Volume 47 - Issue 3

J. I. Packer and the Next Wave of Evangelicalism: Foundations for Renewal

By Paul R. House


This article surveys the life and ministry of James Innell Packer (1926–2020), evangelical Anglican, theologian, author, Bible translator, and church renewal advocate. It suggests that Packer’s ministry is especially informative because it had roots in pre-war evangelical circles and extended through the growth of the evangelical movement from the 1950s to the 1990s and the movement’s ebbing afterwards. It asserts that Packer’s efforts to aid theological and church restoration provide principles for much-needed biblical renewal in current evangelicalism.1

James Innell Packer was born in 1926 to nominal Anglican parents.2 The family had modest means. His father was employed by the British railway, and his mother was a homemaker.3 Packer became a studious boy, in part because a skull injury made it too dangerous for him to participate in sports. On his twelfth birthday, he hoped for a bicycle, but his parents, concerned for his safety, gave him a typewriter instead.4 This gift led to a life-long passion for writing circumscribed by that device. He went to the best school in his area, where, like many English young people of this era, he learned Latin and Greek. In fact, he learned them well enough to receive a scholarship to study Classics in Corpus Christi College at Oxford University.5

In a conversation with Paul and Heather House in 2015, Packer recalled vividly his entry into the Oxford University community in the autumn of 1944. He noted how small the numbers were due to the war and how dark the university stayed at night due to air raid precautions. Like so many Oxford students before and since, he remembered how bad college food was. He recalled how he came to be helped by Puritan theology and history. He mentioned that he had read books by Clive Staples Lewis, and he regretted now that he had not taken the time to hear him lecture. Tutors and lessons came to mind, and he acknowledged growth in his academic skills. He recalled friends, such as Elizabeth Lloyd-Jones—later Mrs. Fred Catherwood.6 Most importantly to him, he recounted coming to Christ at an evangelistic meeting within weeks of his arrival in Oxford.7

I mention Packer’s recollections of 1944 to highlight the fact that in 2015 the entirety of the post-war evangelical renewal was still part of his living memory. Packer had seen it and been part of it. Indeed, he was still actively involved in it, for we had this conversation the night before a meeting of the English Standard Version Translation Oversight Committee.

Packer’s death in 2020 left post-war evangelicalism with very few remaining representatives of its early days. Thus, it is a milestone worth noting. Yet it was a milestone that marked an end of a life, not the end of what that life stood for. Having lived through three previous waves of evangelical ecclesiology and scholarship, he had also helped launch a fourth. This article will outline the first three of these waves and Packer’s place in them before focusing on the fourth. It will then offer some foundations for future renewal based on Packer’s life. My goal is to suggest how Packer’s life bears witness to enduring foundations for renewal within evangelicalism in a possible next wave.

Why renewal within evangelicalism? Timothy George has defined “evangelicalism” as “a living tradition within the world Christian movement.”8 This is the sense in which theologically-conservative Anglicans and Presbyterians used the term when Packer was growing up.9 Writing in 1958, Packer defined the term as “fidelity to the doctrinal content of the gospel.”10 In the past, this renewal movement has united believers from various faith traditions in the following biblical beliefs and practices: (1) the virgin birth, sinless life, death, bodily resurrection, and lordship of Christ; (2) the sole authority of Scripture to define Christian life and practice; (3) the necessity of cross-bearing discipleship and ethics; (4) the beauty of meaningful Trinitarian congregational and individual worship; and (5) the responsibility and joy of engaging in world missionary activity. It can do so again. However, it is evident to many today that evangelicalism itself once again needs renewal before it will be or be seen by others as a renewing force.

1. First Wave: Rekindling the UK Evangelical Heritage (1944–1954)

Packer entered Oxford at a moment in the UK when others had already begun to stir the waters of conservative theology for the renewal of theological education, evangelism, discipleship, ecclesiology, and missiology. For example, Martyn Lloyd-Jones was preaching vibrant biblical messages in rubble-strewn London to what remained of the congregation of Westminster Chapel. Lloyd-Jones had been the better-known G. Campbell Morgan’s associate minister until the older man’s death in 1943.11 Morgan represented the previous generation of Bible-believing independent churchmen. Wycliffe Hall, an Anglican permanent hall of Oxford University founded in 1877 with the help of J. C. Ryle,12 was seeking to retain at least some of its conservative roots.13 Evangelizing of university students continued. As was noted above, Packer was converted at one of these meetings. Led by Douglas Johnson, Inter-Varsity Fellowship evangelized and discipled university students and initiated a thoughtful publishing program. F. F. Bruce, who eventually wrote extensively on topics in biblical studies and supervised numerous American doctoral students at the University of Manchester, was teaching at the University of Leeds.14 Tyndale House, an evangelical study center in Cambridge, had been envisioned and its fruitful ministry begun.15

As noted above, Packer studied Classics at Corpus Christi and gained a strong interest in the history and theology of the Puritans during 1944–1948. He prepared for Christian ministry by studying Theology while living in Wycliffe Hall (1949–1950). He then did research towards his doctorate (1950–1952), also while living in Wycliffe Hall.16 He completed his dissertation on the Puritan pastor Richard Baxter in July 1954,17 a few days before he married Kit Mullet.18 Given his studies, then, Packer was prepared to contribute to biblical exegesis, biblical theology, church history, and systematic theology—the four subjects he thereafter considered foundational for all other theological disciplines.

