Thursday, January 20, 2011

Unpacking the Evangelical Theology of J.I. Packer Part One

Along with C.S. Lewis and John Stott,the Bristish born pietist theologian, J.I. Packer, has had a very strong influence in contemporary U.S. evenaglical circles. This prolific author has written some very popular books such as Knowing God (1973)as well as more specialized works on the 17th century English Puritans and other Protestant theologians throughout the centuries. Throughout his writings he has always sought to merge the pietistic longing for just a closer walk witn God with the many specialized issues of systematic and historical theology in which for Packer as well as his primary mentors, the great Puritan Divines, especially John Owen, there is no divide.

I discovered Packer some 5-6 years ago and have been enthralled by his work ever since. I encourage all those interested in bringing pietism and formal theological discourse into closer proximity to take a closer look at Packer, including those who would dismiss him as a narrow fundamehtalist, of which he is clearly not.

Unpacking Packer’s Theology of Scripture Part One

Packer’s theology of Scripture represents a fundamental challenge to the precepts of modern intellectual life and culture, particularly against the Enlightenment interpretation of freedom which he seeks to turn on its head in what he refers to as “God’s Freedom Trail.” Freedom, liberty, and authority are the key topics Packer addresses in the first chapter of Truth and Power: The Place of Scripture in the Christian Life. His objective is to demonstrate that a substantial grounding in the biblical revelation through Word and Spirit is the surest basis available for the realization of these values in contrast to the Enlightenment’s pathway of secular humanism, ultimately “in dreams of the perfectability of man.” Such dreams, Packer maintains, were transformed in the 19th and early 20th centuries into an unrelenting pursuit of progress through the elusive quest for the gradual control and organization of nature, society, and the self, which Packer views as nothing short of a disaster for humankind.

The matter of authority is unavoidable, argues Packer, the only question is upon whom or upon what that is placed. For advocates of the precepts of the Enlightenment, ultimate authority is placed on human reason, which Packer accepts as a penultimate good bestowed by the Creator, and essential when governed by the direction of the Holy Spirit upon solid biblical precepts. One of Packer’s chief apologetic objectives is to illuminate both the biases and insufficiencies of modern secular thought and culture, particularly its influence on liberal theology which he discusses in some depth in Fundamentalism and the Word of God. His critique of liberalism is made in broad strokes, which would benefit from more refined analysis that took into more subtle account the many complex array of historical circumstances that have resulted in its unfolding. Packer’s primary strength remains deep biblical exposition and ability to communicate to a broad, predominantly evangelical audience. As stated, a key objective of this chapter is to expand the reach of Packer’s audience to a greater segment of the mainline clergy and laity.

According to Packer, in the Enlightenment perspective a great deal of authority is placed on the infinitely seeming capacity of human reason, particularly through science, to resolve the fundamental problems of the day in whatever spheres they may reside, both in terms of the academic disciplines and practical application. This overly optimistic view of gradual progress in which the deistic god takes on the passive role of clockmaker has been challenged in the 20th century through various postmodern scenarios of non-foundational deconstructionism and trends within philosophical pragmatism that focus on irony and the persistence of evil. What remains in modern/postmodern secular perception is the ineradicable belief both in human consciousness and the social construction of reality as the predominant philosophical precepts of contemporary western thought and culture. On this interpretation religious faith is viewed as a subset of a variety of humanly constructed forces, which at most provides for some under-defined remainder for the transcendent within culture.

20th century western liberal theology has largely accepted these major premises, and has sought to correlate “the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude vs. 3b) within the overarching framework of contemporary thought and culture. Rudolph Bultmannm, Paul Tillich, Langdon Gilkey, and Rosemary Ruether could be considered representative theologians of this broad school of thought whose collective work has spawned much contemporary reflection which has been highly influential in the seminary and in mainline Protestant denominations. Along with the United Church of Christ theologians Donald Bloesch and Gabriel Fackre, who exhibit a powerful affinity with evangelical theology within a Barthian framework, Packer has labored diligently to counter this tendency through the development of a highly cogent Reformed-based evangelical biblical perspective. The objective of these theologians is that of providing an effective counter-response in the realm of formal theology at the seminary level and within the congregational setting among clergy and laity. This they do by referencing first the Bible as the interpretive grid for examining the culture and then that of theology and to an almost 2000 year church tradition as a primary resource for stabilizing and strengthening a distinctive Christian identity within the self and within the body of Christ.

