Packer: "A totally impassive God would be a horror"

J.I. PackerFollowing the death of John Stott, J.I. Packer is surely now the unchallenged elder statesman of Anglican* evangelicalism. He is a special hero among the “Reformed” Calvinists, whether Anglican or not. But is he in fact a Calvinist? Or is he more an Open Theist?

According to traditional Christian theology, one of the key characteristics of God is that he is “impassible”, i.e. he “does not experience pain or pleasure from the actions of another being”. This view has its origin more in Neo-Platonism that in biblical teaching, but came to dominate Christian thinking through the influence of Augustine. The Reformers such as Luther and Calvin took on this idea, and it has become enshrined in “Reformed” theology through doctrinal statements such as the Thirty-Nine Articles (1562) and the Westminster Confession (1646), which both describe God as “without body, parts, or passions”.

Most of today’s “Reformed” Calvinists would follow their heroes and their confessions and teach that God is impassible. But in recent years many other theologians, evangelicals among them, have challenged this doctrine. Some of those making this challenge are associated with Open Theism, a teaching which is anathema to Calvinists.

It is in this context that Roger Olson has had some interesting things to say about Packer.

A few days ago Olson quoted Packer as writing that “Arminianism is an intellectual sin”, and so writing off Olson, and myself, as sinners. Ironically Packer justifies his position by quoting the Arminian Charles Wesley. But this is from something which Packer wrote in about 1958, and so may not represent his current views.

Today Olson shows he bears no grudge for being called a sinner by posting And now…kudos to J. I. Packer for this brilliant article, about a 1986 article in Christianity Today. It is this article which is relevant to the impassibility debate, because in it Packer seems to reject this doctrine, at least in its classical form. Olson quotes him:

Let us be clear: A totally impassive God would be a horror, and not the God of Calvary at all.  He might belong in Islam; he has no place in Christianity.  If, therefore, we can learn to think of the chosenness of God’s grief and pain as the essence of his impassibility, so-called, we will do well.

In other words, Packer agrees with the biblical text that God suffers grief and pain, and tries to turn the definition of “impassibility” on it head. In doing so he goes not only against Islam but also against the Westminster Confession, and against the Thirty-Nine Articles of his own orthodox Anglicanism. Olson comments,

In fact, I believe IF that article were to be published today WITHOUT the author’s identity attached, many conservative evangelicals would assume it was written by an open theist or a “leftwing evangelical” and attack it as dangerous.

Personally, I do not see how the article’s central thrust can be reconciled with classical Calvinism. … Classical Calvinism is closely tied to classical theism.  It certainly does not believe that God can change his mind or “make new decisions as he reacts to human doings.”

So what can we conclude? Is Packer’s thinking inconsistent? I suspect not in quite the same way that Olson claims. Clearly the mature Packer of 1986 is not the same as the young Packer of 1958. But even while misrepresenting Arminianism in 1958 he could agree with the Arminian Wesley that a key effect of God’s grace is “my heart was free”. And by 1986 his position seems to have embraced much more freedom and openness than classical Calvinism would seem to allow.

Packer is a hero of “Reformed” Calvinists worldwide. No doubt he would still reject with horror any suggestion that he might be an Arminian or an Open Theist. But what he has written seems to put his current position closer to Arminianism and Open Theism than to Calvinism. It is also further from Neo-Platonism and closer to biblical Christianity.

* Packer is apparently still an Anglican, despite leaving the official Anglican Church of Canada in 2008. The church where he is Honorary Assistant Minister, now known as St John’s Vancouver Anglican Church and meeting at a new location, states that “We remain in communion with the greater part of the worldwide Anglican Communion through the auspices of the Anglican Network in Canada.”

Jesus and Authority

If the “Son” is sent by the “Father,” and if the “Son” comes to do the will of the “Father,” does it not stand to reason that God wishes by this language to indicate something of the authority and submission that exists within the relationships of the members of the immanent trinity?

