Volume 32 - Issue 2

The Quintessential Englishman

By Carl Trueman

It is hard to believe, but J. I. Packer has just celebrated his eightieth birthday. For many evangelical students who came to faith in the 1970s and 1980s the works of James Packer were a staple diet. From Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, with its articulate exposition of how high views of election should work hand-in-glove with vigorous commitment to evangelism, to ‘Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God, his famous defence of biblical authority, Packer’s books offered many of us our first taste of theological reflection which was both sound, courteous, and intelligent.

For me, the two classics are Knowing God (no surprise there) and Keep in Step with the Spirit (probably, for those who remember, a more controversial choice). The former is, I believe, still popular, being essentially an introduction to classical theology, cast in a popular idiom. It has sold in quantities of which most Christian authors, at least, Christian authors actually worth reading, can only dream. Essentially a popularization of the thought of the great seventeenth century Puritan, John Owen, it remains a standard way of accessing some of the doctrinal gems of the Reformed tradition. Keep in Step with the Spirit has perhaps dated more seriously, but at the time of its publication in the mid-80s, it provided many of us with a way out of the false alternatives then on offer as responses to the charismatic movement: either one had to swallow it whole or repudiate it as a movement of the Devil. Instead of these unsatisfactory options, Packer offered his readers a charitable critique which gently, but firmly, reoriantated thinking on the Holy Spirit back toward Christ and towards sanctification.

Outside of his writings, Packer proved a more controversial figure. Of course, he has been based in Canada at Regent College now for many years, and in North America he is revered and held in some awe. Indeed, with the exception of his involvement in Evangelicals and Catholics Together, he has not been the focus of too much polemical disturbance and seems to be regarded rather as the grand old gentleman of the evangelical theological cause. Not so in Britain. In the fifties, he was by far the most intellectually gifted of the young men and woman who gathered around Martyn Lloyd-Jones and helped to kick-start the neo-Puritan revival. He thus played an instrumental role in the development of a British evangelicalism which had intellectual backbone, a consciousness of history, and a desire to develop a church life that was built on a high view of Scripture and a commitment to the centrality of preaching. By the mid-60s, however, serious tensions were beginning to emerge between MLJ, on one increasingly convinced that those denominations were seriously which tolerated liberal teaching in their pulpits. His solution, proposed most dramatically at a meeting at which Stott was also speaking in 1966, was that evangelicals should leave such denominations and form some kind of (rather ill-defined) broad evangelical front, committed to the basic essentials of the Christian gospel. Neither Stott nor Packer agreed with the proposal and thus British evangelicalism, not for the first time in her history, was split between Anglicans and non-conformists.

In the decades that followed, the bitterness between the two sides did nothing to help the evangelical cause in Britain. In addition, while MLJ’s followers continued to fragment and engage in brutal infighting, the Anglicans sought strange alliances with Anglo-Catholics and even liberals, fuelling the suspicion of MLJ’s followers that Anglican evangelicals were Anglicans first, last and always, and that their evangelicalism was simply a qualification of his more fundamental identity. The result: a fractured and weakened evangelicalism, rent with bitterness and internal division, and a world in which there was a no real place on either side for a man like J. I. Packer.

Forty years on, while the generation which fought the battles of the 60s and 70s is slowly passing away into glory, the fateful divisions of that time continue to shape both British evangelicalism and the reputation of James Packer in his homeland. There he has been seen variously as having fatally compromised himself by refusing MLJ’s terms for the future of British evangelicalism, or as having fled the country to avoid having to take difficult stands with in his own communion. Where does the truth lie?

My own thoughts, for what they are worth, are that the break between MLJ and Packer was a most tragic and damaging event for British evangelicalism. Without a doubt, Packer was a sharper theological mind than MLJ. The break in 1966 effectively ensured that British non-conformist evangelicalism lost a leader who could have provided necessary intellectual ballast and, more importantly, a counterweight to the influence of MLJ. Great as he was, MLJ’s iconic status, verging in some quarters on a personality cult, was not in the long terms interest of the British scene. The oft heard laments about the failure to find ‘the next Lloyd-Jones’—indeed, the very fact that the issue can even be framed in such terms—merely underline the problem which was created by his unquestioned and unchallenged dominance of British evangelical non-conformity. Put simply, with MLJ’s passing, the mantle of leadership passed to men who proved unable to reforge the alliances of the fifties, and who had little or no interest in ecclesiology nor, more importantly, in theology proper, other than as a recitation of the eighteenth century. Thus, English non-conformity inevitably returned to the intellectual and ecclesiastical backwaters from which it had briefly emerged. As early as the 1980s, my friend and mentor, the late Bob Horn, saw the problem and moved to found Evangelicals Now as a way out of the impasse; but the heat he took for that merely indicated the depth of the problem.

