Orthodoxy with Open Arms: Tribute to J.I. Packer (1926–2020) – Mark Noll

Orthodoxy with Open Arms

First impressions can be deceptive. But the qualities I witnessed when I first met Jim Packer in November 1979 turned out to be the same qualities that I believe others experienced in many other contexts over the course of his long and fruitful life.

Already by 1979, his book Knowing God had made him very well-known among evangelicals on both sides of the Atlantic. My initial connection, however, had more to do with what he had written on the Bible, especially Fundamentalism and the Word of God. That book from 1958 had been prompted by negative English commentary on Billy Graham’s London campaign of 1954. In it, Packer defended a very high view of Scripture, differentiated traditional conservative Protestantism from fundamentalist anti-intellectualism, and commended evangelists like Graham who preached “what the Bible said.”

With funding that Nathan Hatch secured and with the cooperation of the Wheaton College administration, I was helping to host an academic conference on the Bible in America. With a number of other historians more or less in the evangelical world, we had worried that “The Battle for the Bible,” then roiling the waves of our circle, had become too abstract. Whatever people believed about Scripture was certainly important, but we wondered how people had actually used the Bible they claimed to trust.

From what we knew of Packer, we thought he could provide a useful theological complement to our historical concerns. Yet given his renown, we were surprised that he responded positively to our request: Would Packer participate in the conference’s closing panel to comment on the historians’ work, and would he deliver two chapel talks to the Wheaton community on Scripture, choosing any particular themes he would like? To say the least, we got our money’s worth.

Packer by Nature

We had expected the chapel talks to be fine. We did not anticipate that Packer would also rescue the conference’s final panel.

That panel, which was chaired by David Wells, included besides Packer a well-known American evangelical theologian and one of the most respected historians of American religion. Wells later admitted that he nearly died of despair as the first two hemmed and hawed, meandered and meandered some more, and droned on interminably despite Wells’s increasingly distressed body language pleading for a halt.

Then it was Packer’s turn. He first apologized, saying he was a Brit who had only just that fall made a move to Regent College in Vancouver, Canada, and also confessing he did not know much about American history. It turned out, however, that he knew a very great deal, that he had obviously paid close attention to the conference papers, and that he excelled in extempore synthesis. His remarks, delivered in under his allotted time, summarized the history we had all heard, commented on differences between the American and British situations, and added gentle reminders about the importance of Scripture whether its advocates used it well or poorly. It was a virtuoso performance that exemplified a rhetorical style he would himself later describe in the foreword to his book God’s Words: “I love pregnant brevity, and some of my material is, I know, packed tight (Packer by name, packer by nature).”

The chapel talks offered an even better demonstration of Packer’s gift for “packing.” They also exemplified what many others, long before and long since, have also appreciated. Remember that American evangelicals at the time were keyed up debating the inerrancy of Scripture — some pro, some con, and others simply drawn like moths to the flame of controversy. Remember also that his audience included two thousand sometimes-restless undergraduates and the Wheaton College faculty and the historians attending the conference (some evangelical, some not). He entitled his talks “Beyond the Battle for the Bible” and “How God’s Word Is Heard.”

The talks began with an unambiguous defense of this much contested doctrine: “The inerrancy of Scripture matters . . . because the authority of Scripture matters.” His next move was purely evangelical. The Bible should never remain an object of merely doctrinal concern: “God the Holy Spirit will . . . make a nuisance of himself by applying Scripture to our consciences until we are willing to change our ways.” Packer never wavered from that foundation, but the building he constructed on it was, at least to many who heard him in those long-ago days, marvelous in our eyes.

Reading Scripture with the Saints

He first insisted on self-criticism by urging self-awareness concerning “the blinkers . . . of the Protestant tradition, of the evangelical tradition, of our own denominational tradition.” To the Wheaton audience, he did affirm the virtues of evangelical faith. But he also worried about “negative reactionary attitudes which are there in our own tradition. . . . We are victims of reaction against the love of the past. . . . And we are victims too of a lot of reactions against what is natural to man, what is human, but what in our traditions we are inclined to write off as being worldly.”

Packer also insisted on the church as the proper venue for a fully evangelical engagement with Scripture. The Bible, he suggested, was not bestowed primarily on individuals, but “in the fellowship, first and foremost through preachers and teachers given by God in the fellowship for this very purpose.” And not only living and breathing teachers, but also those who had gone before. Here he sounded like C.S. Lewis, with whom he had enjoyed brief contact during his days as an Oxford undergraduate: reading “classic books from the past” would liberate contemporary believers “from the tyranny of being tied to own our time, . . . from the tyranny of being tied to our own heritage.”

As is obvious from this last emphasis, Packer dwelt at length on the positive value of tradition. While calling for discernment in appropriating what had gone before, he strongly objected to paying no heed. For theologians in the audience who were tempted to champion an active Word of God over against an inert Scripture, Packer quoted the Westminster divines’ identification of “the Word of God contained in Scripture” and “the Word of God as Scripture.” He reminded Anglicans/Episcopalians that, in Richard Hooker’s landmark Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, Hooker did not equate reason with Scripture, but wanted reason to differentiate between where the Bible spoke generally and where it spoke to local situations.

Although the talks had enough of such recondite scholarship to convince academics he knew his stuff, Packer mostly recommended the past as an aid to well-rounded spiritual maturity. “The Holy Spirit,” he said, “has been with all God’s people in all traditions in all centuries. You can expect to find wisdom and truth and vitamins in those traditions as well as finding mistakes.” Packer’s positive reference to Catholic tradition was particularly striking in this Wheaton College setting. He had never been shy about pointing out “mistakes” in that tradition, but he also took pains to criticize extreme reactions to those mistakes. Specifically, he warned against overreactions that had “made us all distrust sacraments . . . all distrust set prayers . . . the beauty and dignity of worship, which is characteristic of Rome and on which our traditions have tended to turn their back.”

At least a few of us perked up our ears when Packer became specific about recommending past authors whom contemporary believers could read to deepen their biblical understanding. We may have nodded when he ticked off Martin Luther, John Calvin, Augustine, Jonathan Edwards, and the Puritans. But we sat up when he added “John of the Cross and folk like that.” Fifteen years later, Packer would join Charles Colson and Richard John Neuhaus in the much-noticed, and still controversial, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” Even then, however, it was obvious that for Packer a critique of Roman Catholicism did not mean a total rejection.

As a participant on the closing panel of our academic conference, Packer displayed an intellect as penetrating as it was pithy. Even more obviously, the chapel talks illustrated extraordinary dedication to balance. They defended biblical inerrancy and scriptural authority forthrightly. But in his treatment that defense also became a historically informed, realistic, and anti-triumphalist lesson in pneumatology, ecclesiology, church history, ecumenical orthodoxy, and not least humility — and delivered in less than 45 minutes total!

Modern-Day Bucer

In subsequent decades, I have much enjoyed reading a small portion of Packer’s extensive literary output and also appreciated very occasional opportunities to hear him lecture or preach. This reading and listening, however, only strengthened my first impressions from the fall of 1979. He was a rare figure, able to combine firm personal convictions with a capacious ability for cooperation. He remained the model of a latter-day Puritan — in all the best senses. He maintained a gentle personal presence — but with uncompromising fidelity to classical Christian orthodoxy.

In trying to find historical parallels, Martin Bucer from the sixteenth century springs to mind. Martin Luther convinced this Dominican priest to leave his order and embrace the teaching of justification by faith. Subsequently, Bucer tried to mediate between Luther and Ulrich Zwingli when they clashed on the meaning of the Lord’s Supper. He later worked with Lutherans and Calvinists to compose a confession of faith acceptable to both. For several years, he also engaged in respectful dialogue with reform-minded Catholics who remained loyal to their church. As a preacher-teacher-Reformer, he guided the city-state of Strasbourg in accepting the Reformation, and then, when expelled from that city, contributed much-appreciated advice to English Reformers like Thomas Cranmer during the reign of the young Protestant King Edward VI. After his death, this tireless pastor-theologian was claimed by Lutherans, Calvinists, Anglicans of Cranmer’s stripe, and Puritans who sought further reform in the Church of England.

