JI Packer: An Evangelical Life by Leland Ryken

I am reposting this 2015 review because the kindle edition is on sale for $2.99
Takeaway: JI Packer has focused on the church more than his own career and that is surprisingly rare for church leaders. Even when I disagree, there is much to commend about the way he has engaged the issues.

I have read several of JI Packer’s books but I really did not know anything about him. I knew he taught at Regent College University and was an Anglican. But beside those facts everything else that I had assumed about him was wrong.

JI Packer grew up in a working class home before showing his strong academic skills and winning a scholarship to Oxford. There he quickly became a Christian and soon was pursuing training to become a pastor. But after spending a year teaching between his undergrad and graduate degrees, teaching has always been a part of his focus.

As was traditional in earlier generations, Packer served as a pastor early in his career before becoming a full time seminary professor. Packer has always primarily focused on the training of pastors and that has meant that he has not taken teaching positions that were as high profile as he could have.

After several years teaching and writing, Packer became the director of Latimer House. Latimer House was designed to give Packer and others space to write and think and speak without giving them teaching responsibilities. It seems similar to a Christian version of the idea of Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton that was initially directed by J Robert Oppenheimer and included luminaries such as Albert Einstein.

At Latimer, Packer was a prominent figure in British Christianity. But the pace of speaking and writing about current events and the huge number of committees and study groups that Packer was asked to serve on left him exhausted. After nearly 10 years he left Latimer and went back to teaching (after a brief stint as a college president). Packer taught at Trinity College and then at Regent University in Canada.

In addition to his teaching, Packer has been known for his work around the bible. He was the general editor for the ESV bible, a huge undertaking. Packer has been known as a key figure in the inerrancy debates and a member of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood.

Packer has also been known for his ecumenical work. Packer worked hard early in his career to keep the Evangelical wing of the Anglican church inside the Anglican church and has been active in ecumenical work outside of the Anglican church world. Later Packer played an important part in the Evangelicals and Catholics Together statements. More recently Packer was dismissed from the Canadian Anglican church and helped to form what is now the Anglican Church in North America.

Ryken knows Packer well, has worked with him often, and respects him greatly. That admiration shows through clearly in the book and helps to make Packer a likeable figure throughout. Ryken resists a lot of analysis, which I think is a disservice to the book. He explicitly says he has made the choice to simply tell the story and illustrate Packer’s ideas, but it seems to me that part of the role of a biographer is to do the analysis.

Ryken was unable to avoid analysis on Packer’s writing style and methods. This was an unusual section for a biography. But given Ryken’s own background as a writer and literature professor, and Packer’s wide ranging writing, a long look at the themes and style of Packer’s writing was probably helpful. Ryken also is willing to say that although Packer is against topical sermons and for a strict exegetical preaching style, Packer’s beloved Puritans and other preaching heroes, as well as Packer are often topical in reality. (As an aside, I think it is interesting that Packer and Ryken’s book on the ESV advocate for a strict word for word translation style, but as One Bible Many Translations illustrates, the goal and the reality are wildly different.)

As much as this biography has helped me understand more about JI Packer, the the actual writing seems to be more clunky than I would expect from Ryken. The same phrases were repeated over and over again. Maybe this was more noticeable because I listened to it as an audiobook, but it was distracting. He also kept saying, ‘a random sample from his writing’ and then listing examples to prove a particular point. It was clearly not a random sample. I know this is a small point, but Ryken knows better than this and I can’t understand why he said this (at least a dozen times). The same with ‘it is not my purpose in this book to discuss X, but,…’. The result sounds like Ryken just did not spend enough time editing the book.

Ryken also heavily borrowed from Alister McGrath’s previous biography of Packer during the first section of the biography. Certainly McGrath and Ryken had different goals in their books, and Ryken was right to be citing McGrath when he was borrowing from him, but it seemed to me that it was a sign of inadequate preparation more than anything else. And in many ways it made me wish I had picked up McGrath’s biography instead, although it is almost 20 years old (and out of print) at this point.

Ryken divided this biography into three sections. The first section was the traditional narrative of Packer’s life. The second section was an attempt to illustrate who Packer was as a thinker and man. I think this was the weakest section of the book. The third section looked the main themes Packer’s work, his work around the bible, his academic study of Puritans, his work in the Anglican church, his theology, his thoughts and teaching on Preaching and the role of the Pastor among other topics.

The third section was helpful but uneven. I respect Packer and his work even though I have many areas of disagreement. And it is in this third section that the areas of disagreement comes up frequently.

Ryken is helpful in cataloguing his research, but that lack of analysis, and too much reliance on lists of data points really keeps this biography from being great. This will probably be the last full biography of Packer while he is still alive. Ryken interviewed him for the biography and those interviews featured prominently and were very helpful. But I think it will probably be only after Packer passes away that a full biography that can look at his life and legacy. There is certainly a place for biographies like this one. Biographers that know the subject well have great insight into their subjects. But more distant biographers also have greater objectivity.

JI Packer: An Evangelical Life by Leland Ryken Purchase Links: Hardcover, Kindle Edition, Christianaudio.com Audiobook

A copy of the audiobook was provided by Christianaudio.com for purposes of review.

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2 Comments

Looks interesting Adam. One small correction: Packer teaches at Regent College. Regent University is a different school.

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