– Bruce Ware, quoted here (see also here).

It is the nature of the second person of the Trinity to acknowledge the authority and submit to the good pleasure of the first.

– J.I. Packer in Knowing God (1973), quoted here.

Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. …”

– Matthew 28:18 (TNIV)

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

– Philippians 2:9-11 (TNIV)

So is Jesus the one who submits to authority or the one who exercises it?

Avery Dulles (1918-2008) on Jesus' Atoning Death

Since this blog is back on the subject of why Jesus died, I thought it would be interesting to link to the views of the recently deceased Avery Dulles, a Roman Catholic cardinal described by John Hobbins as “an enthusiastic supporter of the Evangelical Catholic movement” (John’s link replaced by a more appropriate one). Michael Barber has posted an extract from Dulles’ writing which is of great relevance to the atonement debates on this blog and others.

Here is a large part of what Michael quotes from Dulles:

One person may represent another, but cannot substitute for that other except in a merely functional way. As Dorothee Sölle has brilliantly explained, substitution is the definitive exchange of reified objects, whereas representation is the provisional intervention of persons on behalf of other persons. To retain this distinction, it seems preferable to avoid speaking of “substitutionary atonement” in the case of Jesus Christ. Sölle herself proposes to speak rather of Christ the Representative…

Because there is no mechanical substitution of one person for another, the representative death of Christ does not automatically remit the guilt of sinners. The merits of Christ are not simply imputed to us by some kind of juridical fiction; rather we are truly and inwardly healed through the infusion of the grace that flows from him. We have to allow ourselves to be taken over by Christ as he stands in for us. This we do by appropriating Christ’s action on our behalf through free and personal acts of faith, hope, and loving obedience…

Does the vicarious nature of redemption mean that Jesus is punished in our place? Some authors, indulging in very powerful rhetoric, describe in lurid terms the way in which the wrath of the eternal Father was visited upon the guiltless Son, so that he felt rejected and even hated by God…

Against these views, I would insist that Jesus remained at all times the well-beloved Son, living in close communion with the Father through the incomparable grace that flooded his soul…

The advantages of the representational sacrifice theory, and the answers to the objections raised against it, may be clarified by a review of the alternative theories described at the opening of this paper. In some ways the sacrificial interpretation, as I have proposed it, resembles the first theory, that of penal substitution, but the differences are important. Both theories maintain that Jesus suffered terrible ordeals and thereby won for sinners a release from the pains they deserve. But the penal substitution theory makes it appear that God punishes the innocent in place of the guilty, thereby suggesting that God is unjust. The theory of representative headship, by contrast, looks upon Jesus as one who offered satisfaction, rather than endured punishment. These are true alternatives. As Anselm insisted, sin requires either punishment or satisfaction; satisfaction takes the place of punishment… Satisfaction is voluntarily given, whereas punishment must be coercively endured. Satisfaction, unlike punishment, can be offered by the innocent as well as by the guilty.

Punishment, as an act of justice, must be strictly proportioned to the offense, but satisfaction, as a work of love, may be superabundant. According to Thomas Aquinas, Christ “offered to God more than was required to compensate for the sin of all humanity.”

For more of this, read Michael’s post, or follow his link (which I have not done) to the whole of Dulles’ article.

What Dulles wrote seems to me to make a lot of sense. Penal substitution is sometimes seen as a mere variant of Anselm’s satisfaction model of the atonement. But Dulles makes it clear how different it is – or at least how different certain popular understandings of penal substitution are. And it is against these popular understandings that writers like Steve Chalke and Jeffrey John reacted so strongly.

But, to be fair, the position of the more careful proponents of penal substitutionary atonement, such as J.I. Packer, is not so different from that of Dulles. Packer writes:

The Trinitarian principle is that the three distinct persons within the divine unity, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, always work inseparably together, as in creation, so in providence and in every aspect of the work of redemption. … It was with his own will and his own love mirroring the Father’s, therefore, that he took the place of human sinners exposed to divine judgment and laid down his life as a sacrifice for them, entering fully into the state and experience of death that was due to them. Then he rose from death to reign by the Father’s appointment in the kingdom of God.

