An Interview with J. I. Packer
At 76, James I. Packer is one of the world’s most distinguished Anglican scholars and theologians. He has spent more than half a century in Christian ministry as a pastor, theologian, teacher, author, and lecturer. Among the more than 300 books, articles, monographs, and contributions to symposia he has penned over the years are commentaries on the Bible, studies in Puritan theology, devotionals, and a series of “Knowing” books. Notable among his books have been Hot Tub Religion: Christian Living in a Materialistic World, in which he grappled with contemporary culture, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, Knowing God, and Fundamentalism and the Word of God.
In 1979, after teaching and preaching for 27 years in England, where he served as warden of Latimer House, Oxford, and principal of Tyndale Hall, he became Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Regent College in Vancouver. In 1989 he was installed as the first Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology, and in 1996 he became Board of Governors’ Professor of Theology. He also serves as Executive Editor and Visiting Scholar of Christianity Today and contributes to a variety of theological journals. Dr. Packer is married with three children.
David Virtue interviewed Dr. Packer at Trinity Episcopal School for Ministry in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, where he was one of the speakers at “Truthful Speech and the Power of God: Evangelicals and Liturgical Revision,” a conference put on by the American branch of the Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion in May 2002.
David Virtue: Dr. Packer, what are you working on now?
J. I. Packer (JIP): I am writing a flurry of articles, and I hope to produce a large catechetical survey of the faith of the Bible within the next two or three years. It will be published by Tyndale House in the United States and InterVarsity Press in the United Kingdom.
What is your present working status?
JIP: I am technically retired from Regent College, but as its Board of Governors Professor of Theology, I still have an office there and teach periodically.
The Primates of the Anglican Communion met recently in Canterbury. How did you read what happened there?
JIP: I don’t know enough to talk about it officially. But what I do see is that the Anglican Communion is beginning to crack, and what the Primates are engaged in is attempted damage control.
Why was it necessary for a group of men who already say they know who God is to write a Doctrine of God statement? How important was it to write a statement about the Doctrine of God when in fact these men are supposed to be affirming this week by week in their preaching?
JIP: The Doctrine of God statement was part of the damage control, and it is to be welcomed. We need to be clear when doubts and disputes arise that we are worshiping the same God. Doubting first principles about God has become acceptable in some circles. The Primates’ statement declared what they believe about God at the level of first principles.
What do you see as the essential issue here?
JIP: The problem is epistemological. What has come to possess a large number of minds in the West is some form of the idea that theology and liturgy and all Christian utterances across the board, including the utterances of New Testament writers, are what people like Bultmann described as intuitions or impressions of a more or less ineffable kind verbalized in terms of the culture of their times. If you are going to treat these impressions as revelation—the activity of God, making himself known—you have to allow that the cultural conceptualizing is mutable because the appearance of cognitive content is illusory, and all you can be sure of is the sense of transcendent values, with a humanistic chameleon called “love” at their head, which your religious intuitions have impressed upon you. This, to me, is not a declaring of the Christian revelation of God, but a denying of it. These are ideas that have long infected the Western liberal mind and the majority of theological colleges, and they have become the center of liberal development in the past few years.
Would you say that the two men who most exemplified the polarities in the Anglican Communion would be US Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold and Peter Carnley, Primate of Australia, an upholder of something called “progressive Christianity”?
JIP: These two men well reflect the liberal process. It would be true to say that their leadership in the Anglican Communion represents the extreme liberal outlook.
Would you give me your reading on the Anglican Mission in America (AMIA) and why it should exist? I noticed in your lecture that you acknowledged the presence of John Rodgers and addressed him as a bishop. By doing so, you tacitly acknowledged his orders and recognized the AMIA.
JIP: I think the AMIA is a tragic but necessary response to a tragic and irreformable situation in the Episcopal Church, USA (ECUSA), in which all sorts of attempts are being made to enforce liberal pluralism as a norm. This, in effect, is to establish the norm that there is no norm. Everyone has the freedom to re-conceive God, Christ, and Christian existence in the way that seems good to him, and any attempt to establish a universal norm of belief is frowned upon and inhibited in various ways. That is what made the AMIA necessary. I hope the leaders of the AMIA are clear that their existence is a tragic reality and that they hope for the day when the separate existence of the AMIA is no longer necessary. I would like to hear them say that more emphatically than they have yet done.
What would the ECUSA need to do to recognize the AMIA?
JIP: The ECUSA would have to acknowledge the reality of revealed truth, the normativeness of historic Anglican faith, and the reality of limits to permissible speculation.
Do you see any letup by ECUSA?
JIP: No. As long as the present emergency continues, therefore, the AMIA will only grow stronger.
What good can come out of the AMIA? Can the AMIA recall world Anglicanism to orthodoxy and unity?
JIP: It must always be made clear that the AMIA is an emergency response to an emergency situation. Separation on a permanent basis was never desired, and I am confident that the AMIA hopes for a change in Anglican policies that will make it possible for churches currently in the AMIA to return to the larger Anglican unit from which they withdrew. But I doubt whether the AMIA itself can initiate any change at this point.
Can you give a directive/prescriptive in procedural institutional terms about how the AMIA can work?
JIP: The AMIA inherits the mantle of Anglican orthodoxy as this has been understood for centuries. The AMIA must constantly insist that its adherence to this orthodoxy is integral to its being and that this orthodoxy is the standard on which it hopes and prays that the Anglicanism of tomorrow will converge again. For without this orthodoxy, the knowledge of Christ is lost.
What is your view of the recent Covenant put together by the American House of Bishops?
