And now…kudos to J. I. Packer for this brilliant article

And now…kudos to J. I. Packer for this brilliant article November 7, 2011

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.

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  • michael

    This is all Greek to me!

    Is God a monster?

    Well, I can communicate something I experienced many years ago that seems to imply that God is a monster at times when it comes to judgments people suffer?

    From the very beginning of my walk with God I was taught to ponder and meditate on the Word of God as both Joshua and King David did. I first started doing that around 1975 when instructed to not just read the Bible, but read it and ponder it little by little. After that instruction I started meditating on the King James Translation so sometimes when I remember the Word of God these days I remember it in the King James Version first.

    Now a days with the multitude of translations, I have over 25 of them I can refer to on this computer with the click of a button, sometimes I find it best to review the Greek or Hebrew or Aramaic language to get a better sense of a particular English translation I am reading.

    Well, anyway, let me quote verses from the King James translation and maybe other translations and then tell you why it seems to me God is “acting” in such a monstrous way in judgment at times.

    Psa 50:22 Now consider this, ye that forget God, lest I tear you in pieces, and there be none to deliver.

    Psa 50:22 Now consider these things, ye that forget God, lest he rend you, and there is no deliverer.

    Psa 50:22 Understand these things, you that forget God; lest he snatch you away, and there be none to deliver you.

    Clearly the description in that verse is God is doing a terrible thing to someone/s by tearing them apart, rending and snatching them from their original created state of being so that there is nothing left of them for God to deliver.

    This Biblical description at Psalms 50:22 is so much different descriptively from even this verse from Genesis it frightens me:
    Gen 3:19 In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.

    I knew personally the sister of one of the three men that something like Psalm 50:22 happened to many years ago. These three men were working at a very large saw mill. At that saw mill they cut logs into lumber. Before you cut a log you have to debark it. One time the “debarker” machine got clogged up with bark as it did from time to time. There is a protocol these men were to follow when logs or bark clogged up the debarker so that it got stuck.

    On this particular day these men did not follow appropriate protocols so when they went to unclog the debarker they were pulled into the machine and were so crushed up the authorities that were eyewitnesses to the aftermath said they were nothing more than crushed gooow!

    That particular morning I just happened to be pondering Psalms 50 and was stuck on that verse 22 where it says God tears to pieces those who do not remember God or give to Him the praise He is due!

    Is God a monster to have allowed that to happen to those three men or to do what He does to His creature as is recorded there in Psalm 50?

    • rogereolson

      Huh? You asked “Is God a monster to have allowed….” Who ever said God would be a monster to allow….? ALL I HAVE BEEN SAYING (pay attention, please) is that a god who predestines people to hell and renders it certain that they go there or who arbitrarily saves some from eternal damnation unconditionally and irresistibly, arbitrarily leaving others to hell whom he could save would be a monster. Now, anyone who says “But that’s not what Calvinists believe!” is not paying attention. I know they don’t believe that. But that’s what I WOULD HAVE TO BELIEVE IF I BELIEVED WHAT THEY ADMITTEDLY BELIEVE.

    • Tim Reisdorf

      Hi Michael,

      You bring up a very difficult issue. At the end of the day, I believe that God is not evil, nor does he act in evil ways. So I believe that God is not a monster. Yet, very terrible things happen to people – and God allows.

      I’ve been meditating on this verse:

      Arise, cry out in the night, as the watches of the night begin; pour out your heart like water in the presence of the Lord. Lift up your hands to him for the lives of your children, who faint from hunger at the head of every street. Lam 2

      I find it incredible – almost impossible – that in the middle of the 3rd Chapter, seemingly from nowhere . . .

      Because of the LORD’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. Lam 3

      I don’t know how Jeremiah could pen these words, nor believe them. Yet God was with him in the pain and humiliation. And though like an enemy, God’s presence was a comfort to him.

      If God ever ceases to challenge the boundaries that I confine Him to, I believe that it will be a sad day. I’m sorry about what happened to your friend’s brother.

      • michael


        Yes, me too; it came as a shock to me to learn my friend’s brother was one of those who suffered by that accident. He was a believer and because of that it opened up a whole lot of questions for many within his family and among his friends.

        I am just wondering why these two camps, Arminians and Calvinists, cannot see that both are primarily founded on the same Gospel of the Kingdom and because of the same God, the same mysteries exist?

        One mystery I know that is now not so much a mystery yet is mysteriously being overlooked is on the question of eschatology. It is this one, recited from the book of Ephesians, pasted here:

        Eph 1:9 making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ
        Eph 1:10 as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.

        I don’t find many “prayer” meetings in these days where Church people are earnestly praying to God according to the revelation given to Paul and Peter.

        Paul cited above.

