Amidst commentary on the passing of evangelical leader John Stott has been the occasional suggestion that Stott represented the propositionalist, logic-driven, “modern” evangelicalism of the past. For better or for worse, younger evangelicals today, on the other hand, tend to prefer aesthetic modes of reasoning, the mysterious and personal dimensions of truth, multiple atonement theories (rather than exclusive focus on penal substitution), traditional forms of piety, and an emphasis on social justice, not just saving souls.
To test the old man Stott theory, I picked up his The Cross of Christ, once given to me by a youth pastor to bolster my newfound evangelical faith. It had been a while. I opened it up, bracing myself for an icy blast of old time evangelical religion. Instead, I found a book deeply informed by all the sources so (fittingly) fashionable among evangelicals today: The early Christian fathers and Karl Barth. It turns out, in fact, that The Cross of Christ anticipates each of the younger evangelical characteristics listed above:
1. Aesthetic Modes of Reasoning: Because “God is a rational God, who has made us in his own image,” Stott rightly emphasized discursive reason. And yet, The Cross of Christ begins with an extended meditation on a Holman Hunt painting, only to then move into architectural exploration of St. Paul’s Cathedral, followed by a discussion of early Christian symbolism. To be sure, William Dyrness has recently taken Protestant aesthetics a great deal further (more on that here), but nor should Stott’s choice to begin his most famous book with art history be ignored.
2. Truth’s mysterious and personal dimensions: Stott, needless to say, was no Pseudo-Dionysios, but nor did he make an idol of Cartesian clarity: “What actually happened when ‘God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ’ is a mystery whose depths we shall spend eternity plumbing… it would most unseemly to feign a cool detachment as we contemplate Christ’s cross. For willy-nilly we are involved. Our sins put him there.” Hans Boersma expands these dimensions of evangelical thought, but with Stott – it seems to me – not against him.
3. Multiple atonement theories: As explained by Anthony below, Stott prioritized substitutionary atonement. But the nuance with which he maintains that focus is anything but reductive: “‘Salvation’ is the comprehensive word, but it has many facets which are illustrated by different pictures, of which justification is only one. Redemption… is another… Another is recreation.. Yet another is regeneration or new birth… All these belong together.”
4. Traditional forms of piety: “To be disrespectful of tradition and of historical theology,” announces Stott in the book’s opening pages, “is to be disrespectful of the Holy Spirit who has been actively enlightening the church in every century.” Referring to the practice of Christians crossing themselves, Stott sides with Richard Hooker against the Puritans: “There is no need for us to dismiss this habit as superstition… the sign of the cross was intended to identify and indeed sanctify each act as belonging to Christ.” George Hunsinger, among others, take these Protestant liturgical paths much further, but Stott helped show the way.
5. Social Justice: Stott’s commitment in this area is no secret, and is perhaps best encapsulated in this nice line from The Cross of Christ. “Good Samaritans will always be needed to succour those who are assaulted and robbed; yet it would be even better to rid the Jerusalem-Jericho road of brigands.”
So yes, evangelicalism changed a great deal over Stott’s lifetime. But it appears the best of such changes were not about leaving John Stott behind – but catching up.