“I love pregnant brevity, and some of my material is, I know, packed tight (Packer by name, packer by nature).” So says James Innell Packer about his writing style, to which he adds this apology: “I ask my reader’s pardon if they find obscurity due to my over-indulging this love of mine" (God’s Word: Studies of Key Bible Themes, 1981).
He need not worry. Packer’s ability to address immensely important subjects in crisp, succinct sentences is one of the reasons why, as both author and speaker, he has played such an important role among American evangelicals for four decades.
It is not easy to assess the exact nature of his impact on American evangelicals or the reasons for it. For one thing, Packer has never lived in the United States. Since 1958, his books and essays have been widely read in the States, and he has traveled extensively to address American audiences; yet his activity has proceeded from outside the United States-first from a variety of posts in England, and since 1979 from his position as professor of theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.
Further, his wide-ranging labor has aimed directly at the shadowy intersection between popular and academic concerns. He is a scholar who found his vocation in popular communication, a popular communicator who never abandoned scholarship.
Complex as it is to assess the impact of this multi-gifted contemporary, the effort is worthwhile. Learning about him may assist us in learning something about ourselves. And making such an effort may even illuminate the cause of Christian truth to which Packer has devoted his adult life.
The making of the wordsmith
J. I. Packer was born in Gloucestershire, England, 70 years ago this past July. At Oxford University he earned B.A. degrees in the classics and theology and a D.Phil. in theology. Important as Oxford was for him academically, it was even more important for his faith: here he fully encountered the Christian gospel and was converted; and from Oxford he set out on his life’s course as an interpreter of Scripture and a promoter of classical evangelical theology.
The link between Packer the scholar and Packer the young Christian was his fascination with the Puritans. The Puritans provided for him a subject for doctoral studies, a model for Christian life, and (many years later) the subject matter for one of his most important books, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (1990).
After graduate studies at Oxford, Packer filled a number of posts at Tyndale Hall and College (Bristol) and Latimer House (Oxford), both institutions associated with the evangelical wing of the Church of England. In 1979 he moved to Canada as a professor of theology at Regent College (Vancouver). By that time, however, he was established as a widely read author, and he had already embarked on a far-flung ministry that had taken him to Australia, New Zealand, and many points in North America.
The packing of words
Packer’s reputation, early and late, has rested on an ability to penetrate contested issues lying at the heart of Christian faith, and to do so with clarity, profundity, charity, and the benefits of historical learning. The book that first won him a hearing in the United States was ‘Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God: Some Evangelical Principles (1958), which he published in the wake of controversy over Billy Graham’s landmark visit to Great Britain in 1955. His conclusion for this substantial but pithy volume marked out a path from which he has never deviated. Packer recognized merit in criticism of evangelicalism, but he did not waver from expressing clear, evangelical convictions: “We must keep before us the real issues in this debate … the authority of Christ and of Scripture; the relation between the Bible and reason; the method of theology, and the meaning of repentance; the choice between Evangelicalism and Subjectivism.”
In the steady stream of books and articles that followed, the one with the broadest impact had the most compact title. Knowing God (1973) began with a memorable first line: “As clowns yearn to play Hamlet, so I have wanted to write a treatise on God.” Packer hastened to say that “this book, however, is not it,” and was “at best a string of beads: a series of small studies of great subjects.” Yet Knowing God has served an immense throng of readers as a compelling account of God’s character, purpose, and intentions. So too has it encouraged believers to live under the reality of God’s supernal goodness.
As of early 1995, Packer’s publications included 165 separate books, pamphlets, and articles in books, plus nearly that many more journal or periodical articles. About 65 of the books and pamphlets were published only in the United Kingdom, slightly more than those published only in the U.S.
