Thursday, January 27, 2011

J.I. Packer's Jesus Christ the Lord Part One

I would encourage those who are interested in serious evangelical theology to obtain The J.I. Packer Collection, edited and introduced by one of Packer's biographer's and foremost champions, Alister McGrath

The collection includes a selection of some of Packer's finest essays from 1954-1998 and demonstrates something of the combination of cogency and pietistic verve underlying Packer's rationalist theological reflections on a broad array of topics in Anglo-American Protestant religious culture over the second half of the 20th century. Uppermost among Packer's themes are the centrality of a deeply orthodox, firmly scriptural based Trinitarian theology, a fleshing out of a distinctively evangelical theology that Packer distinguishes from both fundamentalism, to which he is obviously closer, and Protestant liberalism. These essays also include an apologetic impetus in what he depicts as the various dimensions of contemporary idolatry both within and outside the church, and in-depth commentary on important Protestant writers as distinct as the largely unknown James Orr (1844-1913), J.I Robinson, author of the best-seller Honest to God, and the irrepressible C.S. Lewis. In this post I concentrate on Packer's 1977 essay, "Jesus Christ the Lord," originally published in John Stott's Obeying Christ in a Changing World. As time allows I will comment on other essays in this fine collection of Packer's essays as I believe his work provides an important pathway to serious faithful evangelical renewal.

Jesus Christ the Lord Overview

"A generation ago Dietrich Bonhoeffer posed for query the theme, 'Who really is Christ for us today.' Since his time Christology has become a matter of new debate, and of fresh tension too. Tielhard de Chardin, in maximizing Christ's cosmic significance, has appeared to depersonalize him. And Protestant theologians, in stressing Jesus' humanness and historicality, have appeared to dissolve away the substance of the godhead. Should such Cristologies be taken as the last word, the faith-relationship with Jesus which we spoke [below] would not be 'on.' And merely by existing they make that relationship harder to hold on to, just as do current 'secular' pictures of Jesus as a troubles hysteric (e.g., Dennis Potter, Son of Man) and as a pleasant song-and-dance man (e.g. Godspell; Jesus Christ Superstar). Fresh clarification is called for, urgently! (p. 154).

The centerpiece of this article is the critical contrast Packer makes in juxtaposing a high Trinitarian vision of Christ as God fully embodied in human flesh against a more this wordly grounded humanitarian Christology focusing on Jesus' sterling character and his exemplification of God's spirit throughout his life. On this latter perspective, a follower can obtain a closer walk with God by imitating Christ's spirit and his example as the selfless man in service for others.

Packer acknowledges the value in the latter understanding, although he views it is egregiously incomplete, and thereby, in the most radical sense, heretical. Specifically, it falls far short of any claim of Christ as God including any appreciation of the Son in his pre-incarnate manifestation as the second person in the Trinity as commonly understood in traditional orthodox theology and embodied most fully in the new Testament in the Gospel of John. Neither does this humanistic perspective account in any profound sense for the clear NT vision of Christ as high priest whose sacrificial death was an apt substitute for the collective sins of humankind.

Packer focuses the brunt of his essay on his explanation of the core orthodox belief in an incaranational God "who is there," who has come into our world from his pre-incarnate presence, which is based, hr maintains, on a view of Jesus best aligned with Scripture in which any Jesus outside of the NT context is both unknowable in any meaningful way, which, in any event, would be some other religion than that characterized as orthodox Christianity in the full Trinitarian, incarnational, and canonically-based scriptural sense. "That the only real Jesus is the Christ of the New Testament history and theology, and that by parting company with the New Testament [in its comprehensive depiction of Christ] we do not find him, is a truth that cannot be too often emphasized today" (p. 155) When that is given up in quest of a more humanitarian interpretation in what is commonly viewed as Christ "from below," a great deal, indeed, is sacrificed, and not merely doctrine, but the very power of Christ in God as the means of reconciling the world to God, and all of the claims that are made, for example, in the first two chapters of Paul's letter to the Ephesians, the first chapter of Colossians, the prologue in the Gospel of John, and virtually the entire tenor of The Letter to the Hebrews.

