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ARCANE AND GERMANE BOOK REVIEWS #9

“After reading a new book, never allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.”
“All that is not eternal is eternally out of date.”
(C.S. Lewis)


On Intellectual Swear Words

‘Swear words’ have the opposite goal to words of love. They aren’t designed to foster mutual understanding, but to offend, insult, condemn and exclude. Swear words aim at shutting down debate, rather than inviting questions or challenges. They may come in the form of expletives hurled from the car window of a frustrated driver, or over the fence by an angry neighbor. But swear words can also come in the form of slogans; or descriptors that over time have been coined or hijacked away from their original meaning, becoming a kind of ‘intellectual swear word.’

For example, it used to be that passionate defenders of the truth were labelled as ‘Puritanical.’ Later the term ‘Methodist’ was used as an insult aimed at the ‘enthusiasms’ of the followers of Whitefield and the Wesleys at the time of the 18th Century Evangelical Awakening. Over the course of the last decade or so the term ‘evangelical’ has come in for its own season of abuse, and is now so closely associated with US right wing politics, that a great deal of clarification and qualification needs to go into unpacking what is meant when one talks about ‘an evangelical church,’ or ‘evangelical theology.’ One intellectual swear word that has long since lost all connection with its origins to be of any ongoing meaningful use, is the title ‘fundamentalist.’

Passionate defenders of the truth were labelled as ‘Puritanical.’ Later the term ‘Methodist’ was used as an insult … Over the course of the last decade ‘evangelical’ has come in for its own season of abuse

The Recovery of Primitive Christianity

In his book Fundamentalism and the Word of God, J.I. Packer explains that the terms ‘evangelical’ and ‘fundamentalist’ originally served to distinguish the Christianity of the reformation and the spiritual revivals from various distortions of and deviations from the true religion of Jesus Christ and his Apostles.

Jesus Christ constituted Christianity a religion of biblical authority. He is the Church’s Lord and Teacher; and He teaches His people by His Spirit through His written Word … subjection to the authority of Christ involves subjection to the authority of Scripture … Evangelicalism … seeking as it does to acknowledge in all things the supremacy of Scripture, is in principle Christianity at its purest and truest. We would not, indeed, deny that Evangelicals often fall below these principles … But that is not the point here. What we shall insist on is that the evangelical principle of authority is authentically Christian, whereas other principles are not.’[1]

Tim Keller in his book, Preaching, cites Packer’s book as required reading on the doctrine of Scripture.[2] While Packer responds to challenges specific to the 1950s, as with the Puritans and the Reformers who help to inspire his writing, his central arguments continue to be relevant and of vital importance.

Billy Graham and the Fundamentalists

At the time of writing, Packer was responding to the growing alarm over the influence of ‘fundamentalism’ within the church and the wider culture of the United Kingdom. The August 1955 issue of The Times noted that deep concern was being raised by ‘bishops, headmasters and other responsible persons,’ that a kind of extremism was on the rise which advocated: ‘a version of Christianity’ that elevated ‘the penal doctrine of the atonement,’ ‘the call for conversion after evangelistic sermons,’ and ‘an individualistic doctrine of the Holy Spirit’s work which makes churchmanship and sacraments practically superfluous.’[3] That Billy Graham had been invited to run a mission by students at the University of Cambridge caused at outrage. One concerned correspondent complaining,

On what basis … can fundamentalism claim a hearing at Cambridge … an approach which pays no heed to the
work of modern scholarship is unthinkable before a University audience.’ [4]

Clearly the Queen, who at the time held private audiences with Graham and invited him to preach at Windsor Chapel, took a different view to her bishops. While of course the famous US evangelist was being unfairly lumped in with a kind of anti-intellectual strain that was prevalent in some Christian movements within the US, such opposition really served to illustrate the ongoing opposition to Christ and the gospel that Jesus had warned His disciples about from the very beginning.[5]

‘If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. Remember the words I spoke to you: “No servant is greater than his master.” If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also.’ (John 15:19-20)

