One of evangelicalism’s leading lights, James Innell Packer, died yesterday at 93. Having just finished reading a biography via audiobook about Packer’s life no less than two weeks ago, I offer my review of this book, as I honor one of the most remarkable, influential, and balanced Christian authors in my life.
My first encounter with J. I. Packer was during my freshman year in college in the 1980s, when I read his classic work Knowing God. My InterVarsity group was mainly absorbed with the writings of C.S. Lewis and Francis Schaeffer, both of whom were primarily oriented towards apologetics.
But Packer was different. I walked away from reading Packer with a greater desire to know Scripture, as a means of knowing God.
Packer’s life is remembered in Leland Ryken’s J.I. Packer: An Evangelical Life. Looking back over his long life, J. I. Packer, serves as a wonderful example of a Christian life lived consistently well. Leland Ryken, a professor emeritus of English at Wheaton College, has done the church a great service by telling the story of J. I. Packer (I also just finished reading one Packer’s final books, Grounded in the Gospel, co-authored with a former student of Packer’s, Gary Parrett, late last month, that I reviewed recently here at Veracity).
J.I. Packer as a Youth
Packer grew up in England, in a nominally Anglican family. He had “blue-collar” beginnings, his father working as a clerk for a local railway. At the age of seven, Packer was hit by bread truck, giving a traumatic injury to his head, visible on the forehead, all of his life. Through much of his remaining childhood, he would have to wear an aluminum plate, to protect his skull, and to abstain from sports. It would prove to be part of a providential series of events, that shaped his life.
At age 11, he had expected a bicycle for his birthday. But his parents, fearful of further injury to their son’s head, opted to give him a typewriter instead. At first, Packer balked at the gift. But in time, he fell in love with the typewriter, developing a set of writing skills that would end up shaping much of English-speaking evangelicalism, in the latter half of the 20th century. His love for learning, intertwined with his writing, enabled him to win a scholarship to attend the University of Oxford.
At the very beginning of his college years at Oxford, J. I. Packer came to having saving faith in Christ. Having grown up in the Church of England, he simply assumed that he had always been a Christian. However, a friend that he had met during his pre-college years had come to a knowledge of Christ, and spoke with Packer about the change in his life. Packer was not convinced by this testimony, but he was persuaded by his newly Christian friend to go visit a Christian Union meeting, at Oxford.
The first half of the meeting, an expository sermon on a part of Scripture, bored Packer. But the second half of the meeting featured a testimony of how the sermon expositor came to faith at a summer boy’s camp. Packer’s life was radically changed by what he heard, and he left the meeting a true Christian.
But the story of that early transformation did not end there. Six weeks after his conversion, after attending several more Christian Union meetings, Packer overcame his liberal skepticism about the Bible, accepting the Bible fully as God’s Word.
Packer’s Faith Crisis Concerning Sanctification
Packer’s faith was severely tested, however, within just a few years, due to the confusion he experienced from hearing Keswick Holiness teaching, through a local church and through his college fellowship. The Keswick movement grew out of regular convention meetings, held in the lake district of England, which began in 1875, influenced by the teaching of Hannah Whithall Smith, upon the occasion of her (somewhat) still-popular book, The Christian’s Secret of a Happy Life. Keswick teaching in those days encouraged Christians to consecrate themselves with acts of surrender, for living a victorious Christian life. “Let go, and let God” was the motto of Keswick teaching.
But as Packer later put it, this teaching reminded him of a man who was always late in catching the bus. The promised state of a victorious Christian life always seemed just beyond Packer’s reach.
Packer was able to find spiritual relief in the writings of the Puritans, particularly of the 17th century pastor-teacher, John Owen, and later, that of fellow Englishman Richard Baxter. It was in the Puritans that Packer discovered the importance of a day-to-day obedience in the Christian life, seeing the spiritual journey as a slow, but steady, battle against sin, a gradual development of maturity in things of the Spirit.
Here I can very much relate to Packer’s experience. As a college student, I had been encouraged to read Watchman Nee’s The Normal Christian Life, an exposition of central portions of the Book of Romans. Having not grown up in an evangelical church, and desiring to know what it meant to struggle against sin as a young Christian, I poured into The Normal Christian Life upon the high recommendations of several Christian friends.
