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Masterly Treatment of Paul, Missing the Point When It Comes to the Holy Spirit
on February 7, 2009
John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church & the World. Leicester, England, and Downers Grove, Illinois, 1994 (originally published in 1990, my edition is the 13th printing 2005), 428 pages (including Study Guide), ISBN 0-8308-1236-9.
I have been a great admirer of John Stott, and in particular of his books, for many years; I have even translated some of them into German. Stott's explanations and commentaries on Scripture are lucid, full of enlightening remarks and overflowing with quotes not only from other Bible books or from the latest theological expositions, but also from the great thinkers and churchmen of the patristic, reformation and, occasionally, Puritan and evangelical periods. On the whole, Stott's book on Acts lives up to this statement pretty well, and his treatment of Paul's missionary journeys and his enforced trip to Rome are masterly, with Stott cleverly combining a re-telling of Luke's text with other historical information normally not so easily available. All during the second half of the book I found myself more or less glued to its pages, always happy to read more than I had originally planned. However, I still want to reduce my evaluation to four stars instead of five because of one point which rather disturbed me. For all his attempts at fairness and balance, Stott here seems to me to miss the mark when it comes to Luke's treatment of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit among the first Christians. Stott is so determined to see everywhere his theory of a "single Christian initiation" that he gets himself caught up in obvious logical problems, as well as missing the exegetical point in a number of passages and glossing over facts which don't seem to suit him in others. It would take too long here to argue this through, so one example will have to suffice. Stott's insistence on a single Christian initiation (something that, in fact, probably no born-again Christian will deny) seems to include water-baptism. And yet (and Stott is an Anglican paedo-baptist!) it would be very unlikely and, today at any rate, unusual for someone to be converted and baptized all at the same time. So what is the problem with a baptism in the Holy Spirit which takes place at a slightly different time from conversion? I found myself disagreeing with Stott's conclusions at all the places where such a work of the Holy Spirit is mentioned in Acts. Stott tries to argue against Pentecostals and Charismatics, but he tends to erect a "man of straw", denying statements that surely only the most unguarded of (neo-)Pentecostals would make. Personally having studied these texts in detail, I must say that I find the broad Pentecostal-charismatic way of expounding these passages to be much more natural and intellectually satisfying than Stott's way of arguing around them (each new case of Spirit-infilling being explained away as the beginning of a new phase of church evangelism among new people-groups, something that doesn't really ring true in Acts 8, is theoretically possible in Acts 10, but which goes against the whole thrust of Luke's text in Acts 19). So, generally, I would say any Bible-loving Christian will gain a lot from this book but should examine the whole Holy Spirit issue with a more open mind than Stott was able to bring to this matter.