privileged Christian discipleship , I would like to leave behind me, as a kind of spiritual legacy this little statement of evangelical faith...This is how I would wish to be remembered and judged, as I prepare to stand before the judgment seat of Christ." [p.12]

And the truths are (and these are in his own words, not mine, and the italics too are Stott's own):

Evangelical faith is not a recent innovation [p. 14], not a deviation from Christian orthodoxy [p. 15], and is not a synonym for fundamentalism [p. 16].

That is evangelicals are not fundamentalists and ten tendencies to consider about fundamentalists are: 1) old school fundamentalists give the impression they distrust human thought and academic scholarship [p. 18], 2) believe every word of the Bible to be literally true [p. 19], 3) have a high regard for biblical inspiration in which human authors are seen as somewhat passive and played no active role [p. 19], 4) as for biblical interpretation they seem to think they can apply the Bible text directly to themselves [p. 19], 50 go beyond suspicion of the ecumenical movement to a blanket, uncritical, even vociferous rejection [p. 19-20], 6) with regard to the church they hold a separatist ecclesiology, that is withdraw from any community which would not agree in every particular with their own doctrinal position*** [p. 20], 7) they have tended to assimilate the standards of the world uncritically (e.g. the prosperity gospel) [p. 20], 8) in relation to race - especially in the US and South Africa, they have tended to cling to the myth of white supremacy, and to defend racial segregation even in the church, 9) have tended to insist that the words Christian mission and evangelism are synonyms, and 10) in relation to the Christian hope, they tend to dogmatize about the future (e.g. espouse a Christian Zionism that ignores grave injustices to Palestinians) [p. 21].

So what is evangelicalism and for this Stott outlines evangelicalism's tribes and tenets. He provides a couple of different classifications. Right after Lausanne (1975) the classification was as follows: 1) New Evangelicals (including Billy Graham), 2) Strict Fundamentalists, 3) Confessing Evangelicals, 4) Pentecostals and Charismatics, 5) Radical Evangelicals, 6) Ecumenical Evangelicals.  Twenty years later (1993) there was another list: fundamentalists (polemical and separatist), old evangelical (personal conversion and mass evangelism),  new evangelicals (acknowledging social resposibility and apologetics), justice and peace evangelicals (sociopolitical activists), charismatic evangelicals (stressing the work of the Spirit in tongue-speaking, healing and worship), and ecumenical evangelicals (concerned for unity and cooperation). [21-22]

Essentials of evangelicalism are and Stott uses J.I. Packer's 1978 monograph for this:  [p. 23]
Practical Christianity - a lifestyle of total discipleship to the Lord
Pure Christianity - mere Christianity
Unitive Christianity - seeking unity through a common commitment to Gospel truth
Rational Christianity - (over against the popular preoccupation with experience) 

Along  with these four general claims the six evangelical fundamentals are: 1) Supremacy of Holy Scripture, 2) Majesty of Jesus Christ, 3) Lordship of the Holy Spirit, 4) Necessity of conversion, 5) Priority of evangelism, and 6) Importance of fellowship (church is a living community of believers).

A decade later these essentials had moved from conversion to activism, evangelism to biblicism, and a focus on crucicentrism (Christ's sacrifice on the cross). Stott finally offers the 1990s essentials for evangelicalism:  Evangelical faith is the trinitarian faith: an emphasis on the Word, the Cross, and the Spirit. "Thus the essentials of evangelicalism may be encapsulated in the combination of the two adverbs hapax (once and for all) and mallon (more and more). God has spoken hapax  in Christ (including the biblcial witness to Christ), revealing himself and committing his revelation to the church. Yet, our responsibility is to delve ever more deeply (mallon) into what he has revealed....And God has no more to give than what he has given us hapax in Christ; but we have much more to receive, as the Holy Spirit enables us to appropriate God's gifts ever more fully (mallon)." But to be evangelical is more than just holding the Trinitarian faith, it is also behavior. Our lives individually and corporately will witness to the essentials and priorities evangelicals need which can be limited to three: the revealing initiative of God the Father, the redeeming work of God the Son, and the transforming work of God the Holy Spirit.

Stott quotes "In truth unity, in doubtful matters liberty, and in all things charity." and traces it to Rupert Meldenius, a 17th century theologian who defended Lutheranism but pleaded for peace [p. 118]. "Can we give up our personality cults, petty rivalries, historical feuds and personal agendas for the greater good of the movement?" Stott quotes Alister McGrath's pleas within evangelicalism and hope "we can answer his question in the affirmative." He closes with an exhortation that "Disciples are called to share in their Master's sufferings, and also the sufferings of the apostles. It is an inevitable aspect of the apostolic succession - a succession not of order or even of doctrine or mission but of suffering."  We must stay faithful and heed Paul's call in Philippians" "To live a life that is worthy of the gospel, to stand firm in it, to contend for it earnestly, to struggle for it together and to be willing to suffer for it." [p. 120-121]

I love Stott's opening line in the Postscript. It offers such hope for us: "I make so bold as to claim, in this brief postscript, that the supreme quality which the evangelical faith engenders (or should do so) is humility. [p. 122]. There is no place for boasting in our faith. "Let him who boast boast in the Lord." (i Cor. 1: 31). His closing lines: Our place is on our faces, prostrate before God, and our only appropriate anthem is the Gloria: Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen. [p. 126]
*** This one in particular struck a chord with me :). In recent days, I've heard people from the churches leaving PC (USA) to join ECO gleefully tell me they are a part of the Reformation. "This is the only way to reform the PC (USA)", they say. In the next breath they continue, "You will have to throw me out of my PC (USA) body. I am going to join ECO but I want to be in fellowship with you too." I am confused. You are the ones leaving because you don't agree with the national PC (USA). You are eager to join ECO. Yet, you blame us? For what? For choosing not to break our covenantal fellowship, our ordination vows, our fellowship, our unity in Christ, our understanding that the Church is to be a witness to Christ who died for us and showed us a power relationship that is quite unlike worldly power structures and mode of relating that is based on unlimited grace and love?

John Stott. Evangelical Truth: A Personal Plea for Unity, Integrity, and Faithfulness. Revised edition. Downers Grove, Illinois, InterVarsity Press, 2003. 2nd edition.



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