What J.I. Packer Really Thinks about Arminians

While there are some Calvinist theologians who are sympathetic toward Arminian theology, there are also anti-Arminians (see the post "Arminianism: A Different Gospel? So Still Claim Calvinists"), whose sole interest, from all appearances, is an attempt to defeat the five-headed monster of Arminianism. To be fair, there are plenty of anti-Calvinists, as well, and I am often named among them. But here is what I perceive to be the difference: I, as a perceived anti-Calvinist, distinguish between Calvinism as a system and Calvinists, some of whom are true brothers and sisters in Christ, who have merely been deceived by tenets of false teaching within Calvinistic ideology.

In other words, I intentionally do not make personal, negative comments about the character of Calvinists generally (unless deserved, as with certain Calvinists: for example, John Owen, Augustus Toplady, Abraham Kuyper), and certainly not merely because they hold to some false doctrines of Calvinism. I do not think, for example, that Calvinists are un-Christian, anti-Christian, or ministers of Satan due to their adhering to some false doctrines. The same cannot be said of Calvinist theologian J.I. Packer, so revered among Calvinists, with regard to Arminians.

Difficult to comprehend, Dr. Packer agrees with John Owen with regard to Arminians and Arminianism. In his Introduction to the 1958 reprint of Owen's The Death of Death in the Death of Christ, Packer rightly acknowledges that the book is a polemical piece, yet "designed to show among other things, that the doctrine of universal redemption is unscriptural and destructive of the gospel" (link), a comment which maligns the Word of God itself, since the authors of the Christian scriptures so very clearly lead us to believe that Christ died, in fact, on behalf of all persons (John 1:29; Rom. 5:6, 8; 2 Cor. 5:14, 15; 2 Pet. 2:1; 1 John 2:2). 

Packer's words, then, logically indict the Word of God as actually being "unscriptural and destructive of the gospel." If the death of Christ is to be framed within the context of providing for atonement solely for the unconditionally elect, then the authors of Scripture failed to communicate such; which is only, really, an indictment of the Holy Spirit Himself, since He is the one who inspired God's word. Packer and other Calvinists, then, infer that the Spirit of God is a failure. 

Perhaps Dr. Packer is unaware that he is also faulting the entire history of the Church fathers prior to Augustine in the fifth century. From his own logic, then, when consistently maintained, none of the early Church fathers preached the gospel, since they rejected the novel theory (and error) of limited atonement, and thus we are left perplexed as to how the gospel even survived; and also how so many gave their lives to Jesus and for His cause -- even dying a martyrs' death for that gospel -- since the gospel was actually "destroyed" by the anachronistic Arminianism of the early Church. What a slight on those martyrs!

Regardless, however, of our hostile debate over the extent and intent of the atonement, Packer's support of Owen's polemics against Arminians is what we find disappointing, granting us insight into Packer's lack of knowledge of classical Arminianism. Calvinists cannot expect us to cherish one of their heroes while he misrepresents Arminians on a personal level, as well as on a theological level.

I find Dr. Packer's arguments against Arminians and Arminian theology astounding in view of the above quote. In light of that quote, he maintains the audacity to state that Arminians actually present a different gospel than do Calvinists. After he acknowledges the five points of the Remonstrants, and the reaction of the Dortian Calvinists with their own five points, he then states (emphases added):
Now, here are two coherent interpretations of the biblical gospel, which stand in evident opposition to each other. The difference between them is not primarily one of emphasis, but of content. One proclaims a God who saves; the other speaks of a God who enables man to save himself. One view presents the three great acts of the Holy Trinity for the recovering of lost mankind -- election by the Father, redemption by the Son, calling by the Spirit -- as directed towards the same persons, and as securing their salvation infallibly. The other view gives each act a different reference (the objects of redemption being all mankind, of calling, all who hear the gospel, and of election, those hearers who respond), and denies that man's salvation is secured by any of them. (link)
Perhaps this is why Packer insists that Arminians are, from his perspective at least, "un-Christian" and "anti-Christian."* In no sense whatsoever, then, can Arminians even remotely be conceived of as being saved -- in no way possible. If Arminianism presents a gospel in which people save themselves, then Arminians can in no sense whatsoever be saved, since only God saves. In this sense, then, Arminians are not brothers and sisters to Calvinists, since they are not saved, but are held captive to doctrines of demons. Packer continues (emphases added):
The two theologies thus conceive the plan of salvation in quite different terms. One makes salvation depend on the work of God, the other on a work of man; one regards faith as part of God's gift of salvation, the other as man's own contribution to salvation; one gives all the glory of saving believers to God, the other divides the praise between God, who, so to speak, built the machinery of salvation, and man, who by believing operated it. Plainly, these differences are important, and the permanent value of the "five points," as a summary of Calvinism, is that they make clear the areas in which, and the extent to which, these two conceptions are at variance. (link)
Packer's rhetoric against Arminians and Arminianism is only slightly more polite than that of John Owen, his hero -- the latter of whom explicitly calls Arminians "tares in the field" and "emissaries of Satan." Packer does not correct Owen on this count, either, which leads us to conclude that he agrees with Owen. What, then, are we to make of Dr. Packer? What are we supposed to think of the man in this regard? We can only take him at his words, words which consistently caricature and demean Arminians and Arminianism:
Where the Arminian says, "I owe my election to my faith", the Calvinist says, "I owe my faith to my election."

