Author: J. I. Packer
Publisher: Lexham Press
J. I. Packer was one of the most influential evangelical theologians of the past century. His Fundamentalism and the Word of God (1958), Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (1961) and especially, Knowing God (1973) have all rightly become Christian classics. Pointing to the Pasturelands: Reflections on Evangelicalism, Doctrine & Culture (2021) is an excellent collection of some of Packer’s editorial columns, longer articles and brief answers to reader’s theological questions, written during his time on the editorial board of Christianity Today.
As a writer, Packer exudes a devotional warmth expressed in an economy of words. In Carl Trueman’s estimation, he possesses “an enviable gift for clarity”. His penetrating insights regarding the Christian life come from a man who has himself walked with God and fed upon His Word. Here are a number of examples from Pointing to the Pasturelands that stood out to me personally:
The Providence of God
Finding that God is with me should have banished all bitterness of the kind that I was indulging. Where should I ever want to be, save in the place of God’s appointment.
The Benefit of Listening to Jazz Music
Classic jazz, as this amalgam of dance music, rag music, military music, and folk music is deservedly called, bubbles with joy in living. Though sometimes sad, it is never savage or bitter. It is happy music. Tuneful and rhythmical, free but controlled, sprinkling ‘blue’ notes in melody line over solid major-key harmonies and deploying three-line polyphony that recalls Bach—it energizes you by relaxing you, and its simple climaxes leave you content and refreshed.
The Art and Craft of Writing
What I find that I know about writing boils down to this: There are four rules. First, have something clear to say. Second, keep it simple. Third, make it flow. Fourth, be willing to redraft as often as is necessary to meet these requirements.
The Spiritual Decadence of Modern Evangelicalism
Comparing today’s evangelicals with those of yesterday and of the New Testament (a habit without which we are unlikely to see what we are looking at when we gaze around us), I note a widespread passion for biblical orthodoxy that comes close to that of the best Fathers and Reformers and Puritans, and of Spurgeon and Warfield among my heroes; but with it, alas, goes a widespread lack of moral strength that reminds me of the later Middle Ages and of Anglicanism before Wesley—which is bad news. George Gallup’s comment, that though Americans evangelical numbers grow, evangelical community impact remains minuscule and does not increase, confirms my perception: Decadence—weakening worldliness, spiritual AIDS—has infected us, and is pulling us disastrously down.
Telling the Truth in Christian Marketing
Surely the means to any end has a moral quality of its own. Surely I am not respecting God’s image in my neighbour if I conspire to bamboozle him. Surely advertising a product by making false statement to people who expect me to tell the truth would be a case, even if small-scale, of doing evil that good might come—a way of acting that God condemns. Surely the Devil is the father of white lies as well as of black ones. Surely the old dictum that those who tell white lies soon become colour-blind is true.
The Task of the Theologian
Since I am paid to teach theology, I get typed as a professional theologian. If asked what that is, I describe theologians as the church’s plumbers and sewage men, securing a flow of pure truth and eliminating theological effluent.
The Use of Humour in Preaching
Humour was one of the ways C. H. Spurgeon kept 6,000 listening for 40 minutes twice a Sunday. A lady called him unspiritual for saying so many funny things in the pulpit; he told her she wouldn’t think so if she knew how many funny things he thought of in the pulpit and didn’t say. Humour is a bad master, yet a good servant.
The Different Ways People find Refreshment
Taste in what actually refreshes the spiritual system varies greatly from Christian to Christian, and folk wisdom says that tastes, being purely personal, should not be argued about. Not everyone gets re-created by the same thing.
The fact is that God the Creator likes variety: so dispositional differences are there from birth, and they continue after new birth. Not only do those born again become more like each other in character through getting closers to their common Master, they also become more individual in taste. Maturing in Christ makes you more yourself than you were before. Therefore, just as I will not have anyone despising Wagner’s music (oh, sure, he was a nasty man, but that is not the point here), so I must take care not to sneer at the bungee-jumping or Elvis or electronic music or Coke or anything else I don’t like that gives good people pleasure.
The Impassibility of God
God’s changelessness is not a matter of intrinsic immobility, but of moral consistency. God is always in action. He enters into the lives of his creatures. There is change around him and change in the relations of men to him. But, to use the words of Louis Berkhof, “there is no change in his being, his attributes, his purpose, his motives of action, or his promise.” When one conceives of God’s immutability in this biblical way, as a moral quality that is expressed whenever God changes his way of dealing with people for moral reasons, the biblical reference to such change will cease to mystify.