        Here’s Peter’s:

        2Pe 3:10 But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed.
        2Pe 3:11 Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness,
        2Pe 3:12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn!

        Let me ask you:

        “when was the last time you got together for a time of fasting and prayer coming boldly before God’s Throne with other spirit filled believers and prayed earnestly that God would dissolve the present heavens and earth, “hastening the coming of the Lord”, meaning the understanding of this earnest prayer was so that the life of every living thing and every man, woman, pregnant mother expecting, every infant, child, young person and aged would breathe their last bringing into existence that final day of judgment?”

        It seems to me the Church today is just as focused on the same things of this world as worldly folks are, that is, while serving the Lord they expect to live a successful life, owning a house, owning a good business, prospering while working hard serving their neighbors, their communities, the counties and States and this nation living the good life and then retiring and then dying at a ripe old age like Abraham and David did and like many other great personalities of the Bible records did, too?

        I am actively taking this view when praying and am now earnestly asking anyone with that view in mind, 2 Peter 3:10-12 to pray earnestly according to these Words of eschatological insight from King David’s first appointed song:

        1Ch 16:31 Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice, and let them say among the nations, “The LORD reigns!”
        1Ch 16:32 Let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it!
        1Ch 16:33 Then shall the trees of the forest sing for joy before the LORD, for he comes to judge the earth.
        1Ch 16:34 Oh give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever!

  • On of the first things I learned under the late Dr. William Hendricks, a premier biblical theologian (Baptist) was that those traditional theological concepts of God being immutable and impassive were taken directly from Greek philosophy. At the time I tried to expunge from my thinking all things Greek (“beware of Greeks bearing gifts”) in an attempt to be purely biblical. Since then, I’ve decided that it is okay to listen to and debate these concepts to accept or reject, but it is important to recognize from whence they come. I am amazed sometimes that some Christian apologists don’t seem to recognize all of the non-biblical origins of traditions that we hold dear.

    • Tim Reisdorf


      I agree. Concepts that push God’s characteristics to an “infinite extreme” (or, in this case, to zero) are suspicious. They are products of math and logic rather than observations of beings and stuff.

      • Sherebyah

        math and logic – which calvin did in all his works, making intelligent, not necessarily spiritual, arguments.

  • Rob

    Would impassibility imply God could not experience grief? I thought the (patristic) emphasis on impassibility was about denying that anything from the outside has power over God, i.e. God cannot be disturbed in the sense that one can throw a rock and put another rock into motion.

    But when people want to deny impassibility they seem to be wanting to leave room for God experiencing anger or grief or compassion. It is not clear that this incompatible with impassibility. Just because God cannot be disturbed from the outside to grieve does not mean that God cannot have an eternal stance towards sin similar to our grief and anger.

    I think the ancients were reacting to passions that are irrational and outside one’s control–things that happen to you. But this does not mean that they could not have allowed for properly grounded or rational affects. St. Antony is supposed to exemplify mastery over passions when he emerges from the fort but he is not described as emotionally blank, he is described as experiencing joy in the proper way.

    • rogereolson

      What does the Westminster Confession of Faith mean when it says God is “without body, parts or passions?” What did Anselm mean when he said that God does not even feel compassion and that the compassion we attribute to God is only what we feel when we contemplate God’s great mercy (but God himself can feel no such thing)? There are all kinds of views of God’s impassibility; Packer makes clear which one(s) he is against in the article–those that deny God can feel grief (or compassion).

  • John S

    Any chance you could place a scanned copy online? Sounds a very interesting article. Thx.

    • rogereolson

      It is copyrighted by CT. I would have to get CT’s permission. I’m not sure that would be forthcoming, but I’ll ask.

  • Thanks Roger. I will enjoy reading it.

    • rogereolson

      How will you get a copy? I hope you have access to a library that has back issues of CT. Or have our own collection going back to 1986! If you know of a place on the net where people can read the article, please let us know.

      • I hadn’t relized it was unavailable! The 80s are sooo like the Christian Dark Ages before the Internet!

        Anyway, I made a requet to one of CT’s Editors to make that article available. I don’t expect to hear back any time soon, but if other commentors would like to try this tack then maybe the volume of requests might spur a quicker response.

        • rogereolson

          CT’s response to my query was that only Packer himself can give permission to republish his article anywhere. But another CT editor commented here that he will “upload it.” I’m not sure what that means. Given the response I received from the managing editor, I can’t reproduce it here without Packer’s permission. I’m not sure that would be forthcoming given my criticism of him.

          • I received the article as a fax this morning from CT. The fax was a dark mess and when I scanned it the pictures were dark blobs. However, I now have the text and have edited out all the errors. But need to read through it to double check all. I’ll post it on my blog in the next day or two and leave the link here.

