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The enigma of J. I. Packer

October 2020 | by Geoff Thomas

In 1958 at a boys’ grammar school I was awaiting my move in the autumn to a university in Cardiff. An Anglican friend at school told me I would meet two religious groups there, the SCM and the IVF. For me to understand the difference he gave me Gabriel Hebert’s Fundamentalism and the Church of God and J. I. Packer’s Fundamentalism and the Word of God.

One said authority for what we are to believe lies in the church and the other said that it lies in the revelation of God in the Scriptures. I read them in that order. Jim Packer’s book was the first theological work I had ever read and it put steel in my backbone as I took the Biblical Studies course at university for the next three years.

Then in 1959 I read Packer’s Introduction to The Death of Death by John Owen. The thesis seemed at first incredible that the Son of God was given the name ‘Jesus’ because he came in order effectually to save his people from their sin, and that Christ loved the church and gave himself for her to sanctify, wash, and cleanse her and make her his bride.

Yet that is how messengers of God, like angels and apostles, explained the purpose of the atonement of Christ, and a 20-year old Welsh boy had better listen to what they had said. A year or so later I read his Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God which I found enormously helpful, and still do today.

I did not bump into Jim Packer until 1963. I was staying with my girlfriend and her family in Blaenau Ffestiniog, and one day we borrowed her father’s Morris 1000 and drove to Salem Baptist Chapel in Pentre Gwynfryn in Gwynedd which was the scene of the famous 1908 painting ‘Salem’ by Vosper of a Welsh lady in traditional dress settling into her pew.

The road there in 1963 was single track with lay-bys where cars could pass one another. I pulled into one to allow an approaching car to get by. He came perilously close to my father-in-law’s car and slightly scratched the side. He immediately stopped, got out of the car, and came to me as I left my car, I recognised him immediately.

‘I am so sorry,’ he said, ‘I scratched your car.’

‘Dr Packer!’ I said, feeling like Stanley discovering Livingstone in darkest Africa.

‘Do I know you?’ he asked. I told him I had heard him preach at the university Christian union in Cardiff in 1959 and now I had one more year to complete my divinity course at Westminster Seminary, Philadelphia.

‘Good to meet you, brother,’ he said, ‘but sorry if I have damaged your car.’

‘Think nothing of it. Little damage done.’ So, we waved goodbye and we finally drove home. A mild abrasive cleaned the marks off the car so that my future father-in-law saw nothing at all of the paintwork had been damaged.

So, in 1964 I was married to that girl and in 1965 commenced my ministry in Aberystwyth. Soon I was a little disappointed to hear that Jim Packer had been involved in the Archbishops’ Commission on Christian Doctrine published in 1968. It was on subscription and assent to the 39 Articles, proposing that this famous Confession of Faith should be kept, but also that these Articles should be deposed from their position as the norm of Anglican doctrine. It was a unanimous report of liberals, anglo-catholics, and evangelicals and Jim assented to it. It seemed to undermine what he had earlier written.

Worse was to follow when in 1970 he and Colin Buchanan, two evangelical Anglican ministers, wrote a book called Growing Into Union along with two Anglo-Catholics (one of whom later became a Roman Catholic). The book stated that sacramentalists and evangelicals could work together in integrity, and that they could become cobelligerents against radicalism.

Packer was bemused at the strength of reaction against Growing Into Union. He should not have been. The great issue that had caused the Reformation of the church in the 16th century was how the grace of salvation comes into the sinner’s life. Does it come by the sprinkling of water at the baptism of a baby, by the hands of a bishop on the head that confirms that the one touched has the Holy Spirit, by the wafer on the tongue, by the anointing with oil in extreme unction, and by priests offering mass for them after their death, whose actions and words will shorten their time in purgatory – the more masses the quicker they are out?

Or does it come by the Holy Spirit, leading, enlightening, and illuminating, convicting of guilt and regenerating the heart of a believing, repenting sinner in the new birth? These are contradictory teachings, but the question is this, which one reflects the teaching of the Holy Spirit in Holy Scripture? Which one most helps a convicted soul, and which hinders him?

