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FIRST-PERSON: A tribute to J. I. Packer

NASHVILLE (BP) — James Innell Packer was born in Twyning, Gloucestershire, England, July 22, 1926. Due to a serious injury when he was 7 years old, Packer’s youth focused on reading, writing and music rather than sports or other activities. He hoped for a bicycle for his 11th birthday but was given a typewriter instead. Though initially disappointing for him, it became a gift that Packer cherished for the rest of his life.

Packer died Friday (July 17). He was 93.

During his undergraduate days at the University of Oxford in 1944, he committed his life to Christian service at a meeting of the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union. His lifelong appreciation for the Puritans began during this time, leading to his 1954 doctoral dissertation on Puritan Richard Baxter.

I was introduced to the writings of J.I. Packer more than 40 years ago. By that time, Packer had already penned a number of well-known works, including “Fundamentalism and the Word of God” (1958), “Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God” (1961) and the classic volume “Knowing God” (1973), which was originally designed as a series of articles for the Evangelical Quarterly. Knowing God became one of the most significant books in Christianity.

Along the way, I was privileged to meet and get to know Packer beyond the pages of his books. His kindness and encouragement were special gifts for me.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Packer served as warden of Latimer House, an evangelical research center at Oxford that he co-founded with John Stott, and as principal of Tyndale Hall and associate principal of Trinity College in Bristol. He accepted a position at Regent College in Vancouver in 1979. While at Regent, he held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professorship as well as the College Board of Governors’ Chair.

Packer served as editor of the Evangelical Quarterly, as a leader in the International Council for Biblical Inerrancy and as executive editor for Christianity Today. Perhaps his most enduring work was as general editor of the English Standard Version Bible, a translation used by millions of Christians. He also served as theological editor for the ESV Study Bible.

Packer authored more than 30 books and more than 300 different articles, not counting works he edited and co-authored. He has reviewed and endorsed an untold number of volumes. An endorsement from J.I. Packer for a book served in many ways as the ultimate evangelical “Good Housekeeping” seal of approval.

He exemplified the best of the Christian intellectual tradition, continuing the trajectory that can be traced through Athanasius, Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Baxter, Owen, Edwards and Lewis. He particularly stressed the important role of the Puritans within this tradition. He was able to speak prophetically to this generation because he mastered so well the contributions of the past 2,000 years. Not only has his work been in continuity with this great tradition, but it has become an extension of it.

In the words of his biographer Alister McGrath, Packer taught us not only theology and philosophy, but also how to theologize and philosophize. He modeled integrative and coherent thinking, linking truth to learning and living.

For those of us in Christian education, Packer provided a road map showing how to connect our Christ-centered commitments not just to theology and philosophy, but also to biology and business, the natural sciences and the social sciences, and even English and economics. A jazz enthusiast, he also instilled an appreciation for music and the arts, playing the works of “Jelly Roll” Morton and Louis Armstrong on his clarinet.

His coherent and integrative thinking was on full display in Fundamentalism and the Word of God, where he helped us see the centrality of Scripture without falling into the trap of separatist fundamentalism, calling for us to be biblicists in all aspects of our lives. His presentation at the 1987 Southern Baptist Conference on Biblical Inerrancy was timely and helpful.

In Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God, he pointed us to the greatness and majesty of God while stressing our responsibility to take the Gospel message to the nations.

In Keep in Step with the Spirit (1984), he described what it means for Christ followers to live in the sphere of the Holy Spirit without falling into the traps of legalism, ascetism or mysticism, while rejecting the triumphalistic approaches of the higher life associated with the Keswick movement. In this volume, he presented a careful understanding of the Christian life grounded in a thoughtful reading of the apostle Paul and the best of the Puritans.

In Knowing God, a book that many would list among the most important Christian publications of the 20th century, and a book that can be read over and over offering fresh insights each time, Packer gave us a vision of the grandeur of God that has transformed our thinking and our living.

As well as any theologian in our lifetime, Packer brought together head and heart, showing the way forward by connecting the dots between serious Christian thinking and life application. His writings touched on the church, the academy, society, teaching and preaching, evangelism, social concerns, spiritual formation and cultural engagement. And in each case, he pointed beyond mere rhetoric or pragmatism. He called us to think and live Christianly in all aspects of life.

J.I. Packer exemplified genuine humility along with faithful and joyful collaboration. A devoted Anglican, he nonetheless happily worked across denominational lines.

At a time in which many of us are turning our attention in a more global direction, seeking to move beyond many of the intramural skirmishes in North America, the life of J. I. Packer serves as a book for all of us to read. Without apology, he was convictionally Reformed (See his “Concise Theology” [1993]). He was a true heir of the Puritans; some would say he was a Puritan for our day. Yet, he joined with his friend Thom Oden, a devout and deeply committed Wesleyan, to give us the wonderful little book “One Faith” (2008), which offered an evangelical consensus around which we are able to join hands and hearts together for the sake of the Gospel.

Two decades ago, the Christianity Today readership named J.I. Packer and C.S. Lewis the two most influential Christian writers of the 20th century. Now at the time of his homegoing, we offer heartfelt gratitude to God not only for his extraordinary writings, but for his inspirational life and far-reaching influence.

    About the Author

  • David S. Dockery