LATROBE, PA: Anglican Patriarch J.I. Packer Still Going Strong at 87
An exclusive interview with the Rev. Dr. J.I. Packer.
By David W. Virtue
June 28, 2014
The Rev. Dr. James I. Packer is the Anglican Communion’s most widely known, most respected evangelical Anglican author, theologian, churchman and scholar. He was a speaker at the recent Anglican Church of North America’s 2nd Annual Assembly meeting at St. Vincent Archabbey and College in Latrobe, PA, on the occasion of the induction of a new archbishop of the ACNA and a farewell to the Most Rev. Robert Duncan, the ACNA’s first leader.
VOL sat down with Dr. Packer and asked him about his life, work, ministry and writings along with a few leading hot button questions that has brought the Anglican Communion to the edge of schism. He is physically somewhat frail but his mind is razor sharp. He admits to some short term memory loss, but one would never know it in discussion with him. He is alert, lucid, direct, and completely in charge of his thoughts. Next month he turns 88. With some 40 books to his credit, he is a small one family publishing business.
Born in Gloucester, England, the son of a clerk for the Great Western Railway, Packer won a scholarship to Oxford University. He was educated at Corpus Christi College, obtaining the degrees of Bachelor of Arts in Theology (1948), Master of Arts (1954), and Doctor of Philosophy (1954).
It was as a student at Oxford that he first heard a paper delivered by C. S. Lewis whose books influenced his life. In a meeting of the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union in 1944, Packer committed his life to Christian service.
He spent a brief time teaching Greek at Oak Hill Theological College in London, and in 1949 entered Wycliffe Hall, Oxford to study theology. He was ordained a deacon (1952) and a priest (1953) in the Church of England, within which he was associated with the Evangelical movement. He was Assistant Curate of Harborne Heath in Birmingham 1952–54 and Lecturer at Tyndale Hall, Bristol 1955–61. He was Librarian and then appointed warden (Principal) of Latimer House, Oxford 1961–62 and Principal 1962–69. In 1970 he became Principal of Tyndale Hall, Bristol. From 1971 until 1979 he was Associate Principal of Trinity College, Bristol, which had been formed from the amalgamation of Tyndale Hall with Clifton College and Dalton House-St Michael's.
In 1979, Packer moved to Vancouver, BC, to take up a position at Regent College, eventually being named the first Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology, a title he held until he was named a Regent College Board of Governors' Professor of Theology in 1996. Packer had a huge impact on students during his time at Regent, as evidenced by one of them, author Gary Thomas, dedicating his book Holy Available,and including a lengthy tribute, in honor of Dr. Packer's 80th birthday. He is a prolific writer and frequent lecturer, but he is best known for his book, Knowing God. He was a frequent contributor to and an executive editor of "Christianity Today".
Packer served as General Editor of the English Standard Version, a revision of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, and Theological Editor of the Study Bible version.
Packer is associated with St. John's Vancouver Anglican Church, which in February 2008 voted to leave the Anglican Church of Canada (ACoC) over the issue of same-sex blessings. St. John's joined the Anglican Network in Canada. Packer, on 23 April, handed in his license from the Bishop of New Westminster. In December 2008 Dr. Packer was appointed an honorary Clerical Canon of St Andrew's Cathedral in Sydney in recognition of his long and distinguished ministry as a faithful teacher of Biblical theology.
VOL: How old are you now Jim?
JIP: 87 rising to 88 next month.
VOL: How many books have you written?
JIP: About 40, but truthfully I have never counted.
VOL: What is your favorite book?
JIP: A Quest for Godliness
VOL: Why that book?
JIP: It expresses so much of the Puritan understanding of Christian spirituality which has been an enormous inspiration to me since I first discovered the writings of John Owen in 1946.
VOL: Which of your books has sold the most copies?
JIP: Knowing God has sold between 3 and 4 million copies. It has been established as a book of nurture in the English speaking world and translated into 25 languages. The most interesting is Urdu.
VOL: I gather you listen to a lot of Jazz music. Who is your favorite Jazz artist?
JIP: There are many I like, but Jazz music between 1923 up to 1940 is my favorite era when it ceased to be fashionable and Big Band Jazz took its place. There was a New Orleans revival in the late 40s of Jazz and I enjoy that.
VOL: On the issue of eternal judgment. You and the Rev. John Stott disagreed. You, I believe, hold to the view of eternal punishment, Stott believed in the ultimate annihilation of the damned. Do you still maintain your position, or have you changed your mind at all?
JIP: No. I have not changed my mind, I maintain that position. The Bible clearly teaches the eternally distressed positon expressed in terms of fire. That figure of speech recognizes an eternally painful state. I believe in the classic doctrine of hell taught since the 2nd century. I agree with Tertullian.
