Alister McGrath writes: With the death of J. I. (‘Jim’) Packer, Anglican evangelicalism has lost one of its most significant theological voices, as well as a guiding figure of the National Evangelical Anglican Congress at the University of Keele in 1967, which many consider to have inaugurated a new phase in the history of evangelicalism within the Church of England. Although Keele never entirely resolved the question of how it was possible to be ‘Anglican’ and ‘evangelical’, it offered evangelicals a new vision of their role within the wider Church of England. When set alongside the death of John Stott in 2011 and Michael Green in 2019, Packer’s passing can be seen as marking the end of an important era in the history of evangelical Anglicanism.
As a student at Oxford University in the 1970s, I heard Jim speak many times at Christian Union events, and came to appreciate his terse verbal economy and his clear sense of theological depth. Like many, I read his Knowing God (1973), appreciating its spiritual depth, and realizing how this resulted from his own personal wrestling with problems of temptation, doubt, and uncertainty. Yet although I knew Jim’s writings, I did not yet know Jim as a person.
All that changed on a cold and misty morning on 22 February 1991, when Jim and I were passengers on the bus service that links Oxford and Cambridge. We recognized each other, and managed to find seats beside each other for the three-hour coach journey. As the coach meandered through the small towns linking the two university cities, Jim talked to me about his journey of faith – how he discovered Christianity at Oxford, how he came to love theology, why he was so fond of the Puritans, and how he became involved in theological education. I was, at that point, a tutor at Wycliffe Hall, and could easily relate to his concerns about how theology was taught. By the time we arrived in Cambridge, I had a much better grasp of why Jim was so significant – above all, how someone like me who believed in the importance of a good grasp of theology could learn from his life and ministry.
So who was this Jim Packer, who penned Knowing God, now widely regarded as an evangelical classic? As is well known, Jim spent most of his career teaching at Regent College Vancouver, a trans-denominational school of graduate theological studies which he joined in 1979, remaining there until his retirement in 1996. Yet although Jim soared to fame in North America, his views on theology and ministry were shaped in England.
Jim was born in 1926 in the cathedral city of Gloucester, the son of a Great Western Railway administrator. Jim won a scholarship enabling him to study classics at Corpus Christi College, Oxford University in 1944. Jim found Christianity uninteresting and puzzling while a teenager, and tended not to see it a serious intellectual option. However, one of his schoolfriends had discovered Christianity while a student at Bristol University, and urged Jim to give it a chance. As a result, Jim attended an evangelistic service at St Aldates Church during his first term at Oxford. The sermon spoke to him deeply, and led him to commit himself to Christ. As a student, he developed a love for Puritan writers, finding their spirituality to be both realistic and effective.
This discovery took place in 1945, when Jim was asked to curate a collection of books that had been given to the library of the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union. As Jim worked through the piles of books, he came across a complete set of the writings of the Puritan preacher and theologian John Owen. Jim found himself pondering the titles of two of Owen’s treatises, which seemed to address and illuminate his own spiritual anxieties: ‘On Indwelling Sin’ and ‘On the Mortification of Sin’. As he read these works, he realized that they seemed to speak to his condition. As he later recalled, ‘Owen helped me to be realistic (that is, neither myopic nor despairing) about my continuing sinfulness and the discipline of self-suspicion and mortification to which, with all Christians, I am called.’
It is tempting to see in that moment of illumination the basic themes which would preoccupy Jim’s teaching and writing over the next half-century. Jim came to love the Puritan writers, seeing in them a wisdom which could nourish and sustain the modern church. This led him to establish, with Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones, the Puritan Studies Conference, based at Westminster Chapel, London. This annual meeting expanded, and over time became of strategic importance for many evangelicals within the Church of England and the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches.
After completing his first degree at Oxford, Jim trained for ministry in the Church of England at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, where he gained First Class Honours in Theology. He also managed to secure funding for doctoral research on the Puritan theologian Richard Baxter. He served his title as curate of St John’s, Harborne, in the Diocese of Birmingham. He married Kit Mullett, a nurse, on 17 July 1954.
