Last millennium, I got ordained as an Anglican minister, and Jean Penman, wife of Archbishop David Penman of Melbourne, presented each of my group of candidates for ordination with a copy of John Stott’s excellent book I Believe in Preaching. David had died suddenly, but the note from Jean said that David had originally intended to present this book himself. It was a great idea to have a book entitled I Believe in Preaching, especially as, quite frankly, most of us didn’t—including the leaders of the silent retreat that all the ordination candidates were invited to attend.
On this retreat, there were some exceptions to the silence: I ducked across to the local shopping mall to have a haircut and buy some Batman comics, and I used words to convey my meaning. More broadly, we were treated to some waffly, mystical readings from a Roman Catholic writer of some description. Oh, and we had private conversations with the chaplain on the retreat, during which we were compelled to use words. I took the opportunity then to suggest that instead of reading mystic waffle (I may not have used that exact term), could we maybe have a reading from the book that the Archbishop had given us?
Before this descends into a generalized rant, let’s just pick one passage that the chaplain could have chosen. I open Stott’s book virtually at random to discover these stirring words:
There is an urgent need for courageous preachers in the pulpits of the world today, like the apostles in the early Church who ‘were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God with boldness’. (Acts 4:31, cf. v 13) Neither men-pleasers nor time-servers ever make good preachers. We are called to the sacred task of biblical exposition, and commissioned to proclaim what God has said, not what human beings want to hear. Many modern churchmen suffer from a malady called ‘itching ears’ which induces them to ‘accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own likings’. (2 Tim 4:3) But we have no liberty to scratch their itch or pander to their likings. Rather we are to resemble Paul in Ephesus who resisted this very temptation and twice insisted that he ‘did not shrink from declaring’ to them what had to be declared, namely ‘anything that was profitable’ for them and indeed ‘the whole counsel of God’. (Acts 20:20, 27)
(John Stott, I Believe in Preaching, Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1982, p. 299.)
Stott’s book is full of passages like this. For that reason, it is dangerous. Even if you do as I just did and stumble into it at random, you can find yourself cut to pieces on the sharp glass of his biblically based exhortation. But the Melbourne Archbishop’s chaplain, who was extraordinarily vague about his own views, managed to find one of the very few bits of the book that was comfy reading for someone who didn’t rejoice in the gospel that John Stott continues to stand for.
The words the chaplain chose talked of the necessity and importance of being gracious to those with whom we disagree. As true and fair as Stott’s words were, in the context of our silent retreat, this exhortation was all wrong. It was comfortable enough to leave even those who had no particular belief in the gospel or in preaching to remain happily undisturbed. And, as an extract chosen to represent Stott’s thinking on the subject of preaching and the gospel, it was a little bit like tuning in to the weekend sports report, only to discover that the coverage was confined to footage of and commentary on the half-time entertainment.
Apart from being a bit irritated by the failure of my attempt to get something meaningful about the gospel and preaching into our ordination retreat, I have to admit to a sneaking admiration of the chaplain’s tactics. It is very, very difficult indeed to read John Stott and find material where he is not vigorously urging the clear, gracious and frequently controversial preaching of the Bible and the cross of Christ. But this man had managed it, and managed it well.
Some of us, at least, viewed the chaplain’s endorsement of Roman Catholic mysticism as seriously damaging to Christian faith. But we were snookered; he’d done us like a dinner. Were someone to break from the weekend’s rule of silence (itself a useful political tool for stopping debate) in order to question the value of a wordless religion, they would end up looking even more like intolerant, evangelical buffoons, disavowed for their gracelessness by no less a Bible teacher than John Stott himself.
That was one of my early lessons on how to blunt the Bible’s teaching: work as hard as possible to find teaching from great Bible teachers that qualifies, circumscribes, delineates and apologizes. This may seem difficult at first, but effort will be rewarded. For any Bible teacher worth his salt will always take time to qualify his statements, since that is part of teaching the Bible carefully and well.
So quote those qualifications, while working overtime to avoid the plainer expositions of the Bible’s meaning. If possible, quote those Bible teachers in company with Roman Catholics, mystics, wafflers and false teachers. If you can find a Bultmann, a Moltmann, a Benedict or a Williams who has stumbled almost accidentally on some part of biblical truth (but not too closely), quote that—always making clear how you can’t endorse their falsehood at every point. In so doing, you will earn for yourself a reputation for wisdom, sagacity, open-mindedness and graciousness that can only really be undermined by consistent, clear setting forth of the Lordship of Christ in the preaching of Scripture.