Friday, July 31, 2020

J I. Packer 1926-2020

J.I.Packer, 1926 - 2020

By now the news of the death of Jim Packer has circled the globe. He was a Christian gentleman, and a great theological figure. Striking to look at, softly spoken, with every word worth attention, he was remarkable. In a class by himself. He seemed to have boundless knowledge, an appreciation of Christian theological resources and of its wisdom. For much of his time in England, his influence spanned evangelicalism, both Anglicanism and Dissent.

Throughout his life Packer was a convinced Anglican, and the strength of his adherence to the Church of England was routinely underestimated. Early on he wrote,

’I am an Evangelical Christian. I hold that Prayer Book Evangelicalism expresses the authentic Anglican outlook, and that the task of Evangelicals in the Church of England is no more – and no less – than to present to one Church its true self’.(Discipulus, the student magazine of Tyndale Hall.)

Even the great Martyn Lloyd-Jones thought it was possible to turn him, and when the Puritan Conference, an annual gathering of ministers which was originally founded by Packer and his friend Raymond Johnston, was abruptly terminated, it was as much because of exasperation from non-Anglican ministers as on any other factor. They cold not comprehend Packer’s efforts in the conversations of the Church of England and Methodist churches to unite. In his chapter on Lloyd-Jones, his fellow Welshman and a sometime deacon of Westminster Chapel, Gaius Davies, says

Dr Lloyd Jones wrote to Packer to say there would be no Puritan Conference at Westminster Chapel in December 1970. It was effectively rather klike being sent a Papal Bull, even though it did not excommunicate Packer. Thankfully Packer survived what many of us still feel was very scurvy treatment by Lloyd-Jones and his like-minded colleagues. (Gaius Davies, Genius, Grief and Grace, Second edition, 2001, 366)

There are two papers of Packer on Dr Lloyd – Jones, each of them laudatory. The second shorter than the first, ends with these words

To  have known him was a supreme privilege, for which I shall always be thankful…..He embodied and expressed ‘the glory’ – the glory of God, of Christ, of grace, of the gospel, of the Christian ministry, of humanness according to the new creation – more richly than any man I have ever known. No man can give another aa greater gift than a vision of such glory as this. I am forever in his debt. (David Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in Honouring the People of God, Volume 2 of Collected Shorter Writings of J.I.Packer, 1985,  (Paternoster 1990), 87.

 Not a sour grape.

In his student years he had encountered 'by chance' a set of the writings of John Owen in the basement of the Northgate Hall, where the Oxford Christian met.. He was attracted by Owen's writings on indwelling sin and temptation in volume 6 chimed with Packer's self=knowledge as a new Christian, rather than that of  the Keswick preachers and their followers which were useless in the face of his own failings. This was one impetus in the beginning of the Puritans at that time.

 An early paper of Packer’s showed his desire to keep the Reformed faith in front of his fellow Christians was in his article ‘“Keswick” and the Reformed Doctrine of Sanctification’, The Evangelical Quarterly, 1955, showing that the view of the Christian life sponsored by the Keswick Convention was a form of perfectionism,  of sanctification by faith. ‘Keswick teaching is Pelagian through and through', he said,  (author’s italics). and it was not that of the Reformed view of lifelong of indwelling sin and progressive sanctification. It is strange that Packer has never re-produced this powerful piece, though it was later reprinted in the Free Grace Record (now defunct), a Particular Baptist magazine edited by John Doggett. Maybe because Packer later thought that the Keswick movement has moved away from adherence to this perfectionism. His paper certainly alarmed some of his contemporaries. At the time he taught in Tyndale Hall.

