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The reading habits of a latter-day Puritan

Religion | Excerpts from a new biography of theologian J.I. Packer

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.”

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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.

Content taken from J.I. Packer: An Evangelical Life by Leland Ryken, ©2015. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187, www.crossway.org.


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