The major books are well known in both the U.K. and the U.S.: ‘Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God (1958), Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (1961), Knowing God (1973), A Quest for Godliness (U.S.) or Among God’s Giants (U.K.) (1991). Beyond these titles a pattern emerges. Someone who wants to read all of Packer’s writings on the Puritans, or on sacraments, church order, and historical confessions should do so from a British library strong in contemporary Anglican writing. By contrast, someone who wishes to explore Packer's convictions on the gifts of the Spirit, the use of the Bible, or the meaning of justification by faith should pursue those inquiries in a North American library strong in materials from evangelical, interdenominational publishers.
One measure of Packer’s influence is the number of his books sold. Counting just 18 different titles from five American publishers—Crossway, Eerdmans, Harold Shaw, InterVarsity Press, and Tyndale House—came to sales of slightly more than one and three-quarter million by the middle of 1995. Knowing God (IVP) accounted for over half that total; over 200,000 copies of Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (IVP) have been distributed since its release in 1961; two IVP pamphlets, Meeting God and Finding God’s Will, had both topped the 100,000 figure; and ‘Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God (Eerdmans) and I Want to Be a Christian (Tyndale) have gone over the 50,000 mark.
That is a lot of books. Yet the figures are not as impressive as the numbers sold by some of Packer’s publishing contemporaries like Hal Lindsey, Frank Peretti, or Marjorie Holmes. What is notable about the sale of Packer’s books is that they combine very solid sales for volumes on practical spirituality and on sturdy theological topics.
The peripatetic Packer
Remarkably, Packer has been able to maintain a brutal travel and guest lecture schedule while still writing steadily, supporting many theological and practical parachurch agencies, teaching at Regent, and participating in the parish life of Saint John’s (Shaughnessy) Anglican Church in Vancouver (where he is an honorary assistant rector).
Besides his work at Regent, he has also served stints as a visiting lecturer at eight seminaries in the United States and Canada. The collective identity of these institutions is strikingly different from the British institutions where Packer was employed before migrating to North America. The British posts were Anglican, the North American posts have been Reformed, evangelical, or evangelical and Reformed.
Packer has also actively supported several other enterprises in the American evangelical world. He has not only written frequently for, but consulted regularly with, Christianity Today and its sister publications. He has served several terms on the board of the Institute for Advanced Christian Studies. He also has played an important part in many collaborative book projects. So it was that Packer made special contributions to several of Carl Henry’s memorable evangelical symposia in the 1950s and 1960s, to several books on biblical inerrancy from the 1970s and 1980s, and to several general collections on theology and spirituality in the 1980s and 1990s.
Many of Packer’s contributions to these institutional and collaborative projects feature his characteristic concentrations on churchly, historical, and confessional matters. But, with the exception of a few of the specifically Reformed enterprises, very few of the forums themselves can be said to be overwhelmingly historical, confessional, or churchly in their intents. Packer's identity as an Anglican has not loomed large in his North American career, where assistance to the Anglican Church of Canada and the American Episcopal Church has not been nearly as visible as his contributions to trans-denominational evangelicalism.
Packer the practical theologian
As a thinker and theologian, Packer has offered American evangelicals exactly what they have needed. American evangelicalism can be best defined by its traditional activistic pietism (or “experiential biblicism”). It has been profoundly marked by an eager ability to mobilize for specific, tangible tasks like evangelism, institution building, and political action (sometimes for ill, but often for good). The other side of this activism has been an underemphasis on the historical, contemplative, mediating, and complex expressions of the faith. If that analysis is correct, Packer’s influence on American evangelicalism has been as critical as it is broad.
Packer has exerted that influence by combining characteristics rarely joined in America: he is an educated, Reformed, Anglican evangelical, with each of the four ascriptions vital as a counterweight to the other three. As the history of Christianity in America has shown so often, any of these commitments by itself can easily become a threat to clarity of Christian thought and integrity of Christian activity. Together, at least as embodied in Packer's writing and speaking, they are water for a parched and weary landscape.
