On a narrow strip of the northern California coastline grow the giant Redwoods, the biggest living things on earth. . . . They do not have much foliage for their size; all their strength is in those huge trunks, with foot-thick bark, that rise sheer for almost half their height before branching out. . . . They dwarf you, making you feel your smallness as scarcely anything else does.” These opening words of J. I. Packer’s A Quest for Godliness refer to the Puritans, a “breed of giants” no less imposing than the Redwoods of northern California. Convinced that affluence has made “dwarfs and deadheads of us all,” Packer turned to the Puritans for inspiration. Those who knew him had no doubt that his lifelong reading of the Puritans fertilized his heart and mind. With Packer’s passing into glory last week at age 93, we have lost a giant.
Others will write of Packer’s personal conversion to Christ; his academic career as a minister, administrator, and teacher; his defense of biblical authority; his painful struggles with colleagues and friends; his constant travels as a much-loved speaker; and, perhaps most of all, his many powerful books, which have shaped generations of Christians throughout the world. These stories have been told and will be retold.
In this brief reflection on the legacy of Dr. Packer I want to highlight just one aspect: his self-styled identity as a “meer catholick.” In 1994, First Things published “Evangelicals and Catholics Together: The Christian Mission in the Third Millennium.” The momentous statement was signed by twenty Catholics and twenty evangelicals, including J. I. Packer. Charles Colson and Richard John Neuhaus may have been the driving force behind ECT, but it was the theological depth of Dr. Packer and Avery Cardinal Dulles that would shape the discussions and documents that First Things would publish in the decades following. It is with much gratitude that current ECT participants (and, no doubt, the First Things constituency) look back on Packer’s unwavering commitment to ECT.
But I run ahead of myself. It’s the Redwoods that taught Packer the importance of ecumenism. Packer’s 1954 dissertation on the seventeenth-century pastor Richard Baxter—the inventor of the term “mere Christianity”—was an early exercise in ecumenism. The main criterion that the young Packer used to evaluate Baxter’s theology was that of catholicity. Ever the logical thinker, Packer asked how consistent the self-styled “meer catholick” Baxter had been in expressing his catholicity theologically. In general, Packer was convinced, “Baxter’s theology has the ‘catholic’ shape.” To be sure, Packer was not afraid to criticize Baxter. The Kidderminster pastor leaned too far in the direction of Arminianism for the Calvinist convictions of the Oxford DPhil student. Packer fell in love, however, with Baxter’s “practical theology”—his spiritual writings that promoted regular meditative practices and encouraged heavenly-mindedness. Packer recognized all this as genuinely catholic.
Packer’s Calvinist convictions aligned closely with those of John Owen (more so than with those of Baxter). Upon discovering Owen’s commentary on Hebrews as a young student, Packer was impressed with the logical precision and careful argumentation of the famous preacher-theologian. Persuaded that “evangelicalism today is in a state of perplexity and unsettlement,” Packer turned to Owen because, as he put it, Owen had been God-centered in his thoughts and God-fearing in his heart. Packer believed that evangelicalism was in need of the clarity of Owen’s Calvinist logic.
Packer did not, however, adopt his theological mentor’s congregationalist view of the church. Packer’s Anglicanism and his love for the catholicity of the church drew more from Baxter’s mere Catholicity. And, just as had been the case for Baxter, so for Packer, his broad churchmanship led to much acrimony and caused him a great deal of personal grief. The well-known congregationalist preacher Martin Lloyd-Jones, who had served as the young Packer’s mentor and greatly stimulated his Puritan interests, was dismayed when in 1970 Packer co-authored a book with Anglo-Catholics. This created a lasting rift between Packer and other evangelicals, including Lloyd-Jones, to whom the Anglican Church seemed hopelessly compromised.
Packer’s signing of the 1994 ECT statement again led to sharp disagreement with evangelicals—influential leaders such as John MacArthur and R. C. Sproul—who felt that Packer had sacrificed doctrinal integrity. Packer, however, did not flinch. He published an article on “Why I Signed,” and pointed out that his continuing disagreements with Rome ought not stand in the way of making common cause. Today’s deepest division, he claimed, was not that between Catholicism and Protestantism. Instead, it was the division “between theological conservatives (or ‘conservationists,’ as I prefer to call them), who honor the Christ of the Bible and of the historic creeds and confessions, and theological liberals and radicals who for whatever reason do not.” Appealing to Francis Schaeffer’s concept of co-belligerence and Billy Graham’s cooperative evangelism, he threw down the gauntlet, insisting that it was high time to make common cause, even in evangelism and church education: ECT was merely “playing catch-up to the Holy Spirit,” Packer insisted.
Those who know Packer's work recognize that in no way did he ever diminish or ignore real theological differences between Protestants and Catholics. Packer retained serious reservations about elements of Catholic soteriology. To the end of his life, he remained troubled by what he considered the Catholic inability to self-correct, as a result of its teaching of infallibility. I remember auditing a course that Packer co-taught at Regent College with his Catholic friend Thomas Howard. The dialogue was most amicable, and Packer never showed any agitation. Still, the disagreements were such that at times sparks flew through the classroom.
In 2002, Packer walked out of the synod of the Diocese of New Westminster of the Anglican Church of Canada, in protest of the synod’s vote to create a service for same-sex unions. In so doing, he took a stance that some felt contradicted his own ecumenical convictions. Again, he wrote a statement defending his actions. This time, it was not “Why I Signed,” but “Why I Walked.” Judging by the similarity in titles, Packer himself did not see his latest act as contrary to his ecumenical convictions. Nor did he think he was betraying the broad ecclesial stance that he had defended three decades earlier in his disagreement with Martin Lloyd-Jones. Packer was convinced that the Anglican decision to bless same-sex marriages laid bare a basic disagreement between liberal subjectivism, which places the Bible at the judgment of experience, and an objectivist position (shared by Catholics, Orthodox, and conservative Protestants), which maintains that the Bible stands in judgment on human experience.
Throughout his career, Dr. Packer was a “meer catholick.” The same ecumenical conviction undergirded “Why I Signed” and “Why I Walked.” What drove him to irenic dialogue with Catholics and Orthodox in the 1990s was his recognition of fellow Christians who upheld the church’s Great Tradition. What made him walk out of the diocesan synod was the synod’s desertion of the Great Tradition. Dr. Packer had the aura of a Redwood: impressive, daunting, immovable. He was a great Puritan.
Hans Boersma is a member of Evangelicals and Catholics Together. From 2005–2019, he served as the J. I. Packer Chair of Theology at Regent College.
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