I would be surprised if Dulles would have had serious disagreement with Packer’s article.

Primates and Packer live from All Souls

John Richardson, the Ugley Vicar, is live blogging from All Souls Langham Place, in London, where a day conference is in session with some of the leaders who were recently at the GAFCON conference, also with J.I. Packer. John has already posted summaries of talks by Archbishop Hebry Orombi of Uganda and Archbishop Greg Venables of the Southern Cone, followed by a summary of an interview with Rev Dr Packer. This summary ends as follows:

Interviewer: What would be your wisdom about carrying on the GAFCON process in England?

JP: At the heart of the Statement is the Jerusalem Declaration. I would like to see PCCs and, where possible, Diocesan Synod, or even central bodies, committing themselves to this as their own guiding star. I would like to see the Primates who were leaders at GAFCON meeting in a public way in January 2009, casting the Jerusalem Statement into the form of a covenantal commitment, publicly subscribing to it on the part of their provinces, and also seeing diocesans subscribe to it. I would like to see it presented to new bishops appointed in the Church of England to subscribe to it, and I would like to see it established as a basis for orthodoxy and missionary action.

The goal of the Covenant Process begun in the Windsor Report would thus be achieved in essence. Anglican provinces who didn’t come along with this would be in the outer circle of limited communion for not identifying with Anglican orthodoxy.

This would be a first step in getting Anglicanism back into proper shape.

Interviewer: Thank you for letting us look into your ‘crystal ball’.

(A standing ovation was given to Dr Packer, who also stood to acknowledge it.)

It is an interesting idea to get PCCs and Synods to endorse the Jerusalem Declaration. Most of it is uncontroversial among conservative Anglicans. But the likely sticking point is this clause:

13. We reject the authority of those churches and leaders who have denied the orthodox faith in word or deed. We pray for them and call on them to repent and return to the Lord.

Before the statement can be generally accepted there needs to be some clarification, as I discussed earlier today, about how this clause is not Donatism and not in conflict with Article XXVI.

UPDATE: John Richardson has added a summary of a panel discussion, which touches on many interesting issues. Peter Jensen confirmed that ordination of women was considered a secondary issue on which opinions could differ. Greg Venables noted that he is going to Lambeth, but said:

I have very little hope for Lambeth. It is not going to be a place where we can sit people down and see what we are going to do.

The discussion summary ends as follows:

Q: Could the panel comment about how people in the CofE may most helpfully respond to GAFCON and the Jerusalem Declaration?

Peter Jensen: This affects everyone in the UK. Os Guinness compared it to a nuclear explosion where the fallout will happen around the world. Your presence here suggests you are deeply concerned about that fallout. GAFCON is a spiritual movement. Many of you will want to be part of it and to apply it to your local situation. There will be no vote here, but if you are convinced of this you signal so by writing in to the GAFCON website, indicating you support for the GAFCON movement.

FURTHER UPDATE: John RIchardson is blogging almost as fast as I can keep up with him! He has now blogged on the session with Archbishop Peter Jensen of Sydney. In this Jensen takes further the point he started on at the end of the panel discussion. He explains why he considers it important for orthodox Anglicans to make a stand on this issue, not just to keep their heads down in their parishes. He answers Rowan Williams’ criticism that GAFCON is self-appointed:

GAFCON is a very Anglican answer — a new set of instruments of unity! They were not ‘self-appointed’, they were God-appointed, from looking at the Word of God and seeing what they needed to do. …

The last two weeks have been two of the most extraordinary in my life. What we are dealing with here is not a split, but a movement possibly as significant as the Evangelical Revival, or even the Anglo-Catholic movement if you prefer, and it may bring Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics together [applause].

