J.I. Packer: A Biography, by Alister McGrath
Baker Books, 340 pp.;
Last year my son Jon had to wrestle two weight classes beyond his actual weight. Still, he won more matches than he lost, but when he took to the mat during one particular match, my heart sank. PeeWee Herman versus the Incredible Hulk came to mind. The buzzer sounded, and my son's opponent quickly flattened him. Yet somehow, before the interminable minute expired, Jon gathered his strength, wrested himself from his opponent's grip, and stood up.
The second period looked like the first, with the added dimension of my son having swollen eye sockets and mat burns. He flailed under the weight of his antagonist, squirming as his dwindling strength allowed, until he dislodged his foe's grip, grunted and heaved, and stood up again.
By round three the other guy looked as dazed as Jon did as they lumbered to the starting position for the third time. My son was flattened yet again, and I wouldn't have blamed him for giving up. But seizing a second wind, Jon wiggled out of the near-pin and, unbelievably, stood up again. Then, as quickly as he had been felled earlier, he flipped his opponent and had him flat on the mat. The crowd exploded, hoping for the upset pin, but the buzzer rang. The referee lifted the arm of my son's opponent, but everyone there recognized that something greater than a victory for one and a loss for another had transpired on that mat.
My son's match kept coming to mind as I read Alister McGrath's recently published J. I. Packer: A Biography (Baker). In the author's meticulous documentation of James Innell Packer's role in the shaping of contemporary evangelicalism, I saw how tall this solitary man from Britain really stands, given how many times he was leveled, sometimes brutally, but kept standing up.
McGrath well positions Packer in British and North American church history, providing the blow-by-blow scenario of Packer's academic ascendance. Whether it is Packer's discovery of the contemporary relevance of the Puritans, or his decision to seek ordination in the Church of England, or his forging two key Christian think tanks in Britain, or his role as the "reforming principal" at Tyndale Hall in Bristol and his efforts at encouraging a renaissance in evangelical scholarship, or his emigration to Canada to teach at Regent College—by the end of the book the reader will apprehend the significance of this great man's contribution to the contemporary evangelical world.
McGrath helps us appreciate his extraordinary mind and tenacity but only hints at the man behind the mind. In J. I. Packer a razor sharp intellect, a passionate heart, and devoted soul come together in startling unity.
Once when I announced to my sons that "Dr. Packer" would be joining us for dinner, one responded, "He's the one with the dent in his head, right?" They didn't think of him as the author of Knowing God or the one who has written more books than some people read in a lifetime. They remember the dent, freely showcased by Packer himself at our dinner table during a meal we had shared earlier. My boys sat riveted as he told the tale of his being chased at age seven, out of the schoolyard into the street, making—as he says it—"a violent collision with a truck, a bread van," adding, "I lost a bit of my head as a result."
J. I. Packer is a force, which McGrath adeptly captures in his book, but he is also a "pious Puritan" (as one friend calls him), a praying Christian, a pastor/teacher, husband and father, and to many, a friend. McGrath's narrative enables us to appreciate his unique place in contemporary evangelicalism, to which I add here my own understanding of the "man behind the mind."
It seemed as if the odds were against him from the get-go. Packer's modest upbringing in a working-class family living in a rented house did not polish him for the intellectual circles he would eventually inhabit. His father held a job at the Great Western Railway, which tendered "security but no money." Beyond that, his father, according to Packer, had been somewhat "unfitted for major responsibility"—which kept his career track with the railway in the realm of the "trivial"—"dealing with complaints about lost luggage" and the like. He had a mental collapse at the age of 52 when his responsibilities increased during the war. This meant that, at times, he could be a remote and bewildering presence in the home, though he recovered and became as "cheerful as before."
Being nearly killed by the truck introduced a new set of battles for the bookish boy from Gloucestershire. "From then on until I went to university," he recalls, "I used to move around wearing on my head an aluminum plate with a rubber pad attached around the edge. It made me more of a speckled bird than I was before."
He didn't like being a "speckled bird." He wanted to be a "star cricketer." But the dent and the metal plate dashed those aspirations. So he set his hopes on the less sublime, anticipating that, for his eleventh birthday, he would receive what British boys typically received on eleventh birthdays—a new bike.
His parents gave him a typewriter.
