J.I. Packer and the Evangelical Future

Article by   April 2010
J.I. Packer and the Evangelical Future
Edited by: Timothy George
Baker (October 2009)

Festschrift, like schadenfreude and blitz, is reckoned to be an untranslatable German word. The OED has a go, however:  a festschrift is  'a collection of writings presented to a scholar to mark an occasion  in his life'. This leaves a certain amount of elasticity. Nowadays the person honoured may himself present a paper in his own festschrift. And  - wait for it - the one honoured  besides appearing in it himself may have planned the volume, as John Frame recently did his. J.I. Packer and the Evangelical Future is a festschrift (though it does not call itself one) that is both in honour of J. I. Packer and one that is also about JI, who also writes a thank you letter at the end.  (An earlier festschrift appeared in 1996: Doing Theology for the People of God : Studies in Honour of J.I. Packer (edd. Donald Lewis and Alister McGrath, (InterVarsity)).

The papers here were first written for a conference  celebrating J.I.Packer on his eightieth birthday, in 2006.  It is hard to believe that JI is now 83, and still going strong.  This reviewer gladly joins the authors of this book  in celebrating his remarkable ministry, and giving thanks to Almighty God  both for his gifts and the way JI has been enabled to use them.  He is an outstanding instance of perseverance in grace. A  principled, Christian gentleman to his fingertips. But, quite honestly,  I think that he could have been honoured  in a somewhat less deferential way.

The papers converge and yet diverge.  They converge on Dr Packer, or course, but diverge in topic and stance. A few seem to admire from afar. One wonders if they have managed to get under JI's skin, or rather he to get under theirs.  The papers feature his personality (Humphrey), his Calvinian emphasis in Knowing God  (Massey), his love of the Puritans (Dever), his journalism (Neff), his espousal of the theology of the Great Tradition (McGrath), his use of the past  to renew the present and the future (Hindmarsh), the place of Scripture in his theology (House), his theological method (Payne), and an English Nonconformist Perspective on Packer (Trueman). (On the cover this is described as being on Packer's English nonconformist perspective. Not quite the same thing, as becomes clear from what Trueman has to say.) One or two celebrate JI by developing themes of their own: Christianity and culture (Neuhaus) and the objectivity of truth (Charles Colson). The papers differ greatly in character, length and style.  I thought that Bruce Hindmarsh's was very instructive and insightful, and Trueman's certainly the most contentious.  Not every one  is totally deferential, for some do  venture the odd critical comment, but nothing like as trenchantly as  does Trueman, who uses the language of 'failure'.

But what struck me in general, as I read through the papers,  is that the person who is celebrated is almost  entirely  a North  American J.I.Packer.  True, there are references to his education, conversion, and pre-1979 life, and there is Trueman's analysis of the Packer - Lloyd-Jones  'split' over the Puritan Conference and the latter's call to separation, a call stoutly resisted on a point of principle by JI. (I'll say no more on this here as I have already had my innings on Trueman's paper in Helm's Deep). Nevertheless,  no contributor conveys the interest and excitement of the early Puritan Conferences, the influence of 'Fundamentalism' and the Word of God ,  Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God  and the Introduction to the reprint of John  Owen's  Death of Death.  No one discusses Knowing God   as a work of Puritan theology. No one weighs the significance of Packer on the Christian student world, or his influence as a preacher and lecturer at Conferences and  Bible rallies, or the influence upon him of the charismatic movement .  It is true that the impact of such matters seems in any case to have been  misted over by the later, North American,  Packer of Knowing God, his growing emphasis on pastoral care and spirituality, and his lauding of the Great Tradition and evangelicalism's contribution to it. Nevertheless these  earlier times are significant parts of the man, and the influence of them persists.

In the same way there is no one from within Anglicanism who attempts to form an estimate of what the blood, sweat and tears that JI has expended on the Church of England and the wider Anglican Communion, and still does, has achieved.  No one has noticed  the  importance  that,  throughout his career, JI has  attached  to the drawing up of joint statements  (for example, on inerrancy, on hermeneutics, on the Montreal Agreement, on Evangelicals and Catholics, on Anglicans and Methodists, on sexuality and ministry, and more. Indeed, as  I  was writing this review, the (somewhat controversial) Manhattan Declaration on sexuality and the family has appeared, with JI among  its signatories). No one has attempted to evaluate the impact of  such a stream of declaration-making. No one seems to have noticed  JI's penchant for sketching theology  rather than  for writing theologically in a sustained way, or his preference for responding to the  immediate rather than writing for the longer-term.

