Category Archives: Book notes

Get to Know J.I. Packer

James Innell Packer is a rather well-known author in Reformed circles. In fact, many people assume that Packer himself must belong to a Reformed, or at least a Presbyterian, church. Instead, Packer has been an Anglican his entire life, first in England (the land of his birth) and then later in Canada.

The son of working-class parents, Packer was born on July 22, 1926 in Gloucester, England. He became a Christian during his education at Oxford University. Through exposure to Puritan authors like John Owen, Packer also became a convinced Calvinist with regard to the doctrine of salvation. At several points in his life he was tempted away from the Church of England, but he has always remained a member. He was ordained in the Church of England, but only served in parish ministry for a short while before discovering his real vocation as a teacher of theology. In England, he taught at Tyndale Hall, Latimer House, and Trinity College. Finally, in 1979, he skipped over the pond to take up a professorship at Regent College in Vancouver, BC.

WRITER AND EDITOR

Packer has been well known as a conference speaker and writer, but probably less so as an editor. Notably, he’s been the general editor of the English Standard Version Bible, as well as the theological editor of the ESV Study Bible. He’s also served as an editor and advisor for Christianity Today.

One of Packer’s most well-known books has been Knowing God, first published in 1973. By 2001, this book has sold more than 1.5 million copies and been translated into more than 20 languages. It’s a book that puts the doctrine of God in simple language. Even when Packer tackles difficult subjects like propitiation (the turning away of God’s wrath through the cross), he communicates winsomely. It’s really not surprising that some Canadian Reformed pastors have even used Knowing God for their pre-confession instruction. It’s a solid book!

BACK AND FORTH AND BACK AGAIN

While there are many ways in which we can appreciate what God has done through this man, we also have to honestly acknowledge some of his weaknesses and failings. There was, for example, his involvement with a 1994 statement entitled Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT). This was an effort to unite Roman Catholics and evangelicals on a common theological basis with a view to taking a stand against societal evils like abortion. Unfortunately, this common basis resulted in the lowest-common-denominator form of essential doctrines like justification. Packer was a key player in the events leading to ECT and a signer.

Subsequently, Packer teamed with up with URC pastor Michael Horton to produce another document, Resolutions for Roman Catholic and Evangelical Dialogue. Now this statement, also from 1994, was soundly orthodox on the issues highlighted by ECT. But then, what one hand gave, the other took away (again!). In 1998, Packer was involved with yet another ecumenical statement along with Roman Catholics, The Gift of Salvation. This statement again compromised on the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

It’s regrettable that Packer has been quite inconsistent on some key biblical teachings. As just mentioned, he claims in some places to maintain justification by faith alone as a foundational doctrine, yet he readily gives this up when working with Roman Catholics. As another example, he claims to hold to the ultimate authority of the Bible, yet is lenient when it comes to evolution. Moreover, Packer has written of his belief that the New Testament prohibitions on women teaching and preaching are not applicable today.  I deplore these aberrations in an otherwise helpful writer.  In his 2015 biography, Leland Ryken writes that he cannot understand why some people get so angry at Packer. It’s no mystery: it’s because of his inconsistency.

STANDING ON SCRIPTURE

However, one of Packer’s greatest controversies did see him taking a very bold stand. In 2008, Packer was pushed out of the Anglican Church of Canada because he refused to endorse same-sex marriage. This came at a great cost – he was defrocked as an Anglican clergyman. We can certainly commend him for his courage. Incidentally, soon afterwards, he was relicensed as clergy and admitted into the Anglican Church of North America. Thus, he continues to be an Anglican, though not in the “mainstream.”

TWO MORE GREAT TITLES

On a personal note, I’ve benefitted from especially two of Packer’s writings. The first I came across was his volume on the Puritans, A Quest for Godliness. This had a huge impact on shaping my attitude towards those saints of old. For many people, this book has been instrumental in overturning misconceptions of the Puritans.

Later, when I pursued further studies in missiology, one of my required readings was one of Packer’s first books, Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God. I loved it! This slender book powerfully argued that a Calvinistic belief in God’s sovereignty is anything but a death knell for outreach – quite the opposite. Armed with what I’ve said about some of his inconsistencies, I’d say that this is one author with whom readers should definitely get acquainted.

(An earlier version of this was first published in Reformed Perspective, May 2016)


Brooks: Safety in Unity

If you’re going to be preaching or teaching on the communion of saints, here’s a great illustration from Thomas Brooks:

Unity is the best bond of safety in every church and commonwealth.  We shall be invincible, if we be inseparable.  And this did the Scythian king in Plutarch represent livelily to this eighty sons.  He, being ready to die, commanded a bundle of arrows fast bound together to given to his sons to break; they all tried to break them, but being bound fast together, they could not; then he caused the band to be cut, and then they broke them with ease.  He applied it thus: ‘My sons, so long as you keep together, you will be invincible; but if the band of union be broken betwixt you, you will easily be broken in pieces.  (Smooth Stones Taken From Ancient Brooks, p.47)


Reeves: The Triune God vs. Allah

One of the things I appreciate about Michael Reeves’ Delighting in the Trinity is how he interacts with Islamic theology.  In a number of places in the book he demonstrates the poverty of the Islamic Allah.  The single-person Islamic god simply does not measure up to the Triune God revealed in the Bible.  Here’s a sample:

Onenness for the single-person God would mean sameness.  Alone for eternity without any beside him, why would he value others and their differences?  Think how it works out for Allah: under his influence, the once-diverse cultures of Nigeria, Persia, and Indonesia are made, deliberately and increasingly, the same.  Islam presents a complete way of life for individuals, nations, and cultures, binding them into one way of praying, one way of marrying, buying, fighting, relating — even, some would say, one way of eating and dressing.