On the Anglican front, the current situation is arguably a little better, at least at the level of some local churches. Certain Anglican churches in London and elsewhere thrive; the impact of Oak Hill Theological College is beginning to be felt even beyond the confines of Anglicanism; and there is a wonderful vision for church planting emerging among many of the younger leaders. Indeed, each of these factors has, at grass roots level, served to break down some of the barriers which exist between the parties of 66. Yet the anti-theological trajectory which one finds in some of the most significant movements within Anglican evangelicalism is extremely unfortunate and surely a cause for concern. The use of the wonderful tool of biblical theology has proved its worth in helping many rising Anglican leaders to unlock the Scriptures in an appropriately Christ-centred way; yet there are worrying signs that it has also become the means of fostering an Anglican evangelicalism which lacks any real interest in theological synthesis or in ecclesiology. Is it perhaps simply the old Anglican evangelical pietism dressed up in new clothes? If so, this is something which, I believe, will proved problematic as it immediate short-term gains will be more that offset by serious losses in the long run. Defending and articulating the faith in modern Britain requires most than just biblical expository preaching. It requires the development of theological mind which can confront the wider world on a variety of fronts. Yet, where are the leaders with serious theological concerns and serious theological skills? Packer was perhaps the one man who could have given the crucial leadership in the 60s and 70s which would have set British evangelicals on the right course.

So was Packer right to remain in the Anglican Church? There was a time when I would have given an unconditional, ‘No’ in answer to this question; yet now I realize the question is at least more complicated that I once would have acknowledged. What a choice he faced: a defensive and increasingly insular non-conformity; or an Anglican pietism with little or no theological depth. Perhaps I am still inclined to give the same answer, but only on the grounds that we do not know if Packer might not have saved British evangelical non-conformity from its fractious irrelevance. A Packer counterbalancing Lloyd Jones, cutting off the personality cult at its roots making the case for thoughtful theological engagement, and standing against the separatist excesses of the 70s,would have been a sight to behold; but it was not to be. He is the failed leader of British evangelicalism; but his failure is due in some measure to circumstances beyond his control. That there was no home for him in dear old Blighty is our lasting loss; and not only ours, but that of future generations as well.

Perhaps it is worth concluding with some personal thoughts. What have I really learned from James Packer? I would suggest three things, and three things for which I am deeply grateful and which, for me, ensure Packer’s place in my own personal ‘Theological Hall of Fame’. One I have already mentioned: Packer taught me to love theology. He made the Puritans come alive for me; he taught me that the engagement of the brain and the warming of the heart were not necessarily mutually exclusive.

Second, Packer taught me, by his example, the theological teaching is a calling which requires both scholarly integrity and a conscious commitment to serving the Christian church. That his writings contain little that is pure scholarship is another loss and certainly no sign of lack of ability or wide-ranging reading: as one colleague once put it after hearing Packer speak on Puritanism, ‘the man carries all the scholarly footnotes in his head’. Packer ultimately wrote almost exclusively for the educated layperson. My own view would be that the Christian teacher might want to write partly for the layperson and partly for the scholar; but the crucial lesson is that learning does not exempt anyone from writing for the person in the pew. After all, if the church member has no competent, thoughtful and well-written theological writing to read, what will he or she end up reading? The Christian theologian who only wants to write for the scholarly great and the academic good is a poor theologian indeed.

The third lesson is that Packer gave me an example of how a Christian should behave under fire. The trashing of Packer by the followers of MLJ was far more brutal that the treatment accorded by the same to John Stott-ironic, given that Packer was theologically so much closer to MLJ. But Packer was, as hinted above, the only potential rival to the Doctor’s authority; and as such, he was perhaps destined for special treatment. Yet, as far as I am aware, Packer has only ever spoken positively about MLJ as a person, has always given generous acknowledgment of his debt to the Doctor, and has thus embodied that true humility which should be the essential characteristic of the truly orthodox. Ironically, one might say that it was in James Packer’s very failure to be the British leader that he should have been that he leaves his greatest personal legacy. Success because of failure? That, I might add by way of conclusion, is so quintessentially English.

Carl Trueman

Carl Trueman is academic dean, vice president of academic affairs, and professor of historical theology and church history at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.