In 1948–1949, Packer taught Latin and Greek at Oak Hill College in London. Close colleagues included R. Alan Cole and Alan Stibbs,19 both of whom were excellent biblical scholars.20 This experience led him to believe that perhaps God was calling him to teaching as his vocation. His interest in the Puritans resulted in Packer working with Martyn Lloyd-Jones and O. Raymond Johnston to establish an annual conference on that tradition starting in 1950.21 During 1952–1954 Packer served as a curate at St. John’s, Harborne, in Birmingham. He was ordained in December 1952.22 When Stibbs and Johnson decided that the article on “Revelation and Inspiration” in The New Bible Commentary needed updating, they turned to Packer to write the piece.23

Other young evangelicals were also beginning significant ministries in the UK. For example, John Stott had finished his studies in Modern Languages at Cambridge University and commenced his life-long service at London’s All Souls Langham Place in 1945.24 Billy Graham had first preached in the UK in 1946 as a Youth for Christ evangelist,25 and in 1954 he led the famous three-month evangelistic campaign in London’s Harringay Arena. Many of the students in Anglican theological colleges in the next decade were direct descendants of the London Crusade. In Scotland, William Still started a pastorate in Aberdeen in 1945 that lasted five decades.26 In 1949, James Philip began a powerful expository ministry in Gardenstown that he continued at Holyrood Abbey, Edinburgh beginning in 1958.27 Each man influenced generations of university students in their respective cities.

In 1944–1954, Packer completed his formal education and began to pursue the areas of thought and practice he emphasized thereafter. First, he used his considerable language skills as a tutor at Oak Hill College. Second, having been nourished by Puritan writers from the early days after his conversion, he worked alongside Lloyd-Jones and others in the annual Puritan Conference. Third, he began writing articles for publication. His article on revelation and the inspiration of Scripture showed that he already recognized that a robust view of the authority and inspiration of the Bible must undergird his theology and ministry. Fourth, he decided to focus on education as his vocation. Fifth, he served as a ministry team member in an Anglican parish. He never separated writing, teaching, and church ministry—the three areas in which evangelicalism made the most strides during the first wave.

2. Second Wave: Expansion and Limits of
UK Evangelicalism and Its Institutions (1954–1979)

During 1954–1979, Packer’s writing flourished. He published some of his best works, including “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God (1958), Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (1961), God Has Spoken (1965), Knowing God (1973), and Beyond the Battle for the Bible (1978). These years also found Packer helping build Anglican evangelical institutions. He served as instructor at Tyndale Hall in Bristol (1955–1961), warden of Latimer House in Oxford (1961–1970), principal of Tyndale Hall in Bristol (1970–1972), and instructor of theology at Trinity College in Bristol (1972–1979).

Theologically driven institutions can be personal or impersonal, formal or informal, large or small, temporary or permanent. They can be funded and governed by a donor, a group, a denomination, a government, or a combination of all four. As a teacher at Tyndale Hall, Packer ministered to a student body of 55–60 alongside strong staff members, including John Wenham, an outstanding Greek scholar. At the time, there were two other approved Anglican colleges in Bristol. The Packers lived in a residence hall among the students, and he often ate breakfast with them.28 This was an example of strong viable personal theological education.

Between Packer’s leaving in 1961 and return as Principal in 1970, Tyndale had suffered through organizational strife and had fallen to 28 students, but the college had an outstanding staff.29 The college was, as Packer put it later, “in low water,”30 but Packer had plans for a stronger curriculum and a better organizational structure. He thought that 45–50 students would be sufficient going forward.31 Unfortunately, a denominational committee on theological education thought that only colleges with 80–120 students were desirable. Thus, eventually the decision was made to consolidate the three Bristol colleges into one. This new college was named Trinity. As is often true when academic institutions merge, the early years at Trinity were bright. Faculty members included Packer, J. A. Motyer, Colin Brown, and Joyce Baldwin.32 The combined enrollment was higher than any one of the three had been. Nonetheless, one college remained where three evangelical ones had been, and that one had fewer opportunities for teacher-student interaction than its predecessors. Maintaining a high-quality teaching staff and sustaining higher enrollment proved challenging.

