SUGGESTION: J. I. Packer's "Christianity: The True Humanism" (co-authored with Thomas Howard)

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Rosie Perera | Forum Activity | Posted: Sat, Nov 21 2020 6:12 PM

I was recently reminded of this book by a review of it written by Jens Zimmerman (current J. I. Packer Chair in Theology at Regent College) in a special issue of Regent World reflecting on the staggering impact of Packer on the world.

Zimmerman writes:

"In 1985, Packer published the underappreciated book Christianity: The True Humanism. Co-authored with English professor Thomas Howard, this book was designed to show the fullness of the Christian religion as undergirding and nourishing 'all that seems to mark our true humanness.' The gospel, the authors argued, had been undersold by modern Christians as inner piety and a flight away from the human, or as obedience to external doctrines and regulations. They believed that 'the enforcing of [such] substandard Christianity in homes, churches, schools, and communities has inflicted so much emotional hurt' that it prompted a passionate countermovement among those sensitive to the richness of God’s creation. Christians like Packer (and many before him) sought to retrieve the 'true humanism' of the greater Christian tradition. Others were so thoroughly disenchanted with Christianity that they initiated a 'secular' humanism. As Howard and Packer reminded us, it is important to remember that both directions originate from disappointment with the anemic, narrow view of human life conveyed by substandard Christianity. This common origin in the desire to do justice to the complexity of human experience remains an important foundation for the dialogue between Christians and non-believers.

"Packer and Howard touched on a still deeply-relevant historical truth: it is because Christian communities failed to nurture and transmit from generation to generation the full depth and breadth of the gospel in its intellectual rigor, illuminating every aspect of human life, that faith and reason came to be seen as opposites. Packer knew that especially among North-American evangelicals, anti-cultural and anti-intellectual sentiments disillusioned many younger Christians who hungered for a holistic, integrative view of faith and life. Packer sought to recover a broader Christian vision grounded in the Christ who became human so that we could become fully human by union with him. 'To be fully Christian,' Packer wrote, 'in other words, is to live; it is to be fully human.' And this is the message taught to us by the scriptures and the Christian tradition. We hear this message from 'some of the most luminous and titanic minds ever to appear on the human scene, as well as from peasants, shopkeepers, kings, hermits, Easterners, Westerners, Africans, Americans, and people of all other sorts and conditions.' And they all share this vision of what it means to be fully human because they know 'that to have followed Christ the Savior is to have been brought to wholeness, freedom, and joy,' albeit often through great struggle and pain. These Christians all believed that in Jesus the Christ, God became 'the second Adam,' not so that “they could escape from their humanness” but, on the contrary, so that they could “become human” since Christ was 'the perfect example of all that humanity was meant to be.'

"Needless to say, Packer (and Howard) were not promoting nineteenth-century Protestant liberalism, which offered Christ as universal example of humanity attainable through rational reflection. Rather, they restated classic Christianity in emphasizing that only through union with Christ will we enter into the fullness of our humanity whose inherent dignity and worth everyone possesses by virtue of being made in God’s image. It is only through participating by grace in the humanity Christ accomplished in his passion, resurrection, and ascension, that human beings are freed from the power of sin and death, so as truly to enter into a life without fear, becoming free to serve others in love."

Originally published by Word Books in 1985, Christianity: The True Humanism was republished by Regent College Publishing (apparently later that same year, though it might just be a later reprint using the same original copyright date). It would be nice to give it a new life in the digital book age.

Please vote here:

https://feedback.faithlife.com/boards/logos-book-requests/posts/christianity-the-true-humanism

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David Paul | Forum Activity | Replied: Sat, Nov 21 2020 6:49 PM

I fully support making this book available in Logos, but I don't think it's super helpful trying to reshape vocabulary to gain advantage in the public square. It is arguable that the primary attribute that makes us "human" is our capacity and propensity to sin. Animals, for instance, can't sin. If that's true, then Packer's "play on words", i.e. his attempt to reshape and reframe the common use of the word "humanism", which is a word typically dedicated to describing ideals and actions focused on human flourishing without consideration of religious perspectives, simply doesn't make sense. It is a fabricated misnomer that clouds rather than clears. Not that I don't get what he's attempting to say and convey--I just don't think it will achieve more than muddying the discourse. Again, the reasons are straightforward. He's trying to wrest a word away from its well-established usage, and he is assuming that "human" is a word with inherently positive connotations, when it's pretty obvious that assumption is inherently debatable.

There are lots of words that have been so polluted with gross misunderstanding and misapplication over centuries of use that they are almost entirely worthless artifacts incapable of shedding light or wisdom. Examples are "love", "spirit", "grace", "church", and many others. Ironically, most folks have no clue why (or even that) these words have become so distended. Some of these may be able to be salvaged, but I have my doubts. "Human" (like "natural") is definitely one such word.

