Category Archives: Witnesses

John Stott’s 100th Birthday

John R.W. Stott would have been 100 years old today. He died ten years ago, but the man left his mark on the history of the worldwide evangelical church. A tribute website to Stott’s influence rightly states that Stott was “an English Anglican who impacted evangelical Christianity in the 20th Century more than any other individual.”

John Robert Walmsey Stott (27 April 1921 – 27 July 2011)

I discovered John Stott as a college student, through a series of small booklets Stott wrote for InterVarsity. Over his life, Stott wrote about 50 fifty books, but what set Stott above many of his peers was a combination of three qualities:

  • John Stott combined the warmth and heart of a pastor with a crisp and keen intellect.
  • John Stott was a gifted leader.
  • John Stott had a heart and passion to reach the world for Jesus.

John Stott came to know Christ at age 17 in the United Kingdom, on the eve of World War II, after hearing a talk by youth evangelist Eric Nash, “What Then Shall I Do with Jesus, Who Is Called the Christ?  Stott would eventually go onto becoming the Rector of All Soul’s Church, Langham Place, in London, where he would serve for most of his life. He studied the Scriptures for hours and hours, and appreciated the value of sound, verse-by-verse expository preaching.

Though Stott never married, he was very much a “people-person.”  He partnered with the American evangelist, Billy Graham, to sponsor a series of revival meetings in England in 1950s, that sparked the worldwide ministry outreach of the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association. Yet Stott was not content simply to be a pastor, as he believed that cultivating a Christian heart should also be accompanied by cultivating a Christian mind. He encouraged the development of British-based Bible commentaries, to revive an interest in thoughtful evangelical Bible scholarship, that had languished by the mid-20th century. One of my favorite Stott books to this day is his commentary on the Book of Romans. Stott was both a pastor and a teacher.

Together with Billy Graham, John Stott drew together evangelists and missionaries from all over the world to convene at Lausanne, Switzerland, where the Lausanne Covenant was drafted, one of the most important statements of evangelical belief and practice, during the modern era. A tireless supporter of the work of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, John Stott traveled the world as a leader to promote the global work of spreading the Gospel.

Stott was not without controversy, as he clashed with fellow senior evangelical leader Martyn Lloyd-Jones in the 1960s, over evangelical involvement in the Church of England, which had grown increasingly liberal in theological direction. Lloyd-Jones urged evangelicals to leave the Church of England, while Stott urged evangelicals to stay, and maintain their influence in the national church. Stott also urged other fellow Christians to affirm God’s design for marriage, as being between one man and one woman for a lifetime, contrary to certain popular trends today.

Stott steered a middle-way through theological disagreements, that still plague 21st century evangelicalism. In the 1960s, he gently admonished the leaders of the Keswick Holiness movement to abandon their late-19th and early-20th century commitment to “let go and let God” theology and embrace a more classic, Reformed view of sanctification, that emphasizes gradual growth and change in the Christian life.  Stott was a critic of excesses in the charismatic movement, while avoiding knee-jerk reactions against the charismatic movement, by advocating an “open yet cautious” approach to modern manifestations of the miraculous gifts of the Spirit. Stott sought a middle-way in the debate over “women in ministry,” by affirming the principle of an all-male-only eldership in local churches, while simultaneously encouraging the development of female leadership in other ministries of the church. Stott accepted the antiquity of the earth, and was open to the scientific theory of evolution, while firmly believing in an historical Adam and Eve, created in the image of God, who later fell into sin.

Stott was no mere traditionalist, simply accepting tradition for the sake of tradition, as he sought to follow Scripture wherever it led him. Most controversially, Stott eventually adopted a “conditional immortality” view regarding the doctrine of hell, at least in a tentative matter, as opposed to holding to the view of hell as conscious eternal torment.

My favorite John Stott book is The Cross of Christ, which is my view the best, contemporary well-rounded exposition of Jesus’ substitutionary death on the cross. In The Cross of Christ, Stott affirms the classic Reformation of view of penal substitutionary atonement, while emphasizing that God’s self-substitution at Calvary corrects certain misunderstandings that many often have about penal substitution.

Check out the John Stott 100 website to learn more about Stott and about his many helpful books.

Hans Küng: Dissent

Hans Küng, an influential and controversial Swiss Roman Catholic priest and theologian, has died this week at age 93. Hans Küng, was the youngest theologian to participate during the 1960s at Vatican II , a most remarkable event of the 20th century, that sought to bring Roman Catholicism into a more robust dialogue with the modern world. Küng was an avid proponent of such reforms, though many Roman Catholic faithful believed that he had gone too far, as evidenced by Pope John Paul’s censure of  Küng, when the latter directly challenged the doctrine of papal infallibility (among other things).

