Tag Archives: Evangelicals and Catholics Together

An Admiring Look at the Greatest Popularizer of Reformed Theology

R.C. Sproul: A Life, Stephen J. Nichols.  Wheaton: Crossway, 2021.  Hardcover, 371 pages.

Back in the early 90s, there was a fuss in the pages of our denominational magazine over what one of the pastors was doing with his catechism students.  This pastor was having his youth listen to tapes of an “outside” Reformed theologian.  That theologian was R.C. Sproul.  As I recall, that was my first introduction to his name.  A short time later I was browsing the theology stacks in the Rutherford Library at the University of Alberta.  For a public university, the U of A actually had a remarkable collection of Reformed theology works.  I spotted a book by R.C. Sproul, The Holiness of God.  I borrowed the book and wolfed it down in short order.  I was impressed, not with Sproul, but with God’s holiness.  Especially the explanation of Isaiah 6 left me in awe of the Holy One.

Part of the legacy of R.C. Sproul was his profound gift to make Reformed theology accessible to everyone.  When he died in 2017, many spoke of the way God used him to convey biblical truths clearly and effectively.  This biography, the first, highlights the life and work of the man I’d call the greatest popularizer of Reformed theology. He had a knack for making complex things simple. Here’s a great sample of the man in action:

The author, Stephen J. Nichols, was a friend and admirer of Sproul.  Nichols’ affection is impossible to disguise.  As is often the case with this sort of less-than-arms-length biography, we get a good understanding of the main lines of Sproul’s life and influence, but we don’t really see the man “warts and all.”  This biography is edifying and informative, but the author’s relationship to his subject (and the Sproul family) brings in a measure of restraint to what he can and does tell.  I’m sure someone in the future will write a scholarly, critical biography telling us a fuller picture of the Sproul story.

Sproul was involved with several important stories during his lifetime.  One was the struggle for biblical inerrancy beginning in the 1970s.  Sproul was a pivotal figure in the establishment of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy.  He wrote the first draft of the articles of affirmation and denial for the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.  Nichols devotes a whole chapter to this topic. 

There’s also a whole chapter dedicated to Sproul’s defence of the biblical doctrine of justification.  A document was released in 1994 entitled, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (ECT).  Some of the original signers of this statement were close friends of Sproul, especially Charles Colson and J.I. Packer.  ECT compromised on the doctrine of justification, how we’re declared righteous by God.  Sproul and others pointed out how ECT’s compromise formulations left out the crucial element of imputation – i.e. that Christ’s righteousness is credited to us by God.  Sadly, the controversy over ECT ended Sproul’s friendships with Colson and Packer.  The story, as told by Nichols, inspires readers to discern which hills are truly worth dying on.  If justification isn’t worth it, what is?

It’s hard not to love R.C. Sproul.  I loved him before reading this biography and I love him more after.  That doesn’t mean I’ve always agreed with everything he’s stood for.  Apologetics is one area where I have to respectfully disagree with him.  Nichols stresses Sproul’s contributions to the revival of what we call classical apologetics.  This approach stresses the use of rational arguments to argue towards God, and from there towards the God of the Bible, and from there towards the truth of Christianity.  Contrasted with classical apologetics is Reformed, presuppositional apologetics.  This approach argues for the truth of the Christian worldview taken as a whole by pointing out that unless Christianity is true, no reasoning is even possible.  This was the approach championed by Cornelius Van Til.

On the topic of apologetics, this biography leaves me with some questions.  According to Nichols, Sproul went to seminary “committed to presuppositional apologetics” (p.59), but had his mind changed by John Gerstner.  One of his most influential college professors had been a student of Van Til and, apparently, impacted the young Sproul.  Here’s the important thing to realize:  presuppositional apologetics is inextricably bonded to Reformed theology.  You can be an Arminian and hold to classical apologetics, but it should be impossible to be an Arminian and hold to Reformed apologetics.  That’s why I’m confused when Nichols writes the following:  “R.C. went to PTS [Pittsburgh Theological Seminary] a presuppositionalist and a non-Calvinist” (p.63). If he really was a presuppositionalist, he can’t have had a very good understanding of it if he still wasn’t Reformed.  It gets more interesting, because later in the book, we discover that Sproul spent time visiting with Cornelius Van Til at his home in Philadelphia.  Yet, when you read his (co-authored) book Classical Apologetics and its critique of Van Til, it seems Sproul didn’t really understand him.

That leads me to one last point of critique on the apologetics theme.  In 1977, there was a debate between R.C. Sproul and Greg Bahnsen on apologetical method – classical versus presuppositional apologetics.  You can find this debate online here.  Bahnsen was a formidable debater and, even though it was brotherly and cordial, by the end Sproul was conceding Bahnsen’s key points.  Sadly, Stephen Nichols doesn’t mention this debate at all.  I’m left wondering:  what did Sproul think about that debate in the following years?  If Sproul conceded those points during the debate in 1977, how does one explain the publication of Classical Apologetics in 1984, in which Sproul reasserts the claims he had to earlier walk back?  I’m perplexed.   

Sproul did have a change of mind on several matters through his lifetime.  One of those mentioned by Nichols is the meaning of the word “day” in Genesis 1-2.  Sproul came around to the conclusion that “day” there is essentially what we understand as a day today.  However, it would’ve been interesting if Nichols had shared how Sproul changed his thinking and how that was received by others.

