To prove that I am no Packer fanboy, let me say upfront that he was not a great public speaker. Many who first encountered him in his books and looked forward to hearing him speak were often disappointed. His voice came through powerfully in his books but not in his public lectures. And those of us who took his classes in seminary were often frustrated that he took questions from any in the class who voiced them and used generous amounts of class time to answer the questions when often they were questions that had nothing to do with the subject under study or came from students who were clearly not seeking knowledge but who were trying to show off. But when I heard that he had passed on early July 18th (Singapore time) my heart broke. Dr. Packer was more than just my teacher and mentor. He and his wife Kit had become my dear friends. Many are writing their tributes to this dear saint and I am sure many more will be written in the days ahead. He had touched so many lives. For this eulogy I will mention three things.
Many know him for his book Knowing God (1973), still a classic. It helped so many of us move beyond knowing about God to knowing God personally. But I especially appreciate his earlier book, Fundamentalism and the Word of God, written in 1958. At a time when liberal theology was dominant, it planted a flag for the authority of the Bible and its central place in Christian life. The worldwide church owes him big time for daring to take a stand for truth even when it was unpopular. In more recent times, he has called the church at large and the Anglican community in Canada in particular (he is Anglican) to repent of a position that endorses same-sex marriage. As a result, in 2008 the Anglican church of Canada suspended his ministry credentials, but another Anglican province based in Argentina immediately accredited him. So, as he entered his 80s, a time when many would be enjoying retirement, he was still fighting for God and His Word even when it cost him.
One of the things I will treasure learning from him is this — the Bible is inerrant but our interpretation of the Bible may not be. All of us grapple with our blind spots and so the battle for the Bible is not equivalent to a battle for my interpretation of the Bible. Our understanding of the Bible itself must come under the scrutiny of the Bible. So, while he had issues with the “new hermeneutic” which often put the locus of Bible meaning in the Bible reader not the text, he encouraged evangelicals to be more sensitised to the role of the reader in Bible interpretation and to be more aware of the bias we bring to Bible interpretation. In his Systematic Theology 1: Introduction to Systematic Theology class he exhorted us to take seriously the key doctrines of the church as guard rails for right belief and right behaviour. Furthermore, he reminded us that we can’t write doctrines from scratch every morning. However, we need to continually subject our doctrinal beliefs to the scrutiny of scripture — to see if we got it right, or if we had left out key biblical teaching. I will always be grateful for this balanced approach that encourages me to take theology seriously but to be not so solidified in my thinking that I stop thinking.
It was this theological humility that also led him to dialogue with those from other traditions, including Pentecostals and Roman Catholics. This got him into trouble with the more conservative wings of the faith, but those of us who knew him also knew he would never betray his beliefs. But he saw the value of interacting with those outside one’s tradition. The task of theological reflection continues. We need this commitment to irenic theological conversation more than ever today.
Arguably, the final test of a theology is what kind of human being results from an adherence to that theology. We know the value of your beliefs by what kind of person you are.
Packer wasn’t just interested in theology. He was interested in jazz and in mystery novels. Once I had the privilege of staying in his home for a few days. We chatted about theology, of course, but what I will remember are our discussions on mystery novels. He was aware of the newer mystery novel writers, but we discussed in depth the key differences between Hercule Poirot and Father Brown. Does your theology lead you away from life or to embrace life in its fullness?
In the last few years Bernice and I visited Vancouver about once a year and the Packers would also make time for us. Kit is an introvert and Jim was already struggling with macular degeneration and other health problems, and I am sure there were many who wanted to meet them. Looking back now, I am sure it cost them energy and effort to see us, but they did. They don’t communicate by email, so they never knew we were coming until we reached Vancouver and called them. Usually it would be Kit who picked up the phone and I can still hear her call out: “Jim, it’s Soo Inn…” and we would quickly set up a time to meet. We want so much to visit with Kit next time we are in Vancouver, but we will miss our chats with our friend Jim. Does your theology move you to make space in your life for people?
The moment I heard that Packer had passed away I rushed to get the book that he had autographed for me. Appropriately, the book is Truth and Power: The Place of Scripture in the Christian Life. This is how he had autographed the book.
All blessings to you Soo Inn: faithful brother in the ministry of the Word.
Jim Packer, July 1999.
I am not one who collects autographs from famous people unless I have some kind of personal connection with them. I have always treasured this autograph. It’s priceless now. He wrote this for me when I was staying at his place. Hmm… I think he gave me the book as well. What most people will not know was that he gave me the book and the autograph at one of the lowest points of my life. So many things in my life had gone wrong and I was struggling with depression. The autographed book was manna for my soul. Does your theology make you a kinder person?
Having a sense of humour
I am not sure if there is a biblical basis for this, but I think healthy theologians have a sense of humour. (I think Jesus cracked more jokes than we give him credit for.) Once, I introduced Jim at a public lecture in Kuala Lumpur. My introduction was an expression of my high regard for him, in particular his heroic defence of biblical authority when it was not fashionable to do so. When he came to the rostrum, he said, “Well I am glad Soo-Inn thinks so”. Those of us who knew him will never forget his smile and the twinkle in his eye. We are therefore not surprised when we are told:
James Innell Packer died July 17th in Vancouver, British Columbia. He was ninety-three, and humorous, gracious, and prayerful even in his final days.
Does your theology make you take yourself more seriously or make you take God more seriously, freeing you to laugh at yourself?
So, Jim has moved on now. He is no longer residing in the Southlands area of Vancouver. But I know his new place. And I will be seeing him there in the not-too-distant future.