An Interview With J.I. Packer

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Volume III, Issue 1
Spring 1995
An Interview With J.I. Packer

O Theophilus is the Quarterly Journal of The Center For Biblical Literacy


 

An Interview With J.I. Packer

Last November the executive officers of SC had the distinguished opportunity for a private interview with the well known lecturer and author, Dr. J.I. Packer. Rev Packer was born in Gloucestershire, England in 1926, educated at Oxford University (degrees in classics and theology; D.Phil. 1954) and ordained in the Church of England. He has held numerous teaching positions and has preached and lectured widely in Great Britain, America and Canada. He is well known by his writings, among which are: Knowing God, 1973; God’s Words, 1982; Hot Tub Religion, 1987; and Rediscovering Holiness, 1992. He is a Senior Editor and Visiting Scholar of Christianity Today and is currently working on a number of books.

SC: As you can see, Dr. Packer, we are concerned about the crisis of Biblical illiteracy in the Church and society today. How would you estimate, or evaluate this condition? Do you see a problem?

Packer: I certainly think there is a problem. In our churches there is little emphasis on the importance of getting to know your Bible. Whatever else people do in between church services, they don’t “soak” themselves in the Bible in order to get to know it well. I think it gets worse year by year; that is people are reading the Bible less and less as each year passes.

SC:. Where would you put the blame for this problem? Is it in the ministry, the seminaries, the congregation?

Packer: I hesitate to allocate the blame specifically on one group alone. But I would start by saying Christian parents simply haven’t stressed to their children the importance of the Bible being their favorite book. That’s where it starts.

Then, in the churches I’d blame pastors who are not stressing the fact that if you are to be a Christian, you should, as I like to say, have the Bible ‘running out of your ears’. Most people only read a certain number of verses for some devotional thoughts, not to know what the book is actually saying.

And then I’d blame modern culture which aggressively distracts the people from becoming really literate in anything, not just the Bible. It is partly due to modern life being filled with so many things, you know, but also the attitude that you can get by in this world with only a smattering of knowledge about anything. As Christians, we are to be different than the world around us. In particular, we are to attain a fuller knowledge of the Word of God, whereas the world around us hasn’t got a fuller knowledge of anything.

SC: It is not difficult for us to diagnose the real problem of Biblical illiteracy in our modern culture. Do you have any recommendations as prescriptions for a cure?

Packer: The idea of a fuller knowledge simply doesn’t register in the minds of a majority of believers. Comprehensive Bible study is difficult to start today. It draws a negative reaction. Yet, it is so very important that all of the books of Scripture, particularly all of the books of New Testament, are meant to be read as units.

The epistles of Paul, for instance, are actual letters written personally to fellow believers about genuine concerns of welfare and spiritual growth. Letters (consider your letters to your friends) are not written simply for someone to pick out single sentences. They are written to be read as units. So let’s see what it is like to read a New Testament letter as a unit.

While I was a student I heard it said that repeated reading of the same scripture is a wonderful way to grasp the real meaning of its content. So, one Sunday, I read Hebrews ten times. Well, Hebrews remains one of the richest books of Scripture to me. The insight that I caught of the sense of the whole truth of the glory of the priesthood of Christ became wonderfully vivid. That wasn’t simply the result of a discipline; that was the Holy Spirit blessing the Word.

Now if I was a pastor, perhaps I would offer my people an experiment. We would spend the first week with a covenant that we would, all of us, read the book ten times. Then come together and ask them to tell what the repeated reading has done for them. I believe a strong interest in all the scriptures would arise out of the impact of such a reading.

SC: We are working hard to present Biblical studies using the latest high-tech tools for Distance Learning. Do you consider the “Information Superhighway” a valuable method of increasing Biblical literacy?

Packer: Well it could be, if people are motivated to use it. The basic problem is motivating people that don’t read much to read more, and motivating people that don’t read at all to start reading. See, I’m a historical theologian. I know very well that in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries there were more people who wanted to learn to read than there were people to teach them. Neither do you have a problem with wanting to read in primitive tribal situations; they beg visiting moderns to teach them to read.

You have enormous problems nowadays with illiteracy in the modern world because so much is done for us by our technology. People find that life is easier, that they can get along without the “sweat” of reading, and so they choose instead to watch the television, read the cartoons. You don’t have to read, except to fill out a form.

The first thing you must do is convince people that it is a wonderful thing to read. Competing with the MTV generation is difficult, if not impossible. Somehow you must make people aware of the benefit of reading, the excitement of reading, the fun of readingstrike whatever note is going to motivate them. Start there.

 

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