COLUMNS

Volume 45 - Issue 3

J. I. Packer—Fingerprints, Footprints and Reprints

By Daniel Strange

In his funeral sermon for Richard Baxter in 1691, William Bates quotes the memorable line uttered by Baxter on his deathbed when a friend had sought to comfort him ‘with the remembrance of the good many had received by his preaching and writings’:

I was but a Pen in God’s hand, and what praise is due to a Pen?1

The outpouring of words by so many of our great and good following the death of Jim Packer is ample evidence of his enormous significance in the history of post-war conservative evangelicalism. Of course, given Packer’s longevity and influence, his departure to be with the Lord is a time for thousands, tens of thousands, and even hundreds of thousands of those of us still here to pause, to reflect and to reminisce, not with a rheumy eyed romanticism or hagiography, but with heartfelt thanks to God for a life well-lived and a human servant mightily-used. I’m sure Packer would approve of the above quotation from his beloved Baxter. In the same fashion, I hope Packer wouldn’t mind as a fitting description and compliment from those of us who only encountered him personally in his last two decades (and tweaking the title of one of his last works): weakness was his way.2

With so much already said by so many, I recognise I’m a little late to contribute, but in Themelios, a journal for evangelical theological students and pastors, I thought some personal and professional editorial reflections on Packer particularly from this angle might be appropriate and helpful.3 Packer’s passing merits a reaffirmation of confession and continuity, a passing down and passing on that needs to be marked. From its beginning, Themelios has been about the ‘bed-rock foundation of the historic faith’ with Andrew Walls noting in the very first editorial in 1962 that ‘the scope of Themelios is the whole of Christian theology: the entire field of the Christian pastor and theologian. In this field, all the powers of the mind are called into service, … A humble and a loving heart is also a requirement, and Themelios will have failed if it does nothing to stir its readers to adoration and to devotion.’4 Cue a unison Packer Pavlovian response: ‘The purpose of theology, friends, is doxology.’ That Themelios remembers Packer is particularly apposite given that the very first article of the journal’s relaunch in Autumn 1975 was the re-publication of Packer’s article ‘Hermeneutics and Biblical Authority’.5

1. Packer Fingerprints

Personally, as I look back at my forty-six years, some forensic dusting down reveals Packer prints all over my Christian life. I am a Packer product and I say that in the full knowledge that I’m happily Independent (and not Anglican), I happily use the NIV (and not the ESV), and I happily continue to have serious reservations concerning the rapprochement that was (and is) Evangelical and Catholics Together.6 As I close my eyes I pinpoint three formative moments with a Packer presence. The first is just after my conversion in the late 1980s. Nick Wood, a Maths teacher who also ran our Christian Union at Southend High School for Boys,7 very intentionally gave me a copy of Knowing God. I’d never read anything like it. While I remember voraciously gulping it all down and feeling well-nourished on finishing it, there is one line I can still see on the page as I first read it: ‘Were I asked to focus the New Testament message in three words, my proposal would be adoption through propitiation, and I do not expect ever to meet a richer or more pregnant summary of the gospel than that.’8 Back then I found such concision intriguing and it spurred me to ask more and read more theology. I’d note that even after all these years, one has to admit that Packer’s claim here is a nicely provocative theological conversation starter.9

