Don Carson Pays Tribute to J. I. Packer – Don Carson

James Innell Packer, known in his writings as J. I. Packer and by his friends as Jim, has today learned by experience what the apostle meant when he said that to be absent from the body is to be present with the Lord, which is far better.

His influence on worldwide evangelicalism, especially through his writings but scarcely less through his far-flung lecturing, can scarcely be measured.

Life of Jim Packer

Born in Twyning, Gloucestershire, on July 22, 1926, Packer won a scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Oxford, where he earned a BA in 1948. This was followed by an MA and a DPhil in 1954. Influenced by C. S. Lewis (though the two men never met) and by OICCU (Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union), Packer became a firm believer in Jesus Christ. After a brief stint teaching Greek at Oak Hill College, London, he began his formal training for the ministry at Wycliffe Hall (1948), a training college of the Church of England. He was ordained as deacon in 1952, and as priest in 1953, serving as an assistant curate from 1952 to 1954. 

Thereafter Packer’s ministry largely revolved around several theological colleges. He lectured at Tyndale Hall, Bristol, from 1955 to 1961. He became librarian (1961–62) and then warden of Latimer House, Oxford (1962–68), returning to Tyndale Hall in Bristol to serve as principal (1970). Tyndale Hall merged with Clifton College and Dalton-House-St Michaels to become Tyndale College, where Packer served as associate principal from 1971 to 1978. Then came the leap to Regent College, Vancouver, Canada—an evangelical, non-denominational, theological college. Here he became the first Sangwoo Youtong Chee professor of theology, which post he relinquished in 1996 when he became the Board of Governor’s professor of theology. In addition to these academic appointments, not to mention his many roles in Anglicanism in England and Canada, Packer served as executive editor of Christianity Today, as general editor of the English Standard Version, and on the advisory council of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW).

Writings of Jim Packer

Doubtless, time will prove that the longest-lasting influence of the thought of Packer has been mediated by his voluminous writings. Even the bare list of his publications is too lengthy to be included here, let alone an adequate summary of what they cover. But perhaps we may mention a handful of representative works, and indicate what influence they exercised and in some cases what controversies they stirred up.

Doubtless, time will prove that the longest-lasting influence of the thought of J. I. Packer has been mediated by his voluminous writings.

Defending God’s Word

Packer’s earliest popular book, and for many years one of his most influential, is ‘Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God (1958). Even to this day, “fundamentalism” in British English does not have exactly the same referent and connotations that the word enjoys in the U.S. In the U.K., it commonly refers to conservative (confessional) evangelicalism. Packer argues that a high view of Scripture, including an affirmation of inerrancy, is not the preserve of a narrow strand of right-wing Christendom, but the common heritage of Christians everywhere across the centuries until the faith was pillaged by theological liberalism. The Bible is the Word of God, Packer argues—a stance justified by exegesis, sound theological reasoning, and the witness of history.

Written at a time before the multiplication of serious books on Scripture that have sprung up during the last half-century, ‘Fundamentalism’ exercised an influence out of all proportion to its size. It marked the first of many blows that Packer has struck against theological liberalism. His stance on this issue reminds some of us of the earlier insistence of J. Gresham Machen: theological liberalism is not one wing of true Christianity, but a different religion. Comparing the growth of theological liberalism in his day (in the early 1970s) with what C. H. Spurgeon had found 90 years earlier, Packer noted that Spurgeon “described the wobblings he then saw among the Baptists on Scripture, atonement, and human destiny as ‘the downgrade.’ Could he survey Protestant thinking about God at the present time, I guess he would speak of ‘the nosedive.’” Small wonder that in 1978 he signed the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. He kept pushing on this topic in God Speaks to Man: Revelation and the Bible (1965) and in God Has Spoken (1979).

God’s Sovereignty

In 1961, Packer published another little book with a powerful wallop: Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. The tensions between the way divine sovereignty and human responsibility are portrayed in Scripture have churned up centuries of highly complex philosophical/theological debate. By contrast, Packer’s discussion is wonderfully lucid. He achieves this not only by his choice of words, but by candidly working through how the Bible treats related practical matters: evangelism, prayer, response to suffering, and more.

Packer gently prepares the reader to acknowledge what we do not know about God, and where believers must be ready to bow in worship before a God whose ways are not our ways. I imagine I have given away scores of copies of this book, or highly recommended it. Invariably it helps Christians to greater clarity of thought, and, therefore, to stronger faith. Packer returned to the topic in Divine Sovereignty and Human Responsibility (2002).