A staple of Keswick-style teaching (Nee had been converted through the ministry of Keswick-influenced missionaries), Nee’s book encouraged me in parts, but confused me in others. A famous Chinese Christian and author, imprisoned by the Communists, after World War II, Watchman Nee was not as extreme as other, earlier Keswick Bible teachers. But like Packer, I found the “The Normal Christian Life,” that Nee sought to articulate, to be some superior stage of being on a spiritual plateau, that always seemed elusive. I was living as a “carnal Christian,” missing the joys of “The Normal Christian Life,” as portrayed by Watchman Nee. There was this confused sense of viewing the ultimate Christian experience as being devoid of struggle, a vision of Christian living with which I could never relate.
Whatever Watchman Nee meant by his well-intentioned “The Normal Christian Life,” I felt completely abnormal in comparison. Nee certainly did not intend this effect, but my desire to want to completely hide this “abnormality” from others proved self-destructive. Nee rightly emphasized believing to be true what God says of us, by “reckoning ourselves dead to sin.” But what exactly does that mean? As they say, often the devil is in the details.
As Packer later wrote about Keswick teaching, “if you do take its details seriously, it will tend not to help you but destroy you” (Keep in Step With the Spirit, Kindle location, 2512). My despair was not as severe as Packer’s. But like Packer, I tried to takes its details seriously. I also knew of other Christian friends my age who experienced a similar type of despair.
Packer wrote about this in his most well-known book, Knowing God. Such a tempting view of sanctification will lead the believer to think that:
- “…. he will be able to overcome sins that previously mastered him, and the light and leading that God will give him will enable him to find a way through problems of guidance, self-fulfillment .. (etc.)… which had hitherto defeats him completely. Now, put like that… these great assurances are scriptural and true — praise God, they are! But it is possible to so stress them, and so to play down the rougher side of the Christian life — the daily chastening, the endless war with sin and Satan, the periodic walk in darkness — as to give the impression that normal Christian living is a perfect bed of roses…” (p. 222)
Yet Packer understood the other side as well:
- “You can so stress the rough side of the Christian life, and so play down the bright side, as to give the impression that Christian living is for the most part grievous and gloomy — hell on earth, in hope of heaven hereafter!” (p.222)
Packer sought balance here, yet found the error of the Keswick Holiness teachers to be far greater.
- “What, basically, is wrong with this teaching? It is open to criticism from many angles. It fails to grasp New Testament teaching on sanctification and the Christian warfare. It does not understand the meaning of growth in grace. It does not understand the operations of indwelling sin. If confuses the Christian life on earth with the Christian life as it will be in heaven.” (p. 226)
These are sharp words for sure, as many earnest Christians for decades have imbibed such teachings, without subjecting them to critical analysis. But Packer had a positive message in mind, meant to encourage the believer. After listing out a number of examples of Old Testament patriarchs, and the failures they experienced in their spiritual lives, Packer concludes:
- “They say that those who never make mistakes never make anything; certainly these [Old Testament patriarchs] made mistakes, but through their mistakes God taught them to know His grace, and to cleave to Him in a way that would never have happened otherwise. Is your trouble a sense of failure? the knowledge of having made some ghastly mistake? Go back to God; His restoring grace waits for you.” (p. 226)
The entire chapter, “These Inward Trials,” in which these quotes are found, is just one reason why Packer’s Knowing God is a classic, to be read and re-read, by all Christians.
Packer was not always so irenic in the tone of this writings. As a newly married man, fresh out of seminary training, and serving as a young scholar at Tyndale Hall, in Bristol, England (predecessor to today’s Trinity College), Packer wrote a scathing review of a glowing book-length history of the Keswick movement, So Great Salvation: The History and Message of the Keswick Convention, by Steven Barabas. By this time, in the post-World-War-2 era, the influence of Keswick, established some 75 years earlier, was perceived to be the wave of future.
Packer upset the apple cart. Packer’s retort, published as an essay, “‘Keswick’ and the Reformed Doctrine of Sanctification“, called out the Keswick teaching as “false to Scripture and dishonoring to God.”
It was an unpopular stance, that almost cost J. I. Packer his career in ministry. As many of Tyndale Hall’s students were from the Keswick area of England, where the annual Keswick Convention had been held for decades, Packer’s fiery critique led to calls for the young scholar’s removal, by Keswick loyalists.
A more senior scholar, a William Leatham, intervened on Packer’s behalf, which kept Packer’s career as a lecturer from being derailed. I can not help but to think how the English-speaking evangelical world would have been deprived of Packer’s measured, moderate voice, if Leatham had not stepped in and supported J. I. Packer.
