The global church owes a debt of gratitude to James I. Packer (1926-2020). Together with giants of the caliber of Carl Henry (1913-2003) and John Stott (1921-2011), during the second half of the 20th century he has embodied Evangelical theology at its best, especially on issues like the authority of Scripture, penal substitutionary atonement, the interplay between theology and spirituality, the connections between the historical church (especially the Puritans) and our time, and the call to holiness. His lucid and profound writings have nurtured at least two, if not three generations of Evangelicals and challenged them to stay faithful to the historic biblical faith. Together with millions of Christians, the reading of Knowing God as a young believer was a milestone in my life. I consider Jim Packer to be a “father” of present-day Evangelical theology, along whose trajectory I also wish and hope to be identified.
This is to say that if I dare critique one minor – albeit significant – instance of his theological involvement, I do so out of immense respect and hopefully with a similar courtesy that characterized Packer in his own way of handling controversy.
It is no secret that in Packer’s theological biography his involvement with the Evangelicals and Catholics Together initiative has puzzled many of his admirers. How such a solid theologian could be prone to sign theologically blurred documents and encourage confusing ecumenical activities has been a standing question in many people’s minds. The purpose of this article is to discuss the reasons why Packer signed ECT and to offer some critical remarks in considering them.
Part of ECT Since Its Beginnings
“Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (ECT) is the title of a document released in 1994, but it is also the name of an on-going informal dialogue that has been taking place in the US context ever since. Initiated by Chuck Colson and Richard Neuhaus, it gathered Christians who are confessionally divided but who share similar concerns for the falling apart of the Christian ethos of American society under the attack of relativistic trends of thought. In this violent “culture war”, Evangelicals and Catholics found themselves fighting on the same conservative side and discovered a new kind of possible rapprochement, “an ecumenism of the trenches”. The convergence, however, is not simply a common view on social issues, but is said to be “a theologically rooted alliance”. Thus, the ECT section “We Contend Together”, which is centered on “culture war” issues, is preceded by the section “We Affirm Together”, where a basic confession of faith is reported. This is followed by the programmatic section “We Witness Together”, where a common commitment to Christian mission is envisaged, entailing the goal of non-proselytization between professing Christians (thinking especially of Latin America in areas of tense relationships between Roman Catholics and Evangelicals). The “We-Together” pattern is pervasive in ECT and contains the indication of a significant shift in the Evangelical perception of Roman Catholicism.
I have explored elsewhere the historical context and the theological flaws of the ECT initiative, i.e. “Christian Unity vis-à-vis Roman Catholicism: A Critique of the Evangelicals and Catholics Together Dialogue”, Evangelical Review of Theology, 27:4 (2003) 337-352. There is no need to repeat such an assessment. On the whole, ECT sentimentalizes the sense of “togetherness” at the expense of theological clarity and confuses the necessity of co-belligerence on moral and social issues with a call to unity and common mission between Evangelicals and Catholics. These two faults are serious matters. For the purpose of this article, what is striking to observe is the active participation of Jim Packer in the whole of the ECT initiative thus far. His signature appears at the end of all ECT documents up to 2012: “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (1994), “The Gift of Salvation” (1997), “Your Word is Truth” (2002), “The Communion of Saints” (2003), “The Call to Holiness” (2004), “That They May Have Life” (2006), “Do Whatever He Tells You: The Blessed Virgin Mary in Christian Faith and Life” (2009), and “In Defense of Religious Freedom” (2012). While other Evangelical signatories have come and gone, appearing and disappearing (some perhaps feeling perplexed about ECT over time), Packer has been a faithful and convinced supporter of ECT. Why is it so?
“Why I Signed It”
Of course, the participation of Jim Packer in the ECT initiative has stirred much controversy among Evangelicals from the very first day, especially as far as his endorsement of the first two statements are concerned: “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” (1994) and “The Gift of Salvation” (1997). The criticism after the first statement led him to write an article entitled “Why I Signed It” (Christianity Today, 12 Dec 1994, pp. 34-37) to respond to it. His reasons are worth considering because they unfold Packer’s approach to issues broadly related to unity and cooperation.
After expressing surprise “at the violence of initial Protestant reaction”, Packer states what he considers possible and feasible: “I have long thought that informal grassroots collaboration with Roman Catholics in ministry is the most fruitful sort of ecumenism that one can practice nowadays”. Notice three points:
- The level of collaboration he envisaged, i.e. grassroots, informal, and personal, rather than institutional and ecclesiastical.
- The partners involved, i.e. individual Roman Catholics rather than the Roman Catholic Church as such.
