Life in the spirit of truth
John Stott interviewed by Roy McCloughry
Your ministry now stretches back over 50 years [this
interview took place in 1995]. How have you changed over that time,
both as a person and as a minister?
I'm afraid I was very naive when I was ordained. I was
very much an activist more than a thinker. I saw needs and wanted
immediately to meet them, and this crowded out my studies,
It was in the early days of my ministry that I learned the
necessity of stepping back and seeing where I was going and having
a monthly quiet day in which to be drawn up into the mind of God
and look ahead for the next six or 12 months. That was an enormous
benefit to me.
You've covered an enormous range of issues, theological,
social, doctrinal and cultural. Has that been due to curiosity or
to obligation as a minister?
A bit of both. Even before my conversion, I believe that
God gave me a social conscience. When I was only 14 years old, I
started a society at school whose major purpose was to give baths
to tramps. I had a great concern for these homeless, dirty men that
I saw around the place. It was extremely naive.
We called it the ABC, because we thought they could
understand that; but having decided on the letters we had to look
around for words that would fit, and we came up with two: either
'Always Be a Christian' or 'The Association for the Benefit of the
Community'. It only lasted a few years and we never gave any baths
to tramps; but we did some other good works, until the treasurer
lent all the subscriptions to his brother, who spent
My father was a doctor and a very high-minded,
high-principled person, though not a Christian. He believed in a
national health service before it was even dreamt about. My mother,
too - we lived in Harley Street and she was very concerned for the
maids in the doctors' homes who had nothing to do on their
afternoons off. She started the Domestic Fellowship. So, they both
had a social conscience.
Some people might divide your ministry into two halves,
one focused on pietism and one concerned with the very broadest
social, cultural and economic aspirations of society. What caused
Granted that it was something inherent in me from the
beginning, I don't honestly think there was any individual or
group. I think it was reading the Bible. As I read and studied and
meditated, my vision of God grew and I came to see the obvious
things: that he is not just interested in religion but in the whole
of life and - in the old phrase - in justice as well as
I don't see any dichotomy between the 'pietistic' and the
cultural and social. To me, they're two aspects of the same thing:
a pursuit of the will of God. I have always been moved by the
phrase 'to hunger and thirst after righteousness'; but
righteousness covers both personal holiness and social
Some people might say that your commitment to the
justice of God, expressed in social terms, had led to a
watering-down of your commitment to the gospel.
I think that's rubbish, honestly. I don't think they can
produce any evidence to substantiate that idea. I remain committed
to evangelism. I have had the privilege of leading more than 50
university missions all over the world, and they spanned a period
of 25 years, until I felt I was a little out of touch with the
student generation, and too old.
I can honestly say that my social concerns have not in the
very least diminished my zeal for evangelism. If anything, it's the
other way round. What people could say is that I talk a lot about
social action but don't do much about it. And that is true, because
my calling is to be a pastor, and although I disagree with
polarisation between these two, I've often said I do believe in
Acts 6 is the obvious biblical basis for this: the
apostles were not willing to be distracted from the ministry of the
word and prayer. In fact, the seven were appointed to handle the
care of the widows. Both those works are called
diakonia, 'ministry'; both required Spirit-filled
people to exercise them. Both were necessary, but one was social,
the other was pastoral.
Don't some people fear that a renewed emphasis on social
concern might muffle the call to evangelism?
There are a number of mission leaders, particularly
Americans, who are frightened that we want missionaries, who are
called more often than not to primary evangelism, to be distracted
from that role in order to give themselves to socio-political work,
which is none of their business.
I've really no wish for missionaries to change their role.
I think there is a real need for evangelists who are not engaged in
holistic mission because their calling is evangelism. I don't
criticise Billy Graham because he simply preaches the gospel and
doesn't engage in socio-political work - well, he does a bit, but
not much - any more than we criticise the Good Samaritan for not
preaching the gospel to the man who was assaulted by
It's partly the existential situation that determines what
we concentrate on; it's partly our vocation. Everybody cannot do
everything, as I keep saying to myself.
In all these debates and controversies, I have found it
increasingly important not only to listen to what people are saying
but to try and listen to what lies behind what they're saying, and
why it is that they feel so strongly.
How do you react to the emergence of the Reform group in
the Church of England?
Although I have not felt able to join Reform, I am myself
troubled by what troubles them, and committed to much of their
But I regret that Reform was launched without prior
consultation with the Church of England Evangelical Council. I
believe that CEEC could and should have embraced their
Secondly, the points of their programme are disparate:
some are essential to evangelical faith and witness, and should
unite us; others are debatable and divide us.
Thirdly, I hope that Reform is not going back on the
decision of Keele 1967 to work evangelically within the structures
of the Church of England.
