50 years on – Packer & Stott as relevant as ever
A number of people have asked for my thoughts on GAFCON and its follow-up meeting at All Souls last Tuesday. To be honest, i don’t really know what to make of it all and it is too early to say. I was impressed with all 4 speakers at the All Souls meeting, as well as challenged. We are certainly in uncharted waters in all this – and it all makes me profoundly sad – although much of what is being said is both necessarily and inevitable.
What i can say now is to pick up on something that Archbishop Greg Venables said in his talk. He quoted from a book by his fellow-speaker, the now octogenarian J I Packer. And it struck me that we were in the midst of a strange coincidence
For there we were, in All Souls Langham Place, where John Stott wrote his timeless classic Basic Christianity in 1958 – 50 years ago. And there we were with Jim Packer sitting there – who also wrote his equally important classic about the theology of Scripture in the same year, ‘Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God. It seems that ‘fundamentalist’ was an insult even 50 years ago when the first edition came out and so clarity and explanation were crucial. BTW – my favourite definition of a fundamentalist is “anyone who is to the theological right of you” – it is such an easy insult to toss out – and sends all but the most thought through scurrying away into their holes.
But anyway – back to the point. Both books have proved their importance in the subsequent half-century. Stott’s summarises the essence of the biblical Christian faith. It’s influence has been incalculable around the world – and it has been translated umpteen times and thousands have come to faith through it. It fully deserves its 50th anniversary makeover, with the NIV text replacing older translations together with a compilation of various testimonies of its helpfulness included at the end. It is this core set of beliefs that has been so persistently undermined or disparaged by many in the leadership of Anglicanism.
However, Packer in his characteristic style, brilliantly articulated the challenge 50 years ago, and this challenge has provded alarmingly prescient. This is what Venables quoted, and therefore, i will pick up the main thrust. Packer saw 5 challenges to the gospel which came from post-enlightenment modernist theology. And these challenges have not gone away. It is therefore worth quoting in full (from pp24-27):
The characteristic tenets of liberal faith in America in the early years of this century may be summarized as follows:
1. God’s character is one of pure benevolence-benevolence, that is, without standards. All men are His children, and sin separates no one from His love. The Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man are alike universal.
2. There is a divine spark in every man. All men, therefore, are good at heart, and need nothing more than encouragement to allow their natural goodness to express itself.
3. Jesus Christ is man’s Saviour only in the sense that He is man’s perfect Teacher and Example. We should regard Him simply as the first Christian, our elder brother in the worldwide family of God. He was not divine in any unique sense. He was God only in the sense that He was a perfectly God-conscious and God-guided man. He was not born of a virgin; He did not work miracles, in the sense of ‘mighty works’ of divine creative power; and He did not rise from the dead.
4. Just as Christ differs from other men only comparatively, not absolutely, so Christianity differs from other religions not generically, but merely as the best and highest type of religion that has yet appeared. All religions are forms of the same religion, just as all men are members of the same divine family. It follows, of course, that Foreign Missions should not aim to convert from one faith to another, but rather to promote a cross-fertilizing inter- change whereby each religion may be enriched through the contribution of all others.
5. The Bible is not a divine record of revelation, but a human testament of religion; and Christian doctrine is not the God-given word which must create and control Christian experience. The truth is the opposite. Christian experience is directly infectious within the Christian community – it is ‘caught’, like mumps; and this experience creates and controls Christian doctrine, which is merely an attempt to give it verbal expression. Poetry, according to Wordsworth, consists of emotion recollected in tranquillity. Doctrine, according to Liberalism, has a precisely similar character. It is nothing more than an endeavour to put into words the content of religious feelings, impressions and intuitions. The only facts to which doctrinal statements give expression are the feelings of those who produce them. Doctrine is simply a by-product of religion. The New Testament contains the earliest attempts to express the Christian experience in words; its value lies in the fact that it is a first-hand witness to that experience. Other generations, however, must express the same experience in different words. Doctrinal formulae, like poetic idiom, will vary from age to age and place to place, according to the variation of cultural backgrounds. The first-century theology of the New Testament cannot be normative for twentieth-century men. But this is no cause for concern, and means no loss. Doctrine is not basic or essential to any form of religion; no doctrinal statements or credal forms, therefore, are basic or essential to Christianity. In so far as there is a permanent and unchanging Christian message, it is not doctrinal, but ethical – the moral teaching of Jesus.
Not all Liberals went so far as this. But the views detailed above were all implicit in the liberal outlook, and some Liberals, at least, were ready to maintain them all. And, as Machen insisted, ‘the true way in which to examine a spiritual movement is in its logical relations: logic is the great dynamic, and the logical implications of any way of thinking are sooner or later certain to be worked out’. His own Christianity and Liberalism was a demonstration that liberal views formed a coherent system-but one which was simply not Christian. The truth is that Liberalism was a deduction from the nineteenth-century view of ‘religion’ as a universal human phenomenon-a view which was itself of a piece with the characteristic nineteenth-century scientific and philosophical outlook. The faith of nineteenth-century science was that every phenomenon can be exactly classified and completely explained as an instance of some universal law of cause and effect; there are no unique events. The conviction of nineteenth-century philosophy, whether empiricist or idealist, materialist, deist or pantheist, was that the idea of supernatural interruptions of the course of the natural order was unphilosophical and absurd. Both science and philosophy relied on evolutionary concepts for the explanation of all things. Liberalism was an attempt to square Christianity with these anti-supernatural axioms. The result was tersely summed up by Machen: ‘The liberal attempt at reconciling Christianity with modern science has really relinquished everything distinctive of Christianity, so that what remains is, in essentials, only that same indefinite type of religious aspiration which was in the world before Christianity came on the scene. . . the apologist has really abandoned what he started out to defend.’ Liberalism swept away entirely the gospel of the supernatural redemption of sinners by God’s sovereign grace. It reduced grace to nature, divine revelation to human reflection, faith in Christ to following His example, and receiving new life to turning over a new leaf; it turned supernatural Christianity into one more form of natural religion, a thin mixture of morals and mysticism. As Hebert rightly says: ‘Religion was being substituted for God.’ It was in protest against this radical refashioning of the historic faith that ‘Fundamentalism’ arose.