I’ve no axe to grind on this, as I was brought up an evangelical Baptist (Baptist Union, y'know) though now for family reasons attend an Anglican congregation. Years ago I wrote publicly against the fruits of Dr Packer’s involvement in the Anglican-Methodist discussions.
One reason for putting together this piece is to redress the present imbalance that may arise as a result of the state of the of evidence. Dr Lloyd-Jones is dead, and his several defenders have access to the full range of his correspondence. Dr Packer is alive, and quite naturally his personal correspondence, and maybe other documents, are not available in the same way, even though as we shall see there are published fragments of letters and addresses. The second reason is that somewhat surprisingly, as far as I know, Packer has never published an account of his own outlook specifically addressed to those who were and are pained by his stance. If there is such an account I’d be pleased to know of it. (The nearest I think he comes to doing this is his booklet A Kind of Noah’s Ark, (Latimer House, 1981)) Iain Murray notes that Packer addressed the Westminster Fellowship, 21st March 1966, where he put the case for involvement in the Anglican ecumenical agenda. (The Fight of Faith, 515-6) He said
Am I separated from my friends in a way which is needless and which could be remedied? I am not sure that I am. Though we agree on essentials, there are other points on which we are divided...I do not see how the facts of the case can be met except by evangelicals maintaining fellowship while at the same time [continuing in] different denominational alignments.
When Dr Packer responded to Dr Lloyd Jones’s’ letter telling him of the decision of three of the organising committee members to stop the Puritan Conference because of Packer’s involvement with Anglo-Catholics in the writing of Growing into Union, this is part of what he wrote back
I naturally regret that you and David and John have felt bound to take this line, but I recognise it as one more application of the principles of co-operation which you have been advocating so strongly in recent years (and which, as you know, have never convinced me)...My respect for you and my gratitude for what God has given me through you in the past remains undimmed. (Quoted in Iain Murray, Lloyd-Jones: Messenger of Grace, 207)
I believe it is possible to offer a perfectly understandable explanation of this failure to be convinced, one that is in line with full Christian integrity, but it rests on grounds that are somewhat unfamiliar to the people who level the charge of compromise: How can a man organise a Puritan conference and not himself be a Puritan? What follows is very largely a defence of J.I. Packer’s position vis-à-vis Anglicanism to the extent that it attempts to convey the coherence and strength of that position as (I believe) he sees it, and the bearing that these reasons have on ‘principles of co-operation’. In the next post I shall make some remarks on these reasons.
Wherever possible I use Dr Packer's own published words. I think it is fair to say that he presently sees Anglicanism as his least worst option, and that he can see equally sincere and informed Christian people disagreeing with him. I shall offer my account under a number of headings: the nature and advantages of Anglicanism; the character of Puritanism; the effect of the Enlightenment upon theology and upon connexional Protestant denominations; and finally, Packer’s understanding of the relationship between regeneration and being in error.
Packer’s loyalty to the Church of England has been undeviating, a loyalty which has historic precedents, and which many of Packer’s non-Anglican friends simply accepted without agreeing with (or arguing over) before the appearance of Growing into Union, and the consequences that it triggered. It is, I think. hard for a non-Anglican to appreciate the grip of the Anglican ethos.
I am an Anglican not so much by sentiment or affection as by conviction,,,,,I cannot say that I ever particularly liked the Church of England as I found it, but I remain an Anglican out of conviction that here is the right place, for here I possess the truest, wisest and potentially richest heritage in all Christendom. (The Thirty Nine Articles: Their Place and Use Today (Latimer House, 1984, Preface).