The irony of the whole matter was that within about ten years, the Keswick Convention shifted more away from its earlier emphasis on Holiness teaching, that so discouraged Packer, in his college years. Was this partly due to the critique levied by Packer? Leland Ryken surprisingly never addresses this obvious question, in J.I. Packer: An Evangelical Life. But by the time Packer wrote again extensively about Keswick teaching, some 30 years later, in his Keep in Step with the Spirit (just recently released in an updated edition on Kindle), Packer was able to offer some “words of appreciation,” (Kindle, position 2349) before he began his critique, a sign that (1) the leaders at Keswick itself had begun to rethink their theology, and (2) Packer had matured as a writer, developing a more irenic style of engagement.
Where is the influence of that early Keswick movement today? Aside from the continued popularity of later Keswick authors, such as Oswald Chambers and Andrew Murray, who have greatly toned down the message once made ubiquitous by Hannah Whithall Smith, the “Let God, Let God” message that once enthralled evangelicals in the latter years of the 19th and first half of the 20th century, has hardly received much attention thus far in the 21st century. No major work, popular or academic, promoting the early Keswick teaching, has been published by any evangelical publisher in decades. We have Packer’s controversial and influential critique standing as a major contributing factor towards the decline in that theology.
Packer as Polemical Writer: Yet Seeking for Balance
Perhaps it was due to his Anglican sensibilities, but in his writings from about the mid-1950s onwards, the maturing Packer was ever after seeking the right sense of balance, even as he addressed topics that were quite polemical. This led him away from chasing after certain extremes, that often characterizes earnest, but misguided efforts of many Christians, that miss key elements of the beauty of Christian life, theology, and practice.
This focus on balance served him well in many matters of controversy, in which he was involved. One can see this in the very first book J. I. Packer published, “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God, in 1958, which continues to be in print. In affirming the authority of the Bible as God’s Word, Packer wanted to avoid the separatist, anti-intellectual tendencies often associated with “fundamentalism,” without falling into the opposite error of liberal theology, that continues even today, to treat the Scriptures as inspiring as opposed to being the inspired Word of God.
Packer was able to apply this delicate sense of balance, in many areas. But seeking that proper sense of balance often came at a cost. By the early 1960s, Packer had developed an admiring friendship with Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the leader of non-Anglican evangelicals in the U.K., whom Ryken describes as “free church” evangelicals. Both Packer and Lloyd-Jones were enthusiasts for recovering the theology of the Puritans. They partnered together to sponsor an annual Puritan Conference, where Anglican and free church evangelical thought leaders could meet with one another, for theological reflection and encouragement.
But when Martyn Lloyd-Jones, during the 1966 gathering of the Evangelical Alliance, called upon evangelical Anglicans to leave the Church of England, J. I. Packer, along with John R. W. Stott, resisted Lloyd-Jones’ calls for separatism. The Church of England, in Lloyd-Jones’ view, had grown increasingly influenced by liberal theology, a perspective shared by both Stott and Packer. Yet whereas both Stott and Packer saw an opportunity for an evangelical resurgence within the Anglican church, Lloyd-Jones felt that the institution was beyond repair.
Packer believed that Lloyd-Jones, in the latter’s call for separatism, was teaching that those who remain in the Church of England were guilty by association, with those in her ranks who espoused liberal theology. Packer rejected this argument, as it undercut the biblical theology of the faithful remnant. Furthermore, Packer saw no pressing need, in those years, to abandon the Church of England, that had historically kept such a rich theology of the Reformation. Instead, Packer believed that the times called for a renewal of good theology within Anglicanism. The rift caused the end of the joint venture of the Puritan Conference, and split the evangelical movement in the U.K. in two.
After the 1966 crisis, Packer increasingly believed that he was being isolated from Lloyd-Jones’ circles. Packer understood the need for doctrinal purity, but rejected the separatist mindset advocated by Lloyd-Jones. But despite the rift, Packer did seek reconciliation with Lloyd-Jones, in later years, publicly celebrating Lloyd-Jones as one of the greatest men he ever knew.
It was in the 1970’s that Packer took interest in the controversies surrounding the charismatic movement. Though it took many years to write, Packer’s Keep in Step with the Spirit manages to steer a middle-way path, between the tendency towards emotional excess among certain strands of the charismatic and Pentecostal traditions, and the cessationist counter-reaction, that might stifle and even quench the work of the Holy Spirit. Many charismatics have rejected Keep in the Step with the Spirit as being too timid in promoting the work of the Holy Spirit, whereas cessationist Christians have dismissed the book as being not resistant enough to charismatic emotionalism. But surely Packer’s more balanced approach has contributed towards less combative conflicts, that has helped to reduce the number of church splits associated with “spirit-filled” Christianity, in recent years.