That set his course and, to some extent, his temperament. His "eggheaded" (his term) temperament coupled with the crushed head, the metal plate, and subsequent dashed hopes, left him lonely and melancholy and displeased with his "curious features" ("I don't know anyone who has a face like mine," he says). He became the easy target for the schoolyard bullies—"if they wanted someone to bully, it was very often me." He was always willing to lend homework help when needed though, even to the bullies: "If they wanted somebody to help them with their homework, again, it was very often me." He always felt on "the edge of things." "There was a solitariness about my young years," he recalls.
His surprise at the typewriter instead of the bike soon "gave way to delight," McGrath notes, as he hunted-and-pecked himself into a new and satisfying world of storywriting. This summoned and sharpened his linear thinking patterns and analytical skills, which, he says, are God-given: "God gave me a mind that always looks for the logical structure of what's being said."
But there is a downside to this kind of brilliance: "You get some shocks when you do that."
One such "shock" occurred during the frequent chess matches he shared with the son of a Unitarian minister. Between games, his opponent tried to sell Packer the "Unitarian bill of goods." But the presentation of Unitarian beliefs did not hold together for the linear, logical Packer, then age 15.
"Unitarianism affirms the ethic of Jesus as the most wonderful thing since ice cream and negates the divinity of Jesus as superstition," he says. "It seemed clear to me to ask—even when I didn't know much about the contents of the Bible—If these chaps believe so much of the New Testament, why don't they believe more? If they deny something so central as the divinity of Jesus, which is clearly there, why don't they believe less? How does this position hold together?" "Not by logic," he concluded, "but by willpower."
This realization had the unexpected result of forcing him to think seriously about the Christian faith. He had grown up a churchgoer, a "habit" instilled by his parents. But many Anglicans, as he knew them in his day, "didn't know what they believed and didn't think it mattered," he says. So he had never given any thought to "questions of truth" about the Christian faith—that is, until the Unitarian evangelist prompted his thinking. "My mind had been grabbed by the question—What is true Christianity?"
He undertook a vigorous study of the Scriptures and other Christian writers (including C. S. Lewis), which eventually won his intellectual assent to the veracity of the historic faith. Around the same time, a friend of his had gotten "soundly converted" at university and, feeling an urgency to secure Packer's salvation, he commended InterVarsity people to him, urging Packer to seek them out once he got to Oxford for his studies. Packer's "nose for reality—real reality, not virtual reality"—compelled him to follow his friend's advice. When he entered Corpus Christi College at Oxford in the fall of 1944, he sought out the iv people, wanting to "get in with the real Christians."
This, in turn, induced another shock.
Packer attended his first evangelistic preaching service of the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (OICCU, or CU), and as he listened to the message, a "shocking realization" hit him in the form of a mental picture. He saw himself standing outside looking into a home where a party was in progress. In a spiritual sense, he understood that "they were inside and I was outside." He recognized that one gets in by means of a "personal transaction with the living Lord, the Lord Jesus," and that he had "never actually made that transaction."
The "pointed, perfectly ordinary, pietistic evangelistic sermon" ended with an appeal to receive the Lord Jesus as Savior. Packer recalls, "We all sang 'Just As I Am'—there's no more ordinary way of being converted than to receive the Lord while singing 'Just As I Am'—and that was it. When I went out of the church I knew I was a Christian." (He abandoned Saturday night gigs playing "sloppy clarinet" for the Oxford Bandits jazz combo in deference to attending CU Bible studies.)
Six weeks later he heard Basil Atkinson teach from Revelation and was astonished by the reverence with which the teacher handled the biblical text—a departure from the liberal view of Scripture he had been "stuffed up with" in the Anglicanism of his childhood. These two contradictory notions collided in that moment, he says, and his "skepticism collapsed." "I can still remember the feeling of surprise—and gladness—as I left the meeting because I knew that I knew that the Bible is the Word of God."
But the new convert soon confronted another contradiction in his faith experience.
Finding the Puritans
"I was an oddity," Packer says. "I was bad at relationships, an outsider, shy, and an intellectual—I wasn't a sportsman" (the dent in his head saw to that). "Battling his way, as adolescents do," writes McGrath, the young Packer struggled with "manifold urges and surges of discontent and frustration" (Read: emotional disequilibrium, a desire for companionship, sexual longings, loneliness). On top of that, there was the added inconvenience of his operating on a higher intellectual plane than just about everybody he met, which obliged him to battle a degree of pride.
