J.I. Packer: the whole formation of the gospel-worker

It has been several weeks now since Dr. J.I. Packer died. The veteran Anglican theologian and churchman was one of the best-known and influential evangelical thinkers of the 20th century.

It has been several weeks now since Dr. J.I. Packer died. The veteran Anglican theologian and churchman was one of the best-known and influential evangelical thinkers of the 20th century, and will perhaps be most widely-remembered for his beautiful book on the Christian gospel and life, Knowing God. Many tributes to Dr. Packer have been written, detailing his life from birth, childhood and early ministry, through the heated intra-evangelical discussions of the 1960s, his move to Canada in 1979, and the ecumenical endeavours which earned him strong criticism from various quarters.

His commitment to the biblical gospel and fundamental realities of the Christian faith has been well-documented, and his short works on Scripture (Fundamentalism and the Word of God), mission (Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God), and the atonement (What did the cross achieve? The logic of penal substitution) are still used and loved today as primers on topics that must be handled with rigour and precision. His summary of the gospel as ‘adoption through propitiation’ is the most concise and brilliant that I have come across. His zeal for well-rounded theology in church ministry and commitment to one’s church has helped shaped the convictions of many others. Packer spoke of his Reformed forebears as giant redwoods, and as Packer was a man committed to purity of doctrine, worship, and life in the church, I don’t mind saying that he belongs in that forest.

However, it is not my aim to write a more general type of tribute or biography here. Today, I want to highlight a conversation between JI Packer and Mike Ovey about theological education. These two theologians, both now with their Lord and Saviour, sat together in the Oak Hill grounds when Packer stopped by about ten years ago, and the videos of their discussion can be found here. They covered a range of topics, but here are three things that interested me.


1 – Helping Christians learn – the faith is caught and taught

In response to Mike’s question about the difficulties in teaching the faith to our churches, Packer said that one of the main things Protestant Christians have against them is a legacy of thought that downplays the need to learn the doctrines of the faith, a belief that Christianity is ‘an ethos and not a conviction’. In other walks of life, we expect to be taught what it is that we need to know, and why we need to know it, and so it should be in the church. Without in any way undermining the mystery of the incomprehensible God (see Knowing God), Packer was of the view that all Christians need to be taught, taught well, and to be committed to ongoing learning of the grammar and content of the whole counsel of God.

One of his perhaps lesser-known books was a 2010 publication called Grounded in the Gospel, a manifesto for evangelicals to recover the venerable practice of catechesis, a ministry he described as “grounding and growing God’s people in the Gospel and its implications for doctrine, devotion, duty, and delight.” In that book, he (and its co-author) diagnose the problem in much evangelicalism: “personal guesses and fantasies about God replace the church’s dogma as our authority, a hermeneutic of habitual distrust and suspicion of dogma establishes itself, and dogma becomes a dirty word, loaded with overtones of obscurantism, tunnel vision, unreality, superstition, and mental enslavement.”

The treatment? Building up the church on a solid doctrinal foundation through deliberate instruction (in context-specific manner) in the major themes of the faith. Typically, historical catechisms have come in a question-and-answer format, but this needn’t be the only way. What matters is that we strive for the faith, once for all delivered to the saints. It is surely no coincidence that someone so committed to doctrinal thought, and expounding theological substance for the whole of the church, is remembered with such warmth on matters of personal devotion and spirituality. And, it is worth noting in light of recent work on the place of habit and liturgical formation, that the BCP-loving Anglican churchman was hardly promoting a merely cerebral approach to gospel living!


2 – The ‘why’ of theological education

This brings us on to the next topic. If ministers need to teach the whole counsel of God, then they need to know it. That seems obvious, but Packer was quite clear with Mike that the Christian minister, who will be teaching year after year, needs to ‘know their stuff’, and be equipped with resources to draw upon and expand across many decades of ministry. In his view, residential theological training for two or three years is a great place to start this process. He said: ‘whenever given the opportunity to vote for training or an extra year for tomorrow’s ministers – I vote with both hands. I feel very strongly about this.’ He said that he considered this to be particularly important for ministers in our contemporary context. Unlike during his own early ministry, pastors today are treated with scepticism in many places about their value and purpose, and that in order to live with this, the minister needs to be sure who they are, what they stand for, and to be able to express those things with clarity.

This vision was one that Mike shared, with passion. His own view of theological training included the need to prepare ministers to be proclaiming the gospel forty years into the future, facing circumstances we cannot even imagine yet (I’m sure there’s a recent illustration, I’ll look into that). To be able to reach such heights, one must have deep roots in the teaching of the Bible and the church’s reflection upon it, and this kind of sustained preparation finds fertile soil in a robust seminary education.


3 – The ‘what’ of theological education

Mike asks, ‘what should ministers be looking for in a theological college?’ Packer’s answer is simple: Bible, theology, and church history.

The Bible must be held out not as an interesting historical collection of disparate documents, but the word of God, and as such students must learn to hear God speaking here. Theology, secondly, must be taught, not as a disinterested historical description of what some people have believed, but a positive statement expressing the teaching of Scripture, articulated with clarity and defended with a sense that these are vital matters – ‘behave like prophets, rather than critics’, he says. Finally, church history is the ‘story of the war of the Word in the world.’ The world is at the ‘receiving end’ of God’s word, and so we must learn how to speak it well in each new generation. Church history teaches us what that looks like, what it shouldn’t look like, and how to be innovative in our own day as we learn from bold ‘pioneers’ in the past. In that sense, to move forward we need to learn to reach back.

Packer wasn’t downplaying the many important and contextual matters that arise in the different ministries into which God calls pastors and gospel-workers. He was saying that in order to face the challenges of Christian mission in different cultural moments, whatever they might be, the minister needs to have their mind and heart well-formed by these primary matters.

In addition to this, Packer says that the true pastoral theologian (which all ministers are ultimately called to be) will be someone with the Bible in their heart, as well as their head. They will be able to expound the objective teaching about Christ as he is found in Scripture, and really is ascended and reigning on high, but they must also be able to point at their own life and experience and say ‘I know this to be true for me.’ And he was right. Sure, it isn’t the theological college’s job to disciple people in the stead of the local church. And yet, the college needs to be committed to the whole formation of the prospective gospel-worker, aiming at character and devotion as well as competency. Theology should lead to doxology, which in turn fuels a cross-shaped life of service and mission.

Ten years ago, J.I. Packer said that he rejoiced that Oak Hill was an institution which prepared people for down-to-earth ministry in the real world, and did so through close attention to these principles which he considered to be foundational. Much has changed in the last decade, with dear friends departing and a rapid cultural shift that leaves everyone unsettled. However, I’d like to think that had Dr. Packer been able to visit again today, he would still find the same reason for joy.

For an obituary for J.I. Packer from the Gospel Coalition click here

For an obituary for J.I. Packer from Christianity Today click here