Saturday, March 01, 2008

'Fundamentalism' and the Word of God - Fifty years old!



Some Evangelical Principles

'Defend the Bible? I would as soon defend a lion'

It is a great pleasure for me personally to celebrate this book, for reasons that will become clear. Until Joy Horn mentioned it, I’d clean forgotten that 2008 is the book’s half-century. It was published early in 1958. Shortly before then I had made a profession of faith, and in 1959 I was due to go to Oxford. It appeared at an opportune time. Published as an unpretentious paperback, with a sticky cover, at the price of 4s 6p, or 22.5 pence, or about 45 US cents, I quickly devoured its 80,000 or so words. I believe that it fortified me for what lay ahead, and also acted as something of a model for how one should write about Christianity, and especially how to write about Christian doctrine. A model that it has proved hard to follow.

According to Alister McGrath, publishing the book brought Jim Packer into the mainstream from what before then had been a distinctively if not exclusively Puritan and Reformed tendency – the Puritan Conference, and the article ‘Keswick and the Reformed Doctrine of Sanctification’. (Alister McGrath, To Know and Serve God: A Biography of James I Packer, (London, Hodder & Stoughton, 1997, Ch. 6)) That article, published in the Evangelical Quarterly in 1955, which evidently quickly created a furore, is one which if Packer has not subsequently disowned he has certainly downplayed. It does not appear, for example, in any of the four volumes of his collected writings, and references to it are hard to find, though it was reprinted by John Doggett in the Free Grace Record some years later. Perhaps the author thinks that as the ‘Keswick’ doctrine of sanctification is dormant the article may also sleep.

But I’m not sure about this claim of McGrath’s, and I shall return to it. Of course the inspiration and authority of Scripture is a mark of evangelicalism as this term is now routinely understood; indeed, to some minds, it is the highest common denominator, uniting evangelicalism as no other doctrine does. But if we take a little time to study the way in which Packer articulates his understanding of Scripture, and where he places the stress in his exposition, then we shall hear the voice of a distinctly Reformed theologian. He, I do not doubt, regards it as all of a piece with the work he did even earlier.

At the time of publication Jim Packer taught at Tyndale Hall, Bristol. He was nearly 32, and it was his first book. It is an occasional work, and in that way it is more like a NT epistle (or John Calvin’s Institutes) than (say) the Systematic Theology of Charles Hodge. The occasion was the Billy Graham ‘campaigns’ in the UK, and the charge made by academic theologians and others was that these rallies both relied upon and promoted ‘fundamentalism’. As Packer stated more than once, the scare quotes around ‘Fundamentalism’ in the book’s title are intrinsic to understanding the character of the work. For it is not a defence of fundamentalism, nor even an exploration of fundamentalism’s relation to the Word of God, but it aims inter alia to show that what the critics of the Graham Crusades such as A.G. Hebert labelled as a ‘fundamentalistic’ attitude to Scripture is nothing other than the orthodox, historic doctrine of Holy Scripture. Because the work is not a full-dress defence of fundamentalism we find the author distancing himself from fundamentalists as soon as he can, noting ‘serious limitations in the witness which they made’. He meant the anti-intellectualism of the fundamentalists. Fundamentalism’s ‘adventures in the field of the natural sciences, especially with reference to evolution, were most unfortunate’, as was its attitude to culture and its loss of a sense of history. (32) Nevertheless, the fundamentalists’ ‘desire to defend the evangelical faith against a militant and aggressive Liberalism was equally certainly right’. (33)

So although the book was an ‘occasional’ work, called forth by a particular set of circumstances, it was more than a response to these circumstances. The author replied to the critics of Billy Graham in good measure, setting out in a clear, forceful, gentlemanly, good-natured way the classic Reformed doctrine of the authority and inspiration of Holy Scripture. He took the opportunity to offer ‘a constructive re-statement of evangelical principles’ (Foreword) and so to remind evangelicals especially in the UK (whom he perhaps feared were on the slippery slope to fundamentalism proper) what it was they believed even if they were not completely aware of the fact.

So it is, that after the two chapters spent on analysing and sifting ‘fundamentalism’, the book becomes a book of principles, and its author begins at the beginning, with the principle of authority, and with how given different starting points one naturally gets different theologies, those of subjectivism and traditionalism, which in Packer’s view sit on either side of evangelicalism. It should be borne in mind, in view of later developments, that the author all the time is here dealing with ideas and their interconnectedness, not with people or movements in the church. As we shall see, the sharpness and exclusiveness with which he delineates rival systems of religious authority do not automatically translate into sharpness of personal attitude to the people who adhere to them. For the author, distancing oneself from inadequate understanding of the inspiration and authority of Scripture does not mean in all circumstances distancing oneself from those who have these misunderstandings.

