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Angela Tilby: J. I. Packer knew his history  

31 July 2020


AS A theology undergraduate at Cambridge, I was set my first essay question on the authority of scrip­ture. At the end of a reading list of historico-critical approaches to the Bible was J. I. Packer’s Funda­mental­ism and the Word of God.

Being fascinated, if somewhat dis­­mayed, by the negative implica­tions of the critical approach, I ended my first essay with a quota­tion from Packer to the effect that, in the last analysis, scripture must be given prime authority. My super­visor, Mark Santer, later Bishop of Birming­ham, seemed slightly disap­pointed. But wisely, instead of finding fault with my argument, he directed me to read Lossky’s The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church. There, I found a view of scripture which excited me far be­­yond both the higher criticism and the Evangelical view that I had as­­sumed to be the only alternative.

This is not to say that I did not retain a respect for Jim Packer, who died this month (News, 24 July). I admired his sense of history. He had no time for any kind of Evan­gel­icalism which was not firmly rooted in the theology and spirit­u­ality of the Reformers. He knew his Calvin, but he also knew the English Puritans, and, following their in­­sights, would always affirm that theology and spirituality belonged together. Those who have wrestled with God in the past resource those who do so now. In Knowing God, he sets out a pro­gramme for the con­version of heart and mind, echoing the Puritans.

He found in their writings a real­ism about the struggle with sin, which often seems played down in contemporary Evangelicalism. He spoke of the “discipline of self-suspicion”: a recognition that, even after conversion, the human heart remains deeply divided. We remain prey to self-deceit.

This realism links the Puritans back to earlier spiritual radicals such as the Desert Fathers. The Purit­ans loved the long tradition of inter­preting the Song of Songs in terms of a mar­riage between the soul and Christ — a tradition that can be traced back to Origen. Self-suspicion and a deep love of the heavenly Bridegroom go together.

Packer recognised the Puritan chal­­­lenge to historic via media An­­glicanism, and wanted the Evan­gelical tradition to continue this challenge from within. I don’t know what he made of the watered-down Evangelicalism that holds sway in the Church of England today.

My Cambridge supervisor was not wrong in directing me to Lossky’s book. Orthodox spiritu­ality has a place for the relentless struggle with the unruly passions that inflame the wounds of our personalities. It is a genuine part of the Anglican heri­t­age: “If we say that we have no sin, we deceive our­selves, and the truth is not in us.”

Read Alister McGrath’s obituary of J. I. Packer here

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