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For the Love of the World: John Stott and His Passion for Creation

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June 3, 2012 Tags: Lives of Faith

Today's entry was written by Corey Widmer. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of The BioLogos Foundation. You can read more about what we believe here.

For the Love of the World: John Stott and His Passion for Creation
John Stott, Theologian and Birdwatcher. Image courtesy the Langham Partnership

A few months ago a very important looking letter showed up in my mailbox. Written with the glorious flare that only an expensive fountain pen can produce, my name and address were written brightly in perfect cursive, and the return address displayed the formidable name, title and address of a London barrister. Ripping open the letter, I found a neatly printed check for £1000 inside, along with a note informing me that the former Rev. Dr. John R.W. Stott had left this money to me in his will, as it was his wish that each of his former study assistants be given a posthumous gift of gratitude for our service to him.

It didn’t seem right to deposit such a gift unreflectively into our bank account, allowing it to be swallowed up anonymously into our daily expense fund. My wife Sarah and I talked about a symbolic way we might use the money to honor John’s mark of grace on both of our lives. We very quickly settled on our decision: an SLR camera with a fine telephoto lens.

Many people remember John Stott for his books and preaching, but fewer remember him for his love of creation, his ornithological passion, and his knack for bird photography. On the very first day of my job working as his study assistant, I found on my desk a brand new set of binoculars and a copy of “Birds of Europe,” by Lars Johnson (the definitive guide). No study assistant was to work for John unless we shared in his love for birds, or at least could ably feign it. I soon discovered how seriously he took this avocation. In London he would stop whatever meeting we might be rushing off to in order to catch a look at a passing Kestrel. At his writing cottage in Southwest Wales we would begin every Sunday morning at Pickleridge Pools to see the Loons and Cormorants. Wherever we traveled, whether Uganda, India or Hungary, we would always schedule an extra few days to visit the local bird life with the accompaniment of a local expert.

But I also discovered that his love for birds was an extension of his love for creation and for its Creator. Uncle John took seriously the Psalmist’s words, “Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them” (Ps 111:2). Taking “the works of the Lord” to include both God’s work of creation and redemption, he would often say that nature study and Bible study must go hand in hand. He was ahead of his time in calling Christians to have a more robust doctrine of and appreciation for Creation, and he viewed having at least one pursuit in the realm of natural history as an outflow of Christian discipleship. Indeed, it is striking that in his very last book, The Radical Disciple, in which he reflects on “some neglected aspects of our calling,” he includes “Creation Care” among Christian responsibilities like Christlikeness and Dependence.1 And as remarkable as his accomplishments were in authoring such influential books as Basic Christianity and The Cross of Christ, it was his much less well known book The Birds Our Teachers,2 which includes over 150 of his own photographs, that he would most often pull out to show visiting guests.

Some criticized John for his theistic evolutionary position and even his appreciation for Darwin, who John viewed as a man genuinely conflicted with how his discoveries could be integrated with his personal Christian faith. But Stott saw no contradiction between his own commitment to the authority of Scripture and his openness to God’s use of evolution in His creative process. He was of course unequivocal in his assertion that “One cannot be a Christian and not believe in creation.”3 Yet believing that Genesis 1 speaks more to the “why” rather than the “how” of creation, John also affirmed, “Those Christians who believe in evolution…mean that the huge variety of animal and vegetable forms can best be accounted for not by the independent creation of each, but by a gradual process of ‘descent with modification’, whether or not Darwin’s ‘natural selection’ is the best explanation of its mechanisms.”4 If anything, for John the possibility of God’s implementation of the evolutionary process was a striking example of the way God does not simply create but is also actively involved in sustaining and ordering His world.

So on the date of John’s birthday, April 27, we used his gift and bought our new camera. Laying it out on the table, I realized I needed a spacious and protective carrying case to hold the various lenses and equipment. I climbed up into the attic and retrieved John’s old camera bag, which he passed on to me after he had his second embolism and could no longer see well enough to take photographs. As I opened it up and examined the various lenses and mounts inside, now too old to adapt to any of the modern equipment, I realized I was holding in my hands the tools of one man’s passion and an expression of his love for his triune creator God. Deeply moved, I picked up my own camera, a new tool for my own stewardship of created life, and headed outside.

Notes

1. John Stott, The Radical Disciple (IVP, 2010).
2. John Stott, The Birds Our Teachers: Biblical Lessons from a lifelong bird-watcher (Angus Hudson, 1999).
3. Ibid.
4. John Stott, People Our Teachers (Angus Hudson, 2002), 110.


Corey Widmer is Associate Pastor for Preaching at Third Presbyterian Church and Co-pastor of East End Fellowship, both in Richmond, VA. He holds a BA in Religious Studies from the University of Virginia, an M.Div from Princeton Theological Seminary, and is currently a PhD candidate in practical theology at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Before returning to the US for Seminary, Corey spent three years as “Study Assistant” for the Rev. John Stott, meaning he did everything from writing and research to fetching prescriptions and carrying luggage.


