J.I. Packer: The Lonely Journey of a Passionate Puritan

J.I. Packer: A Biographyby Alister McGrath
Baker Books, 340 pp.;
$19.99, hardcover

Last year my son Jon had to wrestle two weight classes beyond his actual weight. Still, he won more matches than he lost, but when he took to the mat during one particular match, my heart sank. PeeWee Herman versus the Incredible Hulk came to mind. The buzzer sounded, and my son’s opponent quickly flattened him. Yet somehow, before the interminable minute expired, Jon gathered his strength, wrested himself from his opponent’s grip, and stood up.

The second period looked like the first, with the added dimension of my son having swollen eye sockets and mat burns. He flailed under the weight of his antagonist, squirming as his dwindling strength allowed, until he dislodged his foe’s grip, grunted and heaved, and stood up again.

By round three the other guy looked as dazed as Jon did as they lumbered to the starting position for the third time. My son was flattened yet again, and I wouldn’t have blamed him for giving up. But seizing a second wind, Jon wiggled out of the near-pin and, unbelievably, stood up again. Then, as quickly as he had been felled earlier, he flipped his opponent and had him flat on the mat. The crowd exploded, hoping for the upset pin, but the buzzer rang. The referee lifted the arm of my son’s opponent, but everyone there recognized that something greater than a victory for one and a loss for another had transpired on that mat.

My son’s match kept coming to mind as I read Alister McGrath’s recently published J. I. Packer: A Biography (Baker). In the author’s meticulous documentation of James Innell Packer’s role in the shaping of contemporary evangelicalism, I saw how tall this solitary man from Britain really stands, given how many times he was leveled, sometimes brutally, but kept standing up.

McGrath well positions Packer in British and North American church history, providing the blow-by-blow scenario of Packer’s academic ascendance. Whether it is Packer’s discovery of the contemporary relevance of the Puritans, or his decision to seek ordination in the Church of England, or his forging two key Christian think tanks in Britain, or his role as the “reforming principal” at Tyndale Hall in Bristol and his efforts at encouraging a renaissance in evangelical scholarship, or his emigration to Canada to teach at Regent College—by the end of the book the reader will apprehend the significance of this great man’s contribution to the contemporary evangelical world.

McGrath helps us appreciate his extraordinary mind and tenacity but only hints at the man behind the mind. In J. I. Packer a razor sharp intellect, a passionate heart, and devoted soul come together in startling unity.

Once when I announced to my sons that “Dr. Packer” would be joining us for dinner, one responded, “He’s the one with the dent in his head, right?” They didn’t think of him as the author of Knowing God or the one who has written more books than some people read in a lifetime. They remember the dent, freely showcased by Packer himself at our dinner table during a meal we had shared earlier. My boys sat riveted as he told the tale of his being chased at age seven, out of the schoolyard into the street, making—as he says it—”a violent collision with a truck, a bread van,” adding, “I lost a bit of my head as a result.”

J. I. Packer is a force, which McGrath adeptly captures in his book, but he is also a “pious Puritan” (as one friend calls him), a praying Christian, a pastor/teacher, husband and father, and to many, a friend. McGrath’s narrative enables us to appreciate his unique place in contemporary evangelicalism, to which I add here my own understanding of the “man behind the mind.”

Finding truth
It seemed as if the odds were against him from the get-go. Packer’s modest upbringing in a working-class family living in a rented house did not polish him for the intellectual circles he would eventually inhabit. His father held a job at the Great Western Railway, which tendered “security but no money.” Beyond that, his father, according to Packer, had been somewhat “unfitted for major responsibility”—which kept his career track with the railway in the realm of the “trivial”—”dealing with complaints about lost luggage” and the like. He had a mental collapse at the age of 52 when his responsibilities increased during the war. This meant that, at times, he could be a remote and bewildering presence in the home, though he recovered and became as “cheerful as before.”

Being nearly killed by the truck introduced a new set of battles for the bookish boy from Gloucestershire. “From then on until I went to university,” he recalls, “I used to move around wearing on my head an aluminum plate with a rubber pad attached around the edge. It made me more of a speckled bird than I was before.”

He didn’t like being a “speckled bird.” He wanted to be a “star cricketer.” But the dent and the metal plate dashed those aspirations. So he set his hopes on the less sublime, anticipating that, for his eleventh birthday, he would receive what British boys typically received on eleventh birthdays—a new bike.

His parents gave him a typewriter.

That set his course and, to some extent, his temperament. His “eggheaded” (his term) temperament coupled with the crushed head, the metal plate, and subsequent dashed hopes, left him lonely and melancholy and displeased with his “curious features” (“I don’t know anyone who has a face like mine,” he says). He became the easy target for the schoolyard bullies—”if they wanted someone to bully, it was very often me.” He was always willing to lend homework help when needed though, even to the bullies: “If they wanted somebody to help them with their homework, again, it was very often me.” He always felt on “the edge of things.” “There was a solitariness about my young years,” he recalls.

His surprise at the typewriter instead of the bike soon “gave way to delight,” McGrath notes, as he hunted-and-pecked himself into a new and satisfying world of storywriting. This summoned and sharpened his linear thinking patterns and analytical skills, which, he says, are God-given: “God gave me a mind that always looks for the logical structure of what’s being said.”

But there is a downside to this kind of brilliance: “You get some shocks when you do that.”

One such “shock” occurred during the frequent chess matches he shared with the son of a Unitarian minister. Between games, his opponent tried to sell Packer the “Unitarian bill of goods.” But the presentation of Unitarian beliefs did not hold together for the linear, logical Packer, then age 15.

“Unitarianism affirms the ethic of Jesus as the most wonderful thing since ice cream and negates the divinity of Jesus as superstition,” he says. “It seemed clear to me to ask—even when I didn’t know much about the contents of the Bible—If these chaps believe so much of the New Testament, why don’t they believe more? If they deny something so central as the divinity of Jesus, which is clearly there, why don’t they believe less? How does this position hold together?” “Not by logic,” he concluded, “but by willpower.”

This realization had the unexpected result of forcing him to think seriously about the Christian faith. He had grown up a churchgoer, a “habit” instilled by his parents. But many Anglicans, as he knew them in his day, “didn’t know what they believed and didn’t think it mattered,” he says. So he had never given any thought to “questions of truth” about the Christian faith—that is, until the Unitarian evangelist prompted his thinking. “My mind had been grabbed by the question—What is true Christianity?”

He undertook a vigorous study of the Scriptures and other Christian writers (including C. S. Lewis), which eventually won his intellectual assent to the veracity of the historic faith. Around the same time, a friend of his had gotten “soundly converted” at university and, feeling an urgency to secure Packer’s salvation, he commended InterVarsity people to him, urging Packer to seek them out once he got to Oxford for his studies. Packer’s “nose for reality—real reality, not virtual reality”—compelled him to follow his friend’s advice. When he entered Corpus Christi College at Oxford in the fall of 1944, he sought out the iv people, wanting to “get in with the real Christians.”

This, in turn, induced another shock.

Packer attended his first evangelistic preaching service of the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (OICCU, or CU), and as he listened to the message, a “shocking realization” hit him in the form of a mental picture. He saw himself standing outside looking into a home where a party was in progress. In a spiritual sense, he understood that “they were inside and I was outside.” He recognized that one gets in by means of a “personal transaction with the living Lord, the Lord Jesus,” and that he had “never actually made that transaction.”

The “pointed, perfectly ordinary, pietistic evangelistic sermon” ended with an appeal to receive the Lord Jesus as Savior. Packer recalls, “We all sang ‘Just As I Am’—there’s no more ordinary way of being converted than to receive the Lord while singing ‘Just As I Am’—and that was it. When I went out of the church I knew I was a Christian.” (He abandoned Saturday night gigs playing “sloppy clarinet” for the Oxford Bandits jazz combo in deference to attending CU Bible studies.)

Six weeks later he heard Basil Atkinson teach from Revelation and was astonished by the reverence with which the teacher handled the biblical text—a departure from the liberal view of Scripture he had been “stuffed up with” in the Anglicanism of his childhood. These two contradictory notions collided in that moment, he says, and his “skepticism collapsed.” “I can still remember the feeling of surprise—and gladness—as I left the meeting because I knew that I knew that the Bible is the Word of God.”

But the new convert soon confronted another contradiction in his faith experience.

Finding the Puritans
“I was an oddity,” Packer says. “I was bad at relationships, an outsider, shy, and an intellectual—I wasn’t a sportsman” (the dent in his head saw to that). “Battling his way, as adolescents do,” writes McGrath, the young Packer struggled with “manifold urges and surges of discontent and frustration” (Read: emotional disequilibrium, a desire for companionship, sexual longings, loneliness). On top of that, there was the added inconvenience of his operating on a higher intellectual plane than just about everybody he met, which obliged him to battle a degree of pride.

All of this had the cumulative effect of an ever-increasing sense of isolation. “That, with my linear habit of mind, made me an 18-year-old oddball. I was emotionally locked up.”

“Let go and let God!” the evangelical ethos of the time proclaimed, which only further confounded the struggling new Christian. This was the voice of the Keswick holiness teaching that prevailed in British evangelicalism at the time. The “expository novelties,” McGrath notes, espoused by the Keswick school “promised deeper spiritual enrichment,” “full deliverance from sin,” and a “closer relationship with Jesus Christ than anything that they yet experienced.” In fact, the teaching went, any believer who wasn’t experiencing all of this “had not totally surrendered to Christ.”

HE HEARD NO HEAVENLY
VOICES CALLING HIM TO YOUTH
MINISTRY, THOUGH HE
DUTIFULLY ACCOMPANIED THE
BOYS BRIGADE TO CAMP
(“I WON’T PRETEND I ENJOYED IT”).

The contradiction tormented Packer. On the one hand, he knew that he had fully surrendered his life to the living Lord. Yet on the other hand, he was not experiencing the “deliverance from sin” and the “victorious life” that holiness teaching perpetuated.

That’s when, by “a happy accident,” he found the Puritans. Gaining a reputation for bookishness in CU circles, Packer had been asked to oversee the library of the OICCU shortly after his conversion. “Just out of nosiness” (“I’m a nosy person”), he started sniffing through the books. He found an edition of John Owen’s On the Mortification of Sin in Believers—pages still uncut—and started reading: “By faith fill thy soul with a due consideration of that provision which is laid up in Jesus Christ; for this end and purpose that all thy lusts, this very lust wherewith thou art entangled, may be mortified by faith. Ponder on this, that though thou art no way able, in or by thyself, to get the conquest of the distemper; though thou art even weary of contending and art utterly ready to faint; yet that there is enough in Jesus Christ to yield thee relief.”

Owen became “a lifeline” to him, addressing, engaging, and resolving the issue of regenerate believers wrestling with sin. Writings of other Puritans he subsequently perused had a similar eye-opening, life-giving effect. “When I read, for instance, the second part of Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, what impressed me was the way in which Mr. Greatheart, the pastor who is escorting Christiana and her family to the Celestial City, picks up, as he goes along, a string of emotional cripples—Mr. Ready-to-Halt, Mr. Feeble-Mind, and Mr. Despondency.

“The Puritans answered those questions that perplexed me,” he says. And more than that, they introduced him to the “whole range” of Christian truth, wrestling with aspects of the Christian life in a rational, yet spiritually enlivened and theologically grounded way. “From the Puritans,” he says, “I acquired what I didn’t have from the start—that is, a sense of the importance and primacy of truth. Which means theology.”

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Source: Christianity Today