J.I. Packer: The lost interview
Q&A | From a recording that disappeared in transit five years ago, the octogenarian theologian shares how God shaped him first and foremost as a catechist
by Joel Belz
Posted 12/07/13, 04:27 pm
Five years ago, WORLD founder Joel Belz suffered a journalistic disaster. He had traveled to Vancouver, British Columbia, to interview octogenarian J.I. Packer, author of many terrific books on theology. Joel recorded 90 minutes of conversation and placed the recording in the side pocket of his suitcase. Somewhere on his luggage’s journey back to North Carolina, someone or something ripped off that side pocket. Joel lost his Bible and the recording.
After a long search, Joel sadly concluded the interview was not meant to be—yet last year he received a package containing the lost items, without a sender’s name or return address. Joel had the interview transcribed but suspected it was dated. This past week he sent me the transcript and modestly (as always) suggested, “There might be some excerpts” that could be useful. I read the interview and found all of it useful. Joel asked good questions and Packer, now 87, was both wise and charming. Please read and enjoy. —Marvin Olasky
If you don’t take it as an insult, I would like to ask you the question that I ask newcomers to my own congregation—because I think this is something that people don’t know about J.I. Packer. When somebody comes to our congregation and says, “I want to be a member of your church,” my fellow elders and I ask them these three questions. We say, “Tell us when you first believed, and tell us what you believed then, and tell us what you believe now.” You see the point? I don’t think a lot of people have ever heard how J.I. Packer came to faith in the first place. Do you mind sharing that? Not in the least. At my age I have nothing to hide. And, in fact, the story of my conversion is a perfectly straightforward one, as you will note here. At age 15 at school I was a member of the chess club, and I played chess regularly with the son of a Unitarian minister. He got me thinking what is true in Christianity because he tried to sell me the Unitarian bill of goods, and that was the first occasion in my life when I asked myself what is true in Christianity. Is he right?
I had been brought up an Anglican Church attendee, but in the Anglican Church where I was nurtured, if that’s the word to use, I was never taught anything. I thought of Christianity as on a par with cleaning my teeth, mainly something that you regularly did, but you didn’t think about it, not even when you were doing it. But anyway, he left me with the question that this can’t be true because it’s a position that only holds together by willpower. If you are going to deny the divinity of Christ, which is so central to the New Testament, you also deny all the rest of it. If you are going to affirm that the ethic of Jesus is the best thing since fried bread, well then you ought to take seriously what the New Testament says about who He is. That got me going.
I read some C.S. Lewis, I read a good deal of the Bible, and I read a number of books of all schools of thought relating to Christian faith. Two years on after this started, a friend of mine who had gone to university a year before I was due to go, he got suddenly converted through the Intervarsity [IV] people, and when next we met, and thereafter, he took it on himself to try and explain to me that I didn’t have faith. By then I had got to the point where I was prepared to stand up for the creed in debate—we had a 12th grade atheist; most schools do—and we used to have fairly intense arguments. I argued for truth of the creed and I took for granted that since I believed the creed, that’s what it meant to have faith as this friend of mine naturally had. Came the day when I was due to go up to Oxford and he said very quickly before he went off to the university where he was studying, “I haven’t been able to explain it to you very well, but when you get to Oxford, link up with the Intervarsity people. They will be able to make it clearer than I have been able to do.”
At Oxford the Intervarsity people were out on the hunt and we met right at the beginning of my time. They organized a periodic evangelistic preaching service at the university. The first such preaching service that I attended the sermon lasted three-quarters of an hour and was preached by an elderly gentleman who within the first 20 minutes bored me. Then he started telling at length the story of his own conversion and suddenly everything became clear. I am not a person who gets much in the way of visions or visuals, but the concept called up a picture which was there in my mind was that here I am outside of the house and looking through the window and I understand what they are doing. I recognize the games they are playing. Clearly they are enjoying themselves, but I am outside. Why am I outside? Because I have been evading the Lord Jesus and His call.
Once that had become clear my defenses fell quite rapidly, and at the end of the service we sang “Just As I Am” and by the end of the hymn I was a believer. So out of church I went, but back with the Intervarsity people from then on to catch up with the nurture that I had been missing all through these years—really to make up for lost time. And that’s the main thing, far and away the biggest thing that I was doing outside my studies for the next four years.
