Leland Ryken - "J.I. Packer: An Evangelical Life"
7:54PM Jun 26, 2020
Jonathan J. Armstrong
It's our great privilege today to be speaking with Dr. Leland Ryken and Dr. Ryken served as Professor of English at Wheaton College for nearly 50 years, and is the author or editor of over 50 books. He also served as the literary stylist recently for the English Standard Version of the Bible. We're here today to be speaking with him about his recent book, J. I Packer: An Evangelical Life. Dr. Ryken, thank you so much for joining us today.
It's a pleasure.
Doctor, Dr. Reagan, one of your stated goals in this tremendous biography of J. I Packer is that the reader would become acquainted with the man as a human being. And it seems to me that you know just about everything about j i Packer, in one of the chapters that you entitled The little known Packer, you detail everything about the man's life From how he used to climb to stairs at a time to his love for spicy curry food in your preparation of this portrait of j i Packer Was there anything that particularly surprised you,
there were a lot of surprises. Now surprise implies a challenge to a perception that exists. So the J i Packer that I knew was a speaker and author and a fellow member of the translation committee of the English Standard there's that person was a horrible person. To me Packer is the quintessential quintessential British or so when I pictured him in the pulpit or behind the lectern, I saw a formal man now it's true that the committee meetings were informal but Packers words and praise the ology are so aptly chosen that even that seemed formal. Alright, with that as the baseline here are some surprises. The extent of Packers acquaintance with children's literature And the ease with which he makes reference to children's literature in his writings. this past Sunday I dipped into two of Packers late books. And one of them had an extended reference and use of Winnie the Pooh and the other of the peanuts cartoon. So trust, I'm sorry, Packer the demo day of children's literature, but even more than that, his willingness as this very famous person to put it right there in his writings that surprised me. I would never have guessed that j. i Packer was so thoroughly read and detective fiction as he is. He wrote a column in Christianity Today listing the fiction writers that he has read and half of the authors I have never even heard of. That surprised me. Here's the Theologian sitting down to read detective fiction. Packer is extremely widely read even though he writes and speaks I was surprised that a person with that busiest can I could find time to read so much. He read certain books every year rereads them every year. Who would think saying Packer behind the pulpit that he is an absolute devotee of jazz music. This dates back to age 13. He was listening to classical music on the family radio. The person in charge of the program had a brief interlude between man music that he was playing of jazz music back or records going to the radio putting his ear next to the radio listening to steamboat stomp by Jelly Roll Morton. That was a surprise to me. I knew Packer as a kind of evangelical Calvinist that's my tradition. That's the venues in which I saw him. I was extremely surprised to read to be aware of the depth of His Anglicanism he knows the prayer book so well that when he goes for a 30 minute morning walk, he can recite the morning service to himself from the prayer book. He's a thoroughgoing Anglican. That was a surprise to me. When I got started on this biography, I hosted what I call a launch launch at a local restaurant with three crossway editors. And they spoke of the disappointments that Packer have endured. Well, I have no idea that this successful man and famous man had had his share of disappointments. And that was a surprise to me. And a final one I'll mention for us is that I'd always noticed a somewhat oddly shaped head, but I never made anything about well, I discovered that he has a dent in the side of his head, and it dates all the way back to an accident that he had being hit by a bread van and a busy street in Gloucester, England. At the age of seven, so,
there were a lot of surprises. Hmm. Dr. Rankin Thank you, doctor. I can I think many of us think of j i Packer only as this tremendously influential evangelical theologian, you've alluded to some disappointments that he weathered in his life would you be willing to name one or two of those disappointments?
When he finished a tenure tenure, the 1960s at Latimer house, he was looking for a new teaching position, so he applied and did not receive those appointments, or we could reach back earlier in his life. When he finished his theological education he wrote to john Stott at all souls church, inquiring where their stop would be interested in having him join the pastoral staff and declined to laugh after the decade at Latimer house which was an Anglican clearing house, in and during the The 1960s as president or Warden there, Bakker was a high visibility Anglican among the evangelicals. During the ensuing decade he went into decline in terms of his influence. his agenda of grassroots education for the layperson lost out to john stotts vision of getting Anglican, evangelical pastors together, mingling socially and hoping for a trickle down effect so that by the time Packer moved to Canada in 1979, he had largely lost his influence and input. So that was a disappointment.