All of this had the cumulative effect of an ever-increasing sense of isolation. "That, with my linear habit of mind, made me an 18-year-old oddball. I was emotionally locked up."
"Let go and let God!" the evangelical ethos of the time proclaimed, which only further confounded the struggling new Christian. This was the voice of the Keswick holiness teaching that prevailed in British evangelicalism at the time. The "expository novelties," McGrath notes, espoused by the Keswick school "promised deeper spiritual enrichment," "full deliverance from sin," and a "closer relationship with Jesus Christ than anything that they yet experienced." In fact, the teaching went, any believer who wasn't experiencing all of this "had not totally surrendered to Christ."
HE HEARD NO HEAVENLY
VOICES CALLING HIM TO YOUTH
MINISTRY, THOUGH HE
DUTIFULLY ACCOMPANIED THE
BOYS BRIGADE TO CAMP
("I WON'T PRETEND I ENJOYED IT").
The contradiction tormented Packer. On the one hand, he knew that he had fully surrendered his life to the living Lord. Yet on the other hand, he was not experiencing the "deliverance from sin" and the "victorious life" that holiness teaching perpetuated.
That's when, by "a happy accident," he found the Puritans. Gaining a reputation for bookishness in CU circles, Packer had been asked to oversee the library of the OICCU shortly after his conversion. "Just out of nosiness" ("I'm a nosy person"), he started sniffing through the books. He found an edition of John Owen's On the Mortification of Sin in Believers—pages still uncut—and started reading: "By faith fill thy soul with a due consideration of that provision which is laid up in Jesus Christ; for this end and purpose that all thy lusts, this very lust wherewith thou art entangled, may be mortified by faith. Ponder on this, that though thou art no way able, in or by thyself, to get the conquest of the distemper; though thou art even weary of contending and art utterly ready to faint; yet that there is enough in Jesus Christ to yield thee relief."
Owen became "a lifeline" to him, addressing, engaging, and resolving the issue of regenerate believers wrestling with sin. Writings of other Puritans he subsequently perused had a similar eye-opening, life-giving effect. "When I read, for instance, the second part of Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress, what impressed me was the way in which Mr. Greatheart, the pastor who is escorting Christiana and her family to the Celestial City, picks up, as he goes along, a string of emotional cripples—Mr. Ready-to-Halt, Mr. Feeble-Mind, and Mr. Despondency.
"The Puritans answered those questions that perplexed me," he says. And more than that, they introduced him to the "whole range" of Christian truth, wrestling with aspects of the Christian life in a rational, yet spiritually enlivened and theologically grounded way. "From the Puritans," he says, "I acquired what I didn't have from the start—that is, a sense of the importance and primacy of truth. Which means theology."
The Puritans inspired Packer to want to share the blessing both with the theologically floundering evangelical minority in Britain and with the theologically murky Church of England. To the evangelicals (a "small, largely ignored minority"), the Puritans' "emphasis on God-centeredness, personal discipline, humility and the primacy of the mind," writes McGrath, offered an antidote to the "pietistic goofiness" (as Packer calls it) that held sway out of the Keswick tradition. To the Anglicans (who composed the majority of British citizens, only 5 percent of whom were active "churchgoers"), the Puritans offered a theological corrective: "I knew that I had a theology that would stand and that I could deploy. One had to challenge the liberal and vague notions [of Anglicanism] to get them out of the way and clear the way for truth."
Packer's decision (in 1947) to seek ordination in the Church of England was part of this mandate (though, McGrath notes, the decision was akin to "Daniel volunteering to enter the lions' den"), as was his decision to pursue further theological training. He had taught for one academic year at Oak Hill College (1948-49), which made him aware (1) that his gifts and disposition would be best deployed in an academic setting, and (2) there was a serious lack of evangelicals with doctorates in Britain (only one other evangelical that he knew of held a doctorate at the time).
As part of this mission, in the midst of preparing for ordination and pursuing his doctoral research, and with the Puritans ever on his mind, Packer launched the Puritan Studies Conferences in 1950: an annual two-day gathering for discussing papers dealing with Puritan ideas. "The Conferences proceeded on the assumption that the Puritans were to be studied as potential guides for the modern church," McGrath writes, in order to introduce to a new generation of theological students "a powerful and persuasive vision of the Christian life, in which theology, biblical exposition, spirituality and preaching were shown to be mutually indispensable."
