James Stuart Stewart was selected as the greatest preacher of the twentieth century by Preaching Magazine in a poll of its readers and contributing editors shortly before the new millennium began.[1] The choice would have embarrassed Stewart and it surprised some of those polled, but not those of us who sat in his classes, visited in his home, devoured his books and fell under the spell of his preaching.

Through his preaching and teaching, Stewart made Christian orthodoxy fascinating and applicable to daily life. His sermons demonstrate that he had a high view of the Bible and a supreme view of Jesus Christ. Also, his sermons and lectures are in a sense autobiographical because they reveal him as an able scholar, a uniquely gifted preacher, and a deeply devoted Christian.

Born July 21, 1896, in Dundee, Scotland, Stewart grew up in a home that was strongly Christian. His mother was the daughter of a minister and his father, William Stewart, worked for the YMCA in the afterglow of the Moody-Sankey revival that had swept across Scotland.

Among the influences in his formative years, he listed the ministers in his boyhood congregation, the Christian example of his parents, and an English teacher who put great stress on essays and required them to memorize “great chunks” of the poetry of their land.[2]  He attended Edinburgh University and graduated with his college and seminary degrees from St. Andrews University.

After doing post-graduate study in Bonn, he was ordained into the Church of Scotland in 1924. For the next 23 years he carried on a busy ministry in three successive churches, preaching twice each Sunday, teaching classes, doing pastoral work and researching and writing at various levels. His pulpit work at North Morningside in Edinburgh gained him an international reputation. People came from far and wide to hear “Stewart of Morningside.”

In 1947 Stewart was called to the Chair of New Testament Language, Literature, and Theology at New College, Edinburgh University, where he served for nineteen years until his retirement in 1966. That appointment freed him not only to teach but also to fill pulpits throughout the British Isles and in many parts of the English speaking world. Students at New College said that his lectern sometimes became a pulpit, but his pulpit never became a lectern.

He was appointed a chaplain to King George V in 1951, and later he served as a chaplain to Queen Elizabeth. He was chosen moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland in 1963, serving as the Church of Scotland’s leading ambassador for a year. He died July 30, 1990.

Wide reading, personal devotions and pastoral work became the raw materials for Stewart’s sermons. He set aside up to an hour a day for devotional Bible reading and prayer, taking notes in a journal on any sermon ideas that came to him during those times, which he saved against “a dry season.” He also spent an hour each day studying a solid piece of theology quite apart from direct preparation for his sermons. Typically, the rest of the mornings were filled with Bible study and direct sermon preparation.

His reading included devotional and literary classics, classical sermons, science, literary criticism, history and biography, drama, fiction and poetry. Stewart sharpened his mind by reading from prominent enemies of the Christian faith. His pastoral work was carefully planned and required many long hours, especially at North Morningside, since potential assistants were conscripted for military service in World War II.

Stewart aimed to have one sermon done by Wednesday, the other by Friday. His sermon topics came from the Christian calendar, notes from his devotional journal or a series of six to eight sermons through a book of the Bible. [3]

Convinced that the preacher who expounds the Bible has endless variety at his disposal, he preached comprehensively on the great themes of the faith. His method of preparation was to write down his thoughts on the biblical text and the theme and then organize the chaos. Though he manuscripted every sermon for the first ten years in order to improve his style, he carried only a single sheet of paper into the pulpit with his outline and any quotations on it. “If I misquoted a piece of English literature,” he said, “an elder would meet me at the door to correct me from memory.”[4]

Stewart’s sermons always had size and substance. They were about God in Christ and the difference He makes for our lives. His themes, though wide and varied, were always Christological and kerygmatic. He believed that preaching exists, “not for the propagating of views, opinions, and ideals,” but for “the proclamation of the mighty acts of God.”[5] Its essence consists of proclaiming “that prophecy was fulfilled; that in Jesus of Nazareth, in His words and deeds, His life and death and resurrection, the new age had arrived; that God had exalted Him, that He would come again as Judge, and that now was the day of salvation.” [6]

Few preachers have demonstrated better how to move the same theological themes from the scholarly lecture to the sparkle and challenge of the sermon. His Cunningham lectures, A Man in Christ: Vital Elements of St. Paul’s Religion and his Duff lectures, Thine is the Kingdom: the Church’s Mission in Our Time, firmly established Stewart as a scholar and set forth his doctrinal, Christological, and kerygmatic themes, linking them to what it means to be a Christian and a community of faith in the present era.