The Atonement

The first time I met Packer I was a first-year doctoral student at Cambridge University in the early 1970s. Packer had taken the train up from Bristol to deliver the Tyndale Biblical Theology Lecture. He had provided the title, “What Did the Cross Achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution.” I sat there spellbound. The power was not in bombast, for there was none. The power was in well-chosen words and beautifully crafted sentences, in the development of ideas, in the care with which Scripture was handled, in the theological beauty of well-built arguments, in elegant and thoughtful prose, in the glory given to the Lord Jesus, in the quiet authority of the presentation and the breadth and competence of Packer’s responses in the question time.

Packer gently prepares the reader to acknowledge what we do not know about God, and where believers must be ready to bow in worship before a God whose ways are not our ways.

Eventually I learned that these were all trademarks of Packer’s lectures, but on this occasion, my first exposure to the man, above all I was drawn to what the cross achieved. Toward the end of the evening, while tea and coffee were served, I slipped through the crowd to the podium: I wanted to see Packer’s notes, which were still lying undisturbed on the podium. To my surprise, I found an outline scratched on the back of a large envelope, apparently written on the train journey up from Bristol. The notes spoke of a well-stocked and well-ordered mind that already knew its subject deeply, and needed no more than some reminders to keep the flow intact.

When the lecture appeared in print (first in the Tyndale Bulletin, 1973, and then as a separate 45-page pamphlet in early 1974), I devoured the printed form, and discovered (as far as my memory could recollect) the same outline and many of the same expressions and arguments, now somewhat expanded and now magnificently footnoted. Many are the books and essays published on the cross since then, but none has surpassed it in clear and faithful brevity.

Knowing God

The book most widely associated with Packer is Knowing God (1973). The opening two sentences of Packer’s preface are self-deprecating and utterly disarming: “As clowns yearn to play Hamlet, so I have wanted to write a treatise on God. This book, however, is not it.” Packer goes on to explain that the chapters of the book are short messages on great subjects, most originally written as independent essays for the readers of the Evangelical Magazine. As one might expect, the chapters are characterized, at the literary level, by lucid elegance, and, at the subject level, by great thoughts about God and small thoughts about us.

About 20 years later, Packer and I were speaking at the same conference (I don’t remember which one), and we happened to have lunch together. Because there were just the two of us, I asked him why Knowing God had become such a bestseller, exerting enormous influence in Christian circles around the world. He replied, “Because it is a book about Christian spirituality.” It took me a while to figure out what he meant. This is most definitely unlike most contemporary works that talk about Christian spiritual experience. It’s a book about God; the topics deal with the attributes and ways of God. But they’re cast in such a way that the relevance of each topic to Christian living is carefully spelled out. Never does one feel that God is being talked about because he exists to serve us; rather, God is being talked about because he is God, and we must know him if we are to be saved. If the Lord Jesus does not lower the curtains on this broken world for another 200 years, I cheerfully predict that Knowing God will still be read with gratitude by new generations of Christians who, with Paul, want to know God better. Good books are many; Christian classics are few. This is one of them.

The Holy Spirit, Puritans, and Shorter Writings

With the same characteristic strengths, but at a slightly higher level of technical achievement, Packer wrote such books as Keep in Step with the Spirit: Finding Fulfilment in Our Walk with God (1984—observe the focus on the Spirit, but with full application to the Christian walk) and his exposition of The Thirty-nine Articles (1984).

To glimpse the full flush of his technical competence in the historical theology that focuses on the Puritan period, see especially his The Redemption and Restoration of Man in the Thought of Richard Baxter, published in 2003, almost 50 years after defending the Oxford dissertation on which it is based (1954); or, more broadly, Among God’s Giants: Aspects of Puritan Christianity (1991) and, preeminently, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan View of the Christian Life (1984).

If the Lord Jesus does not lower the curtains on this broken world for another 200 years, I cheerfully predict that Knowing God will still be read with gratitude by new generations of Christians.

And the same pen that crafted such stellar volumes was capable of writing pungent tracts for the times, such as Hot Tub Religion (1987). Much of Packer’s popular writings first appeared as brief articles and essays in a wide variety of venues, but mercifully many of them have been brought together in the four volumes (1, 2, 3, 4) of his Collected Shorter Writings (1998–1999).

