I have always believed that scripture stands over all our traditions,
including our evangelical traditions.
N.T. Wright, Anglican Evangelical Identity: Yesterday and Today (p.11)
I don’t think there can be any doubt that J.I. Packer (1926….) is one of the most significant puritan theologians of the latter half of the 20th century and the early decades of the 21st century. There has been a consistent track and path in thought, published and spoken word and deed in Packer’s life and writings from the 1950s to the present. I was fortunate to study systematic theology and spiritual theology with Jim Packer when I was at Regent College from 1979-1981, and I co-authored a booklet with Jim, In a Pluralist Age (1998), in response to Bishop Ingham’s Mansions of the Spirit (1997). I am certainly not reformed or puritan in my thinking, but I respect the way Jim Packer has taken plough to soil, dug deep, planted many a fine seed and participated in the producing of a bountiful puritan and evangelical harvest.
Jim’s publications in the 1950s on Richard Baxter, his critique of the Keswick movement, his defense of the reformed notion of justification and sanctification, his support of Luther contra Erasmus (a guide and mentor of mine), his deeper definition and understanding of fundamentalism (before it became a nasty word) and his leadership role (with Martyn Lloyd Jones) in establishing the puritan Banner of Truth Trust established Packer as an emerging leader in the English reformed and evangelical traditions. Jim continued to wax in the 1960s, and the publication of Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (1961) and Knowing God (1973) made Packer a household name within the reformed and evangelical tribe both in England and beyond. Packer continued to mine the Pauline notion of justification by grace through faith in St. Augustine, Medieval Christian theology, the English reformers, Luther, Calvin and the many puritans that were their offspring. The pastoral form of puritanism that Packer has so wisely synthesized fed into the modern reformed and growing evangelical family. When Jim Packer came to Regent College in the late 1970s, he was very much the ‘pater familias’ of the reformed clan. Many sat at his feet in devoted and rapt awe---a sort of hagiography was the order of the day. There were, though, dissenters in the educational crowd.
The fact that Packer had, obviously, a high view of the Bible and a certain way of interpreting it through puritan lense did not blind him to the obvious fact that the best of the puritans were deeply grounded in the Bible and Patristic theology. It was not a case of 16th century puritans leaping across the centuries of Christian theology from Luther-Calvin to ‘sola scriptura’. The precedents were many between the Bible and the 16th century reformers, and Packer was wise enough to see and acknowledge this line, lineage and continuity. This means there was a decided catholic undergirding to Packer’s committment to the puritans. This is the reason, in the 1990s, Jim became, to his credit, an active organizer and participant in the Evangelical and Catholics Together (ECT) movement. ECT has also linked affectionate arms with the Orthodox tradition. The worrisome aspect of this joining of theological hands, as I have mentioned in other articles, is that the group tends to interpret ‘The Great Tradition’ in both a reformed way theologically and a republican way politically. I’m not quite sure the Bible or ‘The Great Tradition’ can be reduced to such a tidy formula or simplistic interpretation.
I am Anglican as is Packer, and I have been quite interested in Packer’s books and articles over the decades. Latimer Trust has published many insightful and incisive articles in booklet forms over the years, and two of Packer’s articles had often held me: ‘The Evangelical Anglican Identity Problem: An Analysis (1978) and ‘A Kind of Noah’s Ark? The Anglican Commitment to Comprehensiveness’(1981). There has emerged, though, in the last two decades, from within the reformed and evangelical family (both within the Anglican tribe and beyond) a serious and substantive challenge to the way the Packer led approach has interpreted the Bible. This challenge has been partially led by a former student of Packer’s: N.T.Wright.
N.T. Wright published an article in the Latimer Trust series, also: ‘Evangelical Anglican Identity: The Connection Between Bible, Gospel & Church’ (1980). Those who have read Wright’s missive cannot but note, by 1980, that dissent was setting in between master and student. The student would soon rise to the same prominence as his master. Gratefully so, Regent College has recently republished the two Packer articles and Wright’s article in a book: Anglican Evangelical Identity: Yesterday and Today (2008). This book, for those keen to understand more fully why and where Wright has parted paths with Packer, is a must read. The 2008 ‘Prefaces’ by both Packer and Wright fill in all sorts of needed depth and detail in the in house skirmish and dustup.
Packer’s ‘Preface’ does not really add much to his deeper puritan read of the Bible, whereas Wright’s ‘Preface’ makes it abundantly clear that Packer has omitted much in his particular reformed read of the Bible. Wright insists that Packer’s read does need to be questioned and honestly interrogated by new approaches to Biblical Studies.
