Thursday, December 02, 2004

John Stott at a Glance

I began reading about John Stott today. Like many of David Brooks' readers, I had heard of Jerry Falwell and pretty much knew what I thought of him (not much, given that he's the one who blamed gays, feminists, and the ACLU et al. for God's punishment of America on 9/11), but I had not heard of John Stott. I'm just not all that in touch with the evangelical side of Christianity. So I checked out his website (John Stott Ministries), the blurbs on his main books, and a speech entitled Commissioning of New Vancouver Region Essentials Committee 16 October 1998 "ON ESSENTIALS". Admittedly, I skimmed the section on essentials of Christianity and actually found his discussion of the non-essentials more interesting. On the whole, there was nothing terribly surprising or outrageous there. I disagree in a fundamental way with the manner in which he interprets the Bible; that is, his hermeneutic principles prevent an honest engagement with the historical-critical apparatus of Biblical Studies. More importantly, however, his theology of the Word is static, and his conception of God is too Christocentric and needs attention to Whiteheadian metaphysics and Hegelian historicism. But all of that involves technical matters, and my final view is that such debates can quickly become arcane and over-serious. I recently attended a conference at which theologians debated the merits of the ex nihilo doctrine of creation according to open theology and relational theology. (Long story short: open theology retains ex nihilo because it helps us appreciate the radical contingency of the world; relational theology sees God's relation to the world as essential to God's being and thus cannot abide a moment when such a relation did not exist; open theology answers that God's trinitarian nature provides internal relations to make up for the loss, but the Whiteheadians are not satisfied.) In any case, the debate can be surprisingly heated for a matter that seems generally pointless.

Or is it? Such doctrines can and do inform the way we see the world and act in it. One respondent on the panel (Christina Hutchins) noted the way in which the ex nihilo doctrine funds a more general conception of origination--that absolute origination is possible. Thus, the (divinely ordained) Bush administration thinks it possible to create de novo an Iraqi democracy without regard to the intrinsic interpenetration of historical forces relating that current state back to ancient cultures and their attendant conflicts. Whether or not such a connection between this doctrine and that foreign policy is valid or explanatory, the possibility of such political and social undercurrents resident in such belief systems requires our vigilance and examination. So, there is reason to pay attention to the doctrines even if the debates can seem arcane and the debaters overly serious.

But back to John Stott. It would take considerable time (more than I have at the moment) and effort to ferret out his assumptions and their practical effects on social and political levels. I would expect a view of authority to emerge that predates the Enlightenment and an exclusivism that translates the doctrine of ex ecclesiam nulla salus ("outside the Church there is no salvation") into "outside Christianity there is no salvation." Such doctrines have pronounced effects in the mode of organization of the church as an institution as well as the church's attitude toward religious others. Also, the Johannine focus on Jesus as the Christ to the near exclusion of his teachings makes Christianity into a religion about Jesus the divine man rather than about Jesus' principles and God's love. This seems to be a distortion of the Jesus in Mark's gospel who constantly deflects attention from himself to God and scorns the infatuation with power and pretige. For Stott, Christianity is all about power and prestige--that of Jesus the pantocrator and, by extension, of the empire which proclaims him.

All of this is really just speculation about his views. I would need to look much more closely to verify it. I will, however, say one positive thing about him, or rather I'll quote him affirmingly.
We can only do that by encouraging gifted people to go into the pastoral ministry and others to get their Ph.D.'s and to defend the gospel, to develop a truly Christian apologetic for the gospel and, in this way, to win the intellectual argument in the church today. So, teach the truth, encourage one another, multiply sound teachers.
That is exactly right. The church needs to become a teaching church again. Of course, I am not convinced that the evangelical churches are prepared for that role. Their hermeneutics and understanding of authority may prevent them from producing substantive education. Though Stott hopes for an army of Ph.D.'s to arise in defense of his doctrines against the "false teachers" of our era, I think such an army is likely to have passed from an unthinking phase of indoctrination into a more mature outlook in which "winning" the intellectual argument does not seem as relevant as living out the questions of faith and the existential quest of life. In other words, I bet he should be careful for what he wishes for. When an evangelical spends six to eight years studying Greek, Hebrew, theology, and history, she or he will surely be asked to do one fundamental thing: think. Kant's motto of the Enlightenment is operative here: sapere aude (dare to know). Once a person takes up this dare, there is really no turning back, and the creativity of the divine Logos will tend to slip out of the garments sewn for it.

I would just like to add one final comment. I have a suspicion based on nothing but an intuition (as well as some confirmation from a fellow religion professor) that Stott is himself one of those whose experience as a scholar has left him in the awkward position of affirming an orthodoxy which he does not fully believe. For example, when he makes the distinction between the moral law of the Pentateuch (i.e., the Ten Commandments) and the other forms of law (ceremonial and civil) in order to affirm the continuing validity of the former and the obsolescence of the latter (as he does here), he is making a move of some sophistication for his readership. To me this indicates a willingness to broach the sorts of concerns regarding authorship, context, literary genre, etc. which any scholar of the Bible must acknowledge in order to be a scholar. Furthermore, his writing tends to be playful and creative at times. All of this suggests to me that deep down, Stott may not be the evangelical that many of his epigones imagine him to be. Thus, I reiterate my support of his view regarding education: it may be our best hope for liberation from some of the oppressive "essentials" of Christianity.


Post a Comment

<< Home