A Response to Paul Helm

Article by   January 2010
Paul Helm has recently reviewed J. I. Packer and the Evangelical Future (Ed. Timothy George [Baker]) on his website, Helm's Deep. The book contained a chapter written by Carl Trueman somewhat critical of Packer's ecclesiology and infamous quarrel with Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. Helm (as the hyperlink above will show) disagrees with Trueman's point of view and Dr. Helm has kindly agreed to allow us to post a response by Trueman (below). Readers are advised to read Helm's analysis first and then Trueman's response. Don't you love a spat between two Englishmen?  -- Derek Thomas

It is always a great pleasure to hear from my old friend, Paul Helm, even when I am being gently rebuked and corrected.  The matter on which we lock horns here is, of course, of more than mere academic interest to us, since he and I are both products of the Anglo-Welsh evangelical world which was shaped so profoundly by the events of 1966.   Ironically, when I wrote my piece for Dr. Packer's Festschrift, I had anticipated that the criticism would come from the followers of the Doctor, not from those who thought JIP was right.  Thus, I do want to restate at the start of this short surrejoinder a couple of matters which may help give some context for my following comments.  First, I have found Dr Packer's writings to be unequivocally helpful: even when I find myself in disagreement with him, I have always found my own thinking sharpened as a result; humanly speaking, I owe most of my theology--at least the good parts, such as they are -
to his gracious and clear ministry.  Second, I have had, and continue to have, good, close friendships with those on the other side of the MLJ-JIP divide.  No debate over the great `what ifs' of 1966 disrupts my personal respect and affection for my friends in the Anglican Communion from whose writings and witness I have learned so much.

Now into the boxing ring for a bit of friendly sparring:

On the first point, that I have overplayed the significance of Packer's working class roots.  What can I say?  While no Marxist, the residual effect of studying ancient history under such a one has left me with a lasting desire to find class conflict everywhere.    Thus, I am happy to concede that there is no necessary equation between his working class Anglicanism and dissent; but I would still want to maintain that his class roots are important for understanding his later life.  My basic point is that Packer was an outsider: a Gloucestershire grammar school boy (something which, coincidentally, we both have in common) in a world where the politics of Anglican evangelicalism were - and still are -- dominated by elite private school boys who form part of a closed network from their early teens, with a system of schools, camps and conferences to reinforce the connections and the culture.   Of course, the nature of this Old Boy Network is something which, as far as I am aware, has never been explored in detail with regard to attitudes to doctrine in general and specific doctrines in particular, but my point is simply this: Packer was an outsider; and outsider status does have an impact on life and thought.  Whether his interest in Reformed doctrine was a function of this, or something else which further distinguished him from the Bash campers, is a matter for debate; that he did not fit the typical Anglican evangelical mold because he was not a Bash camper and did think Reformed doctrine was of immense importance would seem indisputable.

On the second point, there are a number of comments to make in response to Paul's reflections.

First, I do want to reiterate that Packer stands out among many evangelical Anglicans as having a doctrine of the church.   The phrase `the Anglican Church is the best boat from which to fish' is not one that I have ever found in his writings; yet it was a virtual mantra among the Bash campers during my own college days, and the same sentiment could be heard in Aberdeen relative to the Church of Scotland when I studied and later taught there.    Such a view embodies functional independency and a skewed view of the local church's function.  It bears no resemblance to the Church of England's own official understanding of itself, effectively reducing the idea of the local church to an evangelistic rally point and the denomination to a mere secular body, with responsibility for salaries, pension funds and buildings.  This is not Packer's position as is clear from his numerous essays and lectures on the nature of the Anglican Church.

Second, however, it is arguable that Packer's doctrine of the church is inconsistent or maybe even incoherent.  In my earlier article, I noted the inconsistency as one of practice in Packer; perhaps it is also one of theology for him as well, a point I missed. 

To elaborate: Paul cites Packer as using Anglicanism's repudiation of the Regulative Principle [RP] as allowing for breadth and diversity.  This needs nuancing.  The RP dealt with matters of worship, not doctrine and is thus not particularly relevant to matters of the public teaching of the church on, say, the gospel. Its repudiation did not legitimate denial of the doctrine of the Thirty-Nine Articles or make negotiable the teaching embodied by the Homilies.  Pace Newman and the Oxford Movement, the Articles envisaged the Anglican Church as a via media between Romanism and Anabaptism (the via media known as Reformed Protestantism), not between Romanism and Protestantism. In other words, Anglicanism was never meant to be very broad on the doctrinal front, as indicated by the Articles and Homilies, and the worship issue was not directly germane to this theological identity. One might also add that history indicates that Anglicanism's rejection of the Regulative Principle and legally enshrined demand that the Book of Common Prayer be the prescribed from of worship made the Anglican Church narrow and intolerant of all dissent on this matter for centuries; but that is a story for another day.

