This article originally appeared as the cover story for Christianity Today's January 8, 1996, issue.
Shortcuts to Stott on: 50 Years of Ministry | Evangelism and Social Action | Mainline Churches | Evangelical Fragmentation | Eternal Punishment | Dialogue with Liberals | Evangelicals and Catholics | God and the Poor | The Charismatic Movement | The Toronto Blessing | Anti-Intellectualism | Women's Roles | The Future
John Stott joins together what most people tear asunder—or at least are incapable of holding together. He is a theologian of depth and breadth, yet he preaches and writes with clarity to a wide audience. He integrates social concerns into the mission of the church without ever minimizing his commitment to evangelism. Since he was ordained in 1945, he has ministered within a mainline denomination (the Church of England), while neither compromising his convictions nor diminishing his role as an evangelical thought leader. Engaged in parish ministry for 50 years at All Souls, Langham Place, in the center of London, where he now holds the title rector emeritus, his influence among evangelicals is of international proportions.
One of Stott's enduring legacies is as the key framer of the historic Lausanne Covenant (1974), which serves almost as an evangelical apostles' creed in many Third World settings. His faithful witness to the gospel in his writings and preaching has made him mentor and friend to a global community. The author of 34 books, Stott's primer on the faith, Basic Christianity, has been translated into over 50 languages, and 22 more are in progress.
Speaking of Authentic Christianity, an anthology of his writings from the past 50 years (forthcoming from InterVarsity), evangelical historian Mark Noll serves up this accolade: "I consider John Stott the sanest, clearest, and most solidly biblical living writer on theological topics in the English language." It is difficult to dispute this assessment.
More than his books, documents, or institutions, Stott's most important legacy to the church has been his wisdom. Thoroughly biblical, disarmingly open, shrewdly discerning, Stott's thought has helped guide the evangelical movement as it engaged social concerns, the charismatic movement, female clergy, homosexuality, and challenges to core doctrines. In preparation for Stott's seventy-fifth birthday, Roy McCloughry, associate editor of the British Christian magazine Third Way, interviewed this evangelical Solomon on these and many other topics. The discussion can serve as a measure of where we are as a movement—and where we need to go.
Your ministry stretches back over 50 years. How have you changed over that time?
I was very naive when I was ordained. I was more an activist than a thinker. I saw needs and wanted immediately to meet them, and this crowded out my studies.
It was in the early days of my ministry that I learned the necessity of stepping back, looking where I was going, and having a monthly quiet day to be drawn up into the mind of God and look ahead for the next six or twelve months. That was an enormous benefit to me.
You've covered an immense range of issues in your ministry—theological, social, doctrinal, and cultural. Has that been due to curiosity or to obligation as a minister?
A bit of both. Even before my conversion, I believe that God gave me a social conscience. When I was only 14 years old, I started a society at school whose major purpose was to give baths to tramps. I had a great concern for these homeless, dirty men.
We called it the ABC, because we thought they could understand that; having decided on the letters, we had to look around for words that would fit, and we came up with two: either "Always Be a Christian" or "the Association for the Benefit of the Community." It only lasted a few years, and we never gave any baths to tramps; but we did some other good works until the treasurer loaned all the subscriptions to his brother, who spent everything.
My father was a doctor and a very high-minded, high-principled person, though not a Christian. He believed in a national health service before it was even dreamed about. My mother, too, was very concerned for the maids in the doctors' homes who had nothing to do on their afternoons off. She started the Domestic Fellowship. So they both had a social conscience.
Evangelism and Social Action
Some people might divide your ministry into two halves, one focused on pietism and one concerned with the very broadest social, cultural, and economic aspirations of society. What caused this change?
I think it was reading the Bible. As I read and studied and meditated, my vision of God grew and I came to see the obvious things: that God is not just interested in religion but in the whole of life—in justice as well as justification.
I don't see any dichotomy between the "pietistic" and social realms. To me, they're two aspects of the same thing: a pursuit of the will of God. I have always been moved by the phrase "to hunger and thirst after righteousness"; righteousness covers both personal holiness and social justice.
Some people might say that your commitment to the justice of god, expressed in social terms, led to a watering down of your commitment to the gospel.