And what were your studies? I was doing the Oxford liberal arts degree. It’s Greek or Latin philosophy, language and history, along with a good deal of modern philosophy and a good deal of modern ethics, too. It’s a fine looking education, as a matter of fact. Pretty demanding, but I look back to it with gratitude, though frankly I didn’t enjoy it at the time. I should add that I was brought up Anglican as I told you, but after my new life had started I found myself very angry with the Anglican Church for not having told me the gospel all those years. I didn’t want to worship in Anglican churches, but I spent a lot of my time worshiping with Christian brethren, and in many ways that was a very good experience. After four years I was an Anglican again and I remain an Anglican until this day. That’s another story. Have I told you what you wanted to know?
That helps me, except I would like to hear you say what changes God has produced in your thinking. What year was it when you went off to Oxford? 1944.
In the 64 years since then, what significant changes have been brought into your mind about the faith that excited you at the end of that service that night? What I brought to the service was Christianity according to C.S. Lewis, mere Christianity. Under the nurture of the Intervarsity people and with a touch of God, too, I had added to Lewis a strong belief in the inerrancy of the authority of Scriptures. Lewis didn’t believe in inerrancy. He didn’t go around denying it, but he didn’t affirm it either.
The touch of God which helped me along that road took place six weeks after I converted. The Intervarsity people ran a Saturday night Bible study, and at this particular Saturday night Bible study an elderly gentleman with some eccentric views about the book of Revelation was speaking. And if I remember rightly, he was speaking about Revelation 13, which is a chapter in which it’s easy to be eccentric—where there’s a dragon and the horsemen, etc.—but I can still remember the moment, coming out of the meeting. I had gone into the meeting assuming, without argument really, nobody had argued with me about it so far, but I was assuming that though the substance of the Scripture was certainly true and we believed, I had been having a wonderful time in personal Bible study since my conversion which seemed to confirm that, particularly in terms of the Christ about whom the New Testament spoke being the living Savior and Lord who had called me into what we all call a personal relationship. But I took it for granted that educated people nowadays don’t believe every jot and tittle of the Bible.
I think it was the reverence with which this curious old gentleman had handled Revelation 13. Not what he made of it, but it’s the way that he squared up to the text—squeezing wisdom out of individual verses and phrases and studying the texts in the context and flow of the argument. I think it was that, though honestly I’m not quite sure. Anyway, something had triggered in me unawares. The Bible makes an impact on me which assures me that it is the Word of God pure. And being so it is bound to be all true and all trustworthy because God is. I think that is the way to say it—it’s what Calvin called the witness of the Holy Spirit which I’d been enjoying for those six weeks but hadn’t got around to verbalizing. When I got to verbalizing, I realized this isn’t what I used to believe. It was a bit of a joke. I’ve stayed with that ever since and, as you know, stuck my neck out in all sorts of ways through pieces of writing to vindicate that position.
Which is probably why I’m here because you are my hero in that sense and I thank you for sticking your neck out at great cost to your own self. If you were to chart the progress of belief in inerrancy of Scripture during your lifetime would you say it was very much an undeveloped doctrine when you were young in broad evangelical circles? It certainly wasn’t popular in the U.K. when you were young. No, it wasn’t. If I remember rightly, it was more an assumption among the Intervarsity people than a matter for argument or debate, but it was their assumption. I have a linear sort of mind, a lawyer’s mind. When I believe something, I want to articulate it, so having become aware of it, I believed that the Bible is the Word of God. Yes, I have read some stuff that would help me to articulate it but I don’t remember that anyone around me was particularly concerned to do that. Although, of course, in Intervarsity we knew that the other forms of Christianity in the university didn’t involve trust in the Scriptures just like that, but in those days I didn’t argue with them. That came later.
