I first came across J.I. Packer and his writings while I was at university, which was some 20 years ago. And since then Packer has been influential in my faith, particularly through numerous popular volumes that currently sit on my bookshelves. Over the years I’ve found him to be a stabilising and assuring voice on everything from scripture, to ministry, to theology, and ethics. I remember being struck the last time I read his most popular book, Knowing God, just how different his writing is to writers in this current age. Packer’s work is dense, it requires thinking, and steeped in scripture, theology, and history. While he has written for the average Christian his work is of such substance that he puts many of the current Chrsitians books to shame.
Due to Packer’s influence in my life I’ve always been fond of reading about the man himself. From various biographies over the years, as well as articles written about him, I’ve managed to get the main outline of his life. A few years ago Sam Storms wrote Packer on The Christian Life, which explores themes in his life from a theological angle, and is a terrific read. And over the course of the last few weeks I’ve made my way through Leland Ryken’s overview on Packer’s life and ministry, J.I Packer: An Evangelical Life.
This work by Ryken is almost three biographies in one. The three distinct parts of this volume deal with Packer’s life in a chronological order, who he is as a person in an attempt to help us understand Packer more, and then a thematic approach to Packer’s life and how they impacted him and his ministry. It is a unique way to do biography, one that is helpful in weaving a picture of his life and ministry together, and also slightly repetitive, which I’ll get to later.
If you’re unaware of who Packer is then just know that he has made a considerable contribution to the Christian world. He comes from a low-middle class family in England and gained his education through various scholarships, which ultimately enable him to study at Oxford. His life was all about teaching, which was evidently his calling, and he did this in various capacities. We could say his main focus has been to train people for ministry through theological colleges (or seminaries), including a 25 years tenure at Regent College in Canada. However, even before he got there in 1979 he had already spent 20 years teaching and being an evangelical voice to the broader church in the UK, particularly the Anglican tradition. And today it is through his teaching that he is most known for, culminating through the hundreds of books, articles, reviews, forewords, messages, and lectures that he has presented. His life has been one of commitment and contribution to church, academic, denominational, and broader evangelical life.
I enjoyed reading Ryken’s take, for want of a better word, on Packer’s life. He writes in an engaging way and made good progress through the chronology of his life. For more people their teenage years and early young adulthood is formative to who they are, and this is the case for Packer as well. When read biography I find you can be overwhelmed by all the person’s accomplishments and what they’ve done – I mean, why would they have a biography written about them in the first place if they weren’t considered so worthy. And this can be the case when reflecting on Packer’s life. It seems his productivity was immense, his output and depth in all his writing and teaching was voracious. And while you or I are never going to match what he did I still found it an inspiration toward something. To do something. To commit to something. In this case, I was reminded of the commitment to teaching, reading, and writing, and spending time intentionally improving these things. In reading Packer you can’t help being inspired by his commitment to the scriptures either, to knowing them and seeking to teach them well and clearly.
There were a few times I felt this biography dragged a little.
I will concede I wasn’t particularly interested in a couple of chapters, which were focussed on his denominational work or his style of rhetoric. It seemed Ryken was trying to extract a bit too much through his unique structure. However, one particular loss to this book, which I felt was missing, was any in depth look at his married and family life. I got the impression Packer and his biographer wished to maintain that area of his life as private, but it would’ve added so much more. I know he was married to a woman called Kit, but I know nothing of how their relationship worked, whether they had children, and what Packer was like in the home. This I thought was a particular shortfall to the book, not because I wanted any juicy gossip but because there is more to a person than their ministry contribution.
Another cost of this unique structure to this biography was its repetitiveness. I don’t know how many times I heard about the conflict Packer had with Lloyd-Jones, how he was no longer involved in the Puritan Conference, the tension of moving from the UK to North America, or the angst evangelicals have toward Packer for his ecumenical contributions. Due to the lenses Ryken applied in the biography some topics and aspects to his ministry life are repeated.
Despite what I’ve just said here though I’d still recommend this biography. It was a great read. It was worth the 400+ page investment in reading, and it is an encouraging read for one’s faith and ministry. It gave great insight into Packer’s resilience to continue to uphold the Chrsitian faith through the lens of biblical authority. His interest in the Puritans, which led to the formation of who he was, can’t be understated and inspired me to get on and read a few more of them. His conflicts and relational breakdowns with others who considered him ‘not evangelical enough’ was also an interesting insight and made me reflect on how tribal we can be as believers.
In any case, a great read.