I think that's rubbish, honestly. I remain committed to evangelism. I have had the privilege of leading more than 50 university missions all over the world, and they spanned a period of 25 years until I felt I was a little out of touch with the student generation and too old.
I can honestly say that my social concerns have not diminished my zeal for evangelism. If anything, it's the other way round. What people could say is that I talk a lot about social action but don't do much about it. And that is true, because my calling is to be a pastor. Although I disagree with polarization between these two, I've often said I do believe in specialization.
Acts 6 is the obvious biblical basis for this specialization of roles: the apostles were not willing to be distracted from the ministry of the Word and prayer. In fact, the seven were appointed to handle the care of the widows. Both those works are called diakonia, "ministry"; both required Spirit-filled people to exercise them. Both were necessary, but one was social, the other pastoral.
Don't some people fear that renewed emphasis on social concern might muffle the call to evangelism?
There are a number of mission leaders, particularly Americans, who are frightened that we want missionaries to give themselves to social-political work, which is none of their business and would distract them from their primary role in evangelism. I have no wish for missionaries to change their role. There is a real need for evangelists who are not engaged in holistic mission because their calling is evangelism. I don't criticize Billy Graham because he simply preaches the gospel and doesn't engage in social-political work—well, he does a bit, but not much—any more than we don't criticize the Good Samaritan for not preaching the gospel to the man assaulted by robbers.
It's partly our existential situation that determines what we concentrate on, partly our vocation. Everybody cannot do everything, as I keep saying to myself.
In Issues Facing Christians Today (1984), you say: "evangelism is the major instrument of social change. For the gospel changes people, and changed people can change society." Isn't that really a ruggedly individualistic picture of social change?
I think that quote is from where I list four or five instruments for social change. I put evangelism first because Christian social responsibility depends on socially responsible Christians, and they are the fruit of evangelism.
Having said that, I would also want to make the complementary point that Christians are not the only people who have benefited or reformed society. We evangelicals do have a very naive view. Take marriage: people say, "They have got to be converted and then they'll have a good marriage." But there are Christians who don't have good marriages, and there are plenty of excellent marriages among people who are not Christians. Morality and social conscience are not limited to Christian people.
Why is the church so often the last to join a protest movement? The church in time might take the lead; and it may speak with the greatest integrity against jingoism or apartheid or nuclear weapons or the abuse of the environment. But these movements are often started by others.
Well, that has not always been true. The slave trade is a good example and Shaftesbury's reforms in relation to mental illness. Nevertheless, by and large what you say is true. Why? First, because we're busy; we're busy evangelizing and doing other things, mostly in the church. We don't always demand our liberty from the church in order to be active in the world.
Second, we have such a strong doctrine of fellowship and are so clear about our responsibility not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers that we have seldom learned that we can be "cobelligerents," to use Francis Schaeffer's well-known term, even if we are not in active spiritual fellowship with one another.
Some people might say that the church is simply very conservative. It only joins these movements for change under pressure from secular forces in society.
I wish it were always Christians who took the initiative in seeking needed social change. But I am still thankful when others take the initiative and Christians follow, even under secular pressure.
We must not set secular fashion and the Holy Spirit over against each other, as being always and inevitably incompatible. Public opinion isn't always wrong. What is wrong is to bow down before it uncritically, like reeds shaken by the wind. Why should the Holy Spirit not sometimes use public opinion to bring God's people into line? The Spirit seems to have done so on a number of occasions in the debate between science and faith.
What is the theological basis for Christian social involvement today? Is it enough to speak of being "salt and light"?
Start with the nature of God. God is interested in and concerned about more than religion: God is the Lord of creation and the covenant. God is the lover of justice, one who protects and champions the oppressed: this is God's nature. If this is the kind of God we have, then clearly God's people have got to be the same.
Second, there is the doctrine of human beings, of male and female made in the image of God—the unique dignity and worth of human beings. William Temple said, "My worth is what I am worth to God, and that is a marvelous great deal, because Christ died for me." And I would say that the ministry of Jesus in life and death exhibits the enormous value of human beings.
Then, I would want to back up this biblical theme with examples from history. Take Mother Teresa, for example, who sees a woman on the pavement of Calcutta with awful sores infested by live maggots. Mother Teresa kisses this woman and picks her up. She sees an intrinsic value in her.
