Scripture and the Church

John Stott: A Sad Epitaph

By Dr. Paul M. Elliott
The death of this once-orthodox theologian affirms our Lord's parables about trees and their fruit, and houses and their foundations.

From the TeachingtheWord Bible Knowledgebase

The death of this once-orthodox theologian affirms our Lord's parables about trees and their fruit, and houses and their foundations.

August 3, 2011 - Secular news outlets and religious websites have been filled with glowing tributes to postmodernist Evangelical leader John R. W. Stott, who died on July 27th at age 90. Christianity Today called Stott "one of the principal architects of 20th century Evangelicalism."1 The Christian Century called Stott "the Evangelical pope". Rick Warren, who was with Stott a few days before he died, said, "What a giant!" Geoff Tunnicliffe, secretary of the World Evangelical Alliance, spoke of Stott's "commitment to Biblical orthodoxy, global mission, and unity in the body of Christ".2

In 2005, Time magazine listed Stott as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.

Since Stott's death, a number of our readers have asked questions that one correspondent expressed this way:

I have read several things referring to him as a "giant" of the Christian faith and that he has now passed into glory, and I hope it's true... My problem is, and perhaps I am being too judgmental, but if the Bible says we can know them by their fruits, and this in many cases refers specifically to false teachers, then how could a man who didn't believe in a literal Hell, and therefore by implication did not believe in the infallibility of Scripture and who also had some very unbiblical ideas about Christian unity, be truly saved? Help me out here, because some of the people who are referring to him as a Christian giant are people I respect.

Our reader has well stated the dilemma of many.

Trees and Houses, Winds and Rain, Rocks and Sand

What can we say about John Stott? Perhaps I can begin to answer by giving an illustration. I recently had some very large trees, that were very close to my house, cut down. One tree, a large maple, was well over a hundred feet tall. This tree looked healthy and sound, but I knew from past experience that it was not. When it was cut down, I saw exactly what I expected: The tree was hollow. Almost the entire interior of the tree, up to a height of about forty feet, had been eaten away by ants. Externally, the tree looked fine and healthy. But all that was left of what appeared to be a solid trunk over four feet in diameter, were a few inches of wood surrounding a large empty center. The next strong wind could have brought this huge tree crashing down on our house.

How did I know the tree had become hollow? Past experience. I had seen this happen before with other trees which, I thank the Lord, were not close enough to the house to damage it when they fell. My wife and I came to know the danger signs - a small, mysterious "sawdust pile" at the base of a tree; high limbs dying and snapping off while other adjacent limbs remained apparently healthy; branches shedding their leaves in August instead of October.

How does this apply to John Stott? It applies in the same way that it does to so many Evangelical leaders of the past fifty years. Many of them have become spiritually hollow, a mere shell of the truly born-again child of God, ready to crack and fall when the winds of compromise blow. The danger signs are there for those who will recognize them, and in many cases the winds of apostasy have brought down men of our time who were once, to all appearances, sound in the faith.

Far better than my own illustration are our Lord's parables, to which our correspondent above alluded:

For a good tree does not bear bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit. For every tree is known by its own fruit. For men do not gather figs from thorns, nor do they gather grapes from a bramble bush. A good man out of the good treasure of his heart brings forth good; and an evil man out of the evil treasure of his heart brings forth evil. For out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.

But why do you call Me 'Lord, Lord,' and not do the things which I say? Whoever comes to Me, and hears My sayings and does them, I will show you whom he is like: He is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid the foundation on the rock. And when the flood arose, the stream beat vehemently against that house, and could not shake it, for it was founded on the rock. But he who heard and did nothing is like a man who built a house on the earth without a foundation, against which the stream beat vehemently; and immediately it fell. And the ruin of that house was great. (Luke 6:43-49)

Stott's Early Outward Orthodoxy

John Stott wrote many outwardly orthodox things, especially in his earlier years. I have in my library his commentary on Galatians, written in the early 1960s. In the first chapter Stott gave a sound defense of the authority of Scripture, and an indictment of the postmodern Biblical Theology Movement:

