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Patriarch - Dr. J. I. Packer

Patriarch - Dr. J. I. Packer
In his ninth decade, J.I. Packer still points a distracted evangelicalism toward the right path |

by Warren Cole Smith
December 1, 2009

When theologian, teacher, and writer Dr. J.I. Packer reached his 80th birthday on July 22, 2006, his home church in Vancouver, British Columbia-St. John's Shaughnessy Anglican Church-honored him with a special celebration.

One after the other, friends from church and colleagues from nearby Regent College, where he has taught for three decades, spoke of Packer's impact on the evangelical movement and themselves. Several, referring to the great mentor in J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, called Packer their own Gandalf.

But Packer, when it came his time to speak, gently protested. "I am no Gandalf," he said, his normally strong and clear voice choked with emotion. "I'm much closer to the lowly Sam."

It was noble, humble Samwise Gamgee who kept Frodo on the right path despite distractions and dangers. Sam never sought to be the hero but spoke and acted with clarity and decisiveness when everyone else was confused. He made the hero's way passable.

So has James Innell Packer for evangelicals over the past 50 years, showing them the right theological path in 60-plus books, including the influential Knowing God. These books, and his long tenures as a teacher and active churchman, have given Packer a unique status in evangelicalism: He was the only academic and theologian named to Time's 2005 list of the most influential evangelicals in America.

Michael Cromartie of the Ethics and Public Policy Center says that Knowing God provides a "sturdy, solid, orthodox understanding of basic Christian doctrine. God's character, His holiness, His justice, His wrath but also His mercy and His love-all explained with a pastoral warmth and in a clear style that we have come to admire in Dr. Packer. It is the kind of book that is foundational and it is worth repaying a visit almost every year. At least I know I do."

He is not alone. The book, first published in 1973 and now translated into at least seven languages, has sold more than 2 million copies, an astounding number for what is essentially a textbook in basic theology. "It was a surprise," he told me: "I wrote the first draft as a series of articles. It was essentially intended as a catechesis-a teaching book. At first I just hoped that it would go into a second printing."

As the book's sales and impact exploded, Packer helped evangelicals fight back against liberal theologians who assaulted the authority of Scripture. Packer was instrumental in the 1978 creation of the "Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy," a defining moment for which he is still thankful: "We carried our points, which were and remain the total trustworthiness and God-givenness of Scripture." Packer's signing of the 1994 ecumenical document, "Evangelicals and Catholics Together," indicated to many Protestants that the controversial statement was doctrinally "safe."

In 1979 Packer and his wife Kit surprised some of his colleagues by moving from his native England to Vancouver to take a position at tiny Regent College. For Packer it was a strategic move that involved him in North American evangelical activities-and his renown helped Regent to attract students from the United States (now 40 percent of the student body) and Asia (20 percent). Recently, he has bulwarked Americans and Canadians frustrated by the theological liberalism of U.S. Episcopalian and Anglican Church of Canada hierarchs. He recently handed back his British ministerial license and became a priest of the Anglican Province of the Southern Cone of America: Anglicanism in the southern hemisphere still tends to be biblically orthodox and evangelical.

"What has happened to the Anglican Church of Canada makes me sick," Packer said. "Our diocese had enmeshed itself in heresy. Homosexual partnerships were not just tolerated but celebrated. And that was just one of several important issues." Nevertheless, Packer is upbeat about the future of evangelicalism in North America: "Evangelical seminaries are full. Liberal seminaries are half-empty. That steady flow of evangelical clergy is getting stronger. Of course, the secular culture is getting stronger as well, and everything that evangelicals do to further the gospel is opposed by Satan. Sometimes that gets the attention of the media. So even with Satan and secular culture aligned against us, when I see what God is doing in the lives of many of the young people I teach, I have much reason to hope."

Packer's hope goes with his upbeat nature and his steady work habits. His day typically begins at 5 a.m. or even earlier, with a cup of tea. He walks briskly almost everywhere he goes. Though officially retired from Regent, he still teaches classes there, maintains an office on campus, and keeps a teaching assistant busy with his projects. Two of his favorite pastimes are listening to jazz music-especially seminal pre--World War II masters such as Jelly Roll Morton-and reading mystery novels. Dorothy Sayers, John Dickson Carr, Colin Dexter, and Agatha Christie are among the authors often on his nightstand. A mild stroke, or TIA, in late October temporarily limited his travels, but he has continued to preach.

He is maintaining literary productivity as he gets older, sometimes taking on collaborators. Packer served as general editor for the English Standard Version of the Bible, first published in 2001, and it is supplanting both the New International Version and the New American Standard Version as the p­referred text for many evangelicals. Meanwhile, one of his books, Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs, is quietly becoming a standard text both at many seminaries and among serious lay readers of theology.

He also remains an active churchman. Packer now works closely with the Anglican Mission in America (AMiA), a group of theologically conservative Anglicans that has separated from the Episcopal Church. Recently, AMiA joined with other biblically orthodox Anglican groups to form the Anglican Church of North America. One of the leaders of that movement, Bishop Chuck Murphy, studied under Packer in England in the early 1970s, and Packer has been instrumental in the creation of ordination standards and other theological statements for this new group.

But one book is missing from the Packer canon: a systematic theology. He has been teaching systematic theology at Regent for years, so he certainly has done heavy lifting for such a book. Will one be forthcoming? "I have a plan," he said. "But I may not have the time. I would like to leave the world theology that was both catechetical and definitive. But we shall have to see what God has in store."


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