Book Review: J.I. Packer: His Life and Thought

I can remember years ago Dallas Willard saying, in effect, “One of the great failures of the Church today is the lack of discipleship.”

That comes to mind as I read Alister McGrath’s latest book, J.I. Packer: His Life and Thought. McGrath has a much larger biography on Packer, but this was written as a tribute to Packer on his death earlier this year.

This book is more of a tribute to the legacy of Packer and McGrath takes the time to interweave the story of Packer’s life with Packer’s vision for Christian faith.

For someone like me who was not as familiar with Packer’s life, this book is helpful in a broad overview of his life along with key theological “moments” in the Church where Packer stepped in to provide particular essays, books, or speeches that helped guide the evangelical movement in the 20th Century. I also knew of Packer’s deep admiration for Puritan theology and life, and this was highlighted in McGrath’s book.

The main pattern of the book is to have a chapter on a period on Packer’s life followed by a chapter on the background thinking of Packer or events that helped shaped Packer at that particular time period in his life. I enjoyed the pattern because it helped set Packer in time for me as I thought back to those particular theological battles/struggles in the 20th Century.

Packer was influenced early on by the Puritan John Owen. It formed his church and spiritual life. The Puritan teaching also formed Packer in his life goals. He would anchor himself solidly in the church and not just in academia. Packer embodied the example I had hoped to bring: someone who loved to learn AND loved to teach what he learned to the Church. The model of pastor-theologian has been long missing in the Western Church landscape, but Packer embodied it well.

When Packer made the decision in the late 1970s to move from Great Britain to Regent College in Vancouver, he did so in part because Regent was determined to teach lay people theology. Their initial goal was to equip people in other vocations with good theological foundations and that was attractive to Packer.

Late in life, long after he had retired from teaching, Packer did not give up speaking and writing. He was a key figure in the development of the English Standard Version translation. He was a key theological guide to the resource used in my church (Anglican Church in North America): To Be a Christian: An Anglican Catechism. What McGrath called Packer’s “last crusade” was to remind the Church of what Dallas Willard had said: we are not doing well in discipleship.

Packer gave himself to emphasizing the need for catechesis in the Church. Catechism is the teaching of the Church, to be sure, but it is more than that. It is a road of discipleship. It is road to help believers mature.

I am part of a men’s Bible study at our church. I am by far the youngest. Most are in their 70s and older. For Advent, we have taken up To Be a Christian. These men want to grow in their faith. They want to deepen their maturity so they can keep on effectively leading others. They don’t mind being reminded of the basic teachings of the faith.

We need to know what we believe and why we believe it. We need to hold to a greater vision of Christian faith and enable others to grasp it and grow into it. In our day, in our culture, in our context, this remains the greatest need of the Church.

This book is a great introduction to the life and thinking of Packer. I found it readable and greatly informative. When I basically knew Packer as the author of Knowing God, this book added to my understanding of a scholar who longed to serve the Church.

J.I. Packer: A Biography: McGrath, Alister E.: 9780801011573:  Books

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