Critical Review: J.I. Packer’s position in Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God
J. I. Packer’s book Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God presents a model for the proper understanding of the relationship between the truth of divine sovereignty and the task of personal evangelism. This paper will argue that Packer’s model is broadly correct, but that his presentation regarding the relationship between divine sovereignty and human freedom is mistaken and unnecessarily confusing in one significant respect. A more clear and consistent argument is available for the conclusion he draws.
First, a summary of Packer’s position is presented with a subsequent critical evaluation of its strengths and weakness. Next, a stronger premise for Packer’s position is given as an alternative argument and its application explained, followed by some concluding remarks.
Packer immediately clarifies that his book is not about evangelism per se, but is “a piece of biblical and theological reasoning, designed to clarify the relationship between three realities: God’s sovereignty, man’s responsibility, and the Christian’s evangelistic duty.” (7) He then narrows the discussion to “God’s sovereignty in grace” as it relates to evangelism. (10) He aims to respond to a common criticism: belief in the sovereignty of God is in some way incompatible with motivation to evangelism.
Packer maintains that divine sovereignty and human responsibility are biblically complementary, but apparently contradictory. He resolves this contradiction through appeal to what he calls “antinomy,” which will be discussed in the critical evaluation below. He maintains that divine sovereignty, human responsibility, and evangelistic duty are all truths of Scripture which must be held in logical tension without sacrificing one for the sake of any others, because this tension is derived directly from Scripture.
In the critical evaluation of Packer’s position, this paper highlights two strengths and one weakness, respectively. These particular points of criticism have been selected for their relevance in building a stronger argument for Packer’s model, which will be presented thereafter.
Packer’s position exemplifies far more strengths than weaknesses. Two major strengths of his presentation include: his initial chapter is theologically and rhetorically disarming to many opponents of his view, and he draws a full-orbed biblical conclusion on the subject, making his application to evangelistic practice biblically faithful as well.
Disarming opening chapter. While there are some weaker points in Packer’s later discussion of his view, his opening gambit is rhetorically brilliant. He predisposes his audience to accept his later reasoning by presenting significant ways in which many already agree with his theology in their practice—people who pray for God to save others and those who believe God saved them implicitly believe in the absolute sovereignty of God in salvation.
Instead of presenting an opening polemic against his opponents or building a theological foundation for his own conclusions, he winsomely demonstrates that several major points of agreement across the Christian theological spectrum lead to his conclusion. So, rather than needing to build an entire biblical and theological case for his position, he merely needs to argue that consistent Christian belief leads to his position. His argument is a simple, but powerful appeal for Christians to be more consistent in faith and practice, holding the truths of divine sovereignty, human responsibility, and evangelistic duty together without compromise.
Biblically faithful practical application. Packer’s model of divine sovereignty and human responsibility seeks to be faithful to the biblical data, while maintaining the logical tension inherent in Scripture’s revelation of divine mysteries. He strongly cautions against jettisoning one divine truth for the sake of another simply because of the difficulties associated with finite minds seeking to comprehend infinite truths.
He rules out exclusive concern for either divine sovereignty or human responsibility, and points to one doctrine, rightly understood, as the corrective for misunderstanding the other doctrine. For, if God is not sovereign, to whom would man be responsible? “No revealed truth may be invoked to extenuate sin.” (34) Instead, God is sovereign, therefore man is responsible.
Despite the thorough faithfulness discussed above, Packer’s position also suffers from certain weaknesses. One of the weaknesses in his presentation is his obfuscatory, idiolectic use of the term “antinomy.”
Obfuscatory terminology. Packer models the relationship of divine sovereignty and human responsibility as in “antinomy” to each other, though he modifies the term’s definition, using it to mean “an appearance of contradiction between conclusions which seem equally logical, reasonable or necessary.” (Emphasis added.) This definition is followed with an example of an antinomy taken from the physics of two models of light (from whence Packer likely appropriated the term in its standard usage). He then contrasts antinomy with “paradox,” which he defines as “a figure of speech, a play on words… that seems to unite two opposite ideas, or to deny something by the very terms in which it is asserted.” (19)
Granting a distinction between the terms, Packer’s definitions are simply incorrect and the ensuing discussion is needlessly confusing and obfuscatory. He presents an adjusted, idiolectic definition of “antinomy,” which strongly resembles the correct definition of paradox (“a merely apparent contradiction”), then presents a purely literary definition of “paradox” to contrast with his non-standard definition of “antinomy.” There is a long tradition in Christian theology of using the term paradox to refer to merely apparent contradictions between biblical doctrines (e.g. Trinity, hypostatic union). Packer’s confused and confusing presentation on this matter is inexplicable, given its elementary nature and his demonstrated intellectual acumen.
Further, deriving an antinomy in logic, mathematics or science can be a clue to problems with a particular model—meaning the model should be re-evaluated all the way to its fundamental axioms and possibly abandoned if the antinomy holds. The wave-particle antinomy Packer uses as an illustration was one of the contributing factors in adopting quantum (rather than Newtonian) mechanics as a contemporary model for physics. Mounting antinomies, like wave-particle duality, produced a Kuhnian paradigm shift in physics.
Packer asserts, against all reason, “What should one do, then, with an antinomy? Accept it for what it is, and learn to live with it.” (21) While this is a common way that paradoxes in theology have been addressed by Christians, this is not how mathematicians, logicians or scientists approach antinomies. In the end, Packer’s attempt to re-appropriate the term “antinomy” serves to discredit his case and confuse readers, rather than giving it the credibility which he appears to believe he was borrowing from common scientific terminology. If wave-particle antinomy is analogous to Packer’s sovereignty-responsibility model, so much the worse for Packer’s argument for his paradigm and his practical advice to “learnt to live with it.” Fortunately, his theology is better than his lexical semantics and scientific analogies in this case.
Rather than resting on analogies and terminology borrowed from physics, Packer might have done better to derive his discussion of the paradoxical doctrine of divine sovereignty and human responsibility from the paradoxical doctrine of the Trinity—that God is one personal essence in three distinct persons. Essentially, if the doctrine of God is inherently paradoxical, then there will be elements of paradox present in every locus of theology, including our models of divine sovereignty, human responsibility, and evangelism.
This adjustment to Packer’s model has the benefit of being grounded in the Trinity, another doctrine to which all Christians subscribe alongside those mentioned in his persuasive first chapter. After rhetorically disarming his opponents by an appeal to their shared faith in God he should have continued to drive forward along these lines in his discussion of divine sovereignty and human responsibility, rather than relying on analogies and terms from science.
What practical effect does this change have on evangelism? It maintains a consistent, God-centered starting point for a model of evangelism which traces the paradox of divine sovereignty and human responsibility back to the relationship between finite creation and infinite, Triune Creator. This model comports readily, then, with the content and approaches to evangelism found in John Piper’s God is the Gospel or Will Metzger’s Tell the Truth.
Packer’s conclusion is biblically faithful, his opening chapter is rhetorically brilliant, his theological model is correct, and his practical application is helpful, but some of his argumentation is weakened by the confusing misuse of certain terminology. A stronger argument for the same conclusion was presented based on standard definitions and confessionally orthodox Trinitarian theology, rather than non-standard definitions and an analogy from physics.