            I also asked CT to publish this article as a link and added to your request maybe it will be.

            What little I read of this article looks to be very good. I’m coming from a classic background and am interested in knowing more about process theology and open theism to see what I can glean from them realizing they are much different systems. I guess the question I’m asking myself is “In a postmodernistic context how would classic theism change, if at all?”

          • rogereolson

            I wouldn’t call Packer’s view of God in that article either process or open theism. But I think he comes very close to affirming a relational theism that seems inconsistent with his high Calvinism.

          • With regard to the permission reference, the other tack I (we) could take is to write on the subject itself using this article as a baseline for discussion.

          • rogereolson

            That was my intent in bringing it up. I do wish it were more readily available for everyone to read.

          • If you could email me directly I’d like to get JI’s quotes from Augustine, Aquinas and Barth. I think I have Augustine, but its next-to-impossible to see the other two. Otherwise I’ve edited the article and have it ready to go except for the caricatures. I also will contact CT today to ask again for a link to JI’s article. Hopefully they’ll give it up.


            Too, would agree that JI is a classicist moving towards some type of relational theism. But how does the classic position change with postmodernism, if at all? Perhaps the answer is that it moves towards Open Theism and/or Process Theology.

          • rogereolson

            I’m still hoping someone at CT will post the article somewhere. My copy of the article is at my office and I won’t be there for a few days. I’ll see what I can do.

          • CT’s copyright center responded with me footing their bill. So will pass on that. After considering classic theism and process theology it lends me to think that there is a third way to go that keeps classic theism’s theistic base and blends process theology back into classic theism (while at the same time avoiding panentheism). I’ll call it “Relational Theism” and see where it goes as a proposition as stated in my post this week. If you know of some such effort let me know. Thanks.

          • rogereolson

            There is such an effort underway. Look at the work of Thomas Jay Oord who leads a program unit of the American Academy of Religion devoted to relational theism. He has written at least two books on the subject and is the center of a network of theologians dedicated to or interested in what you are calling relational theism.

          • I didn’t know that existed. I hope its what I’m searching for… that’d be crazy cool. (And it save a lot of time sorting things out). Thanks again.

  • Ivan A. Rogers

    An excerpt from DROPPING HELL AND EMBRACING GRACE, a book by Ivan A. Rogers due for release before Christmas 2011. Copyrighted. All rights reserved:

    When “Hell” is chased out the back door, “Grace” will come rushing through the front door with open arms. And when hell is finally eliminated from the mistranslated biblical text, and from our gospel message, it will generate an unimaginable spiritual response throughout the earth. At last, masses of humanity will realize that it’s safe to come home where they belong. Word will spread at near warp-speed throughout God’s entire creation, announcing, “There is no bad news in the good news! Our Father is not angry with us after all.” The gates of God will be discovered standing wide open and literally unnumbered billions of God’s long-estranged children will come running to the hearty embrace of their loving heavenly Father – the Father they never knew.

    • Tim Reisdorf

      Congratulations on your book.

      You tell of a very positive future for Churches that embrace Universalism (I think that’s what you mean). Why is it, do you suppose, that present-day Universalist Churches are not experiencing these kinds of responses?

      • Ivan A. Rogers

        Response to Tim Reisdorf:

        Dear Tim: I think you misunderstood my post. I did not say anything about “churches that embrace universalism.” The quote from my book is addressed to Christ followers, whether or not they may happen to attend churches. There is currently a huge debate among believers (especially evangelicals) regarding the doctrine of eternal conscious torture, i.e., “hell.” This debate is typified by Rob Bell’s best selling book LOVE WINS and the many new books (including mine) that take exception to the hell issue.

        If, in fact, there is no hell of eternal torture, then God has unnumbered billions of uninformed souls on his hands and no place to put them–except up there in heaven (gasp!) with us good Christians. Of course, we should expect the ‘elder brothers’ to raise all kinds of hell if that ever happened.

        Yes, it is true that Unitarian-Universalist type churches are not growing and there’s a good reason for that: they are often syncretistic in doctrine and do not emphasize the deity and biblical uniqueness of the “Savior of the world.” But there are now many evangelicals taking another look at these issues; so many, in fact, that several leading lights of the evangelical camp are mad as hell (pun intended) and have come out swinging (witness the response to Rob Bell). For further and updated information on these developing trends, I recommend a visit to: Tentmaker. org

        • Tim Reisdorf

          If, in fact, there is no hell of eternal torture, then God has unnumbered billions of uninformed souls on his hands and no place to put them–except up there in heaven (gasp!) with us good Christians.

          As one who believes in Annihilationism, I think there are more alternatives than your statement allows for.

