Apr 20

JI Packer: An Evangelical Life, by Leland Ryken ★★★★★

This book was sent to me by my old professor of Surgical Oncology, Dr. Donald Wood. I’m not sure how he knew that I had a deep appreciation for the life and works of JI Packer, but the book came as a total surprise on my doorstep. I immediately resolved to put down my other reading and take this up. As you might notice, I have not published at this site since the end of last year, and it is worthy of a catch-up article at this time. I am otherwise reading John Frame’s Systematic Theology, a very well written but thick text, not only in length but also in thinking. Thus, this book was a welcome interlude.

Leland Ryken divides his book up into three parts, the first being a chronological account of Packer’s life up to this time, the second part is an attempt to describe Packer’s character, and the third takes up Packer’s life from a thematic perspective. Packer’s life starts with his birth in Gloucester, England. He was born to a normal middle-class family. Early as a child, he sustained a head injury, leading him to be restricted in sports and spawning his academic career. He did well and was admitted to Oxford University, where he became a Christian in his first year. During this time, Packer decided to commit his life to the ministry and theology. Packer completes his undergraduate studies and then attends the American equivalent of the seminary. He lands a job as the assistant pastor at a church on the outskirts of Birmingham, where he stays for two years and gets married. Packer then returns to academia and teaches at Wycliffe Hall in Bristol before returning to Oxford to become warden of Latimer House, a function of the conservative portion of the Anglican Church. After 10 years, he returns to academia in Bristol, eventually becoming a lecturer at Trinity College in Bristol. In 1979, Packer surprised the world by announcing a move to Canada to teach at Regent College in Vancouver, B.C. Packer, though now retired and blind, has remained in Vancouver to this day. Throughout his life, he has maintained a very active writing and speaking career, spending much time in the Americas during his time in England, and in both continents while living in the USA. He has remained active up to recently in various projects and controversies, his last large project being the general editor for the new English Standard Version translation of the Scripture, now used in many evangelical churches.

The second part, describing the personality and character of JI Packer is very weak. Those who have met Packer and have gotten to know him (as I have), know him to be thoughtful, humble, exceedingly gracious, but brilliant. One would never imagine him to be engaged so deeply in numerous controversies, yet that has been Packer’s fate. Ryken fails to truly describe Packer the man and his personality. Ryken never talks about Packer’s family. Packer’s wife Kit is barely mentioned, and there is no mention of family life, or of Packer’s children. Packer’s daughter is mentioned only in a passing comment, and his son is not mentioned at all. Ryken does not leave you feeling like you’ve encountered Packer the man.

The lifelong themes of JI Packer is an interesting section of the book, with a special note on the controversies that surrounded Packer’s life. Packer first came to fame as a defender of the inerrancy of Scripture and defense of the Bible as God’s word. He is probably best known as the foremost authority on the Puritans and even participated heavily in an annual seminar of the Puritans that lasted for about 10-12 years. Very early in his career, JI Packer took serious criticism for his stance against the Keswick movement in England, a stance formulated by his readings of the Puritans, and especially John Owen. Packer had encounters with Pentecostalism and the charismatic movement in the Anglican Church, but Packer took a guarded response toward this movement, causing much consternation with those who felt that Packer should be speaking wholeheartedly against the movement. Packer has received the most criticism in his life for his stand with the Anglican Church. Most evangelicals had known that the Anglican Church was hopelessly lost to the liberal faction of the church. Thus, it remained puzzling why Packer insisted on remaining active in the Anglican church, even though his conservative sentiments were generally a voice talking to the wall. There was a conservative element that remained within the Anglican Church, and while Packer seemed to catch much flak for his stand with the Church, John Stott did not. His church stance caused a very disappointing falling out with the most prominent evangelical in England, Martin Lloyd-Jones. Packer’s stand on church issues and conciliatory moves without compromising his theology caused an eventually falling out with many North American evangelicals for his stance in Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Most notable was the fall-out with RC Sproul.

Packer has stood strong and uncompromising throughout his life. To date, he has stood against female ordination in the church, abortion, and the gay/lesbian agenda. This latter issue has led to him being defrocked from the Anglican Church of Canada, causing him to move to a conservative Anglican denomination. JI Packer seems to be a lone voice in the Evangelical world for restraint in dealing with interactions among fellow Evangelicals, and even those (like Catholics) who though saved, tend to disagree with some of the essential doctrines of the Evangelical mindset.

This book was a joy to read. I wish that I could have read it before my time as a student under Packer, as my conversations with him could have been less naïve and better directed to knowing his heart and soul. Ryken does not offer an explanation as to why he felt necessary to write a second book about the life of JI Packer, as a fairly detailed text had already been written by Alister McGrath. Ryken frequently quotes McGrath in this text. Packer continues to engender controversy, and if a person (like myself) expresses their deepest appreciation for Packer, many evangelicals tend to treat them as compromising in the faith. Packer was never a compromiser, and such an accusation is shameful and wrong. It is my desire that more people pick up the writings of JI Packer and learn to appreciate him as deeply as I have.

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