Reclaiming John Stott’s “Mere Evangelicalism”

Reclaiming John Stott’s “Mere Evangelicalism”

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The late John Stott (1921-2011) was a model for us in more ways than one. Not only was Stott a wonderful preacher, teacher, and churchman, he was also a seminal leader and figurehead for what I would term a “golden age” of evangelicalism, being instrumental in the formation of such institutions as the Lausanne Movement and its commitment to world evangelism. Rather than seeking to use the term “golden age” in an overly technical sense, I am using this Stottian “golden age” to describe the broad-tent or “mere evangelicalism” that characterized the work of preachers, pastors and scholars like Stott, Billy Graham, F. F. Bruce, I. Howard Marshall, and several others. This was a time when such leaders, rather than focusing on secondary and tertiary disputes that have always been part of the evangelical movement, emphasized and united together in a common gospel cause. Calvinists and Arminians, amillenialists and premillenialists, high-church and low-church were all united together for the sake of the gospel.

Of course, such leaders did not give up their theological and denominational distinctives. F. F. Bruce was a brilliant Calvinist biblical scholar. I. Howard Marshall was one of the world’s leading Wesleyan-Arminian theologians until the day he died. Billy Graham, despite his ecumenical sensibilities with decidedly non-Baptist traditions, is still, at least to my knowledge, an ordained Southern Baptist minister. And John Stott lived, taught, preached, and died as an ordained priest in the Church of England. All of them belonged to different theological and church traditions. However, they all realized that such distinctives were secondary to their shared identity as Christians who shared the same “mere Christianity” (to borrow C. S. Lewis’ term) that has been at the core of the Church for 2000 years, even in spite of its schisms and disputes. In the same way that they all were aligned under a “mere Christianity,” they formed an evangelical movement based around this primary identifier; they united under a “mere evangelicalism.”

Of course, this common evangelical unity was not the only positive outcome of this “mere evangelicalism.” Having such a diversity of thinkers and voices in the movement helped to weed out the heterodox beliefs that can often arise when traditions become closed off from Christians of other traditions. This is equally true today. When Calvinists interact with Wesleyan-Arminians, they begin to see not only that we are neither Pelagians nor Semi-Pelagians, but that our emphases on prevenient grace and loving relationality can offer a helpful check on the tendency towards a high- or even hyper-Calvinism that often occurs. Likewise, being in dialogue with our Calvinist brothers and sisters can help us Wesleyan-Arminians to keep our theology centered on the priority and necessity of God’s grace, and so avoid the Pelagian and Semi-Pelagian errors that have occurred in the past. Similar positive counterbalancing effects could be expounded in the realms of ecclesiology, missions, evangelism, and so on.

I find that such a “mere evangelicalism” is needed among evangelical Christians once again. Increasingly, we seem to be veering away into our own isolated tribes and enclaves. In doing so, our united effort for “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 1:3, NRSV) has not only been fragmented, but the aberrant theological beliefs that can occur in such theologically-isolated enclaves can be seen emerging. Those figures ensconced within the Young, Restless, Reformed/Neo-Puritan/Neo-Calvinist/Neo-John Piper Fan Club can often be seen veering toward a decidedly deterministic high- and hyper-Calvinism. Likewise, many Wesleyan-Arminians can be seen unknowingly veering into a form of Semi-Pelagianism that de-emphasizes the ever-present priority and need for God’s grace in our lives. Other parochial problems could be expounded as well, such as a tendency toward formalism at the cost of substance in high-church Anglicanism, or a creeping pseudo-Gnosticism in Baptist circles that eschew sacramental elements.

I think that it is high time that evangelicals start reclaiming a form of the “mere evangelicalism” of thinkers like Stott, Graham, Bruce, and Marshall. In the post-Christian, pluralist society that we are moving into, such a united evangelicalism would be far more effective for the cause of the gospel than the splintered factions that evangelical Christianity has been moving toward. This does not mean that we give up our theological and denominational distinctives. I, for one, don’t plan on becoming a Calvinist any time soon. Indeed, I believe it is the diversity-within-unity of such a “mere evangelicalism” that gives it such strength. Not only does such work and dialogue with different Christian traditions counterbalance various heterodox beliefs that can arise in certain traditions, but it also witnesses to the beautiful diversity-in-unity that characterizes Christianity as it should be. I want that type of mere evangelicalism.


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