Christ the Controversialist is not one of John Stott’s most popular books, especially on this side of the pond. However, it is an excellent corrective in a world that no longer knows how to disagree and a church that no longer understands what it means to speak the truth in love. This is the second post in a series that will summarize the material from the book for an American audience.
In Stott’s second introductory essay he defines what he means by “Evangelical” Christianity and defends the term as useful and applicable to Gospel centered religion.
First, evangelical means theological. Unlike the term “evangelism” which describes the offer of the Gospel, “evangelical” describes a theological system which the apostle Paul described as the truth of the Gospel. He gives a brief an helpful historical sketch of the term and then defines the way in which it is used in this book, that theological system centered on scripture and the Gospel which runs through Augustine and the Reformation.
Second, evangelical means biblical. Evangelical theology is biblical theology, and a theology of the whole Bible, not just a verse here or there taken out of context.
Third, evangelical means original. If it is biblical then it must not be new, it is not a new “-ism” but an old faith, passed down through the years. This is a key point. It is impossible to be Biblical and Evangelical and yet try to come up with a “New Kind of Christianity,” to reinterpret the Bible’s clear truth, a la Rob Bell, William Young, Brian McLaren, etc. Stott writes, “Christian duty is not to advance but to abide, not to go ahead beyond the apostolic faith but to stay put in it.” Good words. Stott then gives a brief overview of scripture passages that encourage people to remain steadfast in Gospel and to return to the Gospel.
Stott rightly points out that the staunch “oldness” of Christianity is one of the major stumbling blocks with people in the modern world that values newness and revolution. Our faith is built on Christ, the Cross and His and the Apostles teaching and this is non-negotiable. But Stott is not against change and warns the church not to hold fast to things that are not part of the Gospel faith presented in the Bible. He turns his attention to what ways Christianity is new.
First, Christianity is to be freshly understood. Revelation is the historical unveiling of God in Christ. Illumination is the unveiling of men’s minds to see what God has disclosed in Christ. The Holy Spirit is continually guiding the church to understand scripture more fully.
Second, what is old needs to be freshly applied. We have to be careful to make this distinction. We aren’t encouraged to dilute the Gospel, but to apply it to the problems and unique circumstances of the modern world. We aren’t so staunch in our defense of the old that we reject solid hermeneutics altogether. Stott writes, “To preach is to relate God’s never changing Word to man’s ever changing world.”
Finally, what is old needs to be freshly experienced. We must not become stale in our faith, as if the point is just to win the argument or debate theology. We must know God in Christ. We must love God and experience Him in relationship, through His Word and through corporate worship.
Stott notes that every true reform movement in the church is a return to the Gospel faith of the Bible in some way, not an innovation away from it to some new form of Christianity. Stott is balanced in his approach and these words are so timely to an evangelical community that is struggling to define who they are, what is worth holding tightly to and what is worth compromising.