Between his times in Bristol, Packer went back to Oxford to lead Latimer House, an Anglican study center aimed at “defusing liberal theology.”33 In this capacity, Packer was able to make a significant contribution to major meetings and conferences, including the National Evangelical Anglican Congress (1967).34 Packer engaged in theological journalism for the sake of expressing the evangelical Anglican viewpoint in intellectually respectable ways. Thus, he penned numerous articles for religious newspapers and magazines.35 He also sought grounds for common Anglican union despite serious theological and liturgical differences,36 an effort that put Martyn Lloyd Jones at odds with him and ended Packer’s participation in the Puritan Conference in 1970.37 To be fair to Lloyd-Jones, he wondered why Anglican evangelicals preferred to stay with Anglican liberals rather than leave the national church behind to be with other evangelicals. To be fair to Packer, he had never indicated a desire to leave the Anglican church. He desired to reform from within while standing alongside evangelicals from other denominations.

Latimer House made a strong contribution to evangelical Anglicanism during Packer’s tenure. Packer told Leland Ryken that he considered his time at Latimer successful in two ways. First, it “corrected a public perception of evangelicals as being isolated from the Anglican Church and lacking in intellectual sophistication.”38 Second, it laid a foundation for reform within the church.39 Packer continued to press these two points the rest of his life.

Packer’s time in Bristol and Oxford yielded many solid articles and books. Three stand out for their immediate and ongoing value. “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God (1958) expressed Packer’s view of biblical authority and inspiration as clearly as any work he produced. He told me in 2015 that he was pleased that the book held up remarkably well over time. Its durability partly rests in its close connection to biblical theology rather than to current controversy. Packer separates his theology from fundamentalism and liberalism, thus dealing with a pressing issue in the mid-1950s. Yet he does so while expounding a historic Christian orthodoxy that stands the test of time.40

Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (1961) also holds up well, and for the same reason. Packer seeks to explain how God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are friends in the Bible, not opponents.41 He makes a significant contribution to proper pastoral work by denying that numerical growth defines biblical evangelism, for, he writes, “The results of preaching depend, not on the wishes and intentions of men, but on the will of God Almighty.”42 He adds, “But the way to tell whether in fact you are evangelizing is not to ask whether conversions are known to have resulted from your witness. It is to ask whether you are faithfully making known the gospel message.”43 These assertions place evangelism in proper perspective.

Knowing God (1973) is by far Packer’s best-selling volume. It encapsulates the Bible’s teaching about God in twenty-two tightly written chapters.44 There is hardly a wasted word. Packer treats God as a person, not a concept. He writes about God as one might about a trusted mentor who is also a family friend. God’s truthful word and unimaginable love for his imperfect people constitute the heart of the work.45

It is possible to see now that Packer participated in the largest post-war expansion of UK evangelicalism thus far. We do not know what the future will hold. The scholarly output of evangelical writers like Packer, J. A. Motyer, Joyce Baldwin, Colin Brown, Geoffrey Grogan, John Wenham, Anthony Thiselton, and others built a strong foundation for further work by subsequent generations. Many of the institutions in which these scholars worked, however, have struggled or closed. This wave in UK evangelicalism shows that institutions can contribute to evangelical flourishing. If evangelicalism is dependent on them, however, the future could be a troubled one.

On the other hand, if evangelicalism is dependent on embracing the truthful and loving God, living by the trustworthy word of God, and sharing the good news about God regardless of numerical success, then evangelicalism has a viable future. Evangelicalism ought to examine its theology of institutions and make corrections. It should not, however, make corrections to healthy belief in God, Scripture, and evangelism.

3. Third Wave: Expansion and Limits of
North American Evangelicalism (1979–1999)

When Packer moved to Vancouver in 1979, North American evangelicalism was experiencing the sort of expansion that UK evangelicalism had enjoyed from 1944–1979. Billy Graham’s ministry spanned North America and extended around the world. Graham, Charles Fuller, Harold Ockenga, Kenneth Kantzer, and James Houston contributed to the founding or flourishing of interdenominational evangelical seminaries.46 Likeminded denominational seminary leaders likewise initiated or bolstered theological education. Church attendance had increased dramatically during the Baby Boom years in conservative and liberal denominations alike. Young people came to faith in record numbers, many through efforts such as Bill Bright’s Campus Crusade ministry and Francis and Edith Schaeffer’s L’Abri community and associated books. The Eerdmans, Baker, and Zondervan families published evangelical works from their base in Grand Rapids, Michigan, while Moody, InterVarsity Press, Tyndale House, and the fledgling Crossway Books were based in the Chicago area. Carl Henry, Millard Erickson, R. K. Harrison, Clark Pinnock, and Merrill Tenney were making their mark as theologians and Bible interpreters. Younger scholars, such as the New Testament scholars D. A. Carson and N. T. Wright, would soon do the same.47 Evangelical and conservative denominational mission boards, such as the Foreign Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention, expanded. Some evangelicals spoke of reaching the world for Christ by century’s end.

