J. I. Packer and the Evangelical Future

A book review by Dr. Herbert Samworth

 

We are going to take a break from reviews of books that deal with the history of the Reformation and the Bible. Rather we will review a book edited by Timothy George entitled J. I. Packer and the Evangelical Future: the Impact of His Life and Thought and published by Baker Academic in 2009.

J. I. Packer and the Evangelical FutureThe book consists of a series of essays analyzing the life and impact of J. I. Packer on the Evangelical resurgence of the last sixty years. The occasion was the celebration of his eightieth birthday in 2006. In some ways it must be considered a different, if not a strange, book because books of this type are usually not written during the individual’s lifetime in order that a more balanced perspective of the person and his work can be given.

The book itself is a series of essays by contributors who have been associated closely with Dr. Packer and his career. They include Charles Colson, Richard Neuhaus, Alister McGrath, Mark Dever, and others.

When the name of J. I. Packer is mentioned, most people would recognize him as the author of one of the best selling book in recent years. That book is Knowing God and it is nearly impossible to gauge fully its impact since it was published in 1973. It has been used to introduce many to a rare combination of theology and practical application to their understanding. Packer has always striven in his books to write theology for lay people. Although he is certainly capable of writing academic theology, he has been led to write primarily for the non-specialist.

However, to understand the purpose of the book, it is necessary to know somewhat of the life of J. I. Packer. Born in 1926 and educated at Oxford University (DPhil for his work on Richard Baxter) Packer has taught at a number of schools and universities both in England and Canada.

There were three formative influences on his life. The first was his education at Oxford where he studied the classical curriculum majoring in Latin and Greek studies. During that time, although nominally a member of the Anglican Church, Packer came to faith in Christ. In addition, it was at Oxford that Packer came to discover the Puritans through the writings of John Owen, the second major influence on his life. A third influence was the Anglican Church in which Packer sought and obtained ordination.

These influences resulted in two major contributions that Packer has made to the Evangelical cause. The first dealt with the doctrine of Scripture. Packer made his debut as a major author in 1958 with Fundamentalism and the Word of God. This was a robust defense of the doctrine of Scripture and its inerrancy. Over the next decade Packer lent his considerable intellect to the cause of defending Scripture. It has been said that there were four books that were required reading by undergraduate students in British universities during that time. They included Dr. Packer’s books on Scripture and the sovereignty of God and two others by John W. Stott and T. C. Hammond.

Packer also contributed greatly to the revival of Puritan studies during the same period. He was a major impetus behind the Puritan Conference that began at Westminster Chapel in the early 1950’s during the pastorate of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones. This revival continues today with the reprinting of many Puritan works and numerous conferences dedicated to their study.

However, despite his contributions to Evangelicalism, Dr. Packer has been involved in controversy. The first occasion came in 1955 when he published a critical article on the Keswick Convention and the Higher Christian life in the Evangelical Quarterly. This produced a minor crisis and nearly sank the periodical because the Keswick Convention included a number of prominent Christian leaders some of whom were Anglicans. The second, which continues to broil, resulted from his split with Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones over the question of whether Anglican evangelicals should leave the Anglican Church and unite with Independents to form a new church organization. The third controversy arose over Dr. Packer’s involvement with what came to be known as ECT (Evangelicals and Catholics Together). This controversy continues to the present because the work of Evangelicals and Catholics Together is ongoing. Many are convinced that Dr. Packer has betrayed the Evangelical cause by his participation.

This is not the place to discuss the merits of these controversies as they are still ongoing. Only as one looks back on them will any kind of objective analysis be possible. As a result, it leads back to an observation made previously, why was this particular tribute planned and carried out? Here again, we are on somewhat uncertain ground because only the organizers are capable of answering that question. It is significant that while they mention they wish to honor Dr. Packer for his part in the Evangelical resurgence, they remain silent on the exact reason for the time and occasion.

Some have suggested that the reason for the book was to show support for Packer’s involvement in the Evangelicals and Catholics Together movement. According to these individuals, this involvement is the result of Packer’s interest in what is called the Great Tradition of Christianity. The Church of Jesus Christ as it exists today is divided into three communions: Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Protestant. However, this division is not the will of the Lord Who prayed in His Great High Priestly prayer, recorded in John 17, that they all might be one. The Great Tradition seeks to find common ground among the communions and to work toward an agreed outlook if not for organic reunion.

Whatever may have been the reason for the conference, we are faced with the reality that we have the book before us. What are we to make of it? As stated above, it consists of twelve essays on Packer and his work from various viewpoints, followed by a response from Packer himself.

