After benefiting from J. I. Packer’s Knowing God as a younger Christian and, more recently, listening to people like Mark Jones and Carl Trueman draw out Packer’s spiritual wisdom in one-on-one interviews, I was pleased to get a review copy of Leland Ryken’s book J. I. Packer: An Evangelical Life (Crossway, 2015). Though not an expert on Packer, I do love to read Christian biographies in order to see God’s faithful work in the lives others and, frankly, to take comfort in the fact that even the greatest saints are just as human as the rest of us.
Ryken’s portrayal of Packer is thorough, striking, to my mind, a reasonable balance in dealing with various aspects of his subject’s life (Packer’s own personality, his service in the Anglican church, his work on the Puritans, etc.). Part I of the book has four sections and, in the first block of chapters, we meet the young Packer growing up near Gloucester and becoming a Christian at Oxford, where, as an undergraduate, Packer decided to pursue ordained ministry. Next, we read of Packer’s postgraduate work on Puritan theology that set the course for much of his later theologizing, and of Packer’s marriage and two years as an Anglican minister.
In the third block of chapters, Ryken covers Packer’s professional life in England, describing his work at Tyndale Hall and Trinity College in Bristol and at Latimer House in Oxford, a think-tank for promoting evangelical convictions within the doctrinally mixed Church of England in the 1960s. The fourth group then deals with Packer’s controversial move from England to Regent College in Vancouver, Canada, and also with Packer’s extensive involvement consulting and writing for Christianity Today.
Part II focuses on ‘the man’, including lesser-known interests of Packer, like his love of jazz music, walking and mystery books and his ability to speak for the ordinary person in contrast to someone like John Stott, whose privileged upbringing gave him a markedly upper-class demeanor. Finally, Part III treats various ‘lifelong themes’ and controversies in which Packer was involved. His ongoing theological and existential appreciation for the Puritans and his commitment to the Anglican church stand out here. Readers with prior knowledge of twentieth-century British evangelicalism and of Packer’s own life won’t be surprised to see material on the interpersonal tension with Martyn Lloyd-Jones or on the Evangelicals and Catholics Together phenomenon, for example.
One thing that Ryken’s book captures well is Packer’s commitment both to write and speak for the edification of Christians from various traditions and also to give time and energy in steering his own communion, the Church of England, toward sound doctrine and practice. I think it is worthwhile for any theologian to mull over this dynamic with a view to their own service to God and others, though, of course, whether Packer in his own case invested too much in a lost cause is something each of us must decide for ourselves. Packer’s catholic spirit and commitment to orthodoxy and, indeed, the particulars of Anglicanism come out in numerous ways throughout the book, and Ryken has done well in teasing out this dialectic.
As far as criticism goes, I’m left with a few thoughts on the book that are not major criticisms but might be, for some at least, potential distractions in the overarching flow of the book. First, there are points where the book takes on an autobiographical feel, with Ryken documenting his own journey toward understanding Packer better. Indeed, on p. 281 (compare pp. 288-9), for example, Ryken even talks about his own rules-of-thumb for writing books in order to compare Packer’s method with someone else’s. Whether this sort of thing is fitting for a biography I am not entirely sure. Presumably it would be difficult for anyone to include critical comments in a biography of someone whom they admire and who is actually still living. In this connection, rather than saying that Packer mistook some of Lloyd-Jones comments in his famous plea for Anglican evangelicals to leave Anglicanism, Ryken claims that Packer’s recollection of that event expresses ‘emotional truth’, which may not be ‘quite literally accurate’ (p. 388).
In addition, it may be worth noting that the book would look somewhat different if written by a theologian rather than a literary scholar, as Ryken himself points out in several places. While Packer’s commitment to usually writing theology readily accessible to educated laypersons is admirable, there are disparaging remarks made here or there about high-level scholarship being ‘indulgent’ (e.g., p. 350), as opposed to a gift to the church that may come through its seminary professors, to its ministers and then indirectly to its congregants.
These notes, however, do not take away from the gift that Ryken has given to those interested in Packer’s life and in understanding the happenings of twentieth-century evangelicalism. There is plenty to be gleaned here in terms of both historical knowledge and personal devotion.