These same themes are addressed to preachers at a more popular level in his Warrack lectures, Heralds of God, and his Yale lectures, A Faith to Proclaim. In Heralds of God he discussed the preacher’s world, theme, study, technique and inner life. In A Faith to Proclaim, which he wrote as a sequel to Heralds of God, he set forth “the essential message of our evangelism” as proclamation and social action.[7] The church’s theology must be “passionately missionary,”[8] and that means proclaiming the Incarnation, Forgiveness, the Cross, the Resurrection and Christ. If one were asked to summarize the Christian faith in one word, he said, it would have to be the word “Resurrection.”  These same kerygmatic themes thread their way through his six books of published sermons (the first two are in the “Scholar as Preacher” series[9]) as they are proclaimed, illustrated and applied homiletically.

Stewart considered himself an expository preacher. For him the aim of exposition is to bring about an encounter with Christ. He believed that when the Bible is faithfully expounded, men and women still encounter God in Christ in several ways: in His mighty works, in His words, in His person and in the missionary proclamation of His mighty acts of redemption.

The key to Stewart’s expository preaching is his insistence on the inherent link between the background of ancient Israel or the apostolic era and the foreground of the present situation based on a Christological interpretation of the Bible. Since that link is not always apparent, the preacher’s task is to find it.

His view of imagination, which he called “faith by another name,” further fueled his approach to expository preaching. “One does not abstract Christianity from history or eliminate its imagery without turning it into something quite different in the process.” It does more than fill in gaps in the biblical material; it allows the preacher to identify both with the people of the Bible and with our contemporaries, and thus it contributes to relevant expository preaching. Biblical exposition requires balancing the two preaching moods of the gospel, the indicative and the imperative, but the accent falls on what God has done in Christ before coming to what he expects of us.[10]

In summary, Stewart fused scholarship and evangelism in a style and delivery that was bold, stirring, positive, lyrical, joyous and often exhilarating. One of his sermon titles captures it well: “The Romance of Orthodoxy.” And so does a statement by one of his friends, “When he preaches, the trumpets are there.”[11] When you read his sermons today, you can sometimes hear the echo of those trumpets.

 

 

–Wayne E. Shaw is Dean Emeritus and Professor of Preaching at Lincoln Christian Seminary in Lincoln, Ill.

 

 

 

 


  [1]Preaching, November/December, 1999.

Interview with Stewart, New College, Edinburgh.

[1] A Faith to Proclaim, pp, 14, 15.

[1]A Faith to Proclaim, p.7.

[1]A Faith to Proclaim, p. 11.

[1]The Gates of New Life and The Strong Name.

 

[1]Preaching, November/December, 1999.

[2] Interview with Stewart, New College, Edinburgh.

[3] Heralds of God, pp. 111- 113, 154, 167.

[4] Interview with Stewart, New College, Edinburgh.

[5] Heralds of God, p. 5.

[6] A Faith to Proclaim, pp, 14, 15.

[7]A Faith to Proclaim, p.7.

[8]A Faith to Proclaim, p. 11.

[9]The Gates of New Life and The Strong Name.

[10] Heralds of God, pp. 111- 113, 154, 167.

[10] Interview with Stewart, New College, Edinburgh.

[10] Heralds of God, p. 5.

[10]Lecture tapes on Expository Preaching , Reigner Recording Library, Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia.

[11]Personal Interview, Edinburgh.

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Few smaller areas
of the world have ever seen the prodigous renaissance in Biblical preaching
that Scotland saw in the 18th and 19th centuries. With her divinity halls filled
with converts from the Great Awakening and the Moody evangelistic crusades.
Scotland saw the early dissipation of this era of immense promise through destructive
higher criticism and Darwinian naturalism. The slow and tortured death of a
dynamic church in Scotland has been tragic, although the light still shines
in places like the Tron Church in Glasgow, the Charlotte Baptist Chapel in Edinburgh,
and other evangelical congregations.

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.

Sermonic
passion

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.

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