Jesus’ words are of course true in every generation; including our own. For this reason Packer’s book, while at points culturally dated, remains a classic resource in strengthening our resolve to come back to the Scriptures, and receive them together as God’s people. The sheep recognize the voice of their Good Shepherd (John 10:1-5); and God’s voice is heard as the Bible is read and Christ is proclaimed, clothed in all the promises of Scripture. The choice before every new generation is between a true and a false version of Christianity,

‘ … between a Christianity that is consistent with itself and one that is not … between one that is wholly God-given and one that is partly man-made. We have to choose whether to bow to the authority of the Son of God, or whether on our own authority to discount and contravene a part of His teaching; whether to rest content with Christianity according to Christ, or whether to go hankering after a Christianity according to the spirit of our age; whether to behave as Christ’s disciples, or as His tutors. We have to choose whether we will accept the biblical doctrine of Scripture as it stands, or permit ourselves to re-fashion it according to our fancy.’[6]

The Fundamentals, (1910)

The title ‘fundamentalist’ was first given to a group of eminent scholars who sought to defend orthodox evangelicalism in the face of the theological liberalism that had emerged in Germany in the second half of the 19th Century, and by the first decade of the 20th was becoming increasingly influential in the United States. Their name was taken from the title of a collection of essays that sought to defend the central tenets of the Christian faith: The Fundamentals.[7] For Packer, as for the original writers of the Fundamentals, the chief issue was one of biblical authority.

The problem of authority is the most fundamental problem that the Christian Church ever faces. This is because Christianity is built on truth; that is to say, on the content of a divine revelation. Christianity announces salvation through faith in Jesus Christ, in and through whom that revelation came to completion; but faith in Jesus Christ is possible only where the truth concerning Him is found. The New Testament tells us that God has made provision for the communication of this saving truth. He entrusted to the Apostles, and through them to the whole Church, a message from Himself [from Christ] which conveys it. [8]

Included in what follows are three soundings from Packer’s key arguments.

1. The Bible is the Spirit-breathed, sufficient, clear and contemporary Word of God

The basic principle [of the original Christian position], is that the teaching of the written Scriptures is the Word which God spoke and speaks to His Church, and is finally authoritative for faith and life. To learn the mind of God, one must consult His written Word. What Scripture says, God says. [9]

The Scriptures are the final authority over all history, church traditions and leaders, and human reason.

The Bible … does not need to be supplemented and interpreted by tradition, or revised and corrected by reason. Instead, it demands to sit in judgment on the dictates of both; for the words of men (sic.) must be tried by the Word of God. The Church collectively, and the Christian individually, can and do err, and the inerrant Scripture must ever be allowed to speak and correct them’[10]

As the Nicene Creed summarises, ‘We believe in one holy, catholic and apostolic church.’ The church and her councils cannot authorize, but through the life-giving work of the Holy Spirit only recognizes the authority of God’s Spirit-breathed word which gave it birth, and which God’s people are now called to submit to (e.g. 1Peter 1:22-2:3; Romans 1:16-17; 16:25-27; Ephesians 2:20).

… the Holy Spirit has been sent to the Church as its Teacher, to guide Christians into truth, to make them wise unto salvation, to testify to them of Christ and to glorify Him thereby. To the apostles, He came to remind them of Christ’s teaching, to show them its meaning, to add further revelation to it, and so to equip them to witness to all about their Lord [The witness now enshrined in the New Testament] (e.g. John 14:26; 16:12, 13; 17:20 cf. Ephesians 2:20; Jude 3). To other men (sic.), He comes to make them partakers of the apostolic faith through the apostolic word (e.g. John 17:20; 1John 1:1-4). Paul indicates the permanent relation between the Spirit, the apostles’ word and the rest of the church in 1Cor 2:10-16 … [11]

2. The Bible is Inerrant and Infallible – God perfectly achieves His purpose through Human Agency

By calling Holy Scripture ‘inerrant,’ Packer means that God perfectly reveals what He intends to reveal without error. By ‘infallible,’ he means that Scripture does not fail to accomplish the task for which God has spoken and speaks it.