The view of modern radical theologians can be simply stated like this: The apostles were merely first-century witnesses to Jesus Christ. We on the other hand are twentieth-century witnesses, and our witness is just as good as theirs, if not better. So they read passages in the Epistles of Paul which they do not like, and they say: 'Well, that is Paul's view. My view is different.' They speak as if they were apostles of Jesus Christ and as if they had equal authority with the apostle Paul to teach and to decide what is true and right. Let me give you an example from a contemporary radical: 'St. Paul and St. John', he writes, 'were men of like passions to ourselves. However great their inspiration,...being human, their inspiration was not even or uniform....For with their inspiration went that degree of psycho-pathology which is the common lot of all men. They too had their inner axes to grind of which they were unaware. What therefore they tell us must have a self-authenticating quality, like music. If it doesn't, we must be prepared to refuse it. We must have the courage to disagree.' 3 We are told to disagree, you observe, on purely subjective grounds. We are to prefer our own taste to the authority of Christ's apostles.

Again, Professor C. H. Dodd, who has made a great contribution to the biblical theology movement, nevertheless writes in the Introduction to his commentary on the Epistle to the Romans: 'Sometimes I think Paul is wrong, and I have ventured to say so.'4 But we have no liberty to think or venture thus. The apostles of Jesus Christ were unique - unique in their experience of the Jesus of history, unique in their sight of the risen Lord, unique in their commission by Christ's authority and unique in their inspiration by Christ's Spirit. We may not exalt our opinions over theirs or claim that our authority is as great as theirs. For their opinions and authority are Christ's. If we would bow to His authority, we must therefore bow to theirs. As He Himself said, 'he who receives you receives me' (Mt. 10:40; Jn. 13:20).5

Stott's Later Hollowness and Apostasy

The same John Stott who wrote those words would soon forsake them. His commentary on Galatians, originally published under the title No Other Way, was soon re-issued under the ecumenical title, The Message of Galatians. But far worse, Stott would soon deny a cardinal doctrine of the true faith, taught repeatedly by our Lord Himself: the doctrine of eternal punishment in Hell -

Emotionally, I find the concept intolerable and do not understand how people can live with it without either cauterising their feelings or cracking under the strain. But our emotions are a fluctuating, unreliable guide to truth and must not be exalted to the place of supreme authority in determining it . . . my question must be - and is - not what does my heart tell me, but what does God's word say?6

But Stott would in fact place his emotions above Scripture by developing a doctrine of annihilationism that denied the Bible's clear statements on eternal punishment. He would deny Christ's own teaching on the same sort of "purely subjective grounds" he had earlier condemned. Stott in later years adopted an ever more postmodernist approach to Scripture, which was praised by New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks in 2004: "For him, Christianity means probing the mysteries of Christ. He is always exploring paradoxes...In many cases [he understands that] the truth is not found in the middle of apparent opposites, but on both extremes simultaneously."7

Stott's deviations from Scripture began long before the liberal David Brooks praised him, and long before Stott admitted that he had become an annihilationist. At an October 1966 ministerial conference, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones gave an impassioned plea for church unity on the proper basis - the true Gospel alone, and the authority of Scripture alone, coupled with separation from apostasy. Faithful ministers of the present day, Lloyd-Jones said, "are the representatives and the successors of the glorious men who fought this same fight, the good fight of faith in centuries past. We are standing in the position of the Protestant Reformers."8

According to an eyewitness press report, when Lloyd-Jones was finished speaking John Stott took the podium, and in an impromptu speech "took the surprising step of virtually rebuking the speaker and of declaring that history was against him in that others had tried unsuccessfully to do that very thing. He also affirmed that Scripture was against him, in that the remnant was within the Church and not outside it."9

Such revisionism about the Reformation would characterize John Stott's ministry from that time onward. In 1968, Stott would write this about Evangelicals: "We have acquired a reputation for narrow partisanship and obstructionism . . . We need to repent and change."10 The kind of "change" Stott had in mind was evident when he chaired a so-called "Evangelical" conference in 1967 to which Michael Ramsay, Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, was invited as the principal speaker. Ramsay had by this time already publicly stated that he expected to see atheists in Heaven; had criticized Evangelicals as "heretical" and "sectarian"; and had expressed a sympathetic view of Protestant reunion with Rome. In his address to the conference chaired by Stott, Ramsay said that experience must take precedence over theology, and that Evangelicals must not exclude postmodernists such as Rudolph Bultmann, who said the Bible must be "de-mythologized", from their fellowship.11 Following after such thinking, Stott himself would subsequently go to Venice, Italy to take part in the Evangelical-Roman Catholic Dialogue on Mission.12

In 1974, Stott was one of the principal authors of the Lausanne Covenant signed by religious leaders from over 150 countries who attended the International Congress on World Evangelism. This group, in which Stott and Billy Graham were prime movers, was so filled with apostates that the participants were not even agreed on the content of the Evangel, and the resulting document was a unity-in-diversity statement that owed far more to closed-door negotiations than to Scripture. Stott remained, to his dying day, a cleric of the doctrinally deviant Anglican church, and a friend of its leading heretics such as Bishop N. T. Wright.