In the course of the analysis of Christian authority, the first of his evangelical principles, Packer begins to disclose his theological colours. His basic principle is that a Christian doctrine of something is to be identical with Christ’s (and the apostles’) doctrine of it.

Christianity is an historical religion, and had an historical Founder, whose teaching all Christian profess to regard as normative. The authentic Christian position on any subject, therefore, will be that which corresponds to what He taught. (51)
We must be clear as to the nature of our task. Our aim is to formulate a biblical doctrine; we are to appeal to Scripture for information about itself, just as we should appeal to it for information on any other doctrinal topic. That means that our formulation will certainly not give us a final or exhaustive account of its subject. All doctrines terminate in mystery; for they deal with the works of God, which man in this world cannot fully comprehend, nor has God been pleased fully to explore. (75-6)
Packer develops this not only in terms of Christ’s and the Apostles’ teaching, (Ch.3) but also of Scripture’s account of itself. And so it is that the evangelical method, in comparison to the method of the Christian subjectivist or traditionalist, is the most consistently Christian. He is careful to note that the evangelical account of Christian authority is not merely a stick to beat others with, it is one which, naturally enough, evangelicals themselves are subject to. (70f.) Those who teach others not to steal should not themselves steal.

Earlier I said that in the book Packer reveals himself not only as a defender of evangelicalism, but as a distinctively Reformed defender of it. This becomes clear in the course of developing these matters at some length. I shall begin by briefly noting three of these features. Others will follow.

First, taking his cue from B.B. Warfield, he notes that the evangelical view of Scripture implies a reformed view of divine providence. Writing of those who believe that a revelation delivered by sinful and ignorant human beings must itself be imperfect he states

But this is to deny the biblical doctrine of providence, according to which God ‘worketh all things after the counsel of his own will’. The Bible excludes the idea of a frustrated Deity. ‘Whatsoever the Lord pleased, that did he in heaven, and in earth’. He was well able to prepare, equip and overrule human writers so that they wrote nothing but what He intended; and the Scripture tells us that this is what in fact he did. We are to think of the Spirit’s inspiring activity, and, for that matter, of all His regular operations in and upon human personality, as (to use an old but valuable technical term) concursive; that is, as exercised in, through and by means of the writers’ own activity, in such a way that their thinking and writing was both free and spontaneous on their part and divinely elicited and controlled, and what they wrote was not only their own work but also God’s work. (80)

Second, Packer places emphasis upon propositional revelation. Even in 1958 this was an unfashionable notion even amongst evangelicals, more so today. Packer deals with it with customary wisdom. God reveals himself both by what he does and by what he teaches, by what he teaches about what he does. In Scripture we are presented not merely God’s mighty acts, but a divinely authorised commentary upon these. (92)

Not that the text of Scripture is made up entirely of formal doctrinal statements; of course, it is not…In fact Scripture is an organism, a complex, self-interpreting whole, its theology showing the meaning of the events and experiences which it records, and the events and experiences showing the outworking of the theology in actual life. All these items have their place in the total system of biblical truth. (94)

Third, the author reveals himself as a Reformed theologian by insisting on the self-interpreting character of Scripture, a matter which seems worth emphasising at the present time, given the tendency of some to interpret Scripture in the light of Second Temple Judaism or of the existence of Ancient Near Eastern parallels to the Old Testament. Dealing with biblical interpretation, Packer insists first that Scripture should be interpreted in its literal, that is, its intended sense (105-6), and then noting that (if the Scripture principle is to be maintained consistently) Scripture should be used to interpret Scripture. He says

Scripture must interpret Scripture; the scope and significance of one passage is to be brought out by relating it to others….The Reformers termed this principle the analogy of Scripture; the Westminster Confession states it thus: ‘The infallible rule of interpretation of scripture is the scripture itself; and therefore, when there is a question about the truth and full sense of any scripture, it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly’. This is so in the nature of the case, since the various inspired books are dealing with complementary aspects of the same subject. The rule means that we must give ourselves in Bible study to following out the unities, cross-references and topical links which Scripture provides. (106)

He also has sharp things to say about the ecumenical practice of papering over the cracks in the interests of peace and unity.

Nothing is gained just by trying to cement up the cracks; that only encourages the collapse of the entire wall. Sham unity is not worth working for, and real unity, that fellowship of love in the truth which Christ prayed that His disciples might enjoy, will come only as those sections of the wall which rest on unsound foundations are dismantled and rebuilt. Till this happens, the question of authority must remain central in discussions between the dissident groups; and the best service one can do to the divided Church of Christ is to keep it there. (45)

These last words make it easy to see how the doctrine of the authority of Scripture formed and fed one main trajectory of Packer’s subsequent theological career; other books, (such as God Has Spoken (1965, 1979) other papers, (Volume 3 of his Collected Shorter Writings contains 22 of these), and public statements such as the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978).) These filled out Packer’s articulation of the doctrine of the inspiration and authority of Scripture and of the hermeneutics implied by it.