J.I. Packer’s influence continued to grow, but particularly in North America, especially when he moved to Vancouver, to teach at Regent College, beginning in the late 1970s. But why the move to Canada? In different ways, and at different times, both Packer and John R. W. Stott began to sense that the evangelical renewal movement in British Anglicanism had stalled. While Stott saw his calling shift to encouraging the missionary movement in the “Two-Thirds” world, Packer saw an opportunity in moving to Canada.
It was his years in North America that gave Packer the greatest influence in evangelicalism, at a more popular level, particularly through his long editorial career as a theological writer for Christianity Today magazine, until in 2016 Packer was debilitated by blindness caused by macular degeneration. Christianity Today featured a reflection on J.I. Packer’s life, that recalls Packer’s enduring influence on their magazine.
Packer as Inerrantist: Nuances in Interpretation, Creation, and Roman Catholicism
In the 1970s, Packer was a leading figure in articulating the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. The doctrine of inerrancy was clearly very important to Packer, as he believed it to be essential to affirm the full trustworthiness and God-breathed character of the Scriptures. Yet, in the later years of his career in the early 2010s, Packer came to the aid of conservative New Testament scholar Michael Licona, when Licona was accused by another Chicago Statement founder, Norman Geisler, of denying biblical inerrancy . Licona had adopted the view that the Gospels and the Book of Acts possess the literary characteristics of Greco-Roman biography, or bios. Packer even endorsed Michael Licona’s 2016 book-long defense of his views, not because Packer agreed with every point of interpretation suggested by Licona, but that such differences in interpretation do not necessarily, in principle, deny inerrancy, as claimed by his veteran colleague, Norman Geisler.
J.I. Packer was a strong proponent of affirming an historical Adam and Eve, as taught in the Book of Genesis. And yet, Packer wrote affirming forwards to several books, written by Christian biologists who sought to reconcile the scientific theory of evolution, with the teachings of the Bible. Packer readily affirmed the presence of metaphor in Genesis 1, as a “highly stylized narrative” (God’s Plan for You, p. 83), but this in no way diluted the essential historical character of the creation and fall of humanity, core evangelical doctrines found within the teaching of Scripture. In other words, the scientific theory of evolution was not in conflict with the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. Packer firmly believed that questions about the length of “days,” in Genesis 1, should not distract us from the theological emphasis of humans being created in the image of God, and yet fallen from God’s grace, in need of a Divine Savior. Once again, that Packer sense of balance comes to the forefront, when dealing with contentious issues.
Then, there is the great rift that most evangelicals recall, concerning J. I. Packer and other evangelicals: It was about Roman Catholicism.
In the mid-1990s, Packer was a leading force in promoting dialogue between evangelicals and Roman Catholics, through a project called “Evangelicals and Catholics Together.” Packer was accused by critics of abandoning the time-honored principles of the Protestant Reformation, leading to a rupture in relations with other conservative leaders, like R.C. Sproul and John MacArthur. Yet Packer maintained the classic Puritan critique against the church of Rome, while emphasizing that the greater threat to the evangelical movement, comes not from the church of Rome, but rather from the encroachment of secularism, seeping into evangelical circles. Packer believed that the changing cultural landscape should encourage Puritan-minded evangelicals to look for avenues of cooperation with Roman Catholics, in resisting the onslaught of secularism, without fearing losing sight of the foundational principles of the Protestant Reformation.
Nevertheless, Packer was not known for bearing a grudge. When Packer wrote the preface for his Concise Theology, he praised R. C. Sproul: “I gratefully acknowledge the hidden hand of my much admired friend R. C. Sproul, from whom came the germ idea for several of these outlines.”
Packer as Nuanced, Traditional Complementarian, in the “Women in Ministry” Debate
Ever the irenic spokesperson, but not afraid of controversy, Packer jumped into the fray of the growing complementarian vs. egalitarian debate, that has divided evangelicalism into two, irreconcilable camps, of those resisting the ordination of women, to the office of presbyter (or elder), in the local church, and those who favor such ordination of women. In his landmark 1991 essay for Christianity Today, Packer pleaded with fellow evangelicals, “Let’s stop making women presbyters.”
