J. I. Packer and the Evangelical Future: The Impact of His Life and Thought

By Timothy George, ed.
Grand Rapids : Baker (2009). Pages.

Reviewed by Dr. Iain Murray
21.2 (Fall 2010) : 237-239

This book will be of general interest, both because Dr Packer rightly has many admirers around the world and because anything that addresses the future of evangelicalism seriously has to be of importance. The twelve chapters, by different contributors, consist of material first given in honour of Jim Packer at Beeson Divinity School in 2006. A concluding chapter gives the subject’s own “Reflections and Response.” In this reviewer’s opinion a worthy biography of Packer has yet to be written.

Though the authors of this book mean to “celebrate his life”—and include not a little interesting biography—this work is not intended to fill that need. In some respects the book is surprising. It contains the kind of high praise not usually expressed in a man’s lifetime, such as “this will be known as the Packer Era because J. I. Packer has been the towering figure of this era” (139). The explanation for this perhaps over-the-top praise seems to lie in one of the main themes of the book, namely that Packer was right to seek to move contemporary evangelicals towards sympathy with Christian traditions other than their own. For doing this, his reputation has suffered in some circles, and Timothy George (and most of his fellow contributors) evidently intends to rectify that supposed injustice. Two of the contributors are Charles Colson and the late Richard John Neuhaus, the originators of the Evangelical and Catholics Together program (ECT). Speaking of ECT, Colson says, “I think now most people applaud it” (131). So little was Neuhaus concerned to placate any doubtful evangelicals that he gives us repeated references to John Paul II and Benedict XVI.

There is much in Packer that is not related to this area of controversy. No one will find a whisper of it in his greatest book, Knowing God. Many of us eagerly spread that book, content to leave aside the question how its “Puritan” standpoint can be consistent with some other later writings. Some of the contributors to the book we are reviewing may be under the misapprehension that Packer cannot be admired unless there is agreement on the controversy. The chapter by Mark Dever helps to show this is not so. It is therefore regrettable that this book should rather closely tie Packer’s permanent usefulness to the churches with an issue on which we think he is mistaken. What is the mistake? Not that a Roman Catholic may be a Christian— who in his senses would deny it?—but that the official Roman teaching is a safe guide to Christ for all to follow. Dr. Packer’s position is that he differs with Rome on the doctrine of the church, and it is that which “makes anything like reunion impossible” (184). If that is the only discrepancy between Rome and Scripture, then continuing division may be deplored; but traditional Protestant and evangelical belief has been that Rome is false to Scripture on the way of salvation itself.

We are thankful for Packer’s opposition to liberalism, yet what liberalism has done to the churches is far too little recognized in these pages. The damage has been done, not by “modernity” or “postmodernism,” but by plain disbelief in the word of God. That is why the ecumenical agenda has proceeded—as Dr Lloyd-Jones said long ago—without any basic agreement on “What is a Christian?” The same omission exists in the ECT documents.

It is not the purpose here to summarize the material in this book. We hope many ministers and serious Christians will read it for themselves. There is one chapter, however, on which we need to dwell because of its serious inaccuracies; it is the contribution of Carl Trueman on “J. I. Packer: An English Nonconformist Perspective.” The greater part of this chapter has to do with Packer’s parting from Lloyd-Jones. The main issue here is simple: who departed from whom? Lloyd-Jones parted from Packer, says Trueman, by the address he gave at the Evangelical Alliance meeting of 1966. The facts are against any such interpretation. Packer and Lloyd-Jones continued to work together at the Puritan Conference in 1967, 68, 69, and would have done so in 1970 had it not been for the publication of Growing into Union (London: SPCK, May 1970). In this book Packer endorsed teaching that belongs to the Roman Catholic tradition and not to the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England.

The issue between Lloyd-Jones and Packer was not, as Trueman represents it, ‘separatism versus the Church of England’; it was maintaining historic evangelical belief versus ecumenical alignment. Dr Trueman makes some points that are true and insightful, but his main case is simply wrong, and his reliance on the unworthy opinions of Dr Gaius Davies (who was no firsthand witness to the discussions of the 1960s) very regrettable. He reports: “Davies argues that Lloyd-Jones could not stand competition and could not bear not to be in overall control…. A split with Lloyd- Jones was always a likely outcome: after all, Packer was the only man within Lloyd- Jones’s orbit who could pose a serious challenge to his leadership” (123). We would like to know of one evangelical minister present at that time who holds such an opinion and regret that Packer could let it stand without comment in his concluding chapter. It is false and has misled Dr Truemen to support a slander.

Trueman attacks Lloyd-Jones’s thinking for offering an alternative to Packer’s position which was “little more than an evangelical, anti-Roman form of the very doctrinal indifferentism he rightly saw as the poison of 1960s mainstream ecumenism” (122). He bases the charge on the grounds that Lloyd-Jones had nothing to say on sacraments, church government, and such like. This is a complete misreading of the situation, as anyone could confirm who attended the Westminster Fellowship during the years when just such matters were discussed, at Dr Lloyd- Jones’s direction. Certainly he did not believe those subjects were the issue in the 1960s. A much greater danger concerned him. But that he trivialized their importance is quite wrong. Part of his concern that Presbyterian denominations should belong (as they did) to the British Evangelical Council was that he was concerned that the convictions of these denominations would be found alongside men of Baptist and Independent persuasion. In other words, Lloyd-Jones’s convictions on church issues were (as with Whitefield in the 18th century, and Spurgeon in the Downgrade Controversy) devoted to what was more fundamental.

Carl Trueman thinks Packer should have left the Church of England and taken on the leadership role among the men Lloyd-Jones had led. Given the beliefs Packer endorsed in 1970, that could never be. God had another and a wider ministry for his servant. If it is overstating it to say that Jim Packer became “the bishop of evangelicalism, at least in North America” (131), it is surely true that, under God, he has been the means of doing much lasting good. The best of us are inconsistent in measure; in differing from our friend, as I do, I believe I am adhering to the conviction that has played such a large part in his own ministry.