That, surely, is what has motivated people. That is why the word humanization, which was first adopted in the World Council of Churches, is something we evangelicals ought to have taken up. Anything that dehumanizes human beings should be an outrage to us, because God has made them in his image. The whole concept of the rehumanization of human beings, and the deliverance of human beings from anything that dehumanizes, ought to inspire people, and has inspired people.
Do you still think the Anglican Church makes a good home for evangelicalism?
Yes, I think it's a good boat to fish from, but that's not the reason I'm a member of it.
There are three options for evangelicals in mainline denominations. The two extremes are to get out or cave in. The third is to stay in without giving in. The extremes are actually the easy options. Anybody can cave in: that's the way of the coward, the way of the feeble mind. To cave in is to stay in but to fail to hold on to your distinctive evangelicalism. You just compromise.
To get out is to say, "I can't bear this constant argument and controversy any longer." That also is an easy option. I know people have done it and suffered because they have given up a secure job and salary; but it's an easy option psychologically.
The difficult thing is to stay and refuse to give in, because then you're always in tension with people with whom you don't altogether agree, and that is painful.
But no Christian can give unqualified allegiance to any institution. What, for you, would be the signals that it is time to leave the Church of England?
I've always felt that it's unwise to publish a list of criteria in advance. Nevertheless, I'm quite happy to talk about them. I think one's final decision to leave would be an exceedingly painful one, a situation that I cannot envisage at the moment.
I would take refuge in the teaching of the New Testament, where the apostles seem to distinguish between major and minor errors. The major doctrinal errors concern the person and work of Christ. It's clear in 1 John that anyone who denies the divine-human person of Jesus is anti-Christ. So, if the church were officially to deny the Incarnation, it would be an apostate church and one would have to leave.
Then, there's the work of Christ. In Galatians, if anybody denies the gospel of justification by grace alone through faith alone, that is anathema: Paul calls down the judgment of God upon that person.
On the major ethical issues: the best example is the incestuous offender in 1 Corinthians 5. Paul called on the church to excommunicate him. If you want me to stick my neck out, I think I would say that if the church were officially to approve homosexual partnerships as a legitimate alternative to heterosexual marriage, this so far diverges from biblical sexual ethics that I would find it exceedingly difficult to stay. I might want to stay on and fight for a few more years, but if they persisted, I would have to leave.
It seems that evangelicalism has fragmented into different groups, with different heroes, publishers, and cultures. How should we think of ourselves now?
I don't mind plurality as long as it goes hand-in-hand with unity. But I've given a great deal of my life to the development and preservation of unity within the evangelical constituency. I have never believed that our differences have been great enough to warrant fragmentation. I don't mind people founding their own societies and going after their own thing—again, it's an example of specialization—provided they still recognize that we belong to one another.
What are the current causes of evangelical fragmentation?
We fragment over what we regard as issues of principle, but often the real reason is personal, isn't it? When we're afraid, we withdraw into our own fellowships and ghettos with like-minded people where we feel secure. I'm aware of that fear in myself; it's part of our basic human insecurity. We're looking for contexts in which we can be supported rather than questioned.
I'm afraid that in some cases the cause of fragmentation is worse than that—it's a simple matter of ambition. There is a great deal of empire building among us. The only empire in which we should be interested is the kingdom of God, but I fear some people are building their own.
On issues of principle, what concerns you most?
The uniqueness and finality of Jesus Christ in an increasingly pluralistic world is one—the debate about whether we go for exclusivism, inclusivism, or pluralism. Then there's the homosexual question, and the whole subject of sexual ethics.
So the church must recover its prophetic voice and reject both the idea that ethics evolve and the notion that love obliges us to capitulate to the modernist view of things.
We need a voice that is essentially positive, not just negative—for example, on the family, or the joy of sexual intercourse, and so on.
I don't know why we are always caught on the defensive and are reactive instead of proactive. I don't think it is something in our make-up as evangelicals. I sometimes wonder if it is that God has not given us many leaders who are visionaries.
The evangelical renaissance of the last 50 years has really been one of biblical scholarship. What we have lacked is systematic or creative theologians. I believe we have one in Alister McGrath; I am sure in England we had one in Jim Packer before he left the country. But we have very few theologians who are really far-sighted and give us a vision that will unite, inspire, and enthuse us.