Do you still think the Anglican church makes a good home
Yes, I think it's a good boat to fish from, but that's
not the reason I'm a member of it.
There are three options, aren't there? The two extremes
are to get out or cave in. The third is to stay in without giving
in. The extremes are actually the easy options. Anybody can cave
in: that's the way of the coward, the way of the feeble mind. To
cave in is to stay in but to fail to hold on to your distinctive
evangelicalism. You just compromise.
To get out is to say, 'I can't bear this constant argument
and controversy any longer.' That also is an easy option. I know
people have done it and suffered because they have given up a
secure job and salary; but it's an easy option
The difficult thing is to stay in and refuse to give in,
because then you're all the time in tension with people with whom
you don't altogether agree, and that is painful. I find it
But no Christian can give unqualified allegiance to any
institution. What, for you, would be the signals that it was time
to leave the Church of England?
I've always felt that it's unwise to publish a list of
these in advance. Nevertheless, I'm quite happy to talk about them.
I think one's final decision to leave would be an exceedingly
painful one, in a situation that I cannot envisage at the
I would take refuge in the teaching of the New Testament,
where the apostles seem to distinguish between major and minor
errors. The major doctrinal errors concern the person and work of
Christ. It's clear in 1 John that anyone who denies the
divine-human person of Jesus is Antichrist. So, if the church were
officially to deny the Incarnation, it would be an apostate church
and one would have to leave.
Then, there's the work of Christ. In Galatians, if anybody
denies the gospel of justification by grace alone through faith
alone, that is anathema: Paul calls down the judgement of God upon
The major ethical issues - well, I suppose the best
example is the incestuous offender in 1 Corinthians 5. Paul called
on the church to excommunicate him. So, if you want me to stick my
neck out, I think I would say that if the church were officially to
approve of homosexual partnerships as a legitimate alternative to
heterosexual marriage, this so far diverges from the sexual ethic
of the Bible that I would find it exceedingly difficult to stay. I
might want to stay on and fight for a few more years, but if they
persisted I would have to leave.
It seems to me that evangelicalism has fragmented into
different groups, with different heroes, different events,
different publishers, different cultures. How should we think of
I don't mind plurality as long as it goes hand-in-hand
with unity - but I suppose you could say I've given a great deal of
my life to the preservation and development of the unity of the
evangelical constituency, because it has been a great concern of
I have never believed that our differences have been great
enough to warrant a fragmentation. I don't mind people founding
their own societies and going after their own thing - again, it's
an example of specialisation - provided they still recognise that
we belong to one another.
I do have to add that I'm worried about a redevelopment of
the kind of liberal evangelicalism which flourished before the
Second World War but which really had no message, no cutting edge.
I don't want to see us going back to that. It had a loose doctrine
of the Bible: they talked about its authority, but in practice the
Bible was not their authority.
What are the current causes of our fragmentation?
Well, we fragment over what we regard as issues of
principle - but often the real reason is personal, isn't it? When
we're afraid, we withdraw into our own fellowships and ghettos
where we feel secure with like-minded people. I'm aware of that
fear in myself; it's part of our basic human insecurity. We're
looking for contexts in which we can be supported rather than
I'm afraid that in some cases it's worse than that - it's
a simple question of ambition. There is a great deal of
empire-building among us. The only empire in which we should be
interested is the kingdom of God, but I fear some people are
building their own.
Of the issues of principle, what concerns you
The uniqueness and finality of Jesus Christ in an
increasingly pluralistic world is one. The debate about whether we
go for exclusivism, inclusivism or pluralism. Then there's the
homosexual question, and the whole question of sexual ethics.
How is it that some people feel able to say, 'We are
part of the Anglican tradition, which has scripture at its heart,
and yet we can accept these things'?
They base their position on the cultural element in
scripture. What they're trying to say is that Paul had very little
knowledge of psychosexuality and we can't possibly be bound by him.
They seem to have no qualms about rejecting apostolic teaching.
So, the church must recover its prophetic voice and
reject both the idea that ethics evolve and the notion that love
obliges us to capitulate to the modernist view of things. Is that
prophetic voice too dull in the Anglican church at the
Oh yes. Too dull and too mute. We need a voice that is
essentially positive, not just negative - for example, on the
family, or the joy of sexual intercourse and so on.
I don't know why we are always caught on the defensive and
are retroactive instead of proactive. I don't think it is something
in our make-up as evangelicals. I sometimes wonder if it is that
God has not given us many leaders who are
The evangelical renaissance of the last 50 years has
really been one of biblical scholarship. What we have lacked is
systematic or creative theologians. I believe we have one in
Alister McGrath; I am sure we had one in Jim Packer, before he left
the country. But we have very few theologians who are really
far-sighted and give us a vision that will unite and inspire and
Why is that?