Where the Arminian will only say; "I could not have gained my salvation without Calvary", the Calvinist will say, "Christ gained my salvation for me at Calvary."

Where the Arminian, therefore, will be content to say, "I decided for Christ", "I made up my mind to be a Christian," the Calvinist will wish to speak of his conversion in more theological fashion, to make plain whose work it really was. . . . (link)
Packer seems to have no more interest in the truth of Arminian theology than does Satan for the love of Christ: he consistently evinces this fact, as is demonstrated in his article, "Arminianisms." He constructs his straw men well, and then he burns them for the glory of his Calvinism.

We can see why Packer is such a favorite to Calvinists like Justin Taylor and John Piper, those Calvinists who think little else but of their Calvinism -- those who write narcissistic poems about being a Calvinist, and enjoy consistently, constantly promoting the same. "Calvinistic thinking is the Christian being himself on the intellectual level," so thinks Packer; yet, quite to the contrary, "Arminian thinking is the Christian [?] failing to be himself through the weakness of the flesh." (link) How could Packer consistently call us Christians?

What is even more telling is the consistent but inconvenient truth that Packer's and Piper's and Taylor's God decreed that we adopt Arminian theology -- how contemptuous! -- that we attempt to save ourselves, bring ourselves glory, and relish in the weakness of our fleshly theology. We don't love Jesus; we love ourselves and our sin and our fleshly theology. We don't want to see Jesus lifted up in praise and loving adoration, but ourselves and our fleshly theology. This is what J.I. Packer and many within his Calvinistic ilk would have people believe, but they promote misrepresentations, and they must be called out on their errors. 

Now, if we are to be consistent with Packer's views, we are obligated in insisting that, should Calvinism be wrong, from God's objective standpoint, then Calvinists are not our brothers and sisters in Christ; but they are captives of a false theology, and worshipers of another deity, one of their own making. This is the only consistent position for Calvinists like J.I. Packer and John Owen: the stakes are set so appallingly high for orthodoxy that, should one be wrong on some soteriological ground (e.g., with respect to the intent or extent of the atonement), then one's eternal salvation is in jeopardy. Which means that, if Calvinism is wrong on the same point, then Calvinists are not, will not, and cannot be saved.

Let us not mince words and views here in conclusion, though: Packer does not think that Arminians are saved; he grants Wesleyan-Arminians a pass, but not classical Arminians, or the Remonstrants or Arminius. In footnote 23, Packer refers to Owen's statement that, in order to refute the case of universal redemption, as held by Arminians, he would need to write another book, and he never did. Packer then states: "However, we can understand his concluding that it was really needless to slaughter the same adversary twice." (link) (emphasis added) 

This is no mere slip of the pen, namely, that Dr. Packer views either Arminians or Arminianism (we cannot decipher his explicit reference here) as the adversary in this old article, not as brothers and sisters who are in error, but as the adversary. To Packer, then, we cannot be his brothers and sisters -- God has not graced us in Christ, but has decreed for us, logically, before the foundation of the world, to be enemies of His gospel. Packer, in my estimation, has committed a tragic error, as did Owen, Toplady and Kuyper before him. Should young Calvinists read his work today, they should know that there is much error in his estimations.


* Quoted from R.C. Sproul, Willing to Believe: The Controversy over Free Will (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1997), 24.


Post a Comment


My photo

My name is William Birch and I grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition but converted, if you will, to Anglicanism in 2012. I am gay, affirming, and take very seriously matters of social justice, religion and politics in the church and the state.