These  gaps in appreciation and assessment  may be due to the age of the contributors, but also, I imagine,  to the fact that they are mostly not English. The only other Brit besides Trueman, Alister McGrath, dons a mid-Atlantic persona, though he does mention Packer's 1955 "'Keswick' and the Reformed Doctrine of Sanctification'" (Evangelical Quarterly). (It is interesting that this paper does not appear in any of the four volumes of Packer's shorter writings.) The author of the piece on Packer's journalism seems entirely unaware of his weekly column, 'Theological  Commentary'  which appeared for several years in The Church of England Newspaper. There is no reference to this side of Packer in the otherwise valuable 40-page Bibliography of his writings at the end of the book.  (I remember that I used to get the paper just for the column: that was a  bit of a gamble because JI sometimes missed a week, sometimes two.) Donald Payne, who tackles  Packer's theological method, gets himself into a bit of a tangle over the place of inerrancy in his theology , chiefly (I imagine)  because he views things through a current North American lens. 'According to his logic, obedient discipleship is possible only if Scripture functions inerrantly'. (58) I rather doubt that, myself. (For a reason for doubting, Payne should consult his own quote from Packer reprinted in footnote 17, (236-7)).  And the idea that Packer might seriously seek to presuppose the inerrancy of Scripture as the foundation  of his theological system  is as ludicrous now as when he published 'Fundamentalism' and the Word of God   all those years ago.

My own guess (for what it is worth) is that Packer's change of place, his move to Canada ,  coincided with  a change in his state of mind. It is as if by then his polemical side had  been worn smooth, perhaps by his ostracism by separatists,  and  perhaps by exhausting and unfruitful battles within his own evangelical party in the Church of England, as McGrath hints in his biography. (To Know and Serve God; A Biography of James I.  Packer,  (London, Hodder   & Stoughton,   (1997), 217-222)). Perhaps he thought that he had achieved all he could hope to through argument. Perhaps the enormous success of Knowing God  (1973) told him something.  Whatever the explanation, there is some explaining to be done,  but no one  in this book ventures anything very much, or even hints at the need for it.

John Newton once wrote that his congregation at Olney were Calvinists without knowing what Arminianism was. In rather that spirit, on the other side of the Atlantic, Packer's Calvinism seems to have become  less craggy, less sharp, even though some of the earlier argumentative pieces have recently been reprinted. (For example, in J.I. Packer and Mark Dever, In My Place Condemned  He Stood   (Crossway, 2007.))  The gospel of sovereign grace alone through Christ alone by faith only has  tended to become  'the Reformed evangelical contribution to the Great Tradition'.  The emphasis is now hardly at all on what this contribution denies (as well as on what it affirms).  

This evaluation seems to be borne out by what Dr Packer himself says in a part of his gracious response to those who have written in his honour.   In furtherance of his long-time plea for the development of theological teaching ministry in the churches, in true Packer style he sketches a 10-point syllabus of Reformed evangelical theology. This is true evangelicalism, he says, and ought to be the staple of ministry in the church, with every minister seeing himself as a teacher. Then he adds that 'whatever hostility to the Roman Catholic and Orthodox systems evangelicals may have shown in the past and may show in the future, most if not quite all of these doctrinal fundamentals would pass muster in Roman Catholic and Orthodox circles no less than they do on evangelicals' home turf.' In view of the fact that this is J.I. Packer who is speaking, one  hesitates quite a bit  before exclaiming 'Can this be true?' Can it be true, for example, that the Orthodox warm to penal substitution and to God's two-fold will? (See Robert Letham, Through Western Eyes, (Mentor, 2007,  Ch. 11), for an interesting account of areas of agreement and disagreement between the Reformed and the Orthodox ). Can it be true that what Packer calls the heart of the Gospel  is also the heart of it for Roman Catholicism?  Is there not some wishful thinking here? He later adds that the basic difference between biblical evangelicalism and  both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodoxy is over the church as  a sacramental network. He calls that system a 'fable'. That's more like the old Packer; or rather, the young Packer. But then where's the place in such a network for justification by faith only? Even with this important caveat  about  sacramentalism,  it is obvious that anyone who aims to forge such a strong link between  Reformed evangelicalism and the Great Tradition will not be very inclined to present evangelicalism with a polemical edge.   Yet is it not often  vitally important to say what a doctrine does not imply as well as what it does?

More recently, of course,  Packer's argumentative embers have been fanned in connection with the issue of sexuality and the Christian ministry, and as a consequence of the stand  that he has taken, an  Anglican church administration in Canada  is no longer willing to recognise the validity of Packer's own  status as a minister of the gospel. It is both ironic and tragic that towards the end of a ministry that has increasingly sought to  present Reformed evangelicalism as being the true theological identity-bearer of the wider church, the hierarchy of a part of that wider church has dealt with him (and with others)  in such a cruel and unwholesome way.

Paul Helm, "Review: J.I. Packer and the Evangelical Future," Reformation21 (April 2010)

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