So how are we to receive Scripture as the word of God? By faith, Packer says, but not by a leap of faith. Rather faith in the Word of God itself, based upon the internal evidence that it is the Word of God, including faith in what Scripture says about itself. Faith is trust in God and in what he has said. Here is Packer adopting another distinctively Reformed, indeed specifically Calvinian, stance. As Calvin saw reliance upon Scripture as the word of God as an aspect of faith in the promises of God, so does Packer. As Calvin focuses upon the self-testifying character of Scripture, so does Packer. As Calvin emphasises the work of the Spirit in clearing the mind of sinful resistance and misapprehension to the teaching of Scripture, so does Packer. As Calvin stresses the objective truth of Scripture, notwithstanding our own and others’ sinful resistance to it, so does Packer. (120-1)

This last point, that the Scripture is objectively true whether we like it or not, is particularly important in a culture which is increasingly subjectivist, and so it is worth quoting what the author says..

Not that the divine character of the Word which mediates His self-disclosure to men is not objectively clear. Scripture conceives of the divine character of revealed truth as something which evidences itself to the sound mind as clearly as do light and colour to the normal eye. But man’s mental ‘eyes’ are blind through sin, and he can discern no part of God’s truth till the Spirit opens them. Inner illumination, leading directly as it does to a deep, inescapable conviction, is thus fundamental to the Spirit’s work as a teacher. (118)

The Spirit’s work is ‘a healing of spiritual faculties, a restoring to man of a permanent receptiveness towards divine things, a giving and sustaining of power to recognize and receive divine utterances for what they are’. (119)

So, if the Spirit works in these ways, ‘Why is it’, Packer asks,

that any Christian should ever deviate frpm the Bible’s view of itself? The same question arises in connection with unscriptural views of any doctrine. It does not seem hard to answer. Christians fall into mental error, partly through mistaking or overlooking what Scripture teaches, partly through having their minds prepossessed with unbiblical notions so that they cannot take scriptural statements seriously. (123)

I believe that these words, and the section of the book from which they are drawn, must have been overlooked by many of Packer’s subsequent critics, at least those who have accused him of inconsistency. They also give us reason for thinking that Alister McGrath is somewhat mistaken in seeing the writing and publication of ‘Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God as the ‘coming out’ of Packer into the evangelical mainstream (as opposed to paddling along the Puritan and Reformed creek). Packer always saw himself as being in the evangelical mainstream, indeed as being in the Anglican mainstream.

If the views that he expresses here had been kept in mind, then what happened subsequently, when there was a parting of the ways regarding the Puritan Conference and a questioning Packer’s bona fides as an organiser of and participant in the Conferences, events that have been subsequently long pored over, their interpretation passionately contested, would not have come as a great surprise.

Packer’s argument is this: Christians, those united to Christ and regenerated by his Spirit, may nonetheless be in mental error, even serious mental error. Nevertheless, Packer say, a person may be a Christian still.

Heretical notions may occupy Christian men’s heads, leading to error of thought and practice and spiritual impoverishment; but these notions cannot control their hearts. As regenerate men, it is their nature to be better than the unscriptural parts of their creed would allow. Hence they are inconsistent; it is good that they are. In this case, Christians in the liberal camp have adopted a position which logically makes reason, and not Scripture, their final authority. But just because they are Christians and have the witness of the Spirit, it is not in their nature to follow this anti-Christian principle to its logical conclusion – which would be to dismiss as incredible all that is incomprehensible, and so to deny the whole Christian faith. Regenerate men can never do that. Hence we find that they are in practice inconsistent. (124)
A person may be regenerate yet due to mental error he may deny the inspiration and authority of Holy Scripture in theory though not in practice, or not altogether in practice. As a result of the regenerating work of the Spirit his practice is better than his theory. If this is so, and if I am in a church in which such people are present, present even in influential positions, I may not separate from them, and I may even have a duty not to separate from them. This seems to be Packer’s argument. The counter-argument is: those who in responsible teaching positions in a Christian Church deny the fundamental doctrine of the authority and inspiration of Holy Scripture, may be separated from, or must be separated from, even if separating from them requires me to separate from that church.

It has been said that around 1965 there was a ‘shift in the thinking’ of Packer and others regarding their position in the Church of England, (Iain H. Murray, Evangelicalism Divided, Banner of Truth, 2000, 88. ) The available evidence for such a change is not persuasive. If we make a distinction between strategy and tactics, then Packer’s strategy of remaining in the Church of England as a loyal member was based, among other things, upon his theology of regeneration and mental error, a doctrine which, incidentally, he shared with favourites of his such as John Owen and Jonathan Edwards. His tactics may have changed, of course, as he came to hold a position of influence in the Church of England and as the issue of Anglican-Methodist unity loomed, and as he sought to deploy his influence in these talks and other related issues to what he believed was the maximum effect.

