Controversy Dogs John Stott in America
The following report is published in the current edition of the American ‘Presbyterian & Reformed News’ [Vol. 5, No. 4, December 1999].
In October, controversial Anglican minister John R. W. Stott preached in chapel at Covenant Theological Seminary, the denominational seminary of the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) located in St Louis, and filled the pulpit in at least two PCA congregations. He also spoke at Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia, in October but did not preach in chapel.
A clergyman of the Church of England, Dr. Stott has been well-known for advocating evangelical Christianity over the last decade, however, he has publicly distanced himself from the Biblical position on the doctrine of hell, and at least ‘tentatively’ holds to an annihilationist view (that is, the belief that the wicked, instead of suffering an eternity of conscious punishment, will at some point cease to exist).
In a recent telephone interview, Dr. Bryan Chapell, President of Covenant Seminary, defended Dr. Stott’s October 1st appearance in chapel. President Chapell began by asserting that Dr. Stott holds to ‘a very wrong position on this particular subject.’ He also stated that Covenant Seminary was allowed to know ahead of time what Dr. Stott would say, and that his topic was ‘an exegesis of a passage of I Timothy which did not touch on the subject of hell.’
Dr. Chapell believes that Dr. Stott is, despite his views on hell, ‘still within the pale of an evangelical truth.’ According to the seminary president, ‘Dr. Stott continues unhesitatingly to say that he believes in “eternal punishment.” I wish he were more definite about what those words mean, but do not consider him outside the evangelical ranks for his lack of certainty on this particular point.’ Dr. Chapell suggested that men, including Baptists such as Dr. Al Mohler and Ernest Reisinger, who are wrong on the doctrine of the church and the doctrine of the sacraments, have also preached in PCA contexts, including Covenant Theological Seminary. (Dr. Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, preached at the 1999 PCA General Assembly) For Dr. Chapell, a wrong view of hell may have implications with respect to other doctrines, but having a wrong ecclesiology and a wrong view of the sacraments also affects one’s views of other doctrines.
In Dr. Chapell’s eyes, Dr. Stott has made ‘important contributions to the gospel’ in this century. He said that Dr. Stott was in town to meet with Billy Graham, who was conducting a crusade. This may have been the last opportunity for these two ‘major figures in evangelicalism’ to be together. Although Covenant Seminary did not officially participate in the Graham crusade, Bryan Chapell did participate as an individual.
With respect to the doctrine of hell, Bryan Chapell stated that Covenant Seminary has been in the forefront in the evangelical world in defending the standard Christian position. He noted especially the contribution by Dr. Robert Peterson and his book, Hell on Trial as well as his own The Wonder of It All.
While Covenant Seminary had Dr. Stott preach in chapel, Westminster Theological Seminary, about two weeks later, deliberately did not have him preach when he spoke on campus. Dr. Will Barker, Dean of Faculty, said that on various occasions the independent school would have a lecture instead of chapel. Dr. Barker said: ‘I would not have him. . . to preach in a Sunday morning service.’ He added: ‘I could see him give an address in a church context that’s not a worship service,’ and he cited the practice of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia which has ‘a variety of speakers at a missions conference’ who might not be invited to fill the pulpit at a Sunday morning worship service.
Dr. Barker stated that the faculty at Westminster was ‘very open’ about the school’s disagreement with Dr. Stott’s doctrine of hell. ‘I said something to my students in class,’ the church history professor said, about Dr. Stott’s views. Dean Barker also mentioned that the seminary terminated its relationship with the late Dr. Philip E. Hughes several years ago, when he clearly adopted annihilationism.
But despite the disagreement on Dr. Stott’s position, Dr. Barker stated: ‘I regard him as a brother in Christ who differs on this particular point” He added that there is “no question in my mind that John Stott is an evangelical Christian’.
When asked if the Anglican’s views could undermine other Christian doctrines, such as that of the atonement, Dr. Barker responded: ‘I think they could in certain respects.’ However, ‘he doesn’t go around promoting it,’ and his view is ‘not a dogmatic’ one.
In introducing Dr. Stott at Westminster Seminary, Dr. Bill Edgar spoke of him as being a ‘loyal servant of the church,’ and he expressed the hope that the audience would be ‘encouraged and edified by his words.’ During a question and answer time after the lecture, at least one student challenged Dr. Stott on his views. Moreover, Dr. Stott’s appearance on the campus elicited discussion on the Warfield List, an email discussion group; as well as a letter of protest to Dr. Sam Logan, President of Westminster. The President’s Office declined to release to the press either the letter or the President’s response.
There was apparently no concern expressed by students at Covenant Seminary because of Dr. Stott’s preaching in chapel.
While in St. Louis and Philadelphia the Anglican minister also preached in at least two PCA Churches. On October 10th, Kirk of the Hills Presbyterian Church in Missouri hosted him. Four days later, he was in the pulpit at Proclamation Presbyterian Church, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania. His preaching near the Philadelphia mainline was on a Thursday evening, the day after his appearance on campus at Westminster Seminary.
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