An Appreciation Of J. I. Packer And A Dissent

On 17 July, 2020 J. I. Packer (b. 1926) went to be with our Lord. Like Carl Trueman I am thankful for Packer. As a young evangelical, Packer and John R. W. Stott saved me from the mindless evangelicalism toward which I was headed. In the summer of 1981 I was living in beautiful Bend, Oregon. I was doing the afternoon show at a local radio station and attending the local OPC congregation. That summer I read Packer’s Knowing God. That book, along with Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, helped me immeasurably. Both were clear, grounded in Scripture and the Reformed tradition. They were far more intelligent than anything I had been encouraged to read hitherto. Packer opened for me both the past and the future. Once I began reading Knowing God I did not put it down but once until I finished. It was a turning point in my life.

Five years later, or so, while a seminary student at Westminster Seminary California, I took a course with Packer, on Calvin’s theology. In explaining the value of the Institutes he remarked, “The Bible is a very big book.” So it is. The first academic journal article I ever published, on Calvin’s view of natural law, began as a term paper for Packer. I remember my joy and relief that he approved of it rather enthusiastically.

So, I agree with most all that has been said about the value and virtue of his life and work. I want to sound that note clearly and soundly before dissenting from some of what has been said in the wake of his death. Dear Christian, you will benefit from reading J. I. Packer. You should do it. Carl’s essay gives some leads to where to begin. His essay introducing Owen’s Death of Death is marvelous and his essay introducing Witsius’ Economy of the Covenants is excellent too. Bruce Hindmarsh is quite right to say that Packer was a sort of Robin Hood figure taking from the riches of the Reformed tradition and giving them to us impoverished American evangelicals.

Dissent

Nevertheless, it would not be serving Packer’s legacy well nor does it serve us and those who will succeed us lightly to pass over what Trueman describes as Packer’s erring “on the side of charity in his ecumenical dealings.” Hindmarsh writes of Packer’s search for “common ground with “charismatics, Roman Catholics, and Orthodox believers.” He describes Packer as searching for “catholicity” and as impelled by what Packer described as “ethos of convertedness within a larger ethos of catholicity.”

That ethos is what we know from history as Pietism. The Pietists reacted to their state churches in Europe and the British Isles by downplaying doctrinal precision, all the while affirming the ecumenical creeds and the confessions of their traditions, whether Lutheran or Reformed, in favor of what I have called the Quest for Illegitimate Religious Experience (QIRE). The Pietists had a mixed record. Some of them managed to hang on to orthodoxy in their generation but typically they lost it in their children’s or grandchildren’s generation. The great German liberals, whether outright liberals or so-called Mediating Theologians, were all the children of Pietists because, what matters in Pietism, ultimately, is not confession but a personal experience of the risen Christ. So long as one can give a testimony of conversion, confession and doctrine come second. Hindmarsh captures the spirit of Pietism well: “Faith, repentance, fellowship, communion, holiness and service are all the while being renewed by the coursing life of the Spirit. Given this spiritual ethos, Packer was eager to make common cause with faithful believers in other Christian communions.”

This dynamic, this conviction helps to explain Packer’s involvement in two different ecumenical projects with Romanists where the doctrine of justification was compromised. Few Americans knew about the first until the second, Evangelicals and Catholics Together (1994) and its successor, widely known as ECT II. I have described and interacted with these documents and episodes previously (see the resources below). In both cases, to different degrees, evangelicals signed and affirmed as the gospel and the doctrine of justification equivocations that subverted the Reformation. They did so because they were convinced that their Romanist dialogue partners were also born again and thus the language of the documents, even on justification, was academic. The material question, regeneration, was already settled.

The Doctrine Of The Standing Or Falling Of the Church

In 1618 J. H. Alsted wrote, “the article of justification is said to be the article of the standing or falling of the church.” He did not invent that idea. He inherited that language and conviction from the sixteenth-century Protestants, chief among whom was Martin Luther (1483–1546). Nevertheless, we should not, as happens too often, miss the fact that it was a Reformed theologian who said that justification is the article (of doctrine) on which the church stands or falls (stantis et cadentis). Contra the story that apparently many Presbyterian and Reformed folk, even within the confessional world, have learned, the Reformed used to be just as passionate about justification as the Lutherans. It is not the case that the Lutheran “Central Dogma” is justification and ours is divine sovereignty. This way of understanding the two traditions simply does not account for the facts.