I maintain that a man with his eyes open to the full range of Anglican doctrinal pluralism may yet responsibly choose to be an Anglican, even an Anglican minister, though it may be a hard-made decision bringing misery as well as fulfilment. I do not maintain (I had better say this outright) that choosing to be an Anglican is a virtue, or that choosing not to be one or not to stay one is a vice. Choice, we saw, is necessary, and anyone may conclude that, rather than be Anglican, Methodist, Baptist Union or United Reformed (all which bodies are doctrinally mixed), he should join one of the smaller groups (Brethren, Pentecostals, Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches, Reformed Baptists, Free Church of Scotland, etc.) which debar from the ranks of their teachers anyone holding ‘critical’ views of Scripture or rejecting major evangelical tenets. To be sure, some think these smaller bodies purchase doctrinal purity at the price of theological stagnation, and are cultural backwaters out of touch with society around, just as some think Anglican allegiance is an unholy identification with cultural privilege, ecclesiastical worldliness and theological indifferentism. But these matters are arguable both ways, and neither estimate need be accepted. More important is respect for the other man’s deliberate decision, whether or not it coincides with your own. (A Kind of Noah’s Ark. Latimer House, 1981. Note that the digitalised version used here is unfortunately not paginated. Emphasis added. )
The key to his analysis is his understanding of the comprehensiveness of the Church of England. Historically speaking, that Church was held together by the Creeds, the Articles and the Prayer Book (each variously understood) and a commitment to the norms of Scripture, tradition and reason (also variously understood). The Prayer Book and the Articles have each been moved into the shadows. So what is comprehensiveness? Packer notes an 'enormous gap’ that has opened between the older Anglicanism by liberal and critical theology within the Church of England. He identifies
a worldwide crop of Christian reconstructionists, all starting from a non-incarnational view of Jesus, all working with a unitarian idea of God seasoned with more or less of process-theology, all claiming that modern secular knowledge makes their type of view the only one possible, and all vigorously offsetting themselves from the categories and content of traditional belief. Many Anglicans, leading scholars among them, are in this camp. (Ark)
Evangelicals perceive that much of the exploring is done on the basis of the academic freedom which all scholars outside Communist countries claim - that is, freedom to follow the argument wherever it seems to lead and to publish novel notions, hypothetically held, to see how the scholarly world reacts to them. Also, evangelicals perceive that if in the course of these explorations real fundamental heresy is put out, wittingly or unwittingly, more benefit comes to the church from public analysis and refutation (as when Paul trounced the Galatian and Colossian heresies, and Augustine the Pelagian heresy, and John Owen the Socinian heresy) than from any use of the big stick on the offending author. (Ark)
They [evangelicals] do not passively accept all the disorder they find. Nor do they accept that they are guilty by association of the errors they oppose (a nonsense notion, which has been given an unhappy airing during the past two decades); nor do they accept that they are settling for a situation in which no doctrinal discipline operates. They urge, rather, that discipline (which means training - Latin, disciplina) is in Scripture a primarily pastoral concept, and that the kind of pastorally-oriented controversy in which they engage is the basic form of discipline in the doctrinal realm. (Ark)
In effect, Packer proceeds to argue that in an age of academic freedom one either separates from heretics, or (in connexional congregations) takes them to the church courts, or maintains one’s own position vis a vis them in mutual tolerance.
However, the idea of a choice that must be made but which might equally be made one way as well as the opposite way, and part of the grounds of that choice being a principle of toleration grounded on human fallibility and ignorance, does not by itself seem a very strong ground for adhering to comprehensiveness. Packer supports it by other arguments.
The bulk of those who supported and attended the Puritan Conference, being independents (Baptists, mostly, but some Congregationalists), and some Presbyterians and of course a few Anglicans, saw the history of Puritanism as linear and progressive. As they see it, from the period from the Elizabethan Settlement to the Commonwealth, Puritanism became more and more itself, it got better and better. From being a reforming party in the Church of England it became Presbyterian and Congregationalist in ecclesiastical outlook. The 1662 ejection simply underlined the correctness of this view, for here the Church of England turned its back on Puritanism, and a chasm opened up between Anglicanism and Dissent.
Packer does not share this analysis. For him a Puritan is what used to be called a ‘doctrinal Puritan’, one who is soteriogically a Calvinist with a distinctive view of pastoral care. William Gurnall or Joseph Hall or Ezekiel Hopkins were all equally as much Puritans as were William Perkins or Thomas Goodwin or Anthony Tuckney. (If you did not know that Ezekiel Hopkins was Bishop of Londonderry you would not learn it from what he wrote.) Puritanism could co-exist with Laudian Arminianism if allowed to, just as George Whitfield was able to continue as a clergyman in the Church of England that contained virtual deists.)
Packer titled one of his pen portraits of Lloyd Jones ‘A Kind of Puritan’. You get the implication? In it he says of Dr Lloyd Jones ‘Regarding me as latter-day Puritan (which I took, as I was meant to do, to be a compliment), he once told me that I was not a real Anglican, and predicted with some distress that my fellow Anglicans would not accept me’. ((‘D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones: A Kind of Puritan’ in J.I. Packer, Collected Shorter Writings, 4.65)
Packer goes on
The Puritans did not differ much in their ultimate goal, nor in their theological principles, nor in their sense of the urgency of action against scandalous things, not in their judgement that the honour of God and the welfare of Christians were always directly bound up with the current state of the church; but they frequently differed among themselves as to when and in what form action to remedy abuses and reinforce righteousness could best be taken. It would thus be misleading to generalize about them as if at each stage one group and one line of action have more right to be called Puritan than another – Presbyterian national-churchmen opposing toleration, for instance, rather than Independent gathered-churchmen supporting it, or vice versa.
Yet he [Dr Lloyd-Jones], with historians generally, was surely right when he view these as divisions (over Separatisim and non-Separatism) within a body of people whose common outlook on basics made it proper to call them all Puritans, whether they were so called in their own day or note. This is my own point exactly. (71)
It is implied that this historical analysis was not shared by some in their understanding of how and why the Puritan Conference was organised.
