Pope Packer

From the December 2015 Print Edition

J. I. Packer: An Evangelical Life
by leland ryken
crossway, 432 pages, $30 I f Evangelical Protestants had a pope, who would it be? Until his death at age ninety in 2011, the most likely answer was John Stott, the longtime preaching and publishing powerhouse. Dignified and statesmanlike, Stott was learned, well-spoken, and unifying. Or maybe it would be Billy Graham, the open-air crusader heard by more than two billion people, including a few presidents. Then there is J. I. Packer—less widely known than either Stott or Graham and yet one of the Evangelical movement’s most venerated and beloved leaders. As Leland Ryken explains in his new biography, J. I. ­Packer: An Evangelical Life, Packer was an improbable contestant for the role. As a Briton, he lacked the vastness of the American platform that Graham was able to command. As a seminary professor and author of careful, nuanced theological arguments (such as the classic Knowing God), he lacked the tract-writing flair of his peer Stott. As an Anglican, he spent his early years enmeshed in denominational affairs and appeared an unlikely candidate for drawing disparate Evangelical camps together. As a purveyor of Reformed theology, ­Packer ­defended high doctrines of divine sovereignty and predestination, leaving many of his fellow revivalist and conversionist Evangelicals dismayed. Continue Reading »

The Pulpit is the Prow

From Web Exclusives

When I was four years old, I would (so I’m told) stand the ottoman in the living room on its end so that it could serve as a pulpit. I would place my mother’s hardback copy of The Living Bible on it, opening it at the middle, to a passage I couldn’t read. And I would arrange a few stuffed animals in a semi-circle, stumped as to how to provide them with pews but willing to make do regardless. There is still a recording of one of these sermons that my parents have on a cassette tape, that they delight in playing at inopportune times. On that recording I sound emboldened, fiery; I am quoting Bible verses from memory. And that, I think, was the beginning of my devotion to preaching—to the proclamation of the Christian gospel. The ardent, authoritative preaching I heard at First Baptist Church in Conway, Arkansas, where my newlywed parents attended, must have prompted my childhood sermonizing. A recent alumnus of Dallas Theological Seminary, the pastor of First Baptist had been marinated in dispensational theology, a method of biblical interpretation that—its serious (and bizarre) flaws notwithstanding—made for Scripture-centered, whole-canon-focused sermons. I must have absorbed his passion, and I must have admired it. Why else would I perform such an elaborate flattery of imitation? Buried somewhere in my attic is a sheaf of drawings I made as that pastor preached, week after week—a three year-old’s scrawled renditions of David and Goliath, Daniel in the lion’s den, and Jesus hanging on the cross. And these were the stories I spoke about when I addressed my congregation of plush toys from behind the ottoman pulpit. Continue Reading »

In Praise of Irrelevant Reading

From Web Exclusives

When I moved to England to start a Masters degree in theology, I knew I wanted to study St. Paul’s letter to the Romans. Like many of my counterparts in the Reformed theological orbit, I was enthralled with questions of law and grace, election and final judgment. During my first year of undergraduate study, I’d sat out on the front lawn of the college green, sweating in the spring sunshine, reading N. T. Wright’s What Saint Paul Really Said. I was certain that the most important questions I could write about in my postgraduate study would have something to do with Jews and Gentiles in Christ in those dense later chapters of Paul’s Romans. Continue Reading »