J.I.Packer, The Heritage of Anglican Theology – a book review for pastors

As always, Jim Packer stiffens your spine even as he warms your heart and clears your mind.

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When J.I.Packer died, he left an ongoing legacy – not just of lives changed and books published, but of work yet incomplete.  This book is one such work, but it was completed with his touch.  These chapters were originally a course of lectures, given at Regent College, which have been transcribed, polished, and then given approval by Packer himself, and dedicated to his wife, now widow, Kit.

Those lectures were a survey, historical and theological, and that is the form they retain. They were by nature introductory, and if we take them in that spirit, we know what we are getting.

They are also clearly Packer, and where some of his work is notoriously concentrated (‘Packer by name, packer by nature,’ as he observed), this has more of his conversational style retained.  Quaint at times, undoubtedly, but authentic.  And if you’ve ever been taught by him, you will hear those familiar, courteous cadences as you read. 

If you’re an Anglican, you shouldn’t need any persuading to do so.  Here is one of the clearest minds of the last century, turn his loving gaze to the past, and the present, of the Anglican world.  Here is our master-theologian, walking us through the history, the theology, that we inherit.

Now, famously, Packer works with generosity of spirit. When he encounters Anglo-Catholicism, or High Church, or Broad Church, or Liberalism, he is never shrill, and tries where he can to understand what is actually going on in the movements, and appreciate their critiques and contributions.  But he is no soft touch, and while he phrases himself carefully, you are never in any doubt about his evangelical heartland, and its limits.

The reason we need him is that (apart from a few of us), we can too easily leap from the richness of 1662, to the present day, with little awareness of what has happened in between. Packer fills in the blanks for us, and is extremely helpful as he does so, because we can see how, with each turn of the calendar, a new movement arises and claims authenticity – and can still do so, today.  If we are genuinely to engage with our fellow Anglicans, we need both to understand why they think they are genuine Anglicans, and also why the theology Packer espoused, sitting on the Anglican/Puritan cusp, Reformed and experiential, is the most genuinely Anglican of all.

And we shall need him when, as happened to him, a present day version of Anglicanism expels that original theology and its theologians.  The day I woke up was the day Packer handed in his licence, and walked away from the Anglican Church of Canada. He, of course, had been awake for decades.

The day I woke up was the day Packer handed in his licence, and walked away from the Anglican Church of Canada. He, of course, had been awake for decades.

So why should you read this if you’re not an Anglican?  

Well, because it will be good for your soul. Even if you don’t want to get tangled in our disputes, the exploration of the gospel that Packer takes us through is rich, deep and wide.  And because none of our churches exist in a vacuum, to see how our sisters and brothers in the past have engaged with cultural trends, will help us face our own, today.

I hope, too, it might make you appreciate why people like me stay loyal to the Church of England, even with all we have to put up with.  When I lead a congregation through the 1662 Prayer Book service for the Lord’s Supper, I get a spiritual workout that I have not found anywhere else, outside scripture, and that’s mostly because there is so much scripture, and Biblical theology, in it.  The prayers, the confessions, the collects that we say, have consistently shaped our souls in a gospel direction, and give a deep sense of commonality not only with our fellow believers today, but across the centuries.  To have achieved that, with only the occasional tripping up over a Thee or a Thou is a remarkable continuity.  I really do feel like I belong right at the centre of Anglicanism, not as a tolerated fringe, and that is worth fighting for.

It will also make you think for yourself.  If you find Packer’s critique of some eminent Puritans wanting, because they tried to defend the position that every single church practice must have biblical warrant, then you need to come up with arguments that work.  You cannot strengthen your argument in a better way than to take on Packer.

Is this book perfect?  Of course not.  It’s a quick read, although he points us to resources to take us deeper, and so he cuts corners. His editors have understandably indulged him in his prose style. There were a few points where I longed for an explanatory footnote, if not a paragraph. Principally, though, it runs out at the end.  The current fissures in our global movement, the problems with our International meetings, the regathering of the orthodox under the GAFCON banner, find no mention here.  I doubt any attentive reader will wonder what Packer thinks, and we can see that when we step outside this book and observe how Packer himself found a new home in the Anglican Church of North America, which he had helped shape.

Packer’s legacy is enormous, and principally still it’s his early book Knowing God that stands out. That’s obvious. Nor is this anywhere near the peaks of his work on the inerrancy of scripture. But no-one could write at that level of importance. This collection is still a masterclass, worth having, reading, and referring to often.

As always, Jim Packer stiffens your spine even as he warms your heart and clears your mind.

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