Packer himself recognized the importance of the orthodox, confessional Protestant doctrine of justification. In 1952 he published a modern classic in his survey of “The Puritan Treatment of Justification by Faith” Evangelical Quarterly 24 (1952): 131–43. He knew what the Protestants, including the Reformed, taught about justification. After the Shepherd controversy, he clearly articulated the dangers of what Norman Shepherd was teaching: “Shepherd in effect reinvented the neonomianism of Richard Baxter in the 17th century—and from the same motive—recoil from the practical antinomianism that surrounded him…”.

Thus, it was no small thing for him to have negotiated the doctrine of justification as he did both in the UK and in North America. Regarding the latter, in the words of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals (1998), in their affirmations on justification, the ECT affirmations “separately and together…fall short of both the biblical and Reformation doctrine of sola fide.” They fall short because “[c]entral and essential to the biblical doctrine of justification and to the Reformation doctrine of <em>sola fide</em> is the concept of the ‘imputation’ of the righteousness of Christ to the believer.” Rome teaches justification by grace and cooperation with grace on the basis of infused righteousness. These are two different and mutually incompatible doctrines of justification. Further, when Rome says “faith” she means “faith formed by love” not knowledge, assent, and trust, which leans and rests upon entirely and only upon Christ and his righteousness for us in justification. “Formed by love” is a way of saying that our sanctification (represented by the virtue of love) is said by Rome to make faith justifying. In other words, according to Rome, it is not the object of faith that justifies (Christ) as much as the intrinsic qualities of faith itself. When the Protestants said sola fide, they were rejecting the Romanist ground of justification and the Romanist instrument of justification. Properly understood, in Reformation terms, Evangelical (in the Reformation sense of the word) and Roman Catholics are not together.

One consequence of this mixed record on justification is the way the doctrine of justification is presented in the new Anglican catechism, (see the review linked below) of which Packer was the theological editor. In it one simply does not hear the voice of the Tyndale, Latimer, Ridley, Cranmer, Perkins, or Sibbes. It is equivocal at best. What it does not say is striking. Packer knew Owen (a congregationalist) far better than I do. He knew how passionately and thoroughly Owen rejected Baxter on justification but on justification, the Anglican catechism, his catechism, reads more like Baxter than Owen. It does not read like the Homily on the Salvation of All Mankind, to which the Anglican articles themselves refer us. There is, in the new catechism, no unequivocal doctrine of justification sola fide. That is part of Packer’s legacy. This is what the coming generations of ostensibly conservative Anglicans will be taught. Here the theological rubber meets the road, and we have a flat tire.

Let us appreciate all the good J. I. Packer did. Let us strive to do our work with the grace, wit, and intelligence with which he did his. Let us also be reminded that all our heroes have feet of clay, as he knew better than most. Let us seek the fire and passion that he sought but let it be fire and passion for the biblical gospel, the Reformation gospel, through which the Spirit gives new life, true faith, assurance, and by which he empowers us to the sort of godliness and charity Packer modeled for us all.

Resources

    Post authored by:

  • R. Scott Clark
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    R.Scott Clark is the President of the Heidelberg Reformation Association, the author and editor of, and contributor to several books and the author of many articles. He has taught church history and historical theology since 1997 at Westminster Seminary California. He has also taught at Wheaton College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Concordia University. He has hosted the Heidelblog since 2007.

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6 comments

  1. Hello,
    Your explanation of Pietism was new for me. The explanation of Pietism being defined as downplaying doctrinal Precision while affirming creeds and confessions – was eye opening. It may explain what I heard a teacher in a local congregation say [which sounded confusing] he started quoting WCF 14.2 in an attempt to explain the Christian life – it reads “the principal acts of saving fatih are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace” ..He then asks, “does the phrase mean sanctification is complete? It most certainly doesn’t. We know this from the straightforward context of Chapter 14” He says Chapter 14 explains the content, assent, and personal trust of saving faith and WCF 16.5 explains we are to be diligent to “do all that we can” as a child pleases his parents. He turns again to sanctification stating, “God continues to sanctify (progressively) those who have been sanctified already (positionally or definitively). He concludes this section with James 2:14 reminding us to do good works…. the presentation confused me. I understand sanctification to be both progressive and definitive – and if it is definitive wouldn’t that necessarily mean it is complete in Christ, though not complete in our experience? Is there a significant difference between the word complete or definitive as used in this context?

  2. Thanks for this post, Dr Clark. I once got into an elevator alone with J I Packer at aN ETS Event. What a privilege! Also, great to hear you were in Bend, OR, where I served as pastor of the OPC after graduating from Westminster Philadelphia, from 1970-74. Bend really is beautiful! Lots of fond memories.

  3. Since justification by faith through the imputed righteousness of Christ is the standing and falling of the church, then should not be our concern that every branch of Christianity come to a clearer understanding of it? How will that happen without dialogue and discussion when the opportunity arises by God’s providence?

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