John Stott: A Uniter and a Divider
Eulogies sometimes tell us more about their authors than about their subjects. The nearly universal acclaim for John Stott following his July 2011 death revealed evangelical longing for a unifying leader of grace and conviction. The disputes and disappointments of Stott's career gave way to the memory of a gentle intellectual giant.
Lauded as the closest thing to an evangelical pope, Stott was the leader we wish our theological opponents would emulate. Frustrated that women are still restricted from serving in pastoral ministry? Then you wish more evangelicals would take after Stott, an open-minded biblical exegete who changed with the times. Disappointed that substitutionary atonement has come under attack by some pastors and professors? Then you wish more Bible teachers would write books like The Cross of Christ, which locates Jesus' self-substitution at the center of redemption.
Indeed, Stott transcended divisions like few others in post-war, trans-Atlantic evangelicalism. He belonged to the British aristocracy but disbursed much of his considerable royalties to finance seminary education for majority world pastors. He labored to reform the Church of England while building a massive following in the North American parachurch movement, particularly through the Urbana conference of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. He owed much of his prestige to Billy Graham, who convened the Lausanne Congress in 1974, but he pressured the famous evangelist by threatening to resign due to disagreement over social action.
We learn more about the history of and contemporary challenges facing evangelicalism when we remember Stott as he really was—hugely influential, widely admired, and frequently controversial—than when we cast him in our image. Alister Chapman's Godly Ambition: John Stott and the Evangelical Movement (Oxford University Press), the first biography of Stott published by an academic press, helps us assess his legacy with critical distance. Chapman, associate professor of history at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, never persuaded Stott to grant an interview. He benefited, however, from access to Stott's personal papers, which may not be released for several decades. The biographer's familiarity with decades of correspondence helps us understand "Uncle John" as a man of and ahead of his times.
Chapman writes with an appreciative but critical posture as he seeks to explain how this man with impeccable upper-class British credentials achieved global evangelical stardom. Relatively short, this academic monograph includes all the basic details of Stott's life, from his conversion in boarding school through the growth of his legacy ministry, Langham Partnership International. Readers looking for a fuller account of Stott's remarkable ministry should still turn first to the two-volume biography written by his friend, Bishop Timothy Dudley-Smith. Chapman pursues a narrower goal of portraying Stott as motivated by godly ambition to lead a global revival of basic Christianity.