J.I. Packer turns 90 this year, and WORLD wants to be one of the first to wish him a happy birthday. He has practiced for decades what we like to call “accessible theology,” which lies midway between abstruse academic writing and pop over-simplification. Packer has provided both the tersest definition of Christian belief that I know of—“God saves sinners”—and one of the most readable books on that subject, Knowing God. But he’s also personally delightful, and Leland Ryken brings that out in his new biography, J.I Packer: An Evangelical Life (Crossway, 2015), which not only gives dates, places, and ideas but portrays in its middle section (“The Man”) an unostentatious intellectual who into his 80s went up stairs two steps at a time. Here are parts of that section that detail his reading habits and his love for the Puritans. —Marvin Olasky
The Most Important Books in J.I. Packer’s Life
J.I. Packer is regularly asked about the major books in his life, and the lists that he generates on those occasions fall into two categories—books that influenced him most and books that he reads every year.
In a recent interview, Packer was asked, “Which books have made the greatest impact on you?” He prefaced his reply with a characteristic bit of understatement: “Well, that’s a difficult question because I have read a lot of books.” The ensuing list is as follows, in the order that Packer followed in the interview: (1) John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion; (2) Bishop J.C. Ryle, Holiness; (3) John Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress; (4) Richard Baxter, multiple books, but chiefly The Reformed Pastor; and (5) John Owen, Indwelling Sin and The Mortification of Sin, “but it’s a shame not to mention Justification; The Holy Spirit; and The Death of Death in the Death of Christ.”
Different occasions have produced slightly different results. When Kent Hughes was writing his book Disciplines of a Godly Man (published in 1991), he asked selected Christian leaders to name: (1) the five most influential books in their lives; (2) the one among them that was their favorite; (3) their favorite novel; (4) their favorite biography. Packer’s answers were as follows: (1) the five most influential books: Calvin, Institutes; Bunyan, The Pilgrim’s Progress; volumes 3, 6, and 7 in the Goold edition of John Owen: Works; Baxter, The Reformed Pastor; and Martin Luther, The Bondage of the Will; (2) favorite among those: The Pilgrim’s Progress; (3) favorite novel: Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov; and (4) favorite biography: Arnold Dallimore, George Whitefield. The choice of Dostoyevsky helps to explain why Packer wrote a brief preface to a book entitled The Gospel in Dostoyevsky, where he calls Dostoyevsky “a supersensitive giant of the imagination” who embodies “a uniquely poignant vision of the plight of man and the power of God.” …
In a 2008 interview, Packer was asked which books had influenced him most, but with no prescribed limit to the number of authors he might list. That occasion produced this slightly expanded list: in addition to the “big five” (Calvin, Luther, Bunyan, Owen, and Baxter), Packer cited Abraham Kuyper, C.S. Lewis, “Lewis’s buddy Charles Williams,” and Ryle. Packer identified Williams as his favorite Inkling (chiefly his fictional writings), though Lewis had given him most.
A Latter-day Puritan
At numerous points during my work on the life of J.I. Packer, I was struck by the ways in which his temperament and life story have adhered to the experiences and ideas of the Puritans of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In saying that, I am not thinking of Packer’s career as a Puritan scholar (the subject of a later chapter in this biography), but of the uncanny ways in which Packer’s own life and viewpoints are identical to what we find in the history and writings of the Puritans.
I think, for example, of Packer’s conversion. It was an instantaneous event that happened at a preaching service. Packer was not expecting to be reborn on the night he entered into the kingdom of heaven. He was a nominal Christian (a great aversion of the Puritans) and did not know how to move beyond that state. The first half of the forty-minute sermon totally bored him. But when the retired minister reconstructed his own conversion at a boys’ camp, God forever changed the course of Packer’s life. He remembers the event today “as if it were yesterday,” and he left the church knowing he was a Christian.
The moment I read that account, I was reminded of the conversion story of Cambridge student Thomas Goodwin. A group of fellow students urged Goodwin to attend a funeral service, brought to the students’ attention by the tolling of a funeral bell. Goodwin allowed himself to be persuaded to attend the service to hear the sermon, which was about “deferring repentance, and of the danger of doing so.” Goodwin’s own account is as follows: “So God was pleased on the sudden … to alter the whole course of his former dispensation towards me, and said … to my soul, Yea, live. … This speaking of God to my soul, although it was but a gentle sound, yet it made a noise over my whole heart, and filled and possessed all the faculties of my whole soul.” It was a vintage Puritan conversion, as was Packer’s.
Another angle to Packer’s conversion is that it illustrates the Puritan conviction of the momentousness of life and the belief that God uses the commonplace to accomplish his transformation of people. Puritan Richard Greenham wrote, “Because we know not who is the man, what is the time, where is the place, which is the sermon that God hath appointed to work on us, let us in all obedience attend on the ministry of every man, watch at all times, be diligent in every place, and run to every sermon which we can conveniently, because though the Lord touch us not by this man, in this place, at this time, through such a sermon, yet he may touch us by another.”
Packer’s retrospective comments on his conversion and on coming to believe soon afterward that the Bible is God’s true Word capture exactly this point that God uses seemingly commonplace events to achieve his spiritual design in people’s lives. Regarding the singing of “Just As I Am” at the service where he was converted, Packer comments, “There’s no more ordinary way of being converted than to receive the Lord while singing ‘Just As I Am.’” Similarly, the visiting preacher who unpacked a chapter of Revelation at the service where Packer came to the conviction that the Bible is God’s Word was not a high-powered speaker, but an “eccentric old man” from out of town.
