Interview: J.I. Packer on biblical authority, world Anglicanism, and ecumenicism
For The Canadian Lutheran‘s recent article on biblical authority “Standing firm: The cost of confessing the Word of God,” we wanted to include some insights from a theologically conservative Anglican perspective. To that end, we approached Rev. Dr. J.I. Packer, who was kind enough to consent to an interview. The transcript of that interview, conducted by Mathew Block, appears here as a supplement to the magazine article. In the following, Dr. Packer shares his thoughts on biblical authority, homosexuality, and world Anglicanism, articulating along the way how a truly biblical ecumenicism ought to look.
MB In your book Fundamentalism and the Word of God, you write that “the problem of authority is the most fundamental problem that the Christian Church ever faces.” Why do you think that is?
JIP If the authority of God expressed in Scripture isn’t accurately grasped and responded to, all the Church is out of step with the Lord, and so constructively – if not intentionally – disobeying His will, and so failing to please Him, and the life of grace and love which should bind God and His people together gets disrupted.
MB When people abandon Scripture as that source of authority, what do they end up replacing it with?
JIP Inevitably, their own ideas. They make themselves the final authority.
MB You wrote that book [Fundamentalism and the Word of God] more than fifty years ago now. When you look at world Christianity today, specifically North American and European Protestantism, would you say biblical authority is still a live question?
JIP Oh yes, yes, that has not changed. There are a number of denominations in which there have been actual splits over this question – the Anglican Church being one of them.
MB Some of our readers will be unaware of events that have unfolded in the Anglican Communion over the last number of years regarding such things as the ordination of practising homosexuals. As far as division over the authority of Scripture goes, what would you say is the current situation in the Anglican Communion, and how did it get there?
JIP Anglicanism, until the middle of the last century, was very much dominated by the thinking and the money that was located in North America and in Britain. During the last sixty years, however, the younger Anglican churches in Africa and Asia have reached the point of self-determination and self-governance. They are not dependent on England and the United States in the way that they were. And I am glad to say that the majority of younger churches are clear on what, after all, is a defined Anglican doctrine in the Articles and Prayer Book – clear that Holy Scripture is the inspired Word of God, and that the teaching of Scripture, therefore, is an expression of truth and the mind of God.
We got to the present state of tension because one side of Anglicanism has always focused on sensitivity to what’s going on in the world – what we now call the secular world. In the latter part of the twentieth century, the secular world embraced positions which, according to biblical standards and in terms of the history of the Western World, are actually immoral. The ethic that accepts homosexual practice is an example of that. Indeed, it’s still the flash point for debate between the two sorts of Anglicans: the ones who say – to put it the way the World Council of Churches used to put it forty years ago – “The World must write the agenda; the Church must fit in with the World’s agenda”; and the older, truer, wiser and – I think I may fairly say – the authentically Christian position in Anglicanism and elsewhere is that God has spoken, His Word must be our guide, we can only serve Him acceptably and please Him by faithfulness to the Scripture both in what it affirms and directs, and in what it forbids and rules out.
The older, truer, wiser and – I think I may fairly say – the authentically Christian position in Anglicanism and elsewhere is that God has spoken, His Word must be our guide.
MB It’s fair to say then, that while homosexuality has been the issue of attention for the general media, it’s really just the symptom of a much deeper issue?
JIP It’s the flash point at which the division deep within Anglicanism about the authority of Scripture breaks surface and becomes inescapable in the sense that one has to decide whether one goes with those who accept biblical teaching about homosexuality or those who don’t.
MB Your own church, St. John’s Vancouver, has been right in the middle of much of this tension, vocally opposing the departure from Scriptural authority.
JIP That is so. It’s not too much to say that we have acted in a way which, under God, triggered the present division in North America.
MB The decision to secede from the Anglican Church of Canada and put St. John’s under the authority of a South American bishop instigated a legal battle for control over the church’s property. After losing at the provincial level, your church appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada. Recently that appeal was denied.
JIP That is correct. There had already been a decision lower down. The Supreme Court of British Columbia had decided that the property goes with the existing Anglican Church of Canada. We don’t believe that in our case justice was done by that decision, but that’s the decision that was made and we have to live with it.
MB The congregation is leaving the property then?
JIP Yes, we move in September 2011. The remarkable thing in the situation is that the congregation is solid. You might expect that the necessity of moving would split the congregation: that some would say, “Well, I’m staying put”; and others would say, “Look, we’ve got to go. We’ve been told that, and if we’re not going to climb down in our theology, go we must.” But no, we’re all together. And we’re a large congregation; there are about a thousand of us.
MB In 2009, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America voted to begin ordaining practising homosexuals and moved to approve gay marriage. In July of this year, its Canadian counterpart, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, followed suit. And recently the Presbyterian Church (USA) has begun moving in a similar direction. Why do you think the abandonment of scriptural authority is so rampant in mainline Protestant denominations?
