[Editor’s note: You can now read this tribute in Arabic, in addition to the six languages linked above.]
James Innell Packer, better known to many as J. I. Packer, was one of the most famous and influential evangelical leaders of our time. He died Friday, July 17, at age 93.
J. I. Packer was born in a village outside of Gloucester, England, on July 22, 1926. He came from humble stock, being born into a family that he called lower middle class. The religious climate at home and church was that of nominal Anglicanism rather than evangelical belief in Christ as Savior (something that Packer was not taught in his home church).
Packer’s life-changing childhood experience came at the age of seven when he was chased out of the schoolyard by a bully onto the busy London Road in Gloucester, where he was struck by a bread van and sustained a serious head injury. He carried a visible dent in the side of his head for the rest of his life. Nevertheless, Packer was uncomplaining and accepting of what providence brought into his life from childhood on.
Much more important than Packer’s accident was his conversion to Christ, which happened within two weeks of his matriculation as an undergraduate at Oxford University. Packer committed his life to Christ on October 22, 1944, while attending an evangelistic service sponsored by the campus InterVarsity chapter.
Although Packer was a serious student pursuing a classics degree, the heartbeat of his life at Oxford was spiritual. It was at Oxford that Packer first heard lectures from C. S. Lewis, and though they were never personally acquainted, Lewis would exert a powerful influence on Packer’s life and work. When Packer left Oxford with his doctorate on Richard Baxter in 1952, he did not immediately begin his academic career but spent a three-year term as a parish minister in suburban Birmingham.
Packer had a varied professional life. He spent the first half of his career in England before moving to Canada for the second half. In England, Packer held various teaching posts at theological colleges in Bristol, during which he had a decade-long interlude as warden (director) of Latimer House in Oxford, a clearinghouse for evangelical interests in the Church of England. In that role, Packer was one of the three most influential evangelical leaders in England (along with John Stott and Martyn Lloyd-Jones). Packer’s move to Regent College in Vancouver in 1979 shocked the evangelical world but enlarged Packer’s influence for the rest of his life.
Although Packer was a humble man who repudiated the success ethic, his life nonetheless reads like a success story. His first book, Fundamentalism and the Word of God (published in 1958) sold 20,000 copies in its first year and has consistently been in print since. In 2005, Time magazine named Packer one of the 25 most influential evangelicals.
When Christianity Today conducted a survey to determine the top 50 books that have shaped evangelicals, Packer’s book Knowing God came in fifth. His fame and influence were not something that he set out to accomplish. He steadfastly refused to cultivate a following. Instead, he made his mark with his typewriter (which he used to compose his articles and books throughout his life).
J. I. Packer filled so many roles that we can accurately think of him as having had multiple careers. He earned his livelihood by teaching and was known to those who were his students as a professor. But the world at large knows Packer as an author and speaker.
Packer’s fame as a speaker rivaled his stature as an author. In both spheres, his generosity was unsurpassed. No audience or venue was too small to elicit Packer’s best effort. His publishing career was a case study in accepting virtually every request that was made of him. His signature book, Knowing God (which has sold a million and a half copies), began as a series of bimonthly articles requested by the editor of a small evangelical magazine. His first book, Fundamentalism and the Word of God, began as a talk to a group of students (the publisher requested a pamphlet but Packer wrote a book). Perhaps no one in history has written more endorsements and prefaces to the books of others than Packer did.
In both his publishing and speaking, Packer was famous as a Puritan scholar, but he was also a dedicated churchman who said that his teaching was primarily aimed at the education of future ministers, and he spent countless hours serving on church committees. For a quarter of a century, Packer’s involvement with Christianity Today gave him a platform as an essayist who frequently turned to topics of cultural critique. Packer had a career as a controversialist (by necessity rather than choice, he confided to me). Despite this range, Packer consistently self-identified as a theologian, which we can therefore regard as his primary vocation.
When we speak of the legacy left by a deceased person, we think misleadingly in terms of a speculative posthumous legacy that is impossible to predict. J. I. Packer’s primary legacy is the influence he held over events in Christendom and over people’s lives during his lifetime. That is his indisputable legacy, and I will highlight what I believe to be the most important ways in which Packer affected the direction of Christianity during his life.
Packer’s first book was a defense of the authority of the Bible, and this became both a lifelong passion and one of Packer’s most significant contributions to the evangelical church. Packer had an extraordinarily strong commitment to the view that the words of the Bible are the very words of God. He championed the out-of-vogue doctrine of the inerrancy of Scripture. He published books on the reliability of the Bible. He served as general editor of the English Standard Version of the Bible, calling that project the greatest achievement of his life.
