Without a doubt, the most God-forsaken period of my life as aChristian is the two months I spent studying for final theology exams. If someone had pointed me toward Jim Packer then, I would have thanked them.
Mr. Packer’s principle, that knowing about God must never really be separated from knowing God, serves as the centrepiece for Alister McGrath’s account of his life so far. Mr. McGrath tells the story of a career which spans scholarship, popular writing, doctrinal controversy and church politics, and invites us to see it all through the lens of a personal piety centred on knowing God.
It is perhaps forgivable if the book veers a little towards hagiography. Its author writes as an English evangelical leader, about one of his own movement’s heros. His assessment could not be called critical.
Readers unfamiliar or uneasy with evangelicalism will find this account instructive, though they may need some coaching. It would help to have handy a book on Puritan thought and a modern history of the Church of England.
Mr. Packer’s career as a Canadian Anglican is of special interest, yet readers in this country are left largely to draw their own conclusions. Mr. McGrath raises questions about his subject’s choice of the non-Anglican Regent College in Vancouver as a base, and his input into Essentials ’94, but declines to answer them.
As a useful background to the modern evangelical movement the book fares somewhat better, giving us Mr. Packer’s contributions on matters such as the movement’s view of tradition, or the centrality of how we interpret the Bible. What is missing is the human dimension, the way in which these teachings about atonement or Scripture really have formed people’s character.
It might be interesting to assess those formative effects along the lines of Mr. Packer’s own dictum, “Bad theology hurts people.” There is an unavoidable sense, for example, that the doctrinal conflicts described in the book are connected to some difficult personalities. The nature of that linkage is left to the reader to probe. And that may be a useful gift in the midst of the present fragmentation over doctrine, if it provokes some critical thinking about ways of doing theology that hurt, and ways that lead to knowing God.
Dr. Iain Luke studied economics and theology in England from 1986 to 1991. He is now rector of Humboldt parish, Sask.