Leland Ryken, J. I. Packer: An Evangelical Life (Wheaton: Crossway, 2015), 432 pages, ISBN 9781433542527.
In J. I. Packer: An Evangelical Life, Leland Ryken aims to not merely recount the life events of leading evangelical scholar J. I. Packer, but also to show who he is as a man. Packer has served in various vocations and several areas of the world and has experienced significant setbacks and accomplishments. However, in his ever-changing external circumstances, amidst critique and admiration, his internal drive has remained the same for many decades: that is, to teach and represent to the world and the church an evangelical Christian worldview. Underlying his distinctives as an Anglican and a specialized academician has flowed a continual commitment to basic gospel truths, articulated with precision and applied to the church.
The uniqueness of Ryken’s book is his method, which he calls a “combination of chronological biography and thematic biography” (p. 10). He uses this method for the purpose of integrating plain facts on a timeline with charming stories about more intimate details of Packer’s life, which results in a display of Packer the man. To achieve this, Ryken separates his book into three sections, titled “The Life,” “The Man,” and “Lifelong Themes” and alerts the reader to certain signposts to look out for as they read.
At attempt to summarize the content of this book would only prove to obscure the complexity of that which is a Spirit-empowered human life, such as J. I. Packer’s. However, it is useful to mention some themes that stand out, namely, Packer’s 1) continual work in the institutional Anglican Church despite his Puritan convictions, 2) instincts as peacemaker and yet his involvement in many controversies, and 3) equally strong emphases on academic excellence and practical church ministry.
First, Packer has maintained both his commitment to Anglicanism and his Puritan convictions for a long time. His unabashed love for and specialized scholarship on the Puritans as well as his definitively Reformational theology are clearly seen in his written works, public addresses, and personal stories, as explained by Ryken. However, at various forks in the road during his lifetime, he chose to remain within the institutional Anglican Church, even when other viable (and, some may argue, significantly better) options were open to him. Ryken’s recounting of Packer’s professional life in England returns again and again to this theme: Packer was one of the foremost evangelical forces in the Church of England during his time, always working to garner support for this cause regardless of what role he was filling (and this included many, such as faculty and later principal at Tyndale Hall, warden and librarian at Latimer House, and leader on the Keele Congress). Furthermore, even after his expulsion from the Anglican Church of Canada, he found a way to remain within Anglicanism. Though Packer’s influence has spread beyond Anglicanism, much of his personal efforts have been directed towards the institutional Anglican Church.