Alister Chapman on John Stott: a review

It was a great pleasure to see my review of Alister Chapman’s study of John Stott appear in Reviews in History (for which, incidentally, I am apparently the single most prolific reviewer; answers on a postcard as to whether this is a Good or Bad Thing.) I digest some of my main points below, but as some of them are criticisms, let me say to begin that overall I thought it  ‘a model of engaged, sympathetic yet critical scholarship which is sure to find a wide readership.’

I began by reflecting a little on the recent controversy concerning Andrew Atherstone and David Ceri Jones’ splendid collection of essay on Martyn Lloyd-Jones, on which I blogged here, and which tells us important things about Christian biography as a scholarly exercise:

‘Historians who would assess the careers of contemporary religious leaders are on a hiding to nothing. [Atherstone and Ceri Jones’ book] has been excoriated both for slighting the memory of a revered figure and for asking the wrong questions. In the first case, some reviewers have shown, [in the words of Carl Trueman], an ‘apparent absolute commitment to maintaining a fundamentally uncritical, defensive and hagiographical approach [to Lloyd-Jones and his reputation that] does the church no favours’.  For Iain Murray, one of Lloyd-Jones’ biographers, there is little point [to historical reflection on The Doctor] without attempting to assess whether Lloyd-Jones was right in his theology. [History] that avoids the truth claims of its subject fails the basic test of utility for the Christian reader.
‘That religious biography has been made to carry greater weight than other such writing is of course not new. […] For many, Christian lives are to be exemplary, and as such the biographer is faced with a peculiar set of expectations among potential readers.[…] it may be that Chapman has navigated through the obstacles as well as could possibly be hoped. Chapman’s title is Godly Ambition, and the leitmotiv throughout is the tension between Stott’s natural assumption of his capacity for leadership, and the self-effacement customary in the exemplary Christian life. [..] Stott was ambitious that God’s kingdom on earth be fostered, but within that framework, ambition for one’s own personal success was legitimate, and indeed desirable, ad maiorem Dei gloriam. At the same time, Stott’s very human struggle with his pride in his own achievements is sympathetically and expertly handled, and Chapman is clear-sighted and frank about the tactical mistakes and intellectual diversions inevitable in a long career in the public eye.

My main criticisms concerned the place given to the rest of the Church of England, the non-evangelical majority:

‘Consider the phrase on p. 90: Chapman argues that, despite Stott’s definitive turn towards engagement with the Church of England, […] he nonetheless never became the kind of “theologically fuzzy ecclesiastical pole-climber” which (we are to understand) was common elsewhere in the Anglican church. It was, and is, a regular rhetorical device to set evangelical ‘clarity’ and ‘certainty’ in theology against liberal vagueness and doubt; but an author more attuned to the breadth of discourse in the Church of England would have hesitated over such a phrase.

On the failure of the Church of England to make Stott a bishop, despite the growing numerical strength of evangelicals within the Church of England:

‘Chapman, like [Timothy] Dudley-Smith, puts Stott’s exclusion down to Michael Ramsey, archbishop of Canterbury, and his reputed antipathy towards evangelicals. But to regard the episcopate in these quasi-parliamentary terms – as a representative body chosen according to the weight of party numbers in the wider church – is to miss the point. (That role was, in theory, fulfilled by the Church Assembly and its successor the General Synod, for election to which bodies Stott refused to stand.) In a theologically mixed church, with territorial governance by parish and diocese, the test for a bishop was not his particular churchmanship, but his ability to gain the confidence of all the parties represented on his patch. And for all Stott’s success in shifting the centre ground within the evangelical constituency, when viewed from outside he still appeared to be a party man. […]

More generally:

‘It is a besetting sin of evangelical historiography to talk only to itself, an isolation that sometimes results in a lack of proportion. […] Largely absent are voices from outside the evangelical constituency, in connection with Stott in particular and evangelicals in general, and the book would have been enriched by a greater sense of them.’

All this said, when judged on its own terms the book could hardly be bettered. And it is also encouraging that OUP could be persuaded to publish it, and that we have in place another key plank in our growing understanding of a pivotal time in evangelical history.

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