… the infallibility of Scripture is simply the infallibility of God speaking (e.g. Isaiah 55:10-11; Hebrews 2:1-4; 4:12-13). What Scripture says is to be received as the infallible Word of the infallible God, and to assert biblical inerrancy and infallibility is just to confess faith in i) the divine origin of the Bible and ii) the truthfulness and trustworthiness of God. [12]

The mode of divine inspiration is complex and multi-varied (e.g. Hebrews 1:1f). God speaks through the accommodation of real human agency. The biblical doctrine of inspiration (in contradistinction for example to Mohammed’s relationship to the Qu’ran) is not simply a matter of ‘divine dictation.’ A faithful reading of Scripture will include the recognition of the various historic styles and characters of its different human authors, as well as the use of different genres.

[That God speaks into human history, through human language at particular times and particular places] … is saying no more than [the biblical authors] wrote to be understood. Their picture of the world and things in it is not put forward as normative for later science, any more than their use of Hebrew and Greek is put forward as a perfect model for composition and language. They do not claim to teach either science or grammar … but these facts do not bear on the inerrancy of the divine Word which the writers’ conceptual language were being used to convey. That is, [we must come to terms with] the distinction between the content and the form of the Written Word of God (e.g. 2Peter 1:16-21).[13]

Packer strongly affirms,

… that the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture are relative to the intended scope of the Word of God. Scripture provides instruction that is true and trustworthy, not on every conceivable subject, but simply on those subjects with which it claims to deal (esp. 2Timothy 3:14-17).

While we may have many different questions which we would like God to answer, as Job discovered, we trust that what He chooses to reveal to us is in line with His purposes for us and the world which He has made; that it is what we actually need to hear (e.g. Deuteronomy 29:29).

We must allow Scripture itself to tell us what [these subjects] are … [14]

… We must allow [each part of] Scripture to tell us its own literary character, and be willing to receive it as what it claims to be.[15]

The Scriptures ‘rightly handled’, will therefore involve prayerful exegesis and exposition and the recognition of the wider context(s) of any given passage; reading with both the grain and the goal of Scripture as fulfilled in Christ and His death and resurrection (cf. Jesus’ use of the Scriptures in Luke 24).

Scripture … is a many-sided interpretive record of an intricate cross-section of world history. The Word of God is an exceedingly complex unity…Every text has its immediate context in the passage from which it comes, its broader context in the book to which it belongs, and its ultimate context in the Bible as a whole; and it needs to be rightly related to each of these contexts if its character, scope and significance is to be adequately understood.

3. Faith and the Inner Testimony of the Spirit

Spurgeon once said, ‘Defend the Bible? I would as soon defend a lion.’ ‘God’s word is living and active,’ (Heb 4:12) and ‘all over the world the gospel is bearing fruit and growing.’ (Col 1:6) God himself vindicates His own word, and by that word convinces His people of His truth. To put it another way God’s word; the Scriptures, are self-authenticating.

Packer quotes Calvin’s classic statement on the self-authenticating nature of Scripture, and the inner testimony of the Spirit in the life of the believer and of the church.

… those whom the Holy Spirit inwardly teaches firmly acquiesce in Scripture; and that Scripture is in truth authoritative in itself (autopiston) … Enlightened by His power, therefore, we do not believe that Scripture is from God on the basis of either our own judgment, or another’s; but, with a certainty that transcends human judgment, we are unshakeably convinced – as though we saw God Himself present in it- that it has come to us, by the ministry of men, from God’s very mouth … I say nothing more than every believer experiences in himself, though my words fall far short of an adequate account of the reality.[16]

The Authority of the Scriptures and Human Freedom

In Fundamentalism and the Word of God, Packer helpfully reminds us that God has not left us in the dark to stumble about in a maze of uncertainty. Of course finite human beings can never hope to know God exhaustively, but we can know Him truly because in His great love He chooses to make Himself known to us! God made us to know Him and experience His great love for us. Faithless reason that makes our own understanding the arbiter of truth is a council of despair, but reasoning faith proceeds from God’s own revelation of Himself in His Son Jesus and the written word which testifies to Him.