Hans Küng, popular yet maverick liberal theologian of the Roman Catholic Church, as a young priest and spokesperson at Vatican II.

My introduction to Hans Küng was through one of his many writings, namely his widely popular 1974 book On Being a Christian, that my mother had bought. On Being a Christian was one of the first theological books I read cover-to-cover during my senior year in high school, about a year after Küng had been officially censured by the Pope. My mom’s copy of the 700+ page book is filled with my vigorous underlining with a red pen. It was a fascinating dive into many of the things of which I had questions about, in what it really meant to be a Christian, soon after I had read through the New Testament, for the first time. From Küng I learned about the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes and the Dead Sea Scrolls, the differences between the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, and different theologies of the cross.  It was startling to realize that a great deal of what Christians often believe comes from tradition first-and-foremost, and only secondarily from a close examination of the Scriptures, and Küng was direct enough to say that. On Being a Christian ranks as one of most sweeping and accessible theological classics of the 20th century. Most of the more heavy topics went way over my high school teenage head, but it impressed me that Küng avoided dense theological jargon, making it a very engaging read. I was most impressed by Küng’s conviction that ‘Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, finally authoritative, decisive, archetypal, is what makes Christianity what it really is’ (p. 174)

Nevertheless, I soon realized that Küng was a maverick and progressive liberal when I got to his chapters regarding the possibility of salvation outside of the church. Previously, the 16th-century Council of Trent was clear enough: “no salvation outside of the church,” and that meant that Protestants were all roasting away in you-know-where.

Now, Vatican II had settled on a “concentric circle” approach to how far salvation might extend towards non-Roman Catholics. Of course, Roman Catholics were at the center of the circle, whereas Protestants, like myself, were in the next circle outside of that, being “separated brethren.” Other circles were added at different levels to accommodate those of other religions and even atheists. The basic idea was that the closer you were to the center of those circles, the higher the likelihood you might be saved, and the farther away you were from the center, the less likely you would be saved.

Küng’s approach, however, took me by surprise, adding a twist to the official position of Vatican II. He suggested that various Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, etc. could indeed be saved, as long as they were faithful to their own various religious traditions. This seemed to me to push back against the very uncompromising teaching of the Bible, as taught in Acts 4:12, “And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” Perhaps God might find ways to reach others who have yet to hear the Gospel, through means that we in our limited human perspective can not fully understand, such as through dreams, etc. But Küng’s approach, that sought to honor the religious efforts and good works of non-believers, appeared to undermine the very principle of Scriptural bedrock teaching, that we are not saved by our religious efforts, but rather by the gracious and saving work of Christ alone.

On top of that, I read Küng’s most confusing section about the resurrection. While Küng affirmed a belief in “resurrection,” he simultaneously rejected the empty tomb. How Küng was able to reconcile that belief with the witness of Scripture was beyond me (see Richard Bauckam’s review of Küng’s seminal work).

Though well-intentioned, it has always appeared to me that progressive attempts to “modernize” Christianity, to make the faith more palatable to contemporary sensibilities, do so at a cost of diluting some of the great foundation truth claims of historically orthodox Christianity. This is true, not only of the Protestant mainline tradition, in which I was raised, but also in progressive elements of Roman Catholicism, the theological home where Küng dwelt. So, it really was not a surprise that then Cardinal Ratzinger (later Pope Benedict), who had once been a close ally and friend of Küng’s at Vatican II, later sought to aid in Pope John Paul II’s censure of Küng, believing that Küng had simply gone too far.

I have a copy of Küng’s memoirs, My Struggle for Freedom, that a friend has given me, that I had been hoping to read one day, before Küng died. Alas, this did not happen. Küng did much to help Vatican II, as a reform movement within Roman Catholicism, to succeed as well as it has, and his positive contributions, of which there are many, deserve such hearty recognition. For example, Küng was extraordinarily gifted, being one of the first Roman Catholic theologians to address a group of prominent astrophysicists on the relationship between faith and science. Küng was also prominent in starting a dialogue between Roman Catholic and Protestant theologians over the nature of justification, breaking the ice in a conversation that had been stalled for over 400 years. Küng was also outspoken in his views regarding priestly celibacy, as he understood the mandated practice as being against Scripture and contrary to the historic tradition of the church. He also criticized Rome’s ethical policy that prohibited artificial birth control.

