J. I. Packer: In His Own Words - Transcript

Transcripted by desiringGod.org

Part 1: Early Life

Leland Ryken: Who is J. I. Packer? Put simply, in the last half of the twentieth century and early part of our own century, J. I. Packer has been one of the foremost influences among evangelical Christians. His lengthy career has spanned six decades, first in England alongside the likes of Martyn Lloyd-Jones and John Stott, then in Canada at Regent College, and finally in the United States through his voluminous writings.

There is a mystery about how a mere professor could achieve the kind of influence that Packer has achieved. He never filled a high visibility pulpit as a regular position. He always taught at small evangelical colleges and seminaries. He became famous on the strength of his books. His books cover the basics of Christian belief and are filled with practical wisdom about how to live the Christian life to the glory of God.

So who is J. I. Packer? To answer this question, we might ask what he has made the focus of his ministry. The title of a book written in his honor sounds the right note: Doing Theology for the People of God.

J. I. Packer: G. K. Chesterton began his autobiography by saying that he was assured by competent folk that he was born in a certain place at a certain time. Like G. K. Chesterton, I believe that I was born. I have often been told I was. I was brought up in a lower middle class home in Gloucester City, England. I had an ordinary upbringing and thought of myself as a very ordinary person right through my youth.

My home was solid. The atmosphere was friendly and affectionate, no kind of insecurity. We were a church going family, that is true. Church attendance was part of the family routine. We did it without thinking or talking about it. I can’t honestly say that the home had very much that was positively Christian in it except parental affection, parental stability, and parental concern that I and my sister—the two children—should have a fair crack at the whip educationally and then in terms of whatever profession we chose.

I went to ordinary schools—infant school, junior school, and then a grammar school. I was a fairly sharp student and I did well at school and eventually got myself a scholarship to Oxford. But I found it pleasant to work—I have always enjoyed reading and learning things. For a number of reasons, I was not a sportsman. My inclinations never would have taken me that way and I had an accident early in life.

When I was seven years old I was chased out into the street by a fellow classmate at the junior school that I was attending and came into violent collision with a truck. The effect was to knock in part of my skull in the way that the top of an egg shell is knocked in when you hit it with an egg spoon. And the bits of broken bone had to be removed.

In the providence of God there was a very skilled brain surgeon at our local hospital. He had done training at Vienna, which was the number one world center of brain surgery at that time. He did a very skillful job. When I went back to school, well, I was obliged to wear an aluminium plate over the hole where the bone had been taken out, and the effect was to make me feel like a speckled bird. At the age of fifteen, I think, I went on strike and refused to wear it anymore.

My school days, otherwise, were fairly straightforward. I was a bookish boy. I loved reading. I began to write in imitation of the stuff I was reading. On my eleventh birthday I had dropped broad hints at what I hoped for was a full-size bicycle. On my birthday morning, however, what I found waiting for me was an old typewriter. The gift of the typewriter was almost prophetic. My parents foresaw—and I think that this was brilliant parenting on their part—that I would have enormous fulfillment out of doing things with a typewriter, writing this, writing that, whatever. It was, in fact, the best present that I ever had as a boy. And it continued with me for seven or eight years before it finally lost its power to function. And I have always had a typewriter and day by day been using it ever since.

So the effect of that was to confirm that in some sense or other I was going to be a writer. All my writing and all my ministry has been focused on feeding. Any writing ministry that remains in the future will have the same focus.

Part 2: Theological Influences

Leland Ryken: Packer is, above all else, a communicator. As an author, he has made it a priority to write for the common person. His signature book, entitled Knowing God, which has sold nearly two million copies, was not drafted as a best seller. It grew out of a series of articles for a small religious magazine. Packer can do specialized scholarly writing of the highest order. But he deliberately writes in a simplified style that the ordinary Christian can understand.

That does not mean that the thinking in Packer’s books and articles is simple. What he writes is based on very sophisticated thinking. But he writes books and essays as a hymn writer writes poetry: under vows of renunciation. That is, deliberately controlling the amount of visible scholarship and technical language.

But foundational to Packer’s prolific literary career, has been his persistent love of books and reading. In this, Packer’s life is truly countercultural today. In an age of disposal communication, Packer’s emphasis on the written word reminds us that Christianity is—at its heart—a religion of the book.

J. I. Packer: Right from the start of my Christian life, that is, from the time of my conversion at age eighteen, the Bible has been central in my devotion, in my understanding of the faith, and, as I have grown older, in the writing that I have done. I have produced, I suppose, half a dozen different books seeking, one way or another, to vindicate the truth, the trustworthiness, the life-giving quality of holy Scripture.

People wonder in these days whether reading is important in anybody’s life and particularly whether Christian reading is important in the Christian life. I think that that uncertainty is one of the oddities of our time. And I hope we shall very soon outgrow it. Any reading that makes you think about the subject matter, the truth of what is being affirmed or denied, and that leaves you clearer in your own mind about it is beneficial reading. I hope myself that the age of the book is not coming to an end as a number of modern prophets have said they think it is.

I write books in the hope that people will read them and benefit by them. And I continue to read books with the same goal.

Among the theologians that I have read and profited from have been John Calvin and his Institutes; John Owen, the Puritan, who wrote on a number of fundamental Christian themes—masterfully in every case—and I learned a great deal from him; Richard Baxter, another Puritan, from whom I learned most of what I feel I know about the commitment of a pastor to his people; Bunyan’s ­Pilgrim’s Progress is a book that I re-read every year and I hope that nobody will tell me that it is not a theological book, because it is, at a very deep and insightful level. There was an Anglican bishop named Ryle—first bishop of Liverpool, England—in the last twenty years of the nineteenth century who wrote a great book with a one word title Holiness. That book is one that I very much appreciated over the years and have gone back to on many different occasions.

All these books are in the historic reformational tradition and that is where most of the influences that my reading has brought to bear on me have come from. And I don’t apologize for that. Truth is truth. And the chronology of it, whether it is truth that was put into print fifty years ago or five hundred, is a secondary matter. I want reading to remain part of our culture and I think that we shall lose far more than we gain if we abandon the reading of books for the picking up of information by any other means whatsoever.

Part 3: Legacy

Leland Ryken: In the history of Christendom, very few academicians have devoted as much time to church matters as Packer has. He has modeled devotion to the Bible as the sure and infallible Word of God, the need for Christians to live holy lives and the importance of steadfastly refusing to accommodate the plain teaching of the Bible to current cultural trends. But the biggest lesson that we can learn from Packer’s life is the lesson of being a faithful steward in the tasks that God places before us. Packer never set out to make a splash. He never tried to gather a following. He simply cultivated his garden and left the results to God. It is a model that we can all strive to imitate.

J. I. Packer: When I look back on the productions that I have had a part in during the course of my life, the English Standard Version of the Bible, the ESV, stands out as perhaps the most valuable thing that I have ever been involved in.

We didn’t have a translation that was literal in the sense that it labored all the time to be transparent to the word sequence and sentence structure of the original Hebrew and Greek so that it would get the reader as close to the original wording as any translation could. We needed a translation that was viable for all ages and all levels of study. We needed a translation that could be memorized relatively easily as the Bible has been memorized from other translations of the past. We needed a Bible that would read well in the pulpit. We needed a Bible that would be clear for the exposition from the pulpit that faithful pastors would give. We needed a Bible that would be free from cultural bias of any sort. We needed a translation that, as far as possible, didn’t tip its hand or its hat in the direction of any of the contemporary areas of debate. As far as possible, then, it would be transcultural in the sense that it simply registered in translation what was there in the original and stopped at that point. And it seems to me that we who worked on the English Standard Version had considerable success by God’s mercy at all these parts. And I shall continue to see this as the most important bit of service to the church that I have been involved in in the whole of my working life.

As I look back on the life that I have lived, I would like to be remembered as a voice—a voice that focused on the authority of the Bible, the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the wonder of his substitutionary sacrifice and atonement for our sins.

I would like to be remembered as a voice calling Christian people to holiness and challenging lapses in Christian moral standards. I should like to be remembered as someone who was always courteous in controversy, but without compromise. I ask you to thank God with me for the way that he has led me, and I wish, hope, pray that you will enjoy the same clear leading from him and the same help in doing the tasks that he sets you that I have enjoyed.

And if your joy matches my joy as we continue in our Christian lives, well, you will be blessed indeed.

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