Review: Two Books on John Stott

Reviewed here:

  • T. Dudley-Smith, John Stott: The Making of a Leader, A Biography, The Early Years. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press 1999).
  • T. Dudley-Smith, John Stott: A Global Ministry, A Biography, The Later Years. (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2001).

Rev. Dr. Ian RennieRev. Dr. Ian Rennie retired as Dean of Tyndale Seminary, Toronto, and now lives in Vancouver with his wife, Lee, where they attend Fairview Presbyterian Church.

John Stott has been described — by a relatively unsympathetic scholarly clergyman, as "the most influential clergyman in the Church of England in the twentieth century, apart perhaps from Archbishop William Temple." Since Temple's ministry took place in the first half of the century and almost all of Stott's in the second half, perhaps the accolade may be divided chronologically between them. The remarkable fact, however, is that the one achieved the highest ecclesiastical eminence while the other lived out his days, at least officially, as a parish clergyman. But Stott's influence was not restricted to the Church of England, to England itself or even the United Kingdom, for it was international in scope. Stott is a remarkable Christian leader, concerned primarily with the renewal of the Church of England and of the historic Protestant denominations of the Western world. As well, he was involved in working for the maturing of the vibrant churches of the developing world. Perhaps his participation in church renewal explains why a man of such ability never achieved what the Anglicans would call ecclesiastical preferment. Establishments seldom appreciated renewalists, with their implied critique of the status quo, although Stott in later years has received a few signs of denominational recognition. They did little or nothing, however, to add to his tremendous influence which he had forged virtually single-handedly.

As an evangelical Anglican, or to be more precise, as a conservative evangelical Anglican, Stott perhaps had more affinity with Presbyterianism than with any other section of the Christian Church. This is evidenced by the number of young members of the PCUSA, who acted as his study assistants at various periods; that he ministered amongst Presbyterians worldwide, including the Czech Brethren and the Hungarian Reformed; and that in traditional evangelical Anglican parlance on occasion would describe the Church of England at its foundations as a Protestant and Reformed Church. In addition to these external indicators Stott shared with many of his conservative evangelical confreres a Reformed understanding of theology and spirituality, a covenant view of baptism, an emphasis on the presence of Christ by the Spirit in the Lord's Supper, a certain flexibility in liturgical action and clerical garb, and the conviction that while episcopacy was an ancient form of church government which could add to the well-being of the church, it was by no means essential. He also ministered in the English State Church, while we as Presbyterians have our roots in the complementary Established Church of Scotland. In these ways Stott is a Christian brother with whom we share much in common and from whom we have much to receive, without diluting or violating who we are. The only major difference between us is the practical fact that Anglican polity at the Reformation retained more of a medieval complexion, which by a system of checks and balances guaranteed certain rights and privileges, thus giving recognition within the Church of England to various emphases of which the evangelicals are one embodiment. Thus as do others, they conduct their own theological colleges and missionary societies, having an identity but at the same time being grateful for such a comprehensive church. In this situation, with its measure of freedom, it may also well be easier for creative renewalists, like Stott, to fulfill their calling.

In Stott's life we see the providence of God in helping him to become the very effective servant of Jesus Christ that he was to be. His father was near the top of the medical profession, as one of London's Harley Street physicians, providing the members of the family with an upper-middle class identity and opportunity. His mother was of German extraction, helping to provide him with strength of character, an adaptability for modern languages and an interest in the world at large. In time he went to Rugby, one of the finest boys' schools in England. Here he not only received an excellent academic grounding but also came to a personal and living Christian faith. Stott was led to Christ by E.J.H. Nash, an evangelical Anglican clergyman and schoolmaster, who worked with a parachurch organization, concentrating on evangelism among boys at the most prominent schools. Nash was not only a very effective evangelist, but also an excellent discipler, praying regularly for Stott and writing him a letter of Christian counsel and direction every week for the next five years. Nash also conducted annual camps for the boys among whom he worked, where Stott quickly rose to become his right-hand man. In this atmosphere of evangelism, Bible teaching and discipling, Stott not only grew as a Christian but also began to feel at home among the opportunities for leadership and public speaking. In this milieu he developed a lasting appreciation for parachurch Christianity and as years went by he would seek to draw its vital spirituality into the church.