As for the theological inconsistency or incoherence of Packer's doctrine of the church is evident from his practical application of the same.  In a recent lecture at Oak Hill College, given in the wake of the revocation of his license to preach by the Bishop of New Westminster in Western Canada, in which diocese he was a priest, he begins as follows:

When I lived and ministered in England I used to tell folk who asked my identity that I was an Anglican standing for Anglicanism in the Church of England. In those days I collaborated in certain matters with the late, great, Martyn Lloyd-Jones and he, I will tell you, put me under pretty heavy pressure to stop being an Anglican. I would tell him that I should continue an Anglican, certainly until the Church of England denied the authority of the Bible and the terms of the gospel in an explicit way, or of course until the Church of England threw me out. [1]

The latter has come to pass: Packer has been thrown out; but what of the former?  The question here is this: what exactly would constitute a situation where the Church of England denied the authority of the Bible and the terms of the gospel?  I suspect many would respond that this would be realized when the church changed the nature and terms of its doctrinal commitments, such as abolishing the Thirty-Nine Articles, for example; and that while the Articles remain in place, therefore, the Church as a whole remains orthodox.

I dispute this.  While I really do hesitate to bandy words like `illogical' around when debating with a friend like Paul, it seems to me to be illogical to claim that the Church (as a whole; I am not speaking of individual ministers and congregations here) does not deny the authority of the Bible and the terms of the gospel when it has long since ceased to uphold its basic doctrinal standards through its ecclesiastical courts.   After all, a nation that has a law against theft on the books but allows anyone to take anybody else's property at will, with impunity and without fear of prosecution, permits theft and, indeed, arguably has, in practice, no real concept of theft, no matter what the statute book says.   Thus, a church that has for many years ordained those who deny many basic elements of the gospel, and even promoted such to senior positions within its ranks, and which does not regulate public teaching by its official doctrinal standards, has in its practice clearly denied the authority of the Bible and the terms of the gospel as articulated in those standards, and perhaps has no concept of them in any real, meaningful sense.  Talk of denial of the gospel on its own is thus too vague: there is a crucial distinction which needs to be made between a church which promotes and maintains the preaching of the gospel as non-negotiable and normative, and a church which merely tolerates the same, while allowing teaching which denies the gospel to go unchecked.   It would seem that when Packer speaks of the Anglican Church not denying the gospel, he simply means that the Anglican Church tolerates the gospel.  That is not the position envisaged by the Thirty-Nine Articles and is arguably not Reformation Anglicanism.

As I said, I am not here speaking of individual ministers and congregations, of which many faithful examples can be found within the Anglican Church today.  Nor am I saying that a church which ordains the occasional heretic ceases to be a church.  The question is: what is done with that heretic once the nature of his public teaching becomes evident?   Further, my primary concern in talking about prosecuting such is not the enhancement of the power and status of the hierarchy which might thereby encourage the reader to see my case for orthodoxy in a negative, inquisitorial light.  My concern is rather the ordinary people who make up the church at grass roots level: if such people cannot hold their ministers to the obligation to preach, and not deny, the gospel, then they are left helpless in the hands of a powerful establishment.  Laws against theft are in place so that I, as an ordinary citizen, can turn to those in power and expect, nay, demand, that they protect my property and person; so it is with the Westminster Standards in my own denomination, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, and the Thirty-Nine Articles in the Anglican Church.   They exist to protect the ordinary church member from the pet opinions of maverick pastors and preachers and thereby guarantee a minimum of sound teaching and godly pastoral care.

Can the ordinary people in the pew expect the church to protect them from false teaching and false teachers? Or does the church as an institution rather give false teachers cover for their activities?   These are surely the questions one must ask in order to judge whether a denomination denies the gospel or not.  They also touch on that point where those office bearers who choose to remain in mixed denominations must address their consciences: by remaining, do they provide cover for the true schismatics who have departed from true teaching?

I suspect Paul is right that I am wrong about Packer, but perhaps not for quite the reason he thinks: on reflection, my error lies in thinking that Packer had a fully coherent Reformed doctrine of the church and failed to follow it consistently in the unfolding of events in the 1960s; I now suspect that Packer did not have quite the coherent doctrine of the church which I imagined.  But, as Paul also correctly observes, I am a hopeless romantic; and, I might add, I therefore like my heroes tragic, flawed, and conflicted.

[1]  A video and a transcript of the lecture are available at  http://www.oakhill.ac.uk/commentary/video/packer/index.html

Carl Trueman is an Alliance Council Member.

Carl Trueman, "A Response to Paul Helm", Reformation21 (January 2010)

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