J.I. Packer 1926-2020. Bishop Wallace Benn

Jul 23, 2020 by

It was an enormous privilege to have been taught by Dr. Packer in the Trinity College of the 1970s when there were giants in the land spiritually speaking. With his passing this week (17th July, at the age of 93)) Anglican Evangelicalism has lost a theological giant, for J I Packer was arguably the best theological mind of his generation.

He left his students of old with an unshakeable conviction about the trustworthiness of Holy Scripture, its inerrancy and infallibility, as well as a commitment to the penal substitutionary death of the Lord Jesus on the cross for us as the very heart of the meaning of the atonement. In all major convictions he was a classical Evangelical, with a particular love for the Puritans whom he saw as ‘the giant redwoods’ that stood out head and shoulders in our evangelical history. That love was infectious and helped many of us develop the same love.

But his was no ivory tower theology, for he loved to say that ‘theology is always meant to lead to doxology’ and his most famous book, ‘Knowing God’, which has sold almost 2 million copies, was one of the greatest books written on having and enjoying a relationship with God- the God of grace who made that possible in his Son.

Those who got to know him saw not only his formidable mind- he quoted to us one day in a lecture from memory two pages of Luther’s commentary on Galatians!- but found also a pastoral heart, and a good humoured companion whose godliness shone through. Speaking personally, he was an enormous help and encouragement to me over the years in both parish and episcopal ministry. I have fond memories of his visits to Harold Wood, and later staying with us and speaking at our clergy conference in East Sussex.

His influence with Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones in the 50’s and 60s at the Puritan Conference drew the evangelical movement back to a more sturdy Reformed theology. His work at Latimer House in the 60s established the intellectual  credibility of conservative evangelicalism, and laid the foundation for the Keele Congress that was so influential in the growth and self confidence of Anglican Evangelicals.

World-wide influence

With his departure in 1979 from Trinity Bristol where he had been Associate Principal to Regent College in Vancouver, his influence became world wide and his writing flourished. Amongst his most famous books ‘Fundamentalism and the Word of God’ was a seminal defence of a high view of Scripture. His Tyndale lecture ‘What did the Cross achieve?’ remains an outstanding explanation of what the Lord Jesus did for us by his death in our place. He wrote more than 50 books and was the general editor of the translation work done on the English Standard Version of the Bible, which he considered to be his greatest service to the church.

Always polite and respectful in controversy, he was not afraid to take a lead and speak out when necessary. His walking out of a synod in Canada over what he and others saw as the Gospel-undermining proposal to bless same sex unions, proved to be a key lead that contributed to the formation of ACNA in America. But he will remain best known for his call to holiness and godly living, and Bible centred belief and practice.

Although an Englishman who became a Canadian, he never lost his love for a good plate of fish and chips, as well as the hottest curry you could find! He also maintained his love of steam engines and railway travel to the end.

Like so many others, I thank God for him and mourn his passing as my former teacher, mentor and friend. A new generation of evangelicals need to read his books and I am sure they will find, by God’s grace, their faith strengthened as a result. He wished to be remembered as ‘a voice’ that focused on ‘the authority of the Bible and the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ’. We would do well to heed his voice and follow his example, as we give thanks to God for great life well lived.

(Bishop) Wallace Benn, vicar of St Peter’s Harold Wood 1987-1997 and Area Bishop of Lewes 1997-2012

Church of England Newspaper July 24 Read here

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