Review: J. I. Packer: An Evangelical Life
One of my favorite evangelical jokes showed up in a Christianity Today a number of years ago. It was an ad for a (fake) new book called The Collected Blurbs of J. I. Packer. The joke, if you don’t already get it, is funny on two counts: Packer is always blurbing books, and he’s always having his occasional works collected by editors.
Because Packer is so ubiquitous in evangelical literature, he’s one of those figures you think you know. But as I listened to his biography I put together the narrative which made much better sense of the pieces I’d gathered.
But not perfect sense. While the picture of a humble, godly, gifted, diligent Christian is quite clear, and fills me with genuine gratitude, there are these “paradoxes” (Ryken’s word): a man who helped bring the Puritans back and yet became one of the major architects of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, a man who never separated from the Anglican church until it finally separated from him (he then joined another Anglican group). I was disappointed to hear Ryken at the beginning of the book disclaiming any necessity to explain these paradoxes, but I’ll come back to this.
I’ve read Knowing God, A Quest for Godliness, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, and Taking God Seriously. I’ve read Packer’s introduction to Owen’s The Death of Death in the Death of Christ—in it I find a model of excellent theological writing (even if I disagree with one point!). And I was moved by Ryken’s biography to finally pick up Packer’s “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God. I was indeed struck immediately by the paradoxes that this first book of his (1958) introduces into the Packer life narrative. Packer wrote,
Types of Christianity which regard as authoritative either tradition (as Romanism does) or reason (as Liberalism does) are perversions of the faith, for they locate the seat of authority, not in the Word of God, but in the words of men. (21)
I was also struck by how little seems to have changed since Packer wrote that book: his taxonomy of tradition, reason, and Scripture as major loci for religious authority is as brilliantly simple and helpfully descriptive now as it was then. Ryken gives a personal aside in which he tells how helpful this was for him, too, as a young man. I admit I cannot understand why Packer seems to have changed when the situation he so ably describes—I think—hasn’t.
But Ryken later did do some of the work he said he didn’t have to do. He provided some helpful, though partial, explanations for these paradoxes of Packer’s life. The main one was pointing me to Packer’s own defenses of his position, in the essay “A Kind of Noah’s Ark” and “The Evangelical Anglican Identity Problem.” I listened to the biography (all the way through); I did not read it, so my memory may not be serving me, but the only substantive self-defense I remember Packer giving within the pages of Ryken’s biography was an allusion to Christ’s command to the church of Sardis: “strengthen what remains” (Rev. 3:2). Packer felt called to bloom in the denomination where he was planted, pretty much no matter what. Ryken points out that the Puritans, too, in fact, stayed within the Anglican church. And quite a number of the men who produced the Westminster Confession were Anglicans.
But how a Packer who saw his job, and that of all the “plumbers and sewage men” who are called to do theology for the church, as “ridding the church of theological effluent”—how such a man signed ECT, remained Anglican, and retained an editorship of a Christianity Today that Ryken himself perceived as “more liberal than” Packer, I still don’t really understand. Understanding these paradoxes was not my main goal in listening to the biography, though it did help—but I’ve got more study to do.
The book is a little indulgently long—its length, not so much its content, was what made me think a few times “yes, we’re in hagiography land…” But Ryken is willing to make criticisms, and he most certainly seems to have done his homework. Ryken writes smoothly, and I very much enjoyed his little asides about a successful teaching career and about service to the church through scholarship. I also enjoyed the little anecdotes about the way Packer took stairs two at a time during the meetings of the ESV committee, and the characteristically Packerish way he argued for his points in their translation work.
If I got one major reward for my hours of listening to this book on the bus, on my bike, and while doing dishes, it was this model of a man who sought above all to serve the church, a man who entered the lists time and time again but didn’t seem to develop a pugnacious spirit. Indeed, in that 1958 book he said that “Fundamentalism was…somewhat starved and stunted…—shrivelled, coarsened and in part deformed under the strain of battle” (33). Packer’s controversial writings, on the other hand, seem clearly to have been motivated by love for Christ’s body. I delight to give honor to whom honor is due, while hoping the Christian church will not relegate the paradoxes of Packer’s life to the footnotes of history. I join Iaian Murray in thinking that there are important and as yet Unresolved Controversies in Packer’s story. Ryken, I thought, did a good job keeping the honors and the paradoxes before the reader.
(The reader for the Christian Audio version of the book, David Cochran Heath, was great. Unobtrusive, as always. I received this book in exchange for my review, but all the opinions are my own.)