James Innell Packer (1926-2020)
The death of Jim Packer, only days before his ninety-fourth birthday, sunders one of the last remaining links with the postwar years of theological revival in the Anglican Evangelical world. Jim first came to prominence following Billy Graham’s crusade in the United Kingdom in 1954. Billy was publicly attacked for his supposedly “fundamentalist” approach, and a prominent Anglo-Catholic theologian, Gabriel Hebert, even wrote a book against him and his methods. Jim responded to this by writing a book of his own, Fundamentalism and the Word of God, which established his reputation as a rising star in the conservative Evangelical world. A few years later he followed that up with Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, and the two books rapidly became the charter for a generation of young Christians who were heading towards full-time ministry.
For nearly twenty-five years Jim dedicated himself to the upbuilding of a theologically-minded Evangelicalism in the Church of England, of which I am a product and for which I shall be for ever grateful. Jim turned our attention to the seventeenth-century Puritans, whom he did much to reclaim for the Anglican tradition. For many years he co-operated with non-Anglicans in the important work of reprinting and publicizing their writings and for a time it seemed that there might be a real renaissance of classic Reformation spirituality in the Church. The fruit of his labors eventually appeared in Knowing God, a book that became a best-seller and that encapsulates his vision better than anything else that he wrote. By that time he was teaching at the newly-formed Trinity College in Bristol, which became the leading theological college in the Church of England, with a reputation that spread far beyond the country’s borders. Students who trained at Trinity in the 1970s became Jim’s most loyal supporters and kept his ideals alive for a generation.
Jim was a man of clear theological principles, sure in his own faith and generous in his approach to others. He maintained relationships with a wide variety of people, many of whom were humble Christians with no pretensions to academic greatness. His concern for the sheep of God’s flock was deep and genuine and many, including myself, have cause to thank him for his support through thick and thin.
And “thick and thin” there certainly was. People of principle often land themselves in controversy whether they invite it or not, and Jim was no exception. The Evangelical world stood behind him in his defense of Billy Graham, but that solidarity was not to last. In 1966 he fell out with Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones because Lloyd-Jones was demanding that Evangelicals should leave their mixed denominations and form what he saw as a “pure” church. The actual controversy saw Lloyd-Jones pitted against John Stott, who argued that Evangelicals should remain in the Church of England, and Jim stood up on John’s side. Jim remained faithful to the Church of England, but he was not rewarded for his loyalty. He was neither a preacher nor a Biblical scholar, which distanced him from the world of men like John Stott, despite the many things that they had in common. He also felt that his lower middle-class background counted against him, which is quite possibly true. The wider Church ignored him completely and it soon became apparent that there were younger Evangelicals who did not warm to his neo-Puritanism.
Jim did his best to co-operate with other strands within the Anglican world, and took part in a dialogue with Anglo-Catholics, the results of which were published in Growing into Union. But his efforts came to nothing. In the end, the rapprochement failed and all that was left was a suspicion in Evangelical circles that he had sold out to the enemy. Dr Lloyd-Jones broke with him altogether and the Puritan revival that they had led ground to a halt. Jim was also hostile to the “holiness” form of piety that he associated with the Keswick Movement and that would soon re-emerge in the charismatic renewal. He failed to appreciate that Keswick had moved a long way from its founding impulses, and that it was much more mainstream (and theologically sound) than it had originally been. He did not keep his opinions to himself and I well recall the damage he unwittingly did in my own church where his unwarranted criticisms of Keswick went down badly. Needless to say, the charismatics never warmed to his approach, and his influence among them was virtually nil.
Jim’s lasting contribution to Anglican Evangelicalism was the establishment of Latimer House in Oxford. Latimer House was dedicated to fostering orthodox Evangelical theology in an Anglican context and as the Latimer Trust, it continues to do so. Like Jim himself, it is a minority voice within the Anglican Evangelical world, which is easily seduced by superficial, fly-by-night ministerial initiatives that sparkle like a comet for a few years before burning out, but Jim built on more lasting foundations, and his initiatives continue to bear fruit. He never wrote the great theological works that many hoped he would produce, but he laid the groundwork for others to do so, and that may yet turn out to be his greatest gift to the Church.
In 1979 Jim left England for Canada, where he established himself at Regent College in Vancouver. Controversy continued to dog him, as he stood out against the liberal trends that were sweeping the Anglican Church of Canada. Eventually the bishop of New Westminster (Vancouver) deposed him from the ministry, an outrageous gesture that revealed the true nature of the liberal cancer that was eating away at the vital organs of the Church. As a clergyman of the Church of England however, Jim remained in good standing until his death and gained support from many who saw the blatant injustice of what he had suffered. On the other hand, his participation in the ecumenical dialogue known as Evangelicals and Catholics Together produced much the same result as Growing into Union had done twenty-five years earlier and damaged his reputation. Never a politician, Jim could not appreciate the machinations of the Catholic side in the dialogue, and the old suspicion that he had sold out resurfaced among his former colleagues in England, some of whom had always regarded his departure for Canada as a betrayal. Those of us who were close to these events had to tread carefully for a while, but Jim had a loyal following and eventually weathered the storm.
Now that Jim has gone to glory a more dispassionate assessment of his life and contribution will doubtless emerge. As someone who has been closely involved in some of the controversies that plagued Jim’s life and who has tried to maintain friendships on all sides, I naturally find it difficult to be objective. Jim was naive in some ways and allowed himself to be drawn into situations that he could, and probably should, have avoided. But his heart was always in the right place, and the negative reactions that he endured said more about his opponents than about him. His positive legacy remains, and will continue to inspire those with the humility and the insight to benefit from it. He was a loyal friend and a faithful soldier of Jesus Christ who never wavered in his devotion to the Master. Even though he is gone, his light still shines brightly and those of us who knew him, who worked with him, and who supported him “through thick and thin” will cherish his memory until the day when we shall meet him again around the throne of grace.
Gerald Bray is research professor of divinity at Beeson Divinity School.