The second Packer moment is in the late 1990s as I finished my undergraduate theological studies and was about to start my doctoral studies on the inclusivism of Clark Pinnock.10 Reading Packer’s ‘Introductory Essay’ to John Owen’s Death of Death in the Death of Christ (1647) not only sealed the deal on the doctrine of limited atonement/particular redemption, but it also confirmed the truthfulness of Calvinism and the error of Arminianism.11 Reading the essay was a scorching and almost scandalous experience, the prose packing a punch right into my sola(r) plexus. It was a page-turner. Packer hits the ground running with the bold claim that Owen’s thesis will help us with nothing less that ‘the recovery of the gospel’.12 He then responds to hypothetical interlocutors who in ‘prejudice and ignorance’ state that Packer just wants people to become Calvinists, ‘as if Reformed theologians had no interest beyond recruiting for their party, and as if becoming a Calvinist was the last stage of theological depravity, and had nothing to do with the gospel at all.’13 To this charge, Packer paints a vision of Calvinism which is much broader than the so-called ‘five points’. He does this with his own five points: (1) Calvinism as whole worldview and philosophy of history concerning the sovereignty of God—theism, religion and evangelicalism, ‘all in their purest and most highly developed form’;14 (2) Calvinism as ‘essentially expository, pastoral and constructive’;15 (3) Calvinism’s organic character and inseparability of the claim that God saves sinners; (4) Calvinism and Arminianism as having very different understandings of key soteriological terms; and finally (5) Calvinism, far from being a modification of Arminianism, ‘understands the Scriptures in their natural, one would have thought, inescapable meaning.’16 He concludes the introduction to his Introduction:

Now the real nature of Calvinistic soteriology becomes plain. It is no artificial oddity, nor a product of over-bold logic. Its central confession, that God saves sinners, that Christ redeemed us by His blood, is the witness both of the Bible and of the believing heart. Calvinism is what the Christian church has always held and taught when its mind has not been distracted by controversy and false traditions from attending to what Scripture actually says; that is the significance of the Patristic testimonies to the teaching of the ‘five points,’ which can be quoted in abundance…. So that really it is most misleading to call this soteriology ‘Calvinism’ at all, for it is not a peculiarity of John Calvin and the divines of Dort, but a part of the revealed truth of God and the catholic Christian faith. ‘Calvinism’ is one of the ‘odious names’ by which down the centuries prejudice has been raised against it. But the thing itself is just the biblical gospel.17

And run for cover….

My third Packer moment is in the early 2000s as I began coordinating the work for the Religious and Theological Studies Fellowship (part of UCCF), a role which included being managing editor of the pre-TGC Themelios with Carl Trueman as general editor. My colleague David Gibson and I attended the Proclamation Trust theological students conference in 2001, where Packer gave three plenary lectures on ‘The Whole Bible for the Whole Christian’. While there was an obvious frisson of finally hearing Packer live, I have to admit that I don’t recall much of the lectures apart from that they were well-organised, lucid, and quite long. However, there was one section towards the end of the second lecture18 that has indelibly stayed with me and one statement in particular:

I, James Packer am a man under reconstruction.19

Packer had been speaking about sanctification and particularly Calvin’s understanding of vivification and mortification using a quite brilliant illustration of London Heathrow airport where disruptive building work is going on all the time as old buildings are demolished, and new ones built. Of course, Packer aficionados will know that this ‘parable’ or ‘model’ comes from Packer’s book Keep in Step with the Spirit.20 As my students and church family will know, I have not found a better way in describing sanctification as us being men and women under reconstruction, and no better illustration to explain the discomfort and disruption that is the building site of our lives, the demolition of the old man, the building up of the new, the Father as architect, and Christ through the Spirit as competent clerk of works making sure it all goes to plan. Genius.

2. Packer Footprints

Professionally, even though Packer was long gone to Canada when I began theological student ministry, the UK conservative evangelical scene is so small that I’ve ended up in places where Packer served and left Wenceslas footprints in whose steps we’d be wise to follow. It was at Oak Hill College where Packer spent a very formative year teaching Greek before theological studies,21 and he had a close association with Tyndale House and the Tyndale Fellowship.22 I had the privilege of meeting Packer a few times but in rather bizarre circumstances. In 2008, I was asked to speak at a conference where Packer was also speaking. Now when I say ‘conference’ I mean a small day gathering of local churches. And the venue? Southend-on-Sea, my home town. Jim Packer, evangelical elder statesman, author of Knowing God, the Introduction to Death of Death, and that sanctification airport illustration, in my home town! The conference organiser was Dr. Stephen Dray, a former student of Packer during his Trinity days who had subsequently lectured at Moorlands Bible College, and was now a local Baptist minister in Southend. Now Stephen will be the first to admit that apart from boasting its distinction as still having the longest pleasure pier in the world (1.34 miles, folks!), Southend-on-Sea is not a strategic town, far less a theological hotbed. However, Stephen had developed a warm friendship with Packer such that he was willing to come and speak there. This appears to be typical of Packer. Part of the conference was a final Q&A. Obviously I was feeling more confident in the presence of one of my theological heroes because for some reason (and I cringe now to think about it), I thought I would go all Frost-Nixon and interrogate Packer on why he’d left the UK. Perhaps I’d get a scoop:23

