Lest anyone think I hate Packer or disdain everything he’s written, I want to applaud him for one of the best basic theology articles I have ever read. It’s so good I copied it and have kept it in my files for years (since 1986!). The article is “What do you mean when you say ‘God’?” (Remember article titles are assigned by editors and not by authors; that may not have been Packer’s preferred title.) It was published in Christianity Today in (I think) September, 1986. (My copy does not have the exact publication date on it; I can see only the year–1986.)
This is a magnificent article decrying what Packer calls “mystification” of the doctrine of God. He calls for a cautious “retooling” of traditional Christian theism insofar as traditional theism (Augustine, Aquinas, et al.) has tended to downplay the personal aspects of God’s being. But he warns that any such retooling must purge “elements of mystification” from the doctrine of God. “By ‘mystification’ I mean the idea that some biblical statements about God mislead as they stand and ought to be explained away. A problem arises from a recurring tendency in orthodox theism to press the legitimate distinction between what God is in himself and what Scripture says about his relation to us.”
In that section of the article headed “Exit mystification” Packer more than hints that God really does change his mind and that traditional theology has been wrong to say otherwise. Here is what he wrote: “To be specific, sometimes [in Scripture] God is said to change his mind and to make new decisions as he reacts to human doings. Orthodox theists have insisted that god did not really change his mind, since God is impassible and never a ‘victim’ of his creation. … But to say that is to say that some things that Scripture affirms about God do not mean what they seem to mean, and do mean what they do not seem to mean. That provokes the question: How can these statements be part of the revelation of God when they actually misrepresent and so conceal God?”
There Packer sounds like an open theist! Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying he was an open theist in 1986, only that this particular point about God changing his mind and the ways in which traditional theology have “mystified” those passages foreshadows an argument used by open theists.
Packer goes on in that section to call for biblical exegetes and theologians to take biblical allusions to God’s personal characteristics and interactions with creatures more seriously and not to dismiss them as mere figures of speech right out of hand. He also calls for theologians to discard traditional notions of God’s immutability and impassibility. Here is what he wrote about God’s impassibility: “Let us be clear: A totally impassive God would be a horror, and not the God of Calvary at all. He might belong in Islam; he has no place in Christianity. If, therefore, we can learn to think of the chosenness of God’s grief and pain as the essence of his impassibility, so-called, we will do well.”
Was Packer suggesting that a certain notion of God common among Christian theologians is an idol? Was he suggesting that he would not worship such a god (viz., one that cannot suffer)? Perhaps not, but it does sound that way. His language against divine impassibility (as traditionally understood in classical Christian theism) is very strong. What would Packer have said to this question asked of him right after he wrote that article: “Dear Professor Packer, if it were somehow revealed to you that God IS actually incapable of suffering, would you still worship him?” I suggest his answer is revealed in that statement that such a god might belong in Islam but has no place in Christianity.
Packer goes on to call for the purging of elements of rationalism in Christian theism. Most significantly, he says “theological triumphalism” is to be avoided because, although Scripture is authoritative, we cannot claim to have a complete grasp of God or ever think we have “enlisted him on our side.” He is clearly there talking about theologians who think they know too much about God beyond what is revealed.
I couldn’t agree more with Packer’s closing statement that reveals why he wrote this article. Talking about an expected coming syncretism of Christianity with other religions (something he was against) Packer concludes that “If this guess is right, we shall be badly at a disadvantage if we have not taken pains to brush up our theism, since the question of theism–whether or not we are going to think about God the Christian way, or some other way–will be at the heart of the debate. So I hope we shall take time out to prepare ourselves along the lines suggested–just in case.”
I found this article extremely helpful in 1986 and I still find it helpful. I agree with almost everything in it. But if you remove the name “J. I. Packer” from it, someone might think it was written by a postconservative evangelical! In fact, I believe IF that article were to be published today WITHOUT the author’s identity attached, many conservative evangelicals would assume it was written by an open theist or a “leftwing evangelical” and attack it as dangerous.
Personally, I do not see how the article’s central thrust can be reconciled with classical Calvinism. Remember, the Westminster Confession of Faith (Packer is an Anglican, but one in the Puritan tradition within that worldwide communion) says God is “without body, parts or passions.” Classical Calvinism is closely tied to classical theism. It certainly does not believe that God can change his mind or “make new decisions as he reacts to human doings.”
This is why I DO NOT SAY that Calvinists and I worship different Gods. Typical of most Calvinists I know, Packer was (at least in 1986) inconsistent. R. C. Sproul lets Arminians be Christians (just barely) due to a “felicitous inconsistency.” So I can say that my fellow evangelicals who happen to be Calvinists are Christians (not just barely!) and worship the same God I do due to a many felicitous inconsistencies. What I mean is that IF I BELIEVED WHAT THEY DO I would have to be more consistent and believe God is a monster and not worship him–something fortunately they do not believe so they can worship him. But the only reason they do not believe it is because they, like Packer, are inconsistent.
I hope this clears things up with regard to what I mean when I say the God of classical Calvinism is a monster IF Calvinism is pressed to its logical conclusion following out and embracing its good and necessary consequences, something almost no Calvinist does. I mean the same thing THEY MEAN about me and fellow Arminians when they say our theology, if pressed to its good and necessary consequences (which most of them acknowledge we don’t do), would amount to a man-centered false gospel of self-salvation.