I couldn’t put this biography down.  It’s engaging and well-written.  If you’ve ever read anything by Sproul or heard any of his talks, this volume will give you a greater appreciation for him and what God did through him.  And if you’ve never been blessed by Sproul’s lifetime of promoting Reformed theology, this will be a great introduction.                 


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)


Book Review: J.I. Packer, An Evangelical Life

J I Packer -- An Evangelical Life

J.I. Packer: An Evangelical Life, Leland Ryken.  Wheaton:  Crossway Books, 2015.  Hardcover, 431 pages, $39.99 AUD.

I had one recurring thought as I read this biography:  what if J. I. Packer had been born somewhere else other than England?  What if, say, he had been born, raised and educated in the United States?  How would his story have played out differently?  As it is, he was born in England and having spent a good deal of his life there did shape his thinking and influence.  Especially the Church of England has been a dominant force in his life.

This is a unique biography of a unique theologian.  The book is unique because of the approach that Ryken takes – he doesn’t merely give a chronological accounting of Packer’s life.  The first part of the book does that, but part 2 attempts to give a picture of the man and what makes him tick, while part 3 works out some of the themes of his life.

J.I. Packer is well-known to many Reformed readers not only because of the quantity he’s produced, but also the quality.  Just speaking for myself, my first Packer book was his volume on the Puritans, A Quest for Godliness.  This had a huge impact on shaping my attitude towards those saints of old.   Later, when I pursued doctoral studies in missiology, one of my required readings was one of Packer’s first books, Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God.  This slender book powerfully argued that a Calvinistic belief in God’s sovereignty is definitely not a death-knell for spreading the gospel – quite the opposite!   Many people have also benefitted from Packer classics such as Knowing God.

The biographer’s stated purpose was to give the reader an acquaintance with James Innell Packer.  Certainly I did come away from it with a better understanding of the man and his contributions.  For example, you learn of Packer’s significant involvement with the English Standard Version (ESV) – he was the general editor of the ESV, the theological editor of the ESV Study Bible, and has done editing work on every ESV study Bible published by Crossway.  Packer was also deeply involved in debates surrounding biblical inerrancy – a debate that he considered to extend far beyond the confines of the United States.  Packer was one of the drafters of the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.  But you also discover some of his personality – he enjoys jazz music, but reckons jazz took a turn for the worse when Louis Armstrong began playing the trumpet, rather than the cornet.

Readers should not expect to find a critical biography here.  Ryken is obviously a friend of Packer and they have worked together on projects like the ESV.  Ryken is careful to cast his friend in the best possible light – which is what you would expect a friend to do.  However, this does have a drawback in that where a critical stance might have been appropriate, Ryken is either silent or restrained.

As an example, let’s take one of the most controversial affairs in Packer’s life:  his involvement with the 1994 statement entitled Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT).  This was an effort to unite Roman Catholics and evangelicals on a common theological basis in order to take a joint stand against social evils like abortion.  Unfortunately, this common theological 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.  Ryken spends several pages on the controversy, but he doesn’t mention exactly what the critics’ concerns were.  This is completely overlooked.  So are subsequent developments in this saga.  Packer teamed up with Michael Horton to produce another document, Resolutions for Roman Catholic and Evangelical Dialogue.  This document, also from 1994, was signed by numerous high-profile Presbyterian and Reformed theologians besides Packer.  Ryken doesn’t mention it.  Nor does he mention another ecumenical statement from 1998, The Gift of Salvation.  This was produced by many of the same people involved with ECT in 1994, including Packer.  The Gift of Salvation again compromised on the doctrine of justification by faith alone in the interests of ecumenicity with Roman Catholics.

Towards the end of the book, Ryken exclaims that he cannot understand why certain groups and individuals get so angry at Packer (page 411).  It’s a mystery to him.  I can solve that mystery:  it’s because Packer is rather inconsistent on some key teachings.  For example, he claims to hold to the ultimate authority of the Bible, yet he is lenient on evolution.  He claims to believe in justification by faith alone as a foundational doctrine, yet he readily gives this up when working with Roman Catholics.

Throughout his years in the Church of England and the Anglican Church of Canada, Packer “consistently endorsed leniency regarding the presence of liberal forces within Anglicanism” (page 321).  In a conversation with Ryken, Packer noted that other churches deal with errors through discipline;  he then made the novel claim that “debate is also a form of discipline” (page 314).  However, he was almost always on the losing end of important debates and the liberal forces for which he had endorsed leniency pushed him out of the Anglican Church of Canada.  This happened in 2008 over the issue of same-sex marriage.  We can commend Packer for maintaining the biblical position on marriage no matter what the cost.  However, at the same time, one wonders what would have happened if he had been more forceful all along with gospel-deniers in Anglicanism, of which there have been plenty.  Would they have forced him out sooner?  More importantly, was leniency really biblically justified (cf. Gal. 1:6-9)?

It’s not a perfect biography, but it was certainly an interesting one.  Readers will gain an understanding of the life and times of this unique, and sometimes perplexing, theologian.  The writing is excellent and easy-to-understand (like Packer himself), but because of Ryken’s approach, there is some overlap and repetition between the parts.   This isn’t the first biography of Packer, but it is the latest.  I’m also quite sure that it won’t be the last – much more remains to be said about his life and legacy, for better and for worse.