The then well-known and revered evangelical preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones threw his weight behind the conferences, enthusiastically endorsing and chairing them, which served as a catalyst in their subsequent success. In effect, McGrath notes, "the Conference acted as the nucleus of a new and emerging constituency within British evangelicalism" with the added benefit of keeping Packer in close proximity with his non-Anglican free-church brethren.
He was ordained in December 1952, having navigated the ordination process (despite the examining chaplain's complaint that his theology was equivalent to "intellectual bulldozing") and assumed his first pastoral role as curate (assistant pastor) at Saint John's in Harborne. He heard no heavenly voices calling him to youth ministry, though he dutifully accompanied the Boys Brigade to camp ("I won't pretend I enjoyed it") and faithfully visited "the fish lady"—known for the bag of fish she carried—enduring her tea: "She kept a pot of tea on the hob so that by afternoon it was scummy and tasted horrible, but this was the Birmingham way of living with tea."
But "the best of all I did," Packer recalls, "was the weekly doctrine class. All the youngish people wanted to learn about their faith, and I introduced them to their heritage. They loved it. I gave them something they discovered they wanted."
On the academic and ministerial fronts he had been making strides toward his goals. On the personal front he remained awkward, shy, and longing for companionship. However, shortly before his ordination, the providential double booking of a friend was to turn the tide in this aspect of Packer's life. The friend asked Packer to cover for him at one of the speaking engagements, and Packer agreed, despite still feeling somewhat out of his comfort zone in public situations.
His feeling of awkwardness was exacerbated when everyone in attendance, at the end of the evening, left him standing alone at the speaker's table while they mingled casually with one another.
Everyone, that is, except a young nursing student who redressed this "terrible rudeness." "I was affronted by the fact that everybody else around me was ignoring the speaker," says Kit, Packer's wife of 43 years. "We Welsh people generally try to make strangers at ease."
Kit left her comfort zone, too, to welcome the visiting speaker who stood awkwardly before her and who, she recounts, spoke "remarkably like my minister, Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones."
That first meeting with Kit Mullett had J. I. Packer tossing sleepless in his bed. "I couldn't get her out of my mind," he says. He was sure that when he got up to read Proverbs 31 that sleepless night (the account of the godly woman), the writer had Kit in mind. ("She seemed to be there.")
Kit possessed all those qualities that he, in his bookish way, seemed to lack. She was practical, relational, lively, independent. He liked the "individuality" he saw in her on their first walk in "the wood" when she took her shoes off.
She's Welsh; he's English. (She highlights that point.) When they take walks together, she meanders (still sometimes barefoot), carrying binoculars, watching the chickadees, and tracing the flight of the bald eagle; he bolts, wanting to get there and back again. (He keeps his shoes on.)
She moves comfortably into "the debating mode" (Packer notes: "She's not sure she can see coherence in my position on women in ministry"). He demurs: "I'm an analyst. I'm not a debater."
"When he took an interest, I was surprised," Kit recalls. "I still am, actually."
They courted for 18 months "under the eye of my vicar" and paid for their own wedding in July of 1954—the week after he turned in his 500-page dissertation on Richard Baxter.
So his longings for companionship were filled to overflowing in his new bride, and Packer grew more sure of his mission and mandate. He left his pastoral duties at Saint John's and assumed the position of assistant lecturer (soon to become senior tutor) at Tyndale Hall in Bristol (1955).
Lifter of drooping heads
In Britain at this time, a young American crusade evangelist named Billy Graham brought his crusades (1954 and 1955) and ignited evangelical fires. Christian unions were popping up in the universities at a rate heretofore unseen. This surge in popular evangelical enthusiasms unsettled the Anglican establishment. Canon H. K. Luce, headmaster of Durham School, wrote an article in which he posed the question (cited by McGrath): "Is it not time that our religious leaders made it plain that while they respect, or even admire, Dr. Graham's sincerity and personal power, they cannot regard fundamentalism as likely to issue in anything but disillusionment and disaster for educated men and women in this twentieth century?"
