GUEST POST by Andy Naselli:

It is not much of a recommendation when all you can say is that this teaching may help you if you do not take its details too seriously. It is utterly damning to have to say, as in this case I think we must, that if you do take its details seriously, it will tend not to help you but to destroy you. [p. 159]

That’s what J. I. Packer wrote about Keswick theology, a teaching that has destroyed many people and continues to destroy more today. It frustrated the tender-hearted J. I. Packer as a young, recent convert in his pursuit to be holy:

It didn’t work and that was a deeply frustrating and depressing thing. It made me feel like a pariah, an outsider, and at the age of eighteen that was pretty burdensome. In fact, it was driving me crazy. [p. 169] The reality of its [i.e., Keswick theology’s] passivity program and its announced expectations, plus its insistence that any failure to find complete victory is entirely your fault, makes it very destructive. [p. 157]

Packer felt like a “poor drug addict” desperately, unsuccessfully, and painfully trying “to walk through a brick wall.” The explanation for his struggle, according to Keswick theology, was his “unwillingness to pay the entry fee,” that is, not fully consecrating himself. “So all he could do was repeatedly reconsecrate himself, scraping the inside of his psyche till it was bruised and sore in order to track down still unyielded things by which the blessing was perhaps being blocked.” His confusion, frustration, and pain grew as he kept “missing the bus.” The pursuit was as futile as chasing a “will-o’-the-wisp.” He felt like “a burned child” who “dreads the fire, and hatred of the cruel and tormenting unrealities of overheated holiness teaching remains in his heart to this day” (pp. 157–58). Packer concludes that Keswick’s message is depressing because it fails to eradicate any of the believer’s sin and that it’s delusive because

it offers a greater measure of deliverance from sin than Scripture anywhere promises or the apostles themselves ever attained. This cannot but lead either to self-deception, in the case of those who profess to have entered into this blessing, or to disillusionment and despair, in the case of those who seek it but fail to find it. [“Keswick and the Reformed Doctrine of Sanctification,” p. 166.]

The Puritans, says Packer, correct what he calls Keswick theology’s “pietistic goofiness” (p. 33). For further reading:

  1. J. I. Packer, “Keswick and the Reformed Doctrine of Sanctification,” Evangelical Quarterly 27 (July–Sept. 1955): 153–67
  2. J. I. Packer, preface to the centenary ed. of J. C. Ryle, Holiness (Welwyn: Evangelical, 1979), vii–viii.
  3. J. I. Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Revell, 1984), 157–58; cf. 111.
  4. J. I. Packer, introduction to John Owen, Sin and Temptation: The Challenge of Personal Godliness (ed. James M. Houston; Minneapolis: Bethany, 1996), xvii–xxx, esp. xxv–xxix.
  5. Alister McGrath, J. I. Packer: A Biography (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1997), 22–26, 76–80.
  6. Wendy Murray Zoba, “Knowing Packer: The Lonely Journey of a Passionate Puritan,Christianity Today 42:4 (April 6, 1998): 30–40, esp. 33.
  7. Jeffrey P. Greenman, “Packer, James Innell,” Biographical Dictionary of Evangelicals (ed. Timothy T. Larsen, David W. Bebbington, and Mark A. Noll; Downers Grove: IVP, 2003), 497.
  8. John H. Armstrong, “A Reformation & Revival Journal Interview with James I. Packer,” Reformation & Revival 13:4 (Fall 2004): 163–96, esp. 166–69.
  9. Andrew David Naselli, Let Go and Let God? A Survey and Analysis of Keswick Theology (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010).
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Comments:


32 thoughts on “Pietistic Goofiness: How Keswick Theology Nearly Destroyed J.I. Packer”

  1. Ray Ortlund says:

    Thanks, Andy. The “self-deception” Dr. Packer rightly refers to reminds me of Lovelace, Dynamics of Spiritual Life, page 116: “The world does not need more ‘victorious Christians’ who drive their neighbors to distraction by their cheerful indulgence in undiscerned carnality.”

  2. And Packer signing Evangelicals & Catholics Together as well as the Manhattan Declaration did not negate and destroy his credibility?

    LM

  3. Peter Collier says:

    (a teaching that has destroyed many people)… “and continues to destroy more today”? This latter part of the statement is completely without foundation. The Keswick Council recognized the errors in some Keswick teaching (prior to the 1980′s?) and dealt with them many years ago. There is no truth whatsoever in making such allegations about current or even recent teaching heard at the Keswick Convention. Surely speakers of the calibre of Don Carson, John Stott, Alistair Begg, Bruce Milne, Dale Ralph Davis and Sinclair Ferguson would not have continued to associate themselves with the Convention had this issue not been dealt with?

    Packer made the comments you quote in 1984 and, even then, said that this type of teaching “has little or no place in the instruction given at the convention nowadays” (Keep in Step with the Spirit, page 146)

    Might I suggest you clarify/withdraw that part of your comment?

