Monday, 12 October 2009

Jim Packer - one of God's giants?

J. I. Packer has been one of the most influential voices in recent evangelical history on both sides of the Atlantic, indeed when discussing twentieth century evangelicalism Packer, John Stott and Martyn Lloyd-Jones tend to be lumped together as the three great leaders of the movement. There has been some limited reappraisal of Lloyd-Jones' influence, relatively little on John Stott so far, and only Alister McGrath's biography of Packer, which appeared in 1996. Packer turned 80 in 2006, and to recognise this a conference was held at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama, to dicsuss Packer's influence and legacy. Timothy George (ed.), J. I. Packer and the Evangelical Future: The Impact of his Life and Thought (Grand Rapids, MI, Baker Academic, 2009) contains the published versions of the papers delivered at the conference. There is not a weak paper in the whole volume, and most of them deserve some comment, but I'll limit myself to commenting on just one or two of them. For many their main contact with Packer comes through his Knowing God. I must admit to being a bit of late comer to it personally, although agree entirely with many of the contributors here about its beauty and importance. One of Packer's key contributions has been his defense of a traditional evangelical understanding of the doctrine of scripture, particularly the idea of biblical inerrancy. Two chapters here deal with his understanding of Scripture, those by Don Payne and Paul House. I found some of the sections in Payne's chapter where he discusses how Packer's linking of God's communicating today with the pages of Scripture deeply moving: 'humans connect with the person of God through understanding the rational content of the mind of God. Scripture is so closely allied with God's mind that to know God personally is impossible apart from the rational content of Scripture . . . Scripture is not sterile, impersonal information but the means through which God relates to humanity personally' (p. 58). For me Packer's best book is Among God's Giants (1991), his papers and essays on the Puritans. I probably read it at a key moment in my own Christian pilgrimage, and its was one of those books that proved so influential to me and my current career path. A number of the essays, by Mark Dever and Bruce Hindmarsh, look at Packer's work on the Puritans, using the idea of retrieving riches from the Church's past to enrich and inform it in the present. One wonders though how influential this creative engagement with the past has been. Outside of some select circles the tendency of evangelicals to ignore their history is still pretty pervasive! For me the most provocative chapter in the collection was Carl Trueman's assessment of Packer from the perpective of an English nonconformist. Of course, Packer has played little part in evangelicalism on this side of the Atlantic since his relocation to Regent College, Vancouver, in 1979. The reasons for this are many, but the fallout between him and Martyn Lloyd-Jones after 1966 and the relatively cool response that his highly theological puritan-driven vision of Anglicanism got from the resurgent evangelical Anglicanism of the 1970s and 1980s, very heavily influenced by the charismatic renewal, often made him appear a lonely figure on this side of the Atlantic. Examining the relationship between Lloyd-Jones and Packer, Trueman casts Packer as the lost leader of English nonconformist evangelicals, suggesting that if Packer had heeded Lloyd-Jones' call and left Anglicanism then maybe he would have been the pre-eminent influence within late twentieth-century reformed evangelicalism, rather than Lloyd-Jones as turned out to be the case. For Trueman, Lloyd-Jones' call for evangelicals to come together in 1966 was certainly visionary, where that call faltered was in Lloyd-Jones' lack of a clear strategy, beyond a loose confederation of quasi-independent churches, once individuals had quit their denominations. Packer, in Trueman's view, would have championed a more confessional evanglelicalism, rather than the sort of 'lowest common denominator, conservative, experiential evangelicalism' (p. 121) preferred by Lloyd-Jones. Of course, this interpretation represents Trueman's own preferences to a great extent, a Presbyterian teaching at one of the bastions of Reformed scholastic Calvinism, Westminister Seminary in the US. Trueman's preference for a more theological evangelical unity, and probably a unity of reformed evangelicals and few others, was something that Lloyd-Jones was trying to guard against. Maybe in calling for a broad evangelical unity, Lloyd-Jones was more in tune with the spirit of historic evangelicalism than Trueman appreciates. Hasn't evangelicalism, since the eighteenth century at least, always been a loose confederation of Christians, agreed on the essentials of the gospel, but prepared to differ on other matters, deemed not essential to salvation? Was Lloyd-Jones' call for evangelicals to stand together, at a time when he perceived the very future of evangelicalism to be under threat (whether you agree with that slightly conspiratorial assessment or not), a call for evangelicals to major on the things that bound them together, to maximise their strength and witness, rather than to disipate it by wrangling over secondary issues? In Lloyd-Jones vision of evangelical unity Arminians and Calvinists, Pentecostals and Cessationists, and later charismatics, Baptists, Presbyterians etc would have been able to maintain their distinct identities, while also expressing their affinity with other evangelicals. Would the kind of doctrinal unity which Trueman wishes Packer to have championed actually have ended up leading to even greater disipation of energy; isn't the kind of Calvinist confessionalism that underpins Trueman's analysis merely a recipe for further fragmentation as Calvinists disagree over who is the most Calvinist? Trueman also makes a distinction between Packer's championing of proper Reformed theology, and Lloyd-Jones' Reformed theology, which because it was 'read through the grid of eighteenth-century revivalism' wasn't really Reformed at all (pp. 126-7), but much closer to mysticism (p. 119). What was it I was saying about arguments among the Reformed about who was the most Reformed? This is a wonderful book of essays, with lots of thought-provoking material on every page. Its all rounded off with a repsonse from Packer himself, who concludes the volume with some judicious reflections about the future prospects for evangelicalism. There's plenty of evidence here that Packer should certainly take his place in the pantheon of God's giants!!


Exploring the Study of Religious History said...

excellent thoughts here david. i just received this book the other week and probably won't have much time to read through it until this summer, so appreciate your initial thoughts.

on another note, thought you would like to read larsen's and marsden's comments on bebbington which they both agreed to have posted on our esrh blog.



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