Oneness for the triune God means unity.  As the Father is absolutely one with his Son, and yet is not his Son, so Jesus prays that believers might be one, but not that they might all be the same.  Created male and female, in the image of this God, and with many other good differences between us, we come together valuing the way the triune God has made us each unique.

“There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit…If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be?  If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be?  But in fact, God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be.  If they were all one part, where would the body be?  As it is, there are many parts, but one body.” (1 Cor. 12:4, 17-20)

So it is not just that the Father, Son, and Spirit call us into fellowship with themselves; they share their heavenly harmony that there might be harmony on earth, that people of different genders, languages, hobbies and gifts might be one in peace and love; and that one day, with one heart and voice, we might cry: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Rev. 7:10).  And that is what the family of God — by its very existence — makes known to the world: that the God of harmony is the hope for world peace; that he can and will unite enemies, rivals, and strangers into one loving family under his fatherly care.  (pp.103-104)


Sproul: Infallibility and Inerrancy

In his little booklet Can I Trust the Bible? R.C. Sproul discusses the terms “infallibility” and “inerrancy.”  I appreciate the way he describes the difference and the need to maintain both:

The church historically has seen that the Bible alone, of all the written literature in history, is uniquely infallible.  The word infallible may be defined as “that which cannot fail”; it means something is incapable of making a mistake.  From a linguistic standpoint, the term infallible is higher than the term inerrant.  Though the words have often been used virtually as synonyms in the English language, there remains a historic technical definition between the two.  The distinction is that of the potential and the actual, the hypothetical and the real.  Infallibility has to do with the question of ability or potential; that which is infallible is said to be unable to make mistakes or to err.  By contrast, that which is inerrant is that which, in fact, does not err.  As an illustration: a student can take a test made up of twenty questions and get twenty correct answers, giving him an inerrant test.  However, the student’s inerrancy in this restricted arena does not make him infallible, as mistakes on subsequent tests would verify. (pp.26-27)

This is a good illustration of what medieval theologian John Duns Scotus called a formal distinction.  Infallibility and inerrancy are both characteristics of Scripture.  They can be distinguished, as Sproul did above, but they cannot be separated.  They belong together.


Piper: Can the Divine Author Say More than the Human Author?

One of the topics John Piper discusses in Reading the Bible Supernaturally is meaning.  He stresses how important it is to reach for the intended meaning of any given Bible passage.  Specifically, what did the human author intend to say?  Of course, Piper insists that God speaks through these human authors and their words in Scripture.  But that raises the question:  does it ever happen in Scripture that there is more to a human author’s words than he might have been aware of when he wrote them?  Listen to Piper:

So, can the human author intend things of which he is not conscious at the moment?  The answer is yes.  I know this sounds contradictory, since I have defined meaning as what the author intends to communicate.  And now I am saying he can intend something he is not conscious of.  What does that mean?

It really is not that strange.  You do this every time you use the little abbreviation etc.  Or when you say, “and so forth.”  Suppose you say, “Any green vegetable that you can buy at the grocery store is good for you, including lettuce, broccoli, cucumbers, etc.”  At that moment, those are the only green vegetables that come to your mind.  You are not conscious of any others at the moment you speak.  But the term etc. is designed to carry your intention beyond what you are conscious of.

Etc., in your sentence, can’t mean just anything.  You have given it boundaries.  You said, “Any green vegetable,” and you said, “that you can buy at the grocery store.”  These two traits limit the meaning of etc.  So if someone said, “Do you mean — that is, do you intend — to include asparagus?” you would say, “Yes.”  You meant asparagus even though you were not conscious of asparagus.  Another way of saying this is to point out that necessary implications of our conscious meaning are included in our meaning, even if we are not conscious of all of them.  (pp.318-319)

Piper follows this up with examples.  The first is the prophecy of Caiaphas in John 11:49-52.  Piper writes:

Caiaphas’s immediate intention was to communicate that it would be better that Jesus be killed than that the Jewish nation be wiped out by the Romans.  God communicated to John that God had a different intention with the same words, namely, that Christ’s death would indeed, by a substitution, save his people, but that salvation would be greater, both in depth and scope. (p.320)

The other example is from Col. 3:17, “Whatever you do in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus.”  Notes Piper:

God sees every single one of the billions of acts included in “everything” and intends for us to do each of them in the name of Jesus.  Paul, however, cannot see the specific implications of the word everything for every Christian who ever lives.  Therefore, God, in this sense, always intends a fuller, more specific, meaning than the human authors.  (p.321)

Well-said!

Reading the Bible Supernaturally is available for free on-line here.