J. I. Packer gave evangelicals a place to stand in regard to the authority of the Bible. Personally, no Packer legacy has been more important to me than this one, starting from the moment I pulled a paperback copy of Fundamentalism and the Word of God off a bookshelf in a Christian bookstore in my hometown as a college student.
The way in which Packer became a spokesman for conservative evangelicals in the face of liberalizing trends and assaults is another important contribution that he made during his lifetime. When Packer looked back with satisfaction on his decade of leadership with the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy, he spoke of “holding the line” for inerrancy. That metaphor applies to multiple causes to which Packer devoted his best efforts. Packer helped to hold the conservative evangelical line on numerous theological issues, such as the nature of Scripture and its interpretation, women’s roles in the church, and the church’s position regarding homosexuality. He was a traditionalist who looked to the past for truth. In Knowing God, he quoted Jeremiah 6:16, with its image of the “ancient paths … where the good way is,” claiming that his book was a call to follow those old paths.
Another unifying theme in Packer’s life was his elevation of the common person, and this, too, is part of his legacy. Packer never lost the common touch that he absorbed in his upbringing, and the same spirit was fostered by his identity as a latter-day Puritan. Although Packer could write specialized scholarship with the best, his calling was to write mid-level scholarship for the layperson. He was utterly devoid of careerism. The title of a Festschrift published in his honor got it exactly right: Doing Theology for the People of God.
When Alister McGrath labeled Packer a theologizer rather than a theologian, Packer experienced it as “quite a discovery” that led him to conclude that he was “an adult catechist,” dedicated to the systematic teaching of doctrine for the ordinary Christian. Packer was not as pained as some scholars have been by never having completed or published his systematic theology because he regarded his informal theological writings for the layperson to be his calling.
Another part of Packer’s legacy during his lifetime was his exemplary Christian character that served as a model and inspiration to those who knew him. His godliness was apparent at every moment, and his presence was a benediction on people who spent time with him. His words were words of wisdom. He was hardworking, but at the same time generous with his time. Like the Puritans he loved, Packer believed that the Christian faith is based on clear thinking while at the same time engaging the heart. Packer spoke with precision in the best British manner but he also exuded spiritual warmth. For those fortunate enough to have met him, we immediately experienced Packer as a kindred spirit in the faith and a fellow traveler of the Way. The authentic spiritual note was apparent.
Packer’s writings show what mattered most to him, and what he also thought the church must value most. Part of Packer’s legacy was thus helping Christians set the right agenda and concern themselves with the right things. Packer’s list of priorities included the Bible, the church, correct theology, holiness in life, and vocation. The reason Packer wrote on such a broad array of subjects is not only that he had an active and capacious mind but also that he was concerned that Christians think correctly on all subjects that relate to life. Packer had a passion for truth in every sphere.
J. I. Packer was also a man of paradoxes. He was a lifelong, devoted Anglican, but he moved with equal ease among the nonconformist wing of evangelicalism and was perhaps most influential in Reformed circles. He was quintessentially British but lived half of his adult life in Canada, and in an additional twist, the sphere of his greatest influence was the United States. Packer became one of the most famous evangelicals of his day, but he never held a prestigious post at a major university and never filled a high-visibility pulpit on a permanent basis. He was a mild man with a peaceable disposition, but he consistently found himself at the center of controversy and was often maligned.
If we ask how a quiet person who minded his own business became so famous and influential, the answer is that Packer’s publishing was the vehicle by which his ideas were disseminated. His life therefore stands as a tribute to the power of the written and published word. On the strength of his writings, Packer became a widely known speaker as well. In both writing and speaking, his content was always thoughtful, logically packaged, clear, and substantial, and he routinely overestimated the amount of time he had available to present the extensive amount of material he had prepared.
Packer himself ascribed the fame and success that he achieved to divine providence, and it is obvious that this is the case. He did not set out to be famous. He simply did the task that was placed before him and left the outcome to God. Speaking to teenagers in a living room was as likely an assignment for him as addressing a packed auditorium. J. I. Packer was above all serviceable to the kingdom and its King.
His ministry concluded in 2016, when he became unable to read, travel, or speak publicly due to going blind from macular degeneration.
When asked late in life what his final words to the church might be, Packer replied, “I think I can boil it down to four words: Glorify Christ every way.” That can serve as an epitaph for what Packer did in his lifetime and what he is doing now.
Leland Ryken is Emeritus Professor of English at Wheaton College, where he taught for half a century. He has written a biography of J. I. Packer, titled J. I. Packer: An Evangelical Life.
J. I. Packer wrote often for Christianity Today, most recently on living joyfully.
In his memory, we’ve compiled a list of articles, including: