by Randy Corn
J. I. Packer: An Evangelical Life. By Leland Ryken. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2015. 413 pp. $16.50 ebook
Few would debate the assertion that J. I. Packer has had a profound impact on the evangelical movement. Some will know that Packer was an Episcopal Priest. Many more will know that he spent his life in theological education, impacting thousands of students over the years. Quite a few more will appreciate that J. I. Packer is one of the most widely read evangelical authors alive today. Ryken’s volume puts all this in perspective for the reader. In his introduction he says, “My goal in writing this biography was to enable my readers to know J. I. Packer and to get a picture of his varied roles and accomplishments. It is the man that I wanted my readers to encounter” (10).
To accomplish this, he wrote the volume in three parts. The first is “The Life.” In the second, one meets “The Man,” and finally, “Lifelong Themes.” It is “The Life” which reads most like a traditional biography. You first encounter a shy, bookish lad who suffered a terrible accident and had to literally wear a helmet to protect his fractured skull for months on end. It is also intriguing to hear the story of how this nominally religious young man came to faith and found a calling while in college.
During his college days he discovered his lifelong love for the Puritans. His introduction to them was a biography of George Whitefield. Packer was drawn to Whitefield because, many years earlier, Whitefield attended the same preparatory school which Packer would graduate from. Packer “later called his reading of this biography a milestone in his spiritual development” (45). Ryken concludes, “In summary, then, the first thing to be said about the Puritan influence in Packer’s life is that it was formative. The Puritans did not transform his life; they formed it. Packer without the Puritans does not exist” (272). Like Whitefield, he would be a committed Anglican, but be thought of as a mainstream evangelical. The Puritan theology of Whitefield would be at the core of Packer’s thinking. He eventually wrote his doctoral dissertation on the soteriology of Richard Baxter.
Readers who are broadly familiar with John R.W. Stott and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones will be intrigued to see the interplay between these men. Though a lesser man might have felt slighted by both, Packer seemed to go out of his way to keep their disagreements amicable. In fact, the author devotes an entire chapter to how Packer handled controversy. He was never far from one, and yet he was never spoiling for a fight or unwilling to engage to defend an important principle. In the broader evangelical world this would be an important attribute since Packer would be a major proponent of Evangelicals and Catholics Together.
There are times that Ryken gets a bit more detailed than the average reader would like, but Packer has lived a long and eventful life. In concluding this book, I do feel that Ryken achieved his goal; I encountered J. I. Packer.