The full Packer biographies that have already appeared from Alistair McGrath and Leland Ryken begin to provide the larger assessments that Packer’s career deserves. But if one stepped back today to think about him as a modern-day Martin Bucer, five matters might seem especially important. All of them testify to his deepest theological convictions, but each with intriguing added dimensions.

Basic Orthodoxy

First was the extraordinary range of cooperative ventures in which Packer took a leading part. In England, he led others sharing his own low-church Anglican convictions in cooperating with high-church Anglo-Catholics to challenge the modernism of Bishop John A.T. Robinson’s Honest to God. As himself a paedobaptist Anglican evangelical, he coedited InterVarsity Press’s New Dictionary of Theology with Sinclair Ferguson, a Scottish Presbyterian evangelical, and David Wright, a modern-day evangelical champion of adult believer baptism.

After he relocated to North America, Packer served for many years as the senior theological advisor at Christianity Today in its effort to provide a responsible platform for a broad range of evangelicals. In 2004 he teamed with Thomas Oden, an Arminian Methodist, to publish One Faith, an examination of post-War evangelical doctrinal statements that emphasized their substantial compatibility. To these duties he added service as general editor for a major new text of the Bible itself; this was the English Standard Version from Crossway publishers, a revision of the Revised Standard Version originally prepared under the auspices of the United States’ National Council of Churches.

Each of these cooperative ventures resulted in an important end product. In the aggregate, however, they also showed how Packer could balance his own theological commitments with wide-ranging ecumenical labors on behalf of basic Christian orthodoxy.

Inerrancy and Intellectualism

Packer, second, stood out as an evangelicals’ evangelical in his resolute defense of the inerrancy, infallibility, and authority of the Bible. In 2002, for a book edited by Colson and Neuhaus (Your Word Is Truth), he provided a definitive statement in only one sentence (admittedly, a long sentence): “The 66-book Protestant canon is held to be divinely inspired and authoritative, true and trustworthy, informative and imperative, life-imparting and strength-supplying to the human heart, and to be given to the church to be preached, taught, expounded, applied, absorbed, digested and appealed to as arbiter whenever questions of faith and life, belief and behavior, spiritual wisdom and spiritual welfare, break surface among the saints.” As Packer then put it, “of the unifying bonds of evangelicalism, this view and use of Scripture is the strongest of all.”

Yet unlike some evangelicals who stood with him in defending an inerrant Bible, Packer wanted to say more. Already in Fundamentalism and the Word of God, he advocated an appropriation of the Scriptures buttressed by human learning and not antagonistic to it: “The Evangelical,” he wrote, “is not afraid of facts, for he knows that all facts are God’s facts; nor is he afraid of thinking, because he knows that all truth is God’s truth; and right reason cannot endanger sound faith. . . . A confident intellectualism expressive of a robust faith in God, whose Word is truth, is part of the evangelical tradition.”

In his later essay for Colson and Neuhaus, Packer expanded on his belief that a properly evangelical reverence for Scripture should encourage rather than discourage wider study. He called it “a sadder note” that

evangelical emphasis on the Bible has often led to the neglect of other important elements of Christian thought. It has meant evangelical isolation from the mainstream Christian heritage of Bible-based theology and wisdom over two millennia, which evangelicals should claim but which few seem to know or care about; from evangelicalism’s own heritage of theology and exposition, which most simply ignore; and from the searchings and findings of the physical, historical, and human sciences, with their never-ending quests to push out further the walls of human knowledge.

