A guest-post by David Williamson
The death of John Stott (1921-2011) is a watershed moment in the history of evangelicalism. He represented a faith which was not neo-fundamentalism but a bold effort to engage and love a rapidly changing world. It was a renewal movement in Christianity and reformational in spirit; its major focus was sharing theology with men and women in the pews, in recognition that people with jobs and families were the real priests on the frontline. In contrast with the pietism of past generations, this infusion of knowledge was intended to spur an outpouring of love; not only was the traditional evangelical emphasis on the "great commission" of disciple-making celebrated, so was the "greatest commandment" of loving your neighbour.
This is not the popular image of evangelicalism. The assiduous courting of American evangelicals was a key part of Karl Rove's strategy to secure a sustainable future for the Republican party. The emergence of the religious right has undoubtedly been one of the major phenomena in modern western politics, but this has not been the driving concern of the movement itself. In fact, the apparent ease with which many evangelicals were co-opted at elections suggests evangelicals in America spent too little time thinking about politics and not too much.
The UK Guardian provided perhaps the best British obituary of Stott, which noted that his theological conservatism did not automatically translate into political conservatism. David Turner wrote:
Stott, radical in his conservatism, could not be pigeonholed. He was deeply committed to the need for social, economic and political justice and passionately concerned about climate change and ecological ethics. He regarded the Bible as his supreme authority and related its teaching to all areas of knowledge and experience. He insisted that Christians should engage in "double listening" – to the word of God, and to the world around them – and apply their biblical faith to all the pressing issues of contemporary culture. He himself researched, preached and wrote on a wide range of matters – from global debt to global warming, from the duties of the state to medical ethics and euthanasia. This was the kind of evangelicalism he embodied.
Similarly, Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times started his tribute saying: "In these polarized times, few words conjure as much distaste in liberal circles as 'evangelical Christian'." He continued:
Yet that casual dismissal is profoundly unfair of the movement as a whole. It reflects a kind of reverse intolerance, sometimes a reverse bigotry, directed at tens of millions of people who have actually become increasingly engaged in issues of global poverty and justice. This compassionate strain of evangelicalism was powerfully shaped by the Rev. John Stott, a gentle British scholar who had far more impact on Christianity than media stars like Mr. Robertson or Mr. Falwell. Mr. Stott, who died a few days ago at the age of 90, was named one of the globe’s 100 most influential people by Time, and in stature he was sometimes described as the equivalent of the pope among the world’s evangelicals. Mr. Stott didn’t preach fire and brimstone on a Christian television network. He was a humble scholar whose 50-odd books counseled Christians to emulate the life of Jesus – especially his concern for the poor and oppressed – and confront social ills like racial oppression and environmental pollution. “Good Samaritans will always be needed to succor those who are assaulted and robbed; yet it would be even better to rid the Jerusalem-Jericho road of brigands,” Mr. Stott wrote in his book The Cross of Christ.
Stott's hunger to engage with the greatest social issues of our day came from his engagement with the Bible. His simple belief that this book contained wonder brighter than the beauty revealed by the Hubble telescope burned at the heart of his preaching and writing, which was remarkably un-flash; he did not come across as a motivational speaker or a salesman for the faith. Rather, he was more like an archaeologist who would find a ruby in the dust and pass it to you to admire and study in the years to come. John Piper, a hugely influential exponent of Calvinism, wrote:
To this day I have zero interest in watching a preacher take his stand on top of the (closed) treasure chest of Bible sentences and eloquently talk about his life or his family or the news or history or culture or movies, or even general theological principles and themes, without opening the chest and showing me the specific jewels in these Bible sentences. John Stott turned the words of Bible sentences into windows onto glorious reality by explaining them in clear, compelling, complete, coherent, fresh, silly-free, English sentences... This is what I was starving for and didn’t even know it. Amazing! Someone is telling me what these sentences mean! Someone is making light shine on these words. It is shining so bright, I can’t sleep in this light! I am waking up from decades of dull dealing with God’s word. Thank you. Thank you. I could care less if you tell me any stories. I want to know what God means by these words!
Evangelicalism now lacks a Stott figure. It's a huge beast of a movement encompassing millions of new Chinese converts, South Korean missionaries, Latin American Pentecostals, baseball-loving Americans and Congolese immigrants to Dublin. In the United States, and to some extent Britain, the theological focus appears to be less on biblical discovery and engagement with the wider world and more on attempting to nail down precisely what evangelicals should believe. Many of the most prominent bloggers seem determined to equate Calvinism (with its focus on predestination) with evangelicalism. However, while the concept that God ordains evil as well as good and that Jesus did not so much die for the sins of the whole world as those of the "elect" whom he would summon to himself (and not by their own free will) may have been at the heart of New England Puritanism, it would shock millions of evangelicals.
It is ironic that Stott's landmark work on the significance of Jesus's death and resurrection is celebrated as one of the key texts of modern evangelicalism by many of those at the forefront of the spectacular resurgence in neo-Calvinism; but somehow there does not seem to be the same enthusiam for Stott's vision of Christians following Christ's call to act as "salt and light" in a world God loves by seeking societal transformation. Tim Challies, a leading neo-Calvinist who loves the Bible and clearly wants to follow it faithfully, wrote last year:
There is a time and a place for humanitarian work, no doubt. Christians can carry out great ministries serving the poor and the oppressed and in so doing can have remarkable opportunities to share the gospel. And yet still the history of Christianity shows that when Christians do this, the gospel quickly becomes secondary and the work itself becomes the gospel. I still see the Bible primarily emphasizing charity given to other believers; when I look at Acts and the epistles, this is what I see most – Christians helping other Christians as a sign of love and fraternity. Now of course there will be some who engage in humanitarian work outside the context of the local church, but it seems to me that the closer we come to making this a necessary part of the Christian mission, the more likely we are to see the gospel diminish.
No doubt Challies can think of many examples where this has taken place. And it is true that evangelical-founded relief organisations such as World Vision and Tear Fund face the challenge of operating as leading NGOs while finding a way to express an eternal Christian message. Also, at a time when evangelicalism is bereft of a unifying leader, it alarms many when evangelical scholars question and challenge doctrines traditionally considered core tenets of evangelical orthodoxy. In such a climate, theological and social retrenchment can appear attractive, even tempting.
But contrast this with Stott's own meditation on salt and light in a 2006 interview which today stands as a challenge to the movement he led with humility and passion throughout a splendid life:
They change the environments in which they are placed. Salt hinders bacterial decay. Light dispels darkness. This is not to resurrect the social gospel. We cannot perfect society. But we can improve it. My hope is that in the future, evangelical leaders will ensure that their social agenda includes such vital but controversial topics as halting climate change, eradicating poverty, abolishing armories of mass destruction, responding adequately to the AIDS pandemic, and asserting the human rights of women and children in all cultures. I hope our agenda does not remain too narrow.
This post first appeared at Van Peebles Land.