Friday, October 16, 2009

J.I. Packer the "failure"?

Dr. Carl Trueman of WTS-Philly has a short video giving a critical appraisal of J.I. Packer. Trueman is genuinely appreciative of Packer for producing helpful books on Christian spirituality and theology and Trueman regards him as a success as a Christian intellectual. I don't doubt the sincerity of his affection for Packer and no Christian leader is beyond criticism as we look at their careers in retrospect. Yet Trueman regards Packer ultimately as a "failure" for two quite peculiar reasons. First, Packer never wrote a systematic theology. True, but it's not like there is exactly a shortage of them. Packer invested himself more in his students than into his own writings. He preferred the popular level works to the massive tomes with great effect. Second, according to Trueman Packer failed to be a leader of the non-conformist churches in the UK. Trueman is right that Packer would have been a good corrective to the "Doctor" and pushed the movement in a more confessional direction and given it more intellectual depth. But Packer could not do this as he did not share the sectarian ecclesiology of certain individuals associated with Martin Lloyd Jones circle. To give an example of the ecclesiology of this group, I will never forget reading an article in the Australian Presbyterian where Iain Murray said "Unity is overrated". I read that and the first thing that I thought to myself was: Was the prayer of Jesus in John 17, "that they may be one as we are one" overrated? Is the exhortation to unity 1 Corinthians 1 and Philippians 2 overrated? Are the words of the Psalmist in Psalm 133 that brothers dwelling in unity is like "oil on the head running down on the beard" overrated? If Murray had said, unity at the expense of theological integrity is overrated, I could agree; but that's not what he said nor what he meant. So comparing an Evangelical Catholic like Packer with the more sectarian fundamentalism of certain non-conformist leaders like Murray is analogous to comparing apples and oranges. Trueman should have surveyed a wider constituency to determine the reception of Packer in evangelical and reformed churches and he would have got a very different point of view. Moreover, I think Trueman's assessment of evangelical Anglicanism is a bit over simplistic too as there is and has been for some time a rich and vibrant form of confessional Anglicanism (e.g., Moore Theological College and Oak Hill College come to mind). So thank God for J.I. Packer, may his legacy live on for many years to come!

Update: After re-listening to Trueman's spiel a few times, I confess that I have written too harshly. Although I find it hard to put the word "failure" into the same sentence as "J.I. Packer", I have modified what was written above with due apologies to Dr. Trueman.


canonglenn said...

Packer's thought, graciousness, and Christ-like character has been more than a blessing to me. I meet him on several occasions and his life was obviously infused with the presence of the Holy Spirit. Packer was scheduled to speak at Beeson Divinity School in two weeks, I planned to hear him. However, something unspecified is preventing Packer's attendance at the annual Reformation Heritage lectures. I am disappointed to hear it. At this stage in Packer's life, we should be thanking God for him and not in any way, shape, or form identifying him as a failure. I regret Dr. Trueman's choice of words.

Paul said...

Thank you, Michael, for your kind and gracious words to one of my theological heroes in the faith. Shame on Trueman!

Reformation said...

I can't get the URL to open, so handicapped, but the two data points appear to coordinate with info from another blog.

The larger issue is ECT. In terms of ecclesiastical leadership--on this point--I rue it. That applies to Timothy George of Beeson.

I had hoped you might have engaged the two specific points by Trueman, but you spun off in other not-so-helpful directions.

Martin Downes said...


I like yout revised version ;-)

Given that the Packer-Lloyd-Jones split came four years after that with Stott, and because DML-J considered that Packer had crossed a line with the co-authored book with Anglo-Catholics, is it fair to attribute this to DML-Js sectarian ecclesiology? Or was it do to a confusion created by Packer about the basis of unity, and the doctrine of justification? (A confusion continued in the 1990s by his endorsement of the first ECT statement).

Michael F. Bird said...