Dan Strange (serious stare): Dr Packer, why did you leave the UK and move to Canada?

Jim Packer (with twinkle in his eye): Because they asked me, and I needed a job.

In 2009, Packer returned to Oak Hill to speak at the annual School of Theology. It had been sixty years since his year teaching at Oak Hill. While Packer was with us, he gave a typically edifying interview on the grounds of Oak Hill to the then Principal, the late Mike Ovey. They ranged over a number of topics: the importance and content of theological education (‘church history is the story of the war of the Word in the world’), pastoral theology, and Christian ministry.24 What the filming doesn’t show is that about a hundred metres up the drive and just outside the college there was a protest going on. Two Northern Irish Christian brothers had contacted the college a few days earlier to inform us that they were coming over specifically to protest against Packer and our hosting of him. They had brought with them placards to wave and fold-up stools to sit on. We provided cups of tea and greetings. No property was damaged. The thought that inviting Packer would deem Oak Hill as being too ecumenical is somewhat amusing given its reputation amongst some church circles, although it brought home the strength of feeling and conviction still swirling around when it came to elements of Packer’s ministry and associations.

3. Packer Reprints

As well as housing Themelios and visiting theological students up and down the UK, the Religious and Theological Studies Fellowship had a history of producing short monographs designed specifically for those studying theology and religious studies.25 As I remember, during my time at RTSF, all of these were original newly commissioned works, apart from one. Both I and David Gibson believed that Packer’s essay ‘What did the Cross Achieve? The Logic on Penal Substitution’ was a seminal text for evangelical theological students. So in 2002 we got the relevant permissions to have it reprinted and republished with a new introduction from Paul Helm, who was then the first incumbent of the J. I. Packer Chair of Theology at Regent College but who, with Peter Toon, on July 17th 1973, had also been present at the Tyndale Biblical Theological Lecture on which the essay was based.26 The suitability of Packer’s lecture for theological students was that it ‘is as much an essay in the methodology of theology as it is about the significance of Christ’s death’.27 In his biography of Packer, Alistair McGrath has a whole section on the essay. He states, ‘The lecture is a remarkable piece of constructive theology, showing a deep awareness of the development of Christian theology, along with a shrewd and critical awareness of the theological trends of the 1960s. Many regard it as one of Packer’s finest essays.’28 The aforementioned Stephen Dray describes the occasion of the lecture, and the modus operandi of the lecturer:

On the 17th of July, I took a break to gatecrash the Tyndale Lecture which [Packer] was giving that year, entitled What Did the Cross Achieve? I have two memories of that occasion. I had graduated in Social Anthropology and my knowledge of theology was at an embryonic stage. Much, then, that Jim shared went ‘over my head’. I was in a world which was still largely mysterious to me! However, what I do recall, is the hushed tones and the tear-filled eyes with which he spoke when he recited Philip Bliss’ words, ‘Guilty, vile and helpless we; spotless Son of God was he, Full atonement, can it be, Hallelujah, what a Saviour!’ Here was theology in its purest sense—the encounter in the heart with him who is the Truth. Those few seconds have lived with me ever since—and I suspect they have proved deeply formative, and ever more so, as my walk with Christ has progressed.29

Don Carson was also there:

The first time I met Packer I was a first-year doctoral student at Cambridge University in the early 1970s. Packer had taken the train up from Bristol to deliver the Tyndale Biblical Theology Lecture. He had provided the title, “What Did the Cross Achieve? The Logic of Penal Substitution.” I sat there spellbound. The power was not in bombast, for there was none. The power was in well-chosen words and beautifully crafted sentences, in the development of ideas, in the care with which Scripture was handled, in the theological beauty of well-built arguments, in elegant and thoughtful prose, in the glory given to the Lord Jesus, in the quiet authority of the presentation and the breadth and competence of Packer’s responses in the question time.

