More than 350 friends and admirers of J. I. Packer celebrated the famed theologian, writer and scholar's 80th year during a three-day conference sponsored by Samford University's Beeson Divinity School Sept. 25-27.
As participants from 19 states and Canada honored Packer's many decades as a "theologizer," they also considered the current and future status of evangelicalism.
According to Beeson dean Timothy George, the purpose of the "J.I. Packer and the Evangelical Future" conference was to honor Packer, who turned 80 on July 22, and also to consider what evangelical Christians can learn from his life and work.
Professor of theology at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia, Packer is the author of the modern theological classic, Knowing God, and other writings that have established him as a theological voice for the evangelical movement.
Presenters addressed the program's theme with talks on various aspects of evangelical theology and worship services filled with praise and singing.
On the topic of Packer, Puritans and Postmoderns, Charles W. Colson noted that the three themes are drawn together by truth, of which Packer is one of the great defenders.
"The orthodoxy of the preaching of the Puritans is in jeopardy today because truth is in jeopardy," said Colson, board chairman of Prison Fellowship ministry, which he helped found after serving prison time for Watergate-related charges in the 1970s.
Although postmodern culture says there is no such thing as truth, Colson said, "Truth is truth. Every religion makes a truth claim. They may all be wrong, but they can't all be right.
"The problem is not just in culture, but in our church, where we've stopped taking truth seriously. The church must understand that if we don't take truth seriously, we don't take God seriously," said Colson, author of the international best seller Born Again and 21 other books.
After two days of presentations by such thought leaders as Mark E. Dever, David Neff, D. Bruce Hindmarsh, Edith M. Humphrey, Richard John Neuhaus and James Earl Massey, Packer expressed appreciation for the conference title, but humbly noted that "the future of evangelicalism is the important thing, not J.I. Packer."
His sense of vocation has been steady since soon after his spiritual conversion in his native England in 1944, said Packer, who realized early on that he was called to be a shepherd. A half-century of seminary teaching and writing has followed.
The self-described "adult catechist," said that he laments today's gap between "ABC books" and technical theology books that would assist the adult believer to master being a mature Christian.
Noting that all Christians are called to be lifelong learners, Packer predicted that adult catechism in evangelical circles will return in the next generation. "People have been hungry for this for a long time," said Packer, referencing the "amazingly wide ministry" of his book, Knowing God.
He said he seeks to shape Christians whose lives are marked by doxology, humility, intensity.
"In the Christian life, we're called to race. I don't want to see a Christian trodding where he should be racing. Sloth is one of the great enemies of Christianity of our time," said Packer.
"I've tried to remind people that we are on a journey. Ultimately, we leave this world for a more glorious one. I hope my material will help people to live usefully and face death gracefully," he said.
Regarding evangelicalism and the future, Packer warned that those who lose memory become short-sighted as they look to the future. Some people, he noted, have lost their memory about evangelicalism.
In a concluding session, George noted that while there were stirrings of evangelical renewal at about the time Packer's career began, the effort was not of a substantial nature. Now, however, observed George, "Evangelicalism has moved from the margins to the mainstream."
Evangelicalism needs to speak with greater clarity to the great tradition, said George, always keeping the cross at the heart of things and maintaining Christian witness in the culture.
"God has called us to bear witness in a culture that in many ways has forgotten its roots," said George, who urged consideration of Packer's personal qualities of integrity, charity and humility.
At the concluding worship service, George presented Packer with a collection of 200 notes sent by bishops, missionaries, clergy and lay persons from around the world. Contributors included evangelist Billy Graham, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Uganda Henry Luke Orombi and Anglican theologian John R. W. Stott.
Registrants at the conference included longtime Packer fans such as Paul Lloyd, who traveled from his home in Rapid City, S.D.
"Registration was a surprise birthday present from my wife, Lynn," said Lloyd, whose admiration for Packer goes back to his days as a Beeson divinity student in 1993.
"When I graduated, I asked Dean George for a list of books he would take to a desert island. His suggestions included ´anything by J.I. Packer,'" said Lloyd.
"I have been reading Packer ever since."