In memory of J. I. Packer: A personal tribute

Last week (July 17, 2020), God welcomed J. I. Packer to his life after death, with Christ, and I’m confident that he was received with a hearty: “Well done, my good and faithful servant.” Many people who knew him much better than I did  have published tributes to him, but I want to share my own reasons for being very grateful to this great servant of God, for his contribution to my own life and theological formation, by publishing here a letter which I wrote to him, twenty years ago, for precisely that purpose. (Of course, the pictures I have added here were not in the original letter.)

Dr. Packer never joined the email world, because he always wrote with his typewriter. Consequently, I mailed my letter to him by regular post, and I received his response by means of a fax from Regent College.

My letter of July 26, 2000

Dear Dr. Packer,

While on vacation recently, I read Alister McGrath’s biography of you and it left me with a profound sense of gratitude for the contribution that your theological work has made to my own life and work as a theologian. I first intended to drop you a note of appreciation but then decided also to give you a copy of my recent book, since it deals with a subject at the interface of systematic and practical theology which you have addressed so splendidly. I hesitate to send the book to you, lest it appear as more of a burden than a gift, but I am doing so in hopes that you will feel no obligation to read it unless it interests you. Please receive it as my expression of gratitude for your ministry. The research for the book was done during a sabbatical year at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, and so I particularly enjoyed McGrath’s treatment of your own associations with Oxford and other theological training institutions in England. We worshipped at St. Aldate’s during that year and were richly blessed by the experience.

I can best describe to you the ways in which you have had an impact on me by tracing a few of the points at which your work has affected me. I was not raised with Calvinist teaching and I still remember the horror with which I was first taught a Calvinist understanding of conversion in a course on personal evangelism, at London College of Bible and Missions (now part of Tyndale College). As an M.A. student at Wheaton, the light went on for me through the reading of John Murray’s Redemption Accomplished and Applied. The next year, I was a Lecturer at LCBM, during Kermit Ecklebarger’s sabbatical and, providentially, had my office next to Don Leggett who has continued at Tyndale. Don is a thoroughgoing Calvinist and I was benefited by many hours of conversation with him that year. It was he who got me into reading the Banner of Truth magazine and their publications.

It was at that point in my life that I was much blessed by your book on Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God . I had previously read a couple of your books on Scripture, which were very helpful, but this one caught me right at the time when my own grasp of God’s sovereignty was under major development. I recall passing on the essence of your work when I was invited to speak at a youth retreat. The material produced the same sort response I have gotten used to in years of teaching since then. For some, the light went on and they went off eagerly to pursue this truth in Scripture. Others expressed the sort of horror that I had originally felt in that personal evangelism course at Bible College. I have now taught theology for more than 30 years, in non-denominational schools where few of the students come from Reformed churches. I have noticed that people seem to be born Arminian and only become Calvinists kicking and struggling, because the broad testimony of Scripture compels them to do so. Only then does the beauty of this truth begin to grow on them.

In regard to my Calvinistic theology, I thought that your introduction to John Owen’s Death of Death was superb. I have continued to be one of the rare breed (in evangelical Baptist circles) of five point Calvinists. Your lucid description of the five points of Dort, coming to me shortly after Murray’s biblical exposition of particular redemption, has had a lasting impact. In recent years, I have been pleased to see that Wesleyan theologians are noting the incoherence of universal atonement and penal substitutionary atonement. My own insistence on this fact is usually a bit of a shock to my students who have frequently been taught a penal substitutionary view but also believe that Christ died to save everyone. I certainly have no desire to shake their confidence in Christ’s penal substitution, but I do push them to coherence and it generally results in a more careful way of speaking about whom Christ died to save.

