The Theology of the Christian Life in J. I. Packer’s Thought: A Review

Don J. Payne, The Theology of the Christian Life in J. I. Packer’s Thought: Theological Anthropology, Theological Method, and the Doctrine of Sanctification (Milton Keynes: Paternoster, 2007). 321 pages. ISBN: 9781842273975. Review copy courtesy of Paternoster/Authentic Books.

I am one among millions who in their early Christian pilgrimage read and benefited from reading J. I. Packer’s Knowing God. It was here that I first discovered the rich truth of what the Bible means when it talks about God as our ‘Father’. Some years later, I read and profited from his books Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God, Concise Theology, and his Keep in Step with the Spirit, among others. But it was his A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life which had the most lasting impact on me, feeding my love for the Puritans and my conviction that Protestantism desperately needs to recover the model of spirituality that they encouraged. Throughout all his writing, Packer is concerned that ‘theology’ and ‘godliness’ walk together and, as Thomas Noble writes in the forward, that ‘Truly Christian theology can never be an abstract intellectual pursuit. It is never enough to know about God. True Christian theology is Knowing God’ (p. xiii–xiv).

There is little debate that British-born Anglican theologian, James Innell Packer (b. 1926) is one of the most influential evangelical theologians of the late 20th century, defining in not a few ways the shape that some branches of evangelicalism has taken. Therefore, it is about time that his theology was given the serious and critical evaluation that it deserves. In his revised PhD thesis, Don J. Payne seeks to do precisely that.

Payne begins by confessing that a comprehensive analysis of Packer’s thought is beyond the scope of one book. This study, he maintains, examines aspects of Packer’s thought that have made what he considers a ‘significant contribution to evangelical piety’ (p. 1). Payne believes that such an examination involves a description and analysis of Packer’s theology of sanctification, and therefore Payne proceeds to examine the logic and ethos of Packer’s theology of sanctification by examining the theological anthropology and theological method that support it. This relationship between sanctification, anthropology, and methodology is then viewed against the backdrop of twentieth-century evangelicalism, primarily in the UK and the USA in order to gain understanding into Packer’s influence. He notes:

Though he is British in origin and education, Packer’s greatest influence has been in the context of North American evangelicalism. His particular brand of Reformed theology has found common ground with theological values that have been significant in shaping the ethos of twentieth-century evangelicalism in the United States. Likewise, his writings, both theological and popular, have had and continue to exhibit intense concern with Christian piety, especially as it is sustained by the doctrine of sanctification. (p. 2)

Payne proceeds to argue that Packer’s understanding of sanctification is sustained by a predominantly individualistic and rationalistic theological anthropology and methodology. He notes that significant qualifying factors are found in his anthropology and piety, reflecting an attempt on Packer’s part to ameliorate the risks of individualistic and rationalistic extremes. Thus, the inherent rationalism and individualism tend to be obscured from view. However, he suggests, the influence of these tendencies can be seen in the practical expectations and disciplines Packer enjoins for Christians.

The opening chapter establishes a general backdrop, parameters, and rationale for the theological analysis Payne wishes to follow. Chapter two offers definitions and genealogies of the British evangelicalism from which Packer emerged and the American evangelicalism in which he has exercised most influence, pointing up salient factors that help account for that influence. Chapter three traces Packer’s personal theological development in order to relate his views to the context of his overall life and theology. Chapters four to eight consider piety, theological anthropology (with specific attention to the imago Dei and the Incarnation), and theological method respectively. ‘This organisational schema’, he suggests, ‘intentionally moves from the phenomena of piety to the theology and then to methodology so as to best illuminate causal and systemic relationships’. In the final chapter, Payne summarises the trialogue between Packer’s piety, anthropology and method in order to identify patterns and implications of his theology, before suggesting some directions for further research.