In that essay, Packer began by saying:
- “Oxford has been called the home of lost causes, and here am I, an Oxford man, pleading for an end to something that is now standard practice in Methodist, Baptist, Lutheran, Congregational, Pentecostal, and Presbyterian denominations, along with the Anglican churches of the U.S.A., Canada, New Zealand, and Ireland. Is this a lost cause? Perhaps. Yet does not wisdom urge us to stop this practice and point us to a better way of benefiting from women’s ministry than by ordaining them to the presbyterate? Here are my reasons for thinking that the answer is yes.”
In a note of adding balance, Packer continued:
- “Let me say, before moving into my argument, that I am as emphatically for women’s ministry as I am against turning women into substitute men by making presbyters of them. …. To confine women to domestic and menial roles when God has gifted them for ministry and leadership would be Spirit-quenching, beyond doubt. Gifts are given to be used, and when God-given gifts lie fallow, whether in men or in women, the church suffers. “
Those who have wished to silence women in the churches completely have taken no comfort in Packer’s essay. Yet Packer was very careful to say that a distinction should be made, with the respect to holding the office of presbyter, or elder, of a local church. Such a distinction should not rule out the possibility of women serving in other leadership roles in the church.
For example, Packer himself partnered several times with freelance writer, Carolyn Nystrom, to co-write several books together, a successful literary collaboration that demonstrated Packer’s enthusiasm for working with and encouraging intelligent, gifted women, for furthering sound, biblical teaching, in the evangelical movement. Packer greatly valued the voice of women, and encouraged women’s ministry. Yet as a traditionalist, he saw the contemporary changes in favor of an egalitarian reading of Scripture, to be a wrong-headed move, that inadvertently undercuts Scriptural authority.
For Packer, his stand for a male-only eldership was not a contradiction of his views that affirmed the leadership of women in the church. Rather, he saw these principles as being in harmony with one another, affirming the unique character of men and women, interacting with one another to serve the mission of the church, thereby celebrating God’s purpose of creating humans as male and female, in the image of God, which gives the greatest glory to God.
Packer listed five points, that have contributed to the contemporary trend of making women presbyters:
- The “feminist ideology that demands equal rights everywhere, on the grounds that anything a man can do a woman can do as well if not better, naturally requires women presbyters,” and yet Packer’s contention is not about what a woman can do, but rather, in terms of how the church should model how men and women should relate to one another, in the church and in the home.
- The gradual movement, since World War I, whereby women have been moving more and more into the workforce, outside of the home.
- A changing view as to how Paul might be treating women in the New Testament. Is Paul describing universal practice, across all-times and all-places, or was Paul addressing particular issues, relevant to certain churches in the first century, and therefore, not applicable for today?
- The acknowledgement that women have served well in ministry leadership roles. Yet Packer comments as follows: “God has blessed the ministry of ordained women. Does that not prove the rightness of their presbyterial role? Not necessarily. God has blessed his people before through intrinsically inappropriate arrangements and may be doing so again. His mercy in practice does not settle matters of principle any more than majority votes do. The conclusion that God’s use of women presbyters shows that he wants them does not follow.”
- The elevation of the office of presbyter (or elder) to a status of privilege and power, instead of a demonstration of servanthood in serving the local church.
In reflecting on the controversial passage by Paul, in 1 Timothy 2:8-15, Packer goes in in his essay to say that the role for presbyter “is for manly men rather than womanly women, according to the creation pattern that redemption restores,” a statement that surely rattles egalitarians. Nevertheless, Packer cautions that local churches should not arbitrarily limit the teaching and leadership gifts that women may offer to their communities, a perspective that irritates a number of complementarians!
Packer is most concerned about honoring the authority of the whole of Scripture, as opposed to pitting one passage of the Bible against another passage. Some evangelicals today believe that if Paul would have REALLY understood the implications of his own preaching, as in his famous “magna carta” statement in Galatians 3:28, about there being “no male or female” in Christ, he never would have consented to making any restrictions about the ministry of women in 1 Timothy 2:12. But this pitting of the “good Paul,” as supposed by some egalitarians, with respect to Galatians 3:28, against the supposed “bad Paul,” of 1 Timothy 2:12, has the unintended consequence of decreasing our confidence in the Bible as a whole. Packer warns against such degradation of Scriptural authority.
