A Controversy Revisited (2) – Jim Packer

(I’d wish to emphasise this post should be read in conjunction with the previous post on Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ part in the controversy; actually I’ve noticed the Lloyd-Jones post seems to be consulted quite often, and I feel people aren’t getting a fully balanced view without this other aspect of the controversy.  I’ve edited the Lloyd-Jones post to draw attention to this one, and correspondingly, if you’ve come here first I encourage you to read the other post too…. )

I described in the first of these posts the controversy raised by Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ call in 1966 for evangelicals to withdraw from doctrinally lax denominations, particularly the Anglicans and Methodists.  Leading Evangelical Anglicans like John Stott and Jim Packer resisted this call, and there was a particularly painful breach between Lloyd-Jones and Packer who previously had worked closely together in various Puritan-related projects.  I now want to look at Packer’s position.  As with Lloyd-Jones, Packer is one of my heroes, I’ve learned much from him and I own quite a few of his works.  Nevertheless in this case I think he was wrong….

As I said, Packer was broadly right in the general idea that one should not abandon doctrinally lax churches/ denominations but seek to reform and revive them from inside; provided, that is, that they remain formally evangelical in doctrine.  But what he seems to have failed to recognise is that the Anglican Church’s position as a state church is itself a serious contradiction of biblical doctrine and compromises the very nature of the church;  thus by Packer’s own criteria evangelicals should come out of Anglicanism.  Not perhaps precipitately, especially at present when change seems more likely than it ever has, and a peaceable disestablishment might be achieved in a reasonable time; I would accept that evangelicals who are already Anglican might at present see their duty in staying in Anglicanism to help the church through disestablishment and then reform it as a non-state church.  But I can’t see a case for evangelicals staying within the church while accepting its established status, because as far as I can see, that would not be biblically faithful and so not evangelical.  Nor can I see a case for staying in a deeply unbiblical church forever once aware of the defect.

Why doesn’t Packer see that point?  Knowing Packer’s usually incisive mind, I was puzzled when I first started reconsidering the controversy, and then I found in a charity shop a copy of the symposium “God’s Inerrant Word” to which Packer was a contributor.  In his essay on “Sola Scriptura” I found the following assertions (omitting, I hope fairly, points not relevant to the current argument and on which I broadly agree with Packer – check the full argument on pp55-57 1974 edition);

“….one finds that the main theological issues that have divided Protestants who hold to sola Scriptura have been these;….(4) how the churches should be related to the state – the issue in debates about establishment throughout the world since the seventeenth century; (5) whether churchmen’s children may properly be baptised in infancy or not – the issue between Baptist and all other Protestant churches; …..[i]

What are we to say to these matters of debate?  First, that whatever divisions they may have occasioned in the past it is very arguable that, being in reality secondary questions, they need not and ideally would not have this (divisive) effect.  Second, that it is also very arguable that in each of these cases unexamined assumptions brought to the task of exegesis, rather than any obscurities arising from it, were really at the root of the cleavage.  The trouble was that presuppositions were read into Scripture rather than read out of it, as follows; ….(4,5) The fourth and fifth debates reflected the presupposition that Scripture must legislate on the issues in question, even though no biblical author addresses himself to either. ….  (My underlining – SL)

It is a confusion to blame the principle of sola Scriptura for conflicts which sprang from insufficient circumspection in exegesis”.

On finding these words of Packer’s I was just a bit gobsmacked!  For starters how could the issue of establishment not be divisive in all kinds of ways especially when in the past it has led to Christians persecuting one another or fighting outright wars?  But even more, that comment about ‘…the presupposition that Scripture must legislate on the issues in question even though no biblical author addresses himself to either’ is simply wrong – there’s no need of any ‘presupposition’ because lots of biblical authors actually do address the issue of establishment, and that includes places in the Gospels recording the words of Jesus himself!  Of course they do not address the problem in the modern form that has developed since Constantine – why should they address something which hadn’t happened yet and which they clearly didn’t expect or believe should happen[ii]?  The NT authors simply expound how the church is supposed to normally work – as a non-established body – and make lots of statements which to say the least are hard to reconcile with the idea of an established church.

