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.

12 thoughts on “Packer denies the Trinity?

  1. I think the problem here is one of equivocation. When Packer uses “nature” and “natural” it doesn’t seem to suggest that he has the divine ousia in mind. And when he says: “Though co-equal with the Father in eternity, power, and glory…” that should be enough to see that he recognizes consubstantiality.

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  3. Nick, I will respond to you here in similar terms to a response I have just posted on the “Lambeth Conference” Canada blog.

    I agree that the problem is with what Packer actually meant by “the nature of the second person of the Trinity”. I learned as orthodox Christian teaching that Jesus Christ has two natures, “the distinction of natures (phusis) being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved”, in the words of the Chalcedonian Definition. Now I know that the Chalcedonian Definition is not formally a creed of the Anglican church, but I don’t think anyone tries to distinguish between “nature” (phusis) here and “substance” (ousia) in the Nicene and Athanasian creeds. So if Packer used the word “nature” in the context of a discussion of the Trinity (admittedly for a popular audience) in a way incompatible with its standard use in Trinitarian theology, then he is asking for misunderstanding and accusations of heresy.

    I accept that Packer upholds the Athanasian Creed. Indeed he quotes the relevant part just a few pages earlier in Knowing God. It is a shame that he confuses the issue by his abuse of the word “nature”.

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  5. The way Packer speaks here is extremely common among contemporary evangelicals. It’s rare nowadays that anyone in ordinary language uses the word ‘nature’ in such a restricted way as to mean what the creeds meant. It usually just means which properties are held by something, as far as I can tell. So Packer’s statement is in keeping with contemporary language far more than those translations of the creed that use ‘nature’ for ‘ousia’. It does create confusion among those who are scholars of the creeds, but I bet almost all of Packer’s popular-level authors understood exactly what he meant.

  6. Jeremy, the confusion here is about whether what Packer describes as Jesus’ “nature” is what is ontologically true of him or something purely functional or (in the technical sense) accidental. I must say I understand “nature” as about ontology not function. And to me that is the normal meaning of “nature”. If others have a different take on this word, I am simply confused.

  7. In the light of the above it is interesting, although not necessarily significant, that in this interview with Packer he mentions only the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds, not the Athanasian creed. So I wonder if he does have some difficulties with the latter. But, for better or for worse, the Athanasian creed is considered to be part of the official doctrine of Anglican churches.

  8. This is a hasty post, with all the problems that entails, and so I haven’t got time to do more than raise a question: In what sense is the Father not interchangeable with the Son, also the Spirit, etc, and does this have relevance to this debate?

    The Athanasian Creed affirms: “the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; Neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance.”

    Also: “The Father is made of none, neither created nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made nor created, but begotten. The Holy Spirit is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Spirit, not three Holy Spirits.

    Differentiation must surely be admitted on this basis. Thus the question is not whether the Son is, in some (Athanasian) sense, different from the Father (and the Spirit) but in what that difference consists. Packer argues it differs in the issue of obedience. That must be argued on its own merits, not on the notion that there can be no differentiation.

    Must the Athanasian Creed be taken as covering all the differentiation, or can there be other implications, for example in being begotten or in begetting, that the Creed does not purport to cover?

  9. Thanks, John. I don’t want to deny any differentiation in the Trinity. But the point I think I am trying to make is that these differences are functional or economic, not ontological. Equivalently, I think, the differences are not because different things are “natural” to them but because they have freely decided to do different things. That is where I think Packer’s treatment comes unstuck.

  10. Greetings Peter,

    Apologies for this late comment but I just came across your blog for the first time.
    I think part of the problem here is that there isn’t a very clear taxonomy for referring to the nature of the persons as persons, or more specifically as Father or as Son. The Cappadocian scheme of course leaves “nature” at the level of ousia and uses tropos hyparxeos to describe the way in which that nature ex/subsists in the hypostases. But you could (if you wanted to be confusing perhaps!) also say that the tropoi thereby have their own “nature” which makes them subsist in that way. In fact this is precisely how Cornelius Plantinga puts it in his seminal defence of Social Trinitarianism (of which Packer’s theology here is an example).
    By the way I think Basil would agree with Packer that it is natural for the Son to do the Father’s will though he would probably not want to put in those social/volitional terms (his friend, Gregory Nazianzen might). I can show quotes if you’d like.
    Best Regards,

  11. Andrew, thanks for your comment. I don’t want to go back into this one in detail. My concern was that the claim that Jesus is submissive by nature takes away from his divine nature and unity with the Father. But I accept that the problem really is that the English word “nature” has so many different meanings.

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