VOL: Do you believe that there is a second shot at salvation after death for those who have not heard?
JIP: Affirming Christ as ones Savior and Lord is confined to this life. After this life, people will know he is Lord without having the desire or without the possibility of confessing him that becomes salvific.
VOL: There is a third view being promulgated by some evangelicals, including Waldron Scott, a former General Secretary of the World Evangelical Fellowship, who now holds the view that the purpose of judgment is not condemnation, but what he calls restorative justice. That is, God will ultimately redeem the whole universe, that there is nothing in it for Him to destroy millions of souls who have neither heard nor rejected the gospel. Every knee will bow etc. Is this view reconcilable with classic Christian teaching?
JIP: I think, however precisely, the proponents of this view that this is an eccentric view. I find nothing in scripture to suggest that God’s dealings with those who die in unbelief and the guilt of sin will find any form of restoration after death.
VOL: Can you elaborate on this please?
JIP: I believe that everybody receives light from God that points us to God. The light that comes from God is a universal fact about the human race. I believe that people who have died without faith, whether they have heard the gospel or not have received the light from God which declares our obligation to worship and serve God and with it the guilt of not doing so. Everybody who dies in unbelief does so with a bad conscience deep down and the judicial process after death will bring that realization of guilt to consciousness and it will be part of the reality all those who are condemned will live in existence for all eternity.
VOL: Can God, who is all love, and Hell live side by side for all eternity?
JIP: I believe God’s hostility to sin remains an eternal fact, and I think the promise of unending life also remains an eternal fact. I don’t like this doctrine; it makes me shudder but it seems to me that scripture teaches it and that Scripture teaches to those who have faith in God’s nature and name and their experience of God for all eternity is an experience of love which will focus the mind and the heart so one will not grieve over those who are not saved. Those who are not sharing fullness of eternal life with Christ in God will not think of love for the lost nor will they brood on the condition of those who are not in the life with them.
VOL: In 1978 you signed the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, which affirmed a conservative position on Biblical Inerrancy. Anglicans by and large are not inerrantists, rather they believe in the authority of Scripture, inerrancy has been more associated with extreme evangelicalism or even fundamentalism. Your comment?
JIP: I believe that all who recognize the authority of scripture should embrace the doctrine of the total truthfulness and trustworthiness of the Bible; that is what inerrancy means. We cannot explain the idea in isolated terms or words. The lines of thought in Scripture are totally true and trustworthy and thus inerrant.
VOL: How painful was it to be forced out of the Anglican Church of Canada?
JIP: Not very painful, personally, but it was distressing because the congregation was being forced out also and that brought considerable hardship to a number of people.
VOL: Do you regret that decision you made or do you still stand by it?
JIP: I stand by it. There was nothing else I could do. When you are confronted with a diocese of a church that insists that for some people that a particular form of sin (homosexuality) is a viable form of holiness, then extreme dissociation is the only option that one can embrace in good conscience. It was not so much a case of being forced but a case of conscientiously required withdrawal.
VOL: You were the first theologian to call on Archbishop Rowan Williams to resign as archbishop. What were the issues you felt necessitated that call for him to resign?
JIP: It was over the same issue of homosexuality. The impossibility of being a minority within a church unit that committed itself to the holiness or some of a particular major sin. When it was decided in the Anglican church of Canada by New Westminster Bishop Michael Ingham, made in the St. Michael report, that homosexuality is not one of the major sins. Homosexuality cannot be treated as a major doctrinal matter because it is not mentioned in the creeds to which I replied that the doctrine of creation mentioned in the creeds is distorted in a fundamental way by the sanctioning of homosexual practice and the explanation of that is that the doctrine of creation reveals that God made male and female. Homosexual relations rule out the purpose of procreation and thus cut across the divine intention in crating the two genders.
VOL: Looking back on 60 years of ministry, what are the very high points of your life’s work?
JIP: The highest point of all is the way that God gave me the literary gifts by enabling me to produce books that have sold widely and edified many Christian people. The second high spot is that over the p60 years that I have taught theology, I have been provided to help form the minds of a number of pastors whose evangelistic and nurturing ministry has been much blessed in the wider church.
VOL: What would you have done differently if you had your life over?
JIP: In retrospect I cannot name a single thing I that I would have done differently and I thank God that at this stage of life I don’t have to live with any regrets.
VOL: What is your greatest regret?
JIP: In terms of ministry, no regrets at all.
VOL: What would you like to hear our Lord say to you when you meet Him?
JIP: I hope he will judge me faithful and tell me so.
VOL: Thank you Dr. Packer.