Saturday, September 29, 2007
A few years ago I interviewed John R. Stott for an article in my seminary newspaper (Gordon-Conwell in Massachuesetts). Very few saw that original article, so I thought I would reprint it here. At the time, I was wrestling through a few theological questions and thought I'd ask Dr. Stott to weigh in. For those of you who don't know, Dr. Stott is an evangelical Anglican who was recently described in the New York Times by, I believe, David Cromartie, who said, "If Evangellicals could elect a pope, it would be John Stott."
Brian Kay: In your ministry you have emphasized what you term BBC, or Balanced Biblical Christianity. What areas of potential imbalance do you see as temptations for those preparing for ministry in evangelical churches?
Stott: Frankly there are so many examples of evangelical imbalance that it would be difficult to know which to select, but I would like to begin with a question that I was asked just now which relates to the case of devotional life in theological studies. I quoted to that person something which is attributed to Bishop Moule. He said that we must be aware equally of an undevotional theology and of an untheological devotion, and that is a good example of balance. Now there are plenty of men and women who go to seminary and gain their academic excellence, which is fine, but their spiritual life suffers. They leave an academic success and a spiritual failure. And then of course, there are the people who go the other way; they are such men and women of God that they don’t care about academic excellence. But I believe that we need in the ordained pastoral ministry today people who combine academic excellence with personal godliness. The two are more or less equally important.
Kay: In order to insure proper balance in our Christian intellectual life, you have spoken of biblical agnosticism, that we should avoid forming doctrinal beliefs in areas where the Bible does not speak clearly. Which such areas do you believe evangelicals have shown unwarranted dogmatism?
Stott: I think my phrase was not areas in which the Bible does not speak but areas in which the Bible does not speak with absolute clarity. When the Reformers talked about the perspicuity of scripture, they were not referring to the whole of the Bible but to the central message of salvation—in Christ, by grace, through faith—and that is as plain as day. Evangelical people who take the Scripture as their authority are 95 percent agreed on these central doctrines of the faith—but then there were these areas in which the Scripture is not so clear which the Reformers referred to as the adiaphora, the matters indifferent, in which scripture is not equally plain. These would include questions concerning baptism, such as the particular volume of water that is necessary to validate a baptism or whether you should only baptize adult believers or the children of adult believers as well. It would include our particular understanding of the ministry, I think. It would include prophetic questions, of course, the millennium and the interpretation of biblical prophecy. These are some of the areas, although there are a great many more, in which Christians ought to give one another liberty. I’m sure you know the phrase which is attributed to Rupert Muldinious. Nobody knows quite who he was (some think he was a pseudonym for Richard Baxter, round about the Puritan period). He said that in essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty and in all things charity. We’re talking about the second—nonessentials. How do we know that they are nonessentials or that they are adiaphora? Because Scripture isn’t so clear or because equally biblical Christians, equally anxious to be submissive to the Scripture, come to different conclusions. These then seem to me to deserve to be called adiaphora.
Kay: For Protestantism, documents like the Westminster Confession or the 39 Articles have been historic standards of belief and practice. However, the length of these confessions seem to dwarf many of the short statements of faith that our churches use today. Should we view this trend as a sign of properly applied biblical agnosticism or as a watering down of historic doctrine?
Stott: I think we need to realize that churches that have produced confessions have tended to produce two, one a baptismal confession for members and the other a much fuller confession for teachers of the faith. The Apostles’ Creed is regarded as the baptismal faith of Christians, at least in the Church of England of which I am. Candidates of baptism either have to recite the Apostles’ Creed, which is a basic statement of Trinitarian faith, or they are asked whether they believe it as it is recited for them. The Creed is a pretty elementalist statement focusing on Jesus (though actually Trinitarian) which we believe to be so basic that people shouldn’t be baptized if they don’t believe it. In our Anglican situation, it was the 39 Articles, of course, which were the fuller statement. It was never intended that members should subscribe to the 39 Articles at baptism, but it was intended from the beginning that clergy should subscribe. Indeed, when I was ordained it was still the rule in the Church of England that you assented to the 39 Articles before the bishop ordained you and that in each new church to which you went as a minister you had to recite all the 39 Articles. In fact, for about 20 years at All Soul’s Church I used to recite them every year and then preach on one of them.
Kay: Church discipline is usually considered appropriate not just for moral failure but for areas of doctrine as well. Should we base our discipline on the standard of a more basic document, such as the Apostles’ Creed, rather than on a longer confession?
Stott: I would. Perhaps with one exception—one of the main gaps in the Apostles’ Creed is any reference to justification by grace through faith. Salvation is mentioned in the Nicene Creed, but there is no doctrine of the cross—there is no atonement. I would say that there should be discipline, I don’t know about members but certainly for teachers, if they don’t subscribe to the really basic things. These would include the virgin birth, the atoning death and the bodily resurrection of Jesus. But then again, for BBC, the church has always oscillated between extremes of laxity and discipline, and I don’t want us to get back to a very severe discipline where you’re excommunicating people every other day. I think the New Testament indicates that it’s only for very serious offenses, either belief or practice, that excommunication should be considered, and then only as the final resort.