JIP This particular issue has been a flashpoint in Western society ever since homosexual behaviour between consenting adults was decriminalized all through the English speaking world in the 1960’s. And there are quite a number of people in all parts of the English speaking western world (and elsewhere for that matter), who want to practise homosexual behaviour with other consenting adults. It’s that pressure that has forced the issue on so many of the historic churches of Protestant Christendom. And the story has been the same in church after church – namely, that the majority of people for whatever reason say, “Well, this is not an issue to split the church over. If they must do it, let them do it.” There’s a minority in Anglicanism, Presbyterianism and Lutheranism, who say, “No. God forbids it. It’s a breaching of the doctrine of created sexuality – a very basic part of the doctrine of man, not a secondary issue. And we must do what God says.” Whether it’s right in the eyes of God to follow human ideas or to cleave to His Word is an issue on which people have to come clean. They have to judge and come down on one side or the other of the fence. Unfortunately, a majority in the older churches seem regularly to come down on the wrong side of the fence.
Whether it’s right in the eyes of God to follow human ideas or to cleave to His Word is an issue on which people have to come clean.
MB This is a problem primarily in Western Christianity. As you said earlier, Anglicans in Africa (and Lutherans for that matter) have been strongly calling for their western counterparts to return to a faith rooted in the authority of the Scriptures.
JIP Yes, they have. They have not had a large internal constituency calling for liberalization at this point. Actually, this is the moment I think at which to say, those who part company with biblical authority do so not on the grounds that some of the things that the Bible teaches are not the truth of God, but rather, they would say, on the grounds that the Bible is being misinterpreted by those who take it literally and restrictively. Putting it positively, the liberals would say, “When Jesus came, He established love – that is, good will and affirmation – as the basic rule of Christian conduct person to person, and everything in human affairs must be made relative to the absolute supremacy of the law of love.” That’s how their theology goes. It has many different forms, but that’s the central stress of it.
MB Would you call it a form of antinomianism [anti-Law theology], then?
JIP Yes I would. But just by saying that, we convey actually nothing to the people who are erring in this fashion. They never believed that Scripture ought to be understood as God’s moral law, God’s relational law in any ordinary sense of the word “law.” For them, the spirit of love must conquer everything.
MB Lutheran Church – Canada and its American counterpart the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod have traditionally been hesitant to take part in ecumenical discussions in the past. Since the formation of the Anglican Church in North America, however, we have begun dialogue with ACNA. The fracturing of denominations over the question of biblical authority is a tragic thing to be sure, but to what extent would you say it also provides an opportunity for new relationships between orthodox Christian denominations, new unity in our mutual adherence to the concept of “Sola Scriptura”?
JIP I would be cautious in my use of the word “unity.” But if one is prepared to substitute the word “partnership,” I would say, “Yes, through the providence of God, here we have new opportunities for partnership between people who genuinely do share the authentic biblical faith.” The tensions and church divisions that have become a reality have made all of us realize that it is sometimes to one’s advantage to form new relationships and bring together all the people who are united against a particular form of error. That, after all, was one of the discoveries of the sixteenth century Reformation. That was with respect to the Gospel and the truth of justification by faith. Now it’s happening again with regard to ethics and the understanding of biblical teaching, Christ’s teaching, God’s revealed will about human behaviour.
Through the providence of God, here we have new opportunities for partnership between people who genuinely do share the authentic biblical faith.
MB I think I can agree with you that “partnership” might be a better word choice than “unity.”
JIP The reason why I shy off the word “unity” is that it still has the overtones that it had so strongly in the 1950s and 1960s – namely, the attendant thought of the desirability of structural integration so that you will have a single administrative hierarchy running all the churches that have come together. I don’t believe that that is any part of the New Testament concept of church unity. I believe that unity is, first of all, a different fact in Christ. It is, secondly, a relational reality that has got to be expressed in love and cooperation.
MB One final question: You brought up, a moment ago, the Reformation. Given the amount of Christians who are standing up to their denominational bodies, do you think we might be in the midst of a new reformation of some sort?
JIP I think it would be misleading, honestly, to suppose that we are. What you have – obviously, it seems to me – is instead a situation in which a remnant who are not able to lead Christendom in any effective way because there aren’t enough of them – you have a remnant who are standing fast while the rest of the church, the much larger community, at least in the West, are basically selling themselves down the river. But the remnant stands fast. It’s a remnant situation, I think, that we’re in. It’s not quite the same as a reformation situation. If you want a historical analogy, take the fourth century when not everybody, at certain periods not a majority, would stand with Athanasius against the world as he campaigned for the deity of Christ and the Trinity. Arianism almost won over a period of about sixty years.
MB An interesting analogy. I think that about wraps up my major questions. I just want to thank you on behalf of our readers who I’m sure will greatly appreciate your thoughts on these issues. It’s been a very insightful conversation. Let me just say in closing that I hope the move for St. John’s goes as smoothly as it can, given the circumstances.
JIP Thank you very much for the good wishes. I think I can tell you in response that it looks as though it’s going to be.
Rev. Dr. J.I. Packer is widely considered one of the most influential Evangelical theologians in the world, and a leading figure among theologically conservative Anglicans. Among his many accomplishments, he served as General Editor for the English Standard Version translation of the Bible, the translation which appears in Lutheran Service Book and The Lutheran Study Bible. He lives in Vancouver, where for many years he served as professor of theology at Regent College.
[The interview took place in early September 2011 and appears here by kind permission of Dr. Packer.].