From Rugby, Stott went to Cambridge University where he achieved high-ranking academic status and became deeply involved with the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union, a part of the Inter-Varsity Fellowship. In this setting he was introduced more deeply to the evangelical heritage into which he had entered. He became conscious of standing in the tradition of Bilney, Tyndale, Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer, the great names of the Cambridge Reformation. He also looked back with great appreciation to Charles Simeon, who for fifty-four years, from 1782 to 1836, had been the vicar of Holy Trinity Church in the heart of Cambridge. He read the many volumes of Simeon's expository sermons with great profit and was deeply moved by Simeon's memorial plaque in Holy Trinity, which stated that he "whether as the ground of his own hopes or as the subject of all his ministrations, determined to nothing but Jesus Christ and Him crucified." Aware of this great theological and spiritual heritage, it is not surprising that Stott found the liberally-oriented theology of Cambridge to be insipid and unappealing, with its weak doctrines of the Bible, the cross and even the deity of Christ. In this setting, he sensed the call to the ordained ministry and exchanged the study of modern languages for theology. Here Simeon continued to be his model. Simeon's uncompromising commitment to Scripture, as "the Word of God to be obeyed and expounded," as Stott wrote, "captured my imagination and has held it ever since. On many occasions I have had the privilege of preaching from his pulpit, and standing where he stood, I have prayed for a measure of his outstanding faithfulness." While at Cambridge Stott was urged to continue for doctoral studies with an academic theological career in view, he was aware of his call to pastoral ministry, where in outstanding fashion he would occupy the much-needed position of a scholarly popularizer.

Upon completion of his theological studies Stott became a curate or (assistant) of All Souls, Langham Place, London. It was situated in a strategic position in the West-End just north of the intersection of Regent St. and Oxford St. Within a reasonable distance was London University and some of the great teaching hospitals. Public transport was easily accessible and after the European model there were thousands of people living within the parish, many of them poor recent immigrants. All Souls had a church school, a youth club building, a thirteen-room rectory and a redundant parish church within its boundaries. So it had much in the way of facilities. It also had a conservative evangelical heritage going back for generations so there were no hurdles to overcome in that regard. But conservative evangelicalism had been in decline since the late nineteenth century in the Church of England as it had been in the other mainline denominations. Within a few years the rector of All Souls passed away and in the ancient Anglican fashion called patronage the senior clergyman was appointed, in this case by the Crown on the advice of the Prime Minister, drawing upon the wisdom and contacts of his patronage secretary. Stott was appointed at age twenty-nine and immediately began to put a new face on conservative evangelicalism for a new generation. His vision was of a church "apostolic in faith, alive in the Spirit, taught by the Scriptures and ready to respond in mission to the call of Jesus Christ." This vision was to be realized by expository preaching, congregational prayer, evangelically-oriented services and the training of the laity for the work of evangelism. This basic agenda was presented by Stott in a most attractive manner which exhibited education, thoughtfulness, social grace accompanied by a humble and winsome personality. This approach was not limited to All Souls as many of Nash's converts had been entering the ministry of the Church of England and were moving along lines similar to Stott, but eager to receive from him as one who was early regarded as an evangelical leader, regardless of his chronological age. In this way All Souls became something of a model evangelical parish. In spite of the demands of such a parish ministry, Stott became actively involved in many other forms of ministry as well.

Stott spent much of his time, energy and ability on the renewal of evangelical Anglicanism, believing that in this way the Church of England would be revitalized. He began the Eclectics for evangelical clergy under forty, meeting at All Souls for direction, fellowship and encouragement. Over time such groups sprang up in many regions of England, but always conscious of their indebtedness to Stott. Sensing the importance of ministering to students, he also convened an ongoing gathering of evangelicals known as Ministers in University Towns. Stott had a marvellous combination of vision and organizational ability which might be described as statesmanship. Thus he became the dynamo of the National Evangelical Anglican Congress of Keele '67 and Nottingham '77, which were the public expressions of the renewed evangelicalism. They gave evidence that evangelicalism was "gaining in confidence, sure of its position within the church and committed to involve itself further in the life of the church and society." At the same time the Congresses sought to avoid the worst perils of triumphalism by acknowledging that, as evangelicals they had often failed to understand and address the contemporary intellectual and social challenges. And these Congresses were the preserve of the conservative evangelicals. As Alister McGrath stated: "Liberal evangelicalism had ceased to be a meaningful organised presence within the church. Conservative evangelicalism had, quite simply, eclipsed it." In the light of these Congresses, the rest of Anglicanism had to take note of what was happening among the evangelicals. As an articulate clergyman of a very different churchmanship would write: " They have a burning and shining sense of mission. In an age of religious famine they know God, through Christ. Conservative Evangelicalism is not a fashion depending on great personalities, nor is it a party depending on bureaucracy or on jobs for the boys. It is an emotional reality. It is a reaction against the confusion of our time, but more it is a stirring of the hunger for God." But amid the sense of recognition and respect, Stott did not lose his sense of balance. He knew the Protestantism of the Church of England in its formularies was threatened by high churchmanship and liberalism and thus he worked assiduously to sustain such unglamorous structures as the Church of England Evangelical Council in its struggle to maintain traditional Canon Law.

