Book Review: Christ the Cornerstone: Collected Essays of John Stott
This seems a risky decision. Fifty essays, written over a period of five years, forty years ago, now being published as a book. And yet this is what Christianity Today has done with these articles by John Stott, included in their magazine from 1977-1981.
Although a bit sceptical initially, I welcomed the opportunity to review book for a couple of reasons: the author is the founder of the ministry in which I am employed, Langham Partnership; and these years are the exact time when I was discerning the call of God on my life. In 1977 I was recently back from a missionary family upbringing in India, intent on studying medicine — and in 1981 I was starting an MDiv at TEDS (Deerfield, IL), convinced of God’s call to be a pastor. And the decisive moment in this transition? Listening to John Stott expound Romans 1-5 at Urbana ’79. So “take up and read” is exactly what I was happy to do.
While the material is dated, it is surprising how often a careful reading of what appears to be the most irrelevant topics bears fruit. In the three essays discussing John Hick’s edited work, The Myth of God Incarnate (1977),Stott’s characteristic irenic tone and firm wisdom around issues like language and authority, heresy and discipline, is on display. Or, consider his response to James Barr’s Fundamentalism (1981). During my years at Carey Baptist College, two decades later, it was a mystery to me why people so often used “conservative evangelical” and “fundamentalist” interchangeably. Now I can see that Barr may have been to blame — and Stott is not impressed, as his irenicism vapourises for a moment: “(Barr) has little or no respect for the people he is criticizing. His tone ranges from the cynical and the patronizing to the contemptuous and even the sour” (213).
In this compilation of essays, familiar Stottian themes are refreshed for us. He is remembered as someone committed to the word of God. He believed it, studied it, preached it, wrote about it and lived it. Some of the early essays are timeless in their demonstration of this life in the word of God — for example, “Christ and the Scriptures” (3-13) and “Scripture: the Light and Heat for Evangelism” (34-47). Both essays could be added to reading lists for students today, especially as they come with the concluding plea: “Let us not consume all our energies arguing about the Word of God; let’s start using it” (47).
“Double Listening” is the phrase that I hear attributed to Stott more than any other. When the subject turns to him, it is on the tips of peoples’ tongues across the world. In “Seminarians Are Not Tadpoles” — “all head and nothing else” (218) — Stott advocates for “double listening” in a way I have not encountered before, but one I will use again:
I would require all students to go to the movie and the theatre as well as the chapel and the classroom: screen and stage are mirrors of the world we live in ... (pastors must) soak themselves in both the sacred text and the secular context and to struggle with integrity to relate the one to the other (220-221).
As one final example, consider the theme of wealth and poverty, addressed in multiple essays in this volume. Stott has always been one “to disturb the comfortable” and the provocation continues: “God may well be calling more Christian people than hear and respond to his call to give their lives in the service of the poor and powerless” (289); or, his call “to develop a standard of living lower than we could afford, out of solidarity with the world’s poor” (291).
Familiar Stottian strengths are also refreshed.Stott has this capacity to weigh arguments even-handedly, to state opposing perspectives carefully — and, in the words of Labberton, to be “relentlessly fair and clear” (x) — before synthesizing a third viewpoint. Phrases like “on the one hand ... on the other hand”, or “postively ... negatively”, are commonplace in his writing. It is a skill that is dissolving in the acids of our polarised times, where the “cancel culture” mood can dismiss everything a person says, simply because one thing they said is seen to be inappropriate. Stott wades into topics as diverse as self-love and Liberation Theology with this mindset. It provides us with an example to follow. Near the end of the final essay — “Who, Then, Are the Poor?” (298-302) — we discover these words:
If we want the new community of Jesus to offer a radical alternative to the world around us, then we must set ourselves simultaneously to eradicate the evil of material poverty (because we hate injustice) and to cultivate the good of spiritual poverty (because we love humility) (301).
As a trainer of preachers, I enjoyed discovering familiar Stottian expositions refreshed as well. Over the years, I have directed students to The Bible Speaks Today volumes which Stott wrote, as a model for clarity, especially his treatment of Acts 2:42-47 and Acts 17:16-34. Remarkably, thinly disguised expositions of these same two passages appear in this volume as well — but they are different. With Acts 2 his mind is on “un-hooked” young adults in Argentina, leaving churches, but for whom Stott finds answers in this passage (227-237). With Acts 17, he points the passage in the direction of racial diversity and shows how this passage champions it (268-272). Yes, the vision for the book does appear dated, but issues like racial diversity and young adults leaving the church haven’t exactly left the headlines, have they?
One further observation is that the accessibility of this volume is enhanced by two features: the shortness of the essays and the length of the Subject Index and Scripture Index — forty pages!
There is a third reason behind agreeing to review this book. 2021 marks one hundred years since John Stott’s birth and ten years since his death. My heart has been refreshed with gratitude for him, especially his clarity with God’s word and his compassion for God’s world.
Paul Windsor is International Programme Director, Langham Preaching, Auckland, New Zealand.