Eventually I learned that these were all trademarks of Packer’s lectures, but on this occasion, my first exposure to the man, above all I was drawn to what the cross achieved. Toward the end of the evening, while tea and coffee were served, I slipped through the crowd to the podium: I wanted to see Packer’s notes, which were still lying undisturbed on the podium. To my surprise, I found an outline scratched on the back of a large envelope, apparently written on the train journey up from Bristol. The notes spoke of a well-stocked and well-ordered mind that already knew its subject deeply, and needed no more than some reminders to keep the flow intact.

When the lecture appeared in print (first in the Tyndale Bulletin, 1973, and then as a separate 45-page pamphlet in early 1974), I devoured the printed form, and discovered (as far as my memory could recollect) the same outline and many of the same expressions and arguments, now somewhat expanded and now magnificently footnoted. Many are the books and essays published on the cross since then, but none has surpassed it in clear and faithful brevity.30

It’s sobering to note that in 2005, only three years after we reprinted Packer’s essay, the doctrine of penal substitution would once again need vigorous defending in a fierce debate on the nature of the atonement precipitated by Steve Chalke and Alan Mann’s book The Lost Message of Jesus. Packer’s essay was a vital reference point and remains so.

We thank God for Packer’s life and ministry.


A ‘Bonus Extra’

Given that our RTSF edition of Packer’s essay only had a very limited print run and is long out of print, for all the Packer ‘completists’ out there Paul Helm has kindly agreed for the journal to reproduce his Introduction, which I hope will be helpful to theological students as they engage with Packer’s essay.

It is a great pleasure to be asked to front up the reprint of Jim Packer’s brilliantly suggestive lecture on penal substitution. (I remember that Peter Toon [I think it was] and I went over to Cambridge from Merseyside to hear this lecture delivered in 1973, and we were not disappointed.) All Christians give a central place to the death of Christ but they differ greatly in the views of the significance that his death had, and has. It is obviously important to get our thinking as straight as we can on the issue. For not only is there the truth of the matter, Christian’s understanding of the atonement has close links with all aspects of his theology, his understanding of the character of God, for example. And it links with his understanding of prayer, for the death of Christ has obvious connections with his priesthood, as it has with the nature and mission of the church. What is the church for, and what should her message be? We cannot answer these questions satisfactorily until we are clear of the significance of Christ’s death. Professor Packer’s lecture is as much an essay in the methodology of theology as it is about the significance of Christ’s death, and so in commending what he here says to a new generation of theological students I shall say a word on each.

The relations between God and his creation are, at all their points sui generis, and unparalleled. This fact makes for intellectual discomfort. Intellectuals (including Christian intellectuals) like nothing better than to explain, to predict, and to prove. But Christian theology does not lend itself to much of any of this, because all God’s relations with his creation are irreducibly mysterious. Not gobbledegook, but unfathomable. In more stately language we apprehend his ways, but do not and cannot comprehend them. As Packer puts it mystery is something we know to be actual (or, we might add, to be possible) without knowing how such actualities or possibilities can be so.