Despite this and other errors - or perhaps because of them - John Stott continued to be a favorite of many self-described Evangelicals. A few years ago, he was invited to address the student body of Covenant Theological Seminary, the denominational seminary of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). Dr. Bryan Chappell, president of the seminary, defended Stott's appearance at Covenant by saying that despite his views Stott is still "within the pale of Evangelical truth" and has made "important contributions to the gospel." A few weeks after his Covenant Seminary appearance, Stott also spoke at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, the quasi-official seminary of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC).13, 14

The Critical Question: Not How a Man Begins, But How He Ends

A little less than two years before Martyn Lloyd-Jones' death in 1981, John Stott requested a meeting with him that, according to Stott's own account, was an attempt at reconciliation with his former mentor. But Dr. Lloyd-Jones, while personally polite, made it clear that the divide between them was not one of personalities (as some in the Evangelical world surmised), but of principles. Lloyd-Jones told his guest that if Stott would return to Biblical principles and the breach could thus be healed, "I would say like Simeon, 'Lord now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace.' " But it was not to be.15

The critical issue is not only how a man begins, but how he ends. Does he persevere in the true faith, or does he depart from the narrow way, and never return? "There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death" (Proverbs 14:12). It would have been far better if John Stott had come to a point where he said, with Paul, "What fruit did [I] have in the things of which [I] am now ashamed? For the end of those things is death" (Romans 6:21). John Stott could have been the great prophetic champion of Reformation in our time. Instead, by choosing the way of broad ecumenicism, he sought to once again obscure the great Gospel truths reclaimed by the Reformers.

The spiritual hollowness of Evangelicalism at the beginning of the 21st century is due in large measure to men like John Stott. To be called "one of the principal architects of 20th century Evangelicalism" is in fact a sad epitaph.

References:

  1. Tim Stafford, "John Stott Has Died", Christianity Today, July 27, 2011 as viewed at http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2011/julyweb-only/john-stott-obit.html

  2. Adelle M. Banks, "Stott, Called 'Evangelical Pope,' Dies at Age 90", The Christian Century, July 27, 2011, as viewed at http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2011-07/stott-called-evangelical-pope-dies-age-90

  3. Here Stott quotes H. A. Williams, in Objections to Christian Belief (Constable, 1963), pages 55-56

  4. Here Stott quotes The Epistle to the Romans, by C. H. Dodd (Moffatt New Testament Commentary, Hodder, 1932, pages xxxiv-xxxv

  5. John R. W. Stott, The Message of Galatians (originally titled No Other Way, Intervarsity Press, 1968), pages 15-16.

  6. John Stott, Evangelical Essentials (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1988), 315-316.

  7. David Brooks, "Who Is John Stott?" New York Times, November 30, 2004, as viewed at http://www.nytimes.com/2004/11/30/opinion/30brooks.html

  8. Ian Murray, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Fight of Faith, 1939-1981 (Edinburgh, Scotland and Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth Trust, 1990), page 524.

  9. "October 1966" in The Evangelical Magazine of Wales, Vol. 20, No. 2, April 1981, pages 40-42, reproduced at http://www.mlj.org.uk, as viewed on 3/31/2009.

  10. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Fight of Faith, 1939-1981, 538.

  11. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Fight of Faith, 1939-1981, 539.

  12. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Fight of Faith, 1939-1981, 659.

  13. As reported in "Controversy Dogs John Stott in America," Presbyterian and Reformed News, Vol. 5, No. 4, December 1999.

  14. Although not officially connected with the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia was described in the denomination's Report of the Committee to Study the Views of Creation (reproduced in the Commissioners' Workbook for the 71st General Assembly of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 2004, page 1607) as "the OPC's de facto denominational seminary."

  15. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Fight of Faith, 1939-1981, 659.

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