And what triggered your willingness to take it on in a more argumentative way? What prompted you to say, “This is important?” As with so many things in my life, the human way of saying this was that I was pushed into it, pulled into it, and the logical way of saying it was that I was brought into the providence of God. In the year of grace 1955 I was asked to reply to several months of criticism in print from English church leaders who were denouncing Billy Graham and all that he stood for, and Intervarsity along with Billy Graham, and focusing on belief in the inerrancy of Scripture, which to some critics is a belief that makes it impossible for people to do Bible study of the kind that all the rest us do today. In other words, it was a belief that anchored one in obscurantism and darkness of mind. I was asked to reply to this and I was given the title, actually it was the senior people in Intervarsity who asked me to do this. The title they gave me was “narrow mind” or “narrow way.” It was nice. And my audience was members of what then was called the gracious fellowship of Intervarsity, so I was among friends. I had a line of argument which I deployed and they liked and I was asked to write it up.
I imagine that what the IV publisher expected was something of pamphlet length, 6,000 words perhaps. But knowing that anything you write is going to be read by enemies as well as by friends, I realized there were a lot of presuppositions that had to be filled in and defended before the particular line of argument that I had used in my address could be deployed. Otherwise, the howl would be, “Look at how much you have taken for granted. You can’t take those things for granted.” So the IV publisher had to wait for a little over a year and then they landed on his desk—not 6,000 words, but 60,000. The book was called Fundamentalism and the Word of God and it’s still in print. From that day to this I thought that it’s a good response to critical biblical study and critical theology. I believe that I was able to do something pretty good. It’s a piece of controversial writing that does stand up.
The word fundamentalism meant something a little different then than it does now. You would probably put a different title on it, or not. Yes, I would. Fundamentalism in the original title was the word that the critics had been using as the label for that which they were denouncing. And what I wanted to argue was that label brings no clarity about anything. It does, in fact, mislead because it implies obscurantism and, in fact, behind evangelical belief there is intellectually taught class history. That’s one of the things that the book was concerned to do. It reaches back to Luther and Calvin and the whole Reformed tradition. I’d been reading [B.B.] Warfield. That was how I became a frontline man on the inerrancy question, and because I had become a frontline man by the providence of God I’ve was asked over and over again if I would do frontline things—write some more, speak some more.
You’re the frontline man. Are you satisfied the way that front has been held in the evangelical world, or have we retreated? No, I don’t think we’ve retreated. I think that on balance the front has been held well and strongly. I’m thinking now of some doings over the 10-year period of the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy in which I was quite prominent. I believe that God helped us do a very good job, actually. We produced a couple of excellent statements, I think. One explaining inerrancy. Perhaps I should reveal that I wrote it, and then there was a statement on interpretation. I didn’t write that, but I had something to do with it. Those draftings of mine gave satisfaction round and about. It seems to me that this is the way to look at what happened after that.
In any movement that is gaining strength and recruiting able people to its own and getting stronger on its own basics as I continue to think that the evangelical movement was doing, and I would argue that still. I am thinking of all those commentaries which assume the inerrancy of Scripture. But we had nothing like that while I was young. But we’ve got three or four series now, and I think they are an index of what is actually happening. Happening where? In the seminaries. There are more seminaries and far more theological students at them than was the case when I was converted in 1944. The bright professors in the seminaries went along with the Inerrancy Council. There was, of course, a spectrum as there always is when you’ve got a lot of bright people maintaining a position that is able to feel itself pretty strong. Under those circumstances there will always be left-wingers who are out on a limb themselves in regards to some of the details. I don’t think that they are carrying the constituency with them.
If you were to point to two or three people who are on that front about whom you say, “Atta boy, you’re doing now what I did 50 years ago.” Whom would you cheer? Carl Trueman isn’t yet the heavy of heaviest, but he’s very strong in his own sophisticated fundamentalist way. And so is Wayne Grudem—he’s a strong man.
I appreciate that, and I don’t want to push in that direction. And where would you say, besides the doctrine of inerrancy being important in and of itself, that it shows itself to be most crucial on what practical issues in our times? When you say practical issues, do you mean moral issues?
Perhaps … the life of the church. In the life of the church there has been much in recent years about a gay way of life, and I think evangelicals have shown themselves solid against it in way that was biblical. Good stuff is being produced on sex and the family. They are not compromising anymore. Willie Mackenzie [of Christian Focus Publications] is a dear sweet Christian man, and his wife is a dear sweet Christian lady, and they have a real ministry, a good ministry. And although a lot of the stuff they publish is heavy, there is a degree of unction—I think is what I want to say—an unction which is a reality that I believe in. Unction, that is the touch of the Holy Spirit that makes you realize that this is God’s truth and you’ve got to take it seriously. Unction will enable people to learn even from relatively dull or somber and monochrome books.