For Christians, argues Packer, “[t]heology must function as the queen of the sciences showing us how to approach, interpret, and use all our knowledge in such a way that the secular order is sanctified to the glory of God.” This they must do in order to uphold the integrity of orthodox Christianity, even if the result is further distancing of Protestantism theology and practice within the context of mainstream western culture and the secular academy. This eroding tendency is a cumulative trajectory of at least the past 50 years, with roots extending back several centuries of sociological and cultural trends of an ever growing secularization combined with a highly influential fundamentalist resurgence, and ever increasing religious and cultural pluralism. The explosion of such centrifugal forces in contemporary western society and culture has rendered any claims of “no other name than Jesus” a most dubious proposition subject to much scorn and contempt when not utterly ignored as simply irrelevant.

In the given climate mainline Protestantism would do well to embrace its increasing marginality as a gift of God, and in the process articulate its message in a much more unequivocal, albeit thoughtful way than is evident in at least many quarters. Packer’s text, Fundamentalism and the Word of God is designed both to repudiate claims of “obscurantism” when historical evangelical theology becomes too uncritically associated with 20th century fundamentalism and to provide a cogent statement of basic evangelical principles, which, in theory, can be embraced in mainline congregations as well. Written 50 years ago the book remains timely in the current setting. It is the basis for all that Packer has since written. While their styles and sensibilities are clearly different, Packer’s concerns are very much analogous to those of Douglas J. Hall, as the latter presented them some 40 years later. As Hall writes:

(1) The Christian community must be occupied with the biblical and doctrinal substance of its faith because this is its window on the world, the intellectual-spiritual perspective from which it “discerns the signs of the times” (Luke 12:56). (2) This professional contemplation of the word when it is serious (and therefore not just “professional”) thrusts the discipline community into active engagement with the world; that is, far from providing a once-remove from history, the right profession of the faith already serves, on the contrary, to push the no doubt reluctant church ever more insistently into the actual life of the world. (3) In particular such contemplation creates in the discipline community a vigilance for whatever threatens its world’s life (italics in original).

In these critical points, Hall and Packer share a close affinity from their rather different theological sensibilities and historical theaters of influence.

I focus on Packer as highly representative of the American evangelical tradition notwithstanding his British roots, and one whose views are least likely to be closely studied (if at all) within mainline seminaries and congregations even as Packer, in his more expansive moments seeks critical dialogue with these two sectors of contemporary Protestantism. Any imaginative effort to exorcise the fundamentalist-modernist split within the psyche and cultural experience of 20th century American Protestantism needs to come to terms with the evangelical tradition in its full scholarly and pietistic force, particularly the centrality of the role of the Bible before turning to theologians like Bloesch and Fackre whose theological perspectives have been substantially influenced by the neo-orthodoxy of Barth, Brunner, and Reinhold Niebuhr. While the full scope of contemporary evangelical scholarship is far from tackled in this effort, a concentrated focus on Packer opens up some important passageways which perhaps complement Fackre’s important work on the evangelical scholar Carl Henry.

In shifting the focus from fundamentalism to historical evangelicalism Packer notes that “the inerrancy debate about whether we should treat all Bible teaching as true and right is really about how far we can regard Scripture as authoritative.” As Packer puts it, neither the concept of infallibility nor inerrancy are “essential for stating the evangelical view” even as the underlying intent of such language in honoring and preserving a robust sense of the triune God of the Christian mode is indispensable. What Packer means by biblical infallibility is the Bible’s “wholly trustworthy and reliable” quality. Packer defines inerrancy as that which is “wholly true” for that for which Scripture is designed to address, “all things necessary to salvation” in the broadest sense.

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