JIP: The Covenant is open-textured and unfocused. It cannot be a very meaningful gesture.
Would a new jurisdiction solve all the problems in first-world countries with orthodox priests at odds with liberal and ultra-liberal bishops?
JIP: In the short term it could ease the tensions. The real problem, however, is the divergence of theologies within the English-speaking Anglican world. Now that the restraining effect of liturgical uniformity no longer operates in the Anglican West, the focus of unity must be directly theological or there can be no unity.
Women’s ordination is probably the single major bone of contention among traditionalist and Evangelical Anglicans. Where do you stand on that issue? Are you for or against it?
JIP: I do not find the arguments to the effect that Scripture forbids the Church to make women presbyters compelling. While I, therefore, think the Church may do it, I think it is folly for the Church to do it.
JIP: Scripture makes clear that God, having made the two sexes different, wants them to remain different. To turn the presbyterate, which in the New Testament is defined clearly as a man’s job, into a unisex role is a departure from that divine wisdom. I believe in women’s giftedness and ministry, but their ministry should be separately structured.
Is this personal for you?
JIP: I do not hold the church’s mistake here against any individual woman clergyman, but I make plain to anyone who asks that I accept women presbyters as such under protest. I think the Anglican Church ought not to have accepted women’s ordination to the presbyterate.
Homosexuality or the issue of pansexuality has become the lightning rod issue for the Episcopal Church and increasingly for the whole Anglican Communion. This includes the ordination of avowed homosexuals and the “marriage” of people of the same sex. How defining is this issue?
JIP: Since I believe that such behavior is contrary to God’s explicit prescriptive standards for sexual conduct, and since I believe that presbyters are to be models and examples of godliness to their flock, according to the Anglican Ordinal, I cannot approve of the ordaining and licensing of active homosexual clergy to any form of parochial or local church leadership.
The “sinner, not the sin” argument?
JIP: The active homosexual is a practising sinner who needs to repent, and such persons should not be given leadership roles. You used the word pansexuality in your question. That is not quite accurate, as it implies a preoccupation with sexual concerns that involves all sexualities, including heterosexuality. I would stick to the word homosexuality for what we are discussing now.
How serious a deviation is the belief that homosexual behavior under certain circumstances can be good, approved, and offered to God for blessing, whether informally or in a liturgical rite for that purpose?
JIP: I think it is a very serious deviation, though I well understand the personal and emotional factors that lead individuals to embrace it. But it seems to me that this view implies that homosexual behavior can be one aspect of human perfection and holiness; and that implies not only that it is not a form of sin, but that Jesus himself could have been either homosexual or at least bisexual in his personal orientation, since he is the supreme embodiment of the perfection and holiness of human beings. Surely this conclusion is unacceptable to all sober and thoughtful Christians.
Is the Church dealing adequately with postmodernism as a worldview in its preaching?
JIP: I think not. Postmodernism is the back door into pluralism, which is the indiscriminate affirmation of every person’s views, whatever their foundation or lack thereof. It is saying that anyone’s view is as good as anyone else’s on any subject at all.
Our Presiding Bishop, Frank Griswold, is very fond of pluralism and calls himself a pluriformist. What do you think of that?
JIP: Pluralism sounds the death knell of revealed truth and theological consensus and united faith among God’s people. In other words, pluralism must lead to the dissolution of the Church, except as a club for religious freethinkers.
The appropriate counter to postmodernism is a vigorous apologetic showing that unbelief of the historic faith is as unreasonable as Christians for nearly two millennia have thought it to be.
The rise of Islam is causing consternation to many Christians. Should we be waging reconciliation as the Presiding Bishop of ECUSA says we should?
JIP: Islam, in my view as a historic Christian, is a wayward child, sadly lapsed from true faith. Our first task when confronted by Muslims is friendship and affirmation of all the truth about God that Islam now maintains. Within that relational frame, our goal must be, as the second stage in our relationship, to share the knowledge of Jesus Christ and the redeeming love of God to sinners, of which Islam knows nothing. But it would be a total mistake to assume that because Islam is partially wrong as well as partially right, therefore it should be viewed as if it were totally wrong, and Muslims be treated as if they were persons with no knowledge of the uniqueness of God the creator, and many of his moral standards.
With regard to Today’s New International Version of the Bible (TNIV), Touchstone has taken a stand on this editorially, and you have been critical of the TNIV yourself. You have worked on the English Standard Version. Would you comment on this controversy?
JIP: As the discussion in Touchstone has shown, the form of linguistic expression, which God chose for his written Word, has itself theological implications in the gender debate, and it seems to me that those who, in translation, change the biblical idiom for a different modern idiom lose much more than they gain. They gain, no doubt, instant intelligibility among the not-so-thoughtful, but the deeper implications of God’s mind-to-mind communication tends to get lost, and the difference between God and God’s standards on the one hand and us and our standards on the other gets minimized.
This is certainly true of gender-neutral translations, and the TNIV is, from that standpoint, much less commendable than the original New International Version of 25 years ago.
What might be at risk in these new translations?
JIP: What is jeopardized in these translations is the fact that, according to Scripture, masculinity entails leadership and femininity entails support. Patterns of cooperation between the sexes in which the man takes leadership responsibility are, on balance, healthier, because they are directly fitted to human nature in a way that a reversal of this pattern can never be.
Thank you, Dr. Packer.
David Virtue has served as a staff writer for a number of Christian organizations and publications and is the author of two books on Christian faith and justice. His website, Virtuosity, is an online digest of news and commentary on issues of concern to the worldwide Anglican Communion.
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