Knowing God and ourselves under the authority of Scripture
Evangelicals lost a giant this summer.
James Innell Packer, professor emeritus of theology at Regent College in Vancouver, passed away July 17, 2020, just shy of his 94th birthday.
Though outwardly a diminutive personality, J. I. Packer (that’s what everyone called him) exercised weighty spiritual influence on generations of Evangelicals. In 2006 Christianity Today declared his famous Knowing God (1973), hardly a book of theological novelty, the fifth most influential book among Evangelicals.
A former student of mine recounted how, during a spiritual crisis, he made an appointment to meet with Packer. He vowed that if one of evangelicalism’s most prominent theologians couldn’t help him, he’d walk away from the faith.
After only a brief introductory exchange, Dr. Packer prescribed reading Calvin’s massive Institutes of the Christian Religion. Then and only then, Packer insisted, should he come back for further conversation.
The poor soul left that day, boiling with rage, but he then remembered the deal he’d made with himself (and perhaps to the God he was doubting). After slogging through the Institutes, he returned to Packer’s office, months later, transformed and renewed in his faith.
Some might bristle at Packer’s response. Why, oh, why would Packer recommend a dreadfully dense 16th-century tome rather than the Bible?
J. I. PACKER (1926–2020)
PACKER’S INFLUENCE ON 20TH-CENTURY EVANGELICALS – ESPECIALLY HIS EMPHASIS ON THE AUTHORITY OF THE SCRIPTURES AND THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD – CAN’T BE OVERSTATED. HE WAS THE GENERAL EDITOR OF THE ESV TRANSLATION AND A LONGTIME PROFESSOR AT REGENT COLLEGE, VANCOUVER, B.C.
Let me venture a guess. Packer was a Reformed theologian, so it makes sense he would commend Calvin. But it wasn’t the Institutes that mattered to Packer. Rather, it was Calvin’s dictum that "without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self," and his important corollary that "God bestows the actual knowledge of Himself upon us only in the Scriptures."
This fellow didn’t need Calvin, per se. However, Packer knew reading Calvin would provide a model of consistently seeking the knowledge of God and yourself in Scripture. Reading Calvin likely didn’t quell this young man’s doubts directly. Rather, by reading Calvin he was pushed back to reconsider the Bible. That’s how Calvin wanted to be read and should be read, along with Packer, even today.
It’s noteworthy that Packer’s first published book was a defence of the authority of the Bible. Fundamentalism and the Word of God (1958) was aimed at the British religious public who were using the word fundamentalist to denigrate biblical literalists. Not surprisingly, Packer rejected the term and proposed evangelical to better describe those committed to living out their faith according to the Good News of Scripture.
Today the term fundamentalism, though still apt for a particular stream of Christians, has taken on broader connotations. Indeed, there are fundamentalisms of all sorts, religious and nonreligious, with many taking up residence on Facebook and Twitter, where they come across as loud, obnoxious and demanding utter compliance.
Packer also said something helpful about these other fundamentalisms that bombard us daily with radical claims and demands that aren’t always easy to assess or adjudicate, whether it be in the realms of politics, philosophy, education, epidemiology – and, yes, religion and theology.
Early in his book Packer states, "We are not entitled to infer from the fact that a group of people are drawing nearer to each other that any of them is drawing nearer to the truth. Our first task must be to test all the words of men by the authoritative Word of God, to receive only what Scripture endorses and to reject all that is contrary to it."
Packer’s words were prescient. In our day, many positions are staked on the ground of thinking and acting according to the ones perceived to be standing on the "right side of history." As Packer perceived, being in the right group of people has become more important than discerning the truth of who God is, and what He has done and is doing for us as witnessed to in Scripture.
So, with Packer and Calvin, with Wesley and Whitefield, and with a plethora of voices who have continually reminded us before, let us recommit ourselves to knowing God and ourselves under the authority of Scripture.
And let’s not be content simply to mindlessly repeat that phrase. Rather, let’s authenticate our verbal claim of biblical authority by how carefully, often and intentionally we seek to hear and obey the Holy Spirit’s voice in Scripture, especially as He points us to the way, the truth and the life, our Lord Jesus Christ.
David Guretzki of Ottawa is executive publisher of Faith Today and serves The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada as executive vice-president and resident theologian.