May 03

J.I. Packer: A Biography, by Alister McGrath ★★★★★

I was recently given a biography of JI Packer written by Leland Ryken, and written within the last few years. It was an excellent account of the man Packer, but Ryken frequently referred to an earlier biography of Packer written by Alister McGrath, and that is the book that I’ll be reviewing now. McGrath wrote his biography in 1996, at the time of Packer’s retirement from Regent College (and the time that I took Systematic Theology from Packer), thus leaving out the last 24 years of Packer’s life. Within the last 24 years, Packer did not remain inactive, but was quite busy in a number of activities including writing, leading a protest against the Canadian Anglican Church for their stance on gender confusion and LGBTQ+ issues. Also, he was the lead for the new translation of the Bible presented as the English Standard Version of the Bible. McGrath will definitely need to write an addendum or second edition to this book!

McGrath takes a completely different approach to JI Packer than that of Ryken. In McGrath’s text, the chapters are entirely chronological. McGrath’s biography is much shorter, but provides better detail into the thought processes of Packer, as well as detailing the events that transpired with the major controversies and battles that Packer needed to contend with. I was left with a much better feel for the legacy of what Packer left us through his various battles. Specifically, McGrath did a wonderful job of outlining Packer’s fight for the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture. McGrath also gave a much better feel for Packer’s desire to stay in the Anglican Church (much to the chagrin of Martyn Lloyd-Jones) and desire to maintain a rapport with “co-belligerents” in the Catholic Church, leading to a falling out with RC Sproul and many others. I have a far greater sympathy for what Packer stood for by reading McGrath’s book. McGrath can correctly state that the current status of the evangelical world today has been influenced greatly by Packer, and perhaps it was Packer that most heavily influenced how Evangelicals now behave and think. Certainly, Packer led the charge for doing theology well, noting that many heresies are the natural result of zealous Christians who are not interested in theology.

In my life, I owe much of my Christian thinking to two people, Francis Schaeffer and J.I. Packer (St. Francis and St. James!). As far as I can tell, the two men lived somewhat contemporary to each other (Schaeffer dying in 1984 and Packer being still alive but now completely incapacitated by blindness and hard hearing) but probably never met each other. Both men are giants in resetting “fundamentalism” and “evangelicalism” from being a description of brain-dead, only-believe morons, to re-energizing a scholarly, thoughtful Christian faith community, capable of contending with the secular world at large. Both men rose above their own circumstances to influence the world around them. Just as almost nobody realizes that Francis Schaeffer was a devout, committed Presbyterian, few people think of JI Packer as a devout, committed Anglican. Both men had an extraordinary ability to interact with the broad Christian (and secular) world out there. Both were humble men, and extraordinary in their ability to treat those who were even their “enemies” with kindness, graciousness, and love.

I do not view either McGrath’s or Ryken’s text as a better biography. They are both complementary descriptions of the life and thinking of James Innes Packer, both honor him as truly one of the great Christian thinkers of the end of the 20th century, but both books provide a different flavor to Packer — the man. Thus, I highly recommend reading both biographies to better understand St. James.

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