by Roger Olson
Today I received an e-mail from a reader who asked why I didn’t mention J. I. Packer in either Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities or Against Calvinism. That’s a good question. I didn’t, so now I will.
To the best of my knowledge, the only lengthy, detailed treatment of Arminianism in print by Packer was his Introduction to John Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ in A Quest for Godliness. It may be found at this web address. There Packer, a Calvinist, completely misrepresents Arminianism. It’s truly shocking how distorted his understanding of Arminianism was then. I don’t know if it’s improved since then or not.
For example, there he wrote that:
- 3. The Spirit’s gift of internal grace was defined by the Arminians as ‘moral suasion’, the bare bestowal of an understanding of God’s truth. This, they granted – indeed, insisted – does not of itself ensure that anyone will ever make the response of faith. But Calvinists define this gift as not merely an enlightening, but also a regenerating work of God in men, ‘taking away their heart of stone, and giving unto them a heart of flesh; renewing their wills, and by his almighty power determining them to that which is good; and effectually drawing them to Jesus Christ; yet so as they come most freely, being made willing by his grace.’4 Grace proves irresistible just because it destroys the disposition to resist. Where the Arminian, therefore, will be content to say, ‘l decided for Christ’, ‘l 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:
Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night:
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray;
I woke; the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off : my heart was free:
I rose, went forth, and followed thee.5
Clearly, these two notions of internal grace are sharply opposed to each other.
This is simply false. The original Arminians, the first Remonstrants, to say nothing of Arminius himself, did not so “define” “the Spirit’s gift of internal grace” (by which Packer apparently means prevenient grace). That would be semi-Pelagianism and, as I explain in Arminian Theology: Myths and Realities, some later Remonstrants such as Philip Limborch fell into that, but Arminius, the original Remonstrants and the Wesleys did not. I explain in Arminian Theology the classical Arminian view of human depravity (total) and the necessity of supernatural prevenient grace beyond mere mental enlightenment.
What is especially ironic about Packer’s statement is that he quotes Charles Wesley’s hymn And Can It Be? as alternative to the Arminian view. Apparently Packer thinks Wesley’s hymn is right. But wait! Charles Wesley, with his brother, was an Arminian. (John Wesley named his magazine The Arminian!) Anyone who bothers to do it can go back and read Arminius on this subject and see that he fully agreed with what Charles Wesley later wrote. (I quote Arminius and Wesley and numerous other Arminian theologians on prevenient grace extensively in Arminian Theology.)
In his footnote to the stanza from Wesley’s hymn Packer says, “Granted, it was Charles Wesley who wrote this, but it is one of the many passages in his hymns which make one ask, with ‘Rabbi’ Duncan, ‘Where’s your Arminianism now, friend’?”
Huh? The stanza Packer quotes approvingly expresses classical Arminianism perfectly. Where’s Wesley’s Arminianism “now?” There – in the hymn.
Clearly, and I say this boldly and without hesitation, Packer was confused about Arminianism when he shouldn’t have been. Whenever he wrote this he wrote it as a scholar claiming to know both Arminianism and Calvinism. Clearly he failed in his scholarship.
Now, in case someone wishes to quibble and say, “Oh, he was talking about the Remonstrants, not Arminius or Wesley,” let me quote from The Arminian [Remonstrant] Confession of 1621, probably written by Simon Episcopius, the leading Remonstrant:
- We think therefore that the grace of God is the beginning, progress, and completion of all good, so that not even a regenerate man himself can, without this preceding and preventing, exciting, following and cooperating grace, think, will, or finish any good thing to be saved, much less resist any attractions and temptations to evil. Thus, faith, conversion, and all good works, and all godly and saving actions which are able to be thought, are to be ascribed solely to the grace of God in Christ as their principal and primary cause. (Chapter 17, para. 6 from the Mark A. Ellis translation published in the Princeton Theological Monograph Series, Pickwick, 2005, p. 108)
This is not all the Confession says about prevenient grace; the whole context makes crystal clear that this Remonstrant confession agrees entirely with Charles Wesley’s great hymn.
Clearly, in that introductory essay, whenever it was written (1958?), Packer failed to represent classical, historic Arminianism correctly. If someone says, “Well, but he was right about some Arminians – the so-called rationalist Remonstrants,” that won’t work, because Packer himself cites Wesley as an Arminian and implies that in his hymn Wesley contradicted his own Arminian theology!
Besides misrepresenting Arminianism in that essay, Packer vilified Arminians:
- Calvinism is the natural theology written on the heart of the new man in Christ, whereas Arminianism is an intellectual sin of infirmity, natural only in the sense in which all such sins are natural, even to the regenerate. Calvinistic thinking is the Christian being himself on the intellectual level; Arminian thinking is the Christian failing to be himself through the weakness of the flesh. Calvinism is what the Christian church has always held and taught when its mind has not been distracted by controversy and false traditions from attending to what Scripture actually says.
So, to him, Arminianism is sin.
To the best of my knowledge, Packer has never corrected himself about Arminianism nor apologized for calling Arminianism sin (and thus Arminians are sinners merely for being Arminians!). All I know is that when I submitted my manuscript “Confessions of an Evangelical Arminian” to Christianity Today some years ago (it was published under the title “Don’t hate me because I’m an Arminian” – not my choice), Packer, then theological editor of CT, tried to block its publication. At least that’s what I was told by a friend inside CT (who no longer works there). Fortunately, he did not succeed. Why else would he try to block such an innocuous article, unless he still thought then that Arminianism is sin?
Packer is the kind of Calvinist I am against – the kind who misrepresents Arminianism when they should know better (because they are scholars), and who vilifies Arminians as sub-Christian or sinners just for being Arminian!