He went on to argue that the classic Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura should not entail the neglect of non-biblical domains or that Bible-believers should shy away from the arts, sciences, and human culture more generally. Instead, “The Bible has been given us, not to define for us the realities of the created order, nor to restrain our interests in them, but to enable us to diagnose, understand, appreciate, and handle them as we meet them, so that we may use and enjoy them to the Creator’s praise.” Again, a true-blue evangelical on Scripture, but with something more to say.

Peacemaking Puritan

It was the same, third, for the Puritans. Packer’s biographers and his own testimony have shown how his discovery of the Puritan scholar-theologian John Owen when he was a young believer decisively shaped his own faith. Equally well-known is the great boost he gave to rediscovering the Puritans in his labors with Martyn Lloyd-Jones, his leadership with Lloyd-Jones of annual Puritan and Reformed conferences, and the array of publications that came from those conferences.

When I was asked to prepare this essay, I found an old syllabus I’d prepared for a seminary class on the Puritans from several decades ago. The citation is lost, but not the quotation from Packer with which I headed the syllabus in order to emphasize the contemporary importance of the subject:

We evangelicals need help. Where the Puritans called for order, discipline, depth, and thoroughness, our temper is one of casual haphazardness and restless impatience. We crave for stunts, novelties, entertainments; we have lost our taste for solid study, humble self-examination, disciplined meditation, and unspectacular hard work in our callings and in our prayers. . . . Then, in teaching the Christian life our habit is to depict it as a path of thrilling feelings rather than of working faith, and of supernatural interruptions rather than of rational righteousness; and in dealing with Christian experience we dwell constantly on joy, peace, happiness, satisfaction, and rest of soul with no balancing reference to the divine discontent of Romans 7, the fight of faith of Psalm 73, or any of the burdens of responsibility and providential chastenings that fall to the lot of a child of God. The spontaneous jollity of the carefree extrovert comes to be equated with healthy Christian living, and jolly extroverts in our churches are encouraged to become complacent in carnality, while saintly souls of less sanguine temperament are driven almost crazy because they cannot bubble over in the prescribed manner. . . . Truly, we need help, and the Puritan tradition can give it.

But many also know the rest of this story. When Lloyd-Jones came to the conclusion that real evangelicals should break with mixed denominations in order to stand forthrightly for evangelical truth, Packer, in loyalty to virtues he treasured in the historical Church of England, could not agree. He would remain a dedicated student of the Puritans, he would follow John Owen in defining his own convictions on important doctrines (like the extent of the atonement), and he would urge contemporary evangelicals to get serious as the Puritans had gotten serious. He would not, however, abandon all else to serve what he obviously considered these important goals.

Evangelicals and Catholics

And so we come, fourth, to Packer’s alliance with Catholics on behalf of classical Christian orthodoxy. Without ceasing to be evangelical, Reformed, and Protestant, Packer found much that he could affirm with at least some Catholics. Well before he collaborated with Neuhaus and Colson’s “Evangelicals and Catholics Together,” Packer had already indicated that, for upholding foundational Christian truths, he was willing to link arms — selectively and cautiously — with Rome. In a December 1983 review of a book titled The Born-Again Catholic for Eternity magazine, he explained reasons for this willingness.

If when I was a student you had told me that before old age struck I should be reviewing a popular Roman Catholic book on the new birth which used Campus Crusade material, carried an official nihil obstat and imprimatur, and was already in its fourth printing in three years, I doubt whether I would have believed you. But that is what I am doing now. Again, if at that time you had predicted that one day an Anglican bishop would tell me how the last Roman Catholic priest to whom he talked quizzed him hard as to whether Anglicans really preached the new birth as they should, I would probably have laughed in your face. But this month it happened. Things are not as they were!

The nine statements that Packer helped prepare for “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” have been brought together recently in a book edited by the former dean of Beeson Divinity School, Timothy George: Evangelicals and Catholics Together at Twenty: Vital Statements on Contested Topics. Appropriately for statements that emphasize points of commonality, while also specifying places where Catholics and evangelicals continue to differ, Packer provided the preface.

