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