I was quite fortunate that E.P. Sanders was teaching New Testament Studies at McMaster University when I did my doctoral studies there in the 1980s. Sanders was at the peak of his creative and interpretive power at the time. The publication of Paul and Palestinian Judaism, Paul, the Law and the Jewish People, and Jesus and Judaism had clearly established Sanders as one of the leading revisionist interpreters of both Jesus and Paul. Could, in fact, Jesus and Paul only be interpreted in a reformed justification by grace through faith way? Did Jesus and Paul only come to teach the penal theory of the atonement? Had Luther and Calvin distorted the teachings of Paul and Augustine? Was there more to Jesus and Paul, when set in their Jewish context, that had been seriously missed and distorted by the reformed and evangelical reads of both men? Sanders was at the forefront of this revisionist approach to the New Testament when set within the context of the Intertestamental period of Jewish thought and life. I mention my time at McMaster and the fact that E. P. Sanders was there for the simple fact that N.T. Wright has drawn from Sanders revisionist thinking yet gone further and deeper. But, there is no doubt that the Sanders-Wright synthesis has called into question, root and branch, the traditional puritan and Packer read of Pauline theology.
Wright’s ‘Foreward’ in Anglican Evangelical Identity: Yesterday and Today is not only important for the dialogue within the Anglican tribe about the Low Church identity, but it is equally significant for the larger question of reformed and evangelical identity. Both terms are very much up for rethinking, deepening and broadening. It does little good to insist on the authority of the Bible as the magical source of all insight when, in fact, the interpretation of the Bible is the very thing that is being questioned within the tribe that holds the Bible in such high regard: Packer and Wright point down different interpretive paths.
There are five points worth noting in Wright’s brief ‘Preface’ to Anglican Evangelical Identity: First, Wright sets his dialogue with Packer in a historic context. Jim was chair of Latimer House Council in the 1970s, and Wright was the Secretary of the Council in the 1970s. So, both men have a working relationship and friendship that goes back to the 1970s. Second, one of the principles of the reformed tradition is ‘semper reformanda’ which means, of course, the willingness ‘to be further reformed under the Word of God’ (p.10). Wright sees himself as further reforming the reformers who have not dared to go deep or far enough in the Bible. In short, the puritan and evangelical tradition needs to be further reformed by a fuller read of the Bible---such a tradition has become its own infallible tradition that needs to be questioned as the 16th century reformers questioned the Roman Catholic tradition. Third, Wright has a more catholic approach to reading the Bible. This means that the New Testament understanding of the Church and the Kingdom of God must be set within the context of the national and communal Israel that preceded it. The Church/Kingdom is a historic and communal reality that is meant to embody the vision of the body of Christ in a unified, just and peaceful manner. It is the new Israel that transcends ethnic tribalism. The Church/Kingdom was never meant to reflect the fragmentary protestant model of atomistic and independent congregations or private and merely personal spirituality. In short, much more time needs to be spent on Ephesians or Colossians rather than a reformed read of Romans or Galations. Fourth, and Wright makes his point so well that I will simply quote from him.
But the real problem I have with the tradition of 20th century English Evangelicalism I imbibed so eagerly from Jim Packer and others, and which is so elegantly set out in his summaries of evangelical belief in the two booklets printed here, is not a fine tuning of Paul. It is the almost complete absence of the gospels (p.12).
how can we take seriously a statement of ‘pure New Testament Christianity’ claiming to honour scripture as its primary source, if it never mentions the Kingdom of God? (p.13)
Fifth, the Church/Kingdom is as much about a faith journey that is to be lived and believed. There has been an unfortunate split between the liberals that do the gospel in the areas of peace, justice and ecology, and reformed-evangelical types that do battle over confessional jots and fine points. But, the Bible is about narrative, creed and deed, and many within a sort of pietist reformed and evangelical ethos have tended to elevate creed-confession above deed and justice---needless to say, creed and prophetic deed are both in the Bible and ‘The Great Tradition’. The Bible cannot be merely reduced to the text in which creeds-confessions are mined and smoked out and the many life giving narratives are ignored, subordinated or minimized.
N.T. Wright has come, prophetic like, to challenge a slippage and narrowing in the reformed and evangelical way. Wright has used the very source that the reformed-evangelical sanhedrin holds the highest: the Bible. Wright has made it clear that those who are devotees of the Packerian form of puritanism have negated and denied essential aspects of the Bible even though they have claimed the Bible as the source of their authority. It is only by reading the text in all its fullness and breadth that a true and faithful understanding of the Bible will emerge. This is N.T. Wright’s challenge, and it is a challenge that if rightly internalized will continue the semper reformanda.
I have admired the substantive scholarly work of Henry Chadwick for decades. Chadwick’s books were standard reading when I was, initially, studying Church History and Theology at London Bible College in the early 1970s. The last time I was Cambridge, Chadwick was giving a lecture. It was one of the last he was to give. I was quite taken by a comment by Wright in his ‘Foreword’.
One morning in late 1980s I was sitting at my desk in Downing College, Cambridge when the phone rang, ‘Henry Chadwick speaking’, said a well known Olympian voice...
‘I have just read your Latimer Study…I just wanted you to know that I agreed with every word you wrote. I hope you would not take that as an indication that you must have made some terrible mistake somewhere.’
Indeed, high words of praise for N.T. Wright from a brilliant and gifted English scholarly Olympian who has now left us and gone into the West.