But having said that, how do you encourage somebody to connect himself to that unction? How do you encourage someone who writes to do it with vividness, with vim, with vigor? How do you encourage someone who preaches to do it with passion instead of that dullness that you refer to? First of all, I try to set an example. And second, I write—I’m fairly forthright in books and articles in pinpointing what I think are shortcomings in evangelical life and ministry. And here, perhaps, I’d better say something which I’ve been saying over and over for the last five years but didn’t say before because I didn’t see it before, but better late than never. God made me, shaped me as a catechist, an adult catechist. Catechists are people who teach the truth that Christians live by.
Could I interrupt you just a quick moment? Why your emphasis on catechizing? We’re getting there. … Let me preempt you. I am an adult catechist, and their advantage is to teach the truth that Christians live by and to teach how to live by them. In this guild where theological professions gather, they are doing a different job, and, frankly, I keep out of the guild because it bores me. Not because I don’t think that the growing edge studies in theology are a waste of time, but because that isn’t me. What’s on my heart is the work of the catechist. Getting out the truth that Christians live by and trying to show—talking, writing, living—trying to show what it means to live by them.
The answer to your question, why this emphasis, is first of all five years ago when I came to realize that this is the deep truth about me. I am an adult catechist: It was quite a discovery. You may or may not know that Alister McGrath wrote a theology biography of me up to the age of 75—or was it 70? When he finished the biography he didn’t know quite what to say about me. This man didn’t want to call me a theologian because I didn’t move around in the world of the guild like he does. He writes excellent textbooks and he also engages on some of the frontiers, which is what he in his own mind thinks of a theologian as doing. So he didn’t want to call me a theologian and he ended up calling me a “theologizer.” But it was after that that I realized I’m a catechist.
I said five years ago—it may have been a little more than that—one of the things that may have triggered this realization is that [Pope] John Paul II said, “We need a new catechesis.” He said it to [Cardinal Joseph] Ratzinger, and Ratzinger troops on to the composition of another catechism of the Catholic Church. You know that big book, 800 pages of stuff. Now that catechism is actually a resource book for the clergy. That’s how it’s intended to be used, whereas we Protestants are used to catechetical documents as being documents for the direct instruction of the laity either by question and answer or by something approaching that, little hunks of instruction and then questions. As I say, that may have made the difference. In the Catholic Church it varies very much, how much is being done, but they’ve made headway in adult catechesis that puts them way in front of where we are. We take it for granted that by the time our people get into their late teens they’ll know the basics of the faith.
And they don’t at all … No, they don’t. But nonetheless we go ahead with a style of preaching that assumes this basic knowledge. It isn’t catechetical preaching except in a very few discerning cases. It isn’t sufficiently debated.
Would you give me a kind of concise definition of what you mean by catechetical teaching? Going back to my formula that a catechist teaches the truth that Christians live by and also teaches how to live by those truths, I would say that the raw material of catechisms is the doctrines of the gospel. Now, I’ve been a professor of systematic theology for quite a lot of my life, and at the start of all my theology courses I say: First of all, you’ve got to realize that theology is a compound of 10 distinct disciplines: Exegesis, biblical theology, and historical theology are the first three. They are the resources out of which systematic theology builds its wisdom. And systematic theology is, in fact, biblical theology rethought in relation to the questions and debates of the day so that it’s material ready for use by catechists and preachers and teachers of all shapes and sizes. Also, from systematic theology using its raw material, the following six disciplines are resourced: apologetics, ethics, worship or liturgy, spirituality or Christian devotion, mythology, misology, and pastor theology or practical theology—all the know-how you are able to share with one another about ministering, ministering truth in light of truth.
Do I hear you saying that systematic theology comes from the prior three and gives birth to those six? Yes, that’s what I’m saying. Actually as I’m expounding it, I say you’ll meet systematic theology in books of systematic theology that have already been written. But if you examine those books you will find that the raw material that’s being deployed comes from these three sources, and it’s by exegesis and biblical theology in particular that what’s in the books has to be assessed. The Bible comes first. The Bible must have the last word as well as the first word. I give them that and I say, “Now keep that scheme in mind for the rest of your life and make sure that you don’t leave seminary without a working acquaintance with all 10 disciplines, because if you are going to honor God as a communicator of the Word, you will need to have all of these dimensions of theology in your mind.”
