May/June 2008 Issue
Standing On Solid Ground
By Karen Stiller
Faith Today Interviews J.I. Packer
J.I. Packer has been described as one of the most important evangelical theologians of the late 20th century. In 2005 Time magazine dubbed him the “doctrinal Solomon” of Christian thinkers and named him one of the 25 most influential Evangelicals in North America.
Dr. Packer is the Board of Governors Professor of Theology at Regent College in Vancouver, a school he has served for 28 years. Considered a Christian classic, Packer’s Knowing God (one of his more than 40 books), was released in 1973 and has sold over a million copies.
Today, J.I. Packer, 81, is embroiled in the same-sex blessing controversy rocking The Anglican Church of Canada (ACC). Packer is honorary assistant in the largest congregation in the ACC, a church that voted to leave the ACC and realign with a more orthodox branch of the Anglican Communion based in South America.
In response, New Westminster Bishop Michael Ingham sent Packer and other clergy a “notice of presumption of abandonment of the exercise of ministry.” Packer (JP) talked to Faith Today’s Karen Stiller (KS) a little about his life so far and what is to come.
KS: Was your original decision to leave England and move to Regent College, Vancouver, a tough one?
JP: Not really. I weighed the pros and cons and took advice. The reason it wasn’t hard was that, having visited Vancouver, my wife and I liked it very much. Second, knowing the story of Regent from the beginning helped. James Houston and I have been friends since 1945. I knew I was on the same wavelength as Regent. Thirdly, the job I was being asked to do was comparable to identical with what I was doing already, teaching Christian theology. And I knew that at Regent I should not have to do administration as a regular stated responsibility. Though I can handle it, I had a load of it that was heavier than I wished it were. Then, finally, I had become a sort of speckled bird in the English evangelical scene. The prospect of leaving intrachurch squabbles behind me was a very alluring prospect. This is, of course, ironical as I am now deeper in that kind of mud than I ever have been before.
KS: I was going to ask you about that after we had warmed up a bit, but let’s jump right in.
JP: I’ve been sent a copy of Canon 19, stating the process that is followed for people who have abandoned The Anglican Church of Canada. That means they have either stopped ministering or they have moved out of Anglicanism to another denomination. Neither of those categories fits me.
KS: You’re not really thought of as a rabble-rouser. Is this a sad time for you?
JP: I feel it’s simply grotesque because Canon 19 doesn’t apply to my situation and for the bishop to act as if it did … I said grotesque. I think I’ll say it again. I could have said ridiculous. I could have said fantastic. I could have used other adjectives but I’ll stick with grotesque. I do not think a bishop who has not convicted me of grave moral or heretical practices is in a position to revoke my spiritual authority in Word and Sacrament. The most he can do is withdraw my permission to minister in The Anglican Church of Canada. Since the thing that has occasioned this is the decision St. John’s and other churches have taken to leave The Anglican Church of Canada, revoking my authority to minister in the ACC changes absolutely nothing.
So I’m not losing sleep over it. Though over age, I am still a professor at Regent College and director of the Anglican studies program at Regent. No action on Michael Ingham’s part can change either of those things.
KS: When one is entrenched in this kind of struggle, it can be hard to love your enemies. How do you take care of yourself spiritually through this kind of tension?
JP: I can only speak for myself. I don’t have strong feelings of any sort. It’s so completely irrelevant to the ongoing of the ministry God has given me. I feel no responsibility to do something for a diocese that has made the affirmation of gay partnerships a form of holiness. It doesn’t make me angry. It’s a matter of principle. I cannot budge.
KS: You have spoken before in regard to this issue, about points of doctrine that are essential and upon which there is no compromise, and others where people can disagree. Which are central?
JP: What is central is the gospel and the authority of Scripture, which teaches the gospel, and a number of specific beliefs that together make up the gospel message according to the Apostles. One central belief is repentance of sins. In 1 Corinthians 6 we are given a vice list of sins. The gay life is one of the things on the list. The spirit of the thing is to live chaste. You are living a new life now in the power of God. All I’m asking for is to get back to that.
KS: What about other things that Paul says are wrong, like envy, greed and gossip?
JP: I would simply say that, to the extent to which you give your heart to envy and greed, to that extent you are putting your soul in danger. What I can do is stand with my feet on secure ground and call to those wandering around with unsure footing. And I will call to them and say: “Don’t risk your spiritual welfare. Don’t risk your soul. Come and stand on the solid ground.”
