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Hearing J.I. Packer again

Remembering an interview with the great theologian

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In the 34 years since we published the first issue of WORLD Magazine, perhaps half a dozen names leap off the pages as truly memorable one-on-one interviews I was privileged to pursue with notable people. And of those half-dozen interviewees, none ranks higher than the British-born theologian J.I. Packer, who died on July 17.

Which makes it more embarrassing to tell you of my carelessness with that interview.

“I’ve pretty much given up interviews,” Dr. Packer had said when I called to see if he would give me an hour. “But at my age I have nothing to hide.” Because a mutual friend, a member of WORLD’s board, had suggested an interview to both of us, he was kind to say yes. In fact, he gave me two hours, and asked me to come by his house afterward, which I couldn’t do and still get to the airport on time. I slipped the cassette tape into a pocket of my briefcase and headed home. Things had gone well.

Only the next morning did I discover the horrible reality. The cassette tape was nowhere to be found. Not in all my luggage. Not in my laundry. Not in the Sea-Tac Airport’s lost-and-found. Nowhere.

If there are a few interviewees I wouldn’t mind paraphrasing from memory, J.I. Packer would never be on such a list. Not the J.I. Packer who, as much as any scholar, had given the doctrine of Biblical inerrancy a good name. Not the J.I. Packer whose use of words, in the hundreds of books and articles he wrote over a 50-year span, was so precise and correct. No way could I—or would I—pretend to WORLD’s readers that my words were his.

More and more over the next few weeks, months, and years, I had to admit there would be no Packer interview. I had repaid his kindness with carelessness, and now WORLD readers would simply miss out on a few insights into this great mind. Here are several of his comments I knew I would never forget.

The utter simplicity of his description of his own embrace of the gospel. “I had been brought up an Anglican Church attendee. But in the Anglican Church where I was nurtured—if that’s the word to use—I was never taught anything. ... I had been evading the Lord Jesus and His call. Once that had become clear, my defenses fell quite rapidly. ... At the end of that service, we sang ‘Just As I Am,’ and by the end of the hymn, I was a believer. Out of the church I went, but back with the InterVarsity people from then on to catch up with the nurture I had been missing all through these years.” And I couldn’t forget how Packer repeated the profound three-word summary of the Biblical gospel for which he had become famous: “God saves sinners.”

Packer’s refusal to play games with the issue of Biblical inerrancy. “What I brought to the [early relationship to other believers] was Christi­anity according to C.S. Lewis in Mere Christianity—under the nurture of the InterVarsity people, with a touch of God too! I had added to Lewis a strong belief in the inerrancy and the authority of Scripture. Lewis didn’t believe in inerrancy. He didn’t go around denying it. But he didn’t affirm it, either.

A third example from the Packer style that I had hoped our readers might discover is ...

“Now wait a minute,” I can hear some of you groaning in protest. “You’ve told us of Packer’s kindness in providing an interview, of Belz’s clumsy loss of the tape, and samples of what Belz wishes the original effort had produced. Where on earth is this all going?”

A tortured and unlikely tale? But only until I add this important detail: That five years after all this happened, an unusual package arrived at my office one day—with no hint of a return address. But yes, there was a tape recording inside. A transcript of almost all of the 2008 interview, slightly dated, is available free of charge to everyone in the WORLD family at world.wng.org/2013/12/ji_packer_the_lost_interview.

Joel Belz

Joel is WORLD’s founder. He contributes regular commentary for WORLD Magazine and WORLD Radio. Joel has served as editor, publisher, and CEO over three decades at WORLD and is the author of Consider These Things. Joel resides with his wife, Carol, near Asheville, N.C.


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