As a well-educated person grounded in both classical theology and the classics more generally, Packer readily perceives how complex many spiritual and intellectual problems really are. He has assumed that he has something to learn from authorities beyond his own inner circle. And he instinctively realizes that the canons of various academic disciplines have intrinsic value, but also that perceptive canon-criticism is a requirement for self-critical wisdom. At the same time, he has displayed these scholarly virtues as a part of, rather than in revolt against, his Reformed, Anglican, and evangelical identities. He has shown how learning can not only flourish with Reformed, Anglican, and evangelical convictions, but can flourish to honor God and build up the church.
As a Calvinist, Packer has embodied the virtues of a weighty theological tradition. He has demonstrated the profundity to be found in embracing one of the three or four truly consequential theological traditions in the Christian history of the last several centuries. His self-conscious Reformed theology has been displayed to best advantage in his explicitly biblical work-as careful exegete, resolute defender of the authority and inerrancy of Scripture, and self-conscious hermeneutical theorist. Against the widely prevailing, but intellectually suicidal, American tendency to act as if exegesis, hermeneutics, and dogmatizing on the doctrine of Scripture take place in a vacuum, Packer has offered the principled thinking of a sturdy Calvinist.
By comparison with American theologians, Packer most resembles B. B. Warfield, the great Princeton exegete, polemicist, and historically informed theologian who was active from the 1870s to the early 1920s. Like Warfield, Packer has sustained organic connections between a high doctrine of the Bible, careful methods of exegesis, and Reformed exegetical conclusions. And yet Packer the Calvinist has been simultaneously Packer the evangelical and Packer the Anglican, with each of the latter commitments taking the self-satisfied, triumphalist, and intellectualist edges off the spirit that so often has characterized Calvinism in America. (I can say these things about American Calvinists because I am one of them myself.)
As an Anglican, Packer is moderate and orthodox in the classical sense of holding to the great Trinitarian creeds. He is self-critical and historical and is open to theological insight from other points on the ecclesiastical compass (including the Roman Catholic and the Pentecostal). There are Episcopalians or Anglicans in the United States and Canada who share these virtues, but none (to my knowledge) who do so along with such obvious commitments to Reformed and evangelical convictions. He embodies the distilled wisdom of the ecclesiastical ages, but he has not scrupled to fellowship with those whose churches were founded yesterday.
Finally, in all things, Packer is an evangelical. He knows, teaches, and lives the truth that knowledge of God must be personal, that the work of Christ was a ransom to be actively embraced, and that the Holy Spirit is alive and active even today. At the end of Knowing God, Packer’s evangelical convictions blend seamlessly with his recommendation of classical orthodoxy. Besides knowing what the Scriptures say about God, besides knowing that humans are sinners in need of divine grace, “we saw that knowing God involves a personal relationship whereby you give yourself to God on the basis of His promise to give Himself to you. Knowing God means asking His mercy, and resting on His undertaking to forgive sinners for Jesus’s sake. Further, it means becoming a disciple of Jesus, the living Saviour who is ‘there’ today, calling the needy to Himself as He did in Galilee in the days of His flesh. Knowing God, in other words, involves faith-assent, consent, commitment-and faith expresses itself in prayer and obedience.”
The diction is British, the sentiment is evangelical. The unusual quality of Packer’s evangelicalism, however, is precisely that it is so organically linked to his education, his Calvinism, and his Anglicanism. This combination keeps it from the excesses that a largely un-historical, mostly antitraditional, and often anti-intellectual evangelicalism has suffered in American history.
If the full extent of Packer’s influence cannot yet be adequately judged, the outlines of that influence are clear. The influence has been considerable, in part because of the gifts, wisdom, and innate abilities Packer has brought to the task. However, Packer has had a considerable influence because he has written and said what American evangelicals have needed to hear, not least about the holiness, goodness, mercy, and love of God.
Mark A. Noll is McManis Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College. This article was adapted from Noll’s contribution to Doing Theology for the People of God: Studies in Honor of J. I. Packer, edited by Donald Lewis and Alistair McGrath (InterVarsity Press, 1996).
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