Book Review: J.I. Packer, An Evangelical Life
J.I. Packer: An Evangelical Life, Leland Ryken. Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2015. Hardcover, 431 pages, $39.99 AUD.
I had one recurring thought as I read this biography: what if J. I. Packer had been born somewhere else other than England? What if, say, he had been born, raised and educated in the United States? How would his story have played out differently? As it is, he was born in England and having spent a good deal of his life there did shape his thinking and influence. Especially the Church of England has been a dominant force in his life.
This is a unique biography of a unique theologian. The book is unique because of the approach that Ryken takes – he doesn’t merely give a chronological accounting of Packer’s life. The first part of the book does that, but part 2 attempts to give a picture of the man and what makes him tick, while part 3 works out some of the themes of his life.
J.I. Packer is well-known to many Reformed readers not only because of the quantity he’s produced, but also the quality. Just speaking for myself, my first Packer book was his volume on the Puritans, A Quest for Godliness. This had a huge impact on shaping my attitude towards those saints of old. Later, when I pursued doctoral studies in missiology, one of my required readings was one of Packer’s first books, Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God. This slender book powerfully argued that a Calvinistic belief in God’s sovereignty is definitely not a death-knell for spreading the gospel – quite the opposite! Many people have also benefitted from Packer classics such as Knowing God.
The biographer’s stated purpose was to give the reader an acquaintance with James Innell Packer. Certainly I did come away from it with a better understanding of the man and his contributions. For example, you learn of Packer’s significant involvement with the English Standard Version (ESV) – he was the general editor of the ESV, the theological editor of the ESV Study Bible, and has done editing work on every ESV study Bible published by Crossway. Packer was also deeply involved in debates surrounding biblical inerrancy – a debate that he considered to extend far beyond the confines of the United States. Packer was one of the drafters of the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. But you also discover some of his personality – he enjoys jazz music, but reckons jazz took a turn for the worse when Louis Armstrong began playing the trumpet, rather than the cornet.
Readers should not expect to find a critical biography here. Ryken is obviously a friend of Packer and they have worked together on projects like the ESV. Ryken is careful to cast his friend in the best possible light – which is what you would expect a friend to do. However, this does have a drawback in that where a critical stance might have been appropriate, Ryken is either silent or restrained.
As an example, let’s take one of the most controversial affairs in Packer’s life: his involvement with the 1994 statement entitled Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT). This was an effort to unite Roman Catholics and evangelicals on a common theological basis in order to take a joint stand against social evils like abortion. Unfortunately, this common theological basis resulted in the lowest-common denominator form of essential doctrines like justification. Packer was a key player in the events leading to ECT and a signer. Ryken spends several pages on the controversy, but he doesn’t mention exactly what the critics’ concerns were. This is completely overlooked. So are subsequent developments in this saga. Packer teamed up with Michael Horton to produce another document, Resolutions for Roman Catholic and Evangelical Dialogue. This document, also from 1994, was signed by numerous high-profile Presbyterian and Reformed theologians besides Packer. Ryken doesn’t mention it. Nor does he mention another ecumenical statement from 1998, The Gift of Salvation. This was produced by many of the same people involved with ECT in 1994, including Packer. The Gift of Salvation again compromised on the doctrine of justification by faith alone in the interests of ecumenicity with Roman Catholics.
Towards the end of the book, Ryken exclaims that he cannot understand why certain groups and individuals get so angry at Packer (page 411). It’s a mystery to him. I can solve that mystery: it’s because Packer is rather inconsistent on some key teachings. For example, he claims to hold to the ultimate authority of the Bible, yet he is lenient on evolution. He claims to believe in justification by faith alone as a foundational doctrine, yet he readily gives this up when working with Roman Catholics.
Throughout his years in the Church of England and the Anglican Church of Canada, Packer “consistently endorsed leniency regarding the presence of liberal forces within Anglicanism” (page 321). In a conversation with Ryken, Packer noted that other churches deal with errors through discipline; he then made the novel claim that “debate is also a form of discipline” (page 314). However, he was almost always on the losing end of important debates and the liberal forces for which he had endorsed leniency pushed him out of the Anglican Church of Canada. This happened in 2008 over the issue of same-sex marriage. We can commend Packer for maintaining the biblical position on marriage no matter what the cost. However, at the same time, one wonders what would have happened if he had been more forceful all along with gospel-deniers in Anglicanism, of which there have been plenty. Would they have forced him out sooner? More importantly, was leniency really biblically justified (cf. Gal. 1:6-9)?
It’s not a perfect biography, but it was certainly an interesting one. Readers will gain an understanding of the life and times of this unique, and sometimes perplexing, theologian. The writing is excellent and easy-to-understand (like Packer himself), but because of Ryken’s approach, there is some overlap and repetition between the parts. This isn’t the first biography of Packer, but it is the latest. I’m also quite sure that it won’t be the last – much more remains to be said about his life and legacy, for better and for worse.