I just don't know. I wish I did. It grieves me. We
certainly need to pray for such to be raised up.
Is it something to do with our perception of truth in
terms of orthodoxy, which makes it difficult to be creative because
that involves taking risks?
Yes, there is something in that. Evangelicalism is
fundamentally loyal to a past revelation, and because we are tied
forever to what God did and said in the historic Jesus, we look
back more often than we look forward.
In my debate with David Edwards [published by Hodder
& Stoughton in 1988 as Essentials: a
liberal-evangelical dialogue], I drew a distinction
between the liberal, the fundamentalist and the evangelical. The
liberal, to me, is like a gas-filled balloon which takes off into
the ether and is not tethered to the earth in any way; the
fundamentalist is like a caged bird, unable to escape at all. To
me, the true evangelical is like a kite, which flies high but at
the same time is always tethered.
I long to see that developed, I must say; but it does need
a particularly unusual combination of loyalty to the past and
creativity for the future.
You yourself have fallen foul of some evangelicals. I
hear that some of your reflections on the nature of eternal
punishment were considered uncongenial to orthodoxy by some people,
particularly in the States.
Well, that's a polite way of putting it.
In Essentials, I described as
'tentative' my suggestion that 'eternal punishment' may mean the
ultimate annihilation of the wicked rather than their eternal
conscious torment. I would prefer to call myself agnostic, as are a
number of New Testament scholars I know. In my view, the biblical
teaching is not plain enough to warrant dogmatism. There are
awkward texts on both sides of the debate.
The reaction to what I said about this was mixed. Some
evangelicals responded thoughtfully and theologically, others with
inflexible dogmatism - I find myself increasingly out of sympathy
with excessive evangelical dogmatism - and a third group,
especially in the US, was positively hysterical in its
denunciation. Many people went into print without even having
bothered to read what I had written.
It's a very distressing thing about evangelicalism - we
are not good at responsible domestic debate. But the hallmark of an
authentic evangelical is not the uncritical repetition of old
traditions but the willingness to submit every tradition, however
ancient, to fresh biblical scrutiny, and, if necessary,
Did that experience suggest that the British evangelical
tradition is diverging from the US tradition? Do you see
differences between the two cultures?
I've learnt long ago that one cannot generalise about
anything American, even the evangelical scene. Somebody has worked
out that there are about 20 different American evangelicalisms. But
if I may generalise, I think there is a greater willingness to
trust one another as evangelicals in this country. Fellowship in
America often seems to be based more on suspicion than on trust. I
don't know why that is.
How would you advise theologians to try to think
creatively in the light of orthodoxy?
All I can say is that I don't think any of us is wise to
express ourselves in a creative or questioning manner without first
testing out what we want to say within the Christian community. I
think it is part of our loyalty to that community that we allow it
to criticise or comment on what we may want to say.
In your debate with David Edwards, you both seemed to
reach a genuine understanding of and respect for each other's
position. Do you feel that evangelicals have got things to learn
from the liberal tradition?
I wonder what to say. David Edwards, I think, as a
self-styled liberal is crying out for a certain intellectual and
academic freedom which can move with the times and respond to what
he continually calls 'the climate of educated opinion today',
without being tethered to anything more than the love of God
manifested in Jesus of Nazareth. I don't think that's an unfair
summary. But all the time he's pulling at the tether, and that's
the great difference between us.
He would say that we evangelicals have a poor doctrine of
the Holy Spirit, because we don't think the Spirit is continuing to
teach and to 'lead us into all the truth'. Now, I believe that that
text, John 16:13, is the most misunderstood and manipulated text in
the whole of the Bible, because every branch of Christendom claims
It's a key text for the Roman Catholic Church. 'He will
lead you into all the truth.' Who? The successors of the apostles.
The liberal quotes it. The charismatic quotes it: 'He'll lead me.'
But even the most elementary hermeneutical principle will tell us
that the 'you' means the apostles. Jesus said, 'I have much more to
say to you, but you cannot bear it now.' Who is he addressing? The
apostles. 'But when the Spirit comes, he will do what I have not
been able to do; he will lead you into the truth which I wanted to
give you but you weren't able to take it.' It must be the apostles.
We cannot change the identity of the 'you' in the middle of the
So, the fulfilment of that prophecy is in the New
Testament. The major ministry of the Holy Spirit has been to lead
the apostles into all the truth and to give us in the New Testament
this wonderful body of truth that remains our authority. Now, that
does not mean that the ministry of the Holy Spirit has ceased. It
means that it has changed from the revelation of new truth to a
profounder perception and application of old truth. If you like, he
has moved from revelation to illumination.
Although I may be slightly overstating it, I want to say
that God has no more to teach us than he has taught us in Christ.