Packer participated in and contributed to this growth. The years 1979–1999 were among the happiest and most productive of his life. Regent College proved a tremendous blessing to evangelical scholarship, pastoral formation, and forwarding discipleship among lay people. Packer had able colleagues who left their own mark on scholarship: Gordon Fee (New Testament), Bruce Waltke (Old Testament), and Eugene Peterson (Pastoral Theology).48

Packer also contributed greatly to the work of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, as I will discuss below. He published serious and significant articles on biblical hermeneutics.49 He tried to explain the essentials of biblical inerrancy to Southern Baptist conservatives and moderates in 1988.50 He published several books, including my personal favorite, Hot Tub Religion (1987), and the widely read A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Spiritual Life (1990). He participated in Evangelicals and Catholics Together in the mid-1990s, a commitment that led to the sort of criticism he received when engaging in discussions of Anglican union in the 1960s.51 He retired from full-time teaching at Regent in 1996, but he continued to offer courses there and at other seminaries for many years afterwards.

4. Fourth Wave: Seeds for Renewal (1999–2020)

As I noted above, evangelical hopes were very high when Packer moved to Vancouver in 1979. Forty years later, North American evangelicals, especially those in the US, have reason to be chastened. The Baby Boom is long over, though many colleges, churches, denominations, and seminaries have not planned accordingly. Post-Christian culture is as alive and well as it was in the 1960s, though it now takes different forms. Evangelicalism’s emphasis on numbers and large institutions has continued, perpetuating an industrial model of education instead of a personal one. Institutional and ecclesiastical fissures and fractures continue, as they have since the 1930s. Racial tensions have ebbed and flowed without Black, White, Asian, and Hispanic conservatives finding ways to overcome barriers and work together consistently. Political entanglements and how they have been reported have endangered the constructive use of the term “evangelical.” Carl Henry’s 1971 call for an “evangelical demonstration” of unity in ministry still waits to be answered.52 His 1976 warnings about “a newly aggressive far right” that “echoes a religious jingoism that merely ignores or rebukes multiplying nuclei of discontent” and a “restrictive social vision” that “can only have doleful consequences for evangelical conscience and national life” have not been heeded.53 Nor has his admonition that even if evangelicals “are motivated by a legitimate defense of capitalism and democratic processes against socialist and totalitarian assaults, the failure of establishment evangelicals to criticize incisively the American politico-cultural context, including secular capitalism and seamy governmental trends, has often dampened the younger generations for these structural forms.”54

Amid these fourth wave developments, Packer’s work in the last twenty years of his life planted seeds for renewal within a chastened evangelicalism. These seeds include: (1) a Bible translation anchored in a high view of Scripture that is useful for preaching, worship, and scholarship; (2) biblically saturated resources for personal, familial, congregational, and denominational renewal; and (3) a life that exhibited faithfulness unto death.

4.1. Seed One, Translating God’s Word: Packer and the English Standard Version

In 1998 or 1999, Packer agreed to participate in the making of the English Standard Version. He was a member of the Translation Oversight Committee, which ultimately decided the text’s wording.55 Thus, during 1999–2001 he met in person with eleven other committee members in work sessions held in Cambridge (UK), Orlando, Hereford (UK), and Nashville. The team and support staff met together in person for a total of about 100 days leading up to the translation’s publication in 2001. Significant preparation time was required between meetings. Packer missed one set of meetings due to illness, but he was in contact with the committee even then. Subsequent Translation Oversight Committee meetings occurred at College Church in Wheaton, Illinois, in 2005, and at Tyndale House in Cambridge in 2010 and 2015.

Packer had many roles on the committee. First, he was expected to contribute linguistic insights. His fluency in Greek was a great asset. By his own admission, his Hebrew skills were weak. Thus, on Old Testament matters he deferred to others, especially OT Committee members Gordon Wenham and Jack Collins, yet often asked relevant questions that sharpened discussion. Second, he was expected to offer theological insight based on his knowledge of church history and Christian doctrine. He was particularly apt at noting how one theological tradition or the other might hear a particular rendering. Third, he was expected to summarize the arguments for and against a proposed reading and render his judgment before the whole committee voted on an issue. This expectation recognized his role as a veteran linguist, theologian, minister, and leader. Fourth, he offered informal instruction on a variety of subjects as members walked back and forth to work. For example, he spoke with me about Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer, J. C. Ryle, and Charles Simeon. Fifth, he and Lane Dennis collaborated on the final version of ESV Preface, having sought and received excellent suggestions from others along the way.

The Preface situates the ESV in the formal equivalence school of English Bible translations. This means that as far as possible the translation seeks to preserve the order of sentences. It seeks to translate one word for one word wherever it can. It tries to preserve concordance of wording, even though English writers typically use synonyms rather than repeat a word. It continues to translate traditional theological terms, such as “justification,” “sanctification,” and “atonement.” The list could be extended, but the point is that formal equivalence translations seek textual “transparency” of the original text. Perhaps the best explanation of formal equivalence translation practices appears in Robert Alter’s recent volume The Art of Biblical Translation.56

The Preface also states that the ESV strives to use language suitable for private and public reading and worship. This may lead translators to use a word higher or lower on the vocabulary register, depending on the text. Packer wanted the ESV to follow in the footsteps of the KJV, in the sense that the text has dignity when read aloud and memorability when read privately. He did not want to offer stilted wording and outdated syntax.

