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J.I. Packer and the Heritage of Anglican Theology

The Heritage of Anglican Theology.
By J.I. Packer.
Crossway. Pp. 372 $39.99.

Review by Jordan Hylden

When J.I. Packer died last summer, he left behind a mountain of theological writing — nearly seventy books! — that few can match, including the classic bestseller Knowing God. He was the general editor of the ESV Bible translation, and one of the most influential evangelicals of the last hundred years. He was, moreover, by all accounts a kind, humble, and saintly man. In the world of Evangelicalism, marred lately by shameful scandals and celebrity culture, surely we need more J.I. Packers.

Packer’s stature in the wider evangelical world is such that it is possible to know his work without knowing much if anything about his Anglicanism. Yet he was a faithful evangelical Anglican who was engaged in the life of his church for decades, both making waves as a younger man for refusing to leave the Church of England and join a separate British pan-evangelical church, as D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones wanted him to do; and also leaving the Anglican Church of Canada after its liberalizing moves on marriage and becoming a leading figure in the new Anglican Church in North America.

Now, in his last published book, we have Packer’s overview of The Heritage of Anglican Theology. It consists of his revisions to classroom lectures he gave for many years for introductory courses in Anglican theology. As such, it serves as a lively and thorough overview of Anglican thought from Cranmer up through about the middle of the 20th century. Moreover, it achieves what Packer’s colleague Donald Lewis says was its author’s hope: to “convince many that the evangelical Anglican tradition is a proper and valued expression of Anglicanism with its roots in the Anglican formularies and its Prayer Book.”

Packer writes as a committed evangelical, but the book is far from simply an apologia for evangelical Anglicanism. Rather, he takes pains to tell his evangelical readers, as he told his students, that to prepare for Anglican ministry one must be sympathetically familiar with the other two great strands of Anglicanism: High Church or Anglo-Catholic, and Broad Church or liberal. Packer quite deliberately structures his book to tell the story of all three strands, attending along the way to their debates with each other.

“Whenever we have Anglicans from various places meeting together,” Packer writes,

we shall gain by having all these different views making their presence felt, and the discussion will be the less significant if we do not. There should also be a constant endeavor on the part of leaders to achieve consensus statements that address all the concerns of all the parties in the discussions. The interaction of all parties involved in Anglican discussions is often near to unique among Christian churches today.

All true, and wise words for Anglican leaders who may at times be tempted to purify their diocese or province from one or more of Anglicanism’s historic three strands.

Unsurprisingly, Packer is strongest when telling the story of evangelical Anglicanism. He gives a spirited account of the English Reformation, emphasizing its recovery of the primacy of Holy Scripture, the doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone, and the generally Reformed view of the sacraments that Archbishop Cranmer took. Unlike some overviews of Anglicanism, Packer includes Puritanism as part of the Anglican story rather than as outside of it, and his chapter on the Puritan quest for holy living is enthusiastic and expert (Packer wrote his Oxford dissertation on Richard Baxter). So too, Packer gives a thorough and sympathetic treatment of the evangelical revival that began in the first half of the 18th century, to which figures such as the Wesleys, George Whitefield, and Charles Simeon were central.

Packer is able to show, with justice, that evangelical theological commitments are quite at home in the heritage of Anglican theology. One could not ask for better formulations of the primacy of Scripture and the Reformation doctrine of justification than one can find in Richard Hooker, Anglicanism’s greatest theologian, as well as in Cranmer and the Thirty-Nine Articles. A generally “low-church” Reformed view of the sacraments, emphasizing the necessity of faith to receive their benefits rather than Christ’s objective presence, is indeed a view that can call upon Cranmer and many others as an ally. And so much of what we now call Evangelicalism is of Anglican provenance, running from the Wesleys and Whitefield up through John Stott, the Alpha Course, and Packer himself (though he is too modest to make that point). If evangelicals at times are made to feel somewhat less than properly Anglican, they should take heart that they have a central place in the heritage of Anglican theology.

But as I mentioned, Packer’s pedagogical goals are broader than showing Evangelicalism’s rightful place Anglican history. He also gives a fairly thorough and sympathetic view of the High Church and Anglo-Catholic movement, outlining the convictions and contributions of the Caroline Divines and the Anglo-Catholics of the Oxford movement era. Packer was a key member of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together ecumenical dialogue, and he withstood real criticism from his right flank for making common cause and finding common ground with Catholics, whether Roman or Anglican. He presents Anglo-Catholics as having made important contributions to Anglicanism, with a valid place of their own in classic Anglican formularies.