KS: So repentance is always key.
JP: Repentance is the halt, right-about turn, and you travel in the opposite direction of whatever sin it was that you were allowing to rule you before.
KS: You’ve been called one of the most important evangel-ical theologians of the 20th century. How do you process those types of accolades?
JP: When I discovered that was what they were saying about me, I thanked God for keeping me faithful and asked Him to continue to do so. I’m not a publicity person. I don’t seek it and I don’t think much about it. People can say whatever they think. One of the spinoffs I suppose, of people saying these things about me in the past, is there has been terrific interest worldwide that I’m under notice for abandoning the doctrine of The Anglican Church of Canada. I’ve had expressions of sympathy from around the world, the farthest being South Africa and every station in between. It encourages me. I am thankful for it.
KS: Probably the book that a lot of people know you for the best is Knowing God. Do you know God better now than when you first wrote that book?
JP: I think so. Although it’s a qualitative knowledge rather than quantitative. That is to say, it isn’t so much that I have new discernment I didn’t have before. It was written in the middle ’60s – a long time ago now. Living with the truth as I think I know it, I believe I have a measure of depth and peace in relation to it that I’m not sure I had before. And, well, let me say it this way: it’s for the Good Lord and not for me to say whether I know Him more than I used to. Getting older affects one’s thinking inevitably. I shan’t be around for very much longer. I’m in my ninth decade. The question “Am I ready to move on?” becomes a more existential, “thrustful” question than it used to be.
KS: When you ask yourself that question, what is your answer?
JP: I think so. And I hope so. But here I would much rather talk about the faithfulness of the Lord Jesus, my Saviour, my Lord. And the faithfulness of the Father and the faithfulness of the Holy Spirit.
KS: Presumably you have practised spiritual disciplines through the years. If you were to offer guidance to a young Christian on how to practise them, what would you say?
JP: I think I would say that it’s a number of things together rather than one particular thing. It’s God who calls the shots, not me. There are some Christians who would say “The big thing for me was prayer, Bible study.” And my response would be “Well, that’s where God led you and God bless you today and tomorrow.” It’s not that any one particular thing stands out as having particular significance in my life.
When I speak in public, I always have the sense that the Lord Jesus in particular does and must fill my horizon. He must increase; I perhaps must decrease. That sense of things is pretty constant with me. If there is a particular focus, I think that is it. I want Him to increase through me. And that is my privilege, a sense He has done that. I hope when the curtains are drawn, people will look back at Packer and say “Well at least he tried to practise faithfulness.”
KS: What is your hope for the Church in Canada?
JP: I hope Evangelicals will practise unity more and more. We need to stand together as a solid block as the country gets more and more secular.
KS: What would you say to someone starting out in ministry? What guidance would you offer?
JP: I would say that, when you are in the ministry, you must take charge of your own time, your own program. You must discipline yourself. You should make yourself a timetable for the working week and try to stick to it. There are two reasons for that. First, nobody is going to supervise you very carefully. If you allow yourself to be lazy and undisciplined, no one might notice. And the second is that undiscipline, laziness and disorder are, from Satan’s point of view, virtues he values.
After 20 years of not achieving very much, the minister will have a nervous breakdown, burn out and so on and have to be laid off work. It’s inner disorder that produces these burnouts and breakdowns most of the time. People who work very hard but have taken charge of their own lives – and their lives are orderly – don’t have burnouts. When you are making the best use of the time God gives you, things are orderly. You are living realistically within the plan you have made for yourself and you don’t have the inner frustrations that bring burnout.
KS: But you might have a lot of other frustrations.
JP: You may have other frustrations. Being a pastor of a congregation is always a demanding and difficult business. If you’re going to take pastoral care seriously, you are constantly thinking and praying how you can get the parish to move forward, this way or that way, people converted or straight with the Lord – that won’t give you burnout. That will exercise your pastor’s heart.
I would tell the young minister that this is the way it will be in ministry and to get his life in order. You have to find your own way with God devotionally. I can only say you ought, as a regular thing, to be getting words and thoughts of encouragement and visions of glorious things from the Lord. If you’re not getting those, you are in a rut. If you are in a rut, for goodness sake get help. Become a partner with someone you are accountable to. Walk together.
KS: Dr. Packer, it has been my honour to speak with you. Thank you.
JP: Well, thank you, Karen.