It is important to note that Packer praised other types of translations as supplements to formal equivalent translations. He did not take an all or nothing view of translation theory.

Packer’s Bible translation work came after his participation in the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy from 1978 to 1987. I have heard Packer quip that his involvement made the council “international,” since the other participants were from the US. The group did important work, including issuing careful statements on Biblical Inerrancy in 1978, Biblical Hermeneutics in 1982, and the Biblical Canon in 1987.57 The Council provided clear definitions, hermeneutical principles, and applicational details that remain viable. While Packer often voiced his preference for the positive phrase “true and trustworthy” to the negative words “inerrant” and “infallible,” he was clearly satisfied to own “inerrancy” as his view.

I am not aware of Packer ever drawing specific parallels between his dedication to formal equivalence translation and the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. However, the two are in accord.58 For example, Article IV of the Chicago Statement reads, “We deny that human language is so limited by our creatureliness that it is rendered inadequate as a vehicle for divine revelation. We further deny that the corruption of human culture and language through sin has thwarted God’s work of inspiration.”59 Article VI adds, “We affirm that the whole of Scripture and all its parts, down to the very words of the original, were given by divine inspiration.”60 Articles X and XI of the Hermeneutics Statement assert,

We affirm that Scripture communicates God’s truth to us verbally through a wide variety of human literary forms. We deny that any of the limits of human language render Scripture inadequate to convey God’s message. We affirm that translations of the text of Scripture can communicate knowledge of God across all temporal and cultural boundaries. We deny that the meaning of biblical texts is so tied to the culture out of which they came that understanding of the same meaning in other cultures is impossible.61

Packer’s work on the ESV demonstrated the value of his linguistic training. Greek skills gained in school, furthered at Oxford University, and honed by teaching at Oak Hill College stayed with him. This was a deep training, not a passing nod to bygone curriculum days or to gaining “tools” to read English texts. Facility was the goal. Packer and the rest of the members of the Translation Oversight Committee believed that formal equivalence translation aids expository preaching and affirms the work of biblical language teachers.

If exegesis is the foundation of all theology, as Packer’s writings repeatedly affirmed, then the future of biblical Christianity will require a high level of expertise in Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and related subjects. Packer’s work on the ESV came, arguably, at the end of a great era of Bible translations. The curricula that produced the committee members for these translations will need to be cultivated, not assumed.

It is worth asking where this expertise will be gained. Frankly, it will not come from one or two obligatory courses in Greek or Hebrew in MA or MDiv studies. It will not come from PhD programs in Old or New Testament that require little or no language study, as is the case in many places now in the UK and US. It will not come from simply producing more PhDs taking weaker curricula through online or hybrid “delivery systems.” It will not come from depending on secular or secularized university programs to do the heavy academic lifting, for many of those are shrinking or dying.

It could begin in Christian schools offering years of graded language studies. It could grow through parents and pastors stressing serious language study in colleges as a major or second major. It will depend heavily on seminaries and universities setting and holding standards that may hamper enrollment increases. It will require committed giving from churches who have learned the necessity of quality biblical teaching.

The future of biblical Christianity will also require careful scholarship anchored in appropriate understandings of revelation and inspiration. Packer often claimed that he was a theologian for the church, not for the academy. While this is true, he deserves credit for his serious scholarly work on the doctrine of Scripture. As this article has shown, much of this work appeared in articles and book chapters. Historians will need to examine and assess these articles, weighing them alongside his popular works.

4.2. Seed Two, Resources for Renewed Pastoral Witness: Packer and Anglicanism

Packer lived and died an Anglican, an Anglican who loved and longed for union with other believers, but an Anglican to the last. Ordained in 1954, he was suspended by his Canadian bishop in 2008, and taken up by the bishop of the Southern Cone and then by the Anglican Church in North America.62 He loved Anglicanism’s prayer book, its Book of Homilies, its global communion, its evangelical heritage, and its connection to other Reformation bodies. He believed Anglican theology, prayer, and practice constituted healthy doctrine. Anglicanism was his Christian home. In the last years of his life, Packer paid tribute to this heritage by working with others to produce essential resources to bolster biblical faith found in the Anglican tradition.

Michael Garrett’s careful bibliography of Packer’s works from 1952 to 2008 indicates Packer’s numerous earlier contributions to Anglican theology.63 Since then, Packer served on committees that revised the Prayer Book and released a thorough catechism.64 Packer viewed events in the last decade of his life as an opportunity to contribute to the reformation of a great Reformation tradition.