Leaving those things aside, I think it is far from certain that it is accurate to say that "YHWH's desire is that we become more human." It is certainly possible to construct an argument with evidence that His desire is to make us less human. That being the case, with the word being so baggage-bound that it can mean opposite things to different people, it seems to me it is one of those words that should be used in "quality-free" settings only. In other words, given the ultra-wide disparity that the word naturally encompasses, asserting that one end or the other of the quality continuum is the "accurate" designation is a fool's errand.

Packer's book may have something valuable to say, but his title fundamentally undercuts the intention of the book.

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Rosie Perera | Forum Activity | Replied: Sat, Nov 21 2020 7:09 PM

David Paul:
I fully support making this book available in Logos, but I don't think it's super helpful trying to reshape vocabulary to gain advantage in the public square....Packer's "play on words", i.e. his attempt to reshape and reframe the common use of the word 'humanism', which is a word typically dedicated to describing ideals and actions focused on human flourishing without consideration of religious perspectives, simply doesn't make sense.

I have to disagree. Packer is not the first nor by any means the only one to use the term Christian humanism. It has a long and honorable history that has been eclipsed by the current more familiar use of the unmodified term humanism.

"Christian Humanism was a Renaissance movement that combined a revived interest in the nature of humanity with the Christian faith. It impacted art, changed the focus of religious scholarship, shaped personal spirituality, and helped encourage the Protestant Reformation."

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christian_humanism

See particularly the list of Further Reading in that Wikipedia article:

  • Bequette, John P. Christian Humanism: Creation, Redemption, and Reintegration. University Press of America, 2007.
  • Erasmus, Desiderius, and Beatus Rhenanus. Christian Humanism and the Reformation: Selected Writings of Erasmus, with His Life by Beatus Rhenanus and a Biographical Sketch by the Editor. Fordham Univ Press, 1987.
  • Jacobs, Alan. The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis. Oxford University Press, 2018.
  • Oser, Lee. The Return of Christian Humanism: Chesterton, Eliot, Tolkien, and the Romance of History. University of Missouri Press, 2007.
  • Shaw, Joseph et al. Readings in Christian humanism. Fortress Press, 1982.
  • Zimmermann, Jens. Humanism and Religion: A Call for the Renewal of Western Culture. Oxford University Press, 2012.
  • Zimmermann, Jens. Re-Envisioning Christian Humanism. Oxford University Press, 2017.

I personally went on a tour of Florence, led by Gregory Wolfe, founder of Image Journal (the premiere quarterly on faith and the arts), to explore the art and history of Christian humanism in the Renaissance. Greg wrote a helpful set of points on Christian humanism for our group which I share here:

Art and Cultural Transformation: In the Renaissance and Now

Points for Discussion

by Greg Wolfe

  1. Culture consists of many strands, from ways of eating, dressing, and raising children to works of popular and high art. For the purposes of the current discussion, the focus will be on works of art, which are among the most influential forms of culture.
  2. The two most powerful sources of culture are art and religious faith: both reach deep into the realm of mystery in order to generate the symbols and stories that help people understand the human condition.
  3. Faith can never be separated from culture; religious experience and ideas are always embodied. The Word must be made flesh. There is no such thing as culture-less faith.
  4. The Incarnation is the model and touchstone for any understanding of faith and culture; it unites the human and the divine, time and timeless, nature and grace, spirit and letter. Stressing one element more than the other moves us “off-balance.”
  5. Cultures can be “thicker” or “thinner.” Thicker cultures produce a greater number of luminous artworks that keep us balanced. Thinner cultures more easily fall prey to ideologies of left and right.
  6. At the heart of every culture are definitions of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful.
  7. Beauty is not a luxury; it is a fundamental human need. Without Beauty, the Good becomes unattractive moralism and the True becomes distant and abstract.
  8. Beauty is not merely prettiness: it can and should render the full experience of the human condition, from Fall to Redemption.
  9. Christian Humanism is a recurrent impulse within the history of the Church that employs incarnational imagination to move from abstraction to concreteness, the conceptual to the experiential, retreat from the world to engagement with it, and didacticism to drama.
  10. Cultural transformation comes about when new cultural and artistic forms are found to keep old truths – including those of the Christian faith – alive and humanly convincing to people.
  11. The works of art that constitute high culture have more power to bring about lasting personal and cultural transformation than works of popular culture.
  12. In order to achieve the critical mass for cultural transformation, artists must both compete and cooperate; to do this, they must be connected by networks of association and support.
  13. The artist’s first audience and source of support is the patron. Patrons are not merely financial supporters but passionate, informed appreciators of art who seek out and develop relationships with artists. Patrons connect artists to the larger audience.
  14. In order to transform culture, artists must be situated within the leading institutions of a given society, including universities, journals, galleries, book publishers, etc.
  15. As Hans Rookmaaker reminded us, Christ came not to make us better Christians, but better human beings. This is the insight at the heart of Christian Humanism.
  16. You cannot engage the past properly unless you engage the present fully.

