Ryken, Leland. J.I. Packer: An Evangelical Life. Wheaton: Crossway, 2015. 432 pp.
If you consider yourself a conservative evangelical, you know of J. I. Packer. Like him or not, you cannot deny his effect on evangelicals in the 20th and 21st centuries. Having written such works as “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God and Knowing God, he has made a name for himself with anyone who takes the Bible seriously. Leland Ryken has taken on the task of following Alister McGrath in writing a biography of Packer even while Packer is still living. In fact, Packer wrote the afterword to the book. At 432 pages it is not light reading, but the length is fitting considering the thousands upon thousands of pages that Packer has written is his lifetime.
Ryken starts out by stating that he wants his readers to encounter the man J. I. Packer in the pages of his biography. He sets forth to do that by splitting the book into three parts: “The Life,” “The Man,” and “Lifelong Themes.” Part 1 is much like many biographies as it shows the chronological details of Packer’s life from childhood to present. Part 2 focuses on the idiosyncrasies of Packer’s life—in other words, who he is. Part 3 finishes the book with themes that have weaved throughout Packer’s long and interesting life.
In the introduction, Ryken states that he considers Packer to be a latter-day Puritan. Considering that Packer devoted his life and much of his writings to the Puritans, Ryken’s analysis is an understatement. Ryken also lays out what one is to expect in the rest of the book by listing some of the pieces and paradoxes of Packer’s life, such as his Puritanism and his loyalty to the Anglican church, his being a peaceful and gentle man but engulfed in controversy most of his life, and his being a scholar but writing mostly to regular Christians. Packer considers his greatest accomplishment to be his leadership on the developing the ESV Bible translation.
J.I. Packer is a scholar. Packer’s knowledge of the classics and his command of the languages helps one to realize how he was able to battle it out so many times against his rivals who tried (in vain) to tear him away from his conservative evangelical views. Ryken lets us see inside Packer’s life, including his controversies: his fight against the Keswick view of sanctification, his battle with Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and his expulsion from the Anglican Church of Canada over his biblical stance on homosexuality. Packer is a man of principle, and if he believes something to be biblical, he stands his ground. Ryken’s insights remind Christians to learn from Packer’s life that we should stand up for what we believe the Bible declares to be right in every situation whether it makes us popular or not (Rom. 14:5).
Ryken does not always keep a serious tone in the book, especially when he writes in Part 2 about Packer, “The Man.” For example, Ryken notes that Packer likes to rise early and also go to bed early. Ryken then intercedes a story about Packer kindly running off some visitors early one evening because he needed to go to bed (201). Also noted is the fact that Packer has a love for jazz music and spicy food. Furthermore, Ryken states that Packer is also an avid bird watcher. Perhaps most interestingly, Packer even has a taste for murder mysteries as leisure reading, a genre he reads to clear his mind so that he can sleep well (205). By giving us a glimpse of this side of Packer, Ryken shows us that being a Christian doesn’t mean that we have to keep our nose in the Bible 24/7. We can enjoy what the world has to offer and still glorify God in the process (1 Cor. 10:31).
Being a preacher myself, I enjoyed chapter twenty-two on preaching. This chapter is full of advice for preachers from Packer’s extensive writings, including such things as his views on preaching, how to prepare a sermon, what a sermon is, and a list of preachers who influenced him. Ryken says, “My heart soars when I see the emphasis that Packer places on application as a major part of every sermon.” Packer’s rule of thumb is “half of the sermon should be exegesis of the Bible and instruction in its message, and half should be application” (368). This is not surprising considering his love of the Puritans. Ryken ends this section with a summary of three of Packer’s sermons to show his rare ability to take the narrative parts of the Bible and apply them to his hearers’ lives with clarity.
J.I. Packer is a powerful and influential scholar in today’s Christian battle for the Bible. The secular world scoffs at Christians for being simple-minded people who ignore science and logic. Packer and his writings show that there are true scholars who are also conservative Christians. He breaks the mold of the stereotypical fundamentalist hatemonger on a soapbox yelling at those with whom he disagrees. He seems to know the balance between love and truth, being molded more by God’s Word than societal norms. Leyland Ryken has shown us the true J. I. Packer in this book. Read it, and get to know a real latter-day Puritan.