Systematic Spirituality Revisited: J.I. Packer’s Practical Theology as Educational Model

In 1989, J.I. Packer was appointed the Sangwoo Yountong Chee Professor of Theology at Regent College. In his introductory lecture, he argued that any study of theology is essentially work in spirituality.
He explained that he felt at home in his new position because Regent placed particular emphasis on spirituality, committed to the ideal that no theology should ever be taught to enrich the head while impoverishing the heart. Further, he rejected a merely scientific approach to theological study, arguing that cool and clinical detachment while studying doctrine was intolerable.
He instead proposed a marriage in which systematic theology is taught as an element of the student’s spirituality, and spirituality is taught as an expression of systematic theology. That is, the study of systematic theology should be a devotional discipline, a means of relating to God.
He aptly said, “Given the marriage, both our theologizing and our devotional explorations will become systematic spirituality, exercises in (allow me to say it) knowing God, and we shall all be the richer as a result.”
Packer’s voice is needed in this current cultural moment, for this is a time for more systematic spirituality, not less. We cannot separate truth from discipleship, theology from doxology, orthodoxy from orthopraxy. We in evangelical higher education are called to make theology a devotional discipline, and Packer is an exceedingly capable guide.
He noted, “Does God change with the passing years? If the Bible is his Word for the world, will it ever go out of date? Will its meaning change with the culture? Will the human heart change with technological advance? Will the gospel change as the world’s religions talk to each other? And are the inward exercises of godliness essentially any different from what they were one, two, five, ten, fifteen centuries ago? Some things do not change; and it is out of the conviction that God and godliness are among them that I do my work in the way I do.”
This paper will first argue that the overarching aim of evangelical higher education must be devotional; to aid students in (allow me to say it) knowing God. Further, by examining his life and work, it will be proven that the best means to achieve that end is Packer’s paradigm of practical theology; to do our work the way he did it. Indeed, his work was “all spirituality,” leaving no theological truth unapplied, believing spirituality should be at the center of the Christian curriculum. Packer serves as a model of rigorous scholarship joined with fervent devotion. So it should be now.

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