The day conference apparently ended with these words from Jensen:

Henry Orombi, Greg Venables, Jim Packer have all spoken about the situation. It is not for me to tell you what you must do here, apart from saying you must stand for the gospel and the Bible. We are looking to you. We need you to be strong and brave and true. We will help you. And together we will resist the forces of evil and secularism which seek to extinguish the gospel and are using the Church to do that. Stand firm.

Packer calls on Williams to resign

There is quite a small club of us who have publicly called on Archbishop Rowan WIlliams to resign. In December last year I did so myself, here. This Februrary I quoted Tom Jackson writing this in a comment on Ruth Gledhill’s blog, and I reported here that an “anonymous senior churchman” had made the same call. Williams has perhaps had a bit of a break since then, but this week at GAFCON, as the BBC reports (and Doug Chaplin mocks, I hope the Nigerian church’s libel lawyers are merciful to him),

Nigerian bishop Emmanuel Chukwuma called for Rowan Williams to resign with immediate effect.

But the real news today is what the leading Anglican Evangelical J.I. Packer ha said. Somewhat surprisingly, Packer is not at GAFCON but in England, in fact in Eastbourne which is on his friend Bishop Wallace Benn’s territory while Benn is away at GAFCON. The following was reported by Hugh Bourne who heard him speak, and quoted by the Church Times blog:

Packer stated that Rowan Williams’ views about homosexuality (documented before becoming A of C, and not changed since) mean that he is not qualified to lead the Anglican Communion and enforce rules layed down at Lambeth in 1998. Big Jim was clear, “Rowan Williams should resign”!

Ruth Gledhill reports what appear to be Packer’s actual words:

I would say with great respect Archbishop, I believe that the way of wisdom is for you to resign.  Now that of course is very bold and tough talk and if I wasn’t in my 80’s, I might not feel that I had the gall to answer your question in the direct way that I have done, but that is what I would like to say to the Archbishop and I believe that it would be the kindest thing to say to him.

Ruth wonders if Packer is still a significant figure. Well, Ruth, even in this modern age there is more to being a significant figure than using computers and mobile phones – something we bloggers always need to remember.

Despite my reservations about some of Packer’s views, on this matter I find myself in good, and significant, company.

Packer leaves the Anglican Church of Canada

It was perhaps inevitable considering the action being taken against him, and indeed many may have thought it had happened months ago. But, according to a report from today’s Vancouver Sun posted by Suzanne, it is only this week that J.I. Packer has officially announced that he is leaving the Anglican Church of Canada and joining the Province of the Southern Cone, under Bishop Gregory Venables. Packer’s church, St John’s Shaughnessy, voted in February to affiliate to the Southern Cone. Now Packer is personally making the same move.

Michael Daley’s Lambeth Conference Canada blog has more background on this story. The announcement seems to have been first made on Monday in a press release which Daley apparently posts in full. The press release quotes from a response by Packer and ten other priests and deacons to their former bishop Michael Ingham, in which they deny the charges made against them, and write:

We have… determined that in order to uphold our ordination vows, we must leave your jurisdiction, and by this letter, we hereby relinquish the licences we hold from the Bishop of New Westminster. Each of us will receive a licence to continue our present parish ministries from Bishop Donald Harvey, who, as you know, is under the jurisdiction of the Primate of the Southern Cone. In this way, we will be able to continue our Anglican ministry within the Anglican Church, under the jurisdiction of and in communion with those who remain faithful to historic, orthodox Anglicanism and as part of the Anglican Communion worldwide.

Oddly, Daley mentioned neither Packer nor leaving the Anglican Church of Canada in his post title, and did not post this on his main Lambeth Conference blog. Anglican Mainstream reports the same story with more detail, noting that David Short is also among the clergy who resigned, but again without naming Packer or referring to resignations in a post title; in another post reporting the resignation of the eleven clergy, Packer is not named at all.