          Again, congratulations on your book.

  • Marc

    Wow, that does indeed sound like Open Theism. Sanders, Boyd, or Pinnock could have said that. Amazing! It’s hard for me to understand how one lives with these kinds of inconsistencies. I just don’t know how, perhaps because a large population of Christians adheres more to a form of folk religion, and the theologians and leaders of such people work within confined spaces, theologically, logically, and intellectually speaking. I believe you’ve mentioned that sort of thing before Dr. Olson (professors not speaking up, or being honest about their belief out of fear from being fired).

    What do you think is the reason for this? What can be done to counter it? What are the dangers if this tendency remains?

    • rogereolson

      I don’t think that was the case with Packer; he is quite fearless in his theological pronouncements. However, he is noted for appealing to “antinomy” (paradox) to answer questions about how to reconcile divine sovereignty and human responsibility, etc. Still, I don’t know how to reconcile some of what he wrote in this article with what he has written elsewhere; there seems to be something more than antinomy going on. The only way to protect theologians from fear of constituents’ backlashes is real tenure. Most evangelical colleges don’t have it. Even with tenure, however, pressures can be brought to bear on a courageous theologian to censor himself or herself. A friend reported to me that one dean told him “I may not be able to fire you, but I can make your life so miserable you’ll want to leave.” Still, the protection from being fired just for publishing a theological opinion is helpful. I think every real college and university (including seminaries) should have that. Of course, they may also have contractual obligations upon which tenure is contingent, but the more there are, the less meaningful tenure becomes. I think churches should give pastors tenure, too–to protect the freedom of the pulpit. Tenure does not mean a person can’t be fired for non-performance of duties; it just means a person can’t be fired for no reason or for publishing opinions the administration (or in the case of a church the congregation) doesn’t like.

      • Tim Reisdorf

        You speak of courageous theologians. Yet there are also theologians/pastors who simply “lose their way” and end up teaching/preaching against the truth (as defined by the university/congregants). Tenure is a double-edged sword and such such decisions should probably be left up to those who bear the risks.

  • Won’t be up today, but I’ll upload it soon.

  • Deborah

    I’m not an open theist, but I’ve never bought the doctrine of impassibility. It’s been refreshing reading your The Story of Christian Theology simply b/c you leave the door open on impassibility and immutability, something that my inter-denominational college fellowship did not do. It was only about a yr ago that I had the courage to say that I do not believe God is impassible. I do think of Him as immutable, but I get the sense that my idea of unchanging and what I think is presented in scripture is quite different from the immutability of Greek thought.

  • Samuel Ellemor

    Article 1 of the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England, which preceded the Westminster Confession of Faith says:

    “THERE is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions; of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the maker and preserver of all things both visible and invisible.”

    I think Rob is correct regarding impassibility – that it means no agent (i.e. creation of God) is capable of causing God to change, to love, or to suffer. God is not ‘passive’, he is always active. Thomas Aquinas (at the risk of being too rationalistic!) says that the love of God is not a passion contingent on the actions of his creatures, but a result of his own active will. (ST 1,20) If God’s love was a passion, love would not be an intrinsic quality of God because it would be dependent on something external to God.

    Of course, that does not mean that God cannot suffer, it just means that his suffering is a result of his love, and his love comes from his own nature.

    • rogereolson

      What about my quote from Anselm where he denied that God “feels” compassion?

  • James Petticrew

    This is really interesting. I am fairly sure I heard Packer preach in Glasgow in the late 80s / early 90s during which he said that Anthropomorphisms in Scripture were God’s way of accommodating our limited and finite minds not descriptions of realities as we understand and experience as human beings. He was very strong in that sermon on God’s unchanging eternal decrees so I was pretty shocked to read the quotes above about God apparently changing his mind.

    Have you ever had the chance to ask him about this directly?

    • rogereolson

      No, I’ve never met him.

  • Andy W.


    I really enjoy your posts! What are your thoughts about the apophatic approach to looking at and understanding God? From my limited reading in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, I have found this approach both very insightful and refreshing.

    • rogereolson

      It’s fine if complemented by the kataphatic approach. Both are needed. I prefer the analogy approach which tries to blend the two.

  • John Metz

    Before I finished your excellent article (and before I read the comments) I stopped and searched CT Archives (no 1986 issues yet) and CT Library (did not have the article). Both of these are resources I rely upon often. I looked in my office library and found a gap in our CT articles between June 1986 and December 1988! No joy!

    Will Ted Olsen let us (your loyal readers) know where he posts the article and when it is up?

    • rogereolson

      I hope so.

  • John Metz

    I checked again at CT Library & CT Archives. Still no article. Have you heard anything?

    • rogereolson