One reason for misunderstanding Packer’s position in ‘Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God may be that he places great store in his book by the writings of J.G. Machen. Like Packer himself, Machen was respectful of the stance of the fundamentalists without being one himself. Packer has a high opinion of Machen’s analysis of theological liberalism in his Christianity and Liberalism, which ‘crystallized the issues at stake in their broadest implications with a judicious mastery that cannot be too highly praised’. (25)

And the book ends with a rallying cry from Machen, ‘Let us not fear the opposition of men…Of course the gospel of Christ, in a world of sin and doubt, will cause disputing…..Conventions have been broken down; men are trying to penetrate beneath pious words to the thing that these words designate….God grant that great questions of principle may never rest until they are settled right!’ (177, quoted from Machen’s What is Faith?) But Machen was, of course, a secessionist par excellence, plotting a course that eventally forced him out of his church. It became clear, and should have been clear from the start, that Packer was not tarred with the same brush.

Naturally, it is not my purpose here to try to arbitrate between these views of what happened some time after the publication of the book we are celebrating but simply to note that Packer’s position later on is consistent with his view in the 1950’s. He cannot be accused of inconsistency, nor of shifting his position over time, say over the Anglican-Methodist talks in which he sided with Anglo-Catholics in the Church of England, in Growing into Union and elsewhere. Though no doubt, as with us all, unfolding events which it is impossible to anticipate mould the particular ways in which our views are shaped and the occasions on which they are given expression. However, even with all this in mind, I rather doubt that in 1958 Packer could have envisaged the sort of cooperation with some Roman Catholic friends that he now advocates.

The chapter on faith is one of two on how the doctrine of Holy Scripture is, and is to be appropriated in the Christian church. The other chapter is on reason. Let us turn to that, in which Packer continues to handle the question of how the one authoritative Word of God is to be received, but as one who is also aware of the charge of anti-intellectualism that had been raised against so-called ‘fundamentalists’ in the UK.

There is a sense in which for the author this is the heart of the matter; the criticism, if true would be ‘damning’. (127) ‘All truth is God’s truth; facts, as such, are sacred, and nothing is more un-Christian than to run away from them’. (127) Packer’s response is to return the compliment of anti-intellectualism to the critics. It is they who have ‘failed to meet the claims of Christian reason’. (127) The reason of a Christian man is to be employed in the service of his faith.

Christian reason functions in multiple ways: it receives the Word of God in a mindful, not a mindless way, subjecting itself to its divine teachers, Word and Spirit. In this area, especially, the Christian has in mind the mysterious character of divine revelation, so he must think in such a way as to conserve this. He uses reason to receive the facts as they are, not to criticise it for not telling us what we want to know, or for not being ‘reasonable’ by applying a standard of reason that he brings to the text, and properly brings to fallible human texts, rather than receives from it. Above all, Christian reason receives the Word of God as divine testimony, nothing less. We are to use our minds to distil the teaching of Scripture, and to apply it to life. ‘Theology must function as the queen of the sciences, showing us how to approach, interpret and use all our knowledge in such a way that the secular order is sanctified to the glory of God’. (131)

Packer develops these ideas partly in critique of his fellow evangelicals, with their tendency to withdraw from the world, even from the world of learning, into ‘spirituality’. (133) But ‘The biblical revelation is given us, not merely to show us how to gain heaven, but also to provide us with the principles for glorifying God by creative and imaginative living here and now’. (135) Finally, Christian reason is to be used in the communication of the faith. (137)

But what if reason and faith clash? For Packer this is a rather unfortunately phrased question. Reason and faith clash not as a result of the operation of ‘pure’ reason, but when some way is sought of allying faith and secular reasoning, or more strongly, of bringing faith into line with secular reasoning. The human mind has been affected by sin – indeed sin has its root in the mind – and always wanting the last word, as we do, is not merely an intellectual mistake but a moral lapse. Reason must, then, be freed by Christ. (143). Packer here reveals himself as being in the Augustinian ‘Faith Seeking Understanding’ tradition. The book’s last chapter, in which Packer returns to the issue of theological liberalism and its true character, is dated in its details but not in its main thrust, looking once more at the nature of the controversy which led Packer to write his book.

Some, I know, are glad that this book was followed by Knowing God, Keep in Step with the Spirit and the like. For my part, I prefer the Packer of Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, ‘”Keswick” and the Reformed Doctrine of Sanctification’ (1955), ‘What did the Cross Achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution’ (1974), and his ‘Introductory Essay’ to John Owen’s The Death of Death (1959). Above all, I prefer the Packer of ‘Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God. I hope that you’ll join with me in celebrating its 50th birthday.

This is a draft of the text of a lunchtime lecture to be given at the Evangelical Library on Monday 10th March