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J.I. Packer: An Evangelical Life

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I have often expressed my love of biography. It’s not only that I enjoy peering into people’s lives, but also that there is so much to learn about life and faith by reading about other people. Biography, and Christian biography in particular, shows Christianity lived, realized in God’s people.

New from Leland Ryken is J.I. Packer: An Evangelical Life. The publisher’s description does a good job of describing what you’ll encounter in the book’s pages: “Over the last sixty years, J. I. Packer has exerted a steady and remarkable influence on evangelicalism. In this biography, well-known scholar Leland Ryken acquaints us with Packer’s life, heart, and mind, tracing the outworking of God’s sovereign plan through his childhood, intellectual pursuits, and professional life. Filled with personal anecdotes and little-known facts, this appreciative volume sheds light on the key themes that have given shape to Packer’s life and thought, highlighting his enduring significance for Christians today.”

This is, as the description says, an appreciative biography, written by someone who knows Packer and who has long been an admirer. In that way it is quite typical of other biographies of still-living individuals—it describes the subject’s life and influence, but without much emphasis on his weaknesses.

Ryken dedicates the book’s opening pages to explaining why he wrote this book and why he did so in the way he did.

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. I therefore rejected the model of the documentary history, which so overwhelms readers with factual data about events and people that the subject of the biography disappears from sight. I have not written a history, but a biography.

With this goal in mind, he pursues a unique format that tells Packer’s life through three different themes, each of which has its own section. In the first section Ryken offers an overview of Packer’s life in standard biographical format. In the second section he describes Packer as a man, telling about his personality and passions and offering up some interesting anecdotes. In the third section he traces some of the themes that have dominated Packer’s life and career: the Bible, the Puritans, Anglicanism, and so on.

I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know J.I. Packer through this account of his life. Packer’s books have been influential in my life, but I knew very little about his life and career. This biography put his books in their right context and greatly increased my admiration for their author. I came to see that Packer had an outsized influence on modern-day Evangelicalism, and for good reason. He is a remarkably gifted man who has maintained a lifelong commitment to understanding, defending, and explaining the Christian faith.

My favorite parts of the biography are the ones that simply tell little facts about his life. I loved hearing about his first meeting with Kit, the woman who would eventually become his wife. Packer went for a Sunday afternoon walk with a church group and watched as Kit kicked off her shoes and walked barefoot. This free-spirited gesture intrigued and attracted Packer who very quickly realized he was drawn to her. Isn’t that exactly the stuff life is made of?

For all the biography’s strengths, there are also some significant holes, and I am not sure if they are intentional or unintentional. Is there a reason that we never learn anything about Packer’s children apart from the briefly-mentioned fact that they were adopted? Why is nothing said about J.I. Packer the father? And whatever happened to Kit? Ryken tells of their courtship and marriage, but then she almost disappears from the narrative. Is she still living? Is there nothing to say about Packer the husband? Did he manage to be an effective husband and father even with his rigorous travel schedule and all his other responsibilities? Surely if there are several pages dedicated to his love of jazz music there could have been some discussion of his family life.

It has long been my observation that the best biographies are written after the subject has died and the story of his life has been completed. There will be time enough to provide a deeper analysis of Packer’s life and influence. For now, J.I. Packer: An Evangelical Life gives us a glimpse into the mind, heart, and life of one of modern-day Evangelicalism’s most formative figures. My few frustrations aside, I was still glad to read it and glad to have encountered its subject within its pages. I thank God for J.I. Packer.

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