Review: “Pointing to the Pasturelands” by J. I. Packer

A posthumous collection of J.I. Packer’s shorter writings sounds like a dream come true. When Christianity Today, in association with Lexham Press, announced that they were publishing such a collection, Pointing to the Pasturelands: Reflections on Evangelicalism, Doctrine, & Culture, sourced from Packer’s contributions to Christianity Today, I was very excited. Packer’s relationship with CT spanned six decades. Packer’s first piece in CT (included in this collection) was published in 1958. He eventually became contributing editor at Christianity Today in 1983 and then senior editor in 1985. He continued to serve the magazine in similar roles for the next three decades. With such a lengthy career there would be a treasure trove of writings for the editors of this book to choose from. 

The collection has a thoughtful foreword by Russell Moore. Packer’s contributions are split into three categories: columns, articles, and “Good Questions” (Packer’s answers to readers’ theological questions). The choicest morsels of the collection are found in the articles section. Here are some of Packer’s most notable pieces including “Fundamentalism: The British Scene,” where he explores the history, lays out the case for, and warns of the shortcomings of conservative evangelicalism. Also in this section are “Why I Signed It” (a defense of his signing the controversial “Evangelicals and Catholics Together”), and “Why I Walked” (an explanation of why he walked out of the 2002 synod of the Anglican Diocese of Westminster when it authorized its bishops to produce a service for blessing same-sex unions). Perhaps less well-known (but in my opinion, the two best pieces in the collection) are “Still Surprised by Lewis” (a warm-hearted but realistic look as C. S. Lewis and his theological beliefs–this is a must-read in understanding how Lewis fits into the Anglican landscape), and “The Reality Cure” (an examination of the doctrine of sanctification in autobiographical form). 

The selection of “Good Questions” in part three is valuable as we see Packer as theologian/pastor answering questions such as, “Is every believer guaranteed at least one spiritual gift?” and “Won’t heaven’s joy be spoiled by our awareness of unsaved love ones in hell?” Packer is at his finest when he’s writing on practical theology, and this book is full of it.

Overall, however, the book is weak: not because of Packer, but because of the way it is constructed. Though the foreword is top-notch, the rest of the book is spoiled by lack of context. This is especially true in the first section of columns. Each column is very short and usually a response to an issue of the time. None of these columns are given any context, nor are the publication dates included (though they can be found at the back of the book). These columns are in chronological order, from 1985 to 1997, but are certainly not timeless, which leaves the reader often wondering why the topic is being addressed and who are some of the individuals mentioned. This lack of timelessness improves in the articles section, but because this section spans nearly 60 years of material, the change of emphasis and tone can be jarring. An epilogue, a short biography of Packer by American church historian Mark Noll, ends the book.

I would make the case that purchasing this book is unnecessary. As someone who is familiar with Packer, I did not feel like I walked away knowing or appreciating him more. If I was unfamiliar with Packer, then the lack of context and theme of the collection would be a major hindrance. The book tries to do too much, and in doing so, fails to do much at all. It’s not an introduction to Packer. It’s not much of a devotional (though it could be if the “Good Questions” section was expanded to book-length). It does not help the reader understand Packer’s evangelicalism better. 

If one were to pick it up, I would suggest reading Moore’s foreword, then reading Noll’s epilogue to (re)familiarize yourself with Packer. Skip the first section of columns; read the articles section (but only after noting when each was written); then look at the “Good Questions” at the end of the book. But that’s a lot of work to do that could have been done by the compilers of the collection. 

About the Author

  • Zac is President of the U.S. chapter of the Evangelical Fellowship in the Anglican Communion, and currently serves as priest-in-charge at St. Clement's Episcopal Church in Rancho Cordova, California.

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