And here is Greg Wolfe giving a keynote lecture on Christian Humanism, including his choice to name the non-profit entity that publishes Image "The Center for Religious Humanism."

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David Paul | Forum Activity | Replied: Sat, Nov 21 2020 7:34 PM

Rosie Perera:
As Hans Rookmaaker reminded us, Christ came not to make us better Christians, but better human beings. This is the insight at the heart of Christian Humanism.

This, point 15, is debatable...and in my opinion, entirely false. In the West, theosis is a blasphemous concept, becoming increasingly so the closer to the present day one comes, whereas in the East it is effectively a self-evident fact. Not interested in hashing all this out, but regardless of how long people have attempted to develop this "humanist" line of reasoning, it is never going to escape being controversial because it isn't very Biblical.

Also, the idea of "cultural transformation" is pretty much utterly unbiblical. There is virtually NO prophecy indicating that there will be even a small cultural transformation that takes place on earth...that is until Yeishuua` returns and creates rivers of blood and swells of terror. At that point, things straighten out, at least for a bit. Change is primarily individual with little cultural impact, except perhaps at the very end to a shockingly small number of people...but it has almost nothing to do with the list above.

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Bill Anderson | Forum Activity | Replied: Sat, Nov 21 2020 7:49 PM

Having not read this particular book (I would welcome it in Logos), but I am confident with the underpinnings of Packer's theological commitments to believe that this book would have something valuable to say.

Packer is not the only theologian to put the word "Christian" in front of a secular concept. John Piper did it with Christian "hedonism." That, to me, sounds more jarring, but is a great way to describe the chief end of man (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q&A 1).

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David Paul | Forum Activity | Replied: Sat, Nov 21 2020 8:22 PM

Bill Anderson:
John Piper did it with Christian "hedonism." That, to me, sounds more jarring, but is a great way to describe the chief end of man (Westminster Shorter Catechism Q&A 1).

Well, you finally got me to crack open the WSC. I promptly closed it. Your conclusions are your business, but given the fundamental components of hedonism, I stand flabbergasted at the notion of a purportedly positive Christian version. According to Wikipedia, "Hedonism is a school of thought that argues seeking pleasure and avoiding suffering are the only components of well-being." Given Heb. 5:8, the book of Job, and, well, the Bible, I'm going to have declare the idea of "Christian hedonism" doesn't pass the smell test. So much for Piper and his take on the WSC (which in itself is just so many words).

As a result, I'm no more convinced and even less so that Christian humanism is a valid thing, no matter how supposedly ancient and vaunted these two notions are declared to be.

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Rosie Perera | Forum Activity | Replied: Sat, Nov 21 2020 8:31 PM

David Paul:
Change is primarily individual with little cultural impact, except perhaps at the very end to a shockingly small number of people.

You're swimming against a pretty large tide of Reformed theology. But I know that's not where you're coming from, and that's fine. We all need different ways of looking at theology to inform each other and learn from.

I would just point to multitudes of examples where change and cultural impact actually have happened thanks to the work of Christians in the world, despite there apparently being no prophecy that it would happen (which is arguable; see Hab 2:14). A belief that nothing good can happen on earth leads to passivity and giving up on the cultural mandate (of which much is written in many Logos resources). This entry on the Cultural Mandate in the Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions is typical and helpful. There's also a good quote in Phillp Graham Ryken's Christian Worldview: A Student's Guide: "Marriage and family. Work and leisure. Science and creation care. Music and the arts. Together these varied aspects of human life comprise our cultural mandate. Based on the command to fill, subdue, and rule the earth (Gen. 1:28), we have a God-given responsibility to develop the possibilities of creation in ways that reveal our maker’s praise, and ultimately fill the whole earth with his glory (Hab. 2:14). It is not just one part of life that ought to glorify God, but all of life, in all its fullness. This is the way things were meant to be."

Philip Graham Ryken, Christian Worldview: A Student’s Guide, ed. David S. Dockery, Reclaiming the Christian Intellectual Tradition (Crossway: Wheaton, IL, 2013), 60.

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David Paul | Forum Activity | Replied: Sat, Nov 21 2020 9:57 PM

Rosie Perera:
You're swimming against a pretty large tide of Reformed theology.

Yes.

Rosie Perera:
But I know that's not where you're coming from, and that's fine.

Correct.

Rosie Perera:
We all need different ways of looking at theology to inform each other and learn from.