Mm hmm. Dr. Rankin many of us know j. i Packer best for his book, The 1973 book knowing God, how is it that this book has come to be a modern day theological classic, and what does this book knowing God tell us about you? Packer as an author and theologian,
that's a great question. Knowing God is Packer his most famous book, but that's your price down when he wrote a preface to the 25 year anniversary of that book. He shared that he was totally surprised that this book became a best seller or a classic. This book he paralyzes Packers, right. It began as a series of magazine articles. A female editor of a little non magazine called evangelical magazine asked for a series of articles on the tackle the tough questions about I will say in passing, Packers career has been a case study of entering pretty much every open door in terms of speaking engagements and writing engagements. No venue is too small or modest for j i Packer, or write these articles appeared every two months. over a span of five years if you can imagine Packer describes himself as sitting down every two months and asking, What shall I tell them next? Well, that says a lot about Packer. If I may just already now quote the subtitle of a book of essays on Packer doing theology for the people of God, that is exactly right. That is what j i Packer has done. So he asked not what is the next topic, systematic theology would take know what shall I tell them next? What what do they need to know about God? This book and effect was turned down. Initially, not absolutely. But when the book was when the articles were complete and Packer wanted to get this book published, he approached the intervarsity editor who wanted Packer first to write a book on the Holy Spirit, and the charismatic controversy that was raging, so Patrick lento Holzman stiver, and I found it as a publisher, but the point is the book, wasn't it. turned down in a sense. It is a book of theology for the layperson, but special this. It's a successful co author, there are 2 million copies sold. And it's a very influential book. So that epitomizes Packers life as a writer of Christianity Today Paul asked what are the books that have most shaped evangelicals and Packers knowing God came out?
Dr. Rankin j. i Packer, of course, writes the afterword to your fine biography and he writes this though professionally a professor, my main trajectory of concern has always been ministerial and ecclesial, rather than narrowly academic, in what ways did j i Packer step outside of the bounds of the traditional Academy in order to minister to the church?
Let me again cite that subtitle that is so apt doing theology for the people of God, not as a contribution to the discipline as an academician would say no, for the people of God. I will observe in passing that in an online interview. Packer when asked, well, what's the problem with theological education? He said that theological education took a wrong turn when scholars with PhDs went directly from graduate school to the teaching profession without having a stint as a parish minister. So that says a lot right there. Packer can write specialized scholarship and occasionally does, for example, his dissertation published as a book on Richard Baxter, or I think of an introduction to the works of Thomas cranmer. That Packer really beautiful specialized scholarship. But that's the exception. He can do it. He writes mid level scholarship. A bright high school student can understand most of what j i Packer writes, Packer himself has been devoid of careerism. Now he's had the advantage of teaching at places where he didn't have to play the career game. But that's been to his and the Christian worlds advantage that he did not have to. He never was preoccupied with whether this or that publication, quote would count. When it comes to tenure considerations. He didn't have to worry about that. I've already said he entered pretty much every open door in terms of publishing and speaking. Let's just take his unwritten systematic theology as a kind of barometer. for three decades Packer has been under contract to produce a systematic theology. Professional theologians are bent out of shape, that he has not written this systematic theology. For most theologians, the kind of crown of a career would be to write a systematic theology. Alright, bankers pretty unconcerned about the unwritten systematic theology, he claims to still be wearing working on it. People are skeptical that it will appear during his lifetime. If it appears, it is going to be an expression of what he is currently, what he currently sees his vocation as being that of a catechist. Now, by that he means a systematic treatment of theology, but for the layperson and the church, not an academic systematic theology. So if it appears it's going to be at like the book knowing God, a person for the educated layperson.
This is a fascinating insider information. Thank you Dr. Rankin for that. And Dr. Rankin. Can I ask you further to expound on on this you have alluded that. you've alluded that j. i Packer lost out I believe that expression was to john Scott's vision of doing theological education by this by the laying apart and what we now know is the lack of partnership What was changed Parker's original vision for a more grassroots model of theological education?