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Jeremy Blakey - #70244

June 3rd 2012

Thanks Corey for this affectionate tribute. I first heard John Stott speak on ‘Creation Care’ in the late 1980’s whilst I was studying for a doctorate at the Edward Grey Institute for Field Ornithology in Oxford. His talk made a powerful impression then, and has shaped my thinking since. It was also memorable for chatting with him afterwards equally about his theology and the best birdwatching sites in Oxfordshire!


Jon Garvey - #70249

June 4th 2012

I heard John’s teaching many times while I was at University, and it helped provide a solid foundation for the rest of my spiritual life.

He was a representative of the same kind of forward looking Reformed theology as B B Warfield’s in an earlier time. Like Warfield, he was able to accommodate comfortably to the insights of science, whilst being absolutely clear on the priority of Scripture in critiquing its metaphysical weaknesses.

That phrase above, “whether or not Darwin’s ‘natural selection’ is the best explanation of its mechanisms” is primarily a theological caveat, not a scientific one. Stott was a pastor-theologian, not a scientist, but the question he would have been asking is not “does the mechanism fit the evidence?” but “does the mechanism allow due place for the sovereign role of God in creation?”

As he said elsewhere:

Of course any theory of evolution which is presented as a blind and random process must be rejected by Christians as incompatible with the biblical revelation that God created everything by his will and word, that he made it ‘good’, and that his creative programme culminated in Godlike human beings. But there does not seem to me to be any biblical reason for denying that some kind of purposive evolutionary development may have been the mode which God employed in creating.

 


Roger A. Sawtelle - #70254

June 4th 2012

Jon and all,

So where is the purpose in evolutionary development?

BioLogos does not want to talk about purpose and I really do not hear ID talking about purpose.  Does the fact that Creationists talk about purpose make them right in this area?


Jon Garvey - #70255

June 4th 2012

Does the fact that Creationists talk about purpose make them right in this area?

Yes.


George Bernard Murphy - #70261

June 4th 2012

The Bible says almost nothing about the origin of species.

That is the only thing Darwin addressed.

 So there should be no reason for conflict.

Why Darwin and the Bible are considered opposite sides of a great arguement I cannot fathom.

They talk about different chunks of creation, with Darwin focusing on more minutia.

 The Bible focuses on things like oxygen and the atmosphere, not bird species.

 To be sure GREEN plants are made to appear first [on day 3].

 Then animals that require oxygen on day 5,... but the details of minute species differentiation,.... NO! Darwin handles that.


Gregory - #70262

June 5th 2012

A thread honouring John Stott seems a good place to start. (X)

Thanks to Corey for his bird-watching and photography story.

“his love for birds was an extension of his love for creation and for its Creator.”

Yes, and Stott in his life did a lot of ‘extending.’

His call to “at least one pursuit in the realm of natural history” reads well to my ears and sensibilities, but then again I was born in the countryside, so perhaps it is easier to realise. For city dwellers, who have lived their entire lives on asphalt and in ‘artificial’ surroundings, the ‘Creation Care’ call to nature might sound somewhat different and require alternative opportunities. Surely not everyone is called to be a ‘naturalist’ in studying God’s creation.

Regarding Stott’s “openness to God’s use of evolution in His creative process,” this reminds of the reason for prioritizing ‘creation’ over ‘evolution,’ in the phrase ‘evolutionary creation.’ It is not that evolution is a bitter enemy or that natural science is necessarily opposed to the Bible. It is rather that creation (+ fall, redemption) takes priority, in any self-understanding of what it means to be a person living in community.

“Does the fact that Creationists talk about purpose make them right in this area?” - Roger

What does ‘this area’ refer to? Jon’s ‘Yes’ indicates his belief in purpose, but not in the ideology of ‘creationism’.

Yours,

Tiger Thorn

(or you can call me Gregory)

p.s. re-entry dedicated to my dear friend Kenneth (1910-2010), who probably knew Stott personally and now surely does, and who encouraged me to ‘photograph’ society in addition to nature with the camera that He gave me


Roger A. Sawtelle - #70264

June 5th 2012

Thank you Jon and Gregory for your responses.

Gregory,

In a dialog it is important to acknowledge the strengths of the other position as well as its weaknesses.  Creationism is designed to make sure that God and God’s purpose is imcluded in our understanding of our world.  That is why the creationist stands firm even when the “science” is against him or her, because the concern is not about science, but about God and in particular, God’s plan of salvation.  Of course that does not matter to non-believers so so they keep hitting creationists over the head with science.

However God and God’s purpose are important to those of us who espouse evolutionary creation.  The question I have is how do we frame our understanding of evolution so that it is scientifically sound, yet still makes clear that it is part of God’s plan for the universe and God’s people.  In my opinion, and the opinion of many Darwinists, Darwinism does not do this. 

Therefore it seems to me worthwhile to find a better explanation of evolution, than Darwinism, which will leave room for God’s Purpose, and thus satisfy the valid concern of Creationism in this important area.  Otherwise our evolutionism is just another ideology like creationism.    

 

  


Jon Garvey - #70263

June 5th 2012

This wouldn’t have been nearly such a relevant post if Stott’s hobby, like that of another celebrated and beefy preacher-teacher I knew, had been knitting! Gregory’s point on individual vocation is well-made.


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