Agreed.

With regard to...

Rosie Perera:
I would just point to multitudes of examples where change and cultural impact actually have happened thanks to the work of Christians in the world, despite there apparently being no prophecy that it would happen (which is arguable; see Hab 2:14).

Hab. 2:14 is predicated on Hab. 1:5, the Unbelievable Work, a condition which holds to be the case for literally everyone who is capable of reading the verse or having it read to them. Not only atheists and pagans will find His work unbelievable, but BELIEVERS will find His work unbelievable as well. There are no exceptions. It is only upon the revelation of what His work is, that won't be believed even when it's told...only then, when a very few initial doubters finally cave to the inevitability of the revelation, that Hab. 2:14 comes to pass. We ain't there yet, and until we pass that rally point, the realizations that come with the revelation remain unborn and cannot influence perceptions nor be acted upon. I, of course, don't expect anyone to believe a word I'm saying. Nevertheless...

Rosie Perera:
Together these varied aspects of human life comprise our cultural mandate. Based on the command to fill, subdue, and rule the earth (Gen. 1:28), we have a God-given responsibility to develop the possibilities of creation in ways that reveal our maker’s praise, and ultimately fill the whole earth with his glory (Hab. 2:14).

The ability to fully comprehend how Gen. 1:28 will be fulfilled requires understanding why the serpent was allowed to enter the garden. Prophecy, particularly Job, but plenty elsewhere as well, indicates what that reason was and what the plan's purpose is. If the serpent is Satan, and Rev. 12 insists it is, YHWH could have easily blotted out Satan and prevented the "garden catastrophe"...except, it actually wasn't a catastrophe at all. Every single aspect of hassaattaan's activity is a pre-planned element in His prophetic blueprint and even as Satan is fighting (as he sees it) YHWH every step of the way, every move he makes is anticipated and BAKED IN to the plan. Ultimately, even though he sets himself as YHWH's adversary and YHWH acknowledges him as such, in the end EVERYTHING that hassaattaan does is YHWH's will. If YHWH didn't want him doing what he does, He could easily have spoken him out of existence. But He planned for (and thus WANTED) Satan to do precisely what he's done, even as He holds him guilty for doing it. That is just an infinitesimal part of the Unbelievable Work.

Anyway, enough of that...I just wanted to lay enough groundwork to show that any imagined sense of A City of God existing in the "church" age is devoid of prophetic awareness. It has to be so, because that is part of what makes His ultimate revelation of what His ultimate work is universally unbelievable. None (hyperbolically speaking and in a limited sense) of what was declared prior to the serpent's activity can be concluded until the serpent's activity is completed, and that's not until the end of the millennium. Not surprisingly, at that point, there is an actually prophesied City that makes its entrance. Hab. 2:14 will come to pass, but it is emphatically not coming to pass now. Indeed, it is impossible for it to come to pass at this time. Has there been some residual good that has sluffed off on the world as a result of the presence of the Book in the world, prophetically sealed and misunderstood as it is? Sure, of course...along with mountains of bad: crusades, inquisitions, factional wars, pedophile priests, cross burnings, etc., etc., etc.

I had no intension of getting into any of this. I'm still really focused on the phenomena of trying to inject unbiblical human phenomena into the Biblical box. Quite often, when this happens, it is done with intentions perceived to be noble. It's just ultimately harmful and usually unacceptable. IF hedonism is defined by avoidance of suffering, and the Messiah is declared to be the Suffering Servant, WHY would anyone imagine that whittling away at the meaning of the wholly inappropriate term in order to "Christianize" or "Biblicize" it is a wise idea??? Piper's move was a major stumble. There's a reason why so much stuff like this gets generated in the name of Biblical Christianity, but it's all part of the Unbelievable Work, and I've already overtaxed on that currently frozen account.

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Rosie Perera | Forum Activity | Replied: Sat, Nov 21 2020 10:13 PM

David Paul:
Anyway, enough of that..

Yeah, probably enough of all of this. We've ventured into disputing theology which isn't what these forums are for.

Peace be to you!

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David Paul | Forum Activity | Replied: Sat, Nov 21 2020 10:18 PM

To you as well, and I would like to see the Packer book in Logos. Frankly, I'm surprised it isn't already available. Tons of his stuff already is.

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Posts 19139
Rosie Perera | Forum Activity | Replied: Sat, Nov 21 2020 10:56 PM

David Paul:
I would like to see the Packer book in Logos. Frankly, I'm surprised it isn't already available. Tons of his stuff already is.

He wrote tons of books, and many of them are not yet in Logos. I won't attempt an exhaustive list at this time, but here are a few that I know aren't in Logos. I have most of these except the first two.

There are also these two festschrifts that he co-edited:

And this one that was done for him:

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