Packer at Ninety
By Timothy George
Several years ago Alister McGrath and I had a conversation about our friend, J. I. Packer, his influence on us, and the role he has played as a leading evangelical theologian and teacher within the worldwide Christian movement. Out of that conversation emerged a conference in honor of Packer’s eightieth birthday, held at Beeson Divinity School in 2006, and a subsequent book, J. I. Packer and the Evangelical Future. This past summer, Packer turned ninety years of age. Next month, in San Antonio, he will again be recognized at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society as scholars review the significance of his life and work as a theologian, ecumenist, and churchman. Who, then, is J. I. Packer?
James Innell Packer was born July 22, 1926, in Gloucestershire, England. The son of a clerk for the Great Western Railway, Packer grew up in a modest, working-class, nominally Anglican family, who encouraged their bookish son by giving him a typewriter. At age seven, he survived a violent collision with a bread truck that left him physically scarred for life and something of a “speckled bird” among his student peers. Packer received a scholarship to Oxford University, where he heard the famous apologist C. S. Lewis speak and was influenced by his writings, especially The Screwtape Letters and Mere Christianity. But it was in meetings of the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union, a British version of InterVarsity, that Packer found a living relationship with Jesus Christ and committed his life to Christian service. After teaching Greek and Latin at Oak Hill Theological College in London, Packer enrolled in Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, where he studied theology and was ordained a priest in the Church of England.
Having found the writings of John Owen helpful in his own spiritual life, he worked closely with the famous London pastor Martin Lloyd-Jones to encourage a revival of interest in the Puritans. Packer’s early writings, especially “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God and Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, established him as a formidable theological voice for the evangelical movement. In 1973, he published Knowing God, an international bestseller that has become a modern theological classic.
Packer may have been influenced by the theology of John Owen, but he has not imitated Owen’s obtuse, difficult style of writing, with its echoes of lumbering Latin. Instead, Packer’s writing stands much closer to Chaucer, Shakespeare, Bunyan, and Spurgeon. What John Wesley once confessed, Packer could say as well: “I could, even now, write floridly and rhetorically, but I dare not. I dare no more write in a fine style than wear a fine coat! Let who will admire the French frippery. I am still for plain, sound English.” Packer has given us a lot of plain, sound English, and this has helped us see some of the deep truths of God’s Word. The general burden of his whole lifework has been to develop a useful catechesis for the whole people of God.
In 1979, Packer moved to Regent College in Vancouver, where he still lives. From this base, he has had a deep and encompassing influence on many renewal movements within North American Christianity and beyond. Through his many books and lectureships around the globe, he has become one of the most highly regarded spiritual voices in the Christian world. In 2000, he chaired the theological track at the World Conference on Evangelism convened by Billy Graham in Amsterdam. Long associated with Christianity Today, Packer is also the subject of a recent video documentary produced by Crossway.
Across the years, Packer has been involved in theological conversations with Orthodox believers, Roman Catholics, charismatic Christians, as well as mainline Protestants. In each of these encounters, he has promoted a vigorous biblical and spiritual theology, in keeping with the Great Tradition. Packer has been ever mindful of the maxim of Richard Baxter, on whom he wrote his Oxford doctoral dissertation:
in necessariis Unitas,
in non-necessariis Libertas,
in utrisque Caritas.
Despite his charitable spirit and his desire to foster a unitive, irenic evangelicalism, Packer has not been able to avoid controversy. Nowhere have the reactions been more volatile than in the response to Packer’s participation in Evangelicals and Catholics Together. Like his friend Charles Colson, Packer became a major target of the initial evangelical protest against ECT.
In an essay published in 1994, titled “Why I Signed It,” he defended the statement and his continuing involvement in the project. “I am a Protestant who thanks God for the wisdom, backbone, maturity of mind and conscience, and above all, love for my Lord Jesus Christ that I often see among Catholics, and who sometimes has the joy of hearing Catholics say they see comparable fruits in Protestants.”
Packer recognized that the deep division that had separated Protestants and Catholics since the time of the Reformation had changed in a significant way. The most important fault line today, he argued, was between “conservationists,” who honor the Christ of the Bible and of the historic creeds and confessions, on the one hand, and the theological liberals and radicals who do not, on the other. In this new situation, Packer argued that ECT has a vital role to play: “ECT … must be viewed as fuel for a fire that is already alight. The grassroots coalition at which the document aims is already growing. It can be argued that, so far from running ahead of God, as some fear, ECT is playing catch-up to the Holy Spirit.”
In recent years, Packer has struggled with failing eyesight and the curtailment of his strenuous travel and speaking engagements. In a reflection on aging, he has offered this counsel:
How should we view the onset of old age? The common assumption is that it is mainly a process of loss, whereby strength is drained from both mind and body and the capacity to look forward and move forward in life’s various departments is reduced to nothing. … But here the Bible breaks in, highlighting the further thought that spiritual ripeness is worth far more than material wealth in any form, and that spiritual ripeness should continue to increase as one gets older.
It has been my privilege to know and work closely with Jim Packer for the past thirty-five years, only a fraction of his long and still amazingly productive career. I have seen him buffeted by adversity, and criticized unfairly, but I have never seen him sag. His smile is irrepressible and his laughter can bring light to the most somber of meetings. His love for all things human and humane shines through. His mastery of ideas and the most fitting words in which to express them is peerless. Ever impatient with sham of all kinds, his saintly character and spirituality run deep. I love to hear him pray. Again and again, he has reminded us that we live our lives coram deo and in the light of eternity. He has taught us that theology is for doxology and devotion, that theology is always at its best “when it is consciously done under the eye of the God of whom it speaks, and when it is singing to his glory.”
Published at First Things on 10.17.2016
Timothy George is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School and general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture.