A well-written biography
I've always enjoyed biographies. The best ones tell the story of a person's whole life, not just the moments they were famous for or the times they did something that received worldwide attention. In fact, some of the best biographies I've read were about people I knew little about.
Take the book J. I. Packer: An Evangelical Life by Leland Ryken. I had read some of Packer's books, and I knew that he was British but lived in Canada. Thanks to Ryken, I know a little more about the fascinating man who wrote Knowing God and whose contributions helped provide one of the clearest evangelical statements on the inerrancy of Scripture, the English Standard Version, and the ESV Study Bible. Events during Packer's childhood directed his life toward academic pursuits. His emphasis on ministry and his concern for the church at large heavily influenced his writings and the audiences he targeted with them. His involvement in controversy was borne out of deep conviction, which in turn encouraged others to take similar stands for the faith.
Ryken is a gifted communicator, which one would expect from a professor of literature. His talent combined with the interesting life Packer has lived combine to produce a tribute to the man and an appreciation of who he is and what he has done. Packer is interesting. Ryken is a good writer. That alone should warrant a look at this biography. Add a good narrator like David Cochran Heath, and you have something to listen to as well.
I received the audiobook from christianaudio in order to provide this review.
A great book if you want to get to know J. I. Packer
I freely admit that I don't normally have the endurance for listening to audio books that take more than 5 or 6 hours to listen to. It isn't that I don't like to listen, but my audio book listening times are usually limited to my commute to and from work. Listening to a lengthy audio book in 15 minute segments tends to feel wearisome, but I found with J. I. Packer: An Evangelical Life by Leland Ryken that I was creating times to continue listening. About 1/3 of the way through the book, I found that I didn't want it to stop. I genuinely felt like I was getting to know J. I. Packer, so I wanted to know more of his story.
I wouldn't relate listening to this book like watching a movie. The first part of the book did tell his story, but it wasn't action-packed suspense. What kept me going was the character of this man. In many ways I began to relate to his decisions and understand why he might be doing what he was doing.
I especially appreciated Leland Ryken's approach to breaking up the biography the way he did. As I mentioned, he started by giving an overview of his life, but then he went the extra mile to attempt to reveal more of Packer's character by examining several areas of his life. There were portions that explored Packer as a Preacher and Packer as an author. There was also the examination of the many controversial topics that were an ongoing part of Packer's life as a public figure. Before I listened to this book, I didn't realize that Packer was an Anglican, but by the time I was done I found myself appreciating his ongoing efforts to bring doctrinal reformation to the church. He described himself as a crusader, and I can see and appreciate that fact.
This book was read by David Cochran Heath, who always does an outstanding job. If you are interested in learning more about J. I. Packer, then I would highly recommend this book.
This book will also be important to me because this is the book I was listening to as I decided that I wanted to be a full-time Pastor. (I have been a part-time Pastor and a part-time Teacher for the last 6 years.)
Honors and Paradoxes; A Worthwhile, Edifying Read
One of my favorite evangelical jokes showed up in a Christianity Today a number of years ago. It was an ad for a (fake) new book called The Collected Blurbs of J. I. Packer. The joke, if you don’t already get it, is funny on two counts: Packer is always blurbing books, and he’s always having his occasional works collected by editors.
Because Packer is so ubiquitous in evangelical literature, he's one of those figures you think you know. But as I listened to his biography I put together the narrative which made much better sense of the pieces I’d gathered.
But not perfect sense. While the picture of a humble, godly, gifted, diligent Christian is quite clear, and fills me with genuine gratitude, there are these "paradoxes" (Ryken’s word): a man who helped bring the Puritans back and yet became one of the major architects of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, a man who never separated from the Anglican church until it finally separated from him (he then joined another Anglican group). I was disappointed to hear Ryken at the beginning of the book disclaiming any necessity to explain these paradoxes, but I'll come back to this.
I've read Knowing God, and The Quest for Godliness. I've read Packer's introduction to Owen's The Death of Death in the Death of Christ—in it I find a model of excellent theological writing (even if I disagree with one point!). And I was moved by Ryken's biography to finally pick up Packer’s “Fundamentalism" and the Word of God. I was indeed struck immediately by the paradoxes that this first book of his (1958) introduces into the Packer life narrative. Packer wrote,
"Types of Christianity which regard as authoritative either tradition (as Romanism does) or reason (as Liberalism does) are perversions of the faith, for they locate the seat of authority, not in the Word of God, but in the words of men." (21)
I was also struck by how little seems to have changed since Packer wrote that book: his taxonomy of tradition, reason, and Scripture as major loci for religious authority is as brilliantly simple and helpfully descriptive now as it was then. Ryken gives a personal aside in which he tells how helpful this was for him, too, as a young man. I admit I cannot understand why Packer seems to have changed when the situation he so ably describes—I think—hasn't.