A second area in which you have had an influence in my life has been in regard to my attitude to Pentecostals and charismatics. In my Wheaton years, in the early days of the charismatic movement, I had very much wanted the gift of tongues. I was prayed for by Pentecostals but nothing happened. I later became a member of a mission which was decidedly cool toward charismatic demonstrations and suspicious of those who claimed to have been blessed by the Spirit in special ways. My theology of the Spirit was non-Pentecostal but I was much less critical of charismatics than my colleagues were. I think it was in about 1974 that someone gave me a copy of an address that you had given at an IVCF meeting, possibly at MacMaster University. It rang a bell with me and I have cited it periodically. I later began to subscribe to the little bimonthly published by “Allies for Faith and Renewal” and was pleased to find your name among the Board members. It demonstrated the sort of ecumenical graciousness that I wanted to project from within my own Calvinist framework.

I attended two of their conferences, and it was at the second one (in Wheaton, in about 1987, I think) that we had the only conversation that has occurred between us. I had previously written to you in the mid-70s about the possibility of doing doctoral work with you at Bristol. You had suggested Westminster and I eventually ended up doing a profitable Th.M. program there. The point of our conversation at the Allies conference, however, was that I was then in conversation with Carey Hall about the Macdonald chair and I wanted to pick your brain a bit about the situation. They had a difficult time figuring out where they wanted to go with that position and by the time they got the final short list put together, I had already accepted a position at Providence College and Seminary. Stan Grenz was eventually appointed. Anyway, I mention all this to say that I greatly appreciated your ministry and presence at the Allies Conference, where Orthodox and Roman Catholics with warm hearts for God were able to benefit from the ministry of a Protestant whose theology is not Pentecostal but whose deep roots in the Puritans fosters a vibrant pneumatology. I was also grateful for the brief conversation we had. Your book, Keep in Step with the Spirit , later enunciated an understanding of the Holy Spirit that accords very well with my own.

The third area in which I have felt something of a kindred spirit was in your ecumenical work in pursuit of common opposition to secularism with Roman Catholics. ECT [Evangelicals and Catholics Together] has turned out to be very controversial, but I have appreciated its spirit. As a theology teacher at Asian Theological Seminary, in the Philippines, I had eventually enrolled in the Jesuit [Loyola] School of Theology for completion of a Ph.D. program. It was an excellent experience. I focussed my work in the early Church fathers, where we were on common ground. (My dissertation was eventually published in the ATLA monograph series, as Irenaeus on the Salvation of the Unevangelized.) I developed keen appreciation for the spirituality of the Jesuit professors with whom I worked. That prepared me for participation in the Asian edition of the Evangelical-Roman Catholic Dialogue on Mission sponsored by the Lausanne Continuing Committee. As I recall, you were involved in the Euro-American edition of those discussions.

One last area in which I have benefited from your wisdom and found myself on common ground has been in regard to the ministry of women as teaching elders. I have often wished that I could be “egalitarian” but my study of Scripture has not allowed me to move in that direction. Your own comments on the matter have strengthened me to continue in obedience to Scripture as I understand it, regardless of its counter-cultural conclusions.

Apart from the specific effect of your books and articles, as I have read them through the years, your godly spirit and your desire to do theology that is eminently practical have been a great example to me. The book that I am giving is probably less accessible to the average church person than much of your own work has been, but I think it reflects the same desire to know God and his ways in the world in a manner that bears fruit in godly living.

This letter may have provided you with more information about me than you need but I relate these things by way of expressing deep thankfulness for the ministry that God has given you in my own life and the lives of countless others. May God continue to bless you and make you a blessing.

Love in Christ,

Terrance Tiessen

Dr. Packer’s response of December 5, 2000

Dear Dr Tiessen

Your letter, and the gift of your Providence book, arrived more than four months ago, and I must apologise that only now am I acknowledging them. The book still waits to be read, and the letter sat for ages in a ‘pending’ pile while I chased my tail with other things. Life has been very full; retirement is clearly a calling for a younger man.

It was a very happy experience to find that you had become Reformed, worked in Oxford, and picked up some points from my own ministry. Thank you for sharing all of that. How pleasant it would have been to have you as a colleague here in Vancouver.

I was grateful for your gift, and perhaps we shall be in touch again one day. Meantime, all blessings for the Christmas season, the New Year, and all your work at Providence and beyond.