He was of course instrumental in beginning educating his generation in the Reformed faith, not only to fellow-Anglicans, but what might be called Protestant Dissenters. Many of them relished his preaching to them and his writings. This was from the time he published a new translation of Luther’s Bondage of the Will with his friend Raymond Johnston in 1957. In it he was not shy to mention that

These things need to be pondered by Protestants to-day. With what right may we call ourselves children of the Reformation? Much modern Protestantism would be neither owned or even recognized by the pioneer Reformers.The Bondage of the Will fairly sets before us what they believed about the salvation of lost mankind . In the light of it, we are forced to ask whether Protestant Christendom has tragically sold its birthright between Luther’s day and our own. Has not Protestantism today become more Erasmian than Lutheran? Do we not too often try to minimise and gloss over doctrinal differences for the sake of inter-party peace? (59-60)

The Bondage of the Will was quickly followed by his ’Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God in 1958. (The inverted commas were an essential  part of the title , he used to say.) The book was not a defence of Fundamentalism, but a defence of the classic view of Scripture, that it Is God’s inspired and infallible word. This was the first of many publications of the inspiration and infallibility of Scripture throughout his life. But in his 1958 book, beside this, there were chapters on the theme of faith and reason, with chapters on ‘Fundamentalism’, Authority, Scripture, Faith, Reason,  and Liberalism. But more than this, a treatment of the classical ‘faith seeks understanding’ position of the place of the human mind in the articulation of revealed divine wisdom and grace. I have often wondered that non-Anglicans who devoured the pages, (as I did, aged 18) without noting  his Anglicanism. The book displayed the virtues of his theological writing, clear, succinct, identifying one argument after another in defence of his view, and careful application to the readers. If, noting  the number of references to J.G.Machen in it, readers assumed that the author was in favour of ecclesiastical separatism from the influences of liberalism, as was Machen. But that was far from being Packer’s position. Packer the Anglican shows through.

In the course of writing positively about Calvin’s view that confidence in the Bible was a gift of the Holy Spirit he has this to say

The evangelical certainty of the trustworthiness and authority of Scripture is of exactly the same basis as the Church’s  certainty of the Trinity, or the incarnation  or any other Catholic doctrine. God has declared it; Scripture embodies it; the Spirit  exhibits it to believers; and they humbly receive it, as they are bound to do..... continued Unscriptural ideas in our theology are like germs in our system. They tend only to  weaken and destroy life, and their effect is always damaging, more or less. But they provoke resistance. Heretical notions may occupy Christian men’s heads, leading to error of thought and practice and spiritual impoverishment; but these notions cannot wholly control their hearts….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 regenerate and have the witness of the Spirit. It is not in their nature to follow this anti-Christian principle to its logical conclusion…..' (passages taken from 122-4)

Here is a difference from separatism, an important one, that expressed itself in differences in the level of the toleration of other people. A separatist, such as J.G.Machen or Dr Lloyd-Jones, hah less toleration of others labeled Christian than had current Anglicanism, whose limits of toleration are wider. The limit of Packer’s toleration can be seen later. Packer’s and Lloyd Jones’s differences could have been foretold from these passages, first published in 1958.

Packer set out his view of Scripture at greater length in God Has Spoken (enlarged, 1979), and  later in Volume 3 of his Shorter Writings, Honouring the Written Word of God. It has 23 chapters of papers and lectures devoted to that theme. 

During  these years, the Banner of Truth Trust began producing Puritan reprints, including such as Thomas Watson, and in 1959 published the Puritan John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ. Packer wrote an Introductory Essay. This could be said to be quite a risk, rather like his 1955 article on Keswick. It defends and upholds Owen’s and the majority Reformed view, that the death of Christ secured the salvation of only his elect people, (This, retitled as ‘Saved by his Precious Blood’ and two other major writings on the efficacy of the blood of Christ, ‘The heart of the Gospel’,  Chapter 12 of Knowing God,   and ‘What did the Cross Achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution’” the 1973 Tyndale Lecture in Biblical Theology, and one by Mark Dever, ‘Nothing but the Blood’, comprise In My Place Condemned He Stood, (Crossway, 2007). This book is a good example of the extent of Packer's later standing in  North America.

So much for his Anglicanism and the doctrine of Scripture. He in turn put evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, as his influence in work among students  led to the charge that belief in divine sovereignty  hampered evangelism. Packer argued that this  was the reverse. See his Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, (IVP, 1961)


What I have tried to do is to recall in a few words the theological energy and ability and courage  of this young, talented Reformed theologian, uncommon amongst his current Anglicans, the most talented man that I ever met, and the context in which he worked, with its tensions and opportunities. And in doing this, to celebrate and to thank God for him, whose earthly life ended on 17th July. For him

‘To be with Christ, which is far better’.

‘To live is Christ, and to die is gain’.