Packer’s final volume The Heritage of Anglican Theology (2021) makes this point plain. Packer stresses that ideal Anglicanism fits squarely in the mainstream of truly Christian faith and practice. He thinks so because at its best Anglicanism is properly biblical, liturgical, evangelical, pastoral, episcopal, national, and ecumenical. It is biblical in that it insists that “your principles of interpretation come from within Scripture and are validated by Scripture, not imposed on Scripture by external, arbitrary means.”65 It is liturgical and evangelical in that “our worship and thinking about Christian life, testimony, and influence center always on the gospel, a full-orbed gospel, which includes the incarnation, atonement, bodily resurrection, present reign, and forthcoming return of Jesus Christ.”66 It is pastoral in that it focuses on the pastor walking with and feeding the sheep, not on becoming a “preacher or controversialist.”67 It is ecumenical in that it learns from and works with others. For example, he ends the book by stating that he longs to see Protestants and Catholics walk together in a two-year program of basic discipleship that postpones matters that divide us.68

In 1999 or 2000, Packer told me that it would not make much sense for a man of his age to change denominations. He added that, unless he was very much mistaken, denominations would not mean much in the years ahead. He seems to be mistaken about denominations not meaning much, at least so far. As pastors can attest, it may be a post-denomination world for lay people, but it is not so for ministers. Thus, healthy books written from a denominational perspective are still valuable. Furthermore, they are also reminders that healthy denominations can fuel wider renewal, just as unhealthy ones can stymie renewal.

4.3. Seed Three: Faithfulness unto Death

Packer accepted the infirmities age brought, as his Weakness Is the Way and Finishing Our Course with Joy indicate.69 He worked while his strength lasted, even after he hardly had eyesight left. Like Carl Henry, Billy Graham, John Stott, and Martyn Lloyd-Jones before him, Packer lived a long time and left a clean witness when he died. These witnesses and their family and friends took up the cross and followed Jesus. Their witness endures for all who wish to learn from it.

5. Foundation Stones for the Next Wave of Evangelicalism

If there is to be a healthy fifth wave of evangelicalism, foundation stones will need to be set in place, or perhaps simply cleared and used again. Packer has left at least four of these stones. Each one is biblical. Each one is often overlooked.

First, he left the foundation stone of a strong family. Packer was married for 65 years to Kit. They raised three children. They made a home in Vancouver, following their sense of God’s call at a time in life when many people will not make such a change. Having earned little money in England, they trusted God to provide in a new and expensive setting. Kit managed the household alone during Jim’s many absences. Their partnership honored God and served his people.

Second, Packer modeled the foundation stone of humble service. He taught in small colleges that boasted no international scholarly reputation. Every one of those colleges needed building up or rebuilding. He and his colleagues shared a vision of evangelical theology, formation of shepherds for God’s people, and high-quality scholarly and popular writing. Many of his colleagues are remembered, but most are not. Packer’s willingness to serve in such places and in such ways shows a commitment to doing what he believed God asked, no matter the circumstances.

Third, Packer wrote books and articles that came his way. He did not calculate, scheme, or dream about what was “strategic” for his career or “the evangelical cause.” Rather, he stressed sound theology and its pastoral implications. He wrote because he believed God had extended to him a “call to authorship.”70 While he eventually had a favorable teaching load, he still wrote in odd hours taken from sleep and companionship. Packer knew that his writing was not, ultimately, his own. The same was true of his sales. He once told me that he understood that the extraordinary sales numbers of Knowing God were a once-in-a-lifetime gift from God.

Fourth, Packer imitated the English Reformers he admired. He believed that they planted seeds of renewal that he ought to cultivate. William Tyndale translated the Bible into English. Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, and others left the Book of Common Prayer and the Book of Homilies. Packer wanted to be like them, and he was. Moreover, he tried to develop fellowship with liberal Anglicans, a wide swath of Protestants, and Roman Catholics, and he accepted the heat that came with trying to rebuild these long-broken relationships.

6. Conclusion

Evangelicalism’s first wave proved that seeds of a renewed evangelicalism do not lie in achieving large numbers, building impressive institutions, controlling perceived centers of influence, or holding political power. They do not lie in book sales, internet notoriety, prestigious speaking engagements, or new educational delivery systems. Some of these things have their place, but they are not primary.

Evangelicalism’s second and third waves showed that renewal lies in the seeds of absolute commitment to Christ the Lord, to the word of God, to the people of God, to the ministry of God, for the glory of God and the benefit of those created in God’s image. It lies in a life of worship with others that forms people for service of God and others.

Evangelicalism’s fourth wave demonstrated that there can be faithful work done amidst circumstances that should humble evangelicalism. Commitment to the Bible and to sound theology in a denominational or inter-denominational setting can leave seeds for future renewal. Faithfulness unto death remains the primary testimony for succeeding generations.

Packer’s life shows that renewal begins in building homes and doing personal work in small places. Renewal requires a bedrock belief in God’s trustworthy word and the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Renewal requires accepting costly vocational discipleship and manifesting character. If evangelicalism is to again help renew persons, places, churches, and communities, it must regain commitment to these small, marginal means, not for a movement’s sake,71 but because these are the right things to do, according to Scripture.