    Many thanks

  4. My own experience very closely parallels Packer’s. The search for instant spirituality will have this effect on a person who honestly faces their own sinfulness.

  5. Mark says:

    I guess Catholic theology trumps Keswick theology for Packer. Where’s Martin Lloyd Jones when you need him?

  6. DavidN says:

    These comments are from a Keswick of long ago. Why bring them up now? I have been to Keswick several times. I saw no sign of what you call Keswick Theology in the theology preached at Keswick.

  7. Carlos says:

    The original post on this topic made on Jun 25 2010 had example from the life of Hannah Whitall Smith author of The Christian’s Secret of A Happy Life. Is there any way to get that version of the post?

  8. Andy Naselli says:

    Peter,

    This first reference to “Keswick theology” is hyperlinked to this interview: http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/2010/06/03/why-let-go-and-let-god-is-a-bad-idea/

    There I define the term and distinguish it from the Keswick conferences today. So in that sense, the Keswick convention today does not propagate Keswick theology, but Keswick theology is still influential today.

    Andy Naselli

  9. Richard Winston says:

    In response to Lou and Mark,

    I understand your frustration with Packer’s allegiances, but it seems that your comments fail to address the content of Packer’s statements. Personal alliances should not function as a hermeneutical grid for the accuracy of their arguments.

  10. Mark says:

    @Richard:

    Much of what Packer says is good. I am certainly not a Keswick adherent or defender. However, I just found the title of the article to be sadly ironic…i.e trying to process the thought that Keswick theology almost destroyed Packer and yet trying to reconcile that with his continued and increasing acceptance of Catholic theology. In a sense, He is embracing very similar themes to those that supposedly almost destroyed him. It doesn’t jive, and I think we give guys like him a pass because they have entered the realm of “brilliant thinker” or “brilliant theologian” and we want our names to be mentioned next to theirs. Martin Lloyd Jones would have none of that and I respect him for it.

  11. MJ Nienhuis says:

    @LM

    Why the mention of the Manhatten Declaration? Is it unsound theology or strange theological bedfellows or….? ;-)

  12. Chris says:

    JI Packer’s book “A Quest for Godliness” saved me from deep despair brought on by Keswick teaching. His personal testimony in regards to his own freedom through reformational teaching was a balm to me. I am grateful for Dr. Packer’s writing ministry.

  13. Bobby Grow says:

    This post is a bit ironic, relative to Packer’s own theology. So he traded an “apparently” introspective theology (which I don’t think Keswick de jure necessarily leads to, maybe at a “folk” level) for another one (and one that is more so). He went for Puritan, or as Theodore Dwight Bozeman has called it, Precisianism piety that necessarily and methodologically calls for the adherent to experiment with their election (i.e. to see if they are indeed elect). This is truly ironic, indeed.

    It’s interesting, I talk to many contemporary Reformed folks and theologians; and so often they seem to excise, conveniently, so much of what hallmarked actual Puritan theology (i.e. notions like: temporary faith, divine pacts, the practical syllogism, and experimental predestinarianism). To be honest there really isn’t much difference between this kind of piety and that represented within the tridentine faith; so if Packer is moving towards Tiber (which sounds like an allegation) it wouldn’t totally surprise me.

  14. Dave Tishkowski says:

    Packer’s alignment with Romanists in the Manhattan Declaration highlight his ecumenical motives. Though I appreciate his past summation on the dangers of keswick theology, why would he embrace Roman Catholics as brothers in the Lord? It does not appear to be very Biblically (or theologically) consistent.

  15. To Dave Tish…:

    The Scriptures peak to what you’ve noted.

    For J. I. Packer to sign E&CT and the Manhattan Declaration (as well as Mohler and Duncan in the MD) he has to ignore and/or run roughshod over passages such as these- 2 Cor. 6:14-17; Eph. 5:11; 2 John 9-11. Signing those documents gave Christian recognition to the deadly “enemies of the cross of Christ (Phil. 3:18) and compromised the Gospel.

    LM

  16. To Dave Tish…:

    The Scriptures speak to what you’ve noted.

    For J. I. Packer to sign E&CT and the Manhattan Declaration (as well as Mohler and Duncan) he has to ignore and/or run roughshod over passages such as these- 2 Cor. 6:14-17; Eph. 5:11; 2 John 9-11. Signing those documents gave Christian recognition to the deadly “enemies of the cross of Christ” (Phil. 3:18) and compromised the Gospel.

    LM
    *replaces above to correct spell and format errors.

  17. Chris Zodrow says:

    Bobby Grow,
    The key issue with Keswick theology was the interpretation of Romans 7 that dominated the early conferences, mainly that Paul was talking of his past experience with sin, not as a Christian.

    The Puritans, regardless of their practical devices, never suggested this. Piety has always been a concern of the Christian, but the shift from one kind of anthropological view to another is quite a different thing. The question of piety is based on a different foundation altogether when the Westminster Confession of Faith is compared to that of the early Keswick teaching.

