Book Review: Engaging the Written Word of God, by J. I. Packer
J. I. Packer, Engaging the Written Word of God. Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2012. 331 pages. $16.95.
Engaging the Written Word of God is a collection of J. I. Packer’s essays outlining his distinctly evangelical answers to questions about the Scriptures. This collection has three parts: God’s Inerrant Word (chs. 1-9), Interpreting the Word (chs. 10-16), and Preaching the Word (chs. 17-23).
Packer has witnessed the poisonous fruit that biblical relativism has borne. He saw the pioneer “Liberal Evangelicals” in the 1940’s, and then in the 1970’s witnessed their children and grandchildren reject core evangelical tenets (123-4). He asks his readers to remember that he is “a burned child who dreads the fire” since he saw the damage the sub-orthodox view of Scripture did in England (153). He also writes that his aim is to make disciples of Christ, not himself: “nobody is going to become a Packerite if I can help it” (204).
HOLY SCRIPTURE IS GOD PREACHING
Packer describes the Bible as God preaching by opening his mind and heart to readers (81, cf. 298, 310). Throughout each essay Packer calls the reader to a confidence that the Scriptures are the necessary, inerrant, infallible, inspired, and authoritative Word of God. This informs how he describes the divine character of the Bible: Scripture has God for its source, God for its theme, and God as its user (155). This informs how Packer thinks about every area of life:
I listen to Scripture to hear God preaching and instructing me in matters theological and practical, matters of belief and matters of behaviour, matters of doctrine, matters of doxology, matters of devotion, matters of orthodoxy (right belief), and matters of orthopraxy (right living). (162)
Even as God is unchangeable, so is the Word of God. Packer argues that the Word relativizes men rather than vice versa, “for God’s Word is the absolute and we sinners are more or less off-centre in relation to it. So it must be allowed to come into our minds and hearts to set us straight” (163). He repeatedly proposes that we engage with the Scriptures using the analogy of faith/Scripture (128, 214, 240, 257, 286) and grammatical-historical exegesis (147, 158, 163, 303, 311) with sensitivity to genre (17, 143, 166-7, 192-3, 214, 305), the literary or natural sense (58, 143-4, 303), and harmonizing the original divine and human authorial intent (143, 303-4). These are the proper bounds of engagement with the written Word of God.
Packer’s convictions concerning Scripture control how he believes Christian preachers ought to approach their task: “The Bible text is the real preacher, and the role of the man in the pulpit or the counselling conversation is simply to let the passages say their piece through him” (244). This is one of the reasons he defends and unashamedly advocates expositional preaching.
What is the main point of God’s preaching in the Bible? Jesus Christ. Again, this informs how Packer describes the task of preaching:
[The preacher] will never let his exposition of anything in Scripture get detached from, and so appear as unrelated to, Calvary’s cross and the redemption that was wrought there; and in this way he will sustain a Christ-centered, cross-oriented preaching ministry year in and year out, with evangelistic as well as a pastoral thrust. (238)
Packer calls his readers to follow the “old paths” of the Reformation: “The Reformation itself grew out of practical preaching with Christ at the centre” (263). This is one of the reasons he argues that preaching without application is not preaching at all. Positively, “As preaching is God-centred in its viewpoint and Christ-centred in its substance, so it is life-centred in its focus and life-changing in its thrust.” (239)
Applicatory preaching exposes sin and proclaims God’s remedy in the gospel. Packer quotes David Clarkson’s sermon titled Public Worship to be Preferred before Private to this end: “It is true indeed, the Lord has not confined himself to work these wonderful things only in public; yet the public ministry is the only ordinary means whereby he works them” (242). The local church is central to Packer’s understanding of how a believer engages with the Word of God (4, 94, 96, 149, 172, 192, 229, 245-6, 262, 274, etc.). This is why application and persuasion is what defines preaching: “[Preaching] is teaching plus application…it is a kind of speaking aimed at both mind and heart, and seeking unashamedly to change the way people think and live. So it is always an attempt at persuasion” (247, cf. 264, 269, 289, 291, 294-5, 300, 311-4). Thus, preachers are God’s mouthpieces (251, 268, 310).
As should be evident from this brief survey, Packer is one of the best contemporary exponents of a robust, faithful, classically evangelical doctrine of Scripture. And his explanation of preaching as applicatory exposition is not only pastorally on-point, but it flows directly from his convictions about the nature and role of Scripture.
THREE MINOR CRITIQUES
With this in mind, my three critiques are very minor. The first and third relate to format; the second is substantive.
First, because this is a collection of essays, it does not have a sustained flow of thought throughout, and it lacks cohesion from chapter to chapter (with the exception of chapters 11-14). It also makes the book fairly repetitive. A few examples: the repeated use of Phillips Brooks’ definition of preaching (243, 262, 291, 311), quoting the Anglican Article 20 repeatedly to buttress the same or similar points (128, 144-5, 208, 244, 267), and often clarifying that he does not define preaching institutionally and sociologically but theologically and functionally (237, 261, 288). Some sections of chapter 20 repeat portions of chapter 18, almost verbatim.
Second, I appreciate his analogy that Scripture is incarnational (122, 158-9, 205), but I am hesitant to apply this category to preachers as he does (243, 262, 291). His point that a preacher ought to seek to embody, apply, internalize, and be affected by the text he is expositing is good and right. Further, preachers do serve as the mouthpieces of God and as models for the congregation. But one should be careful about using the category of incarnation. Christ’s incarnation is unique. Packer clearly explains throughout the book that men are fallible and errant (66, 89, 95, 154). He is not saying preachers are inerrant or infallible, so it seems wise to limit the incarnation analogy to the Scriptures.
Third, many of the book’s insights would be more accessible if it had a topical and scriptural index.
A HELPFUL COLLECTION, THOUGH NOT FOR BEGINNERS
Engaging with the Written Word of God is a helpful collection. I appreciate how clearly Packer exposes liberal engagement with the Bible based on unreliable “private hunches” (53), “foggy uncertainty” (99), and “guesses” (78, 219), and how he regularly brings historical perspective to bear (ch. 1, 51-53, 58-62, 73-4, 86-7,133, ch. 19). I also appreciate his admonitions about “pulpiteering” and “sermonizing” (238, 242, 262, 290), and to not impose extra-biblical, philosophical “strait-jackets” on the text (51, 158).
This book would not be my first recommendation to someone who is wrestling with the doctrine of the Word of God—although Packer’s own ‘Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God is an accessible introduction to Scripture’s inspiration, authority, and inerrancy. The present volume is probably most accessible to elders, more serious Bible students, and seminarians.