I’m not going to go into great detail on those scriptures here – I either have covered or will cover many such cases as this blog goes on – but just a few comments.  The whole idea of being ‘born again’ through faith speaks against ‘Christian countries’ because while you can legislate for superficial conformity and threaten people into it, you can’t by legislation achieve real genuine new spiritual birth.  Wesley had somewhat to say about this (though it seems he never quite saw the full implications for the establishment).  Asked by a bishop “Why do you talk of the success of the gospel in England, which was a Christian country before you were born?” Wesley responded “Was it indeed?  Is it so at this day?  – If men are not Christians till they are renewed after the image of Christ, and if the people of England, in general, are not so renewed, why do we term them so?  ‘The god of this world hath’ long ‘blinded their hearts’.  Let us do nothing to increase their blindness; but rather recover them from that strong delusion, that they may no longer believe a lie”.

Quickly a few others – Jesus before Pilate saying among other things, ‘My kingdom is not of this world’; Peter describing his hearers as ‘resident aliens’ (there is a word in I Peter which appears to translate as exactly that) and not expecting that to change before the Second Coming, and far from telling his readers to take the state over, telling them to be ‘subject to’ the state authorities and not to be ‘allotriepiskopoi’ – managers of other people’s affairs;  Paul saying ‘Come out and be ye separate’ and ‘our warfare is not with physical weapons’ (unlike umpteen religious wars in Jesus’ name including the English Civil War and the Ulster Troubles)… there are many more….

I’m still a bit puzzled (understatement!) that Packer could be so wrong; but I also remember that at the time in the 1960s evangelicals felt embattled and saw it as important to maintain evangelical unity.  I certainly valued groups like the Crusaders Union (nowadays ‘Urban Saints’) and the University Christian Unions where it was possible to ignore differences to a large extent precisely because of the large extent of our Bible-based agreements[iii].  Also the long custom of toleration in England seemed to have made establishment comparatively irrelevant at a practical level, and the ecumenical movement had us all looking for ways to work together between the churches.  Issues over Ulster and non-Christian religions including Islam, which brought the question of religious establishment back to the top of both British and global concerns, were still in the future in 1966, and even now far too many people, in and out of the churches, haven’t fully realised the implications.

One obvious comment is that if Anglican Jim Packer couldn’t find support for establishment in the New Testament, there certainly can’t be any clear teaching in favour of it.

But essentially, all the leaders in the 1966 controversy were arguing over the wrong thing, and failed to realise that the issues around state churches were very relevant to the doctrinal laxity issue and that they were also more important on a far wider scale.  It’s perhaps understandable that they got things wrong in the then climate of British religious affairs; for us now, after over 40 years of the Ulster troubles and decades of problems around Islam and the Middle East, it’s a great deal less understandable that we mostly continue to ignore the issue.  Let’s repair that error ASAP!!

[i]  I don’t really want to consider the baptism issue in detail here; I only included it because as you see, Packer’s lumping baptism together with establishment in the second paragraph meant I had to include both bits of the first section for clarity.  I do by the way object slightly to the implication that it is only the one Baptist denomination which disagrees with all other churches on that point.  The practice of believer’s baptism (‘credo-baptism’?) is far wider than just the Baptists as such, and significantly is usually adopted by churches founded from the Bible alone without awareness of other traditions!

[ii] There is an argument that the evil effects of establishment are shown in ‘coded’ form in some of the prophecies in Revelation about false religion in the end-times.  But there is certainly no teaching favouring ‘Christian states’, and much to say otherwise.

[iii] In contrast the various denominational societies at our university, mostly of liberal theological leanings, had so attenuated a ‘gospel’ to agree on that their denominational distinctives and disagreements were almost all they had to uphold, so they couldn’t easily agree….


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