By David L. Larsen
Tuesday, March 01, 2005
One of the brightest exceptions in this picture of decline was James S. Stewart (1896-1990), called by many "the most outstanding modern Scottish preacher."
The spiritual pilgrimage
Born in Dundee, Stewart's father was converted under D.L. Moody, sold his business and became a well-known Bible teacher for the YMCA. Stewart earned degrees at St. Andrews and Edinburgh and did graduate study at Bonn in Germany. Although he assisted H.R. Mackintosh in translating Schleiermacher into English, he agreed with his mentor that Schleiermacher did not take revelation seriously.
Before the merger in 1929, he served several churches in the United Free Church and subsequently pastored the prestigious North Morningside Church in Edinburgh (Church of Scotland) from 1935 to 1946. The impact of his preaching was widespread. He is remembered as being "unimposing and shy," but very effective in the pastoral letters he wrote to members and friends of his flock.
In 1947 he moved on to become Professor of New Testament at New College, Edinburgh, for 22 years. During these impactful years he traveled widely and served his fellowship as Moderator of of the General Assembly (1963-64). Although a convinced socialist, his views never obtruded into his pulpit ministry. Professor Richard Longenecker recalls his brilliant blending of "rigorous scholarship, reverential reading of the Scripture and effective communication of the Gospel."
The scholarly production
Like few others, his pastoral years saw rich and scholarly production. His Bible Class handbook on Life and Teaching of Jesus Christ (1933) sold more than 100,000 copies in the United States. His prose style was stately but lucid. His Cunningham Lectures in 1935 were published as A Man in Christ: The Vital Elements of St. Paul's Religion. This is an exceedingly rich and rewarding study in which he follows Deissmann's "Christ-mysticism" -- seeing that at the center of Paul's theology is the believer's union with Christ.
When he was young he was under the spell of James Denney, whose definition of faith he often quoted: faith is self-surrender to God in Christ. He saw so clearly that Paul's was a "conversion-theology" and that the Apostle was deeply into apocalyptic and into the doctrine of the two ages.
His later Beecher Lectures at Yale (1952) were entitled A Faith to Proclaim. In their emphasis on the great doctrines of the Gospel, they show no signs of the aversion to doctrine and to the cognitive so common in our times. The more Rabbinic "scholar-sage" was obviously his pastoral model, and who can deny that injection of a little more content into our preaching might help us considerably. We always remember another Scot, George Milligan, who served a lifetime at an isolated parish in Perthshire who has given us the treasure of those years in his mgnificent commentary on Paul's letters to the Thessalonians.
Building his preaching "on a carefully worked out theology of the New Testament," Stewart was remembered by Longenecker as starting his exposition "in a pedantic and discreet manner, and then got so carried away with his subject that it began to take control of him, so that without any rise in pitch or volume, there would be an increase in emotional intensity and a crescendo of descriptive detail and lyrical expression, and finally when he had exhausted his subject, he would drop back to his discreet manner. His hearers often experienced that buildup and drop -- sometimes inadvertently expressing their empathy in a gasp."
His masterful Warrick Lectures on preaching (at Edinburgh and St. Andrews in 1944) are entitled Heralds of God and lay bare the heart of this unusual preacher. The third lecture on "The Preacher's Study" is particularly pungent. Here is a wise counselor.
Fortunately we have a trove of Stewart's preaching. In his first published book of preaching, The Gates of New Life (1937), we get the measure of the man. He did not use lectio continua but rather lectio selecta, and hence while doctrinally sensitive and illustratively powerful, these are not primarily teaching sermons. They are also not in the main exegetical sermons, although in his truly moving "The Lord God Omnipotent Reigneth" (from Rev. 19:6) I do feel the thrust of the revelator's main point, but it is not developed with his finger on the text.
His outlines are breathtakingly simple and always memorable. How much of a sermon on "Hearsay or Experience?" can one really build on John 18:34, "Sayest thou this of thyself or did others tell it thee of me?" What shall we say of using the four anchors of Acts 27:29 for a sermon on hope, duty, prayer and the cross? How about the natural thought unit?
Later sermons in The Strong Name (1940) are based on the Apostolic Benediction and dig more deeply into texts, as in "Sursum Corda" (Luke 21:28) where he explores the Second Coming. His regal "ladder" sermon on Romans 15:29 is very choice:
I. I am coming to you with Christ
II. I am coming to you with the gospel of Christ
III. I am coming to you with the blessing of the gospel of Christ
IV. I am coming to you with the fullness of the blessing of the gospel of Christ.
We feel the buildup of a rising torrent and flow which can hardly be contained.
In his River of Life (1972) we have sermons which really grapple with the author's intention within the natural thought unit, such as "The Cross as Power and Wisdom" (1 Corinthians 1:22-24) and "A Three-fold Assurance" (Ephesians 1:3-12). One can only be in awe of a message on Joseph and his brothers as seen in Genesis 45, entitled "Sport of Fate or Plan of God?" His use of imagination is commanding.
Stewart's heart for the spread of the Gospel in the whole world throbbed in his Duff Missionary Lectures in Scotland and repeated at Princeton in the U.S. The versatility of this preacher is staggering -- as he served as Chaplain to the Queen, chaplain to a local professional soccer team, regular speaker at a rescue mission and lecturer around the world. His was not "an intellectual isolation" but a powerful engagement with the Word of God and with the times in which he lived.
David L. Larsen is Professor Emeritus of Preaching at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL.
Sources: ed. Nigel M. de S. Cameron, Dictionary of Scottish Church History and Theology (Downers Grove: IVP, 1993); David L. Larsen, The Company of the Preachers: A History of Biblical Preaching from the Old Testament to the Modern Era (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1998, 2004); Richard Longenecker, "Missing One of Scotland's Best" in Christianity Today, July 22, 1991). Full references to Stewart's printed works are in the first two of these volumes.