J. I. Packer: An Evangelical Life
by leland ryken
crossway, 432 pages, $30
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.
Yet despite this, Packer grew in influence. In addition to shaping Christian thought through his voluminous publications (“Fundamentalism” and the Word of God, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, and A Quest for Godliness, to name only three of the most popular), he helped steer the flagship Evangelical magazine Christianity Today, spoke at countless Evangelical conferences and local churches, mentored hundreds of future pastors through his seminary teaching, and lent his name to the back covers of more Evangelical books than probably any other Christian endorser ever. He did all this with a down-to-earth charm and pastoral warmth. I recall, for instance, not only the instruction I received from his chapter on sanctification and the “mortification” of sin in his book Keep in Step with the Spirit when I read it as an undergraduate, but also the way it salved my conscience. Packer’s theology has always been in the service of nurturing Christian discipleship, and his unfussy prose and straightforward Bible exposition have supported countless numbers of ordinary believers.
yken’s biography is perhaps better positioned to explain Packer’s Evangelical fame than was the earlier effort of Packer’s fellow British Evangelical Alister McGrath, J. I. Packer: A Biography. While McGrath’s treatment is more detailed, his understanding more intuitive, and his prose more mellifluous, Ryken writes as a representative of the community that ultimately guaranteed Packer’s place in the history of twentieth- and twenty-first-century Protestantism. Packer’s “sphere of greatest influence is in the United States,” and Ryken, a professor emeritus at Wheaton College, who first encountered him through reading one of his books in 1962, is an instance of the kind of person Packer has exercised most of his influence over: an American Christian with an Evangelical conversion experience, a lay believer with a fervent interest in Scripture and Christian theology, and a churchman.
Moreover, unlike McGrath’s biography, which follows Packer’s life in chronological terms—from his birth in the English village of Twyning in 1926, to his education at Oxford and teaching tenure in Church of England theological colleges, to his move to become professor of theology at the newly-founded Regent College in Vancouver and his subsequent prolific output of articles and books and sermons—Ryken’s biography aims to be a thematically organized portrait. “I have not written a history but a biography,” he says.
Accordingly, Ryken focuses on the recurring motifs and subjects of Packer’s writing and preaching: his interest in Scripture and its application to ordinary “people in the pew,” his lifelong allegiance to the Puritans and their rigorous spirituality, his fidelity to a strict “five-point” Calvinism, and, from later in his life, his participation in informal ecumenical efforts, such as the one he helped the founder of this magazine to launch, Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT). In zeroing in on these interests, Ryken hopes his readers will “get a picture of [Packer’s] varied roles and accomplishments.”
n the main, this approach works. Ryken covers the sorts of subjects that would likely come up if one were to spend an afternoon talking with Packer. And yet, despite his “insider” sympathy, an admirer like Ryken has trouble coming to terms with one of the central features of Packer’s life and career: his Anglicanism. Although Packer has spent his life gravitating toward the Calvinist pole of the Anglican tradition, he never moved into a Reformed or Presbyterian church, to the chagrin of many of his closest associates. From the beginning of his ministry up to the present day, he has viewed himself as a committed Anglican.
According to Ryken, Packer failed to hear the genuine Gospel in his upbringing in a Church of England parish: He “did not know what [saving faith] was,” Packer says of himself at age fourteen, on the eve of his confirmation. For Ryken, this is a symptom of empty Anglican formalism: “Cathedral cities in England [like Gloucester, near which Packer was raised] perpetuate the external rituals of the Anglican faith, creating plenty of scope for nominal Christianity.” Sentences like this are peppered throughout the biography. How, then, did Packer come to an Evangelical conversion and yet choose to remain part of the church whose supposed nominalism blocked his conversion for so many years? What emerges near the end of Ryken’s biography is a proposed solution to this question. Packer’s devotion to Anglican Christianity, we are told, “has not been to a denomination per se, but rather to an ideal. The right term for the ideal is Anglicanism, which is not synonymous with the Anglican Church as an institution.”
ut is this what Packer himself believes? On the one hand, there is his clear conviction that he did not become a Christian, despite his having been baptized and reared in the church, until he had a conversion experience while an undergraduate at Oxford. This would suggest that Packer held genuine Christianity to be something discoverable within, and yet not identical with, the liturgical and communal life he found in Anglicanism. On the other hand, his adult life shows a commitment not to a transferable Anglican “ideal”—as if one could live as an Anglican while belonging to a Baptist, Methodist, or Presbyterian church—but to the concrete life of, first, the Church of England and then, subsequent to his relocation, to the Anglican Church of Canada.
Even when Packer walked away from the Diocese of New Westminster in 2002 at his bishop’s behest (over disagreements relating to the blessing of same-sex unions), he did not attempt to embody an Anglican “ideal” in a free-church or nondenominational context (much to the disappointment of some of his Reformed friends). He rather joined up with what would become the Anglican Church in North America, an institutional attempt to remain in visible communion with the world’s Anglican churches.
acker clearly believes that one may be an Anglican and fail to be a Christian. Baptism in the Church of England, for instance, is no guarantee of regeneration or final salvation. It is also beyond dispute that Packer believes that one may choose not to be an Anglican and yet be a perfectly good Christian (“I do not maintain . . . that choosing to be an Anglican is a virtue, or that choosing not to be one or not to stay one is a vice”). But Packer evidently also believes that a highly desirable and reliable way to be a Christian is to be an Anglican. “Here,” in Anglicanism, he writes, “I possess the truest, wisest and potentially richest heritage in all Christendom.” Whether Ryken correctly limns the subtleties of the last point—how one may repudiate dominant trends and emphases in an institution and yet maintain allegiance to the institution itself and not simply to its “ideal”—is a question readers are left to ponder.
And with this point, we are back once again to Packer’s place in the Evangelical movement as a whole: How did such a committed Anglican, a Puritan in spirituality, and a Calvinist in theology, come to inspire the veneration of a kind of Evangelical popedom? Is Packer so famous because many Evangelicals agree with Ryken—that the ideals Packer stands for are discoverable within various institutions, practicable in every church? Perhaps so. But it is possible to come away from this biography with another answer—that a large part of what made Packer the Christian he was remains opaque to many of those whom he influenced most.
Wesley Hill is assistant professor of biblical studies at Trinity School for Ministry.