The seminary professor taught Latin American Christians to apply the Bible to social and political contexts.
Juan Stam, a theologian who advocated for radical evangelicalism in Latin America, has died at the age of 92. A missionary to Costa Rica who once taught Communist revolutionary Fidel Castro about the Christian idea of apocalypse, Stam devoted his life to teaching the Bible, challenging both legalism and liberalism, and raising up and empowering local leaders.
Stam’s ministry—whether teaching theology at the Latin American Biblical Seminary, ministering to Marxist revolutionaries and refugees, or defending the biblical idea that God intervenes into history—was always grounded in three convictions: a personal commitment to Christ as Lord, an incarnational model for life and mission, and a love of the Bible and “radical seriousness in its interpretation.”
“His faithfulness to theological reflection, firmly anchored in solid Bible reading, and in interpretation very well placed in the historical and social coordinates, is an example worth imitating in Latin America,” wrote Mexican theologian Leopoldo Cervantes-Ortiz. “His memory will go on as a constant encouragement for the life and witness of Christianity in this part of the world.”
Jaime Adrián Prieto Valladares, a Costa Rican theologian, said that Stam “taught me to love the Word that comes from God with a passion, and to turn it into a live commitment to the poor” and “always challenged us to follow Jesus radically!”
Stam was born in Paterson, New Jersey, in 1928, part of a Dutch Christian family that embraced the end times teachings and biblical devotion of D. L. Moody’s ministry. Stam joked that he was born with the Bible in his hands, but it was the Scofield Reference Bible that laid out dispensationalist theology and open to the book of Revelation.
Then known as John, he attended Wheaton College with plans to become a history professor. He changed his mind while reading Augustine for a term paper. Stam fell in love with theology and pivoted to focusing on full-time ministry. After graduating, Stam spent two years at Wheaton’s grad school and then two more years at Fuller Seminary. He learned, he later said, “to always strive to be truly ‘evangelical,’ neither fundamentalist, on the one hand, nor liberal (à la Schleiermacher or Fosdick), on the other.”
Stam went on to earn a doctorate in Switzerland at the University of Basel, studying under theologian Karl Barth, among others. His theology differed from Barth’s, but he learned how to think theologically while never abandoning the core simplicity of the message. “He was thankful to have studied under the most important theologians of the 20th century, whether or not he agreed with their specific theological views,” remembered his daughter Rebecca.
Stam and his wife, Doris, moved to Costa Rica as missionaries in 1954. They landed in rural Santa Cruz, where they could work on their language skills, learn to live in Latin America, and gain experience in a local church before moving to teach at the seminary in San José. During their 15 months in the area, the Stams also worked with the many Nicaraguan refugees fleeing the violence of the US-backed military dictatorship led by Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Listening to the local farmers, the indigenous people, and the refugees challenged their previous view of the world.
“Though it was painful to hear criticisms of our country of birth, we soon realized how little we understood Latin American reality and how much we could learn by listening to the nationals as equals (or better, superiors),” Stam later wrote. “Our contacts with these refugees radically changed our political perspectives and converted us into lifelong activists for justice.”