So, bizarrely, it seems to have taken Suzanne and a secular newspaper to make this internationally important news break outside Canada. Well, Hugh Bourne here in England did pick up the story on Wednesday, but has received (or allowed) no comments or pingbacks on it. And already on Tuesday Babyblue in Washington D.C. had clearly reported the story. But strangely it didn’t get into the corner of the blogosphere which I inhabit.

Packer on Pentecostalism

I tend to associate J.I. Packer with a kind of Reformed evangelicalism which values intellectualism more than experiences and is suspicious of any kind of manifest activity of the Holy Spirit. So I was interested to read at Pentecostal pastor Brian’s blog sunestauromai – living the crucified life an extract from an interview Packer has just given to a Pentecostal periodical. Here is most of what Brian quotes from Packer, apparently with Brian’s emphasis, and the periodical’s American spelling:

The Pentecostal emphasis on life in the Spirit, which became a big thing at the turn of the 20th century, was absolutely right. It was an emphasis that hadn’t been fully grasped by other evangelicals for a long time. The up-front quest for fellowship with God that grabbed the whole of the heart and therefore had emotional overtones and the openness to a recurrence of some of the signs of the Kingdom was right. …

It’s simply a marvelous work of God that when the Pentecostal version of the gospel has been preached all around the world for the past half-century there has been a tremendous harvest. It’s a wonderful work in our time, which we can set against the decline of Christianity in North America and Western Europe. Most notably in Africa and Asia, Christianity has been roaring ahead through the Pentecostal version of the Christian message and life in the Spirit. I celebrate it and thank God for it. There have been older evangelicals who have set themselves against distinctive Pentecostal emphases as if there’s something wrong with it. I have not lined up with those folk and indeed have argued that their attitude is mistaken.

Now I am not a Pentecostal by denomination; like Packer I am an Anglican. But I am one of many Anglicans, and people from other “traditional” denominations, who over the last 40 years (for me personally, for nearly 30 years) have embraced what used to be considered the distinctive Pentecostal emphases, on the gifts of the Holy Spirit. True, many of us have rejected, as I think Packer did, the Pentecostal teaching about the necessity of a specific “Baptism of the Holy Spirit” experience evidenced by speaking in tongues. But we hold that such experiences and gifts are good and to be desired, and that these gifts should be used, with proper safeguards, in the life of the church.

This is of course a summary of what is known as the Charismatic Movement. Perhaps in some ways the movement is dead, as some have alleged. But if so, it is not because its distinctives have been abandoned, more because they have become more and more acceptable in the life of the church and are no longer charismatic or Pentecostal distinctives.

But these Pentecostal and charismatic distinctives have often been viewed with great suspicion by British Anglicans of the Oak Hill tradition who look up to Packer as one of their Christian heroes. Perhaps Packer can help to persuade them that the good things in the Pentecostal tradition are good for reviving not just Pentecostal churches in Africa and Asia but also Anglican churches in North America and Western Europe.

Packer denies the Trinity?

The following passage from J.I. Packer’s 1973 classic Knowing God was quoted by Marilyn in a comment on the Complegalitarian blog, and I have checked and slightly corrected it from my 1975 copy (p.64):

It is the nature of the second person of the Trinity to acknowledge the authority and submit to the good pleasure of the first. That is why He declares Himself to be the Son, and the first person to be His Father. Though co-equal with the Father in eternity, power, and glory, it is natural to Him to play the Son’s part, and find all His joy in doing His Father’s will, just as it is natural to the first person of the Trinity to plan and initiate the works of the Godhead and natural to the third person to proceed from the Father and the Son to do their joint bidding. Thus the obedience of the God-man to the Father while He was on earth was not a new relationship occasioned by the incarnation, but the continuation in time of the eternal relationship between the Son and the Father in heaven. As in heaven, so on earth, the Son was utterly dependent upon the Father’s will.

Thus Packer’s way of teaching the eternal subordination of the Son is to claim that the Son has a “nature” which is different from that of the Father, according to which it is “natural” for him to do one thing and “natural” for the Father to do something else. Note that in the context Packer is clearly referring to the divine nature of the Son, not his incarnate human nature.