Does this lack of vision for the future have something to do with our perception of truth lodged in orthodoxy? Does this make it difficult to be creative and take risks?
Yes, there is something in that. Evangelicalism is fundamentally loyal to a past revelation, and because we are tied forever to what God did and said in the historic Jesus, we look back more often than we look forward.
In my debate with David Edwards [published as Evangelical Essentials by InterVarsity], I drew a distinction between the liberal, the fundamentalist, and the evangelical. The liberal, to me, is like a gas-filled balloon which takes off into the ether and is not tethered to the earth in any way. The fundamentalist is like a caged bird, unable to escape at all. To me, the true evangelical is like a kite, which flies high but at the same time is always tethered. This demands a particularly unusual combination of loyalty to the past and creativity for the future.
You have fallen afoul of some evangelicals. Some of your reflections on the nature of eternal punishment were considered uncongenial to orthodoxy by some people.
In Evangelical Essentials, I described as "tentative" my suggestion that "eternal punishment" may mean the ultimate annihilation of the wicked rather than their eternal conscious torment. I would prefer to call myself agnostic on this issue, as are a number of New Testament scholars I know. In my view, the biblical teaching is not plain enough to warrant dogmatism. There are awkward texts on both sides of the debate.
The hallmark of an authentic evangelicalism is not the uncritical repetition of old traditions but the willingness to submit every tradition, however ancient, to fresh biblical scrutiny and, if necessary, reform.
How would you advise theologians to think creatively in the light of orthodoxy?
I don't think any of us is wise enough to express ourselves in a creative or questioning manner without first testing it within the Christian community. It is part of our loyalty to that community that we allow it to criticize or comment on what we may want to say.
Dialogue with Liberals
In your debate with David Edwards, you both seemed to reach a genuine understanding of and respect for each other's positions. Do you think that evangelicals can learn from the liberal tradition?
David Edwards, a self-styled liberal, is crying out for a certain intellectual and academic freedom that can move with the times and respond to what he continually calls "the climate of educated opinion today," without being tethered to anything more than the love of God manifested in Jesus of Nazareth. I don't think that's an unfair summary. But all the time he's pulling at the tether, and that's the great difference between us.
He would say that evangelicals have a poor doctrine of the Holy Spirit, because we don't think the Spirit is continuing to teach and to "lead us into all the truth." I believe that text, John 16:13, is the most misunderstood and manipulated text in the whole of the Bible, because every branch of Christendom claims it.
It's a key text for the Roman Catholic Church. "He will lead you into all the truth." Who is the "you" here? Roman Catholics would claim it refers to the bishops as successors of the apostles. The liberal quotes it, and the charismatic quotes it: "He'll lead me," they say. But even the most elementary hermeneutical principle would tell us that the "you" means the apostles. Jesus said, "I have much more to say to you, but you cannot bear it now." Who is he addressing? The apostles. "But when the Spirit comes, he will do what I have not been able to do; he will lead you into the truth which I wanted to give you but you weren't able to take it." It must be the apostles. We cannot change the identity of the "you" in the middle of the sentence.
So the fulfillment of that prophecy is in the New Testament. The major ministry of the Holy Spirit has been to lead the apostles into all the truth and to give us in the New Testament this wonderful body of truth that remains our authority. That does not mean that the ministry of the Holy Spirit has ceased. It means that the role of the Holy Spirit has changed from the revelation of new truth to giving us a profounder perception and application of old truth—from revelation to illumination, if you like.
Although I may be overstating it slightly, I want to say that God has no more to teach us than he has taught us in Christ. It is inconceivable that there should be a higher revelation than God has given in his incarnate Son. But although God has no more to teach us, we have a great deal more to learn. And although he has no more to give us than he has given us in Christ, we have a great deal more to receive.
Evangelicals and Catholics
Some people feel that evangelicals adapt, eventually, to changing circumstances, whereas Catholicism stands firm like a rock. Those who say there is a loss of authority in our world are tending toward Rome …
Do you think there is something about Rome that is rightly attractive?