    Your cynical comparison of the two approaches is a straw-man. Perhaps Dr. Frost has prejudiced you towards some of the Puritans?

    Also, Packer has always been an ecumenicist. This is old news. He is so despite his reformed writings, not because of them. If your logic was worked out, it would mean that Martyn Lloyd-Jones would have gone to Tiber too, along with Iain Murray, Sinclair Ferguson, John Murray, and a whole bunch of other folks. But, in their ignorance of the real Puritan teaching they didn’t? So, you have uncovered the real Puritan teachings, but all these guys didn’t? Seems a bit overweening.
    Dr. Frost again…?

  18. Bobby Grow says:

    Chris Z.,

    I just saw your response, this thread is dead; but I thought I would counter-respond assert to your assertions.

    Yes, I’m aware of the Keswick tradition — pretty much grew up in it. You mention a shift in anthropology — i.e. between Keswick and Puritan piety — can you sketch what shift, anthropologically, that is? For example do we move from one form of intellectualist anthropology to another (to engage the tripartite faculty psychology?

    You assert that my comparison is based upon a straw man; but all you do is assert, can you substantiate that (it’s too easy to assert). You also tie me to Ron Frost, why? And further you imply that Frost has misread some of the Puritans; explain (have you read his dissertation on Sibbes? I doubt it).

    I’m really not interested in name dropping — as you have — per se; but if you would like, again, to sketch how those you name-drop are parallel to Packer in theological out-look (i.e. you must be assuming their common adherence to Westminster and Dordt) that would be most enlightening.

    Thanks.

  19. Gentlemen:

    I am linking you to an article on Keswick by a man who is a proponent of and quite knowledgible. I trust this will be helpful. See- Keswick: A Good Word or a Bad One?

    LM

  20. Zack says:

    Keswick teaching is controversial because it brings to light the very thing that natural man does not want to hear. That he is helpless and only by complete surrender to Christ can he be brought into a “redeemed” life. This is why a “crisis” event is so often included in the testimony of Keswick supporters, because until we are brought to the very end of ourselves we will not turn to full dependance on God.

    How is it portrayed as a negative that Mr. Packer felt it was “all his fault”, isn’t this the exact nature we must have to finally truly approach God. I’m sorry Mr. Packer was dissapointed there was not a way to victorious living that was based on his own efforts or a hybrid of fleshly & divine efforts (as he often writes about), but as many have put it, the truth of Scripture is that until we agree to be nothing, Jesus can’t be everything.

    I hope people reading this article will take their own unbiased view of Keswick teaching and associated authors (i.e. Andrew Murray, R.A. Torrey, F.B. Meyer, Oswald Chambers)

  21. daniel says:

    Zack,
    I completely agree with you. It is interesting that so many “theologians” have no clue as to the meaning of Romans 6 and 7 which clearly present what have been called the “identification truths”. Yet these pompous Christian “intellectuals” want to presume that they can attain to Romans 8? Babes should not try to eat “meat”. Keswick faithfully promotes the clear message of the Cross, by grace through faith, not by the efforts of the flesh. Sanctification is appropriated by faith, not attained by self-effort.

  22. Steven says:

    At first it was frustrating for me also this “type” of teaching. As Hudson Taylor faced the same frustration. However if you are drained of all self effort and finally surrender you will find the most inward liberating truth in this “Identification” truth.

  23. DavidN says:

    Very regrettable that you should wind the clock back 40 and more years ago, just to be able to stick the knife into someone/something you disagree with. Aren’t there enough wrongs in today’s church to address? …such as the ‘American Theology’ of attaining blessing from God by giving money to the tele-evangelist?

  24. The article was terrible for the fact that it had no proof of it’s assertions. I don’t have any proof that the keswick movement is exactly as claimed. There is no official authority other than J.I.Packer’s authority. Which he has zero personal authority over my religion. I have been reading Watchman Nee lately and I am starting to doubt that he really believe in a two tiered system. It’s seems he emphasizing the spiritual approach to God over the soulish and fleshly approach to God.

  25. Lizzie says:

    Having read this I thought it was extremely informative.

    I appreciate you finding the time and energy to put this informative article together.
    I once again find myself personally spending way too much time both reading and commenting.
    But so what, it was still worthwhile!

  26. Mike Sechler says:

    Packer’s experience was very similar to mine, although as a young man I did not know what the theology was called, I had read a book about deeper experiences of famous Christians and had also heard some teaching along this line. I sought such an experience so that I could become this new “super” Christian who no longer struggled with sin and doubt. After failing repeatedly in my attempts, I became so depressed I was suicidal.

    By the way, I know this post is a few years removed from the story, but it is DeYoung’s recent posts (and a link to this seriesin that post) on striving and sancitification along with the discussion between himself and Tullian Tchjvidjian that had me looking more at this issue.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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