The Literary Genius of C. S. Lewis
The best teachers are always those in whom imagination and logical control combine, so that you receive wisdom from their flights of fancy as well as a human heartbeat from their logical analyses and arguments. This in fact is human communication at its profoundest, for in the sending-receiving process of both lobes of the brain (left for logic, right for imagination) are fully involved, and that gives great depth and strength to what is heard. The teaching of Jesus presents itself as the supreme example here. Because Lewis’s mind was so highly developed in both directions, it can truly be said of him that all of his arguments (including his literary criticism) are illustrations, in the sense that they throw light directly on realities of life and action, while all his illustrations (including the fiction and fantasies) are arguments, in the sense that they throw light directly on realities of truth and fact.
There is obviously much to benefit and learn from Packer’s writings. Not just about theology but also of the craft of writing. Packer was a man of Christian integrity and impressive intellect. However, there is one issue—included in Pointing to the Pasturelands—that for me, casts something of a pall over his legacy. And that is Packer’s defence of signing the statement, Evangelicals and Catholics Together.
Packer: The Ecumenical Evangelical
Throughout his entire life and ministry, Packer demonstrated a remarkable charitableness in wanting to work with Christians from other denominations. This was evident very early on with Packer’s involvement with the World Council of Churches. Significantly, Pointing to the Pasturelands contains an entire chapter (‘Why I Left’) outlining his reasoning for withdrawing from that particular organisation. But when it comes to partnering with Roman Catholics though, Packer shows no such repentance. Indeed, Packer states:
Do we recognise that good evangelical Protestants and good Roman Catholics—good, I mean, in terms of their own church’s stated ideal of spiritual life—are Christians together? We ought to recognise this, for it true.
This is a remarkably reckless statement, especially coming from someone who has devoted so much of his ministry to theological precision. This is because the “stated spiritual ideal of the spiritual life” for a Roman Catholic and evangelical Protestant are so doctrinally disparate, nowhere more so than upon the issue of salvation (i.e. justification). While Packer does, in passing, acknowledge the competing theological distinctives between the two movements, he all-too quickly reconciles them by pointing to the fruit of the charismatic movement, especially within the Roman Catholic Church.
These are not small issues. The question remains though, can a “good Roman Catholic” and a “good evangelical Protestant” truly be in spiritual fellowship with one another? Especially when the Roman Catholic Church affirms a number of anathemas (pronouncements of damnation) upon anyone who doesn’t agree with its position on how a person is justified, the nature of the Eucharist, or the continuing sacrifice of the Mass.
The impact of the charismatic renewal movement has been spiritually profound. As a former Roman Catholic myself, I would personally testify to its positive impact. What’s more, this has created the strange situation of truly born-again believers who—at least for a time—continue to worship in the Roman Catholic Church. But this is not so much because of the church, but rather, despite it. As Wayne Grudem helpfully explains in his Systematic Theology:
In many cases the charismatic movement has brought teaching on the baptism of the Holy Spirit into more liberal churches where, for many years, there has not been a clear proclamation of the gospel of salvation by faith in Christ alone, and where people have not been taught that they can believe the Bible completely as God’s Word to us…Now when a representative of a charismatic renewal comes to these churches and tells them that they can experience new vitality in their Christian lives, and then tells them that the preparation is to repent of all known sins, ask Christ for forgiveness of those sins and trust him to forgive them, and commit their lives totally to Christ as their Lord, they eagerly respond to those directions. They then pray and ask Jesus to baptize them in the Holy Spirit…While they think that they have been baptised by the Holy Spirit as a second experience in their Christian lives, what has in fact happened is that they have become Christians for the first time. (They have been “baptized in the Holy Spirit” in the true New Testament sense!) …It is no wonder that the charismatic renewal has brought such excitement (and often much controversy) to many Roman Catholic parishes and to many mainline, more liberal Protestant denominations.
Pointing to the Pasturelands is definitely a worthwhile read. And the folk at Christianity Today are to be commended for putting together this particular series. Anyone who has benefited from Packer’s writings will find value in these pages.
– Mark Powell