It is inconceivable that there should be a higher revelation than
God has given in his incarnate Son. But although God has no more to
teach us, we have a great deal more to learn. And although he has
no more to give us than he has given us in Christ, we have a great
deal more to receive.
Some people feel that evangelicals adapt, eventually, to
changing circumstances, whereas Catholicism stands firm like a
rock. Those who say there is a loss of authority in our world are
tending towards Rome -
Indeed. Do you think there is something about Rome which
is rightly attractive?
Yes. The true evangelical wants both liberty and
authority. We want to ask questions, to think, to pry, to peer, to
probe, to ponder. We want to do all these things, but within a
framework of submission to an ultimate authority. But we're asking
questions about our authority: what does it mean and how does it
apply? So, we experience an uneasy tension between liberty and
I couldn't myself find a lodging place either in
Catholicism or in liberalism, because one seems to me to major on
authority with little room for liberty, while the other emphasises
liberty with very little room indeed for authority.
A new anthology of your writings,
Authentic Christianity [published
by Inter-Varsity Press in 1995], includes this quotation: 'The word
"Christian" occurs only three times in the Bible. Because of its
common misuse we could profitably dispense with it.' Since the
word 'evangelical' doesn't appear at all and is also misused,
should we dispense with it, too?
We could in theory, for the same reason. The words that
are used in the New Testament most frequently are 'believer',
'brother' or 'sister', 'child of God'. There isn't a word that the
Bible itself gives us to which we have to be loyal.
But the reason I want to stick to 'evangelical' is a
historical one. It has expressed a recognisable tradition, to which
I still feel I belong (and am proud and thankful to belong), and I
want to take my stand not only on scripture but in that
Does it alarm you to hear people calling themselves
Yes. I don't know what they mean, but it does alarm
If you are 'post' anything, you are leaving
something behind, and I want to know what it is. If it's our many
faults and failures, fine - but that's not post-evangelicalism,
What are the weaknesses of evangelicalism?
We've discussed our rugged individualism and the
difficulty we have in co-operating with one another. Another, I
think, is our dogmatism. Instead of remembering Deuteronomy 29:29,
we are dogmatic about even the things which God has kept secret.
We're often not prepared to admit a certain agnosticism, which is a
very evangelical thing, if we are alluding to what God has not
We have many weaknesses. I'm sure there are plenty more if
I were to go on.
Again in [Authentic
Christianity], you say: 'Evangelism is the
major instrument of social change. For the gospel changes people,
and changed people can change society.' Isn't that really a
ruggedly individualistic picture of social change? It certainly
I wonder what the context of that was. I think it's from
Issues Facing Christians Today [periodically revised and
reissued but most recently so, when this interview was conducted,
by Collins in 1990], where I list four or five instruments for
social change. I put evangelism first because Christian social
responsibility depends on socially responsible Christians, and they
are the fruit of evangelism.
Having said that, I would also want to make the
complementary point that Christians are not the only people who
have benefited or reformed society. We evangelicals do have a very
naive view. Take marriage: people say, 'They have got to be
converted and then they'll have a good marriage.' But there are
Christians who don't have good marriages, and there are plenty of
excellent marriages among people who are not Christians. Morality
and social conscience are not limited to Christian
Do you think that our emphasis on 'the Christian mind'
may have prevented us from fully affirming the wisdom to be found
outside the church?
What you mean is: should we pay attention to the wisdom
literature of other religions?
And of people with no religion.
Yes, we certainly should, even if it is with reservations
and a desire to bring their thinking to the ultimate touchstone of
I suppose the key text would be John 1:9, which says that
the logos, the Son of God before the
Incarnation, is the true light, coming into the world and giving
light to everybody. I believe that is the right translation, that
he is constantly coming into the world - indeed, he has never left
it, because the world was made by him and so he is in the world. He
was in the world even before he came into it in the Incarnation,
and as the logos he is giving light to
So, there is a certain light of common sense, of reason,
of conscience, that everybody has. And because also they're made in
the image of God, although, to be sure, reason is fallen and
fallible, nevertheless it still operates.
For those two reasons, the divine logos
and the human logos, if you like, we
should listen respectfully to what other people are saying, even if
at the end of the day we have the liberty to say, 'No, that is
wrong, because the Bible teaches otherwise.'
Why is the church so often the last to join a protest
movement? It may in time take the lead and it may speak with the
greatest integrity, against jingoism or apartheid or nuclear
weapons or the abuse of the environment or whatever; but these
movements are often started by others.
Well, that has not always been true - the slave trade is
a good example, isn't it, and, I suppose, Shaftesbury's reforms in
relation to mental illness and so on.
Nevertheless, by and large what you say is true. Why?
First, because we're busy - we're busy evangelising and doing other
things, mostly in the church. We don't always demand our liberty
from the church in order to be active in the
Our attention is elsewhere?
