J. I. Packer. The Heritage of Anglican Theology. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2021, 384 pages, $39.99)

Remembering Packer

About a decade ago, I came across a copy of J.I. Packer’s Knowing God in Kathmandu (long story). I remember little from my reading that night save for Packer’s obvious, humble confidence in the love of the God he served.

Although I have changed in many ways in the past ten years, I am still moved deeply by Packer’s tone. He writes as one who could, at any time or season, look the Father in the eyes with the confidence that ought to become those who are called sons and daughters of the living God. Neither brazen nor falsely-humble, Packer does not have to tell me that Jesus loves him. The tone of his work does that just fine.

The Heritage of Anglican Theology presents, in essence, the course of lectures on Anglican history and theology that Packer gave year-in and year-out during his time at Regent College. Working from transcripts of his lectures, working-in additional material, going through several processes of editing and revision, Packer delivers less of a “cutting-edge work of theological exploration or a comprehensive history” as Donald Lewis explains in the foreword (12). Rather it is “offered to help readers explore a tradition and history that might remain unfamiliar and confusing were it not for the unique perspective […] of this senior Anglican theologian, churchman, and enthusiast” (12).

What follows is a book that does just what the title suggests: Packer guides us through the history of the Anglican Communion with an emphasis on historical theology. If you are looking for an introduction to the history of Anglican Theology that is both substantive and readable, and which guides the reader carefully into the present state of things, this is it.

At the risk of being misunderstood, I maintain that Packer’s book is one of the fairest surveys of Anglican historical theology. Of course, like any author, Packer has his biases. But this is a very “just” overview. Packer does a lot of work in the first preliminary chapter to map-out the major discourses in Anglicanism, and to openly discuss where he understands himself to be working from.

Packer argues that we “have to appreciate the whole sweep of Anglican history, and, without in any way weakening our own convictions, we need to know what is going on around us and where people who differ from us are coming from” (20). If we cannot do this, or if all of our pictures of those with whom we disagree are strawmen, Packer warns “we shall not be of much use in the Church of God, let alone in the bonding of Anglican fellowship”—we will ultimately “generate confusion” (20).

Packer’s Three Streams

Packer charts three streams in Anglican theology: 

  1. Evangelical (which he uses synonymously with “Reformed”), 
  2. Anglo-Catholic (which he uses synonymously with “High Church”), and 
  3. Broad-church (which he uses synonymously with “Liberal”) (pp. 18-21). 

Let me mark here a place where I generally find myself disagreeing throughout the text: these synonyms can quickly break down. That Broad-churchmen are generally more liberal in their theology is perhaps true, while the idea that all liberal-leaning theologians in the Anglican Communion are by nature of a broad-church sensibility isn’t accurate (i.e. the Diocese of York is a prime example of liberal Anglo-Catholicism).

So, as you read this book, keep in mind that this taxonomy, as helpful as it may be, does oversimplify the theological complexity within the Anglican tradition. 

3 (More) Things to Keep in Mind While Reading

As you read this book, you should also remember that:

1. Structure: the book runs like a series of lectures.  There may be places that feel repetitive or strange for a book, but which would make sense in a lecture.

2. Position: the book is written by a man who freely admits that he is working within the Reformed-Evangelical tradition in Anglicanism. He can be a savage, at times, to my heroes, like Laud (cf. 86). But when he does so, he does so honestly and with a genuine respect for them as persons, even if he may disagree with their theology and ministry. Those who identify as “broad-church” will probably think Packer is unfair in his treatment of that tradition. But again, when he does so it is with integrity as both a scholar and as a clergyman who lived through Anglican Broad-churchmanship’s coming-of-age in the 20th century.

3. Purpose:, the book is designed to be a broad strokes introduction to Anglican historical theology. It is not a monograph, nor is it a multi-volume series. It is designed to be the kind of book I could hand to first-year theology students, a summer intern, or to my Anglo-curious friend who pastors the nearby Baptist church. This it does very well.

An Overview

Packer does a lot in a small book in simple prose. After the first chapter’s orientation, chapter two discusses the history of the English Reformation and its implications for the Anglican theological tradition. Packer presents a very personal and humanizing exploration of what the recovery of the reformed doctrines meant for the practice of Christianity in England. He particularly humanizes Thomas Cranmer in clean and simple prose that helps to situate him historically, while avoiding either justifying his actions or overhauling his theological contribution.

