"A Modest, Christian Gentleman" - A Word of Recognition for J. I. Packer on his 89th Birthday1
Today, July 22, 2015, is J. I. Packer’s 89th birthday. I thought it only appropriate that I say something about this remarkable and godly Christian man. Continue reading . . .
Today, July 22, 2015, is J. I. Packer’s 89th birthday. I thought it only appropriate that I say something about this remarkable and godly Christian man. So I’ve adapted the following from my new book, Packer on the Christian Life (Crossway). If you want the bibliographical source for each of the quotes, you will need to consult the book itself.
I can’t recall the first time I met Jim Packer, but each time I was in his presence I came away sensing that there was something of greatness in him. Of course, Packer himself would bristle at such language. He is, as Carl Trueman aptly describes, “the classic example of a modest, Christian gentleman.” Whatever greatness there is in him (and it is there), whatever constructive influence he has exerted on the Christian church (and it has been incalculably huge), he himself would attribute to the sovereign grace of God working through yet another “clay jar” (2 Cor. 4:7). In our age of Christian celebrity, Jim Packer feels oddly out of place. He is, as best I can tell, entirely devoid of self-promotion. I echo Timothy George’s assessment of him:
“I have seen him buffeted by adversity and criticized unfairly, but I have never seen him sag. His smile is irrepressible and his laughter can bring light to the most somber of meetings. His love for all things human and humane shines through. His mastery of ideas and the most fitting words in which to express them is peerless. Ever impatient with shams of all kinds, his saintly character and spirituality run deep.”
For those not familiar with Packer, perhaps the most helpful portrayal of his broader theological orientation comes from his own pen. The problem is that he rarely speaks of himself except when pressed to do so. In one place he writes:
“I theologize out of what I see as the authentic biblical and creedal mainstream of Christian identity, the confessional and liturgical ‘great tradition’ that the church on earth has characteristically maintained from the start.”
But this is somewhat broad and fails to capture the essence of the man. From other statements we may think of him as a Puritan, a theological exegete, and a latter-day catechist. Here is how he himself put it:
“Rather than identify myself as a fundamentalist, however, I would ask you to think of me as a Puritan: by which I mean, think of me as one who, like those great seventeenth-century leaders on both sides of the Atlantic, seeks to combine in himself the roles of scholar, preacher, and pastor, and speaks to you out of that purpose.”
My goal as a Christian theologian, he again explains,
“is not adequately expressed by saying that I am to uphold an evangelical conservatism of generically Reformed or specifically Anglican or neo-Puritan or interdenominational pietist type, though I have been both applauded and booed on occasion for doing all these things, and I hope under God to continue to do them. But if I know myself I am first and foremost a theological exegete.”
Finally, he believes the best way to describe himself is
“as a latter-day catechist – not, indeed, a children’s catechist (I am not good with children), but what may be called an adult or higher catechist, one who builds on what children are supposed to be taught in order to spell out at adult level the truths we must live by and how we are to live by them.”
Of course, no one who exerts such widespread influence emerges in a historical vacuum. Packer is quick to acknowledge the rich heritage that most powerfully shaped his own mind:
“I am the product of a fairly steady theological growth. Starting with the sovereign-grace, pastorally developed theology of Martin Luther, John Calvin, the English reformers, and the evangelical tradition from Puritans Owen and Baxter through Whitefield, Spurgeon, and J. C. Ryle to Pink and Lloyd-Jones, and holding to this as the Western Bible-believer’s basic heritage, I have come within this frame increasingly to appreciate the patristic fathers, most of all Tertullian, the Cappadocians, and Augustine, and with them Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, and the Oxford Inklings. As a result, my discernment of orthodoxy and heresy, my insight into Christ-centered communion with God and obedience to God, and my understanding of transformation by God into the image and likeness of Christ, seem to me to have deepened. Twenty years after my conversion, I remember telling the man who at that time counseled me that honoring and magnifying Christ had become the central concern of my ministry, and forty years further on so it remains. My pneumatology, enriched to be sure by Edwards on revivals and by interaction with charismatics, is still essentially that of John Owen, and though current needs have led me to say much about the Holy Spirit, Jesus Christ – crucified and risen, who is my Lord and Savior, my life and my hope – still stands at the center of my horizon – which surely is how it should always be, for all of us. My overall theological outlook has seen small adjustments but no major changes, and I thank God for the gift of consistency in holding to the things I first embraced, and embrace today, as his revealed truth.”
Packer’s primary impact has come in the classroom through his training of a multitude of this generation’s pastors and theologians, and especially in his voluminous writings. Indeed, as Timothy George has noted his writings are so extensive that “it is hard to imagine that they have come from the pen of one person.”
I concur with Carl Trueman that “his writings are among the clearest and most lucid statements of orthodoxy available, lacking both pomposity and that dusty piety that so often weighs down other writers of the neo-Puritan revival.” Indeed, this has presented me with something of a challenge, insofar as I find Packer’s prose to be so lucid and persuasive that I often hesitate to cast myself in the role of interpreter. I have repeatedly found myself reluctant to explain Packer’s points, and would have preferred simply to quote him extensively as his words, more than any other contemporary theologian, speak for themselves and hardly need the explanatory assistance of another!
I’ve made much here of the obvious role of divine providence in the shaping of this man whom so many of us have come to admire and love. I can do no better than to cite the observations of Packer’s close friend, Timothy George. He wonders . . .
“Peradventure? What would have happened had that seven-year old J. I. Packer not been hit by the bread truck in 1933? Would humanity have gained a champion cricket player and lost a world class theologian? Peradventure. What would have happened had Packer, as a young Christian at Oxford, still seeking his theological bearings, reached into that bin of dusty old books and pulled out not John Owen, but a volume, say, by Jeremy Taylor or Lancelot Andrewes? Would that have lit a fire in his soul for the things of God? Or what would have happened had a beautiful young nurse named Kit Mullet not seen the visiting bachelor curate sitting alone at the lunch table after his presentation at church? What if Mullet had not struck up a conversation with that lonely fellow, a relationship that has led now to more than fifty years of marriage and three children? Did God meet J. I. Packer at the crossroads and direct him in ways that he could not have foreseen at the time? Peradventure. For Philemon 15 must be matched with Proverbs 16:33, which in none of our modern translations quite matches the beauty of the Authorized Version, ‘The lot is cast into the lap; but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord.’ Antinomies everywhere.”