There’s more introductory stuff that I give them, but I end up telling them this: Learn to identify evangelical theology. You identify evangelical theology first by its method and second by its content. In terms of method, there are three methods, and one of them is evangelical. The evangelical method is to draw your truth and conclusions and wisdom from Scripture and allow Scripture to pass judgment on your attempts to express what Scripture is saying. The Bible has the first word; the Bible has the last word. And contrast methods two and three, which are to appeal—as Catholicism does—to what the church says, and as liberals do to the judgment of the individual theologian. Which means, of course, that among liberals, the debate goes on indefinitely and nothing can be regarded as quite certain.
As for content, here I’m thinking of the doctrinal basis of a lot of 20th century evangelical organizations. You have first of all the authority of Scripture affirmed. Secondly, the triunity of God affirmed. Third, the fallenness of the man who was created in the image of God affirmed. Fourth, the incarnation affirmed. Fifth, the atonement affirmed. Sixth, the new birth by the Spirit through faith affirmed. Seventh, justification through faith affirmed. I believe that theologically, in light of John 3, the new birth is a work of God the Spirit out of which faith comes, rather than saying with the Arminians that faith comes, and through faith the new birth takes place. In other words, the primacy of regeneration by the Holy Spirit. Eight, the church sustained by every member along with the ministry of official ministers—all animated by the Holy Spirit and all constituting Christ’s ministry to His people through His people. I wanted to say all that because you’re Presbyterian and I wanted to make sure that you hear it right. Presbyterianism actually hasn’t said anything like enough about the Holy Spirit in every member’s ministry. It’s tended to say altogether too much about the office of official ministries. There’s an imbalance there in the heritage.
I agree with you. I am impressed that both in your emphasis on catechizing and what you have just said here you are never content simply to be an academic. You are never content to be theologian. I’m a catechist …
… and a churchman. That’s right.
That is a vital part of your worldview. After your early disappointment in the Anglican Church that betrayed you by not giving the gospel to you, why do you still see the church as important? It was a parachurch organization that early nurtured you. But my faith comes from the Bible. In the New Testament the church is the center of the plan of redemption. We are units in the body of Christ. There is one spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one church. The church is at the center of God’s promise. I said eighth is the church. Ninth is the return of Christ. Tenth is the glory of God, and both are the final goal of everything that God is doing. Put together those 10 convictions and you’ve got evangelical theology. Lose out on any single one of them and you’ve got something less than evangelical theory or you’ve got evangelical theory mental: maimed, distorted, out of truth. I give them that in the fourth class of my series before ever I get down to particular doctrines. I tell them, “You’ve looked at the forest. Once you’ve looked at the forest, it’s safe to take you in among the trees.” We then move to doctrine of revelation of the Bible, the doctrine of God, etc. That is a catechist at the podium in a seminary or a seminary-type institution.
I got catechized at my breakfast table. My dad was a country preacher, and if we did not come to the breakfast table with our catechism literally learned, we did not eat breakfast. We got sent back to our room until we learned it. Your dad was a wise man. We don’t do it that way nowadays, but what a heritage.
What tools, besides these that we’ve just discussed and that you’ve put into such a neat package, do young men and women moving into the work of the church for the coming generation need? Where do you see them most needy, most deficient? Where are they barking up empty trees—and they should back off and get serious developing particular tools that you think are more important? My desire for everyone who’s in stated ministry in the church is to be, amongst the other things they are, a catechist. I think first of the need that they have of resources that will help them to be good catechists, and for that purpose I should start by urging them to have a very good systematic theology on their shelves. I shall tell them that they should find out by experimenting whether they get benefit from Calvin’s running way of expounding doctrine in the Institutes. If they don’t, I’m sorry that they don’t, but in that case Louis Berkhof is going to do them much more good. There are a number of systematic textbooks that have appeared since Louis Berkhof wrote, but nobody, it seems to me, matches Berkhof for his skill in saying much, very straightforwardly in a small space. He goes to the heart of every truth. He says it quickly. If you are going to work with [Millard J.] Erickson, for instance, Erickson takes far more time, fills far more space, and rarely achieves the same clarity. He gives you good stuff, but what Berkhof gives you is constantly, point after point, good stuff.
