Happy Birthday J. I. Packer (a fan letter)
Today, July 22, 2016, is J. I. Packer’s 90th birthday.
Next to my grandfather, I can think of no other person to whom I am more deeply indebted for what I have come to believe theologically than James Innell Packer.
My first exposure to his writing came in my first year at Bible college. In that first semester, Packer’s book, Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God fell into my hands. I do not remember exactly how, but I do recall that, in just a few short pages, I was drawn into both the content and to his way of writing. What was the book about? In Packer’s words:
“What is it (this book) then? It is a piece of biblical and theological reasoning, designed to clarify the relationship between three realities: God’s sovereignty, man’s responsibility, and the Christian’s evangelistic duty.
The aim of the discourse is to dispel the suspicion (current, it seems, in some quarters) that faith in the absolute sovereignty of God hinders a full recognition and acceptance of evangelistic responsibility, and to show that, on the contrary, only this faith can give Christians the strength that they need to fulfill their evangelistic task.”
No, it is not the deepest theological reading – but theology nonetheless. It was only 120 pages long in most editions. But it was (as I would come to discover) vintage Packer. There were long compound-complex sentences and, like so much of his writing, he engaged with serious theological matters, but he kept the rocks close together to help his readers step safely across the stream. It sounds almost silly, but this little chat from Packer (the book is based on a conference address he gave in 1959) stirred something in me that I hadn’t felt before.
I was hooked. And I have been a Packer fan and a lover of theological books and conversations ever since.
That same year, his most wide-read book, Knowing God came into print in the United States, and it may have been the first theology book I ever purchased. I had come from a background with a very high view of scripture (I haven’t changed) and a very skeptical view of the word “theology” (I have evolved considerably on this one – but not altogether), so my default was to read it – and look up each verse that Packer cited to see if what he was saying squared with the text. Needless to say, it did.
I loved the book.
I loved the long sentences, the vocabulary choices, the clever turns of phrase. I loved the vision of God those sentences portrayed and the way Packer encouraged me to see that this view of God leads to a life of passion and purpose – serving him with all of our heart, mind, and strength – as we come to know him more. Theology is not merely thinking about God – it is about knowing God, which is, according to Jesus (John 17:3), life itself.
John Piper has famously and repeatedly said, “Books don’t change people, paragraphs do — sometimes sentences.”
Knowing God has been a book with more soul-shaping sentences per page than any other that I have read. Here is one:
“How can we turn our knowledge about God into knowledge of God? The rule for doing this is simple but demanding. It is that we turn each Truth that we learn about God into matter for meditation before God, leading to prayer and praise to God.”
― J.I. Packer, Knowing God
Of course, his influence in my life went beyond his own writing. Packer loved the Puritans – so I began reading the Puritans. Packer (I was “warned”) was Reformed, an Anglican, and a Calvinist. So I started to try to see what it meant to be Reformed, who Anglicans were, and what a “Calvinist” was. (I must admit that his Introduction to John Owen’s Death of Death in the Death of Christ was beyond my capacity at the time, but it likely did as much to whet my appetite for thinking theologically as did anything else Packer has written.)
So, after I graduated, I made it a habit (when I could afford it) to buy or borrow everything Packer I came across. I found friends who liked to talk about the Puritans and Packer and theology. My little congregations listened each Sunday to messages and to a man that were being shaped by Packer’s perspectives on God and his world.
Dr. Packer has often said that he sees himself less as a theologian than as a catechist – or as he puts it:
“a latter-day catechist—not, indeed, a children’s catechist (I am not good with children), but what may be called an adult or higher catechist, one who builds on what children are supposed to be taught in order to spell out at adult level the truths we must live by and how we are to live by them.”
In many ways, that is precisely what he was for me.
Then, sometime in the early 90s, when I was the pastor of a church in NW Ontario, I heard that Packer would be speaking in Winnipeg, a mere five hours away. My friend and I climbed into our car in the wee hours of the morning to make the drive to the city to hear the good doctor.
We arrived at a small, evangelical Anglican church (St. Aidan’s) and sat down with about 40 other people. As I recall, I was stunned that the place wasn’t full. After a gracious introduction by the host, Dr. Packer walked to the pulpit and introduced his talks on Ephesians by having us sing the doxology – as, “the goal of theology, friends, is doxology.”
And he commenced. He worked his way through the book, bit by bit with logic and a manner that was just like his writings. I was mesmerized. I am confident that I looked at him like some of my younger friends seem transfixed when they get a glimpse of Bono, but I didn’t care. I was baffled when I looked around at more than one person dozing off during the second hour, but I was listening – and note-taking, and nodding affirmation – it was glorious.
Lunchtime came, and we dismissed to the church basement for a light snack. When I watched and saw that no one was sitting with Dr. Packer at his small table, my friend and I asked if we could join him. He graciously accepted (as long as my friend might fetch him a tea – two cream, one sugar), so we sat for 30 minutes or so and chatted. He was attentive, patient, and seemed to enjoy our company. When I asked if I could talk to him about other things he had written, he welcomed my questions and answered with candor and the occasional bit of humor.
After our lunch chat, I was even more engaged during his afternoon talks. When the day was over, I bought, and he signed my copy of A Quest for Godliness. And I, to this day, am thankful for that encounter. Packer was not only a brilliant and engaging teacher, but he was in every way the kind, humble, and thoughtful man I had hoped he would be when we finally met.
So, I pause today to say, “Thank you, Dr. Packer, for your influence on me and on all of those whom I have rightly influenced.”
Happy 90th Birthday.