Payne rightly identifies that the Christian life, for Packer, can adequately (though not exclusively) be denoted by the word ‘piety’, a term that Packer uses interchangeably with ‘spirituality’, ‘holiness’, and ‘godliness’, and apart from the reality of which ‘there is no true communion with God’ (p. 11). Payne proceeds to highlight Packer’s tendency to see the objective aspects of salvation in legal categories and to subordinate the subjective aspects to a distinct, separate and dependent relationship. He writes:

Though [Packer] seeks to anchor piety within a Trinitarian framework, insisting on the unique and essential role of each Person in the Godhead for the realisation of evangelical spirituality, the objective and subjective dimensions of piety find their integration elsewhere, that is, within a covenantal framework that is sustained by the doctrine of predestination. Covenantal predestination constitutes the framework for understanding the unique role of each Person of the Trinity in securing salvation and effecting holiness for the elect. (p. 79)

Payne identifies in Packer’s thinking that piety or holiness necessarily depend upon and involve an increasing precision in the quality of one’s ethical perception and obedience. This level of precision in holiness, he suggests, depends also upon precise transmission of God’s law to the human conscience. Scripture fulfils this role, he argues, as it communicates God’s revelation through precise, inerrant propositions. Since holiness involves the restoration of the imago Dei in conformity to the character of Jesus Christ, the rational faculties necessary for comprehending and responding to the message of Scripture are therefore critical if the image is to be restored. Packer states, ‘God is rational and unchanging, and all men in every generation, being made in God’s image, are capable of being addressed by him.’ Holiness, for Packer, therefore, depends upon the notion of an inerrant Scripture communicating the Law of God with precision to human rational faculties. ‘Precise knowledge of God’s will and obedience to God’s will’, Payne notes, ‘is possible, and only possible, through this precise, rational formula’ (p. 92). Payne concludes:

J.I. Packer’s theology of the Christian life follows a distinct anthropological and soteriological trajectory. The Christian life is a life of godliness or holiness as defined by God’s law. This genuine, biblical piety is a life of heartfelt obedience to God’s law which in turn depends upon inerrant, propositional communication of God’s will through Scripture and also on the human faculty of reason to comprehend that self-revelation. Holiness, true piety, is humanity restored to God’s original intentions as expressed in the imago Dei. However, this restoration is obstructed by the pervasive and tragic effects of original and indwelling sin, even in the life of the Christian. God provides and effects forgiveness and restored legal standing for the elect through Jesus Christ’s penal, substitutionary atonement for sin in his death on the cross. This formal justification before God then leads to sanctification, the existential transformation of the believer’s character into the image of Jesus Christ, who in his own obedience provided the model of godliness for which God intended humanity. Sanctification is enabled by God but demands ongoing, strenuous struggle in faith that God is working in and through the Christian’s efforts to bring about deep, genuine, and lasting transformation (pp. 128–9).

While some readers may desire a more critical engagement with Packer’s thought than this volume provides, those with a general interest in twentieth century conservative evangelicalism and its theological methodology would be well served by reading Payne’s work. Although it has one of the most unbecoming and out-of-focus photographs I’ve seen on the front cover of any book, this sympathetic study concludes with a most becoming and in-focus 18 page bibliography (!) of Packer’s work, a rich testimony in itself of the gift that Packer has been to the Church. This book is, therefore, both a helpful compendium to Alister E. McGrath’s book, J.I. Packer: A Biography, and an invitation for a more critical (in both senses of the word) reading of Packer’s enormous contribution.

2 thoughts on “The Theology of the Christian Life in J. I. Packer’s Thought: A Review

  1. Thanks for your generous and thoughtful review, Jason. I think you have represented the heart of my argument quite fairly. Your concluding call for a more critical engagement is not isolated, which is instructive to me since I attempted to uncover some rather tacit but no less influential inconsistencies and flaws in the structure of Packer’s theology of the Christian life. Evidently, the case can be pressed further.

    My theological sympathies with Packer (in some areas) would suggest that I do not consider these inconsistencies deadly; yet, they are worth scrutiny and correction. For example, the intense rationalism at the heart of his anthropology, method, and piety logically undermine the role of community in personal transformation; this by over individualizing the role of the Holy Spirit in both the illumination of Scripture and in personal growth. Then, too, we must examine the logic of Packer’s linking sanctification to the doctrine of inerrancy in a causally dependent relationship. These features of his theology certainly bear further exploration and I would welcome conversation from yourself and other Packer readers.

    Thanks again for the compliment of reading my book and God’s peace to you.

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  2. Oh, and I might add that a U.S. version has been published by Wipf & Stock with a different cover, sans the photo of Packer.

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