I would hope that the book that I wrote on a smaller scale called Concise Theology would help as a resource for catechists. It’s subdivided into 50 or 60 different chapters. I like to think that people are going to ask themselves, “Here are 60 matters which this man Packer thought was important. Do I think it is important?” I produced a catechism book of a different sort titled Growing in Christ, published by Crossway. Once it was called I Want to Be a Christian and was published by Tyndale, but Tyndale couldn’t sell it because the title—so they assured me—misled people about what sort of book it was. It’s actually a catechism book and gives 800 words on each clause of the Lord’s Prayer, the Apostles’ Creed, and each of the Ten Commandments, and general stuff about Christian obedience and on the baptismal covenant. I go over all the New Testament teachings on that standard. There are biblical passages to study and questions with which to work. It would be very straightforward for clergy to use it as a course for people who want to join the church.
And it’s still available? Yes, it’s still available from Crossway and it’s not sold very well, because this type of instruction doesn’t ring bells with the majority.
It’s work. Yes, it’s work and they’re not used to teaching the faith in this way. They assume that everyone over the age of 20 has a good general grasp of the faith so that they can hammer away a particular point and make them pictorial and vivid, but without actually bothering to go over their substance. I am just remembering it’s not so many years ago since I preached in a large evangelical congregation and I took Romans 3:24–26, Paul’s teaching on justification. I just analyzed it, and at the end of the sermon people were shaking hands with me and more than one said, “Thank you so much for that, I’ve never heard anything like that.” This was a respectable evangelical church.
What have we been doing? We’ve been making an assumption—the assumption is false, so there’s a disconnect. For the rest of my life this is what I shall be at, trying to promote the catechism.
May I be bold and ask this: Have you been teaching our friend Charles Colson this very thing? I talked with him last week and he used the word catechizing. I don’t think it is I who has given it to him, but he does read my stuff and he’s very complimentary about it.
He’s very high on the whole issue of catechizing. He’s been associated with me over these last few years. I’m not too surprised, because I talk about it.
And I think he’s been listening to you. He’s a great man, Chuck Colson.
I did my column about his new book The Faith in our current issue [Aug. 9, 2008]. That’s a good book.
I like his chapter on truth. When half our evangelical young people aren’t sure there is any such thing as truth anymore, they need to be catechized. Yes they do. I don’t think there is deep-seated doubt in their minds, but it is clear that they’ve never been catechized. They have never been taught to take the truth question as the basic question of their lives. The basic question of my life was simply the cast of my own mind that led me to take it from age 15 on, and people sometimes think I’m an apologist. I’m not one really, but if anyone is going to affirm doubt about the availability of truth, I do have an arsenal which I can deploy.
Yes indeed. Even with my own children—I have five daughters and they’re all married now—I hear a tone—and I didn’t do as good a job catechizing them as my father did with me and I’m embarrassed by that—but I hear my daughters say, “Dad, I agree with what you said, but who am I to say?” That is an expression that really concerns me out of the next generation. They agree, in broad terms, but they don’t think they have the right to impose their belief on someone else. I think I use the wrong word when I say impose … I know what you mean. My comeback when I hear that sort of talk is to ask people straight away, “Now tell me, do you believe in a God who tells us things?” And if I get an affirmative answer, actually if I don’t, I have a supporting line question: “You don’t—who do you think Jesus Christ was?” The quick answer, of course, is God. “Did he tell us things?” You see, that should put them out of doubt. Then I say, “Then you believe in a God who tells us things?” I believe He’s telling us things all through the Bible. If God has told us things, don’t you think we’re entitled to tell other people what God has told us?
Good. I’m glad you said that. That’s what I need. That’s why we call it the gospel. Yes, it’s news—it’s good news—and it’s the gospel of God. He told us.
It’s gospel truth. That’s right.
Joel, WORLD's founder, writes a regular column for the magazine and contributes commentaries for The World and Everything in It. He is also the author of Consider These Things.