Despite the fact that the widely esteemed theologian J. I. Packer never lived in the United States, the theologian greatly influenced American evangelicals. One key way this transpired occurred through Packer’s longstanding relationship with Christianity Today.
Packer’s first piece—a lengthy article on the opportunity and challenges for evangelicalism—was published in 1958. After the publication of his best-known work, Knowing God, he became contributing editor at Christianity Today in 1983 and then senior editor in 1985. He continued to serve the magazine in similar roles for the next three decades. In 1992, he wrote about how he envisaged his relationship with the publication:
One role of CT, which is a features-news-and-thought journal anchored in the historic faith, is to keep you posted, one way and another, on the theological front. I suppose I should see myself as a kind of point man for this purpose.
But most of all, I want to be a plumber and sewage man, as I said when I started, and most of all, I want CT always to be showing how head and heart should be joining in mature discipleship today. Head-without-heart journals and heart-without-head journals make for misshapen and underdeveloped Christians. It is important that we should find and follow the better way.
Timothy George, distinguished professor of divinity at Beeson Divinity School, was a contemporary of Packer’s at CT.
“I would say his role at CT was a mentor to the whole enterprise, especially to all the editors,” said George. “For me and others that worked with him constantly in those days, we respected him and looked to him as someone who was a pioneer in the very thing that we were giving our lives to.”
George joined global media manager Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen to discuss Packer’s CT legacy, the controversy he sparked over his convictions of the Bible’s inerrancy, and who is following in his footsteps today.
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The transcript is edited by Bunmi Ishola
Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #222
One of the best ways to get a sense of someone's legacy is to get a sense of where the movement that they were a part of was before they came in, and then what it looked like after they'd left it. So from a doctrine point of view, how did the evangelical movement change as a result of Packer’s ministry, writings, and teaching?
Timothy George: The first thing to say is that Jim was a British Christian. He was an ordained minister in the church of England. And I think his first book was published in 1954, around the time of the Billy Graham crusades. So up until that point, you wouldn't say that evangelicalism in North America was completely isolationists—there were lots of points of contact and the great evangelist of the past, like D.L. Moody and others and been transatlantic figures—but Jim Packer was one of the first people who really brought an orientation from outside the USA and Canada to evangelicalism. It broadened it, it deepened it, it gave it different horizons and also brought different controversies with it. So I would say that was one of the biggest changes.
And the fact that he was an Anglican. Of course, he wasn't the first Anglican evangelical—he stood in a long tradition—but he was one of the first to incarnate that in our presence, in our company, and to make it a palpable reality for so many people.
And so those are two things: it broadened and deepened evangelicalism and began the internationalization of evangelicalism.
To what extent did his Anglicanism shake things up?
Timothy George: Jim was an evangelical Anglican, and so that brings its own set of issues and even controversies with it.
One of the early controversial issues in Jim's life was the Keswick movement. He had been sort of a burned, you might say, by exposure to some people in the Keswick movement and said some very critical things about it. And so the whole question of the holiness movement and how that interfaces with the rest of evangelicalism, that was an import through Jim from a controversy in England.
But in the mid-1950s and 60s, evangelicalism in the United States was already broadening to include different streams. And Jim represented a very distinctive one.
Packer wrote "Fundamentalism" and the Word of God, which came out in 1958. How influential was that in both the British and American understanding of the authority of scripture? Where doesn’t Packer’s approach to biblical authority and inerrancy fit into the picture?
Timothy George: Part of the resurgence of evangelicalism in great Britain—Anglican evangelicalism especially—was related to John Stott, who was a senior figure to Packer. At one time, he actually invited Packer to join his staff, which Packer declined but they remained very good friends.
They had very different personalities. Packer was a scholar, a teacher, a professor. Stott was a pastor, a preacher. But both of them were ardent advocates and supporters of a very high view of scripture.
And so the book Fundamentalism and the Word of God was an articulate, very deep and incisive book defending, arguing for, giving a case for a high view of scripture. What became known—more in North America than in Great Britain at the time—is the doctrine of inerrancy.