Packer answered that question. He took pen in hand and offered "the definitive evangelical response" in his first book, Fundamentalism and the Word of God (1958). In the book, Packer demonstrated cogently and rationally that authentic evangelicalism, contrary to Luce's remarks, carried all the intellectual rigor that the liberals presumed to be their domain, while simultaneously turning their flawed argumentation back upon them. As Valentine Cunningham put it in his review of McGrath's book in The Pelican Record: "It felt good to have Packer on one's side, this gangly bespectacled exegete with the Gloucestershire burr in his voice, a sort of John Arlott of biblical commentary, running up to bowl his devastating slow left-arm deliveries."
Says Packer: "The response was simply to outflank the criticisms by showing that they applied to the critics much more than they applied to those at whom they were first directed."
Robert Horn, former editor of the Evangelical Times, said that the book lifted the "drooping heads" of a whole generation of young people. He "made doctrine exciting," as one observer noted, showing the skeptics that Scripture could be trusted after all and reassuring the pietists that "reason" could be their friend. The book established Packer as the voice for a credible, intellectually rigorous yet soundly orthodox evangelicalism.
Making strides in his mission, he undertook another project similar to his Puritan Conferences. Just as these (thriving by now) offered a venue for Puritan thought to infiltrate British evangelicalism, his next brainchild, Latimer House (launched in 1961), was Packer's means to create a venue for Anglican evangelicals to assert their voices within their denomination.
Packer wanted to revive "authentic Anglicanism"—a heritage, he says, that had been "in eclipse" since 1944. "The shapers of Anglicanism were evangelicals—Cranmer, the Puritans, the Clapham sect, Wilberforce," he says. "I wanted to re-establish it in its own heritage." So in 1961 Packer left Bristol to become librarian (later warden) at Latimer House.
On the home front, the Packers had settled into family life with their three children, Naomi, Ruth, and Martin. "Kit wanted and got animals," Packer notes, including (at one point or another) hamsters, rabbits, white mice, cats, and dogs—most notably Rocky the "black nondescript" who, prior to his homegoing last year, penned the yearly Packer Christmas newsletter.
Packer enjoyed his young children, though Kit recalls that at times—especially when he was writing a book—"he wasn't always with us." Packer left home management in the capable hands of his wife, though, he says, "I invested more of myself in parenting than my father invested in me."
"IT FELT GOOD TO HAVE PACKER ON ONE'S
SIDE, THIS GANGLY BESPECTACLED EXEGETE
WITH THE GLOUCESTERSHIRE BURR IN HIS VOICE."
On other fronts, however, Packer was soon to enter a season of testing and heartache. With the ascendance of the World Council of Churches in the sixties, denominational allegiance to the Church of England became suspect. Some feared that the wcc would become "a 'superchurch' run from Geneva," as Packer puts it, and began advocating "jumping ship" from the denomination to form a separate evangelical alliance. Packer's friend and Puritan Conference partner, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, became the most vociferous spokesman for this position. At a gathering of the Second National Assembly of Evangelicals (October 1966), organized by the Evangelical Alliance, Lloyd-Jones "issued what was widely understood to be a passionate call for evangelicals within the mainstream churches to 'come out' and, in effect, form a denomination of their own," McGrath writes. John Stott, who was chairing the session, feared that the message might spark a mass exodus on the part of the younger, impressionable evangelical leaders in attendance. So he "broke the ordinary rules of procedure," says Packer, and "spoke 'off the cuff.' " Stott intervened to affirm that evangelicals could and should remain within their denominations in order to help bring about renewal from within. ("It started a great row that didn't die down," Packer says.)
This unexpected turn resulted in a rift within British evangelicalism over whether evangelicals should remain within the Church of England. So the gathering that was supposed to "serve the purpose to advance the cause of unity and viable strategies for keeping evangelicalism alive in Britain" had the opposite effect.
Trouble three times over
Packer told me once: "Like a good pietist I've always wanted peace, and like Richard Baxter I've been involved with trouble, trouble, trouble all the way." This was never more true than the season he entered in the early seventies, what I would call the opening bell of J. I. Packer's extraordinary match. Several forces converged that set the conditions wherein Packer found himself, at some points, scrambling to save his academic career, and at other points, groping for his place in the British evangelical arena.
By the late sixties, the unity between Anglican evangelicals and the free-church brethren was disintegrating; a "charismatic tidal wave" (as Packer calls it) deluged the British evangelical scene and had begun to erode some of the theological underpinnings Packer had labored to establish; and Packer himself was itching for new challenges, sensing that Latimer House, now well established and thriving, no longer demanded his leadership.