[1] The idea of Packer and several “waves” of post-war evangelicalism came from a conversation with Lane Dennis. A shorter version of this article was presented at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society in November 2021.

[2] Leland Ryken, J. I. Packer: An Evangelical Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 26.

[3] On the family’s employment and financial situation, see Alister McGrath, J. I. Packer: A Biography (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), 2–3.

[4] On the injury and its ramifications, see Ryken, J. I. Packer, 22–26 and McGrath, J. I. Packer, 3–7. Packer often mentioned the accident when introducing himself.

[5] On Packer’s school studies and his receiving of the scholarship, see Ryken, J. I. Packer, 29–31 and McGrath, J. I. Packer, 9–12. In a personal conversation with Paul House, Lane Dennis recalled someone asking Packer when he learned to read hard New Testament Greek passages. “In school,” Packer replied.

[6] Packer dedicated his volume A Passion for Faithfulness: Wisdom from the Book of Nehemiah (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1995) to the Catherwoods.

[7] See the accounts of Packer’s conversion in J. I. Packer, Truth and Power: The Place of Scripture in the Christian Life (Wheaton, IL: Harold Shaw, 1996), 99; Ryken, J. I. Packer, 36–39; and McGrath, J. I. Packer, 17–22. Packer notes that he recognized the Bible as God’s authoritative word soon after his conversion (Packer, Truth and Power, 99).

[8] Timothy George, “Preface,” in J. I. Packer and the Evangelical Future: The Impact of His Life and Thought, ed. Timothy George, Beeson Divinity Studies (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 9.

[9] On Anglicans, see G. R. Balleine, A History of the Evangelical Party in the Church of England, new ed. (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1933), v. On Presbyterians, in this case the Free Church of Scotland, see John Macleod, ed., Our Evangelical Heritage: The Work and Witness of the Free Church (Edinburgh: Publications Committee of the Free Church of Scotland, 1938), 9–10.

[10] J. I. Packer, “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1958), 38.

[11] On Lloyd-Jones’s ministry with G. Campbell Morgan during the war, see Martyn Lloyd-Jones, Why Does God Allow War? A General Justification of the Ways of God (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1939), and Iain H. Murray, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones: The Fight of Faith, 1939–1981 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1990), 3–54.

[12] Marcus Loane, Makers of Our Heritage: A Study of Four Evangelical Leaders (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1967), 39–40 and Paul R. House, “Standing Firm in the Faith: John Charles Ryle,” Trinity Journal for Theology and Ministry 4.1 (2010): 47–49. On the first years of Wycliffe Hall’s history, see J. B. Lancelot, Francis James Chavasse, Bishop of Liverpool (London: The Church Book Room, 1928), 103–50.

[13] Compare McGrath, J. I. Packer, 40–41, and Marcia Cameron, An Enigmatic Life: Broughton Knox, Father of Contemporary Sydney Anglicanism (Brunswick East, Victoria: Acorn Press, 2006), 112–14.

[14] See Tim Grass, F. F. Bruce: A Life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 32–49 and 101–41.

[15] See Douglas Johnson, Contending for the Faith: A History of the Evangelical Movement in the Universities and Colleges (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1979); Thomas A. Noble, Tyndale House and Fellowship: The First Sixty Years (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 2006); Grass, F. F. Bruce, 41–43; Cameron, Broughton Knox, 71–72; and Marcus Loane, “Introduction: David Broughton Knox,” in David Broughton Knox: Selected Works, Volume 1: The Doctrine of God, ed. Tony Payne (Sydney: Matthias Media, 2000), 11–12.

[16] On Packer’s student years, consult McGrath, J. I. Packer, 13–58, and Ryken, J. I. Packer, 32–67.

[17] The volume was published over four decades later. See J. I. Packer, The Redemption and Restoration of Man in the Thought of Richard Baxter: A Study in Puritan Theology (Vancouver: Regent College Publishing, 2001).

[18] Ryken, J. I. Packer, 64–65; McGrath, J. I. Packer, 65–69.

[19] McGrath, J. I. Packer, 34–35.

[20] See, for example, R. Alan Cole, Exodus, TOTC 2 (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973), and Alan M. Stibbs, Search the Scriptures, 6th ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004).

[21] Ryken, J. I. Packer, 54–56; McGrath, J. I. Packer, 37–38; and Murray, Lloyd-Jones: The Fight of Faith, 226–27.

[22] On Packer’s curacy, consult McGrath, J. I. Packer, 59–65; Ryken, J. I. Packer, 68–75.

[23] J. I. Packer, “Revelation and Inspiration,” in The New Bible Commentary, ed. Ernest Kevan and Alan Stibbs, revised ed. (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 1954), 24–30.

[24] See Timothy Dudley-Smith, John Stott: The Making of a Leader, the Early Years (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 117–246.