J. I. Packer believed that the fundamental issue in view, is not about the qualifications of women to serve in ministry or leadership in the church, in general, as is often claimed by advocates of egalitarianism. Rather, Packer believed that the confusion stems over how Christians think specifically about the office of presbyter (or elder, or overseer) in the church. For Packer, elders are “persons of experience whose spiritual authority has been recognized by the church.”
- “Is it proper for a woman who ministers in this way to preach? Since authority resides in the Word of God rather than in preachers and teachers of either sex, it is my opinion that a woman’s preaching and teaching gifts may be used to the full in situations where a male minister is in charge and the woman’s ministry of the Word has the effect of supplementing and supporting his own preaching and teaching.”
The irony of Packer’s conclusion has been that it often reflects how many evangelical, egalitarian-minded congregations actually live out their corporate worship life in practice, up to the present day. Many churches are obsessed with the power held by “elders” in their local church, emphasizing the title of the office, as opposed to the function actually served by the elders of the local church. Once again, Packer lended no comfort to more traditionalist complementarians, who have refused any type of public ministry, for women.
Nevertheless, Packer’s critics, on the more egalitarian side of the discussion, have judged his views as just another warmed-over attempt to relegate women as second-class citizens. The tragedy here is that too often, even in egalitarian circles, a greater emphasis is placed on the title of the office, as opposed to the function actually served by the elders of the local church. It seems that Packer could never avoid being “shot at from both sides,” but this never seemed to deter him from being as irenic as he possibly could, when engaging with his critics.
Packer as Critic of Contemporary Trends in Human Sexuality in the Church
In 2002, his experience in the Anglican church, a tradition that he both long admired and critiqued, came to a point of crisis. Packer had been teaching at Regent College in Vancouver, in Canada. Yet when the Anglican Diocese of New Westminster, decided to authorize same-sex blessing ceremonies, Packer knew that this was a line that he could not cross, and so, he left that Anglican church. In 2009, J. I. Packer shifted to join the newly formed Anglican Church in North America.
- “My primary authority, is a Bible writer named Paul. For many decades now, I have asked myself at every turn of my theological road: Would Paul be with me in this? What would he say if he were in my shoes? I have never dared to offer a view on anything that I did not have good reason to think he would endorse.”
Nevertheless, Packer still engaged in his irenic style and crisp thinking, in the essay he originally wrote for Christianity Today, explaining why he left the New Westminister diocese. Packer carefully noted that while he did not believe that Scripture sanctions same-sex marriage, he did not believe that Scripture views the mere presence of same-sex attraction in a person, as in indication of damnable sin in that person’s life. Packer exposited 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 in a manner that many evangelicals today increasingly believe gives too much ground to the so-called “LGBTQ” movement:
- “…..there is really no room for doubt regarding what [Paul] has in mind. He must have known, as Christians today know, that some men are sexually drawn to men rather than women, but he is not speaking of inclinations, only of behavior, what has more recently been called acting out. His point is that Christians need to resist these urges, since acting them out cannot please God and will reveal lethal impenitence. Romans 1:26 shows that Paul would have spoken similarly about lesbian acting out if he had had reason to mention it here..”
Many evangelical Christians today would instead lump the existence of same-sex attraction in a person, in with the physical act of engaging in same-sex relations. Such a view tends to confuse temptation together with sin itself, that comes as a result of giving into temptation. Not so with J. I. Packer :
- “…..With some of the Corinthian Christians, Paul was celebrating the moral empowering of the Holy Spirit in heterosexual terms; with others of the Corinthians, today’s homosexuals are called to prove, live out, and celebrate the moral empowering of the Holy Spirit in homosexual terms. Another friend, well known to me for 30 years, has lived with homosexual desires all his adult life, but remains a faithful husband and father, sexually chaste, through the power of the Holy Spirit, according to the gospel. He is a model in every way. We are all sexually tempted, one way or another, yet we may all tread the path of chastity through the Spirit’s enablement, and thereby please God...”
It is my estimation that the error of Keswick teaching, encountered by Packer in the 1940s, has been replaced by this tendency in certain evangelical circles, to have a muddled view of temptation and sin. Such circles sadly conflate indwelling sin with all forms of temptation, thereby leading vulnerable Christians to points of needless despair, and even unbelief.
There we have it. J. I. Packer as the controversialist. Over the span of many decades, Packer has continued to unnerve fellow evangelicals with stands that go against the popular grain, on both the right and left of him. But it has been his careful demeanor and measured prose that have enabled him to withstand criticism.