Packer then entered the world of theological education. He had spent a year teaching at Oak Hill College in Enfield, north London, before going to train at Wycliffe Hall, and had discovered that he seemed to have some natural aptitude for teaching. His first formal teaching appointment was as a tutor at Tyndale Hall, Bristol. While his students at Tyndale appreciated his teaching, it soon became clear that Packer also had a rare capacity to write well. Packer’s concise and perspicuous prose, evident in his early publications such as ‘Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God (1958), secured him a growing international readership.
Meanwhile, evangelicals within the Church of England were wrestling with the question of how they could work with integrity within the national church. Along with John Stott, Jim played a leading role in convening the National Evangelical Anglican Congress at the University of Keele in 1967. At that time, Jim was warden of Latimer House, an evangelical Anglican think-tank in Oxford, which became the intellectual nerve centre of evangelical thinking about their identity and place within the Church of England. The Keele congress is now seen as a landmark in the history of evangelicalism within the Church of England, leading to many evangelicals moving away from their more traditional isolationist role, and becoming more active within and committed to the structures and ethos of the Church of England. This realignment was not without its difficulties, and led to a painful alienation between Packer and Lloyd-Jones.
Jim later returned to Bristol as Principal of Tyndale Hall, and played a significant role in the merger of three Bristol institutions of theological education (Clifton College, Dalton House, and Tyndale Hall) to create Trinity College, Bristol. It was during his Bristol period that Jim wrote his signature work Knowing God (1973). This originally took the form of a series of magazine articles, which attracted little attention. In reworking this material into the form of a book, Jim recrafted the text to maximize its coherence, and create a more rigorous correlation of theology and spirituality than had been possible in the original articles in the Evangelical Magazine. There is an emerging consensus that Packer’s chief legacy lies in this book, and the style of spirituality that it commends and embodies.
Knowing God caused a surge in Jim’s fame in North America, and led to multiple speaking invitations at seminaries, churches and conventions. It also led to speculation about Jim’s future, which many now realized lay in theological education in North America. Some expected him to relocate to Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena; others thought his future lay at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School near Chicago. Jim’s decision to accept a chair of theology at Regent College Vancouver in 1979 surprised many. Regent was virtually unknown, had only been in existence for a short time, and its future seemed uncertain. Packer, however, believed it was the right place for him, partly because of the new college’s focus on providing theological education for the laity, with a strong emphasis on the importance of spirituality. One of the main reasons for Jim’s choice was his respect for the Oxford geographer James Houston, who had founded the college. Jim had got to know Houston while attending the local Plymouth Brethren Church in east Oxford during his first two years as an Oxford undergraduate.
Jim’s time at Regent College was the high point of his career. Although he had responsibility for the main theological lectures at the college, he was allowed time to travel and speak at American colleges and conferences. The quality of his teaching ensured that Regent College became familiar across North America, and helped it achieve significant student numbers during the 1980s and early 1990s. Jim’s inaugural lecture as inaugural lecture as the first Sangwoo Yountong Chee Professor of Theology at Regent College on 11 December 1989 is well worth consulting to capture the nature of Jim’s approach, and its appeal to students trying to gain spiritual stability. Jim defined spirituality as ‘enquiry into the whole Christian enterprise of pursuing, achieving, and cultivating communion with God, which includes both public worship and private devotion, and the results of these in actual Christian life. And having given this definition of spirituality, Jim showed how it could be achieved and enacted.
Throughout his time at Regent, Jim emphasized the importance of Puritans such as John Owen for the modern church, expressing his view that we should ‘open the windows of our souls to let in a breath of fresh air from the seventeenth century.’ Jim expanded this basic idea in one of his most influential works, A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (1990), which was widely read throughout North America – yet which originated in lectures given in London more than a decade earlier.
Yet Jim’s emphasis on the Puritans was part of a wider agenda. Like C. S. Lewis, who was a significant influence, Jim stressed the importance of ‘keeping regular company with yesterday’s great teachers,’ who can help us discern wisdom that might otherwise be denied to us, and challenge us about our own skewed or biased readings of the Bible. Packer developed a theoretical framework that allows us to see writers like Luther, Calvin, and Jonathan Edwards as helpful in informing and nourishing our faith, without displacing or undermining the central place of the Bible for evangelical theology and spirituality.