Yes. Elsewhere is more congenial to us than being anywhere
in the world.
Second, we have such a strong doctrine of fellowship and
are so clear about our responsibility not to be unequally yoked
with unbelievers that we have seldom learnt Francis Schaeffer's
well-known term that we can be 'co-belligerents' even if we are not
in active spiritual fellowship with one another.
That's all very well, but some people might say that the
church is simply very conservative. It only joins these movements
for change under pressure from secular forces in society.
I wish it were always Christians who took the initiative
in seeking needed social change - but I am still thankful when
others take the initiative and Christians follow, even under
We must not set secular fashion and the Holy Spirit over
against each other, as being always and inevitably incompatible.
Public opinion isn't always wrong. What is wrong is to bow down
before it uncritically, like reeds shaken by the wind. Why should
the Holy Spirit not sometimes use public opinion to bring his
people into line? He seems to have done so on a number of occasions
in the debate between science and faith.
Is it possible that evangelicals may never learn that
evangelism and social action are not alternatives?
I hope not. I believe we have changed, and we can change
more. We need to go on bearing witness to truth as we have been
given to see it, in our interior, domestic dialogue.
Do you think we have yet got the balance between
evangelism and social action right?
I think there are notable examples of groups and
individuals who are seeking to recover their mislaid social
conscience, but no, we've got a long way further to go. What we
need more than anything else is more models of integrated mission,
so that people can see that it works without neglecting anything to
which we have been called.
What is the theological basis for Christian involvement
today? Is it enough to speak of 'salt and light'?
First, there is the nature of God himself. God is
interested in and concerned about more than religion: he is the God
of creation as well as of the covenant. He is the lover of justice:
this is his nature. He is the kind of God who protects and
champions the oppressed. And if that is the kind of God he is, then
clearly his people have got to be the same.
Second, there is the doctrine of human beings. If you
concentrate exclusively on the eternal salvation of the soul, you
give the impression that a human being is simply a soul floating in
the ether. When I was a student, we were brought up on the phrase
'a love for souls'. I remember reading a book called >>A
Passion for Souls<<. But I have never had a passion for
souls. I can't envisage a soul as being an appropriate object of
love or affection.
Human beings are more than souls, they are
'body-souls-in-a-community'. If I truly love my neighbour, the
second great commandment obliges me to love and serve him or her in
their physical, social and spiritual dimension.
I could go on - there is so much. Almost every biblical
doctrine has some relation to this whole question.
Nevertheless, when you see young people who have a
passion for evangelism, they are motivated by that idea of a lost
soul, even if it is incorrect. Is there an equivalent spur for
people involved in social action? If someone said to you, 'My
calling is social action. Give me the same passion!', what would
I think I would talk of the doctrine of Man, male and
female, made in the image of God - the unique dignity and worth of
human beings. I would quote William Temple, who said, 'My worth is
what I am worth to God, and that is a marvellous great deal,
because Christ died for me.' And I would say that the ministry of
Jesus in life and death exhibits the enormous value of human
Then, I would want to back up that biblical theme with
examples from throughout history. Take Mother Teresa, for example,
who sees this woman on the pavement of Calcutta, with awful sores
infested with live maggots, and she kisses her and picks her up.
She sees an intrinsic value in her.
That, surely, is what has motivated people. That is why
the word 'humanisation', which was first adopted in the World
Council of Churches, is something we evangelicals ought to have
taken up. Anything that dehumanises human beings should be an
outrage to us, because God has made them in his image. The whole
concept of the rehumanisation of human beings, and the deliverance
of human beings from anything that dehumanises, ought to inspire
people, and has inspired people.
Authentic Christianity records you saying in 1981: 'What
will posterity see as the chief Christian blind spot of the last
quarter of the 20th century? I do not know. But I suspect it will
have something to do with the economic oppression of the Third
World and the readiness with which Western Christians tolerate it,
and even acquiesce to it.'
I did, I think, mention three blind spots. The nuclear
horror was another one: evangelicals were the last people to make a
statement about the immorality of weapons of indiscriminate
destruction. I think the third one was the environment.
There is a great deal in the Bible about God's concern for
the poor. Poverty - not poverty in the sense of simplicity, but in
the sense of lacking the basic wherewithal for survival - is not
really on our evangelical conscience yet. Partly because many
people have not travelled and seen oppressive poverty with their
own eyes - although, to be sure, they have seen the pictures on
Are we too ready in the West to accept the view that a
successful church is also an affluent one?
I suppose it is because some people see prosperity as a
mark of God's blessing, even today, that they can't come to terms
with poverty. I think we have to have the courage to reject the
health-and-wealth gospel absolutely. It's a false gospel.
