An interview with Dr. James I. Packer
By David W. Virtue
Dr. James I. Packer is unquestionably the world's most distinguished Anglican scholar and theologian.
At 75 he clearly merits the title and status of patriarch. The number of books, publications, articles, monographs and chapters in symposia he has penned over the years reaches to well over 300. He has spent more than half a century in Christian ministry as a priest, theologian, teacher, author, lecturer and definer of Anglicanism to its contemporary followers.
He is one of the most quoted Anglicans in the world, and rarely is a major article or book written on Anglicanism that does not have a quote or is foot-noted from one of his numerous writings. His volumes include commentaries on the Bible; studies in Puritan theology; spirituality; devotionals and a series of "Knowing" books that are quintessentially English. The accusation that English Christians have a tendency to live in their heads, open to the charge of rationalism, cannot be laid at the feet of this man. He combines both head and heart. The title of one of his books cutely exposes the culture: "Hot Tub Religion: Christian living in a Materialistic World." While he has spent years in the academic world of the theological 'ivory tower' James Packer has a pastor's heart.
In 1979, after teaching and preaching for 27 years in England, where he served as warden of Latimer House, Oxford and principal of Tyndale House, he became Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Regent College, and in 1989 he was installed as the first Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology. In 1996 he became Board of Governors' Professor of Theology. Packer has a pastor's heart and he has written a number of volumes for those in the pastoral ministry. He has grappled with contemporary culture in books like the "Post-Christian Mind: Exposing its Destructive Agenda" and while he has an encyclopedic knowledge of the past he is also current on contemporary issues that affect all Christians, particularly Anglicans. He draws heavily from his years of learning and lecturing on Puritanism and sits comfortably in both worlds. Two books of his that stand out are "Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God" and "Fundamentalism and the Word of God". He is eminently approachable, he puts on no airs, does not stand on his dignity, and his vast knowledge does not make you feel small in his presence. He radiates a genuine humility and, despite his enormous wealth of knowledge and learning, one has the distinct sense that one is in the presence of Christ when talking to him.
As well as being perhaps the most preeminent evangelical theologian of our time, Packer also serves as a Senior Editor and Visiting Scholar of Christianity Today and contributes to a variety of theological journals. Dr. Packer is married with three children and enjoys avocationally listening to classical jazz.
I have known James Packer for more than 30 years, having first heard him speak in the UK, later in Vancouver, Canada and then at various conferences in his peripatetic travels around the world. Despite his many books, and those he has contributed too, (there are some 113 listed at Amazon. Com) he is just as careful in the spoken word as he is in the written. He is a little frailer now with the passage of time but his mind is still razor sharp despite a heart attack two years ago.
In the extensive interview that follows he was not above putting in his own punctuation in answers to my questions. That is unique, if not a little quirky in the world of journalism.
I was privileged to interview Dr. Packer at the Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry (TESM) in Ambridge, PA recently where he was one of the speakers at Truthful Speech and the Power of God: Evangelicals and Liturgical Revision, put on by the Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion (EFAC-USA).
VIRTUOSITY: Dr. Packer, what are you working on now?
PACKER: I am writing a flurry of articles, and I hope to produce a large catechetical survey on the faith of the Bible within the next two or three years. It will be published by Tyndale House in the US and Inter Varsity Press in UK.
VIRTUOSITY: I understood you are working on a three-volume Doctrine of God commentary.
PACKER: Yes, but it will only be a two volume work. I'm 75 but I have a five-year plan to accomplish these tasks.
VIRTUOSITY: What is your present working status?
PACKER: I am retired from Regent College as Professor of Theology but I still have an office there and teach occasionally.
VIRTUOSITY: The Primates of the Anglican Communion met recently in Canterbury. How did you read what happened there?
PACKER: I don't know enough to talk about it officially. But what I do see is that the Anglican Communion is beginning to crack and what the Primates are engaged in is attempted damage control.
VIRTUOSITY: Why was it necessary for a group of men who already say they know and believe in who God is to write a Doctrine of God statement? How important was it to write a statement about the Doctrine of God when in fact these men are supposed to be affirming this week by week in their preaching?
PACKER: The Doctrine of God statement was part of the damage control and it is to be welcomed. We need to be clear that we are worshipping the same God. Doubting first principles has become acceptable. They declared what they believed in these first principles.