And this ‘without knowing how’ is irritating to the intellect, for we should like to know how, and often think that we can devise ways of knowing how. How then is the Christian theologian to proceed? What, if not to explain and predict, is he to do? Packer’s answer is: he is to safeguard the mystery. And theology does this best when, in articulating the Christian faith, it derives its thoughts from Scripture in such a way that the essential mysteriousness of revealed truth is safeguarded. So theology—all theology based upon the revealed data of Holy Scripture—is more like grammar than science, telling us how we may think upon these mysteries, rather than trying to explain them and so be in danger of explaining them away. To borrow from and to adapt Descartes, when it is properly carried out Christian theology offers us rules for the direction of the Christian mind and heart. It is important to see what this view of theology does and does not imply. It implies no diminution of the divine reality of Christ’s atoning work, which is founded on the word of God and known exhaustively by him. But it does not imply creaturely reticence, and a resolve not to adopt an a priori, rationalistic attitude to the word and works of God, an attitude which dictates what God is like, and thus what he can and cannot do in sending his Son to die for us. Earlier theologians expressed this reticence by omitting elements of negative theology into their thinking and by adopting analogical theory of language about God. Packer prefers to express it in terms of the profundity of the realities themselves, the finitude and corruption of the creaturely mind, and the need therefore to approach the realities (as they are disclosed to us in the Holy Scripture) by employing models. First the models derived from Holy Scripture and then (with reserve) models of our own. According to Packer, the best model of Christ’s death is that of penal substitution. What is the logic of this model? Christ’s death is a substitution, and Packer interprets this notion generously, claiming that anyone who thinks that Christ did something for us—whatever this notion may turn out to be—is committed to the idea of substitution. Christ represents us. But how does he represent us? He represents us—and here is the second move in spelling out the logic of the atonement—the model of Christ as our substitute is qualified. His death is a penal substitution. ‘Penal’ qualifies ‘substitution’, but in doing so it does not tell us anything about the ‘how?’ of the atonement. He took our place penally, bearing our punishment and thus procured satisfaction. This model is ‘dramatic’, for it portrays God’s actions for us. Our relation to God is unique, unlike our relationships to any other person, because God has both the personal and judicial relation to us. And God himself, out of love, and because of holiness and justice, took our place in Jesus, the God-man. It is inept to suggest, in criticism of the view, that since the penalty is paid by God to God he might have saved himself the trouble, and let us off. For the atonement is not mere self-inflicted penalty, it is penal substitution.

As with any good, rich, suggestive lecture, there are some loose ends, calling for further thought and research. Writing in the 1970s Packer clearly found inspiration for what he has to say about models from the work of Ian Ramsey.31 Though in the intervening years Ramsey’s work has been largely forgotten, what Packer says stands independently of it. Further, some may question the severity of Packer’s judgement against the traditional Reformed method of interpreting the work of Christ for that method was certainly not (in my view) in thrall to naturalistic ideas of law (though Grotius was), but it was just as certainly arguing ad hominem against (inter alia) Socinianism. Frances Turretin, for example, recognised that essential mystery would be atonement every bit as much as Jim Packer does! And it is a pity that Packer was not able to devote more space to argue his position against McLeod Campbell. Perhaps more needs to be said here, contra Campbell, about the essential voluntariness of the expression of love, in contrast to the inexorable character of justice. But that’s how good lectures should be; it should finish with some business and identify further business for others to finish.


[1] A copy of this sermon can be found online: https://tinyurl.com/yykrnhoo.

[2] J. I. Packer, Weakness Is the Way: Life with Christ Our Strength (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013)

[3] I apologise that this editorial is more on the ‘Strange’ than on the ‘Times’ side.

[4] Andrew F. Walls, ‘Themelios—a New Journal’, Themelios 1 (1962), https://biblicalstudies.org.uk/pdf/ifes/1-1_editor_intro.pdf.

[5] J. I. Packer, ‘Hermeneutics and Biblical Authority’, Themelios 1 (1975): 3–12, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/themelios/issue/1-1/. The article had originally appeared in The Churchman 81 (1967). As an aside I should also note that first 1975 Themelios included a book review from a 29 year-old Don Carson. The book in question was of minor significance: The Holy Bible: New International Version (NIV)! I can’t resist quoting the opening sentence, ‘The appearance of yet another translation of the Scriptures will doubtless arouse many a bored ‘Ho-hum!’; but the present reviewer is convinced that the NIV deserves careful and respectful attention—quite unlike the attitude of one reviewer who actually lumped it together with the Living Bible!’ The rest, as they say, is (contested) history.