Inerrancy has its own history, and Jim was involved with that in some ways later on, but Jim was defending what he preferred to call the total truthfulness of the Holy scripture. That the Bible was the word of God and that where the Bible spoke, it spoke truth and not error. And he defended that very clearly, carefully, and somewhat controversially, not only within the Church of England but even within wider evangelicalism.
Evangelicals are gospel people and Bible people. In fact, you could almost say that's a definition of a Christian. We are gospel people and Bible people. But evangelicalism had a very particular take on that, specifically with the authority of scripture and the inspiration of scripture. As Packer said in one of his many, many books, “God has spoken.” What God said in the Holy Scriptures, God really said, and He says to us. The Bible is trustworthy. It can guide our life. It can inform our convictions. It ought to undergird our churches.
That was the view that Packer was defending.
Some controversies happened over his arguments around inerrancy. Who were the different constituencies that were angered by or opposed Packer’s theology?
Timothy George: Packer’s book was in response to a book written by a somewhat liberal Anglo-Catholic that was primarily attacking Billy Graham and his first great crusade. And Packer rose to the defense of Graham, which is one reason why they were such close allies and comrades through the years.
But Packer's view of inerrancy itself became controversial within evangelicalism as the word inerrancy itself became a fighting word through the work of various theologians and developments at places like Fuller Seminary. This became an internal fight. And this led up to the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, which Packer was a part of. Though he was not a leader off it, he did sign that statement from 1979.
It seems to me that it has a little less white heat today than it did 20 or 30 years ago, but I'm a Southern Baptist by denomination, and there was a time when that was almost the defining issue within the Southern Baptist Convention. And Packer, in fact, spoke at an inerrancy conference for the Southern Baptist at one time to try to bring some clarity to that fight.
Does the fact that this may not have the same heat as it did decades ago mean that Packer was largely successful in bringing people around to this belief?
Timothy George: I think so. Carl Henry is the one who I think coined the phrase that I've heard Packer repeat, that inerrancy is a test of evangelicalism consistency, not of evangelical identity. He didn't want to get lost in the minutiae of arguing these small points, but he never ever wanted to back away from the fact that the Bible is the very word of God. That when the Bible speaks, God speaks. And that the Bible speaks truly when it touches on issues of history. We can trust it. We can believe it. It's not a science book, but when it touches on areas of reality, it speaks truly and not falsely. He never wanted to back away from that central thought and sought to do it in a way that would draw more people into a confidence in scripture.
Another thing about Packer, he was deeply, almost intrinsically committed to the notion of truth. He also very much understood that the Bible was a living book. It was a book that shaped our spirituality and our life. The scriptures use the language of “eating” the Bible in Ezekiel, Jeremiah, and the Old Testament prophets. They took the word of God and they digested it. And so this was a part of Packer too, that the Bible is to be nourishment. It’s a feast and we can come and share the bounty of God's table. And he wanted to keep that front and center in the life of the church.
The liturgical use of the Bible—whether you go to a liturgical church or not—that scripture in worship should be uplifting to the people of God and glorifying to God himself in the way we recite and quote it, memorize it, and sing it in our liturgy and in our life. That part of the Bible as the living breathing word of God was central to Packer's vision.
Packer was also clearly was passionate about Reformed theology. He was much more apt to quote the Puritans or John Owen than Calvin. How much was Packer responsible for the love of reformed theology in evangelicalism?
Timothy George: I think he's the most important figure in the resurgence of Reformed theology among evangelicals in our recent history. Now I can think of other figures and I don't want to take anything away from their influence, but it was Packer who really initiated that movement in a lot of ways.
And this is rooted in his deep Christian concern. One of the very first books he published, was a translation of Martin Luther's Bondage of the Will. And he wrote an introduction that is still well worth reading. So he was deeply rooted in an Augustinian, Reformational, even Lutheran understanding of human incapacity and the absolute, urgent need for divine grace.
This transferred into his work at Oxford. He did his doctoral dissertation on Richard Baxter, a somewhat later Puritan, and actually was critical of Baxter because he thought Baxter leaned a little bit too much toward Arminianism interesting. And yet he loved Baxter and promoted his spirituality. But the Puritans became so important to Packer because they were exponents of Christian life and growth and edification.