As one may well imagine, it certainly must have been difficult to deliver a critical paper on the work of J. I. Packer with him seated in the audience! So we are not surprised to find that a number of them, e. g. the contributions by Edith Humphrey, Charles Colson, David Neff, and others are quite laudatory. Whether this is because they have truly analyzed his work or because of their friendship with Packer is a question that remains unanswered. The essays by Donald Payne and Paul House go into some depth on Packer’s view of Scripture and his method of theology. In these articles, there is some muted criticism of his method for the proper interpretation of Scripture especially where his method almost assumes the capability of the rational mind to understand Scripture apart from the enlightening ministry of the Holy Spirit.

There are two essays that deal with theological subjects. Mark Dever explores Dr. Packer’s view of the atonement. A number of years ago Packer wrote an article that appeared in the Tyndale Journal on the penal aspect of the atonement that is now considered a minor classic. However, even more known is the essay that he wrote on John Owen’s The Death of Death in Christ. Many people are convinced that this is one of the best defenses of limited or effacacious atonement ever written. There are some who prefer it to Owen’s work itself!

However that may be, the most provocative essay in the book comes from the pen of Dr. Carl Trueman, Academic Dean and Professor of Church History at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia. His basic thesis is that Dr. Packer should have left the Anglican Church at the call of Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones in October 1966. He states this, not only for the sake of Dr. Packer personally, but for the well-being of the Evangelical movement itself. If Dr. Packer had done this, in the view of Dr. Trueman, he would have provided a balanced perspective on ecclesiology to counteract the imbalance or indifference of Dr. Lloyd-Jones on the same subject. Also he could have provided more effective theological leadership to the Evangelical movement than it received. Finally, it would have permitted Dr. Packer the opportunity to write an updated comprehensive Systematic Theology textbook that Evangelicalism both lacked and needed. In addition to Dr. Trueman, there are many who believe that Dr. Packer’s failure to write such a book has contributed to the doctrinal weaknesses of Evangelicalism.

The reader must be aware that what is written above is a condensed version of a very complicated situation that needs to be studied with a great amount of discernment. But to summarize the view, and I trust fairly, of Dr. Trueman is that he is convinced that Dr. Packer could, and perhaps should, have provided the Evangelical cause with the leadership that it so desperately needed and failed to receive from Dr. Lloyd-Jones. While Dr. Trueman has great respect for Dr. Lloyd-Jones, he has found him the weakest where Dr. Packer is the strongest: in a comprehensive view of theology including the doctrine of the Church and in a first rate theological mind to counteract the revivalist tendencies of Dr. Lloyd-Jones.

But there is yet more to the story. Dr. Trueman’s essay, while ignored totally in the response given by Dr. Packer to the various essays, has sparked a controversy in itself. Taking issue with Dr. Trueman’s view have been Paul Helm and Iain Murray. Helm’s strictures were written in an irenic manner while he sought to expose what he considered to be the weakness of what Dr. Trueman wrote. However, the response of Iain Murray in the March 2010 issue of the Banner of Truth Magazine has been to accuse Trueman of not having his facts correct, slander, and just being wrong in his interpretation of the situation.

Trueman has answered Murray on the pages of Reformation 21, the ezine of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (ACE). So as of this date, this is where the situation remains. It is not often that the responses to essays have provoked more interest than the essays themselves!

What is the value of all this? Hopefully it is more than just one person (Iain Murray) seeking to defend his mentor and hero (Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones) from what he thinks is misguided criticism. There are far deeper issues and those issues deal with the Evangelical cause itself.

Dr. Packer has done wonderful service to the Evangelicalism by his writings on Scripture and the popularization of Puritan doctrine and practice. However, he has caused great puzzlement to many by his involvement in the ECT. It is difficult to reconcile how a theologian of Dr. Packer’s stature can write so cogently on the doctrine of justification by faith by stressing that the formal cause of justification is the imputation of both the active and passive obedience of Christ and yet make common cause with individuals from a church that denies that doctrine by teaching that the formal cause of justification is the infusion of Christ’s righteousness. It is also difficult to evaluate the effectiveness of the Evangelical movement when its leaders have not taught a clear doctrine of the church by their failure to maintain consistently that one of the marks of the true Church of Christ is correct doctrine.

It must be remembered that for all the benefits brought by the Reformation, one of its weaknesses was a failure to deal with the doctrine of the church in a definitive manner. Perhaps we would not be facing some of the issues today such as the Seeker-friendly church, the Emergent church, the Federal vision and other problems associated with the doctrine of the church if leaders of the stature of Dr. Packer and Dr. Lloyd-Jones had joined forces to provide adequate teaching and leadership to resolve these issues rather than separating.

J. I. Packer and the Evangelical Future does not address these issues directly but they are there beneath the surface. Perhaps the greatest benefit of the book will be to encourage Evangelical leadership to face these issues squarely because they are not going to go away in the near future.

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