The Reverend Professor James Packer, who has died aged 93, was one of the 20th century’s foremost evangelical scholars; he played an important part in the revival of the evangelical movement in the Church of England during the 1960s and 1970s and went on to exert an international influence. Packer wrote more than 50 books and 250 other pieces of serious published work.
His faith was, however, deeply influenced by Calvinism and by the general thrust of Reformation theology. As the evangelical movement expanded, Packer became increasingly isolated from those who could not share his beliefs on such matters as eternal punishment, the penal-substitution interpretation of the Crucifixion, and the ordination of women as priests.
After serving as first Warden of Latimer House, Oxford (a theological research centre), from 1961 to 1970 and as a theological college principal in Bristol from 1970 to 1979, it became apparent that his uncompromising stance on these and some other issues stood in the way of his appointment to a university chair or senior Church post in Britain. So he went to Canada, where from 1979 to 1996 he was Professor of Theology at Regent College, Vancouver.
James Innell (Jim) Packer, the son of a railway clerk, was born in Gloucester on July 22 1926. At the age of only seven he was involved in a road accident that caused serious head injuries and required six months’ absence from school. This led to what was to become a lifelong interest in books and writing. The after-effects of the accident also caused him to speak rather slowly and deliberately, and may have been the reason for his shyness and somewhat introverted character.
At the local grammar school a master introduced him to the religious writings of C S Lewis, which aroused his interest in the Christian faith, and, since he was unfit for military service, he went to Oxford in 1944 as a scholar of Corpus Christi College to read Classics.
Soon after going up he had an evangelical conversion experience while attending a Sunday evening service in St Aldate’s Church. Thereafter he was much involved in the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union, attended the Sunday meetings of the Plymouth Brethren, and also played the clarinet in a jazz band – until persuaded to give it up by the Brethren.
Having taken a First in Mods, Packer narrowly missed the same in Greats, but during his final years as an undergraduate became immersed in the writings of John Owen, a 17th century Puritan divine. This proved to be another turning point in his Christian life, and his increasing interest in the Puritan theologians enabled him later to revive interest in their work.
After coming down, Packer spent a year at Oak Hill Theological College in North London teaching Latin and Greek before returning to Oxford to prepare for Holy Orders at Wycliffe Hall. Then he took a First in Theology and stayed on the complete a D Phil on the thought of Richard Baxter, another 17th century Puritan divine.
From 1952 to 1955 Packer was a curate at St John’s Church, Harborne, Birmingham and, now firmly entrenched in conservative evangelicalism, spent the next six years as a Lecturer in Theology at Tyndale Hall, a theological college in Bristol.
His book Fundamentalism and the Word of God (1958) broke new ground by emphasising the trustworthiness of the Bible, rather than its verbal inerrancy or freedom from error, and sold 20,000 copies in its first year, with further large sales in Australia and America. It had a very considerable influence on a rising generation of evangelicals and established Packer as a leading figure in the movement.
In 1961 he and two of his colleagues at Tyndale Hall concluded that the revival of evangelicalism in the Church of England needed a research centre to provide it with theological underpinning and also to deal with what they regarded as the growing, subversive influence of liberalism.
A Council was formed, the necessary money raised, a property in Oxford acquired, and Packer installed as the first Warden of Latimer House.
There was not long to wait for battle to be joined. The publication of Bishop John Robinson’s Honest to God in 1963 confirmed their worst fears and brought an immediate response in the form of a 20-page pamphlet, Keep Yourself from Idols. Packer’s language was robust: he accused Robinson of “changing the truth about God into a lie”. Every page, he said, “bears the unmistakable marks of unfinished thinking. The Bishop presents a new religion.”
In the same year proposals for uniting the Church of England and the Methodist Church were also given a hostile reception on the grounds that the scheme, if implemented, would stifle the evangelical witness.
Between these battles Latimer House, now the movement’s leading think-tank, produced solid books and monographs on various aspects of evangelical conviction, and Packer also played a key role in the organisation of a National Conference of Evangelicals held at Keele University in 1967.
Three years later he accepted an invitation to return to Tyndale Hall as Principal. This was in the aftermath of a failed attempt to unite the college with Clifton Theological College, another evangelical institution in Bristol, and Packer moved quickly to recover the situation by appointing a new teaching staff of high calibre. New methods of theological education were introduced and student numbers soon increased.
After only two years, however, the college’s governing body came under further pressure from the Church of England’s Council for Ministry to unite with Clifton and another Bristol college at which women church workers were trained. This time, amid much bitterness, the merger was completed and a new name, Trinity College, Bristol, was adopted.
Packer was not appointed Principal of the new institution, but this did not trouble him since he disliked administration. He became instead Associate Principal, which gave him a major role in the direction of the new college, some teaching responsibility, for which he was specially gifted, and ample time for research and writing.
This bore fruit in 1973 with the publication of Knowing God, which became an immediate bestseller and by 1992 had sold a million copies worldwide. Expressing once again its author’s Calvinist beliefs, and rich in biblical imagery, the book was a demanding read, but it met a need at the time, not least because it applied theology to personal life and spirituality.
A second national conference of evangelicals held at Nottingham in 1977 demonstrated the rapid expansion of the movement, but at the same time left Packer isolated in his Calvinism. He had, however, a strong following in North America and in 1979 accepted an invitation to become Professor of Theology at Regent College, Vancouver – a recently founded graduate school of theology in the University of British Columbia.
He remained there until his retirement in 1996, attracting large numbers of students and spreading his influence more widely in North American Protestantism, though his rejection of women priests had only minority support.
He continued to teach until he was 89 and also to assist in his local Anglican parish, always holding that academic theology should find practical expression in the Church’s mission and ministry. The congregation, including Packer, eventually left the Church of Canada on the issue of same-sex relationships, of which he was a firm opponent.
He is survived by his wife Kit and by an adopted son and two adopted daughters.
The Rev James Packer, July 22 1926, died July 17 2020