VIRTUOSITY: What do you see as the essential issue here?
PACKER: The problem is epistemological. What has come to possess a large number of minds in the West is some form of the idea that theology and liturgy and all Christian utterances across the board including Christian utterances of NT writers is what people like Bultmann verbalized in terms of the culture of the times. If you are going to use revelation - the activity of God, which gives them the sense of culture - they have to be clothed in cultural forms. These are ideas that have possessed the western liberal mind, the majority of theological colleges, and become the center of liberal development in the past few years.
VIRTUOSITY: Would you say that the two men who most exemplified the polarities in the Anglican Communion would be US Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold and Peter Carnley, Primate of Australia, an upholder of something called Progressive Christianity?
PACKER: These two men reflect the liberal process. It would be true to say that their leadership in the Anglican Communion represents the extreme liberal form.
VIRTUOSITY: Would you give me your reading on the Anglican Mission in America (AMIA) and why it should exist? I notice in your lecture that you acknowledged the presence of John Rodgers and addressed him as a bishop. By doing so you tacitly acknowledged his orders and recognized the AMIA.
PACKER: I think the AMIA is a tragic but necessary response to a tragic and irreformable situation in the ECUSA, the situation in which all sorts of attempts are being made to enforce liberal pluralism as a norm, the norm is that there is no norm. Everyone has the freedom to reconceive God, Christ and Christian existence in the way that seems good to them, and any attempt to establish a norm of belief is frowned upon and inhibited in various ways. That is what made AMIA necessary. I hope the leaders of AMIA are clear that their existence is a tragic reality and are hoping for the day when the separate existence of the AMIA is no longer necessary. I would like to hear them say that more clearly than yet they have done.
VIRTUOSITY: What would the ECUSA need to do to recognize the AMIA?
PACKER: The ECUSA would have to acknowledge the reality of revealed truth. The normativity of historical Anglican faith and the reality of limits to permissible speculation.
VIRTUOSITY: Do you see any let up by ECUSA?
PACKER: As long as the present emergency continues, AMIA will only grow stronger, and I see no signs of a let up on that.
VIRTUOSITY: What good can come out of the AMIA? Can the AMIA recall world Anglicanism to orthodoxy and unity?
PACKER: It must always make clear that the AMIA is an emergency response to an emergency situation. Separation involved was never desired and AMIA hopes a change in Anglican policies in specific respects that will make it possible for churches currently in AMIA to return to the larger Anglican unit from which they withdrew.
VIRTUOSITY: Can you give a directive/prescriptive in procedural institutional terms about how the AMIA can work?
PACKER: AMIA inherits the mantle of Anglican orthodoxy as this has been understood for centuries. AMIA must constantly insist that its adherents to this orthodoxy is integral to its being and that this orthodoxy is the standard on which and we hope and pray that the Anglicanism of tomorrow will converge again.
VIRTUOSITY: What is your view of the recent Covenant put together by the American House of Bishops?
PACKER: The Covenant is open textured and unfocused. It cannot be a very meaningful gesture.
VIRTUOSITY: Would a new jurisdiction solve all the problems in First world countries with orthodox priests at odds with liberal and ultra-liberal bishops?
PACKER: In the short term it would ease the problem. The real problem is the divergence of theologies within the English speaking Anglican world. Now that the restraining effect of liturgical uniformity no longer operates in the Anglican west, the focus of unity must be directly theological or there can be no unity.
VIRTUOSITY: Women's ordination is probably the single major bone of contention among traditionalist and evangelical Anglicans. Where do you stand on that issue? Are you for or against it?
PACKER: I do not find the arguments to the effect that Scripture forbids the church to make women presbyters compelling. While I think the church may do it, I think it is folly for the church to do it.
PACKER: Scripture makes clear that God having made the two sexes different and He wants them to remain different, and to turn the presbyterate which in the NT is defined clearly as a man's job, into a unisex role is a departure from that wisdom.
VIRTUOSITY: Is this personal for you?
PACKER: I do not hold the church's mistake here against any individual woman clergyman, but I make plain to anyone who asks that I accept women presbyters as such under protest. I think the Church ought not to have accepted women's ordination to the presbyterate.