But Ryken later did do some of the work he said he didn't have to do. He provided some helpful, though partial, explanations for these paradoxes of Packer's life. The main one was pointing me to Packer's own defenses of his position, in the essay "A Kind of Noah's Ark" and "The Evangelical Anglican Identity Problem." I listened to the biography (all the way through); I did not read it, so my memory may not be serving me, but the only substantive self-defense I remember Packer giving within the pages of Ryken's biography was an allusion to Christ's command to the church of Sardis: "strengthen what remains" (Rev. 3:2). Packer felt called to bloom in the denomination where he was planted, pretty much no matter what. Rkyen points out that the Puritans, too, in fact, stayed within the Anglican church. And quite a number of the men who produced the Westminster Confession were Anglicans.
But how a Packer who saw his job, and that of all the “plumbers and sewage men” who are called to do theology for the church, as “ridding the church of theological effluent”—how such a man signed ECT, remained Anglican, and retained an editorship of a Christianity Today that Ryken himself perceived as "more liberal than" Packer, I still don't really understand. Understanding these paradoxes was not my main goal in listening to the biography, though it did help—but I've got more study to do.
The book is a little indulgently long—it’s length, not so much its content, was what made me think a few times “yes, we’re in hagiography land…” But Ryken is willing to make criticisms, and he most certainly seems to have done his homework. Ryken writes smoothly, and I very much enjoyed his little asides about a successful teaching career and about service to the church through scholarship. I also enjoyed the little anecdotes about the way Packer took stairs two at a time during the meetings of the ESV committee, and the characteristically Packerish way he argued for his points in their translation work.
If I got one major reward for my hours of listening to this book on the bus, on my bike, and while doing dishes, it was this model of a man who sought above all to serve the church, a man who entered the lists time and time again but didn't seem to develop a pugnacious spirit. Indeed, in that 1958 book he said that "Fundamentalism was...somewhat starved and stunted...—shrivelled, coarsened and in part deformed under the strain of battle" (33). Packer, on the other hand, seems clearly to have been motivated in controversy by love for Christ's body. I delight to give honor to whom honor is due, while urging the Christian church not to relegate the paradoxes of Packer's life to the footnotes of history. Ryken, I thought, did a good job keeping the honors and the paradoxes before the reader.
(The reader for the Christian Audio version of the book, David Cochran Heath, was great. Unobtrusive, as always.)
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A Life Worth a Look
Leland Ryken’s biography of J. I. Packer is an easy-to-read look at the life of one of modern evangelicalism’s most important figures. Packer is a widely-known author, speaker, and scholar whose influence has been profound. His is most certainly a life worthy of a solid look into his experiences, his accomplishments, and his teachings.
Ryken writes a biography that is different than any that I can recall reading. The tone is more simple, almost chatty, as the author shares with us his gleanings from the life of J. I. Packer. The book combines Ryken’s memories of encounters and interviews with Packer as well as material gathered from Packer’s own writings and lectures.
I found myself enjoying this work for the insight it gives into who Packer is as a person. Some of the sweet and simple details about Packer’s childhood, his courtship of his wife, and his love of jazz were fascinating. It was also worth much for me to hear of Packer’s rise to prominence in evangelicalism, his move from England to Canada, his battle for the inerrancy of the Bible, and his love of expositional preaching.
While I find this book very worthwhile, I also have to admit that I found the treatment of Packer in this book a little glossy. Seldom did Ryken offer us a glimpse into Packer’s failings. Even when Packer’s participation in the Evangelicals and Catholics Together project was discussed, Ryken showed no willingness to consider that move an unwise or damaging part of Packer’s life, though it undoubtedly harmed his reputation among many. Obviously, writing a biography of a man who is still living is a difficult task, and evaluation and final assessments may not yet be appropriate, yet I think Ryken could have offered some clearer insights into the humanity of a man who we still see as a great figure on the evangelical landscape.
I received a free audio copy of this work from ChristianAudio.com as part of their reviewers. This work was read by David Cochran Heath, who always does a fine job. I will say, however, that there were moments during the narration in which I felt that the reader was almost tempted to slip into an impersonation of Packer’s accent and speech pattern. These moments were strange, and I am glad they were not more pronounced.
I would recommend this biography to any student of modern church history and theology. Packer is an important figure, and his life matters a great deal. It is encouraging to see how this man has stood for the Bible for so many years and has treasured the church so deeply. We can all learn from Packer’s life and be grateful to God for his accomplishments.
Packer is fascinating, the book could have been crafted better
I have read several of JI Packer’s books but I really did not know anything about him. I knew he taught at Regent 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 in 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 he 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 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 active in ecumenical work and to keep it from splintering off. Later Packer played an important part in the Evangelicals and Catholics Together statements. More recently Packer left 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 greatly respects him. 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 his ideas, but it seems to me that part of the role of a biographer is to do the analysis.
Where Ryken was willing to do analysis is on Packer’s writing style and methods. This was an unusual section for a biography. But given Ryken’s own background 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
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 in my purposes of 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 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 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 be fully written. 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.