In particular, Packer takes care to articulate the High Church view of the sacraments and its biblical reasonableness, though he also leaves the reader in no doubt that he disagrees with it. He lifts up the Anglo-Catholic recovery of the Church as Christ’s body throughout the world, central to God’s plan of salvation and responsible for its own governance. This, Packer indicates, was a genuinely biblical recovery that the evangelicals and Reformers had not adequately seen. And he tells the story of their dedication to church buildings and the beautifying of worship, neither of which evangelicals had paid very much attention to; and of their dedication to ministry among the poor, which they shared with evangelicals.

All in all, while Packer certainly tells the history of conflict between evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics, he presents the two strands as having made real contributions, with biblically reasonable differences that can be lived with charitably within one church. He does not say everything that an Anglo-Catholic might want to hear: for instance, there is little sense that he has taken on board Eamon Duffy’s re-reading of the English Reformation, and he is not very sympathetic to the Catholic desire to recover aspects of the tradition that the Reformation cast aside. That said, one gets the sense that here is a generous man who is doing his best to present a tradition with which he has real disagreements.

When it comes to telling the story of the Broad Church or liberal strand, Packer strains to find sufficient common ground for a sympathetic reading. He does show how the Broad Church party had its work cut out for it in attempting to maintain sufficient space in one national church for the at times fractious and internally-focused evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics, and this is an attempt for which Packer has real sympathy. And he tells its story as a theological movement with real insight, explaining its roots in higher criticism, Enlightenment rationalism, Schleiermacher, and so on.

Packer cannot muster a great deal of sympathy for the rationalists and modernists who effectively became Unitarians, denying the divinity of Christ and the uniqueness of his saving work. I cannot muster a great deal of sympathy for this view either, I admit. Packer writes,

Christianity in the hands of rational divinity — in the second half of the nineteenth century and on through the first half of the twentieth — became a kind of moralistic deism more than Christian theism: God is there, God has a law, God has moral standards; we then start from where we are and live moral lives by keeping God’s equivalent of the scout law, and that is our Christian calling; that is what Christianity essentially amounts to.

I am afraid that far too many sermons one hears in Anglican churches — to wit, “God is love, God loves everyone, God’s justice requires everyone to be included by God’s love, now get out there and get busy saving the world in God’s name” — have their roots in this kind of thinking. Such thinking is functionally Unitarian and anthropocentric, and eviscerates the gospel of salvation by grace through faith in Christ’s atoning work on the cross.

Yet I have more sympathy for the questions, insights, and methods of liberal theology than it appears Packer did. Packer was a signatory of the Chicago Statement on biblical inerrancy, and an advisor to the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (a complementarian group opposed to women’s ordination). It’s been said that postliberal theology can only really be appreciated by those who understand that liberal theology has made points that need to be integrated into our understanding, even if moved beyond. Packer may not be the ideal candidate for helping his readers appreciate what at least some of theological liberalism was up to, even though he tries.

The book ends before Packer is able to get to telling the story of the last 50 years, and does little to narrate the story and contributions of the wider Anglican Communion as it has spread around the globe. No book can do everything, and an overview class would need to supplement Packer on this point. If I were to use it for a class — and I may well do so; it is an excellent and lively book — I would likely want to assign quality reading from representatives of the other two Anglican schools of thought, such as Michael Ramsey’s The Gospel and the Catholic Church and Rowan Williams’s Anglican Identities.

Packer’s book should go on the shelf next to Stephen Neill’s Anglicanism, Paul Avis’s many books, Stephen Spencer’s Anglicanism study guide, and other similar works. Packer shows well that evangelical Anglicanism’s energetic witness to the gospel of grace, its zeal for personal faith and conversion, its deep love for Scripture, and its attention to catechesis, are hallmarks that enrich all of Anglicanism, even as the rest of Anglicanism can and should enrich evangelicals. We are already indebted to Packer for so much, and so too for this, his last gift to the Anglican churches he served so faithfully.

The Rev. Dr. Jordan Hylden is canon theologian of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas, and soon to be associate rector of the Church of the Ascension, Lafayette, Louisiana.


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