Shortly before the Manhattan Declaration came out I was very disappointed by a discovery I made at the back end of the second edition of J. I. Packer’s Rediscovering Holiness. This new edition contains an afterword entitled “Holiness in the Dark: The Case of Mother Teresa.” I scanned it quickly then, but did not make time to give it a thorough reading until this morning. Very disappointed is an understatement.
To cut to the chase, Packer wants to address the “problem of felt abandonment by God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, within the frame of full commitment to God: in other words, the desolation and seeming desertion of the deeply devoted” (italics original, p. 249), and he believes that Teresa’s struggles can be helpful for all of us—even to the point of thanking God “for Mother Teresa’s example, which points the way ahead for us all” (p. 263). In case you are unaware of her stuggles, Packer informs us that “after two decades of constant joyful intimacy with Christ, from 1948 on—that is, for 49 years, during the whole time of her leadership of the Missionaries of Charity—felt abandonment was the essence of her experience. Behind all the cheerful, upbeat, encouraging, Christ-honoring utterances that flowed from her during these years in a steady stream lay the permanently painful sense that, quite simply, God had gone, leaving her in aching loneliness, apparently for all eternity” (p. 250).
Packer bases the entire afterword on the premise that Teresa is a genuine believer, in spite of her devotion to Roman Catholic teachings. Packer tries to explain how she could experience such darkness and begins by explaining away several options:
- “This was not an experience of doubt …. She was always sure of the historic Christian faith and of the grace that flows from Jesus, particularly as she believed through the Mass; she had no doubt about the administrative procedures of the pre-Vatican II Catholic Church; she had absolute confidence in the love of the Lord Jesus for herself and for everyone else, including the poorest of the Indian poor, whom Hindu society wrote off as valueless; she was totally convinced that she was called to take the love of Christ to them; and she was ever a human dynamo in furthering this project” (p. 261).
- It was not “passing through the dark night of the soul as Catholic tradition conceives it; for that darkness, however similar while it lasts to Teresa’s, is temporary, leading on to experiential union with God, whereas Teresa by her own testimony had known experiential union with Christ in particular for 20 years before the pain of inner darkness became her permanent condition” (p. 261).
- “Nor, again, was she undergoing an experience of detection, God sending her pain to alert her to issues of repentance and obedience that she had evaded. Quite apart from the fact that the inner darkness spanned her whole half-century of leadership, it is safe to say that there were no problems of that kind in Teresa’s life” (p. 261).
This is so mind-boggling that I am not sure where to start. How Packer can conclude any of this is beyond my ability to understand—he is prepared to look into her soul and assure us that she had no doubt, that she truly experienced union with God, and that she had no problems with repentance or obedience? I know Packer is much more intelligent than I am, but I don’t think even he can see inside a soul with such clarity.
And his conclusions fly in face of sound theology. How can she not have doubt when her salvation is based on the administration of the Mass rather than the finished work of Christ? I’ve seen no evidence that Teresa believed the gospel of grace and significant evidence from her own words that would suggest that she didn’t. Packer seems to ignore the possibility that her devotion to Jesus was not gospel-based, or that it might not have even been the Jesus of whom Paul preached (cf. 2 Cor 11:4).
Some wonder why many of us are making such a big fuss about the Manhattan Declaration, and I’d submit that it is because some of us see a dangerous drift happening. Packer, who signed the MD and also the original ECT document, is representative of this drift. It seems, and this deserves further exploration, that Packer’s initial steps in this direction started in the mid-1960s, then bloomed more fully in the decade following. Packer’s biographer, Alister McGrath, acknowledges that Packer’s support of ECT “can be seen to rest on precisely the theological foundations developed by Packer in England during the 1970s” (J. I. Packer, p. 160). Specifically, Packer took the side of evangelical ecumenism in opposition to Lloyd-Jones in 1966, then co-authored a work with two Anglo-Catholics in 1970 (Growing into Union) that many evangelicals felt conceded too much biblical ground on critical doctrinal issues. The publication of that work led to the formal break between Lloyd-Jones and Packer, bringing an end to the Puritan Conferences.
I think this backdrop is important so that we see this issue in relation to the larger issues. Too many defenses of the signers of the MD err precisely by seeing only this document, not the larger questions on the table and trends at work. Once ecumenism has been embraced, common ground becomes the goal. That almost without fail means that differences are minimized or dismissed altogether. Perceived piety or devotion to good works gradually trump soundness on the gospel as the evidence of genuine Christianity. That seems like the only way to explain how Packer can claim that Teresa is a model Christian because “what one does for others is the real test of the genuineness and depth of one’s love to God, and specifically to Jesus Christ the Lord” (p. 262).
As I said earlier on this subject, the Manhattan Declaration represents another step toward accepting the false notion that being a Christian is demonstrated by doing something about social issues. It seems clear to me that J. I. Packer has taken that step.