Opening Argument

"The Christian consensus has been that as Scripture is the proper source from which theology should flow, so Christology is the true hub round which the wheel round theology revolves, and to which its central spokes must each be correctly anchored if the wheel is not to get bent" (p. 151).

Packer draws on Scripture in the full canonical sense through the hermeneutical principle in which that which is clear and central in the Bible becomes the basis for interpreting that within Scripture which is more opaque in which Deuteronomy 29:29 might serve as an underlying interpretive principle. In the words of Puritan theologian John Robinson, new light often does break through in God's word as reflective even in the formation, of both the OT and NT canon, in which whatever new insights that do emerge are congruent with the core plotline and doctrinal claims as reflective foremost throughout the entire NT text. It is the entire NT narrative in turn, that forms the basis for the full Trinitarian and Incarnational theology in which Jesus of Nazareth is both son of man and son of God and who existed before the foundation of the world.

Any equivocation on this, however vast the gap between our understanding and the claim driven by faith in search of increasing knowledge, a distance of which Packer knows quite well, is to put into jeopardy the entire foundation of what John Stott refers to as basic and C.S. Lewis as mere Christianity. What is central, Packer insists, is the core claim that Jesus was not merely a holy person whose entire life embodied the spirit of God, but that he was and is divine and became flesh when the pre-existing son of God was incarnated into the world. In this Packer ascribes to the key claim made by Jesus as written in the Gospel of John, Before Abraham was, I am” (Jn 8:58). It is this foundational statement that possesses unfathomable kergymatic and ontological power, however much the mystery of this revelation remains well beyond the human capacity to grasp in anything remotely resembling a complete sense. More than anything else, perhaps, the scandalous nature of this proclanmation is something, on Packer’s studied interpretation, that humanitarian Christology categorically rejects on its face.

Building on this core Trinitarian assumption, Packer insists on a God who is there, "actively and objectively" in the world, "in the place of power." It is the claim of faith that his existence is true irrespective of whether it "is acknowledged or not" This ontological statement is meant as a direct barb against any perception of the resurrected Christ as merely living in "his followers' memories and imagination" (p. 152) as a great deal of liberal or humanitarian Christology, as claimed in a great deal of liberal and humanitarian Christology and the consequent neglect of the divine Christ as the pre-existent Son, viewed as an antiquarian residue of an outdated historical mindset. The critique would equally apply to Rudolph Bultmann's existential interpretation of Christ in his quest to demythologize the text (Scripture) in order to remythologize its essence in a perspective not too different from the anti-theistic theology of Bishop John Spong.

This belief in an incarnational God "who is there," who has come into our world from his pre-incarnate presence, argues Packer, is based on a view of Jesus best aligned with Scripture in which any Jesus outside of the NT context is both unknowable in any meaning sense, some other religion than that characterized as orthodox Christianity, and in the most fundamental sense, heretical. In Packer’s words, “the only real Jesus is the Christ of the New Testament history and theology, and that by parting company with the New Testament we do not find him, is a truth that cannot be too often emphasized today" (p. 155). When that is given up in quest of a Christ "from below" perspective, a great deal, indeed, is sacrificed. It is not merely primary doctrine that is at risk, which is important in itself to preserve but belief in the very power of Christ in God as the primary and ultimately only means of reconciling the world to God, which is the basis for evoking the commitment to it. At risk also, are the entirety of the claims that are made, for example, in the first two chapters of the Letter to the Ephesians and Colossians, the prologue in the Gospel of John, and virtually the entire tenor of The Letter to the Hebrews in which the underlying message expressed in various ways is that in Christ “the whole fullness of God dwells bodily” (Colossians 2:9).

Final Points for Part One

In clearing the air for his broader argument, which I will review in succeeding posts, Packer makes three preliminary points on whether and the extent "we find the real Jesus in the New Testament" (p.155).