1. I don't know enough about MLJ's ecclesiology to make a clear evaluation of it (it was more MLJ's heirs that I had in mind). Interestingly enough, I do have a student writing a dissertation on MLJ's doctrine of the church which will be a good read no doubt. To begin with, MLJ's split with Stott and Packer does not bode well for his doctrine of the church in my mind. It develops in a direction of defining oneself by all the things that one is not. This is intensified or simply played out in the post-MLJ-circle epitomized by Iain Murray in his statement that "unity is overrated". Unity is not treasured in one's ecclesiology then it is certainly sectarian and very narrow.

2. On ECT, I think this was a noble venture. There are many Catholics who would like to revisit the council of Trent as a do-over and try to heal the Catholic-Protestant divide. Some of the affirmations went too far, but there is nothing inherently wrong with sitting down with Catholics and Anglo-Catholics and asking, "okay, what do we agree on and what potential is there for further discussion?" I would point out that GAFCON contains a coalition of reformed evangelicals, charismatics, and anglo-catholics which would horrify MLJ. The MLJ-circle, typified by adherents I know of, don't seem to understand the point of having a conversation with such people because they are not "us" and "us" is the only real, true church around. That's my problem.

Martin Downes said...


DML-J's relationship with evangelicalism and the wider church scene needs to be followed from his arrival in London to the changes that led to the 1966 parting of the ways. L-J was involved in extensive discussions with non-evangelicals ever before he took his stand for evangelical unity based on an agreed understanding of the gospel. Have you read the text of the 1966 message that L-J gave?

On ECT, the wording of the first document was a fudge, "we are justified by grace through faith because of Christ." The real question to face is, what do we mean by those terms? And where are the solas?

Reformation said...

I finally was able to get the Trueman critique of JIP, which was largely appreciative in a broader perspective. A bit much, however, to expect JIP to assume the mantle of leadership for "Non-Conformist" churches.

There were other dynamics involved in my estimation. The question involves the antecedents to ECT...1966-1994ish.

Rehabbing the Evangelical Anglican image in the C o E which had, pre-1966, argued for a Protestant and Reformed Anglican face as the true and continuing body of Confessional Catholics in England...versus the Anglo-Romanising or liberal faces. I wish an historian would dig these factors out...the consequences of the Keele Conferences for Evangelical Anglicans. What were the internal dynamics and pressures for Evangelical, Protestant and Confessional Anglicans?

ECT was myopic utopianism from my perspective. While the ECT discussions were on-going, I lived in Italy from 1998-2000, watching JP2 travel the country and reaffirming Trent often. There wasn't then and there isn't now any chance of the Curia changing Trent.

I suspect these things also:

1. Quest for social prominence by way of collaboration?

2. Continuuing revivalist influences of "experience" over Reformation doctrines and confessions. Colson argued with Sproul that his work in Roman contexts would be impeded. Bright made the same argument, as I recollect.

3. Desire for "fellowship" that trumps "doctrinal and confessional" integrity.

There are, I suspect, more threads for analysis by a professional historian. These are some working propositions.

4. I might add the intangible called the "leadership factor," e.g. courage.

Reformation said...

By leadership, I use this metaphor, which may be flawed--a big maybe, but it represents my thinking to date.

No one debates the importance of talking to Roman confessionalists, like Neuhaus. But the conclusion of intercommunal non-evangelism really fails from the Reformation perspective. Colson and Bright, as non-theologians, might get some slack cut for them, but not Packer.

In the Navy, we had brilliant technicians in the nuclear field. Captains (one paygrade below Admiral). Brilliant, but not Command leaders. They would operate the Nuke departments (large) aboard the carriers (I had two tours). But they lacked the qualities for strategic thinking. Often nerdy. The Navy recognized their technical brilliance as officers and as teachers, but did not put them in command positions. They also might run the technical departments on a submarine squadron, but they would not commmand the squadron of 9-10 submarines (I had 36 months aboard submarines).

ECT was a strategic failure, notwithstanding the fudges and qualifications.

Again, this "didn't just happen."

The question lingers. What happened, why, and what were the historical and cultural antecedents?

Peter said...

Packer I know, but who is Trueman?

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