I was very thankful that Benny Hinn, not many months ago,
publicly repented of teaching it.
Do you think the idea that God wants us to be
comfortable because he loves us presents a threat to a cutting-edge
Well, we're sitting in a very comfortable flat as we talk
and it's easy to say! But I do think that comfort is dangerous, and
we should constantly be re-examining our lifestyle.
The New Testament is beautifully balanced on this. Paul
avoids both extremes, not least in 1 Timothy 4 and 6. Asceticism is
a rejection of the good gifts of the good Creator. Its opposite is
materialism - not just possessing material things but becoming
preoccupied with them. In between asceticism and materialism is
simplicity, contentment and generosity, and those three things
should mark all of us.
It's not a question of rules and regulations about our
income and how many rooms we have and how many cars. It's a
question of these principles of simplicity, contentment and
generosity, over against covetousness, materialism and asceticism,
that we have to apply to our living all the time. We need to give
away what we are not using, because if we don't use it, we don't
You've seen a great deal of poverty around the world. Do
you perceive a difference between the Christianity of the poor and
the Christianity of the rich?
Yes, I do. In the Old Testament, there is a fundamental
association between material and spiritual poverty. Often, you are
not sure what is meant by 'the poor'. But they tend to be those who
are materially poor and who on account of that poverty need to put
their trust in God with a greater strength than if they were rich
and so self-dependent.
My own understanding is that in the Sermon on the Mount -
which may have been a concentrated period of instruction - Jesus
said both 'Blessed are you poor' (as he is quoted in Luke) and
'Blessed are the poor in spirit' (as in Matthew). I think there is
a blessedness attaching to both. The kingdom of God is a blessing
to the materially poor because it affirms their dignity and
relieves their poverty; it is also a blessing, a free gift, to the
spiritually poor. So, there is a sense in which poverty is an aid
to faith and riches are a barrier to faith.
I want to add that all these terms - 'simplicity',
'contentment', 'generosity', 'wealth' - are comparative. There is
no absolute simplicity or poverty. I go into my little kitchen and
I have not only running water but constant hot water. That would be
regarded as the height of luxury in some parts of the world, yet we
don't regard it as that, and comparatively speaking in this country
We need to feel the challenge of Jesus to us in the light
of our own situation and circumstances.
Is God's kingdom a blessing to the poor even if they do
not recognise that they are poor in spirit?
No, I think the two blessings go together.
Do the poor tend to see themselves as poor in
Some do. Their material poverty helps them to see their need of
Christ. Others, however, become bitter and can't listen to the
gospel. What is the African phrase? 'An empty belly has no ears.'
When they're as poor as that, they can't respond to the gospel.
It's rather like the Israelites when Moses came and told them about
the exodus: 'They did not listen to him because of their cruel
Presumably, then, we need to listen carefully to the
They say that the scriptures were written against a
background of poverty and are most truly understood when they are
read with the eyes of the poor.
I'm very keen on cross-cultural Bible study groups, so
that we can help each other to listen to the word of God, but I
don't think it is true to say that the poor necessarily have a
greater insight. We all come to scripture with our presuppositions
and our cultural defences, and these may be very different from one
another's. The liberation theologian and the Marxist also have
their cultural defences.
What we need to do in inter-cultural Bible study groups is to
cry to God to use us to one another in breaking through those
Can we turn to the charismatic movement? How have your
views changed since Baptism and
Fullness [first published by Inter-Varsity
Press in 1975]?
Baptism and Fullness was the second edition -
the first was The Baptism and Fullness of the Holy Spirit
[published by IVP USA in 1964]. I practically rewrote the book,
principally because I felt I had been less than generous in my
evaluation of the movement. So, I wanted to put on record that I
had no doubt that God had blessed the charismatic movement to both
individuals and local churches. It would be quite impossible and
improper to deny that.
Maybe I should go on positively a little bit. I do believe in
the Holy Spirit! I believe the Christian life is inconceivable
without the Holy Spirit. The Christian faith and life depend
entirely upon the Holy Spirit: he convicts us of sin, he opens our
eyes to see the truth as it is in Jesus, he causes the new birth to
take place, he bears witness with our spirit that we are the
children of God, he transforms us into the image of Christ, he is
the earnest of our final inheritance, and so on. Every stage and
every part of the Christian life is impossible without the Holy
So, I believe in him; but I still believe that some of the
distinctive doctrines of charismatic Christians are not as
honouring to him as they think they are, and are in fact
What I find difficult is the stereotyping of Christian
experience - that everybody has to go through the same two hoops. I
don't see that in the New Testament. I see the emphasis on the new
birth - and the New Testament bends over backwards in its attempt
to find adequate phraseology to define the new birth. It speaks not
only of rebirth but of recreation and resurrection, and nothing
could be greater than that. It seems to me we are bound to go askew
if we put any subsequent experience on a level higher than the
As for the gifts, I simply think that many charismatics focus on
the wrong ones. There are at least 20 identified in the New
Testament, and these lists are so random that there are probably
many more that are not included. But the pentecostal still
concentrates on the three supernatural gifts of healing, prophecy
Actually, I think the most important gift today, measured by
Paul's principle that we should excel in those that build up the
church, is teaching. Nothing builds up the church like the truth,
and we desperately need more Christian teachers all over the world.