Paralleling Stott's work within the Church of England was his involvement in university evangelical missions sponsored by Inter-Varsity Fellowship. These began at Cambridge and Oxford, spread to the other British universities and then became a worldwide phenomenon, taking Stott to Canada and the United States, Australia and New Zealand, many parts of Africa and of south-east Asia. In these student missions Stott maintained his usual evangelistic methodology: he retained his thoughtful approach, beginning with topical concerns, setting the subject in its theological context, explaining the Christian gospel of Jesus Christ crucified and risen, then calling for the response of faith, which often involved asking those who wished to hear a further brief explanation of how to come to Christ to wait behind, after which literature would be given to those who wished it and the opportunity for personal conversation would be extended. Through this ministry Stott became known not only by students but by the wider Christian public in the countries he visited. As a result he was also being prepared for his unique position as an international and interdenominational evangelical statesman.

Stott's role as a worldwide statesmen developed in considerable measure because of his relationship with Billy Graham. As with all the conservative evangelical Anglicans, Stott was among Graham's warmest supporters when he came to London for the meetings at Harringay Arena in 1954. Graham quickly became aware of Stott's stature and the two became fast friends, with Graham frequently seeking his participation and counsel. Under Graham's leadership, the World Congress on Evangelism was convened in Berlin in 1966 with some 1200 delegates. Stott gave the morning Bible readings, which for many were the high point of the conclave. In 1974, under the same auspices, the International Congress on World Evangelism met in Lausanne, Switzerland, with some 4,000 attendees from 150 nations. Stott gave the opening address on biblical evangelism dealing with the words "mission," "evangelism," "dialogue," "salvation" and "conversion." Not only did he set a theological and intellectual standard for the Congress, but he also manifested an evangelical humility which acknowledged failure, indicated a willingness to listen to criticism and was open to matters of social responsibility and cultural integrity. Stott was the key figure in composing the important Lausanne Covenant and became a member of the Continuation Committee. He was a member of many important Lausanne subcommittees where his clear mind and gift of ready composition made him invariably the author of the statements which would be issued on important matters concerned with Christian ministry in a worldwide context. Stott's position as an international Christian leader was enhanced, particularly among the younger generation, by his frequent appearances at the Urbana Missionary Convention at the University of Illinois, sponsored by Inter-Varsity Fellowship, where multiplied thousands of university students were enlightened and challenged by his daily Bible expositions. In the early 1970s Stott resigned as rector of All Souls while remaining something of an honorary member of the leadership team, which with his confirmed bachelorhood gave him a solid home-base and yet the opportunity to participate unhindered in global ministry.

Throughout his adult years, regardless of all his other commitments and responsibilities, Stott gave himself to an assiduous writing schedule. His first book was a lucid, large-scale evangelistic tract, Basic Christianity. He early devoted himself to the preparation of biblical commentaries based upon a series of expository sermons, including The Message of Galatians, Guard the Gospel: The Message of 2 Timothy, God's New Society (Ephesians) and Christian Counter-Culture: The Message of the Sermon on the Mount. Apologetics was represented by Christ the Controversialist, while his growing conviction that social and cultural concerns were germanely related to the gospel was evidenced by Christian Mission in the Modern World, Issues Facing Christians Today and The Contemporary Christian. And many of his books would appear in multiple translation. The importance of theological literature for pastors in the developing world stimulated the formation of the Evangelical Literary Trust, to which Stott gave most of his book royalties. It subsidized books for pastors in the Third World and made outright grants of publications to theology students, to post-graduate scholars and writers and to theological college and seminary libraries, even on occasion paying for translation costs. Books with a retail value of well over two million dollars a year were provided. This involvement with ongoing theological education in the developing world led to the emergence of the Langham Trust which provided scholarships for evangelical doctoral students and their families who were committed to engage in theological education in their homelands. With his ever-expanding international network, as a convinced Anglican, Stott took a leading role in the expansion of the Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion worldwide.

When into his sixties the indefatigable Stott founded the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity. The Institute was to be something like Regent College in Vancouver, which he had long admired and in which he had frequently participated. It was not to be a theological college or seminary: instead it would be a lay training centre with reputable academic standards in which clergy of any denomination were also free to participate. As Stott expressed his vision: "The key words in my thinking are integration and penetration. I think evangelical Christians, if one can generalize, have not been integrated; there is a tendency among us to exclude certain areas of our life from the lordship of Jesus, whether it be our business life and our work or political persuasion. That sort of integration is crucial to the Institute's vision; the second is the penetration of the secular world by integrated Christians whose gospel will be a more integrated gospel."

We thank God for raising up such positive, helpful, faithful Christians in the generation that is quickly passing away. From such a life we can receive encouragement to continue in our efforts for the renewal of the Presbyterian Church in Canada. But perhaps most important of all, we can be stimulated by both volumes of the biography to pray that God will raise up somewhat similar leaders in our denomination: those who know God through Jesus Christ, who believe all that his Word teaches, who are gifted for ministry in its many forms and who believe that they are called to ministry within the Presbyterian Church in Canada. God grant it!