Packer as a Teacher for “Joe the Bus Driver”
Leland Ryken tells the story of when J. I. Packer served on the translation committee for the English Standard Version of the Bible (to be discussed shortly below). Packer would frequently say that good Bible translation should have “Joe the bus driver” in mind. True to his lower-middle-class roots, J. I. Packer sought to make sound theology accessible to those who came from his more humble background.
Packer has been known as a theologian, but he did not write theology just for academics. He wrote no great, multi-volume systematic theology, to be relegated to some darkened corner of a library’s book stacks. Rather, he viewed theology as wholly practical. The discipline of doing theology and the spiritual disciplines of prayer, and devotion to God, were essentially intertwined. He wrote theology for the good of the church, that lives might be better transformed to reflect the character of the God, who is to be worshipped. An excellent example of this practically-minded approach to theology is found in a series of essays he wrote, that are found in Honoring the Written Word of God: Collected Shorter Writings of J. I. Packer.
J. I. Packer’s writings have been very formative in my own spiritual and theological life, and very challenging over the long-haul. Ever the gentleman, J. I. Packer never did let distractors discourage him, and modify his irenic posture towards others. Rather, Packer sought to continue in his balanced approach to faith, by grounding himself more and more, in the study of the Scriptures. This alignment of inward character, with the substance of Scripture, is something that I have found worthy of emulation, though difficult to actually live out!
It was Packer’s gentle, yet logical and firm manner in presenting his arguments that have challenged me to reconsidering some of my own views. For example, I was once a very strong opponent of the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement, that teaches that Jesus only died only for the elect, in contrast to an Arminian-Wesleyan view, that teaches that Jesus died on the cross for all of humanity. Like many Arminian-leaning evangelicals, I often dismissed the Calvinist view of limited atonement as unfair, and even bigoted! It was in reading J. I. Packer’s introductory essay to a reprint of John Owen’s classic Puritan work, The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, that enabled me to at least better understand the Calvinist viewpoint. Packer may not make a Calvinist out of everyone, but his irenic approach can help anyone, with an open mind, to better understand and appreciate an opposing position.
Packer as Theologian of Bible Translation
For biographer Leland Ryken, J. I. Packer’s greatest legacy can be found in the pages of the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible. Packer was one of the principle theologians who helped to guide the ESV into becoming a reality.
As an Anglican, for the greatest part of his life, Packer enjoyed the Revised Standard Version (RSV) of the Bible, what had become the standard English translation of the Bible, in many mainline churches, since it was published in the 1950s. The RSV stood within the long tradition of the venerable King James Version of the Bible, holding to much of the “literalness” of the text, while ironically, preserving the ambiguity of more “word-for-word,” translations of the Bible, resisting the tendency to overly interpret the text, as sometimes is done in more “thought-for-thought” translations, and paraphrases.
But Packer was also highly critical of how the RSV watered down certain critical texts, that he believed were critical in forming a fully orthodox, Scriptural theology of evangelical faith. In Knowing God, in his chapter on “The Heart of the Gospel,” Packer took C.H. Dodd, the principle translator of many portions of the New Testament of the RSV, to task for treating the work of Christ on the cross as merely an expiation for the sins of humanity, and not a propitiation. Packer did not object to expiation, as expiation is “an action that has sin as its object; it denotes the covering, putting away, or rubbing out of sin so that it no longer constitutes a barrier to friendly fellowship between man and God.” (Knowing God, p. 163-164).
But what Jesus accomplished at Calvary was more than that. Packer insisted that Christ’s death was also for the propitiation of our sins. For Packer, propitiation is understood, in addition to expiation, as “pacifying the wrath of God.” (Knowing God, p. 164). Packer wrote of the wrath of God, as something that needs to be satisfied, but this satisfaction need not be in the sense of something like an angry pagan deity, that has an anger-management problem, that can only be rectified by the sacrifice, of an innocent victim. Rather, the propitiation at the cross is a work of God Himself, and not something accomplished by someone other than God. “Propitiation was made by the death of Jesus Christ,” and “propitiation manifests God’s righteousness.” The death of Christ “quenched God’s wrath against us by obliterating our sins from His sight….”:
- “God’s wrath is His righteousness reacting against unrighteousness; it shows itself in retributive justice. But Jesus Christ has shielded us from the nightmare prospect of retributive justice by becoming our representative substitute, in obedience to His Father’s will, and receiving the wages of our sin in our place. By this means justice has been done, for the sins of all that will ever be pardoned were judged and punished in the person of God the Son, and it is on this basis that pardon is now offered to us offenders. Redeeming love and retributive justice joined hands, so to speak, at Calvary, for there God showed Himself to be ‘just, and the justifier’ of him that hath faith in Jesus “(Knowing God, p. 168-170).
