Essential reading for Essentials readers: Taking God Seriously: Vital Things We Need To Know, by J. I. Packer.
My title overstates my position. I do not think J. I. Packer’s new book is literally essential reading. Nevertheless, I would like to heartily encourage you to buy this little volume (totally 175 pages and 8 chapters) and read it carefully. It is wonderful little book and a great resource to have at hand.
J. I. Packer’s new book is several things at once, and it is hard to answer the question ‘what is this book about’ succinctly. In the Preface, the author tells us at some length that his book is about catechesis—“… intentional, orderly instruction in the truths that Christians are called to live by, linked with equally intentional and orderly instruction on how they are to do this.”
However, the book is not really about catechesis. The author does not provide us with a defence of catechesis as a teaching method in comparison with other teaching methods, nor even an outline as to how to conduct catechism classes. Indeed, beyond the Preface there is hardly any discussion of the concept of catechesis at all. I understand from others that catechism classes traditionally revolve around the memorization of answers to set questions, such that Christian doctrine is memorized and understood according to set wordings. But I have no direct experience of this myself—having been raised in a non-church family and having been discipled since conversion in churches that concentrated on small group Bible studies augmenting weekly expository Bible preaching sermons—so my questions about catechism, and its place in discipleship, were left largely unanswered.
Therefore, whereas the author tells us that his is a book about catechesis, it doesn’t seem to be so. Certainly, however, it is a book about Christian doctrine, which presumably in turn would form the content of a catechetic exercise. The book thereafter is a collection of teachings on various doctrines. The unifying theme is the author’s belief that the doctrines he writes on are the very doctrines that Bible-believing / Protestant / Evangelical Christians worldwide are not taking seriously enough.
And a list of the chapter headings will tell you exactly the topics Dr Packer chooses to teach on:
1. Taking Faith Seriously
2. Taking Doctrine Seriously
3. Taking Christian Unity Seriously
4. Taking Repentance Seriously
5. Taking the Church Seriously
6. Taking the Holy Spirit Seriously
7. Taking Baptism Seriously
8. Taking the Lord’s Supper Seriously
So here’s the beauty of the book: Whenever you might want to study or be refreshed in your thinking or prepare to teach others, with respect to those doctrines, J. I. Packer’s book is a wonderful resource. All for the price of about three cups of coffee, at your local Christian bookshop.
Why is this volume such a good resource? Because Dr Packer is most assuredly a genius when it comes to articulating orthodox Christian doctrine. And I don’t think I’m overstating his giftedness, in using the word genius. When it comes to Christian ideas, Christian truth, Christian words, Dr Packer knows exactly how to explain it, how to articulate it fully and clearly. His talent for this is breath-taking. It is to this book that I will go, again and again, when I want to remember exactly how to teach others what the word ‘faith’ means, or how Christian unity is to be rightly understood, or how to explain the changing nuance in meaning between mystery and sacrament and ordinance as ways of referring to Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
What J. I. Packer is offering us are the essentials, doctrinally speaking, of our biblical faith; which is why I, in turn, am presuming to suggest that this is essential reading for you too.
The style of language is often polemical. It is clear that the author sees himself as a one speaking prophetically to the global church—calling her to return to her Lord wholeheartedly, in pursuit of truth and holiness—and as one who doesn’t have much time left. He has spent his life training others in Christian theology and is well aware of the fact that those who are currently in church leadership positions are not the same age as of his children, but rather as of his grandchildren or even great grandchildren. And whilst the context of an Old Testament oracle may have been the threat of the Assyrians or Babylonians, and this context forms the basis of the message, so too J. I. Packer’s context is the current state of the worldwide Anglican communion, which is suffering “convulsions” (his word) over homosexuality—whether or not same sex unions can be blessed. This topic continually re-surfaces throughout the book. So, for example, of 19 pages dedicated to “Taking the Church Seriously”, eight pages are given to the presentation of a doctrine of the Church (from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians) followed by 11 pages on the schism caused by the homosexuality issue within the worldwide Anglican communion. Whilst in agreement with the author, the book does feel unbalanced.
I found the chapter entitled “Taking the Holy Spirit Seriously” to be the weakest of the eight, because I was not convinced that that was what the author was doing, especially as the task he set himself was to tell us “vital things we need to know.” Without doubt, this chapter teaches many wonderful truths about the person of the Holy Spirit. But, just as it is good to know about the internal workings of the high-bypass turbofan, yet that is not essential to travelling by jet airliner, so too Dr Packer teaches us things that are good to know, but not essential. By way of conclusion, he offers us five signs of the Holy Spirit being taken seriously (the pursuit of holiness, renewal, doctrine, evangelism and worship) but these signs are identical to those one would expect where the focus was on either of the other two persons of the Holy Trinity. Along the way, J. I. Packer has told us that, “Distinctive to the charismatic movement was the Pentecostal idea that God is restoring in the modern church most if not all of the apostolic sign gifts (prophecy, tongues and interpretation, and healing), plus Spirit baptism with tongues, as on Pentecost morning—a claim that many Christians, like this writer, find dubious” (p 110). If that was indeed the distinctive charismatic idea, I’d find it dubious too. But seeing as it is not, I find the author’s significant misrepresentation / misunderstanding of it surprising, coming as it does from a mind of such undoubted brilliance. The bulk of the chapter, thereafter, is an explanation of how the Holy Spirit talks to us. That’s good to know.
However, it is about the gifts of the Spirit, and especially how the Spirit of God talks through us that Paul considers essential; and it is that that he wants to make sure we are not ignorant of (1 Cor 12:1-3). There isn’t a single reference, anywhere in the entire volume, to 1 Corinthians 14, and that, specifically, is disappointing, especially from one who implicitly wears the prophetic mantle.
The chapter that I found most illuminating was the final one—“Taking the Lord’s Supper Seriously.” J. I. Packer sets himself this challenge: That his readers “should discover that the Catholic heritage, taken as a whole, has been more right than wrong, whereas the evangelical heritage, taken as a whole, has been more wrong than right.” What did he teach and was I convinced by it? Well, I don’t want to spoil the ending for you, so buy it and read it for yourself. Suffice to say, the chapter greatly added to my appreciation of the biblical meaning of this mystery / sacrament / ordinance and for that I’m grateful.
Revd Dr Steven Daly
Rector, St Barnabas Anglican Church, Leederville.