Yours sincerely in Christ

James Packer

A postscript

My rereading of this correspondence of 20 years ago reminded me of the blessing Dr. Packer was to my theological formation and to my life in general. As I have written this post, numerous things came to mind which I could have added to my list of reasons to give thanks to Dr. Packer, but I’ll not extend this post by stating them here. I have now reached the stage in my own life when I can affirm personally the validity of his assertion that “retirement is clearly a calling for a younger man.” There is a great deal I want to do that I am not finding time to work on.

One of the things which has excited me about my life as a student of God’s word, and as a theology teacher, is the sense of continuous growth in the knowledge of God which I have enjoyed throughout my life. This has resulted in some significant changes in my own theological understanding. My conversion to belief that God is meticulously in control of the whole of human history, working out the eternal purpose he established before he created anything, was monumental. I was just 23 years old at that time, but my conviction of the rightness of this model has grown stronger rather than weakened, as the years have gone by. But there are significant ways in which my theological model has been modified, even during the 20 years since I wrote the above letter to Dr. Packer. Some of these changes have moved me in directions which I know would not have been pleasing to Dr. Packer. Others, I think, would have met with favor.  

I was reminded of one of those changes as I typed my paragraph concerning John Owen’s understanding of Christ’s single intent in his atoning work, namely, to provide the ground for the salvation of only God’s elect. In that regard I have come to believe that God has broader and narrower goals in redemption, and I now identify with the “hypothetical universalists” who made up the majority of the English delegation to the Synod of Dort. Consequently, I assert that I am still a “five-point Calvinist,” because I affirm the Canons of Dort, which reaffirmed the classic Christian formula of Christ’s atoning work as “sufficient for all and efficient for the elect.” I unpacked my current perspective in a blog post entitled “’Four- point” and ‘five-point’ Calvinism defined.

I suspect that the change in my theology which would most have disturbed Dr. Packer would have been my gradual move toward conditionalism or annihilationism, the understanding of hell which was held by his dear friend, John Stott, for many years before he went public about it. In recent years, I have become convinced that the common belief in “eternal conscious torment” is thoroughly unbiblical and owed more to Augustine’s affirming Plato’s belief in the indestructibility of the soul than it did to the teaching of Scripture. (An account of the final stage of my journey toward annihilationism can be read on the web.)

This change in my eschatology came some time after my abandonment of the “gospel exclusivist” understanding of God’s saving work, in favor of the “accessibilism” for which I argued in Who Can Be Saved?, but the two positions mesh well with one another and with hypothetical universalism. They also align well with the model of God’s providence which I dubbed “middle knowledge Calvinism,” when I wrote Providence and Prayer. Having been convinced by Paul Helm that God’s knowledge of counterfactuals only needs to be “middle” if people are libertarianly free, I now call my model “hypothetical knowledge Calvinism.”

When Dr. Packer thanked me for my letter and the copy of my book, he had still not read the book. Some time later, however, I received an excited message from one of my former students at Providence Theological Seminary. He had gone on to study at Regent College, and he wrote to tell me that Dr. Packer had come into a class that day and had held up before them  all a copy of Providence and Prayer, with the statement that “this is the best book on this subject.” My former student was quite excited about that because he knew me personally. Given that endorsement by Dr. Packer, I would very much like to have heard his thoughts about my proposal that God made significant use of his knowledge of counterfactuals (that is, of what every possible creature would do in any hypothetical situation) when he decided which of all the possible worlds he would actualize. That God knew counterfactuals as an aspect of his natural or necessary knowledge was confirmed by the Reformed scholastics whose theology Dr. Packer loved, so this would not have been problematic for him. What I would like to have known, however, was whether he thought my model to be helpful, or how he would want it tweaked to be fully satisfactory. Someday, perhaps he and I will have an opportunity to talk about that together, when I join him in the presence of the Lord.

It is wonderful to have lived in the time of Dr. Packer, and to have been one of the many thousands who have been blessed by his writing and his example. Few people I have known during my life have been more widely appreciated within the church, and I praise God for his work in Dr. Packer’s life, and through him in the lives of countless others.

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