He was the epitome of a “gentleman and a scholar.” For his first book, Fundamentalism and the Word of God, a rather brilliant defense of the historic Protestant position on the authority of scripture, made it plain that in his view the scriptures were not meant to provoke a debate but to provide ethical direction to our lives, regardless of any cultural winds which might be blowing otherwise.
It was Knowing God, however, that touched me at a far more personal level. For the conviction behind his writing was that “ignorance of God lies at the root of much of the church’s weakness today.” (And if that was true almost five decades, just imagine how much more it is so today.)
Likewise, he went straight to the point suggesting that if you really want to judge how deeply a person understands the Christian faith, look no further than to see just how much he or she makes of the idea of being God’s child and of having God as a Father. For that is at the crux of enjoying a relational faith with God and not simply embracing a theological concept of Him. And for J.I. Packer, it was clear that he was a man who knew God as Savior indeed.
To be certain, Packer could mix it up intellectually with the best of them. He once characterized Bishop John A.T. Robinson’s rather well-known book Honest to God as “a plateful of mashed up Tillich fried in Bultmann and garnished with Bonhoeffer.” And when his Anglican Diocese authorized a decision that, in his judgment, betrayed “the church in its God-appointed role as the bastion and bulwark of divine truth,” he joined other clerics in walking out rather than let “experience judge the Bible,” resisting the notion that “the newer is the truer, only what is recent is decent, every shift of ground is a step forward.”
Still, it was not his scholarly acumen that impressed me the most when I first met him more than four decades ago. For what struck me deeply about the rather distinguished visiting professor at my seminary in New England was his extravagant kindness and attentiveness to others, even lowly seminarians asking what were no doubt rather obtuse questions. In the words of his longtime friend Timothy George, the Englishman’s smile was irrepressible, his laughter was contagious, and his love for all things human and humane was consistently on display.
The last time I was with him, in fact, at a small weekend retreat at Laity Lodge in the Texas hill country, the good professor extended that generosity of spirit not just to me, but to our daughter as well. For though she had been slated to speak during the conference, her remarks were cut because of the verbosity of another’s presentation. Walking back to our rooms, Dr. Packer looked at Angie and asked her what she had planned to say anyway. She gave him a brief synopsis of the comments she had prepared after which Packer, by then in his 80s, simply smiled and replied, “Well, that would have been a very good thing to have said indeed.” And that affirmation was worth more than any other accolade she could ever have received.
James Innell Packer died on Friday at the age of 93, having faithfully followed the admonition of Jeremiah 6.16: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.” For although he never shied away from fighting for that ancient Word, he once wrote that he would like to be remembered as one who simply “pointed to the pasturelands.”
And so he did, not just for millions, but for me as well.