The first round, to continue the wrestling metaphor, commenced with Packer's formal "disfellowshiping" by Martyn Lloyd-Jones in 1970. The two had not seen eye-to-eye on the role of evangelicals within Anglicanism, and Lloyd-Jones had hoped that Packer would eventually see things his way. (Packer had been his "blue-eyed boy," says Kit. Once, when she went to Lloyd-Jones for a pastoral visit, her concerns were subsumed by his urging her to persuade Jim to come over to his side.)
The break occurred as a result of a book Packer had written with other Anglicans, two of whom were Anglo-Catholics, in the effort to overturn the "Methodist union scheme" (a movement to unite the denomination with the Methodists). From Lloyd-Jones's perspective, Packer had gone too far in collaborating with the Anglo-Catholics, though Packer maintains that Lloyd-Jones "read into [the book] a good deal that it hadn't said."
Lloyd-Jones also abruptly ended what had become two decades of flourishing Puritan Conferences. Packer, in turn, was unceremoniously sacked by other committees and boards, including the editorial board of The Evangelical Magazine. McGrath writes that a "leading independent evangelical went so far as to advance the view that Packer could 'no longer be regarded as an evangelical.' "
Lloyd-Jones, Packer reflects, was "the greatest man I ever knew." But he was also inviting evangelicals "on a road that led to nowhere." ("Great men can make great mistakes.") Packer was committed to going the long haul within the denomination. "Whatever anything else Jim was, he was an Anglican," says Kit. "He would never desert the Church of England." Despite his personal affection for Lloyd-Jones, Packer never felt that "the free-church men could ever grab the tiller" in his quest "to renew the church in reformed Christianity."
"I DON'T THINK I EVER
LAPSED INTO BITTERNESS,
BUT IT HAD ON OCCASION MADE ME
WONDER WHAT GOOD I AM,
REALLY, TO THE CHRISTIAN WORLD
IN THE SHORT TERM."
Still another crisis loomed, sounding the buzzer for round two. Theological schools in Britain faced a steady decrease of candidates for ordination, and Packer, having left Latimer House to assume the role of principal of Tyndale Hall in Bristol in 1970, had undertaken an aggressive plan to increase student membership and assemble a sterling faculty there (hence his recognition as the "reforming principal").
To maintain viability, proposals to merge some colleges were introduced. Tyndale, Packer's college, remained under a threatening cloud. "Theological colleges across England, irrespective of their theological tradition, found themselves plunged into fierce and bitter battles for survival," writes McGrath.
John Stott and others, wanting to ensure the survival of evangelical colleges, submitted (September 1970) an unofficial report proposing the consolidation of the three Bristol colleges: Tyndale, Clifton, and Dalton House (a women's college). The commission overseeing the mergers countered (October) with a different recommendation: All schools in Bristol would be shut down, with Clifton merging with Wycliffe Hall in Oxford and Packer's Tyndale with Saint John's in Nottingham.
This was a devastating blow to Packer. He had worked hard and paid a high price for forging a new vision for theological training within Anglicanism and had only just begun to turn the tide at Tyndale. He recognized that if this merger with Saint John's proceeded (which neither school relished), his vision and leadership would be disenfranchised, since Saint John's stood as the stronger, more self-sufficient of the two schools.
Following Packer's lead, Tyndale responded (January 1971) that a move to Nottingham was unworkable. The commission, in turn, countered—fine—Tyndale would be closed.
Shock gave way to disbelief, which gave way to outrage. Packer found himself in the middle of a firestorm trying to save his college, and by now, the students themselves had entered the fray trying to overturn the decision. The General Synod of the Church of England debated the issue and ultimately (February) offered Tyndale a reprieve: "In the opinion of the House of Bishops, the continuation of training for ordinands at Bristol is only possible if Tyndale Hall, Clifton and Dalton … agree to amalgamate on the Clifton site."
Hence, Trinity College was born and an evangelical presence in Bristol was saved. But Packer's troubles weren't over. The leadership question for the newly formed school had to be addressed, and a triumvirate arrangement was considered the most desirable, with one member from each college assuming a leadership position. Packer was recommended (for obvious reasons) to represent Tyndale in the triumvirate.
