Social media is aflame with interest in Barton Swaim's criticism of the heavily revised third edition of John Stott's classic of evangelical theology, Basic Christianity. I'm glad that so many share Swaim's desire that our theological inheritance not be ground into pablum by the relevance mill.
But I regret that we at First Things did not dig more deeply into the publishing (and revising) history of Basic Christianity. And thus Swaim's criticisms of the misguided revisionary myopia behind the third edition of Basic Christianty gave the wrong impression that it was instigated by the people at Eerdmans Publishing. That's not the case, as Eerdmans Editor-in-Chief James Ernest writes (emphasis mine):
First, regarding the role of Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing in this edition: as Swaim might have noticed on the book’s copyright page, Eerdmans is not the originating publisher. Eerdmans stands by our edition; but we did not plan the revision, hire the reviser, or edit his work. The book originates in the United Kingdom with Inter-Varsity Press (not to be confused with its unhyphenated American cousin, InterVarsity Press). Under an unusual copublishing arrangement which has been in place for more than fifty years, both Eerdmans and IVP-US are licensed to sell editions of Basic Christianity in North America. We receive text from IVP-UK. Eerdmans takes care of the printing and binding work for both US publishers. In the case of the third edition, IVP-US Americanized the orthography and designed the interior. We have seen suggestions on social media that the current IVP-US edition contains the older text, but that is a mistake possibly based on the fact that the IVP-US web page for this book (at the time of this writing) erroneously shows the table of contents of the older edition. The current IVP-US and Eerdmans editions have different dimensions and are differently paginated, but they have the same text.
Second, regarding the role of John Stott in this edition: who is responsible for the text Swaim finds so objectionable? Eerdmans, after all, is only licensed to sell what we receive from IVP-UK. When John Stott was alive (as he was at the time this edition was published), IVP-UK’s publishing rights derived from a contract with John Stott himself. Now his role is carried out by a team of literary executors—four people who worked closely with him, knew him and his aims well, and are authorized to carry his work forward. Having corresponded with them over the past several days, I am able to state that in their view the current edition of Basic Christianity was done at John Stott’s impetus, in accord with his aims, and with his approval.
Swaim reports Stott's approval of the third edition, which Swaim clearly regards as a mistake, even a betrayal of readers. As he puts it, books that move us acquire a kind of independence from their author. They enter the public conversation and in a real sense become public property, even if legal rights continue to belong to the author.
I'd like to thank James Ernest for correcting us on the role of Eerdmans. I'd also like to point out that Swaim's interest was not in assigning blame. He was defending the intelligence of readers and their desire for language that has poetry, rather than the tone of a memo from Human Resources. He protests against our tendency to let the present banalities swallow up the beauties of the past. It's a protest I'm happy to join.
R. R. Reno is the editor of First Things.