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Obituary: The Revd Professor J. I. Packer

by
31 July 2020

J. I. Packer in a photo from the official congress brochure of the first National Evangelical Anglican Congress, held at Keele University, Staffordshire, in 1967

J. I. Packer in a photo from the official congress brochure of the first National Evangelical Anglican Congress, held at Keele University, Staffordshi...

The Revd Professor Alister McGrath writes:

J. I. (“JIM”) PACKER was one of the most significant Evangelical theologians of the late 20th century, with a passion both for theological education and the importance of a theologically informed spirituality. Packer spent most of his career teaching at Regent College, Vancouver, an institution that he joined in 1979, shortly after its founding, and which he helped propel to international recognition. He is best known for his Knowing God (1973), which became an international bestseller on its publication, and is widely regarded as a landmark work of Evangelical spirituality.

Yet, although Packer achieved fame in North America, his intellectual and spiritual passions were nourished in England. Packer was born in 1926 in Gloucester, the son of a Great Western Railway administrator. He won a scholarship to study classics at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, in 1944. During his first term, Packer was converted through hearing an evangelistic address at St Aldate’s Church. As a student, he developed a love for Puritan writers, finding their spirituality to be both realistic and effective. This led him to establish, with Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the Puritan Studies Conference, which over time became of strategic importance for many Evangelicals in the Church of England and the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches.

After training for ministry in the Church of England at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, Packer secured funding for doctoral research on the Puritan theologian Richard Baxter, before taking up parish ministry at St John’s, Harborne, in the diocese of Birmingham. He married Kit Mullett, a nurse, in 1954.

Packer then entered the world of theological education, initially at Tyndale Hall, Bristol. While his students at Tyndale appreciated his teaching, Packer’s concise and perspicuous prose, evident in his early publications such as “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God (1958), secured him a growing international readership. After a period spent as Warden of Latimer House, an Evangelical Anglican think tank in Oxford, Packer returned to Bristol as Principal of Tyndale Hall. He played a significant part in the merger of three institutions of theological education (including Tyndale Hall) to create Trinity College, Bristol.

Along with John R. Stott, Rector of All Souls’, Langham Place, Packer played a leading part in convening the National Evangelical Anglican Congress at the University of Keele in 1967. This event, now seen as a landmark in the history of Evangelicalism in the Church of England, led to many Evangelicals’ moving away from their more traditional isolationism, and becoming more active in and committed to the structures and ethos of the Church of England. This realignment was not without its difficulties, creating some ambiguity about what it meant to “be Anglican” and “be Evangelical”. At a more personal level, it led to a painful alienation between Packer and Lloyd-Jones.

Packer’s signature work, Knowing God (1973), was written during his Bristol period, and originally took the form of a series of magazine articles. Knowing God displayed the explicit interfolding of theology and spirituality which became a hallmark of Packer’s teaching at Regent College, Vancouver. There is an emerging consensus that Packer’s chief legacy lies in this book, and the style of spirituality which it commends and embodies.

Knowing God catalysed Packer’s rise to fame in North America, and led to multiple speaking invitations at seminaries, churches, and conventions. Packer’s popularity as a speaker reflected many factors — including his emphasis on the biblical grounding of theology, his explicit agenda of fostering a theologically informed spirituality, his tendency to personal self-effacement, and his soft Gloucestershire accent.

Although many realised that Packer’s future now lay in theological education in North America, his decision to accept a chair of theology at Regent College in 1979 surprised many. Packer, however, believed that it was the right place for him, partly because of the new college’s focus on providing theological education for the laity, with a strong emphasis on the importance of spirituality. He regularly returned to England, speaking at large churches and conventions.

During the 1990s, Packer became involved in the “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” movement, which campaigned for closer collaboration between Catholics and Evangelicals, without demanding resolution of their outstanding theological differences. This led to some controversy, and some considered that Packer had reneged on his Evangelical commitments. Yet it also led to his forging some new friendships, especially with Cardinal Avery Dulles.

Packer became a member of the large Anglican congregation of St John’s, Shaughnessy, in Vancouver, where he preached regularly, seeing this as his spiritual home. Packer remained a member of this congregation for the rest of his life, and shared in its pain as tensions grew with the Anglican diocese of New Westminster, and eventually led the 700-strong congregation to leave their original building and enter into a shared-use arrangement with Oakridge Adventist Church near by.

Packer finally retired as Regent College’s first Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology in the summer of 1996. His retirement did not end his relationship with Regent College. He was appointed to a Board of Governors Professorship of Theology, and continued to be involved in the college’s teaching ministry for two further decades, particularly through its summer schools. In his retirement, Packer served as general editor of the English Standard Version, a new translation of the Bible published in 2001, and developed a new interest in catechesis. Regent College honoured Packer in 2006 by establishing the J. I. Packer Chair in Theology, with the aim of continuing his legacy.

Packer’s health began to deteriorate in 2016, when macular degeneration made him unable to read, write, or travel. He died peacefully in UBC Hospital, Vancouver, across the street from Regent College, on 17 July 2020, aged 93. Kit was with him at his death, on their 66th wedding anniversary. When seen alongside the deaths of John Stott in 2011 and Michael Green in 2019, Packer’s may well mark the end of an important era in Evangelical Anglicanism. It remains to be seen where it goes next.

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