Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Basic Christianity (John Stott) -- A Review

BASIC CHRISTIANITY.  Third Edition. By John Stott; Foreword by Rick Warren. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2017. xiii + 160 Pages.

Over the years I’ve had occasion to read and hear John Stott, the late Anglican evangelical preacher and writer. My experience of him was that he was a classical evangelical of an Anglican type, who was similar to some of my seminary professors at Fuller, but a bit more conservative. I had the opportunity to hear him speak at a packed audience at a Presbyterian Church in Santa Barbara. The church brought in both conservative and liberal speakers, so this was a normal occurrence. I don’t remember the message, but I do remember that the church member who accompanied me thought he was fairly conservative. My sense was that Stott was conservative, but generous in his conservativism, which was fairly par for the course among British evangelicals, who are a different breed than many conservative American evangelicals. My experience with him was that he believed strongly in the traditional evangelical message of salvation in Christ, but steered away from political involvements, at least of an aggressive sort.

While I’ve known Stott’s book Basic Christianity for many years (it was a good seller at the Christian bookstore I worked at during seminary), it was not one of the books I had read. As I remember it, the earlier edition was published by InterVarsity Press.  Now the third edition, which came out in 2008, has been released anew by Eerdmans, along with several other volumes by Stott, including his Basic Introduction to the New Testament (originally published 1951 and as a revised volume from Baker in 2001), Confess Your Sins (originally published in 1964), and finally his manual on preaching Between Two Worlds: The Challenge of Preaching Today (1982, republished in paper in 1994, and again here in 2017). All four Stott volumes were sent to me by Eerdmans, so I share the news of the current publishing venture at Eerdmans to make these classics of evangelicalism available in affordable paperbacks.

My sense is that Stott is representative of an older evangelicalism, which paired conservative theology with openness to culture and science. Perhaps it is because he is representative of a British evangelicalism that never sought political power, that he has stood the test of time. Basic Christianity was originally written in the 1950s, and has been updated over the years to reflect changes in language, especially regarding gender, and the presence of newer translations. But, the content of the book has remained essentially the same. As Stott notes in the preface to the third edition, this is a period piece: "It reflects the culture of its own day and needs to be allowed to remain itself." (p. ix). So, in essence, this book is representative of mid-1950s British evangelicalism (that has been updated with regard to language by not theology).

This book is what its title describes, a Basic Christianity. It has some similarities to Lewis' Mere Christianity, but it is more traditionally evangelical than Lewis's presentations. That may have to do in part with the fact that Stott was an evangelical and Lewis was not (despite the evangelical attraction to Lewis). It also lacks the wit of Lewis, but might be at points a bit deeper. As the book moves through basic elements of the faith, touching mostly on matters of the identity of Jesus and the need for salvation, we move toward a call for decision. In other words, this is very much an evangelistic tool.

I believe that the earlier edition was published by InterVarsity Press, but this is part of a series of reprints of Stott's books that are being released by Eerdmans Publishing Company. This edition carries with it a foreword by Rick Warren, who calls it a "classic of the Christian faith." So, if you're interested in basic Christianity of a conservative, but generous kind, this might be helpful. As for me, I'm a bit removed from it. I would have enjoyed it more in college, when I was in a different place theologically. Today it doesn't fit. But it will cover important bases if you're looking for a conservative case for Christianity. 

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