But things got more complicated. In the planning sessions between the potential leaders, Packer unintentionally alienated the Clifton leadership, who felt Packer was dictating the terms of the triumvirate. He wasn't. They probably took offense at Packer's linear "habit of mind" and subsequent style of communication. (Once he starts a thought he simply cannot stop until the thought has been carried through to its logical conclusion. There's no interrupting him.)
Fearing a Tyndale takeover, they stalled further negotiations, derailing the merger. In the end, Packer was vindicated by the bishop, who intervened and saved the merger, but the new arrangement carried the proviso that J. I. Packer not be given any significant leadership role. So rather than serving as dean of studies (part of the triumvirate), Packer was offered the position of "associate principal."
Gerald Bray, in his review of McGrath's book in Churchman, commends McGrath for correctly "expos[ing] the moral void at the heart of so much Anglican Evangelicalism." He adds: "Packer, as theologian, was a threat to people like that. The only surprise is that they were prepared to tolerate him at all."
Bray highlights the fact that ten years later, after Packer and his friend and colleague Alec Motyer (who filled the Tyndale triumvirate slot) had left, "Trinity sank to a depth which even the men of Clifton may not have envisaged."
"There are many who remember the Packer-Motyer years as the golden age of Bristol."
So it wasn't all bad news for Packer. As "associate principal," he took advantage of increased opportunities for travel and writing. Knowing God was published in 1973, winning Packer immediate international acclaim, particularly in North America. This, in turn, resulted in his being asked to participate in controversies here. One such conflict that erupted in the U.S. was a foment dubbed "the battle for the Bible," for which Packer was invited to offer input as an objective outsider (for once).
He participated in summit meetings and, later, helped draft key expositions for the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI), which he also helped found in 1977. Packer assisted American evangelicals in navigating this delicate debate, leading them to middle ground whereby they could fully embrace "inerrancy" (though Packer prefers the positive terms "totally true/totally trustworthy") without sacrificing common sense and adopting the ultraliteralistic approach advocated by some (like the suggestion that there may have been six, not three, denials of Peter, in the attempt to reconcile inconsistencies in the gospel accounts).
So doors were opening for him across "the puddle." Back in England, however, he was becoming gradually more marginalized. The Church of England's Doctrine Committee (of which Packer was a member) published a statement that treated the orthodox Christian understanding of the person and work of Christ as "an option." This enraged the "ordinary Anglicans" who wondered how a theological stance could be hijacked by so few, and it exacerbated the criticism by non-Anglican evangelicals who felt Packer had surrendered too much by staying with the denomination. Packer, for his part, felt that "the dice were loaded" against them since, as McGrath notes, the evangelicals were "hopelessly outnumbered" on the committee.
On another front, his friend and fellow Anglican evangelical, John Stott, was charting a different course for British evangelicalism than that which Packer had envisioned. Stott orchestrated central conferences for leaders to come together for fellowship and refreshment, with the hope that the inspiration would "trickle down" into the churches. Packer felt that igniting evangelistic fervor in the context of these conferences would diminish the urgency in local congregations. It seemed to be merely a matter of differing emphases, but the overall effect of this, along with these other difficulties, left Packer feeling "the odd man out."
"In the 1970s," he reflects, "I hadn't got any kind of leadership role or direct hearing for the things I wanted to say among evangelicals any more than I did in my Anglican circles. I don't think I ever lapsed into bitterness, but it had on occasion made me wonder what good I am, really, to the Christian world in the short term."
A new turn
"Packer left this universe in 1979 for a new life at Regent College, Vancouver," Bray writes in his review, "and Dr. McGrath presents this as a wider opportunity given to him to develop his preaching and teaching ministry." A notion, Bray continues, that is "the exact opposite of the one generally held by Dr. Packer's admirers in England.
"What we were looking for was a new Charles Hodge, or even just a new Louis Berkof, but what we got was Knowing God," he says. "It has to be recorded that this has been the expectation of the English friends and admirers, and that so far we have felt let down."
Not all Brits concur with Bray's assessment, which McGrath's book attests. And feeling "let down" would hardly describe the sentiment of J. I. Packer's friends and admirers in North America. He thrived at Regent ("without any sort of negative vibes"), and Regent has flourished because of his being there. "In the mid-1970s, Regent was a tiny institution, using borrowed rooms; by the end of the 1980s, Regent was the largest graduate institution of theological education in the region," writes McGrath.