- The type of relationship with Roman Catholics, i.e. collaboration understood as a form of “ministry” and “a sort of ecumenism”.
Then Packer goes on by arguing why “the Roman system” is “unacceptable”. He is aware that Roman Catholicism is an integrated whole that is “theologically flawed”, especially because it misconceives the nature of the Church, blurs justification by faith, and attaches infallibility to church pronouncements. As a matter of fact, “Protestant and Catholic church systems stand opposed”. Packer shows awareness of the systemic nature of Roman Catholicism, its unbiblical tenets, and its opposed stance with regards to the Evangelical Protestant faith. In an interview a few years later, Packer argues: “Roman Catholicism as a system has defined itself in a way which is out of step with the Bible on a whole series of key issues relating to the Christian life and faith and it defined itself irreformably” (“Discipline of Debate”, Evangelicals Now, Nov 2000, p. 13).
Having said that, in the “Why I Signed It” article Packer thinks that “good Protestants and Catholics are united in the one body of Christ”. As already seen, Packer distinguishes between individual Catholics and the Catholic Church. If the Roman Church as system is “unacceptable”, who are these “good Catholics”? They are “Bible-believing, Christ-honoring, Spirit-empowered Christians who will together resist the many forms of disintegrative theology – relativist, monist, pluralist, liberationist, feminist, or whatever – that plague both Protestantism and Catholicism at the present time”. In other words, they are “spiritually alive” and theologically conservative Catholics.
In the second part of the article, Packer recalls three recent examples of collaboration between Evangelicals and Catholics preceding ECT and therefore paving its way forward:
- Francis Schaeffer’s “co-belligerence” on the abortion front, which saw Evangelicals and Catholics working side by side;
- Billy Graham’s cooperative evangelism, which included churches of whatever stripe; and
- The Charismatic get-togethers where the distinction between Protestants and Catholics vanished.
In light of these precedents, in Packer’s view ECT should be considered a legitimate and timely development that tries to formulate “at the level of principle a commitment which many have already entered at the level of practice”. Packer is aware of the need to further reflect on the issue. This is the reason why, at the end of the article, he makes reference to a study document, i.e. “Resolutions for Roman Catholic & Evangelical Dialogue” (Modern Reformation, 1994), drafted together with Michael Horton to provide some “agenda suggestions” for the future. With the help of this seven-point document – which Packer takes credit for (“drafted by Michael S. Horton, revised by J.I. Packer”) – we shall now evaluate his own reasons for signing ECT and for being involved in the whole ECT initiative. The assessment will try to be fair to Packer’s theological criteria as they are presented in these “Resolutions”.
Why Was He Inconsistent?
As I wrote in the introduction, I consider Packer a giant of present-day Evangelical theology, from whose scholarship and spirituality we all have a great deal to learn. Still, I think that his “ecumenical” involvements have shown a significant weakness in his overall premier theological stature. His own “Resolutions” show a degree of inconsistency between what he affirms there and what he did in and through ECT.
Point N. 1 of the “Resolutions” clearly argues that “while both Evangelicals and Roman Catholics affirm the ecumenical Creeds, we do not see this catholic consensus as a sufficient basis for declaring that agreement exists on all the essential elements of the Gospel”. While much of the ECT initiative makes a great deal of the alleged “common creedal basis” between Evangelicals and Catholics, Packer here readily acknowledges that whatever we can make of that supposed commonality, it does not show that the two constituencies adhere to the same Gospel. Point N. 6 clearly denies that “in its present confession (the Roman Catholic Church) is an acceptable Christian communion”. The alleged “consensus” between Evangelicals and Catholics is not on the “essential elements of the Gospel”, but ECT argues the contrary. The Packer of the “Resolutions” is in conflict with the Packer of ECT.
Point N. 2 stresses the crucial importance of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. “While gladly noting in modern Roman Catholic exposition a growing emphasis on Christ and the biblical promises as objects of faith and trust, we see justification by faith alone as an essential of the Gospel on which radical disagreement continues, and we deny the adequacy of any version of the Gospel that falls short at this point”. This is the historic Evangelical position. Unfortunately, Packer signed in 1997 the ECT “The Gift of Salvation” document which, without recanting Trent and the traditional Roman Catholic teaching on justification, says that the controversy on it is over. There is a clear contradiction between what he wrote in the “Resolutions” and his signature under the ECT text.
Point N. 3 points out that “we radically disagree with the teaching of the Second Vatican Council that unbelievers may be saved by their good works, apart from faith in Christ”. Fair enough, but this teaching was endorsed by John Paul II and especially Pope Francis, under whom the whole ECT initiative has taken place. This non-biblical teaching of Rome is another blow to the ECT claim that Evangelicals and Catholics can affirm together enough of the Gospel to be united in common mission.
