While the mainstream media often portray North American evangelicals as easily-led sheep blindly following the most notorious of television preachers, those in the know will recognize that a handful of British authors have been far more influential, including C.S. Lewis, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, John R. W. Stott and James Innell Packer, all of whom have now passed on to their reward. Packer died in July just short of his 94th birthday, and his legacy, especially his focus on Scripture, is worth looking back on.
Packer is best known for a single book he authored in 1973, Knowing God, which has sold millions of copies over the decades. In it he guides the reader in not only knowing about God but knowing God personally, especially in an age of scepticism. Packer’s other writings include his 1958 book, Fundamentalism and the Word of God, drawing on an older meaning of fundamentalist as one who affirms the fundamentals of the faith against the sceptics.
Life in Vancouver
A life-long Anglican, he embodied a form of churchmanship that eschewed the ceremonialism of the Anglo-Catholics while avoiding the sectarianism of the so-called dissenting churches. Here he took issue with Lloyd-Jones, long-time pastor of the Westminster Chapel, an independent congregation in London. While Lloyd-Jones had called on evangelicals to withdraw from denominations that had strayed from the message of the gospel, Packer remained in the Church of England as part of its low-church evangelical wing. Nevertheless, Packer deeply admired such Puritans as the 17th-century British theologian John Owen, an unusual predilection among contemporary Anglicans.
In 1979 Packer moved to Canada to take up a position at Regent College in Vancouver, where he remained for virtually the rest of his life. In so doing, he transferred his ministerial credentials from the Church of England to the Anglican Church in Canada, eventually departing from that denomination to affiliate with the new Anglican Church in North America in 2009. Concerned that the ACC was “falsifying the gospel of Christ, and abandoning the authority of Scripture,” Packer’s departure might have signified a move into the very sectarianism that Lloyd-Jones had urged on him and other clergy decades earlier. But that was not the case. Despite his protestant convictions, he was a participant in the ecumenical project Evangelicals and Catholics Together, begun in 1994 by Charles Colson and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. For this he was criticized in some quarters.
Love for Scripture
What we should most remember Packer for was his love of the Bible, which he confessed to be the Word of God. In fact, it was a youthful reading of his grandmother’s old King James Bible that moved him to a mature confession of faith and eventually to the priesthood. He was one of the signers of the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy in 1978, although he was open to the possibility of the evolutionary origins of humanity.
Given this love for Scripture, it is not surprising that possibly his most significant gift to the Christian community will be judged to have been the English Standard Version, an exceedingly light revision of the classic mid-20th-century Revised Standard Version. When it was first published in 2001, I did not think it stood a chance of supplanting the New International Version, the dominant modern English-language Bible among evangelicals, especially in North America. I was not entirely correct. The ESV has been adopted for liturgical use by several denominations, most notably the two-million-member Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, counterpart of the much smaller Winnipeg-based Lutheran Church-Canada. Even the Roman Catholic Church in India uses the ESV in its lectionary.
I think Packer would want to be remembered for his strong affirmation of biblical authority and for the efforts he made towards getting Christians to immerse themselves in God’s Word. May he rest in the arms of the Saviour he loved and served until the resurrection.