The true antithesis … is not between faith and reason (as if believing and thinking were mutually exclusive), but between a faithful and a faithless use of reason. The question is not whether we should think, but how we should think; whether or not our thinking is controlled by our faith.[17]

Packer’s confidence in the Bible, is one with all those who have recognised in the words of Scripture the voice of their Good Shepherd and Saviour. In this way we begin to experience the true freedom of the children of God. The freedom which through Christ He made and saved us for: to God be the glory!

This is the paradox of Christian liberty, and the fulfilment of our highest human destiny. Man (sic.) becomes free only in bond-service to Jesus Christ; otherwise, he is captive to sin. Man’s mind becomes free only when its thoughts are brought into captivity to Christ and His Word; till then, it is at the mercy of sinful prejudice and dishonest mental habits within, and of popular opinion, organized propaganda and unquestioned commonplaces without. Tossed about by every wind of intellectual fashion and carried to and fro by cross-currents of reaction, man without God is not free for truth; he is forever mastered by the things he takes for granted, the victim of a hopeless and everlasting relativism. Only as his thoughts are searched, challenged and corrected by God through His Word may man hope to rise to a way of looking at things which, instead of reflecting merely passing phases of human thought, reflects God’s eternal truth.[18]


[1] J.I. Packer, Fundamentalism and the Word of God, (London: IVF; 1958 (1960), pp. 21-22.

[2] Tim Keller, Preaching: Communicating faith in an age of Scepticism (2015), who similarly refers to Peter Adam, Speaking God’s Words: A Practical Theology of Preaching, (Leicester: IVP, 1996), as required reading on the vital influence of a right doctrine of Scripture for a right doctrine and practice of preaching.

[3] Dr. Michael Ramsey (later Archbishop of Canterbury) in The Bishoprick (Durham Dicocesan Magazine), February 1956.

[4] Quoted in Packer, op.cit., p.12.

[5] At the 1960 Oxford Conference of Evangelical Churchmen, papers were presented on the topic ‘The Word of God and Fundamentalism.’

These papers were published in book form in 1961. Contributors included P.E. Hughes, J.N.D Anderson, and J.I. Packer. The aim of the conference was to uphold the Reformed and evangelical doctrine of Scripture (as originally affirmed by those who upheld the Fundamentals (1910), including the US theologians B.B. Warfield, and J.G. Machen). They also sought to show that, the ‘American type of Fundamentalism (of the 1950s) had at some key points veered from the classic and historic definition of biblical inspiration.’ Billy Graham’s use of Scripture shared far more in common with the Oxford conference, than a number of his fellow countrymen at the time.

[6] Ibid, p. 170.

[7] The Fundamentals, first published in four volumes in 1910, included a number of the greatest theologians of the day including James Orr, J.C. Ryle, H.C.G. Moule, W.H. Griffith Thomas and R.A. Torrey (editor).

[8] Packer., op.cit., p.42.

[9] Ibid., p.47.

[10] Ibid., p.48.

[11] Ibid., p.111.

[12] Ibid., p. 96.

[13]Ibid., p.97.

[14] Ibid., p. 98.

[15] Ibid., p. 105.

[16] Ibid., p. 121 Packer quoting Calvin, Institutes, I.vii.

[17] Ibid., p.140. Cf. G.A. Cole, Faithful Theology, (STST; Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway; 2020), pp.70-71 who argues that, ‘Reason must not be reified as though it were a thing separated from us. Reason does not function on its own, in a spiritual vacuum. Persons reason. Persons mount arguments, questions or demolish them, and marshal or dismiss evidence. And persons do that either in submission to God or in conflict with him.’ And quoting P.T. Forsyth, “logic is rooted in ethic, for the truth we see depends upon the men we are.” … (i.e.), our ability to recognize the truth, see the truth, has a moral component (cf. Matt 5:8; John 17:7).’

[18] Ibid., p.143.

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