Point N. 4 argues that while common causes on moral and cultural issues in society are warranted, “it is incorrect to regard such cooperation among Christians as common ecclesial action in fulfilling a common ecclesial mission”. The “Resolutions” argue that cooperation is one thing, mission is another. As Francis Schaeffer pointed out, while “co-belligerence” is possible among people of various persuasions, Gospel “mission” is only possible among believers in Jesus Christ on the basis of the Gospel. The two must be theologically and missiologically distinguished. However, the ECT documents commonly confuse and blur them. Even Packer conflates the two in his “Why I Signed It” article when he speaks of “collaboration”, “ministry”, and “ecumenism” interchangeably, as if they are the same (which they are not). This is perhaps one of the most negative long-term effects of the whole ECT initiative, i.e. blurring the language of Christian unity and Gospel mission by confusing co-operation in social and cultural battles with unity in Gospel mission. In this respect, Packer has not properly helped Evangelicals to discern the issues at stake. His widely acknowledged precision in theological language was not consistently practiced in ECT.
Point N. 5 underlines the Evangelical passion for Christian unity according to the Gospel. In this respect, it stresses the fact that “we deny that the defined doctrines of the church’s infallibility, Papal primacy, justification according to Trent, transubstantiation and eucharistic sacrifice, and the immaculate conception and assumption of Mary, can be proved from Scripture, and we cannot accept any form of action that appears to imply agreement with them”. Therefore, visible unity is not possible not only with the institutional Roman Catholic Church, but also with people who are convinced of these non-biblical doctrines. This message is very different from the ECT type of ecumenism that Packer has been involved in, with staunch and devout Catholics who are 100% traditional Catholics in all of these non-biblical doctrines.
Point N. 6 expands what Packer does mean when he refers to “spiritually alive” individual Catholics. “We affirm that individual Roman Catholics who for whatever reason do not self-consciously assent to the precise definitions of the Roman Catholic Magisterium regarding justification, the sole mediation of Christ, the relation between faith and the sacraments, the divine monergism of the new birth, and similar matters of Evangelical conviction, but who think and speak Evangelically about these things, are indeed our brothers and sisters in Christ, despite Rome’s official position”. It is striking to notice that all Roman Catholic signatories of ECT (e.g. Avery Dulles, Richard Neuhaus, Thomas Guarino) do not fit this category! They are all 100% convinced of every bit of Roman Catholic teaching (including the non-biblical parts) as it is officially defined. They are fully orbed Roman Catholics: papal, Marian, Tridentine, Vatican I and Vatican II Roman Catholics. They are not Roman Catholics “despite Rome’s official position”, but wholehearted defenders of it. They may “sound” Evangelical in certain respects, but they are fully Roman Catholic in all respects. ECT was not signed with “creative” Catholics, nor with Catholics critical of certain aspects of their church. When ECT speaks about unity and common mission it does so together with people who identify as 100% Roman Catholics, without any uncertainty about their Roman Catholic identity. Here Packer’s inconsistency with his own criteria is again evident.
Wrapping up the evaluation, it is fair to hear Packer again. In defending his involvement in ECT he wrote: “We do not seek Christian unity at the expense of Christian truth” (T. George, T.C. Oden, J.I. Packer, “The Biblical Gospel”, First Things, June/July 1998, p. 9). Elsewhere, he again wrote that his efforts were of the sort of “an ecumenism of conviction, not an ecumenism of accommodation” (“An Open Letter About the Gift of Salvation”, Christianity Today, 27 April 1998). This is all true. However, there were unrealistic evaluations and wrongheaded applications in his own dealings with Roman Catholicism. In the whole area of how to relate the Evangelical faith with conservatives of other Christian traditions (i.e. Anglo-Catholics, Roman Catholics, traditional Eastern Orthodox), he has not been a reliable guide for Evangelicals.
The Packer who helped Evangelicals to see and appreciate “the logic of penal substitution” did not help them to see “the logic of Christian unity” in the same helpful way. On the latter he was inconsistent to say the least. The Packer who so helpfully unpacked the riches of an Evangelical “systematic spirituality” did not help to appreciate its implications in the area of ecumenism. He was rather eclectic on the latter. While we celebrate the bountiful Evangelical legacy of Jim Packer in the desire to follow his steps, we should also be aware of his weaknesses, especially when he tried to work out what the Lord Jesus meant when he prayed “that they may be one” (John 17:21).