Two new books on John Stott

Thanks to the Lexham Press, I have on my shelves two new books, both relating to the late John Stott. In 2005 Stott was named as one of only three religious leaders in Time magazine’s list of the one hundred most influential people in the world. And since his death in 2011, the reputation that Stott has enjoyed among evangelicals has, if anything, increased. His worldwide fame, which dates from the 1970s and in particular the 1980s, was but an early example of a kind of religious celebrity within worldwide evangelicalism that calls out to be understood better. (Alister Chapman’s essential biography tells us a great deal about this aspect of Stott’s career.)

This kind of religious celebrity often seems to be followed by a posthumous search to recover more of their voice, that it might continue to sound after their death, and perhaps even more clearly. (See, on the case of C.S. Lewis, the recent book by Stephanie L. Derrick). And the two books I want to discuss here are both attempts to recover and present afresh aspects of Stott’s work that are either unpublished or hard now to get hold of.

Christ the Cornerstone: Collected essays of John Stott (2019) forms part of a Lexham Press series based on the archive of Christianity Today, set up by Billy Graham in 1956. Stott was an early contributor to Christianity Today – the first essay here dates from 1959, an impeccably conservative exposition of the authority of the Bible. However, the bulk of the essays here appeared as Stott’s ‘Cornerstone’ column, published monthly between 1977 and 1981. Taken as a whole, they show us what an English evangelical leader thought worth saying to a predominantly American readership, but also the worldwide concerns that Stott now had, having left stipendiary parish ministry in London. There are essays on church and state in England, and the key National Evangelical Anglican Congress at Nottingham in 1977; on James Barr’s 1977 book Fundamentalism; on the churches in Norway, Australia and Burma; on race relations in the UK, nuclear arms, abortion. Although presented without any critical apparatus and only a short introduction, it is a volume which scholars of evangelical history will want to have to hand.

Published just this month is Pages from a Preacher’s Notebook. The title is slightly misleading, in that the source is in fact a body of thousands of index cards, compiled over a period of sixty or more years, on which Stott recorded facts, quotations and other things of interest, arranged by subject. It was on this modern commonplace book that Stott drew extensively for his writing and his preaching. It is the fruit of a volunteer transcription project at Stott’s church of All Souls’ Langham Place in London, and is edited by Mark Meynell, himself a former member of the All Souls’ staff and co-worker with Stott in his later years. (A larger selection is available as an ebook).

Historians have not paid a great deal of attention to preaching in the latter half of the twentieth century. Rare was the preacher who found a publisher for his collected sermons, as had been the case with figures such as Hensley Henson in earlier years. Rarer still is the preacher for whom such a source as this survives, which gives it an absorbing interest. I would suspect (although could not prove) that Stott was unusual among the clergy in having adopted a method such as this and in having sustained it over such a long period. (It was more common among academics, such as the historians Keith Thomas and Christopher Hill, both of a similar age to Stott.) From whom, perhaps at Rugby school or Cambridge, Stott learned the method is tantalisingly unclear.

But as a resource for historians, this particular selection will remain of limited use, a pointer towards the full body of notes (if and when they are made available for research) rather than a reference source itself. To begin with, there is no attempt to infer the date at which a note was made, leaving the reader to guess from the subject matter; as such, we are missing a crucial piece of context for understanding not only what Stott was reading but under which circumstances. For example: the notes in which Stott engaged with the English Reformation are based largely on the books of Marcus Loane, archbishop of Sydney from 1958 and former principal of the evangelical Moore College. This would be common enough for an evangelical reader in (say) 1960, but one would want to ask questions if this was all Stott was reading in the 1990s, by which time Reformation scholarship had changed beyond all recognition.

Although the editor discloses a certain amount about which cards were selected and which omitted, it is not enough to form a view on how representative the sample is, and of what. The church in which Stott worked was convulsed in the Sixties and Seventies by theological controversy that seemed to touch the very essence of Christian orthodoxy. And the editor tells us that Stott made notes on John Robinson’s famous book Honest to God (1963) and the later The Myth of God Incarnate, edited by John Hick. (Three of the Stott columns in Christianity Today are on the latter and its repercussions). Yet the selection here includes almost nothing on this ferment, from American and European theologians such as Bonhoeffer, Bultmann or Tillich, or Englishmen such as Robinson, Hick, Maurice Wiles, Geoffrey Lampe, David Jenkins (Don Cupitt cuts a lonely figure on page 259, and at second-hand). It may be that these disputes are now purely of historic interest, and it is certainly true that Stott is still read while Robinson and Tillich are not. But a selection based on an idea of enduring value will not satisfy the historian reader.

So if this selection is not aimed at historians – as we are forced to conclude – for whom is it intended? The back cover suggests a ‘preacher or writer looking for a good idea, or an admirer of Stott’. The editor is surely right to say that Stott’s notes illuminate his practice of “double listening’, of attending both to the Bible and to contemporary culture; the signal contribution of this little book is to show what such double listening meant in practice. But one might hope that modern-day preachers would adopt the method itself, rather than mining this selection for nuggets of wisdom to drop into a sermon. Surely the task is to listen to culture today, rather than to listen to Stott listening to his.

If you’ve enjoyed this post, why not support the blog on Patreon? For only £2 a month, you can help keep as much of the writing here free to read as possible.

New sources at Lambeth Palace Library, 2014

Some twentieth century highlights from the latest Report of the Friends of Lambeth Palace Library:

(i) a note on the cataloguing of the papers of John Stott, funded by Stott himself and his executors. There’s more on the LPL site, and on their blog when the cataloguing was finished.

(ii) newly catalogued files from the Council on Foreign Relations, including key dialogues between Anglicans and Roman Catholics. These began before the Second Vatican Council; became the Joint Preparatory Commission (1967), and in turn the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC). The papers touch on many of the most difficult issues of the time, including ‘mixed marriages’

(iii) amongst the papers of the archbishops, the series reaches 1983, and Robert Runcie’s view on nuclear weapons and his visit to China as part of a delegation of the British Council of Churches.

(iv) the papers of Joseph McCulloch, rector of St Mary-le-Bow (London) and instigator of the weekly public debates in the 1960 and 1970s known as the Bow Dialogues.

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.