VIRTUOSITY: Allow me to press the issue...
PACKER: You always do...(laughter)
VIRTUOSITY: Many evangelicals accept the reality of women's ordination because they find nothing specifically in Scripture that forbids it. The president of this seminary, for example, believes in the ordination of women and has written in support of it.
PACKER: God made the two sexes different. God made males for leadership and women for support; males for the maintenance of standards and women for the nurturing to their fellows.
VIRTUOSITY: Homosexuality or the issue of Pansexuality has become the lightning rod issue for The Episcopal Church and increasingly for the whole Anglican Communion. This includes the ordination of avowed homosexuals and the marriage of people of the same sex. How defining is this issue?
PACKER: Since to believe that such behavior is contrary to God's explicitly prescriptive standards for sexual conduct, and since I believe that presbyters are to be models and examples of godliness to their flock, according to the Anglican Ordinal, I cannot approve of the licensing of active homosexual clergy to any form of parochial or local church leadership and that includes bishops licensing or appointing such clergy.
VIRTUOSITY: The sinner not the sin argument?
PACKER: We tolerate this as a sinner who needs to repent, and such persons should not be given leadership roles.
You used the word 'pansexuality' in your question. That is not quite accurate as that applies to all sexualities including heterosexuality. I would stick to the word homosexuality.
VIRTUOSITY: How serious a deviation is the belief that homosexual behavior under certain circumstance can be good, approved, and offered to God for blessing, whether informally or in a liturgical rite for that purpose?
PACKER: I think it is a very serious deviation, though I well understand the personal and emotional factors that lead individuals to embrace it. But it seems to me that this view implies that homosexual behavior can be one aspect of human perfection and holiness; and that implies that Jesus himself was either homosexual or at least bisexual in his personal orientation, since He is the supreme embodiment of the perfection and holiness of human beings. Surely this conclusion is unacceptable to all sober and thoughtful Christians.
VIRTUOSITY: Is the church dealing adequately with post-modernism as a worldview in its preaching?
PACKER: I think not. Post modernism is the backdoor into pluralism which is the affirmation of every persons' views, whatever their foundation or lack of it. It is saying that any persons' view is as good as anyone else's views on any subject without parameters.
VIRTUOSITY: Our Presiding Bishop, Frank Griswold is very fond of pluralism and calls himself a pluriformist. What do you think of that?
PACKER: Pluralism sounds the deathknell of revealed truth and agreed truth and united faith among God's people. In other words, pluralism must lead to the dissolution of the church, except as a club for religious free thinkers.
The appropriate counter to post modernism is a vigorous apologetic showing that unbelief of the historic faith to be as unreasonable as Christians for nearly two millennia have thought it to be. It is as unreasonable is infidelity.
VIRTUOSITY: The rise of Islam is causing consternation to many Christians. Are or should we be waging reconciliation as the Presiding Bishop of ECUSA says we should?
PACKER: Islam in my view, as an historic Christian, is a wayward child. Our first task when confronted by Muslims is friendship and affirmation of all the truth about God that Islam maintains. Within that relational frame, our goal must be, as the second stage in our relationship, is to share the knowledge of Jesus Christ and the redeeming love of God to sinners of which Islam knows nothing. But it would be a total mistake to assume that because Islam is partially wrong as well as partially right, therefore it should be treated as if it were totally wrong, and Muslims be treated as if they were persons with no knowledge of the Oneness of God the creator, and many of his moral standards.
VIRTUOSITY: If the next Archbishop of Canterbury should happen to be Bishop James Jones of Liverpool, what would be your response to that?
PACKER: If James Jones wins it will be good for evangelism, good for the re-tooling of the Church of England to face the 21st Century. He would certainly be able to give leadership to the bishops of the Southern Cone (global south) on all the matters on which they are currently showing concern.
VIRTUOSITY: Thank you Dr. Packer.
NOTE: This interview will appear in the October issue of TOUCHSTONE magazine, a journal of Mere Christianity. I commend this magazine most highly. You may go to their website at http://www.touchstonemag.com and sign up.
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon
Minister of Christ Church, Biddulph Moor,
England & Vice-President and Emissary-at-Large
of The Prayer Book Society of America