The Gentle Temeraire

The Gentle Temeraire

One of the most famous of J.M.W. Turner's paintings is The Fighting Temeraire.  It portrays a magnificent British battleship being towed into harbor to be broken up.   The juxtaposition of the huge sail-powered vessel being pulled to its fate by a small, steam-powered tugboat projects numerous messages: the passing of a great era; the impotence of a previously mighty ship of war at the hands of other, lesser vessels; the ambiguities of progress; the relentless march of age and the redundancy it brings in its wake; the sad nostalgia for an age which is passing before one's eyes.  The painting reveals the power of the Temeraire even as it indicates that that power is now all spent as it is dragged to its awful fate by the ugly vessel of a smaller, more prosaic age.

I was reminded of the painting last year when visiting Dr. J.I. Packer at Regent College.   As I wandered around the college, seeing the names of the faculty on the doors, I wondered how many of today's evangelical theologians truly honour Dr. Packer's theology in anything but name.  For how many of them, I wondered, is he less of a living, relevant force and more of a nostalgic throwback to bygone age, a kind of gentle Temeraire, succeeded, surrounded and supplanted by more modern but less magnificent, smaller, more prosaic vessels.    

His latest book, Weakness is the Way, is a case in point. It is a fine volume; but I wonder how may of us will really take seriously its message.  This brief volume offers some reflections on 2 Corinthians, Paul's letter of weakness.  As a man in his late eighties, Packer is physically weak and becoming weaker by the day.  It makes him perfectly positioned to write such a book.   A younger man, even a man on the cusp of middle age, will probably not have the sensitivity to his own decline that comes naturally to one in his eighties. Dr. Packer clearly feels the gently encroaching presence of his own mortality, as is made clear in the moving video which Crossway have made to promote the book.  

This work speaks eloquently of how God uses weakness; and, indeed, of how Christians are to make themselves weak in order for God to be shown to be truly strong.   Herein lies the difference between the much-trumpeted theology of the cross and a theologian of the cross.  A theology of the cross can simply be a way of thinking, an intellectual technique; as such it can ironically be found on the lips of a theologian of glory if it is simply his sales pitch, his means of drawing attention to himself, of honing a hip patois.   Recent days have indeed seen the theology of the cross used by some as a kind of triumphalism; yet for Packer, as for Paul and for Luther, it is a means of seeing through present pain and affliction and the existentially painful contradictions of life to the glories of the resurrection - glories which are real despite their utter invisibility to human experience here and now.  A theologian of the cross combines a cross-shaped way of thinking with a cross-shaped way of living, not escaping from pain and weakness but looking through such and that only by God-given faith.   

The book is a devotional gem.  It is also a reminder that perhaps the most important voices in the church are not those of the young and the beautiful, of the middle aged who cannot accept that their teenage years are behind them, least of all of the Twittocrats who can reduce any profound and subtly beautiful truth to 140 banal and clichéd characters; instead, they are the voices of the old and the weak who know whereof they speak when it comes to the cross and suffering and weakness.

I am glad my children grew up in churches with a spread of ages, where they were familiar from infancy with the awesome power of the aging process to reduce seemingly immortal frames to frail impotence.   Churches which do not acknowledge or understand that process have drunk deeply of the spirit of this present age.  And I am glad that Dr. Packer is still alive to offer his wisdom to those of us who still  wish to listen to the great Christians of an era that too many think of as bygone.