I often say to my charismatic friends, 'If only you would
concentrate on praying that God would give teachers to his church,
who could lead all these new converts into maturity in Christ, it
would be more profitable.'
Could the development of the movement bring about an
existential form of Christianity? Just as liberals read scripture
in the light of its relevance to culture, could the charismatics
read it in the light of its relevance to experience?
I think that's well put, and I want to endorse it. I wish
I'd thought of it first!
Mind you, I don't want to denigrate experience. I don't want
charismatics to say of me, as they often do, 'He's a dry old
stick.' Because I'm not, actually. I'm a much more emotional person
than people realise. I thank God that he hasn't made me a fish,
cold and slippery. I'm very thankful to be a human being, with all
the emotional passion and fervour, as well as intellectual concern,
which that entails.
I do believe in emotion, I do believe in experience. The
Christianity of the New Testament is undoubtedly an experiential
faith, in which deep feelings are involved. But I want to combine
clear thinking with deep feeling.
I find that mind and emotion are kept together very much in the
New Testament. I have always loved, for example, the Emmaus walk:
'Did not our hearts burn within us when he opened to us the
scriptures?' It was through their mind that their heart began to
burn. We have to recognise the important place of experience - but
our experience does have all the time to be checked against
biblical teaching. Otherwise, it will become an ungodly and
Have you yourself had experiences of God which could be
I want to say yes to the first part of the sentence and
no to the second. Certainly, God has given me in his goodness some
profound spiritual experiences, both when I've been alone and even
more in public worship, when tears have come to my eyes, when I've
perceived something of his glory.
I can remember one particular occasion, when we were singing 'At
the name of Jesus every knee shall bow,' I did really break down,
because I saw again the supreme exaltation of Jesus to the right
hand of the Father. I have had other profound experiences which
have moved me to the core of my being. But I wouldn't say that any
of them has been a traditional charismatic experience such as
speaking in tongues. And they have not been disassociated from the
mind. In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul is all the time saying, 'You
mustn't let these experiences bypass your mind.' The mind is
involved, though the experience goes beyond it.
But I know what Paul meant in Romans 5 about the love of God
being shed abroad in our hearts. I also know what he meant in
Romans 8 about the Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we
are the children of God.
What do you make of the 'Toronto
Well, I never want to criticise anything which people claim has
been a blessing to them in terms of a greater awareness of the
reality of God, or a profounder joy, or an overwhelming love for
him and for others, or a fresh zeal in evangelism. It's not for me
to doubt any of these things.
My major questions concern three areas. First, it is a
self-consciously anti-intellectual movement. I listened on tape to
the speech of the first person who went from Britain to Toronto and
brought the 'blessing' back. This person said: 'Don't analyse,
don't ask questions! Simply receive!' I think that is both foolish
and dangerous. We must never forget that the Holy Spirit is the
Spirit of truth.
Secondly, I cannot possibly come to terms with those animal
noises, and it grieves me very much that - as far as I know - no
charismatic leaders have publicly disassociated themselves from
them, as they should. The whole Bible tells us that we are
different from the animal creation; it rebukes us when we behave
like animals and calls us to be distinct. Nebuchadnezzar's animal
behaviour was under the judgement, not the blessing, of
My third problem concerns all the falling. Even charismatic
leaders have pointed this out, that on the few occasions in the
Bible when people have fallen over, they have all fallen forwards
on their faces and they have all done so >>after<< they
have been granted a vision of the majesty, the holiness and the
glory of God. In the Toronto experience, however, people fall
backwards, without any previous vision of God.
Those three things trouble me.
Do you think the charismatic movement will finally prove
to have strengthened or distracted the church?
I'm not a prophet; I can't look forward. I think it's
bound to have been more blessing than the opposite. But I'm very
worried about the anti-intellectual aspect of it. Not all
charismatics are anti-intellectual, I know, but there are very many
who are. They dismiss me, again, because they say I'm not open to
the supernatural on account of my Western rationalism. I disagree
with that. I'm not a rationalist and I'm absolutely open to God;
but I refuse to surrender my mind.