Another one of his books Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. And his thesis was that if you're a so-called Calvinist, if you were believing Reformed theology, and if the doctrine of election is so central to your understanding of salvation, then why tell the gospel to anybody? God will save those He wants to save, and you don't have anything to do about it. Well, Packer thought that was blasphemous. He believed that evangelism was a central mandate. The great commission to go into all the world, preach the gospel to every creature, and that this was undergirded by, not undermined by, the sovereignty of God.
So this was deeply woven into the texture of his theology and soul. He was clearly wary of tendencies that pulled away from the sovereignty of God, the glory of God, and the purpose of salvation in the work of Christ on the cross.
Packer wrote for CT very early in the history of the publication. What did his relationship look like with CT over the years?
Timothy George: He was kind of a grandfatherly figure, not only in terms of his person but also in his shaping influence.
He had lived through a lot of controversies. He had a deep bank of memory. I remember we would be sitting around the table and we would get into a little bit of a tiff or a tussle or whatever, and Jim would be able to pull out of his memory an event, a controversy, a personality, or a discussion that had happened 10, 15 years ago, and bring it to that very moment. And it was often quite clarifying.
You know, Jim had an interesting way of talking. He was quiet for a good bit of the time when the discussion was going. But then when he spoke up, we'd better be quiet. And he would often speak sheer wisdom into that moment. Even when there wasn't always unanimity, people could see where he was coming from and what he meant.
And so I would say his role at CT was a mentor to the whole enterprise, especially to all the editors. For me and others that worked with him constantly in those days, we respected him and looked to him as someone who was a pioneer in the very thing that we were giving our lives to.
He had a great sense of humor. He had an irrepressible smile. And while we're talking about his temperament, I would say I never saw him got mad right out. He got frustrated on occasion—I think partly by the lesser mortals with whom he was working—but he had a temperament about him. I think he could see where the other person was coming from and he knew how to listen well, as well as to speak clearly. And that made him a great teacher, as well as a great interlocutor.
In all of these tributes and commentaries that have gone out, even if you read the two biographies about him, there's not a lot on his family life. As someone who knew him, what was Jim like as a family man?
Timothy George: Well, I met his wife. She is a wonderful lady. I think she saw her primary role in that marriage was to be an anchor for Jim and his work, entirely supportive of him in every way. If they had marital problems, I never got a wind of it. I don't know anyone else who did.
He loved his family. He was devoted to them, but also understood that he had a wider ministry. In some ways in that regard, he was like a Billy Graham, who had children, and many times it was Ruth Graham who ended up caring for them and keeping the home fires burning while Billy was running here, there, and everywhere. I think Jim packer maybe had something similar. But he loved his wife dearly and I remember many times talking about her.
Let's go back to some of the defining stances that Packer took in his ministry. Can you talk about how he approached women's ordination and women's leadership in the church?
Timothy George: I would characterize Jim's view on that as a traditionalist. He was an Anglican, evangelical, and came from a church culture which did not support women-ordained ministry.
I remember we published an article in CT, which he wrote, that discussed why we should not ordain women as presbyters. And that was one of the most volatile articles I think we ever published.
But having said that about Jim's view, which is really a view about church polity and how he understood what the scriptures taught about that, in his personal relationship with women, in his support of younger women scholars, I think Jim was absolutely supportive and encouraging in every way. And I know several younger female scholars who worked with him and who held him in the highest esteem. And that would be my impression of him in our discussions as well.
I’m often curious about the ways that hardship and suffering shape a particular person. Can you say a little bit about how that marked Packer’s life?
Timothy George: His life was shaped decisively as a young boy when he was hit by a bread truck. And this left a very visible mark on his head, which he bore until the day died. And so he knew suffering even as a young person. And he had bouts of disease and disorder and weakness, and I think that did shape him in a particular way.
I remember him giving a wonderful exposition once of Paul's discussion with the Corinthians that in our weakness, we are made strong by Christ. And it was the fact that we are wounded healers ourselves. And through those wounds, God speaks to others. That was very much a part of who Jim was and he understood it.