[25] On this visit, see the interesting descriptions in William Still, Dying to Live (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus, 1991), 87–88 and Dudley-Smith, Stott, 294.

[26] Still, Dying to Live, 75–190.

[27] David Wright and David Stay, eds., Serving the Word of God: Celebrating the Life and Ministry of James Philip (Fearn, Scotland: Christian Focus, 2002), 9–97.

[28] On Packer’s personal work at Tyndale Hall, see McGrath, J. I. Packer, 70–73.

[29] McGrath, J. I. Packer, 140–51.

[30] J. I. Packer, A Passion for Faithfulness, 29.

[31] McGrath, J. I. Packer, 154.

[32] On the circumstances surrounding the consolidation of the colleges, see McGrath, J. I. Packer, 141, 151–54, 161–79.

[33] Packer, A Passion for Faithfulness, 29.

[34] For an excellent introduction to this conference and its importance, see Timothy Dudley-Smith, John Stott: A Global Ministry, the Later Years (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001), 77–103.

[35] See Ryken, J. I. Packer, 105–7.

[36] Ryken, J. I. Packer, 393–96.

[37] See McGrath, J. I. Packer, 116–28; Ryken, J. I. Packer, 108–12; and Murray, Lloyd-Jones: The Fight of Faith, 495–567.

[38] Ryken, J. I. Packer, 119.

[39] Ryken, J. I. Packer, 119.

[40] For a summary of Packer’s argument, see Paul R. House, “God Has Spoken: The Primacy of Scripture in J. I. Packer’s Ministry,” in J. I. Packer and the Evangelical Future: The Impact of His Life and Thought, ed. Timothy George, Beeson Divinity Studies (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 76–77.

[41] J. I. Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1961), 35–36.

[42] Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, 41.

[43] Packer, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, 41.

[44] J. I. Packer, Knowing God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1973).

[45] On the origins, writing, and contents of the book, see McGrath, J. I. Packer, 186–95.

[46] Graham and Ockenga were crucial to Gordon-Conwell Seminary; Fuller and Ockenga were important in the founding and development of Fuller Theological Seminary; Kantzer was the key leader in the shaping of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School; and Houston was the founding leader of Regent College.

[47] Carson joined the faculty of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in 1978, and he is now emeritus professor of New Testament. Wright taught at McGill University from 1981 to 1986.

[48] See Ryken, J. I. Packer, 158–66; McGrath, J. I. Packer, 223–48.

[49] For a good selection of Packer’s articles on hermeneutics and interpretation during this period, see J. I. Packer, Honouring the Written Word of God: The Collected Shorter Writings of J. I. Packer, Volume Three (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1999), 23–49; 137–83.

[50] Packer, Honouring the Written Word of God, 161–212.

[51] See Ryken, J. I. Packer, 404–8. For the contributions of Packer and other members of the conference, see Charles Colson and Richard J. Neuhaus, eds., Evangelicals and Catholics Together: Toward a Common Mission (Dallas: Word, 1995).

[52] Carl F. H. Henry, An Evangelical Demonstration (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971).

[53] Carl F. H. Henry, Evangelicals in Search of Identity (Waco, TX: Word, 1976), 65–66, 69.

[54] Henry, Evangelicals in Search of Identity, 69–70.

[55] Unless otherwise noted, the author of this article is the source of the information on the work of the ESV Translation Oversight Committee.

[56] Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Translation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019).

[57] See J. I. Packer, God Has Spoken, 5th ed. (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 2005), 134–70.

[58] Lane Dennis pointed out to me this possible connection in a private conversation.

[59] Packer, God Has Spoken, 159.

[60] Packer, God Has Spoken, 159.

[61] Packer, God Has Spoken, 174.

[62] Ryken, J. I. Packer, 408–9.

[63] Michael Garrett, “Bibliography of the Works of J. I. Packer,” in J. I. Packer and the Evangelical Future: The Impact of His Life and Thought, ed. Timothy George, Beeson Divinity Studies (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2009), 187–230.

[64] See The Book of Common Prayer (2019) (Huntington Beach, CA: Anglican Liturgy Press, 2019); J. I. Packer and Joel Scandrett, ed., To Be a Christian: An Anglican Catechism (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020).

[65] J. I. Packer, The Heritage of Anglican Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021), 29.

[66] Packer, The Heritage of Anglican Theology, 32.

[67] Packer, The Heritage of Anglican Theology, 33.

[68] Packer, The Heritage of Anglican Theology, 344–45.

[69] J. I. Packer, Weakness Is the Way (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013); Finishing Our Course with Joy (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014).

[70] Packer, A Passion for Faithfulness, 31.

[71] On the dangers of perpetuating movements for their own sake, see Wendell Berry, “In Distrust of Movements,” in Wendell Berry: Essays 1993–2017, ed. Jack Shoemaker, reprint ed. (New York: Library of America, 2019), 271–79.

Paul R. House

Paul House is professor of divinity at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama.

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