[6] I would concur with the assessment of Leonardo De Chirico in his recent article, ‘Why J. I. Packer Signed “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (1994) (and Why He Was Inconsistent)’, Vatical Files, 1 August 2020, http://vaticanfiles.org/en/2020/08/vf178/. For a more detailed critical assessment of ECT see Leonardo De Chirico, Evangelical Theological Perspectives on Post-Vatican II Roman Catholicism (Oxford: Peter Lang, 2003).

[7] Yes, like Packer, I too was a grammar school boy.

[8] J. I. Packer, Knowing God (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1973), 214.

[9] Again as an anecdotal aside, in 2002 and when IVP was still part of UCCF, I remember being present for the retirement party of the estimable Frank Entwistle, Publishing Director of IVP, who had been in post since 1976. Frank was interviewed and asked a question, something like, ‘What’s your one publishing regret?’ His rueful answer: ‘That IVP turned down Knowing God.’

[10] Pinnock’s departure from Regent College in 1977 led to the appointment of Packer in 1979.

[11] J. I. Packer, ‘Introduction’ to John Owen, Death of Death in the Death of Christ (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1959), 1–31.

[12] Packer, ‘Introduction’, 1.

[13] Packer, ‘Introduction’, 3.

[14] Packer, ‘Introduction’, 5.

[15] Packer, ‘Introduction’, 5.

[16] Packer, ‘Introduction’, 9.

[17] Packer, ‘Introduction’, 10.

[18] I know it’s toward the end of the second lecture, because having located the recordings of said lectures, I’ve spent quite a lot of time going back over them to find the precise moment. And wow, there it is(!) at one hour, nineteen minutes and twenty-eight seconds to be exact.

[19] These talks can be found at https://www.proctrust.org.uk/resources/.

[20] J. I. Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit (Leicester: IVP, 1984), 116–17.

[21] As Leland Ryken notes, ‘Perhaps other year in Packer’s life surpassed this one in codifying future directions in his life. Packer discovered that he had the gift of teaching. He matured as a person while filling the public role of college teacher. He began to feel a calling to be a scholar as well as a minister. He forged important professional relationships. And he succeeded in finding support for a Puritan conference, and immediately found a niche in the intellectual world of British evangelicalism’. Leland Ryken, J. I. Packer: An Evangelical Life (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 139.

[22] Where I currently serve as a Trustee.

[23] I hadn’t yet read the McGrath biography of Packer, which had come out a few years previously.

[24] The interviews are available online: https://tinyurl.com/y4osvsxl.

[25] Some of these appeared in three volumes edited by Philip Duce and Daniel Strange: Keeping Your Balance: Approaching Theological and Religious Studies (Leicester: IVP, 2001); Getting Your Bearings: Engaging with Contemporary Theologians (Leicester: IVP, 2003); Encountering the Word: Beginning Biblical Studies (Leicester: IVP, 2003).

[26] The lecture originally appeared in Tyndale Bulletin 25 (1974) 3–45.

[27] Paul Helm, ‘Introduction’ to J. I. Packer, What Did the Cross Achieve: The Logic of Penal Substitution (Leicester: RTSF, 2002), 7.

[28] Alistair McGrath, To Know and Serve God: A Biography of James I. Packer (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1997), 205.

[29] Stephen Dray, ‘‘Jim’ Packer: A Personal Reflection’ (forthcoming).

[30] Don Carson, ‘Don Carson Pays Tribute to J. I. Packer’, The Gospel Coalition, 17 July 2020, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/j-i-packer-appreciation-don-carson/.

[31] For a Packer comment on Ian Ramsey, see ‘The Adequacy of Human Language’, in Honouring the Written Word of God: Collected Shorter Writings of J. I. Packer, Volume One (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1999), 37.

Daniel Strange

Daniel Strange is college director and tutor in culture, religion and public theology at Oak Hill College, London, and contributing editor of Themelios.

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