In this fractious but fascinating moment in time, we are faced with losing and remembering those minds and hearts who guided us through to the deeper understanding required to overcome challenge. As I’ve matured as a new follower of Jesus from an atheist background, and as I’ve been trained as an academic theologian at Oxford, I’ve had to learn the art of knowing God in the midst of the power dynamics that surround knowledge. Ultimate questions attract ultimate and often polarised responses. Knowing God never happens in abstract but involves thick contexts of cost and seemingly irreconcilable difficulties. J.I. Packer, the theologian who died last month aged 93, was a stunning example of a mind who recognised that although humans can never fully capture God, we can radically serve the deepest kind of knowledge – that is in knowing and being saved by God.
For me, Packer’s writings are marked by an enthusiasm to love people by sharing truth. He listened to others’ ideas to the point of letting his own be shaken and transformed. He remained steadfast in the truth, far from the platitudinal certainty of lazy religion(lessness) and lived in a curious and humble posture toward God and others. The Church was born from this posture of faith after Christ’s resurrection. At its heart the Church has had to become expert at learning unity in conflict not in spite of, but precisely through, the person of Jesus Christ who is the way, the truth and the life. To me, Packer is the one figure in 21st-century theology who embodied those three aspects of who Jesus was and of the God he revealed to us.
Packer’s work helped to save me from the often-damaging fundamentalisms that vie for your attention
I was first exposed to Packer’s work as a fresh-faced twenty-one-year-old who had been recently and freshly been born again in Sydney, Australia. I had so many questions. I wrestled to piece together what scripture had to say with doctrine, ethical questions of huge personal significance and bigger concepts like the Trinity, or gender, the authority and nature of scripture, and how to go deeper than the Sunday morning preach; how to love a world that thought in radical discontinuity with my new found faith in Jesus and its long-held story. It was Packer who provided a way for me through the hairy patches of faith and doubt to questioning and searching and illuminating doctrines. His writing takes you through from Jesus, to the atonement, the cross, God’s righteous wrath, grace-defined justice, and ultimately the end point of all Christian thought: the love of God – doctrines which I often found very difficult to reconcile emotionally and intellectually.
Packer’s work helped to save me from the often-damaging fundamentalisms that vie for your attention. He guided me to a much richer and healthier faith, which puts Jesus at the centre of everything, and refuses to compromise any side of the doctrinal and experiential coin. I was handed his classic book, Knowing God. It taught me like no other outside of scripture how to navigate the illuminating, difficult but breath-taking landscape of the doctrine of God anchored in the way of Jesus. Weaved through Packer’s writing, I found a friend who taught me the Way – the art of knowing God and loving in the image of that God, who was far from idolatrously cheap, but rather majestic, transcendent, holy and just. He helped me to be transported into the reality of this God again.
Packer was special to me and taught me how to hold on to truth with gentleness, respect and a robust bravery
Sitting at my desk at Oxford, I am often surrounded by many friends who have diverse theological opinions and perspectives that can diametrically oppose or challenge each other. Easy certainties are not permitted. As Don Carson said of Packer, he “argues that a high view of Scripture, including an affirmation of inerrancy, is not the preserve of a narrow strand of right-wing Christendom, but the common heritage of Christians everywhere across the centuries until the faith was pillaged by theological liberalism.” It was this Kierkegaardian-like resolve to heed the scriptures that led to a beautiful clarity to his writings on the knowledge of God.
As students at Oxford, walking the very halls Packer walked at Corpus Christi college, we are all here to get knowledge, and hopefully, if added to virtue, develop deeper wisdom. But surely, as the motto of the University motto reflects, ‘the Lord is my light’, the great crown of time at Oxford should be the knowledge of God, which only comes when you are willing to die – to give your life – for truth.
What I find remarkable about Packer is the influence he has had on so many of those friends, regardless of where they now find themselves – precisely how he handled truth – by expressing his hard-fought convictions but not without the injunction to love and hear out other arguments sacrificially to himself. He straddled the line of churchmanship and the academy, which so few are able to maintain or master. His impassioned retrieval of reformed or ‘reformational’ theology, and his profound care for the Church, especially the Anglican communion itself, was a rare combination that paved the way for far more nuanced perspectives on science, gender, and other difficult topics, all while maintaining a biblically-rooted, gospel-centred and passionate witness.
The art of being a theologian is a difficult one and often involves moments of doubtful dullness, of not knowing or needing refreshment in knowing God. Packer embodied the very demanding kind of humility required to know God truthfully even as one is confronted with the lightning rods and cultural head winds that blow on the proverbial shores of the Church and wider society’s understanding. For this reason, he was special to me and taught me how to hold on to truth with gentleness, respect and a robust bravery.
We should not just be thankful for the grace of his life, but, as Packer would enthuse about, to make our own lives conform to the pattern of love
Above all, the life of Packer was marked by the life of Christ, and centrally, the cross. Packer was a true theologian, a rare species in our (post-post-modern) Western context. As Martin Luther penned:
“That person deserves to be called a theologian, however, who comprehends the visible and manifest things of God through suffering and the cross.”
Jesus says in Matthew 16:25, “If you try to hang on to or save your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it.” Packer remains a central example to me as a budding theologian of how not just to think God, or feel God, or do ‘God’, but how to know God and embody his life by carrying the cross in love for the Church, and the world. As he said, “The life of true holiness is rooted in the soil of awed adoration.” As I look to my future, I hope to be just something of the person Packer was. We should not just be thankful for the grace of his life, but, as Packer would enthuse about, to make our own lives conform to the pattern of love, by embracing the beauty and worship of the God whose love is always and unremittingly cross-shaped, and Christ-like, and therefore unswervingly true.