Packer’s initial involvement with the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission (ARCIC), which was created in 1967, was understandable if he were there to represent and express the faith of the 39 Articles. But his co-writing Growing Into Union in 1971 caused some fellow Anglican evangelicals to grieve, let alone the free church nonconformists in the United Kingdom. It meant that there was created an unease and tension that broke up such a useful gathering of Anglicans and Free Churchmen as the Puritan Conference.

This occurred years after the controversy that Stott raised in 1966 by publicly challenging Martyn Lloyd-Jones’s exhortation to evangelical men in the modernist-dominated denominations to work more closely structurally together with fellow Bible believing people. They should not be satisfied with occasional conferences while resolutely remaining in their organisations and paying their annual dues to those who preached another gospel.

During those years after the bust up with Stott at the Methodist Central Hall meeting, Dr Lloyd-Jones had continued to serve on the committee of the Puritan Conference alongside J. I. Packer. I guess he charitably considered the ARCIC involvement to be an Anglican blip that could be consigned to youth and denominational commitments. But then along came Growing into Union and a renewed assertion of co-operation with serious error.

There was never an expression of uncertainty by Jim Packer of his co-operation with sacerdotalists, and no acknowledgement that he had let down those evangelical free churchmen who had welcomed him to their pulpits (as I had), spoken well of him, commended his books and served on committees together with him.

There had been harmony in America at the ‘Philadelphia Conference for Reformed Theology’ for some years, with R. C. Sproul and James Montgomery Boice showing much respect to J. I. Packer the older statesman who generally spoke with them at these conferences. This unity was broken when in 1994 Jim again signed Evangelicals and Catholics Together. The document, for example, speaks of Mexico, Central America, and South America and says, ‘It is neither theologically legitimate nor prudent use of resources for one Christian community to evangelize among active adherents of another Christian community.’

That decision to join with Roman Catholics and sign this document marked the end of Jim Packer’s involvement in the Philadelphia Conference for Reformed Theology. Did he ever speak for it again? American evangelicals came to recognise that the earlier division in England was not because of some personal animosity of Dr Lloyd-Jones to Stott and Packer.

So, what has been our response? Do you admire Dr J. I. Packer, his theology and beliefs? For many of them I have very much admiration. Do you sell his books and John Stott’s books in your book shop or display them on your book table? Many of them, yes. Would you encourage people to hear his taped lectures and sermons? Yes, selectively. Would you give away Fundamentalism and the Word of God, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, Knowing God, and Among God’s Giants and encourage a baby Christian to read them? Of course I would do that and have done so.

As I began this article, I mentioned I was once helped much by his first major work Fundamentalism and the Word of God. I am in his debt. I would also explain to the puzzled novice the inconsistency of evangelicals in the Church of England today, of how a number of their evangelicals act as if they were independent congregations and yet they still send annual sums of money to the diocesan funds that support anglo-catholics and liberals in their ministries. They are close to us and helpful (though generally Amyraldian, unlike Packer), but there is a blindness to Packer’s actions concerning cooperating in worship and evangelism with Rome.

Yet there is a glorious inconsistency about Jim. Many years ago I was watching over the baby Christian, Derek Thomas, newly converted and finding his way in a confused church scene. Everything was new to him. Dr Packer came to speak in Aberystwyth and the young Derek sought an interview with him.

‘What are you doing?’ Jim asked. Derek replied to Jim that he was studying mathematics but that he was thinking about the ministry. ‘With whom?’ asked Jim.

‘I was thinking about the Anglican Church in Wales,’ replied Derek.

‘Where are you attending now?’

‘Alfred Place Baptist Church,’ replied Derek.

‘Then why in the world would you leave that church for the Church in Wales? I was raised in the Church of England and that is why I stay in it. Stay in Alfred Place,’ he exhorted Derek, and he did.

Such were the curious inconsistencies of the late Dr J. I. Packer.

Geoff Thomas is a well-known author and conference speaker, and pastor of Alfred Place Baptist Church, Aberystwyth, for over 50 years.