The Puritans fostered a democratic spirit, with a “leveling” tendency that ignored upper-class status. William Perkins wrote, “No man is to stand upon his gentility, or glory in his parentage for nobility and great blood, but only rejoice in this, that he is drawn out of the kingdom of darkness.” William Dell wrote that “all Christians … are made priests alike unto God.” I immediately recalled those quotations when I read the following statement that Packer made in a semihumorous article in Christianity Today, occasioned by his receiving an invitation to purchase a genealogical book on The Amazing Book of the Packers of Canada: “I reflected that while exploring one’s lineage need not be sin, to draw one’s sense of worth and dignity from his or her place in a human family rather than in God’s family of saved sinners could never be right.”
At multiple points in this biography, I have had occasion to document that Packer is a champion of the ordinary person. His writing and theologizing have had the layperson in view. Editor Ramona Tucker, who knew Packer when she worked at Christianity Today, recounts how insistent Packer was that she be given a place at the table during brainstorming sessions, “a surprise to the very male-oriented culture of Christianity Today.” As I conducted my research for this biography, Britons kept telling me how important the class issue is in understanding Packer (partly in contrast to upper-class people such as John Stott). My point of the moment is that the Puritans would have loved Packer for his everyday touch and would have embraced him as one of them. Packer has often moved in high circles and been in the public eye, but he is the last person to put on airs.
A final Puritan strand in Packer’s makeup that I will note is his bent toward what is practical. Owen claimed that “our happiness consisteth not in knowing the things of the gospel, but in the doing of them.” If I saw that as a freestanding quotation, I might ascribe it to Packer. “The soul of religion is the practical part,” wrote Bunyan. This is everywhere the thrust of Packer. He has championed the importance of application in sermons. Professional theologians wonder why Packer has not conducted theology the way they do. The answer is that he regards himself as a catechist—someone who packages theology for the ordinary person. Packer writes in “To the Reader” at the beginning of Knowing Christianity, “It is not a technical work but … a plain and practical one.” I love the title of a book “at various hands” (composed by a team of contributors) that encapsulates the life work of J.I. Packer: Doing Theology for the People of God.
“There are plenty of activities that operate as refreshers for the serious work of life,” Packer said during an interview that turned to the topic of what he does for recreation. Packer then added, “For me, classic jazz and classic detective stories help do the trick.”
J.I. Packer the theologian a reader of murder mysteries? Yes, and his writings contain numerous references to them. The taste for mystery stories was first awakened when his grandmother took Packer on a weeklong holiday at the seacoast town of Torquay to recover from bronchitis. Rain descended on the town, and Packer gravitated to the books on the shelf of the hotel where he was confined. He read a collection of what he calls “spooky short stories” by Agatha Christie entitled The Hound of Death. His grandmother had misgivings about Packer’s reading of horror stories, but he went on to Christie’s The Mystery of the Blue Train. He confides that he has been reading mystery authors ever since.
Exactly who makes up the regular fare of mystery writers for the famous theologian? In the interview noted above, Packer provided the following list: Christie, Dorothy Sayers, John Dickson Carr (also known by the name Carter Dickson), Ellery Queen, Erle Stanley Gardner, “and other such authors.” Packer then commented that he reads such authors “as recreational resources, just as I listen to music as a recreational resource.”
In the same interview, Packer theorized about why and how detective stories work their magic on him. For him, “puzzle stories about crime calm my mind, as crossword puzzles do for others.” At bedtime, Packer’s mind “is often full of theological and personal problems that would keep me awake.” So when he reads “a detective story for five or ten minutes,” he knows that it “is of no great importance and it pushes out of my mind all these anxious cares.” The result is that “when I switch out the light my mind is blank, and I go right to sleep. This is a good gift of God to me.” As the doctor says in the sleepwalking scene of William Shakespeare’s Macbeth, “Well, well, well.”
Packer gives us glimpses of additional detective writers by way of references in his writing. Here is a sampling:
- “One of fiction’s great detectives [Sherlock Holmes] laid it down that when you have eliminated all the impossibilities what remains, however improbable, must be true.”
- “Detective writer Martha Grimes likes to title each of her books after an unusually named English pub.”
But the full disclosure comes in a 1985 Christianity Today article entitled “’Tecs [detective stories], Thrillers, and Westerns.” In the article, Packer acknowledges, “I devour mysteries.” Then he dazzles his readers with his reading list:
I have read, among others, all the Sherlock Holmeses, Father Browns, and Peter Wimseys. … All the full-length stories of Hammett, Chandler, James, and Crispin; and all the work of new arrivals Amanda Cross, Antonia Fraser, Simon Brett, and Robert Bernard, not to mention most of Margery Allingham, Austin Freeman, Freeman Wills Crofts, Erle Stanley Gardner, Rex Stout, Ruth Rendell, and Julian Symons.
“What have I gained?” Packer asks. “Fun, to start with.” The enjoyment consists of “the poignant perplexity of the puzzle, the sleuth’s superior brainwork, and the doing of justice by clearing the innocent and exposing the guilty.”
Just as Packer surprises us by not only enjoying early jazz music but advancing a theory of why it is a Christian form of music, he also articulates a Christian defense of detective fiction. First, even though detective stories are “not great literature,” they “are among the most moral fiction of our time” because they clearly distinguish good from evil and assert a principle of justice in the world. But that is not all: “these stories are of a kind that would never have existed without the Christian gospel.” They “are Christian fairy tales, with savior heroes and plots that end in what Tolkien called a eucatastrophe—whereby things come right after seeming to go irrevocably wrong.” The detectives in these stories are “classic Robin Hood figures, champions of the needy, bringers of merited judgment and merciful salvation. The gospel of Christ is the archetype of all such stories.” On the surface, that statement seems unlikely from someone who rereads The Pilgrim’s Progress every year, but once the paradox was put before me, I have found it quite instructive to ponder the connections.