Yes. The true evangelical wants both liberty and authority. We want to ask questions, to think, to pry, to peer, to probe, to ponder. We want to do all these things, but within a framework of submission to an ultimate authority. But we're asking questions about our authority: what does it mean and how does it apply? So we experience an uneasy tension between liberty and authority.
I couldn't find a lodging place in either Catholicism or liberalism, because one seems to major on authority with little room for liberty, while the other emphasizes liberty with very little room for authority.
Authentic Christianity includes this quotation: "The word Christian occurs only three times in the bible. because of its common misuse we could profitably dispense with it." Since the word evangelical doesn't appear at all and is also misused, should we dispense with it, too?
We could, in theory, for the same reason. The words that are used in the New Testament most frequently are believer, brother or sister, and child of God. There isn't a word that the Bible itself gives us to which we have to be loyal.
But the reason I want to stick with evangelical is a historical one. It has expressed a recognizable tradition, to which I still belong (and am proud and thankful to belong), and I want to take my stand not only on Scripture but in that tradition.
Does it alarm you to hear people calling themselves "postevangelical"?
Yes. I don't know what they mean, but it does alarm me. If you are "post" anything, you are leaving something behind, and I want to know what it is. If it's our many faults and failures, fine, but that's not postevangelicalism, it's post-twisted-evangelicalism.
What are the weaknesses of evangelicalism?
We've discussed our rugged individualism and the difficulty we have in cooperating with one another. Another weakness is our dogmatism. Instead of remembering Deuteronomy 29:29, we are dogmatic about even the things that God has kept secret. We're often not prepared to admit a certain agnosticism, which is a very evangelical thing, if we are alluding to what God has not revealed.
We have many weaknesses. I'm sure there are plenty more if I were to go on.
Do you think that our emphasis on "the Christian mind" may have prevented us from fully affirming the wisdom to be found outside the church?
What you mean is: Should we pay attention to the wisdom literature of other religions?
And the wisdom of people with no religion?
Yes, we certainly should, even if with reservations and a desire to bring their thinking to the ultimate touchstone of biblical authority.
The key text is John 1:9, which says that the logos, the Son of God before the Incarnation, is the true light coming into the world and giving light to everybody. I believe that is the right translation—that he is constantly coming into the world. Indeed, he has never left it, because the world was made by him, and so he is in the world. He was in the world even before he came into it in the Incarnation, and as the logos he is giving light to everybody.
So, there is a certain light of common sense, reason, and conscience that everybody has, because they're also made in the image of God. To be sure, reason is fallen and fallible; nevertheless, it still operates.
For those two reasons, the divine logos and the human logos, if you like, we should listen respectfully to what other people are saying, even if at the end of the day we have the liberty to say, "No, that is wrong, because the Bible teaches otherwise."
God and the Poor
Authentic Christianityrecords you saying in 1981: "What will posterity see as the chief Christian blind spot of the last quarter of the twentieth century? I do not know. But I suspect it will have something to do with the economic oppression of the Third World and the readiness with which Western Christians tolerate it, and even acquiesce to it."
I did, I think, mention three blind spots. The nuclear horror was another one: evangelicals were the last people to make a statement about the immorality of weapons of indiscriminate destruction. I think the third one was the environment.
There is a great deal in the Bible about God's concern for the poor. Poverty—not poverty in the sense of simplicity, but in the sense of lacking the basic wherewithal for survival—is not really on our evangelical conscience yet. Partly because many people have not traveled and seen oppressive poverty with their own eyes, although they have seen the pictures on television.
Are we too ready in the west to accept the view that a successful church is also an affluent one?
Because some people see prosperity as a mark of God's blessing, even today, they can't come to terms with poverty. We have to have the courage to reject the health-and-wealth gospel absolutely. It's a false gospel.
Do you think the idea that God wants us to be comfortable because he loves us presents a threat to a cutting-edge spirituality?
Well, we're sitting in a very comfortable flat as we talk, and it's easy to say! But I do think that comfort is dangerous, and we should constantly be re-examining our lifestyle.
The New Testament is beautifully balanced on this. Paul avoids both extremes, not least in 1 Timothy 4 and 6. Asceticism is a rejection of the good gifts of the good Creator. Its opposite is materialism—not just possessing material things but becoming preoccupied with them. In between asceticism and materialism is simplicity, contentment, and generosity, and these three virtues should mark all of us.
