Students of the Word by John Stott
Engaging with Scripture to Impact our World (2013)
Stott is crystal clear; ‘the authority of Christ and the authority of scripture belong together’ (p.14).
In his introduction to ‘Students of the Word’, Stott outlines five broad positions held on authority in the church. How does Christ speak today? How does he govern his church? How does he exercise his authority? (p.13)
‘The Roman Catholic Church teaches that Christ rules through the magisterium, that is through the teaching authority which they believe Christ has given to the church and, indeed, supremely to the Pope and to the Bishops around him. The Orthodox churches teach that Christ governs the church through what they call the holy tradition – which includes scripture. Liberal theologians teach that Christ rules the church through what they are pleased to call the climax of educated opinion. Anglicans, who, popularly-speaking, are always trying to find a middle road, accept the threefold cord of scripture, tradition, and reason. Evangelical people and reformed people, like ourselves, say that Christ rules the church through scripture. To be sure, tradition and reason have a vital role in the elucidation of scripture and in the application of scripture. But scripture has supreme authority in the church’ (p.14).
How can Stott be so clear? Or rather, how can he be so confident?
‘The reason why the church has historically submitted to scripture is that our Lord Jesus Christ did so, and he urged his disciples to do the same. So, the authority of Christ and the authority of scripture belong together. The church has no liberty to repudiate what our Lord has affirmed’ (p.14).
In this short book – formed from four addresses that he gave in 2006 – we read why it is of critical importance that we engage with scripture, to impact our world. The image Stott uses is that of having ‘bibline blood’ – in the tradition of Charles Spurgeon (referring to John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress) – where our ‘very blood becomes bibline [as] we absorb the teaching of scripture’ (p.50).
Stott suggests to us that ‘if we wish to hear the voice of Christ, we must listen to scripture through which he speaks. If we would submit to the authority of Christ, we must submit to the authority of scripture. For the authority of scripture and the authority of Christ go together’ (p.24).
Unlike the idols of wood, stone, or metal – that, being dead, did not speak – the living God, YHWY Elohim, personal and relatable, has spoken. He has spoken in order to be understood (the principle of simplicity); he has spoken in precise and particular historical contexts, and never in a vacuum (the principle of history); and he has spoken without contradicting himself (the principle of harmony). The Bible, then – Stott goes on to add – ‘is not shrouded in mist or fog. It is not a book of riddles and puzzles. God has given it, his word, to us to enlighten us. Hence what the 16th Century reformers used to call the perspicuity of scripture – this was the word they used to indicate its transparency, its see-through or luminous quality’ (p.26).
Meaning and significance
A note on literary interpretation is important here. In 1967, as the Cultural Revolution was taking off, Professor E D Hirsch of the University of Virginia (USA) stated a simple principle; ‘a text means what is author meant’ (p.31). ‘The author of a text establishes its meaning. And what it meant when it was first written or spoken, it still means today. The meaning of a text never changes; its message may change, and it may have different implications and applications, but the meaning of the text is always the same. A text means what its author originally meant’ (p.31). This flies in the face of post-modern ‘infinite interpretation’.
With regard to the scriptures, then, the role of the Bible teacher – and indeed the Bible reader – is to harmonize and synthesize. We are to avoid ‘random-dipping into scripture’ (p.34), as if it were written in a vacuum or void of context, and we are also to avoid ‘proof-texting’ which is ‘imagining that an issue can be settled by quoting a single text and ignoring the rest of the Bible’ (p.34).
Exegesis vs eisegesis
Stott calls us to work towards ‘developing a balanced, biblical Christianity’ (p.35). For example, we cannot extol the dignity of human beings – made in the image of God – if we forget the depravity of human beings – riddled with self-centredness. Again, we are to celebrate and work towards ‘exegesis’ (p.37) – the correct out-working of meaning and significance from the coherent, organic whole of scripture – and avoid at all costs ‘eisegesis’ or ‘importing into the text our alien ideas of a later generation’ (p.38).
‘Biblical exegesis, which derives from the principle of history, is a discipline requiring (i) integrity, in refusing to twist scripture, and (ii) sensitivity, in using our imagination to recover the situation in which the author actually found himself’ (p.37).
A Christian heart?
All this said, John Stott is adamant that we are not to become tadpoles, ‘each with a huge head and nothing much else besides’ (p.51). If we only have ‘heads crammed with biblical theology’ then we lose our ‘Christian heart’ – our compassion, indignation toward evil, care for the oppressed, and ultimately our love. Jesus Christ himself was moved to compassion towards the victims of evil – ‘he wept and he groaned, we are told in John 11’ (p.51).
This book helps us develop a Christian mind – from the foundations of Christian thinking, to extolling the wisdom and deep truths of the scriptures. For example, Stott calls out Ecclesiastes and the spectre of meaningless – a book concerned with ‘the futility of life without God’ (p.45). He considers the wisdom books – Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon;
‘King David and King Solomon lived many, many lives;
Had many, many concubines and many, many wives.
But when old age overtook them, with many, many qualms;
King Solomon wrote the Proverbs, and King David wrote the Psalms’ (p.45).
Stott winds up in a place of repentance. He calls us to two-fold repentance; we are to ‘repent of both compromise and pessimism…to offer ourselves as agents of change to our Lord Jesus Christ, as salt to hinder social decay and light to shine into the darkness and dispel it’ (p.65). He calls us to ‘neither the easy optimism of the humanist nor the dark pessimism of the cynic, but the radical realism of the Bible’ (p.48), in the words of J S Whale of Cambridge University.
Christians are to be active in society. We are to be involved and engaged. We should not underestimate the influence that ‘even a Christian minority is able to exert’ (p.62). Quoting Robert Bellah of UC Berkley, we read; ‘I think we should not underestimate the significance of a small group of people who have a new vision of a just and gentle world… The quality of a culture may be changed when two per cent of its people have a new vision’ (p.62). Let us end – as Stott does in his book – with a 19th Century poem from Boston, MA;
‘I am only one. But I am one.
I can’t do everything. But I can do something.
What I can do, I ought to do.
And what I ought to do, by the grace of God, I will do’ (Edward Everett Hale, p.65).
***** Readability (5/5): a short, concise text
**** Application (4/5): rooting our theology clearly in Scripture
**** General Appeal (4/5): highly recommended as an introduction to Stott
** Commitment (2/5): Weekend read or major commitment? A short read
*** Challenge (3/5): a brilliant read, with a clear theological challenge
***** Recommendation (5/5): looking for a good Autumn read?
This book contains four addresses, which were John Stott’s last to an IFES gathering,.
The talks were first entitled ‘How to Read and Apply the Bible’, and were given at the IFES Graduates’ Conference for Europe and Eurasia in 2006, in Austria.
John Stott, then aged 85, was addressing a group of 90 young professionals, gathered from Ireland to Albania, and now embarking on a range of careers. He wanted to invest in these recent graduates for their years ahead. His desire was to give them a framework for handling Scripture & for observing its authority; a means of using Scripture to shape their lives; and a model which they could use to teach others.
It was always John Stott’s intention that the addresses be published for wider distribution. In sharing them, we honour the memory of this humble and great man of God, and carry forward the trust he placed in IFES.