Regent placed Packer in a position to assert a voice in just about every theological discussion that has emerged in contemporary North American evangelicalism—from the role of women, to the function of the Holy Spirit, to the destiny of those who die without Christ. The most recent of these has been his critical role in Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT; see CT, Dec. 8, 1997, p. 34).
Packer has helped navigate both sides of this initiative onto common theological ground without diminishing points of disagreement. He coined the phrase "the convergence of the saints" in another context, but ECT could be one such impulse whereby differing sides stand together in areas of agreement, in order to serve a larger purpose (the tack he took with the Anglo-Catholics in overturning the "Methodist scheme").
It should be noted that he has also been disfellowshiped by some American evangelicals for his participation in ECT—despite his obvious and vigorous commitment to Reformed theology and unwillingness to give any ground on criticial theological points.
Despite the differences, however, he has played a key role in facilitating the sense of unity and cooperation that has prevailed in ECT (his off-the-cuff after-hours comment to Catholic theologian Richard John Neuhaus that the papacy is "a grotesque institution" notwithstanding).
In the meantime, he continues to generate an unrelenting arsenal of books, pamphlets, and articles—writing a book a year since coming to Regent ("In 1995 three Packer books were published together and I got up to speed"). His books have sold almost 3 million copies (Knowing God, a million and a half in and of itself), and he has earned the status of being the best-selling author in British Columbia.
McGrath appropriately places Packer where he belongs in contemporary evangelicalism, and today's readers should be all the more energized that it has come to pass while J. I. Packer still walks among us.
McGrath summarizes Packer's fourfold approach to evangelical theologizing: "the importance of history" ( la the Puritans); "the primacy of theology" (maintaining that "bad theology hurts people"); "the coherence of theology" (a "heartfelt knowledge of divine things"); and "collaboration without compromise" (or, "convergence of the saints"). Whatever else, theology for Packer is "not merely wrestling with texts, nor yet with ideas, but with the living God."
McGrath concludes: "Any who seek to theologize within great-tradition Christianity … will find in Packer a congenial travelling companion who will encourage, nourish, and challenge us as we prepare to enter the new millennium."
At my dinner table not too long ago, Packer couldn't stay his tears when Handel's "For Unto Us a Child Is Born," from Messiah, played in the background. That is because, as Kit says it, "his devotion to the Lord is the reason for everything he's done. His writing, his preaching, his lecturing, his living are all centered on the Lord."
And his love for the church is why Packer prefers the verb form of theology. He told me once that classical jazz is like the church. I thought he might have meant the "charismatic" church, but he meant the church in its truest Reformed sense—a lively, masterful interplay and synergy of members, orchestrated by the Holy Spirit for creating the music of heaven.
When the painful rifts have occurred over the years, he has grieved less for his personal losses and more because, as Kit puts it, "the church is hurt and the Lord is hurt." That is why, ten years after their estrangement in 1970, Packer wrote his friend and colleague Martyn Lloyd-Jones asking to visit him on his forthcoming trip to England. Lloyd-Jones, who had been ill, encouraged him to come.
"I never saw him," Packer says. "He died before I could get there. It didn't make a great deal of difference," he says. "There's always heaven."
Yes, heaven. His thoughts are that high and wide, though his feet are firmly planted here so long as he can continue to have a part in expanding the soul of Christ's bride. "I want to see a focused vision of spiritual maturity—the expansion of the soul is the best phrase I can use for it. That is, a renewed sense of the momentousness of being alive, the sheer bigness and awesomeness of being a human being alive in God's world with light, with grace, with wisdom, with responsibility, with biblical truth.
"I judge rightly or wrongly," he says, "that as a generation, most of us are pygmies as compared with the great-souled Christians of earlier days, the Athanasiuses, the Luthers, the Anselms—Whitefield, Wesley, and Edwards. They were, by the grace of God, bigger people than most of us are."
Valentine Cunningham in his review writes, "Packer stands for an arresting and influential blend of spirituality and theological hard-headedness." The operative word there is "stands." Like my son who gutted his way through an uneven match, achieving something greater than a victory, so the testimony of J. I. Packer transcends the sum total of blows leveled against him. The boy who decades ago nearly died being chased into the street, and who came back later to help bullies with their homework, today seems bigger than most of us.
Copyright © 1998 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
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