It's not a question of rules and regulations about our income and how many rooms or cars we have. It's these principles of simplicity, contentment, and generosity over against covetousness, materialism, and asceticism that we have to apply to our living all the time. We need to give away what we are not using, because if we don't use it, we don't need it.
You've seen a great deal of poverty around the world. Do you perceive a difference between the Christianity of the poor and the Christianity of the rich?
Yes, I do. In the Old Testament, there is a fundamental association between material and spiritual poverty. Often, you are not sure what is meant by "the poor." But they tend to be those who are materially poor and who on account of that poverty need to put their trust in God with a greater strength than if they were rich and so self-dependent.
My own understanding is that in the Sermon on the Mount, which may have involved a concentrated period of instruction, Jesus said both "Blessed are you poor" (Luke) and "Blessed are the poor in spirit" (Matthew). I think there is a blessedness attaching to both. The kingdom of God is a blessing to the materially poor because it affirms their dignity and relieves their poverty; it is also a blessing, a free gift, to the spiritually poor. So, there is a sense in which poverty is an aid to faith and riches are a barrier to faith.
I want to add that all these terms—simplicity, contentment, generosity, and wealth—are comparative. There is no absolute simplicity or poverty. My little kitchen not only has running water but constant hot water. That would be regarded as the height of luxury in some parts of the world, yet we don't regard it as that, and comparatively speaking, in this country it isn't. We need to feel the challenge of Jesus to us in the light of our own situation and circumstances.
Is God's kingdom a blessing to the poor even if they do not recognize that they are poor in spirit?
No, I think the two blessings go together.
Do the poor tend to see themselves as poor in spirit?
Some do. Their material poverty helps them to see their need of Christ. Others, however, become bitter and can't listen to the gospel. What is the African phrase? "An empty belly has no ears." When they're that poor, they can't respond to the gospel. It's like the Israelites when Moses told them about the exodus: "They did not listen to him because of their cruel bondage."
Would you agree with liberation theologians when they say that the Scriptures were written against a background of poverty and are most truly understood when they are read with the eyes of the poor?
I'm very keen on cross-cultural Bible-study groups. We can help each other listen to the Word of God, but I don't think it is true to say that the poor necessarily have greater insights. We all come to Scripture with our presuppositions and our cultural defenses, and these may be very different from one another's. The liberation theologian and the Marxist also have their cultural defenses.
What we need to do in cross-cultural Bible-study groups is to cry to God to use each other in breaking through these defenses.
The Charismatic Movement
Can we turn to the charismatic movement? how Have your views changed since Baptism and Fullness?
Baptism and Fullness was the second edition; the first was The Baptism and Fullness of the Holy Spirit. I practically rewrote the book, principally because I felt I had been less than generous in my evaluation of the movement. I wanted to put on record that I had no doubt that God had blessed the charismatic movement to both individuals and local churches. It would be quite impossible and improper to deny that.
I do believe in the Holy Spirit! The Christian life is inconceivable without the Holy Spirit. The Christian faith and life depend entirely upon the Holy Spirit: the Spirit convicts us of sin, opens our eyes to see the truth as it is in Jesus, causes the New Birth to take place, bears witness with our spirit that we are the children of God, transforms us into the image of Christ, is the earnest of our final inheritance, and so on. Every stage and every part of the Christian life is impossible without the Holy Spirit.
So I believe in the Spirit; but I still believe that some of the distinctive doctrines of charismatic Christians are not as honoring to the Spirit as they think they are, and are in fact mistaken.
What I find difficult is the stereotyping of Christian experience, that everybody has to go through the same two hoops. I don't see that in the New Testament. I see the emphasis on the New Birth; and the New Testament bends over backwards in its attempt to find adequate phraseology to define the New Birth. It speaks not only of rebirth but of re-creation and resurrection, and nothing could be greater than that. It seems to me we are bound to go askew if we put any subsequent experience on a level higher than the original one.
As for the gifts, I simply think that many charismatics focus on the wrong ones. There are at least 20 gifts identified in the New Testament, and these lists are so random that there are probably many more that were not included. But the Pentecostal still concentrates on the three supernatural gifts of healing, prophecy, and tongues.