This sense of God’s “self-propitiation,” as Packer’s fellow Anglican John R. W. Stott would put it, is what separates a biblical sense of atonement, from a pagan one. Packer considered that there was no need for the RSV translation to shy away from that theological reality.
This is why the term propitiation shows up somewhat frequently in the ESV translation. Hebrews 2:17 reads that Christ “might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (ESV), instead of “might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people” (RSV).
The RSV translation had been copyrighted by the U.S. National Council of Churches, in the 1950s. But when the National Council of Churches sought to update that translation as the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV), in the late 1980s to 1990s, Crossway Publishers was able to obtain permission from the National Council of Churches to use the RSV, and make the necessary changes in that translation, to give us today’s ESV translation. Packer saw this opportunity to revise the RSV translation, along more evangelically oriented lines, and he jumped into the translation process with tremendous enthusiasm, as Ryken recalls in J. I. Packer: An Evangelical Life.
J. I. Packer served as the general editor for the English Standard Version Bible and as theological editor for the ESV Study Bible, which is still my favorite study Bible. When the ESV was published, Packer had this to say:
- “I was privileged to act as General Editor of the English Standard Version, and now that I look back on what we did in producing that version, I find myself suspecting very strongly that this was the most important thing that I have ever done for the Kingdom, and that the product of our labors is perhaps the biggest milestone in Bible translation in certainly this last 50 years, and perhaps more. Perhaps I ought to be saying 100 years—I think I should, actually—because it was almost 100 years ago that the paraphrase renderings of the Bible began to present themselves, as they did, as the version that you ought to read if you want to understand the Word of God. I think that, while in the short term it was not false entirely, did set the world of Bible translation and distribution off on what long-term was going to prove a false trail.”
This is vintage Packer. J. I. Packer always had the long view in mind, when it came to controversial issues in the church. What would best serve the church, over the long haul? Packer was fond of many English translations of the Bible, and encouraged Christians to make use of several translations, whenever one studies a particular passage in depth. But Packer’s influence in the English Standard Version stands out, as Leland Ryken rightly notes, as Packer’s greatest achievement. For Packer himself, his involvement with the ESV is the best legacy he could have ever left the church.
J.I. Packer: Exemplary Model of Christian Faithfulness
Though I was initially drawn more to read the more introspective J.I. Packer: A Biography, by Alister McGrath, as I heartily recommend just about anything McGrath writes, the prospect of listening to Leland Ryken’s J.I. Packer: An Evangelical Life, as an audiobook, was too good to pass up. Ryken leans extensively on McGrath’s work, but Ryken packs a lot of material into his biographical portrait of Packer’s life. Ryken’s work is part biography of Packer’s life, part an examination of Packer’s literary influences and style, and part analysis of Packer’s theological themes in his writings.
I found two drawbacks to reading Ryken. First, he sometimes repeats certain material throughout the book. While the repeated material is very good, it could have stood some better editing to tighten up the narrative. Also, Ryken intentionally focuses on J.I. Packer’s life, and less on his impact on the larger world of evangelicalism. Perhaps that is for another book yet to be written. Nevertheless, Leland Ryken’s J.I. Packer: An Evangelical Life makes for good reading (or should I say, good listening, as an audiobook!).
In writing this final paragraph for this review, I am greatly saddened by the loss of one of evangelicalism’s greatest thinkers and teachers, of the past 50+ years. Nonetheless, J.I. Packer has now moved on towards a much greater reward. Friendly critics of Packer’s, like Ben Witherington, and life-long supporters, like Al Mohler (video), and particularly Justin Taylor, at The Gospel Coalition, have produced thoughtful reflections on Packer’s life lived well. If I could ever be half as kind as Carl Trueman remembers J. I. Packer to be, that would be something! A few other Veracity blog posts, one by me from a few years ago, and one by my blogging colleague, John Paine, on the importance of knowing what you believe, give you a visual and audible clue as to what J. I. Packer was like. Whether or not one agrees with everything that J.I. Packer wrote, it should encourage us all to consider what Packer sought to faithfully teach, as an example of how we, as believers living in the 21st century, should pursue in a balanced vision of the Christian life.