Tuesday, January 25, 2011

J.I.. Packer's Theology of Scripture

The Bible as the Decisive Word of God

In his various texts Packer lays out a strong case for the centrality of the Bible in its full canonical depth as the primary source for interpretating the role of the church as well as the relationship between Christ and culture in any given context. As a prelude he reviews both the concept of authority as reflective in Roman Catholic theology and the individual as authority as posited by cultural commentators in the secular as well as in the liberal theological realm. To these two, both of which he accepts as important, he offers the Bible as primary authority to which church and culture are subordinate. Thus, Packer is not suggesting that these three primary soureces of authority never coincide or that two of them have no authority at all. His point is not sola scriptura, but the placing of Scripture in the magisterial role in the determination of where ultimate authority lies. In practice there is often a great deal of blending among these three sources even as ther issue of where ultimate authoritativeness remains.

Packer is aware that the concept of authoritativeness is both inescapable and frought with danger. Properly grasped, however, biblical authoritativeness as he understands it, is synonymous with human freedom in the sense in that it best reveals humankind's primary vocation made in the image of God. In the following passage I by-pass Packer's discussion of church as authority and only briefly alludeto his discussion of self as authority in order to give primary attention to his central focus.

The Bible as Authority

Packer identification of the Bible as the ultimate source of authority is based in the most fundamental sense on the grounds that Christianity is a revealed religion and that revelation is most fully encapsulated in the Bible. This revelation comes from “the inward voice of the Holy Spirit.” which illuminates the words of the Bible without which personal experience of God cannot be perceived. The Holy Spirit is not only the indispensable guide for the receptions of its truths. It is the vehicle that God used to convey his thoughts to the writers of the various books without denying one iota their humanity and autonomy. This personal perception is not only the basis for the timeless truths expounded in the Bible which, however time bound they were in their human expression, are “self-interpreting” within the hermeneutical framework of the Bible as the unified, and for human beings, sufficient Word of God.

This authoritative center is an essential basis for a vitally grounded belief, which, without some illumination by the Holy Spirit belief itself becomes suspect or at the least extremely wooden. In the most fundamental sense there is no getting beyond the circularity of these assumptions even as the possibility of exposition is potentially infinite-like in its richness and depth, the exploration of which is the continuing work of the called church and all individuals who seek to take the Bible with radical seriousness.

Thus, on Packer’s view the full flourishing of the immense riches latent within the Bible require a reception of its revelatory meaning and application via the Holy Spirit through grace. This in turn both stimulates and is stimulated by the activation of faith through, as humanly possible, the ultimate and continuous commitment of one’s time and resources to live out of the calling through which God addresses each individual. For Packer, the Bible is the primary source in illuminating the character of God and also in laying out the required human responses. In addition it provides many sources of help and direction that a close and regular prayerful and expectant reading of the text provides. Thus, on Packer’s reading, faith illuminated by grace, is based ultimately on persuasion that it is the Lord our God who speaks in and through this text in a uniquely disclosive manner. More fully, the Bible is

"…a record and explanation of divine revelation which is both complete (sufficient) and comprehensible (perspicacious); that is to say, it contains all that the Church needs to know in this world for guidance in the way of salvation and service, and it contains the principles for its own interpretation within itself. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit, who caused it to be written, has been given to the Church to cause believers to recognize it for the Word that it is, and to enable them to interpret it rightly and understand its meaning…Christians must therefore seek to be helped and taught by the Spirit when they study the Scripture, and must regard all their understanding of it, no less than the book itself, a the gift of God."

Any other reading, according to Packer, is a misreading and a denial of what the Bible was and is meant to convey. “We are to bow to…[its] authority at every point, confessing that here we have both truth and wisdom.” This… way of true discipleship” is based on a circular argument. The proof is less the logic of its apologetic, which may not ultimately convince even as it seeks to demonstrate the reasonableness of faith, than the power of its claims and its “harmonistic” integration as attested in the final analysis by the Holy Spirit as conveyed from believer to believer. In short the truth of Packer’s third option is based ultimately on nothing less than self-disclosive revelation that to accept or reject has consequences of the profoundest sort even as, on Packer’s account, exegetical and expositional problems persist in biblical interpretation and application since full disclosure remains perpetually beyond the human capacity to grasp. As Packer summarizes his biblical hermeneutics:

"Will any model do to give knowledge of the living God? Historically, Christians have not thought so. Their characteristic theological method, whether practiced clumsily or skillfully, consistently or inconsistently, has been to take biblical models as their God-given staring point, to base their belief-system on what biblical writers use these models to say, and to let these models operate as ‘controls’, both suggesting and delimiting what further, secondary models may be developed in order to explicate these which are primary. As models in physics are hypotheses formed under the suggestive control of empirical evidence to correlate and predict phenomenon, so Christian theological models are explanatory constructs formed to help us know, understand and deal with God, the ultimate reality. From this standpoint, the whole study of Christian theology, biblical, historical and systematic, is the exploring of a three-tier hierarchy of models: first, the ‘control’ models given in Scripture…; next, dogmatic models which the Church crystallized out to defend and define the faith,” first and foremost, the Trinity; finally, interpretive models lying between Scripture and defined dogma with particular theologians and theological schools developed for stating faith to contemporaries."

The critical factor is not only the starting point, but the layering order of Scripture, axiomatic doctrines, and only then historically grounded interpretation in service as much to apologetics as to dogmatic exfoliation. To confuse this order is to confuse a great deal and to misconstrue the nature of biblical interpretation.

It is this evangelical challenge to 20th century Protestant liberalism in the quest to re-capture the intellectual and pietistic vitality of the biblical revelation that Packer posits as “true Christianity.” On his account the hermeneutics that he lays out represents the surest approximation to it that he believes a rigorous and up-to-date Reformed-based evangelical scholarship linked to a corresponding pietism grounded on its own founding premises, forever subject to enhanced light, can provide. It is this that Packer argues as do I, that is needed as a counter-balance to the cultural captivity of so much of mainline Protestantism by the persuasive powers of contemporary secular thought and culture which has set the terms of academic based critical biblical research for well over 100 years. In short, there is much to be gained by a careful analysis of Packer’s theology of Scripture even if one takes issue with critical aspects of his interpretation.

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