In this United States of America there is spirited debate between proponents of theological traditions. None is more prevalent than that between Calvinists and Arminians, those who adhere to the sovereign will of God and those who believe in the free will of men and women. There are also differences between main-line denominations and independent congregations, between rationalists and Pentecostals, and between those who see the Gospel as a call to social action and those who see it as a call to evangelism. John Stott, addresses all these differences and more in his little book, Balanced Christianity.
He begins by quoting the founder of modern Anglican Evangelicalism, Charles Simeon, who was Fellow of King’s College and Vicar of Holy Trinity, Cambridge, England. Simeon, in writing to a friend in 1825 maintained that, “The truth is not in the middle, and not in one extreme, but in both extremes. Sometimes I am a high Calvinist, at other times a low Arminian, so that if extremes will please you, I am your man; only remember, it is not one extreme that we are to go to, but both extremes.”
I was raised in this tradition where both Calvin and Wesley were revered. To illustrate holding both these extreme truths I can remember being taught that when we get to heaven we will face a gate which has over it these words: “Choose you this day whom you will serve.” When you enter the gate and look behind you will see on the inside of the entrance these words are emblazoned: “Chosen from before the foundation of the world!”
Stott takes four extremes and demonstrates how we should value both and avoid unnecessary polarizations.
1. Intellect & Emotion. He criticizes both cold intellectualism and empty emotionalism. Stott was raised in a highly intellectual environment and valued the mind. He graduated the top of his class at Cambridge University. I will never forget him trying to describe a well-known evangelist whom he had seen on television when he was visiting the United States. He couldn’t finish his story because he was rendered speechless by a fit of the giggles. He was suspicious of emotional experience as a substitute for thinking. He believed that a rational God made us rational beings and gave us a rational revelation in Scripture. “To deny our rationality is therefore to deny our humanity.” He wrote, Your Mind Matters, to expand that point. Scripture never sets faith and reason over against each other. Faith arises and grows within us by the use of our minds.
This does not mean that genuine experience of Jesus Christ is to be discounted. God has made us emotional as well as rational creatures. We are capable of deep feelings. Jesus was not ashamed of expressing his emotions. When we are overcome by the glory and grace of God we want to fall on our faces and worship. Truth can set the heart on fire. He quotes Martyn Lloyd-Jones: “What is preaching? Logic on fire! Eloquent reason…Preaching is theology coming through a man who is on fire.”
John Stott was passionate about the Gospel which was evident in his proclamation and the witness of his life. The combination of intellect and emotion was compelling.
2. Conservative & Radical. He believed that every Christian should be both a conservative and a radical. Conservative because we are called to conserve God’s revelation in Scripture, to “guard the deposit of faith,” to “contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints.” We don’t invent new gospels and new moralities. We are called to be faithful guardians of the one and eternal gospel. When I first went to work with John Stott as his assistant in the fall of 1967 he was preaching his way through Paul’s Second Letter to Timothy. It was published under the title, “Guard the Gospel.” Nobody who heard him would ever doubt his commitment to the historic Christian faith and his refutation of, what he considered, false teaching.
During my time at All Souls Church I shared with John in preaching a series entitled True Radicalism. In it we examined the radix, the root, of the truths that were being debated in the turbulent 60’s, during the student revolution. John was never a political conservative. The only newspaper he read was the weekly edition of the Manchester Guardian, which was center-left. He was not opposed to change. He was willing to challenge the tradition of the elders, as indeed Jesus did. He believed that we should subject our contemporary culture to continuous biblical scrutiny. He wanted to liberate Third World churches from having to follow the culture of their European missionaries. He wrote that “the greater danger (at least among evangelicals) is to mistake culture for Scripture, to be too conservative and traditionalist, to be blind to those things in church and society which displease God and should therefore displease us, to dig our heels and our toes deep into the status quo and to resist firmly that most uncomfortable of all experiences, change.”
I will continue this series in my next post.