Doesn’t that conflict with the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity, according to which the Father and the Son have the same divine nature (homoousios)? Doesn’t it contradict these extracts from the Athanasian Creed?

we believe and confess that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and man. God of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds; and man of substance of His mother, born in the world. … Equal to the Father as touching His Godhead, … One altogether, not by confusion of substance, but by unity of person.

Doesn’t it go against Philippians 2:6, where we read that Christ Jesus was “in very nature God” (TNIV)? In orthodox Trinitarian thought, the pre-incarnate divine nature of Christ is not some second-class divinity, not a “nature … to acknowledge the authority and submit to the good pleasure of the first [person]”. No, it is the same nature, substance or essence (ousia) as that of the Father.

Perhaps Bishop Ingham is right to accuse Packer that “that he has publicly renounced the doctrine … of the Anglican Church of Canada”, which presumably still requires him to ascribe to the Apostles’, Nicene and Athanasian Creeds. In fact, of course, Packer wrote the words in question long before he moved to Canada, so perhaps he should never have been licensed to minister there.

For the orthodox view, I quote the church father Basil as quoted here:

We perceive the operation of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to be one and the same, in no respect showing differences or variation; from this identity of operation we necessarily infer the unity of nature.

Packer threatened with suspension from ministry

As reported on Michael Daley’s unofficial Lambeth Conference blog, the renowned Bible scholar and teacher Dr JI Packer, aged 81, yesterday

received a letter threatening suspension from ministry by the controversial Bishop of New Westminster, Michael Ingham.

Two weeks ago, as I reported here, the Anglican church of which Packer is a member, St John’s Shaughnessy, decided to leave Bishop Ingham’s diocese and affiliate to the Province of the Southern Cone. Several other congregations have also voted to leave this and other dioceses of the “official” Anglican Church of Canada.

It is not clear what the bishop’s charge is against Packer. It has not been reported that he took any active part in the decision at St John’s, even that he was among the overwhelming 475 to 11 majority (9 abstentions) who voted to join the Southern Cone. In Packer’s only public comment on the issue that I know about, he did not, despite his strong criticisms, announce any intention to leave the Anglican Church of Canada.

It is also not clear what Ingham’s threats can actually mean in practice. Ingham cannot strip Packer of his priesthood. He can formally prohibit Packer from ministering in those churches remaining loyal to him – but then such a prohibition could hardly be enforced in the current climate, and most of these churches would not have invited Packer anyway.

So Ingham’s threat is in fact not much more than a gesture. But what kind of gesture is it? Not a polite one, I think. It seems that Bishop Ingham, in his zeal to purge his diocese of those who disagree with his theologically liberal agenda, which includes promotion of same-sex marriage, is not prepared even to show common courtesy to an Anglican elder statesman.

Meanwhile there have been so many developments in Anglican churches in Canada, congregations leaving their dioceses and diocesan authorities attempting to stop them, that Michael Daley has set up a special blog to keep track of them. The latest news just in is excellent for at least two of the parishes that have voted to join the Southern Cone: an Ontario judge has ruled that “the parishioners … shall have exclusive use of the buildings” at least until the next hearing on 20th March.

St John's Shaughnessy leaves the Anglican Church of Canada

Last November I wrote two posts about St John’s church, Shaughnessy, in Vancouver, the largest congregation in the Anglican Church of Canada, and its controversial Rector David Short. Today the news has broken that this church, of which J.I. Packer is a member, has voted overwhelmingly to leave the official Anglican Church and affiliate to the Province of the Southern Cone. This decision is hardly a surprise, given that Short is a director of the Anglican Network in Canada which has as a whole affiliated to the Southern Cone, and Packer has given a presentation supporting this move. Nevertheless it is significant that the congregation has overwhelmingly accepted their position, even under the threat of legal action from their diocese to appropriate their church buildings.

Thanks to Michael Daley and Anglican Mainstream for the tip.