J. I. Packer: An Evangelical Life

Readers of the biography will warm to what Ryken tells us about Packer

“Evangelical preachers will want to take note of Packer’s strong words of caution (which have a wider application than just to the preacher). He assumes the content of preaching will come from Scripture, and insists a preacher know it and instill in his congregation a desire to learn it; the preacher, after all, is “there to teach from the Bible.”

 

Leland Ryken, professor emeritus of English at Wheaton College, is a fan of J. I. Packer. The two men share a love for the Puritans and both served on the translation committee for the English Standard Version (ESV) of the Bible. His latest work, J. I. Packer: An Evangelical Life, is written in a chatty style and filled with personal reminiscences. Ryken, a longtime professor of English, eschews the novel-writing technique in this biography; two-thirds of it is thematic rather than narratival.

Ryken pinpoints the paradoxes of Packer’s life—that though he’s theologically and temperamentally a Puritan, he has, especially in recent years, affiliated with movements sympathetic to Roman Catholicism; that a naturally gentle and peaceable man has been involved in fierce controversies (over Keswick theology; human sexuality; the authority of the Bible; the role of women in the church; universalism; and so on); and that an Oxford-educated theologian appeals to a wide evangelical audience but is unlikely to appear on the reading list for theology students in British universities.

Readers of the biography will warm to what Ryken tells us about Packer the man, the little-known Packer. They’ll learn of his wry sense of humor, his love of the countryside, his wide reading (including detective stories), and his love of music (especially jazz). And they’ll be saddened to learn that joining the narrow-minded Christian Union at Oxford soon after his conversion in the 1940s forced him to give up the chance to play clarinet in a jazz band he’d joined.

Clashes and Convictions 

As a biographer of John Stott, I must say Ryken doesn’t always get Stott quite right: it’s mistaken to assert that Stott “lacked a sufficient view of human sinfulness” (116)—readers of Stott’s Christian Counter-Culture (his commentary on the Sermon on the Mount) will recall him reprimanding evangelical Christians for making light of sin and failing to show enough sorrow for it. And Ryken caricatures Stott’s nuanced and tentative views on hell and annihilation. On the other hand, he accurately and revealingly tells the story of Packer and Stott’s clash with Martyn Lloyd-Jones in 1966 over whether evangelicals should leave mainline churches “contaminated by liberalism” and form their own denomination. And he effectively brings out Packer and Stott’s love for Anglicanism notwithstanding the denomination’s wide theological breadth.

For me, as an author and tutor to preachers, the most attractive portion of Ryken’s book is Part 3, in which he sets out in some detail Packer’s advice to writers and preachers. It’s worth buying for this section alone. Writers will be enthused and preachers inspired by reading Packer’s advice, and his sample sermons are a delight to read.

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