For all his love for the Puritans, in Packer’s view the church-political situation has become even more complex since the influence of the Enlightenment on the churches. This led to destructively critical methods of Bible study, the narrowing of the work of Christ to that of a teacher of ethics, and as a consequence the message of the liberal wing of Protestantism was largely a liberal-ethical one. He saw that what historic evangelicals, such as himself, and the Anglo-Catholics had in common was an anti-Enlightenment stance, a stance against liberal and pragmatic churchmanship. Together they held to the historic creeds and to the authority of Scripture, the 'Great Tradition', even though they had important theological differences. In other words, for Dr Packer there is a theological issue of some consequence at stake here. This might be stated as follows: wherever possible, in the Church of England I should cohere with and make common cause with those who hold to the historic conciliar views of the godhead and the person of Christ against those who ignore or reject those views.
So he celebrates the ‘happy fact’
that within the past thirty years the previously felt convictional and kerygmatic gap between the more conservative evangelicals and the more conservative anglo-catholics has shrunk.
It is in the context of a comprehensiveness with very wide limits that Packer argues that it is important not to miss the force of this reasoning by falling victim
to the sectarian idea, sometimes met, that evangelicalism, being Christianity at its purest, ought to practice self-sufficiency in theology, taking nothing from the mixed bag of Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglo-Catholic and liberal Protestant thought on the grounds that nothing in that bag can help evangelicals in the least. Were this idea sound, the case for patience with the intermittently heterodox would be less strong; but the idea is not sound. I for one regard the evangelicalism outlined in the opening paragraphs of this essay as the purest Christianity that the world has seen since apostolic times, and in that sense I affirm Christianity to be evangelicalism and vice versa. But it does not follow that adherents of other mutations of Christianity, mutations which seem less close overall to the spirit, belief and thrust of the New Testament, have nothing to teach me on this or that particular point - nothing, that is, which I could not have learned from some evangelical source. Nor does it follow that I serve God best by assuming there are no new truths, or new applications of truth, that wait to break forth from his holy Word, so that as a teacher in the church I need only repeat traditional evangelical positions and I shall have done my job. The truth is rather this: Theology is an ongoing corporate enterprise which in principle involves the whole church. It is an enterprise through which everyone’s under- standing of what God has revealed is again and again enlarged. It proceeds by dialogue with past and present attempts to spell out that revelation, dialogue through which Scripture actually evaluates the various attempts made to expound it. We all need to examine and re-examine by Scripture whether our own traditions, as well as those of others, are true and adequate (two questions, not just one); and the late B. B. Warfield, as doughty a Reformed traditionalist as the world has seen, was right when he said in conversation that the theologian must be like the busy bee, always moving around gathering raw material for honey from all sorts of flowers. (Ark)
The rank and file of those ministers who attended the Puritan Conference typically did not seek theological allies and theological enlightenment beyond those who were like-minded, other pastors of independent or independently-minded congregations seeking to promote their health and their extension through faithful Bible-ministry and pastoral oversight. Independency means local autonomy and a considerable self-sufficiency (in the best sense, of course). In such churches, the sense of continuity with the historic church, going back to the patristic and conciliar eras is in my experience not strong. Nor is the view that local congregations are part of one holy, catholic and apostolic church. Rather, the strength of such separatism is the freedom is gives to the pulpit to preach the gospel. The weakness is the danger of sectarianism. Dr Lloyd-Jones seems to have reinforced this rather sectarian tendency, for his public attention (whatever his private sentiments may have been) was given exclusively to the Reformation, to Puritanism, and to the Evangelical Awakening and its bearing on current evangelicalism. Trinitarian and Christological orthodoxy was taken for granted, and not dwelt upon, it being forgotten, perhaps, that this heritage has, as a matter of historical fact, been passed on in part through church authority and by Christian brethren of a very different kind than that espoused by evangelical independency.
There is a difference in perspective, then, and always has been, between Packer and his non-Anglican friends, those who used to invite him to preach, who read his books with relish, who attended rallies and conferences at which he spoke, and who came away both nodding and shaking their heads. Someone in Packer’s position, an evangelical Anglican in a comprehensive church who (at the same time) shuns pietistic withdrawal will be involved in ecclesiastical affairs more than is an independent pastor ever could be.
Regeneration and mental error
In his early work ‘Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God, (IVP 1958) Packer asks why it is
that any Christian should ever deviate form 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 subsequently 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, an Anglican Puritan, as being in the Anglican mainstream. In the Christian life there are points at which the head may go ahead of the heart, and points at which the heart may go ahead of the head. A person who is a Christian may have moral besetting sins which throw him off balance, so he may have intellectual besetting sins.
This piece has already gone on for long enough. In the next Taking a Line I shall try to assess these arguments, and then take a look at the infamous ‘split’ from another perspective.
(I’m grateful to Martin Downes and Melvin Tinker for pieces of information and sources which helped me in preparing this piece. They are in no way responsible for the result, of course.)