That's why I think Jim Packer's book Keep in Step with the
Spirit [newly reissued by Inter-Varsity Press when this
interview was conducted] is so important. It's a most unusual,
maybe unique, combination of the open and the critical. On the one
hand, he stands in the Puritan tradition and so takes very
seriously the prohibition 'Do not quench the Spirit!' He is
determined to give the Holy Spirit his freedom. On the other hand,
he subjects the claims and performance of the charismatic movement
to a rigorous biblical critique.
This is an unusual combination because those of us who are open
are usually uncritical, while those of us who are critical are
But evangelicals, too, have been accused of
anti-intellectualism in two new books: Mark Noll's
The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind
[Inter-Varsity Press, 1994] and Os Guinness's
Fit Bodies, Fat Minds [Baker
Books, 1994]. This trend seems to be more pervasive than just an
existential, experiential thing.
I agree. It has been characteristic of much evangelicalism (but
even more of pentecostalism). There are notable exceptions, and
thank God for them.
I think we need to encourage each other in the proper use of the
mind. Preachers are still the key people; the church is always a
reflection of the preaching it receives, and I don't think it is an
exaggeration to say that the low standards of Christian living
throughout the world are due more than anything else to the low
standards of Christian preaching and teaching.
If we can recover true expository preaching as being not only
exegesis but an exposition and application of the word of God, then
the congregations will learn it from us and go and do the same
thing themselves. We need to help our congregations to grasp and
use the hermeneutical principles that we ourselves are using. We
need to be so careful in the development of our evangelical
hermeneutic that the congregation says, 'Yes, I see it. That is
what the text means and it couldn't mean anything else.'
The worst kind of preaching there is allows people to say,
'Well, I'm sorry, I don't agree with you. I think you're twisting
You seem to me to have changed your position on gender.
Certainly, your later writings present a different view of the
status and role of women. What has brought this
What has helped me most in struggling with this issue is
a growing understanding of the need for 'cultural transposition'.
This is based on the recognition that although biblical truth is
eternal and normative in its substance, it is often expressed in
changeable cultural terms.
The Lausanne Covenant described scripture as 'without error in
all that it affirms'. Our duty is to determine what it does affirm
- that is, what God is teaching, promising or commanding in any
given passage. When we have identified this, we have the further
task of reclothing this unchanging revelation in appropriate modern
cultural dress. The purpose is not to dodge awkward teachings of
scripture, still less to foster disobedience, but to make our
If we apply this principle to the role of women, it seems clear
to me that masculine 'headship' (which I believe refers to
responsibility rather than authority) is a permanent and universal
truth, because Paul roots it in creation. And what creation has
established, no culture is able to destroy. We have no liberty to
disagree with the apostle Paul.
But we still need to ask, 'What are the appropriate cultural
expressions of that in the church today?' For one thing, we may
drop the wearing of veils. Is it possible, then, that the
requirement of silence is similarly a first-century cultural
application which is not necessarily applicable today?
This, if I remember rightly, was the position we adopted at the
National Evangelical Anglican Congress in 1977. We expressed the
view that a woman could be ordained, and so could teach men, but
that an appropriate contemporary expression of masculine headship
would be for her to belong to a local pastoral team, of which a man
would be the head.
I still hold this view, although, of course, I know it has been
overtaken by history.
You have said that Christians are optimists but not
utopians. Are you optimistic about the church? Do you feel that the
next generation of leaders are adequately equipped?
Yes, I think I must reply in the affirmative. Elderly
people of my generation always have difficulty in recognising the
gifts of the young, or younger, but surely, as I look around, there
are men and women of most remarkable gifts that God is raising
Yet we are not utopians. We cannot build the kingdom of God on
earth. We are waiting for the new heaven and the new earth, which
will be the home of righteousness and peace.
But meanwhile I'm an optimist, because I don't think pessimism
and faith are easy bedfellows. I believe that God is at work in the
world, I believe that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation
to every believer, and I believe that the church can be salt and
light in the community. Both salt and light are influential
commodities: they change the environment in which they are
Is it easier now to find outstanding Christian
leadership in the Third World than in our own society?
It's very difficult to compare the two, because they are
very different. God is certainly giving leadership in Third World
churches which compares beautifully with the kind of leadership
there was in the developing world decades ago, when missions were
still suppressing the churches. But now that national churches have
taken over responsibility from the missions, and are developing
their own identity and their own leadership, it's wonderful to see
the calibre of leadership that God is giving.
What advice would you give to the new generation of the
I'd want to say so many things. But my main exhortation
would be this: Don't neglect your critical faculties. Remember that
God is a rational God, who has made us in his own image. He invites
and expects us to explore his double revelation, in nature and
scripture, with the minds he has given us, and to go on in the
development of a Christian mind to apply his marvellous revealed
truth to every aspect of the modern and the post-modern world.
All photographs © Geoff Crawford