J. I Packer. Taking God Seriously: Vital Things We Need to Know. Wheaton: Crossway, 2013. 176 pp. $12.99.
J. I. Packer is something of an evangelical monolith.
Throughout his lifetime—now nearly a century long—while the West’s quasi-religious moorings have been left unattended, Packer has bolstered the Christian consciousness. Relentlessly biblical and never apologetic, Packer has stood upright in a sea of cowering men and women who, having once professed faith in the lordship of Jesus Christ, have since knelt to a different, less demanding master. Those yielding to such temptation assure us that old questions demand new answers; that old truths need new interpretations. To avoid dilapidation or—even worse—irrelevance, Christianity desperately needs either renovation or redefinition.
In Packer’s mind, the residual effects accompanying this kind of thinking have been tremendous. At worst, orthodoxy gets thrown overboard in favor of a lighter, more culturally palatable religion. At best, biblical Christianity becomes, to borrow Packer’s word, “fuzzy.” Such “fuzzification of faith,” he rightly observes, fills church after church with malnourished Christians who don’t take their faith seriously because they don’t see how or why or to whom it all matters (20).
Taking God Seriously: Vital Things We Need to Know is primarily intended for those people: sincere, everyday Christians who don’t know why they believe what they believe or how that belief, generally speaking, translates into God-honoring behavior. In an almost too-quick 175 pages, the reader gets a thoughtful introductory foray into evangelical thought—“ventures in adult catechesis,” as Packer puts it. Or you could call it “mere Christianity.”
Topics discussed run the gamut, covering everything from the doctrine of Scripture to the doctrine of God; from the doctrine of the church to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit; from faith and repentance to the Lord’s Supper and baptism. There’s also a catch-all chapter titled “Taking Doctrine Seriously” in which Packer, professor of theology at Regent College in Vancouver, provides a flyover of other doctrines that don’t receive fuller treatment elsewhere.
All in all, his approach makes sense. The contents of the book were originally written as a series of articles for an Anglican publication. As such, it occasionally narrows to Anglican asides and discussions about his denomination’s current rift over same-sex marriage. But the objective is never to supply an Anglican apologetic over and against the rest. Indeed, from the beginning Packer acknowledges this tendency and considers it a strength. In the preface, he writes:
As an Anglican, I write with a sense of urgency in response to recent trends in my own church context. But readers who are not Anglicans will recognize many of the same trends in their own denominational circles, and may find that this book speaks pointedly to their situations, challenges, and concerns. So while I write in hope of helping fellow Anglicans into a mature faith, there is nothing exclusive about this need or aim. I offer examples from my Anglican experience, but before I am an Anglican I am an evangelical, and I have tried to write in such a way that all evangelicals—and would-be and should-be evangelicals—will benefit. (15)
Taking God Seriously is a pan-Protestant huddle, not a denominational rally. And that’s largely a great thing. In an age where novelty is celebrated, Packer’s doctrinal predictability is a joy. After all, the Christian message is both faithful and uncompromising, old and unchanging. Anyone claiming otherwise should be heard with great trepidation (Gal. 1:6-10).
Put another way, Packer isn’t trying to convince high-church Anglicans to become low-church Anglicans, nor credobaptists to become paedobaptists. So any critique marshaling frustrations in that direction is simply a case study in missing the point. Again, Packer aims to re-solidify bottom-rung Christian orthodoxy. And to that end, few books delineate our faith in a more winsome and culturally contrarian way. Insofar as Taking God Seriously upholds the sovereignty and holiness of God, the exclusive and effective work of Jesus Christ, and the absolute authority and inerrancy of God’s Word, I can hardly point you to a finer primer.
Having said that, Packer spends a fair amount of time beckoning his readers to take seriously certain ecclesial distinctives: the church, baptism, the Lord’s Supper. And, as a Baptist, I do—just differently. Though well written and steeped in Anglican conviction, these sections left me unable to follow his lead simply because we were dancing to different tunes. So while there’s much to appreciate about the majority of the book’s Reformed evangelical approach, at times Packer’s denominational tenor caused me to disagree. Regardless, I can’t hold an Anglican’s Anglicanism against him. While writing a book about theology, he’s doing nothing other than faithfully adhering to his own denominational ecclesiology—a lesson us bristling Baptists might do well to learn.
Taking God Seriously takes ecclesiology seriously enough to consider it among the most integral of Christian doctrines. In an age where the church is routinely lambasted as archaic and outmoded, this is welcome news. Thoughtful Protestants will be pleased; uninformed Protestants will be instructed. After all, any Christianity that sidesteps the church or its sacraments—no matter how “mere”—is a suspect Christianity indeed.
Nearly two centuries ago another Anglican named Charles Bridges wrote to men who hoped to give their lives serving this archaic and outmoded church. While warning about intellectual idolatry at the cost of faithfulness, he wrote, “It is far more easy to furnish our library, than our understanding.”
Thankfully, this book does both.
Alex Duke lives in Washington, D.C., with his wife, Melanie. A student at Southern Seminary in Louisville, he is a member of Capitol Hill Baptist Church, where he is serving as a pastoral intern.