However, Küng’s tendency in certain other areas to push historic, orthodox boundaries to the breaking point serves as a painful lesson to anyone who believes that you can simply rewrite fundamental doctrines of the faith, and pretend that you are somehow still “preserving” the faith once handed down to the saints, over the centuries.

It simply does not work.

A “faith” that merely pretends is merely wishful thinking that lacks any substance behind it. Both the faithful in the churches and critics outside of Christianity will see through a supposed “faith” that pretends certain things to be true, when in fact, they are not. Dissent, when it effectively serves to undermine orthodoxy, produces more confusion and mindless wishful thinking than anything else. However, dissent, when properly engaged to steer the church back onto its proper course, is something to be commended. May the positive elements of Küng’s dissent be remembered more than his negative elements of dissent.

Other prominent influencers in the Christian movement have also died within the past month, but who were significantly more orthodox and less controversial in their thinking than Küng. John Polkinghorne (1930-2021) was a world-class, Cambridge-trained physicist, who shocked his colleagues when he left the world of science to embark on a path towards Christian ministry in the Anglican church. Polkinghorne’s work to integrate science with Christian faith has helped many Christians reconcile what many others believe is irreconcilable.

Argentinian evangelist Luis Pulau (1934-2021) was in many ways the “Billy Graham” of Latin America, who preached the Gospel to millions, and who became a unifying figure for evangelical Protestants all across Latin America, in the latter half of the 20th century. I will never forget hearing Luis Pulau speak at Urbana 1984, when he addressed the vexing topic of Christianity and other religions, one of the topics that so energized Hans Küng. Pulau reminded his listeners, including me, that there is a good answer for those who worry about the salvation of those who have yet to hear the Gospel:  Genesis 18:25 asks, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” Luis Pulau’s answer was a resounding “YES,” and that has been good enough me.

The following illuminating 2009 interview with Hans Küng, before he became debilitated by Parkinson’s disease, while Benedict was still Pope, gives a flavor of Küng the man, Roman Catholic critic, and thinker.

J. I. Packer…. In His Own Words, In 15 Minutes

Crossway Publishers has one of the last videos of J. I. Packer, sharing his life in 15 minutes. We have lost one of the great ones, of the faith. I offered an in-depth review of a biography of Packer’s life, this past weekend. Well done, good and faithful servant!!

“I should like to be remembered as someone who was always courteous in controversy, but without compromise.”   — J. I. Packer

Balance: J. I. Packer

One of evangelicalism’s leading lights, James Innell Packer, died yesterday at 93. Having just finished reading a biography via audiobook about Packer’s life no less than two weeks ago, I offer my review of this book, as I honor one of the most remarkable, influential, and balanced Christian authors in my life.

My first encounter with J. I. Packer was during my freshman year in college in the 1980s, when I read his classic work Knowing God. My InterVarsity group was mainly absorbed with the writings of C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer, both of whom were primarily oriented towards apologetics.

But Packer was different. I walked away from reading Packer with a greater desire to know Scripture, as a means of knowing God.

Packer’s life is remembered in Leland Ryken’s J.I. Packer: An Evangelical Life. Looking back over his long life, J. I. Packer, serves as a wonderful example of a Christian life lived consistently well. Leland Ryken, a professor emeritus of English at Wheaton College, has done the church a great service by telling the story of J. I. Packer (I also just finished reading one Packer’s final books, Grounded in the Gospel, co-authored with a former student of Packer’s, Gary Parrett, late last month, that I reviewed recently here at Veracity).

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Impact: Ravi Zacharias

Ravi Zacharias died May 19, 2020, after a short battle with bone cancer.

Ravi Zacharias was born and raised in India, coming to Christ as a cricket-playing teenager, after a failed suicide attempt in a hospital, where he read a Bible. In the coming years, he spoke at countless university audiences across the world, taught on a radio program Let My People Think, and engaged in evangelistic conversations with numerous civic and political leaders, all over the globe.

His greatest impact was through the establishment of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM), where Ravi built a network of young Christian apologists, that carry on the legacy of providing sound, intellectual reasoning, in support of defending the Christian faith. This newer generation of Christian apologists includes the voices of Vince Vitale, Abdu Murray, Amy Orr-Ewing, and Sam Alberry.

Even though RZIM has not always been without controversy, RZIM has sought to continue the work that Ravi Zacharias began decades ago, through extensive speaking engagements, and a growing Internet presence.

I taught several Adult Bible Classes, based on his book Jesus Among Other Gods. I even got a chance to meet Ravi, when he spoke at my church, a little over a decade ago. He will be sorely missed.

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