Review of "Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God" by J. I. Packer

Evangelism & The Sovereignty of God by J. I. Packer, InterVarsity Press, 1961 [reformatted 1991], 126 pp.
In Chapter I “The Sovereignty of God,” J. I. Packer writes to Arminians that “you know” and “you believe this already” referring to the sovereignty of God. That is, Arminians do not credit themselves with their own salvation [even if their theology logically does] and Arminians pray to God under the supposition that God is in control. Here I think Packer makes a good point, but it is not clear that such things (knowing God’s primary role in salvation and in prayer) necessitate whatever particular view of sovereignty (presumably Calvinistic) that Packer takes. Packer assumes (but does not give) a particular view of sovereignty as if it were the only view.
At the end of the chapter Packer notes the “long-standing controversy in the Church as to whether God is really Lord in relation to human conduct and saving faith or not.” (p. 16) He holds that Arminians do believe in divine sovereignty “but some are not aware that they do, and mistakenly imagine and insist that they reject it.” Rather than letting these “two truths live side-by-side” in a “mystery,” Packer argues that Arminians have allowed the “supposed demands of logic” in affirming human responsibility to therefore deny sovereignty.
Packer’s presentation of the options however is inadequate. There are more options than he presents. There are, it seems to me, six logical possibilities:
1. Deny God’s sovereignty and retain human responsibility. (Arminianism)
2. Deny human responsibility and retain God’s sovereignty. (Hyper-Calvinism / Antinomianism)
3. Deny both God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. (Atheism / Agnosticism)
4. Admit to not knowing the answer.
5. Claim that reconciling God’s sovereignty and human responsibility is a mystery. (Packer)
6. Find a way to reconcile God’s sovereignty and human responsibility. (Clark)
The problem with Packer’s view is that he hasn’t justified his claim, the claim that the reconciling of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility is a mystery. Nor, does it seem that it is possible to justify that claim. That is, there is no way for Packer (or anyone else) to know that God’s sovereignty and human responsibility cannot be shown to be logical harmonius. To prove his claim it would requires one to rule out each and every of the (infinite?) possible ways in which God’s sovereignty and human responsibility might be reconciled. While the Bible gives both doctrines, nowhere that I’m aware of does it state that the two doctrines are to be considered a mystery. Packer, like the rationalists he condemns, has gone beyond Scripture.
Surely Packer means to avoid Atheism, Arminianism, and Hyper-Calvinism. But why not attempt to solve the problem on a Calvinistic basis rather than appealling to mystery? Perhaps, as Gordon Clark wrote, “If [harmonizing determinism and responsibility on the basis of Calvinistic Christianity] has not been done before the reason is that the Calvinists of today are but half-hearted followers of the prince of theologians, John Calvin.” (Gordon H. Clark, “Determinism and Responsibility”, The Evangelical Quarterly, 1932) Clark’s solution is to first define responsibility. He writes, “Let us call a man responsible, then, when he may be justly rewarded or punished for his deeds.” And then, Clark continues, “God is Sovereign; whatever He does is just, for this very reason, because He does it. If He punishes a man, the man is punished justly and hence the man is responsible.” There is no opposition (nor mystery) between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility for “responsibility requires determinism.” But nowhere does Packer, nor any other Reformed theologian I know of, interact with Clark’s Calvinistic solution. Rather, without a solution, and not humble enough to admit “I don’t know,” they often propound what they cannot defend, “mystery.”
Chapter II “Divine Sovereignty & Human Responsibility” continues Packer’s defense of mystery, which he now calls “antimony” or “appearance of contradiction.” But two propositions are either contradictory or they are not. And nowhere does Packer show how divine sovereignty “appears” to be contradictory to human responsibility. The fact is they are not contradictory. They only “appear” so when one has false understanding of one or both of the terms. The solution, as noted before in Clark, is rooted in properly understanding the terms, not in claiming “antimony” and proudly walking away.
To Packer’s benefit he does say that the way one should handle an antimony is to “put down the semblance of contradiction to the deficiency of your own understanding.” (p. 21) Here at least he doesn’t go as far as Cornelius Van Til and his followers who make antimony a property of the Bible itself, rather than solely a deficiency of one’s own understanding. But if one’s deficient understanding is the root case of the antimony then why say that it is “insoluble”? Does one person’s ignorance necessitate that everyone is ignorant? Packer seems to waver here between view 4 and view 5 above.
Packer opposes the temptation to “get rid of antimonies from our minds by illegitimate means.” (p. 25) But shouldn’t legitimate means be legitimate?
Packer does rightfully warn against those who emphasize either human responsibility to the exclusion of divine sovereignty (p. 25-29) or divine sovereignty to the exclusion of human responsibility (p. 29-36).
Chapter III “Evangelism” sees the root of the confusion about what evangelism is in the “habit of defining evangelism in terms, not of a message delivered, but of an effect produced in our hearers.” (p. 37) “Evangelism means to present Jesus Christ.” (p. 38) And to present Him as the “only hope” and “exhorting sinners to accept Christ Jesus as their Saviour.” (p. 39) Even better, Packer writes, “Evangelism is the issuing of a call to turn, as well as to trust; it is the delivering, not merely of a divine invitation to receive a Savior, but of a divine command to repent of sin.” (p. 40) Packer rightfully critiques the view that evangelism’s essence is to produce converts. That rather is God’s work; while evangelism is man’s (granted still led by God). Rightly, Packer says, “the way to tell whether you are evangelizing is not to ask whether conversions are known to have resulted from your witness. It is to ask whether you are faithfully making known the Gospel message.” (p. 41)
Returning back to “responsibility” Packer correctly, in my opinion, shows that it is the obligation of all Christians to evangelize (p. 46) and that conversion is the goal (p. 50-53). The ways in which one brings the gospel to others are many. House meetings, Bible Studies, Sunday services, etc. are all evangelistic endeavors. (p. 54) “The way find out whether a particular service was evangelistic is to ask, not whether an appeal for decision was made, but what truth was taught at it.” (p. 56)
Packer does evidence his Calvinism with good statements against preaching “Christ died for every one of you.” (p. 67-69) But his claim that John Wesley was “content to preach the Gospel just as it stands in Scripture” (p. 69) is doubtful, though I do not know Wesley’s work well enough to judge.
The final chapter, “Divine Sovereignty and Evangelism” returns to the question of how evangelism is related to the sovereignty of God. His conclusions form two main propositions: (1) The sovereignty of God in grace does not affect anything that we have said about the nature and duty of evangelism (p. 96), and (2) The sovereignty of God in grace gives us our only hope of success in evangelism (p. 106).
Ultimately, Packer has a lot of good Biblical material on the proper message, subject, objects, methods, and goals of evangelism, but his philosophical appeal to mystery in understanding the relationship of evangelism and the sovereignty of God is found wanting.