Along with other evangelicals who have participated in Catholic-evangelical ecumenical ventures, Packer has not escaped criticism. But even before “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” got underway, he explained why he sought allies in supporting “the currently urgent task of upholding faith in the Trinity, the Incarnation, the inerrancy of Scripture, and the primacy of the evangelistic and pastoral imperative according to Scripture.” In his judgment, standing with Catholics who embraced these ancient Christian truths served to hold back “the secularist, relativist, and antinomian onslaught to which these things are being subjected in our time both without and within the churches” (foreword to the 1985 book A Tale of Two Churches: Can Protestants and Catholics Get Together? by George Carey, who would later become the Archbishop of Canterbury).

Pastor and Scholar

Fifth, but not least important, J.I. Packer was always the scholar with a pastor’s heart, always the pastor with a scholar’s devotion to nuance, detail, and depth. In visits to Regent College, I was repeatedly reminded — and much impressed — that despite traveling extensively, lecturing here, there, and everywhere, Packer remained on the pastoral staff of what is now known as St. John’s Vancouver Anglican Church.

Packer’s effectiveness as a pastor-scholar was illustrated in the late 1990s when I served for a semester as the McDonald Visiting Professor of Evangelical Christianity at the Harvard Divinity School. For a course called something like “Introduction to Evangelicalism,” I included Knowing God on the syllabus. Much of the reaction in that environment was predictable: the book was patriarchal, archaic, fusty, and all too remorselessly Calvinistic. Yet along with these comments came appreciation, especially from Jewish students and auditors from the law school who took in the class. They recognized, even when they could not agree, how unusual it was to see history, learning, and theology put so thoughtfully in service to piety.

During the years I taught at the University of Notre Dame, my wife, Maggie, led a Bible study for the women of the South Bend Christian Reformed Church. One of the studies dealt at length with the Book of Nehemiah. For practical, church-centered assistance, she found Packer’s A Passion for Faithfulness: Wisdom from the Book of Nehemiah as helpful as I had found many of his theological or Puritan books for my own interests.

Humble Impressions

Finally, back to our conference at Wheaton College in the fall of 1979. In an effort at hospitality for our out-of-town guests, Maggie and I agreed to invite Packer for dinner one evening. To say the least, we — along with my mother-in-law, who happened to be visiting and who had read many of his books — were nervous. How would we get along with a theologian of such worldwide fame and such deep erudition? Around the same time, we had also had for dinner a distinguished Christian historian who was lecturing at the college. This individual considerately brought as a housewarming gift an article-offprint he had recently published in a major historical journal. The evening turned out to be unusually congenial, even if most of the conversation centered on the historian’s travels and major projects. We wondered if things would be as congenial when Packer arrived.

We should not have worried. He put us almost equally at our ease (Packer could never be confused for an outgoing American extrovert). But things were also different in an interesting way. I later heard that when a well-known evangelical preacher had invited Packer for dinner at his house, he was somewhat disappointed when Packer did not engage in high-level theological discourse, but rather spent most of the evening in deep conversation with the preacher’s wife about their mutual love of detective fiction.

With us, it was similar. I was primed to hear firsthand about the fate of evangelical Anglicanism in the UK, what Regent College was up to, and how Packer managed to write so much so well. It was not to be. As it happened, my mother-in-law’s name was Mrs. Ruth Packer, and our distinguished guest seemed most interested in finding out whether her “Packers” and his “Packers” could in any way be related. They weren’t, but his attention to her, whom he had never met before and who never published a book, left an impression almost as lasting as his stellar contribution to our conference.

Almost half a millennium ago, Martin Bucer devoted his deep learning and strong pastoral instincts to serving quite different communities in Strasbourg, France, and Oxford, England. J.I. Packer’s midlife transition from “evangelical Anglican” in the United Kingdom to “Anglican evangelical” in North America could easily have meant a sea change in life direction as well as physical locale. But like Bucer — and with comparable effect as theologian, speaker, teacher, and author — it did not. For the constancy of that “faith in action,” believers of many sorts from many traditions in many places may together join in praising God.

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