The most important gift today, measured by Paul's principle that we should excel in those that build up the church, is teaching. Nothing builds up the church like the truth, and we desperately need more Christian teachers all over the world. I often say to my charismatic friends, "If only you would concentrate on praying that God would give teachers to the church who could lead all these new converts into maturity in Christ, it would be more profitable."
Could the development of the movement bring about an existential form of Christianity? Just as liberals read scripture in the light of its relevance to culture, could the charismatics read it in the light of its relevance to experience?
I think that's well put, and I want to endorse it. I wish I'd thought of it first!
Mind you, I don't want to denigrate experience. I don't want charismatics to say of me, as they often do, "He's a dry old stick." Because I'm not, actually. I'm a much more emotional person than people realize. I thank God that he hasn't made me a fish, cold and slippery. I'm very thankful to be a human being, with all the emotional passion and fervor, as well as intellectual concern, which that entails.
I do believe in emotion; I do believe in experience. The Christianity of the New Testament is undoubtedly an experiential faith, in which deep feelings are involved. But I want to combine clear thinking with deep feelings.
I find that mind and emotion are kept together very much in the New Testament. I have always loved, for example, the Emmaus walk: "Did not our hearts burn within us when he opened to us the Scriptures?" It was through their mind that their heart began to burn. We have to recognize the important place of experience, but our experience does have to be checked all the time against biblical teachings. Otherwise, it will become an ungodly and non-Christian existentialism.
Have you yourself had experiences of God that could be called "charismatic"?
I want to say yes to the first part of the sentence and no to the second. Certainly God has given me in his goodness some profound spiritual experiences, both when I've been alone and even more in public worship, when tears have come to my eyes, when I've perceived something of his glory.
I can remember one particular occasion when we were singing, "At the name of Jesus every knee shall bow." I did really break down, because I saw again the supreme exaltation of Jesus to the right hand of the Father. I have had other profound experiences that have moved me to the core of my being. But I wouldn't say that any of them has been a traditional charismatic experience such as speaking in tongues. And they have not been disassociated from the mind. In 1 Corinthians 14 Paul is all the time saying, "You mustn't let these experiences bypass your mind." The mind is involved, though the experience goes beyond it.
But I know what Paul meant in Romans 5 about the love of God being shed abroad in our hearts. I also know what he meant in Romans 8 about the Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are the children of God.
The Toronto Blessing
What do you make of the Toronto Blessing?
I never want to criticize anything which people claim has been a blessing to them in terms of a greater awareness of the reality of God, or a profounder joy, or an overwhelming love for God and for others, or a fresh zeal in evangelism. It's not for me to doubt any of these things.
My major questions concern three areas. First, it is a self-consciously anti-intellectual movement. I listened on tape to the first person who brought the Toronto Blessing to Britain. This person said: "Don't analyze, don't ask questions. Simply receive." I think that is both foolish and dangerous. We must never forget that the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth.
Secondly, I cannot possibly come to terms with those animal noises, and it grieves me very much that—as far as I know—no charismatic leaders have publicly disassociated themselves from them, as they should. The whole Bible tells us that we are different from the animal creation; it rebukes us when we behave like animals and calls us to be distinct. Nebuchadnezzar's animal behavior was under the judgment, not the blessing, of God.
My third problem concerns all the falling. Even charismatic leaders have pointed this out, that on the few occasions in the Bible when people have fallen over, they have all fallen forwards on their faces, and they have all done so after they have been granted a vision of the majesty, holiness, and glory of God. In the Toronto experience, however, people fall backwards without any previous vision of God.
Those three things trouble me.
Evangelicals, too, have been accused of anti-intellectualism in two new books: Mark Noll's The Scandal of the Evangelical Mindand Os Guinness's Fit Bodies, Fat Minds. This trend seems to be more pervasive than just an existential or experiential form of the faith.
I agree. It has been characteristic of much evangelicalism (but even more of Pentecostalism). There are notable exceptions, and thank God for them.
I think we need to encourage each other in the proper use of the mind. Preachers are still the key people; the church is always a reflection of the preaching it receives. It is not an exaggeration to say that the low standards of Christian living throughout the world are due more than anything else to the low standards of Christian preaching and teaching.