The first is Packer's argument that the NT in its varying books and genres exhibits an underlying unity much deeper than any differences. Thus, in their different ways, the synoptic gospel writers, Paul, and John have focused their central attention on the integrating fabric of Christ's life, teaching, core mission leading to Jerusalem, his crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, all of which presupposes the core message of the NT of "God who through Christ reconciled us to himself" (2 Corinthians 5:19) through the efficacy of the Holy Spirit.

In this Packer is reacting against a 100+ year scholarly tradition which has pitted the Jesus of history and the Christ of faith with the corresponding claim popularized in the contention that Paul in emphasizing the risen Christ was the inventor of Christianity as a distinctive religion beyond Judaism. It is this sharp difference in the scholarly literature between the historical Jesus and the Christ of faith that was also echoed in a different way in the Gospel of John written toward the end of the 1st century. There is little doubt that Paul's work was instrumental in creating a more inclusive movement in the fulfillment of the Abrahamic promise as well as the vision of Isaiah of bringing in the gentiles to the household of God's kingdom through the galvanizing presence of the spirit of Christ. In that sense new light broke through.

Nonetheless, Paul's core belief, which formed very early (in the late 30s or early 40s) on the power of the Holy Spirit to reveal the risen Christ speaks volumes against any radical polarization between the theology of Paul and the writers of the synoptic gospels. When one considers, too, that Mark and Luke were very much immersed in the mission of Paul in which their gospels were written later than Paul's letters, then, even though their narrative focus is on the life and crucifixion of Jesus, with Luke addressing the post-resurrection sightings, then it is not a stretch to view at least their gospels as post-Pauline texts. In this respect, the synoptics provided narrative structure to core Christological claims made initially by the earliest reported followers of the Christian way and exemplified more thoroughly in Paul’s various letters.

A hint may be found in the opening statement of Mark, commonly viewed as the first gospel and the one most congruent with the "historical Jesus." Thus, "in the beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God" (Mk 1:1), in which the entirety of the text that follows is commentary. Keeping both Mark and Paul in mind, one might plausibly surmise that Paul was in touch with close to the earliest versions of the resurrection tradition, embraced its core tenets which shaped its entire ministry. Mark, in turn, who was influenced by Paul's teaching of the crucified and resurrected Christ, was also close to Peter of whom he obtained first hand testimony in which the writing of the gospel itself was likely sanctioned, if not commissioned by the early church, and obviously viewed congruent with its teachings.

With these points and others in mind, Packer seeks to deconstruct a pervasive liberal bias in contemporary biblical scholarship, with its exaggerated emphasis on the importance of the historical evolution of the Bible and the diversity of literary genres while ignoring countervailing evidence. One of the chief problems, posits Packer is in its tendency to allow different emphases within the text to override the NT's underlying unity in its central Trinitarian keygmatic claim beyond myth in any superficial sense, though not beyond mystery as well acknowledged in the NT itself (Ephesians 3:4-10, I Corinthians 2: 6-16).

In wrapping up this portion of the review of Packer’s essay, Packer makes a couple of additional related points. This includes the somewhat contestable claim that the bulk of the NT texts, certainly the most important of them, which ultimately formed the canon, were written before 70, which included significant testimony from primary witnesses. Packer’s point here is that the memory of primary witnesses would have been sharp enough to accurately recall the basic events, including states of mind of primary actors, though I wouldn’t want to dismiss some authorial innovation in constructing synoptic texts as well as Acts based on a looking back from the perspective of Jesus as the risen Christ. Given that, Packer’s main claim still holds that the core gospel story of the resurrected Christ bestowing his presence on his first followers through the power of the Holy Spirit emerged very early, logically sometime before Paul’s conversion. It is this historical rebuttal which is the primary evangelical response that Packer makes in response to the thesis of a great divide between the historical Jesus and the Christian faith as emerging only decades after the event through the cumulative influence say of Paul and John and the distinctive communities that both spawned and were influenced by their work.

With the gauntlet laid down, Packer then proceeds to his more substantive constructive arguments on the biblical nature of Christ as described in the New Testament and to more extensive pointed critiques against a pervasive liberal theological interpretation characteristic of the dominant seminaries in both the U.K. and the U.S. A discussion of these matters will follow in additional posts.

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