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.”

0 thoughts on “Packer: "A totally impassive God would be a horror"

  1. I’m confused :s I thought that Anglicans were, by and large, Arminians (sp?) and not Calvinists. Is this an incorrect assumption, or is Packer just one of very few Calvinist Anglicans?

  2. Rhea, it’s hard to say. I would suggest that ever since the beginning of the Church of England there has been a mixture of Calvinists and Arminians – although those terms would be anachronistic in its earliest days. The Thirty Nine Articles condemn Pelagianism, and perhaps lean towards Calvinism but do not explicitly teach it (after all, they predate the career of Arminius). Here is Article X, the most relevant:


    THE condition of Man after the fall of Adam is such, that he cannot turn and prepare himself, by his own natural strength and good works, to faith, and calling upon God: Wherefore we have no power to do good works pleasant and acceptable to God, without the grace of God by Christ preventing us, that we may have a good will, and working with us, when we have that good will.

    But many Anglicans, and especially US Episcopalians, have long ago abandoned these articles as a doctrinal standard. I would suggest that most high church and liberal Anglicans are more Arminian than Calvinist, and so are many evangelical Anglicans. But the conservative evangelical wing for whom Packer is a special hero are mostly Calvinists, and would tend to claim that true Anglicans should be Calvinists.

    Packer’s 1961 book Evangelism & The Sovereignty Of God is a clear exposition of Calvinism, and the same view underlines his better known 1973 book Knowing God. So if by 1986 he was closer to being Arminian, that was a major change in his theology. But perhaps I should re-read Knowing God to see if there was really a change.

  3. There are some insightful comments and a clear desire for orthodoxy, which is commendable (and important), but this whole argument is grounded in a fallacy of equivocation; impassibility and impassiveness are two different things. Best.

  4. Jon, thank you for that comment. I understand the distinction you are making. We can perhaps all agree that God is not impassive. But, if you are claiming that he is, however, impassible, what do you mean by this? Would you disagree with the Wikipedia definition, that God “does not experience pain or pleasure from the actions of another being”? What do you think of Packer’s definition, “the chosenness of God’s grief and pain as the essence of his impassibility”? Can your “impassible” God “make new decisions as he reacts to human doings”?

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