During the 1990s, Jim became involved in the ‘Evangelicals and Catholics Together’ movement, which arose in response to concerns that the election of Bill Clinton as President of the United States might increase the public marginalization of Christianity. This fear was perhaps overstated, but it caused Christians throughout the region to consider working together for the sake of Christianity as a whole, rather than their own specific denominations. ‘Evangelicals and Catholics Together’ campaigned for closer collaboration between Catholics and Evangelicals, without demanding resolution of their outstanding theological differences. This led to controversy, with some considering that Jim had compromised his evangelical commitments, and should no longer be seen as an evangelical writer. Yet it also led to Jim forging some important new friendships, especially with Cardinal Avery Dulles.
Jim remained an Anglican throughout his Vancouver period, finding a spiritual home in the large congregation of St. John’s Shaughnessy, under the leadership of its rector, Harry S. D. Robinson, who invited Jim to play a role in the church’s leadership were he to move to Vancouver. It was an important offer, as Jim was concerned that his ministry would be impoverished if he was unable to find a ministerial role in a local Anglican congregation in Vancouver, as he had earlier in Oxford and Bristol. When Robinson offered him such a role, Jim felt that this clinched his growing feeling that it was right to move to Vancouver. Jim remained a member of this congregation for the rest of his life.
Over time, however, the Anglican Diocese of New Westminster took decisions which seemed to Jim and many others to represent not merely departures from Anglican norms, but deviations from the gospel. Eventually, this led to the 700-strong congregation leaving their original building and entering into a shared use arrangement with nearby Oakridge Adventist Church – which did not worship on Sundays. Oakridge were more than happy to share their premises with this exiled community, now renamed ‘St John’s Vancouver.’
Although Jim retired from Regent College in the summer of 1996, the college had no intention of losing his wisdom. Jim continued to teach for Regent for the next twenty years in his new capacity as Board of Governors Professor of Theology, playing a particularly important role in its well-attended Summer Schools. Regent College honoured Packer in 2006 by establishing the ‘J. I. Packer Chair in Theology’, with the aim of continuing his legacy.
In his retirement, Jim also served as general editor of the English Standard Version, a new translation of the Bible published in 2001, and developed a new interest in catechesis. In 2010, he quipped that ‘Packer’s last crusade’ would be a call for the church to rediscover its lost art of catechesis. Effective catechesis would give rise to ‘Christians who know their faith, can explain it to enquirers and sustain it against skeptics, and can put it to work in evangelism.’ Underlying this move was a real concern that a new generation of Christians lacked a real knowledge of the core themes of faith, and were thus unable to benefit from them intellectually, and unable to defend them against their increasingly vociferous atheist critics. The rise of the ‘New Atheism’, which dates from this period, made this task increasingly urgent.
Jim’s health began to deteriorate in 2016, when macular degeneration made him unable to read, write or travel. He died peacefully in UBC Hospital, Vancouver, across the street from Regent College, on 17 July 2020, aged 93. Kit was with him at his death, which took place on the precise day of their 66th wedding anniversary. His funeral was held at St John’s Vancouver a week later.
How shall we remember Jim? I suspect there will be many answers to this question. I remember him as a critical friend, who helped me appreciate the theological importance of the past, and the need to connect theology with the realities of Christian living. Yet Jim had so many admirers that I suspect this list of virtues could be extended indefinitely. Perhaps the important thing is to be thankful to God for all that Jim gave, and reflect on how best it might be used. As I look back on the giants of the recent evangelical Anglican past – such as John Stott, Michael Green, and Jim Packer – I find myself wondering who has arisen who might take their place. Perhaps we might take some comfort from some words attributed to John Wesley, who remarked that, while God’s workers will pass, God’s work still goes on.
(This obituary is also published at Fulcrum, and it reproduced here with permission.)
Alister McGrath is Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford University, with a longstanding interest in Jim’s theological achievements. He will publish a tribute to him in October entitled ‘J. I. Packer: His Life and Thought’ (Hodder & Stoughton).
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