Packer’s Dusty Discovery and the Music of the Anabaptists: Footnotes from the Fuller Conference

This week I joined friends and colleagues on the campus of Southern Seminary for the 9th annual conference hosted by the Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies and its director, Dr. Michael A. G. Haykin.  The theme of the conference was “Persecution and the Church” and there were presentations given by a host of gifted scholars covering biblical, historical, and theological themes.

Dr. Haykin invited me to present on “The Persecution of the Anabaptists” seeking to inform and reflect on the trials and challenges experienced by the group sometimes dubbed the Radical Reformers, the ‘Left Wing’ of the Reformation, and even the Reformers’ Stepchildren. After reading the Beatitudes from Matthew 5:2-11, I began my presentation seeking to construct a bridge to these often misunderstood figures of the Reformation with a story of a contemporary theologian, well-known and beloved by me and those attending the Fuller Conference, but decidedly not an Anabaptist, namely J. I. Packer. What follows is the introduction of my presentation:

Packer’s Dusty Discovery and the Music of the Anabaptists

During J. I. Packer’s second year of undergraduate studies at Oxford, he was invited to serve as the junior librarian at the Christian Union student organization. Having been converted only a year earlier, Packer was new to the Union but, as he would soon discover, so were a recent donation of books. An octogenarian clergyman had recently concluded that he could no longer make use of his library and thus gave them to the Union who, upon receipt, proceeded to pile them in the basement of their meeting hall for an unknown future. Thereafter, as is now famously told and retold, Packer discovered, as a nineteen year-old, the works of the Puritan John Owen—and the evangelical world has not been the same since.

At the time of this discovery, Packer would later relate his life “was all over the place” emotionally and thus “God used [Owen] to save my sanity.” More than just sorting out Packer, his literal “recovery” of the Puritans would start a movement that not only would bring great and good revived interest in these evangelical forebears, but also would help provide an anchor to the Word of God during the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s in the United Kingdom and abroad.

One could argue, that had not Packer discovered that box of books, his tremendously influential and life altering works, Fundamentalism and the Word of God (1958) and Knowing God (1973), may never have appeared—not to mention the republishing of the Works of John Owen themselves as well as many other volumes in the Puritan canon readily available today.[1] Truly this is an example of one man’s discarded tomes serving as another man’s lifelong treasure.

While it might at first sound odd to start a lecture on the persecution of the Anabaptists with a story of the 20th century rediscovery of the Puritans, the latter actually serves as a fitting metaphor for the topic I seek to address. For the Puritans, from the sixteenth century to the present, have endured misunderstanding and misinterpretation, yet when rediscovered and redeployed by earnest evangelicals over the years, have also proven to serve as timely companions and guides for the clear teaching and preaching of the Bible and the proclamation of the New Testament message of the gospel.[2]

Whether it was Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, or even Packer, himself, relighting the paths back to the archives containing the treasures of Puritan wisdom and help, their rediscovery across the years has proven to bolster and encourage in times of cultural and spiritual darkness. While to many, the Puritans are worthy of nothing more than an dusty pile of books in a basement corner, to many others they have, like for Packer, been used of God to provide theological clarity and life-giving gospel reorientation.

Well, if the Puritans have been seen frequently as objects of discard and neglect, the Anabaptists are more often thought of as clanging nuisances of history many have sought to mute or dismiss much like most of America must treat the musical acts that frequent the end of The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon—sounds of history that are more noise than melody, more cacophony than symphony. But like the Puritans, who in many ways were made most useful for doctrinal instruction in times other than their own, the Anabaptists, as I hope to show, can serve, perhaps surprisingly, a similar function in our own day especially when we observe how and why they endured persecution in the Beatitudinal fashion I read moments ago. Indeed, what many may have sought to silence in eras past as mere footnotes or sideshows in the history of Christianity, may well now serve well as the music the future of Christianity needs most to hear. Truly, this can serve as an example of one man’s cacophony serving as another man’s symphony.

In the time I have this evening to explore this idea with you, I intend to review the topic, “The Persecution of the Anabaptists” by answering the following questions. (1) Who were the Anabaptists?, (2) For what were they persecuted?, and (3) Why are they of value for us today?. In my answering of each of these, I seek to present selections from the lives and thoughts of a few of the key leaders of the movement.

[1] Leland Ryken, J.I. Packer: An Evangelical Life (Crossway, 2015), 265-267. This key event in Packer’s life is also told in Alister McGrath, J. I. Packer: A Biography (Baker, 1998). In 2010, I referenced it’s significance in an interview here in response to the question, “What is one historical moment or event from evangelicalism’s past that you think Southern Baptists would be wise to remember—both now and in the future?”

[2] As a helpful working definition of Puritanism, B. R. White indicated that it “seems right to define the period of true Puritanism as 1570-1640 and a Puritan as an earnest Protestant, his understanding of the Bible shaped by a theology which was broadly Calvinist in type, who, while remaining a member of the established Church of England, sought its further reformation often, though not always in the direction of Presbyterianism,” in “Introduction,” in The English Puritan Tradition (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1980), 12.

The audio recording of my presentations of this year’s Fuller Conference is available here.

Here is an outline of my entire presentation that I shared with the conference attendees, and my lecture was published in essay form in the Fall 2015 issue of the Midwestern Journal of Theology.

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