Faithful Legacy Amid Controversy

It would be unfair to Packer to fail to mention, however briefly, the controversies in which he became engaged. Some primarily made their impact on the critics themselves: they disliked Packer because of his stance on some issue or other, and therefore refused to read him on anything else, even where his writings could have enriched them immeasurably. Such is the self-punishment of those whose assessments of an author hang on one or two issues. Some dismissed Packer for his complementarianism, others for his (slightly ambiguous) support of theistic evolution. But for our purposes, three controversies stand out. All three spring from his distinctively Anglican approach to ecumenism, and all three made their own impact on Packer’s life and ministry.

1. English Anglicans and Confessional Evangelicals

While he was still living in England, Packer co-wrote a book with two fellow Anglicans, Colin O. Buchanan and E. L. Mascall, who, unlike Packer, adhered to the Anglo-Catholic tradition. The title of their book spells out their agenda: Growing into Union: Proposals for Forming a United Church in England. From Packer’s perspective (and presumably also from the perspective of Buchanan and Mascall), the book was arguing for a robust commitment to supernaturalism in the Church of England, over against the rising voices of theological liberalism. From the perspective of Packer’s conservative evangelical critics, he was giving away too much. None doubted the depth of Packer’s personal commitments to the solas of the Reformation, but here he was making common cause with Anglicans who rejected the solas. He was siding with Anglicans at the expense of confessional evangelicals, as if the only barrier to the gospel were liberalism and not the matrix of Catholic dogma against which the English Reformation (not least The Thirty-nine Articles!) had contended.

None doubted the depth of Packer’s personal commitments to the solas of the Reformation, but here he was making common cause with Anglicans who rejected the solas.

The dispute led to a formal breach between Packer and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and with that breach an end to the Puritan Conferences which, up to that point, had been jointly led by Lloyd-Jones and Packer. Some have plausibly argued that these developments played at least some role in leading Packer and his wife Kitty to make the momentous decision to move to Canada. Finding himself very much in the minority within the Church of England, and now somewhat distanced from the conservative evangelicals with whom he shared the strongest theological commitments, the invitation to move to another country and a young and vibrant college doubtless fell as a refreshing rain from heaven. In God’s providence, it certainly led to expanding spheres of influence.

2. Evangelicals and Catholics Together

Along somewhat similar lines, many conservatives rounded on Packer when he signed off on the document “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” Some of the criticism was merely an exercise in labeling, but informed critics could not be entirely ignored when they argued that “agreement” between informed Catholics and informed evangelicals was sometimes purchased at the price of finding common words that both sides could acknowledge as “theirs,” even while both sides had to acknowledge that each side understood the form of words differently. In the name of pursuing unity, agreement was sometimes achieved at a formal level while it was being lost at the level of substance.

3. Homosexuality and Anglo-Catholics

Doubtless the biggest personal wrench was triggered by debates over same-sex marriage. When the Packers moved to Vancouver, they became part of St. John’s Shaughnessy, a church belonging to the Anglican Church of Canada (ACC). That denomination was predominantly liberal; St. John’s Shaughnessy was an outstanding exception. The ACC not only approved homosexual marriage, but in due course insisted that new ordinands would have to take the same stance. After years of discussion and debate, St. John’s Shaughnessy voted to leave the ACC, and the congregation joined the Anglican Network in Canada (ANIC), which the next year (2009) became part of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). When St. John’s Shaughnessy voted to leave the ACC, they lost their building, and re-constituted themselves as St. John’s Vancouver Anglican Church.

In the spring of 2008, Packer surrendered his license to the Bishop of New Westminster, and devoted himself to nurturing and supporting the new Anglican structures. This included the preparation of To Be a Christian: An Anglican Catechism, which was adopted by ACNA in 2014. Continent-wide, the ACNA is broad enough to embrace both evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics, but adherents are predominantly in the latter camp. Conservative evangelical critics by and large applauded Packer’s courage in leaving the Anglican Church of Canada, but wryly observed that he did so over a moral issue, not a doctrinal issue. Did he think that Scripture spoke with decisive clarity about homosexual marriage but not about the solas? By contrast, supporters of Packer observed that he was drawing lines in very much the same place he had drawn them in Growing into Union, published almost 40 years earlier.

One of God’s Giants

Regardless of how we do or do not align with the critics, there are very few Christians who would demur at the claim that Packer belongs to the heritage of the goodly company of Puritans whom he himself called “God’s giants.”

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