Chapter three focuses on the Puritan strand in the fabric of Anglicanism, which, as Packer understands it, is the rightful heir of the classical reformers as well as the progenitor of contemporary evangelicalism. And, to be honest, his historical work helps to demonstrate the plausibility of this. Granted, this “point of view is not one you will find expressed in many books” (73). It is, in his words, “the Packer perspective” (73). But frankly, if there is someone within the Anglican tradition with both the capabilities and credentials to offer that perspective in a way that demands it be taken seriously, it is Packer. While reading this section, amidst my various hesitancies and concerns with parts of the Puritan legacy as Packer presents it (i.e. like trying to defend the Long Parliament’s Committee for Scandalous Ministers, on p. 91), I can appreciate the vision he is working to recover, one which celebrates “the primacy of joy and praise” (107).

Chapter four is spent discussing the colossus of Richard Hooker (1554–1600), “the greatest theologian the Church of England has ever produced” according to Packer (115). Here, Packer gives one of the most succinct and helpful summaries of Hooker’s concept of “law”—a concept which has profound implications as much for theology proper as it does for ecclesiology, missiology, and the life of the church. Packer also provides a great treatment of the Hookerian concept of “reason,” making sense of what can often be an ambiguous term in Anglican theology. Here Packer demonstrates how “reason” for Hooker means something close to “receptive reason”—a mode of rationality that receives “what Scripture tells me” and by that light assesses and interprets the world (124).

Chapters five, six, and seven deal with the theological movements within Anglicanism that occurred in the 17th and early 18th centuries: 

  • The Caroline Divines (ch. 5), 
  • Rational Divinity (ch. 6), and 
  • the Revival Theology of persons such as Whitfield and Wesley (ch. 7). 

Packer here works to be fair even to those theological movements he disagrees with (the Caroline Divines, for instance), and to be honest about the shortcomings or problems in those movements he aligns himself with (i.e. the evangelical revivals of Whitfield and Wesley).

Chapters eight, nine, and ten guide us through the late 18th century and into the dawn of the twentieth century. Most fascinating in this section is Packer’s helpful genealogical work in tracing the genesis of contemporary Broad Churchmanship. He claims that it resulted largely from the combination of two forces: 

  1. the Rational Divinity movement’s emphasis on religious experience, and 
  2. the social legacy of evangelicalism’s “reformation of manners.” 

Packer demonstrates the ways that these two forces were eventually yoked together for the ultimately utilitarian and political ends of religious management. The driving question behind this project was: “How do we keep the communion together?”  For those who might be tempted to throw-out this conversation as having nothing to do with “real Anglicanism” I would urge caution: for it is a question in whose wake we continue to labor.

Speaking as one who has ridden the tension between the evangelical and High-Church streams of Anglicanism, with plenty of worries about Broad Church policies, I was struck by Packer’s claim that it was in part because of the carelessness of both evangelicals and high-churchmen that church leadership developed broad-church tendencies, since “neither evangelicals nor Anglo-Catholics had any particular interest in managing the Church of England as a whole” (307). Leadership was reduced to management, and management was given to those who could best produce the kind of theology it was hoped could furnish instruments of unity, holding the apparatus together merely for the sake of itself.

The final two chapters, “Early Twentieth-Century Anglican Theology” and “Concluding Thoughts on Anglican Theology” are the final lap of this survey of the Anglican theological heritage. Notable in this section is Packer’s ability to speak from his own experience on several occasions. Including anecdotes, such as the story of his interactions with bishop Ernest W. Barnes (1874–1953) while the young Packer was pursuing ordination (328-329), awakens in the reader a sense of the closeness and tangibility of our tradition. It makes us realize that “that world” (the one of history) and “this world” (the one of our experience) are in fact the same world, separated only by the cascade of time, unified in the eternity of God (cf. Augustine, Confessions, XI.13).

Concluding Thoughts

I highly recommend this text to both the “Angli-curious” and to those already well situated in the communion. 

  • For the curious, I recommend it because it works excellently to introduce, explain, and expand in a way that welcomes further questions. It is substantive without pretending to be comprehensive. 
  • For those already situated in the communion, I recommend it because of the perspective Packer brings, having lived through the better part of the last century and the early part of this century of Anglican theology. His is among the first histories of Anglican theology to be written contemporarily (on this side of the Anglican Realignment), one that stands from the present struggles and gazes behind us, and helps make sense of the journey.

I will end this review by echoing the same charge with which Packer closes his “lectures.” We Anglicans must keep the worship of God at the center of our theological work. For “[w]hen the study of theology is separated from the theological, liturgical, and pastoral heritage of the church it becomes an artificial abstraction” (353).

Packer tells the story of Austin Farrer (1904–1968) who, commenting on the theology of Paul Tillich (1886–1965), “basically said” that “There must be something wrong with it. You can’t pray it” (351). Thus, as Packer leaves his readers, so I leave you: “For theology to honor God, you constantly have to apply this test: Can it be prayed? That is the rule of wisdom I commend to you” (351). This is the key mark of the heritage of Anglican theology: lex orandi, lex credendi.