If we can recover true expository preaching as being not only exegesis but an exposition and application of the Word of God, then congregations will learn it from us preachers and go and do the same thing themselves. We need to help our congregations to grasp and use the hermeneutical principles that we are using ourselves. We need to be so careful in the development of our evangelical hermeneutic that the congregation says, "Yes, I see it. That is what the text means, and it couldn't mean anything else."
The worst kind of preaching allows people to say, "Well, I'm sorry, I don't agree with you. I think you're twisting the Scripture."
You seem to me to have changed your position on gender. Certainly, your later writings present a different view of the status and role of women. What has brought this about?
What has helped me most in struggling with this issue is a growing understanding of the need for "cultural transposition." This is based on the recognition that although biblical truth is eternal and normative in its substance, it is often expressed in changeable cultural terms.
The Lausanne Covenant described Scripture as "without error in all that it affirms." Our duty is to determine what it does affirm—that is, what God is teaching, promising, or commanding in any given passage. When we have identified this, we have the further task of reclothing this unchanging revelation in appropriate modern cultural dress. The purpose is not to dodge awkward teachings of Scripture, still less to foster disobedience, but to make our obedience contemporary.
If we apply this principle to the role of women, it seems clear to me that masculine "headship" (which I believe refers to responsibility rather than authority) is a permanent and universal truth, because Paul roots it in Creation. And what Creation has established, no culture is able to destroy. We have no liberty to disagree with the apostle Paul.
But we still need to ask, "What are the appropriate cultural expressions of this in the church today?" For one thing, we may drop the wearing of veils. Is it possible, then, that the requirement of silence is similarly a first-century cultural application which is not necessarily applicable today?
This, if I remember rightly, was the position we adopted at the National Evangelical Anglican Congress in 1977. We expressed the view that a woman could be ordained and so could teach men, but that an appropriate contemporary expression of masculine headship would be for her to belong to a local pastoral team, of which a man would be the head.
I still hold this view, although, of course, I know it has been overtaken by history.
You have said that Christians are optimists but not utopians. are you optimistic about the church? Do you feel that the next generation of leaders is adequately equipped?
Yes, I must reply in the affirmative. Elderly people always have difficulty recognizing the gifts of the young, or younger, but surely, as I look around, there are men and women of most remarkable gifts that God is raising up.
Yet we are not utopians. We cannot build the kingdom of God on earth. We are waiting for the new heaven and the new earth, which will be the home of righteousness and peace.
But meanwhile, I'm an optimist, because I don't think pessimism and faith are easy bedfellows. I believe that God is at work in the world; I believe that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation to every believer; and I believe that the church can be salt and light in the community. Both salt and light are influential commodities: they change the environment in which they are placed.
What advice would you give to the new generation of the church's leaders?
I'd want to say so many things. But my main exhortation would be this: Don't neglect your critical faculties. Remember that God is a rational God, who has made us in his own image. God invites and expects us to explore his double revelation, in nature and Scripture, with the minds he has given us, and to go on in the development of a Christian mind to apply his marvelous revealed truth to every aspect of the modern and the postmodern world.
This article originally appeared as the cover story for Christianity Today's January 8, 1996, issue.
Copyright © 2003 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
See also today's story: "Why Don't They Listen? | John Stott on the most pernicious obstacles to effective world evangelism."
Other CT articles on John Stott include:
Pottering and Prayer | As John Stott turns 80, he still finds weeds to pull, birds to watch, and petitions to make. (April 27, 2001)
The Quotable Stott | Reflections on the occasion of John R.W. Stott's 80th birthday. (April 27, 2001)
An Elder Statesman's Plea | John Stott's 'little statement on evangelical faith' reveals the strengths and limitations of the movement he helped create. (Feb. 7, 2000)
Guardian of God's Word | The amazingly balanced, wise, biblical, and global ministry of a local pastor, John Stott." (September 16, 1996)
Articles on Stott from Christianity Today sister publication Books & Culture include:
WWJSD | The global ministry of John Stott. (March/April 2002)
Basic Christianity—with an Oxbridge Accent | John Stott and evangelical renewal. (Sept./Oct. 2000)
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