He took the Fall very seriously. And whether you were hit by a bread truck or not, you're going to have suffering in your life. And you need to realize that God is with you in the midst of that. That he shows us compassion, which after all literally means suffering in the midst of, with someone else. And Jesus is a compassionate savior in that sense. Packer knew that.
You know where it came out as much as anywhere else was in his prayers. I loved to hear Jim Packer pray. He prayed with a quietness. He prayed with a certainty, a serenity that's hard to describe, and is not possible to imitate. And I think that was born in the depths of his own struggles, his own weakness, his own suffering, and his own pain.
And as he grew older, weaker, lost his eyesight, and was not able to travel anymore, he came to see the hand of God in this as well, as the entrance of him into a better and happier place in eternity.
We've spoken a lot about how Packer contributed to the evangelical movement, but are there specific ways you saw him contribute, mold, or influence the Reformed tradition?
Timothy George: Well, for one thing, I think the Reformed tradition, of course, covers a multitude of sins, but Packer did not hesitate to own that tradition as his own. And to flesh it out in terms of the great exemplars. He called people back to a figure like John Calvin, back to some of the great Puritans who meant so much to him.
And he felt that they were not just to be old fashioned or anachronistic, but that there was a richness and a texture to that thought that we needed to reclaim for ourselves in order to escape the shallowness that he was warning against. I think that's had a great impact in many ways.
We need more, not less, of Packer in the Reformed movement today. Knowing God is still a bestselling book, and I hope it will be 60 years from now because it has that timeless quality about it. It's substantive. It doesn't just tickle the ears, but it reaches down into the heart. And that's much of what Packer was about.
Now, one of the things that we've not talked about on this podcast, but I think we have to at least mention it. And that is his reaching out to Roman Catholics. Which had its own controversy, but he did that not as a way of trying to hedge his bets or to compromise a theology as he was accused of doing, but he was really motivated by the gospel. A desire to reach out in the name of Jesus Christ, to take seriously the high priestly prayer of Jesus in John 17 that all of his disciples would be one as he and the father is one so that the world might believe. There was an evangelistic mode behind that.
And I think that's the legacy that Jim Packer gives to us all today. That we are to be followers of Jesus and to seek the unity of God's people.
I think Packer recognized that as important as the Protestant reformation was and is for evangelicals, the issues that were faced in the 16th century are not exactly the same as we face today. The Catholic church is not, exactly the same as it was. And so we have to use wisdom as we think about how to advance Christian unity without compromise, without accommodation.
That's what he was for. He was for an ecumenism of conviction, not an ecumenism of accommodation. And in the many, many hours that I spent in dialogue with him and Roman Catholics, that's the thing that came across more and more. And people would turn to him and look to him regardless of whether they were Protestant or Catholic because of what he represented in terms of his spiritual center and his commitment to Jesus Christ.
Where do you see the legacy and influence of Packer today? Do you see it in any particular Christian leaders or in another movement that has started in the church?
Timothy George: Well, one of the questions I was thinking about in this conversation about Jim packer is where is the next Jim Packer?
You know, we say that all the time. I remember at CT we used to talk about who's the next Billy Graham. And I've read about how in 1899, people were saying that about D.L. Moody. Where's the next Moody?
So there is no next Jim packer. There's no one who can fill his shoes. He was uniquely gifted and a great gift of God to the whole church. But he did leave us a legacy. And that legacy is something that we can all own in our own particular way.
Sometime when you don't have anything else to do, take your Bible down and read Psalm 119, the longest chapter in the Bible, and underscore every time the word heart is there. It's a very important word. And this is what Packer was after. He wanted our hearts to be in sync with the heart of Jesus and with the heart of the gospel.
The other one we've talked about too was church. He was against a lone ranger Christianity. and he remained an Anglican, even with all the difficulties and with his own expulsion from his particular branch Anglicanism in Canada at one point. He remained deeply committed to the Anglican way because he believed that it was a gospel way and it's where God had placed him to bear witness.
And I sort of feel that about my own very belabored Baptist movement. To be interdenominational does not mean to be anti-denominational. It means to claim a part of the family of faith, where God has put you. Deepen it, improve it, reform it, enrich it, but don't abandon it. I think that would be Packer’s wisdom.