I think it is a customized by his decade when he was Warden at Latimer house. Latimer house was a house in Oxford. It was formed at a time when evangelicals in the Church of England were really optimistic about prospects. Approximately 20% of the clerics in the Church of England were evangelicals. So, Latimer house became a kind of clearing house, there were committees who did studies of relevant doctrinal issues. Parker himself served on many church committees as his warden of Latimer house. So what was his vision I would say was epitomized by Latimer house convening committees, studying the doctrines writing pamphlets. Packer himself became a great writer of pamphlets 20 page booklets Page booklets. Well, that's a grassroots effort. It is. The vision is to educate parishioners and to equip them and to conduct ministry in the local church. So that was his vision. Let's just observe that Packers have elated Puritan, and the Puritans were a great leveling viewpoint democratic championing the lay person. That's j. i Packer, john Stott was upper class. He had a great vision for socializing and having fellowship among clerics. He cultivated a following he, john stock did. He revived a magazine or younger pajama. So Packer wasn't even wanting to be a member of it, but in other ways would have been excluded. Stopped was the leader of that group. He cultivated a ball I think we can say that without negative connotation when I spent two days with j i Packer in the crossway offices in 2014. And he said several times that he had never cultivated a following. And I think that is right. So pack Packers vision was grassroots education at the local level. vision was fellowship among clerics and a hope for a trickle down effect. And I would say this came to a head in the ladder in the 70s, actually when a follow up to a very successful heel conference in 1967, a decade later, was proposed. And Packer at the committee meetings held out for this grassroots effort educating the layperson start to carry the day wanted another rally type contents, so it was held at 9am. I would say we see the two visions right there. big rally, a lot of visibility educating the light person through man. That's
amazing. Thank you Dr. Rankin for those reflections. Dr. Rankin in 1970 j. i Packer published a book entitled growing into union. And it was this book that signaled the end of the ministry partnership between j. i Packer and Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones. In your view, what happened in this split between j i Packer and Dr. Martin boy, Joe Jones.
What happened? Let's back up. Packer is maybe unique and his ability to move with equal ease and to Christian communities. evangelical Anglican community we're talking about situation. And during the 50s and 60s, the nonconformist tradition. The non Anglican, the independent churches now the leader of the non Muslim movement was Martin offered in the Westminster chapel and Center City, London. There had been a long era of cooperation between Packer and Lloyd Jones now Packer also moved with equal ease in this this other group but the Puritan conferences which began in the early 50s and lasted until 1970. He epitomize this cooperation and the enthusiasm with which Packer was embraced by Lloyd Jones and the nonconformist a strand cam already in 1966 when Martin Lloyd jobs delivered in a dress at a joint conference in the Methodist Central Hall, in Center City, London, between evangelical Anglicans and evangelical nonconformist and and Lloyd Jones made an appeal and he praised it as an appeal for unity for evangelicals in the Anglican Church and including clerics to come out of the Anglican Church. And join together we need to be unified. Martin Lloyd Jones, that was in 1966 is called went unheeded by both stock and Packer. But I didn't bring an atom curtain conferences they continued for four more years. However, the x fell in 1970. With the publication of a book growing into union, it was jointly authored by Packer and another evangelical low church Anglican, and to Anglo Catholics in the Church of England that they were united and their opposition to a proposed merger between the liberal Methodist denomination and the Church of England which was predominantly local. And the two Angelica halls and the two Anglo Catholics found themselves in agreement and in opposition to this proposed merger on grounds of document orthodoxy. Well, they became really excited about their agreement with each other. I think a packer is that hard and document. Let's just begin with that as a baseline. I think he finds it heartwarming and encouraging to his face to mingle with people agree with his doctrinal tradition, but which only finds a lot of common ground. So I think these four man really got caught up in the excitement of it. They proposed the merger, the merger, did not go through it failed to meet the 75% but however, is 200 page book, which Packer did not envision as creating a firestorm but he did. He called it oh kind of tentative statement attract Well, a 200 page book is not attract and in a case it created a firestorm. But not only on all fronts, it created disharmony in the following groups. The liberals in the Church of England were irate and just were abusive to these four men on the floor of the conference that could have been expected. The evangelical Anglicans were up in arms about this book, which found more common ground and they were willing to concede that's I should have said that at the outset. Even john Stott was very critical of this book growing into union so it created great disharmony and the among the angle between stuff between Packer and the evangelical Anglicans, I should put it down. But even more than nonconformist tradition, Martin Lloyd Johnson, his group just were not on board at all, with the Catholic cleaning viewpoint expressed in the book. So it was that book that brought us down to the 20 year Puritan conference. Packer and Lloyd Jones had virtually no personal contact after that. I found so interesting that john Stott, however, continued to visit Lloyd Jones regularly, even after the 1966 repudiation, by the propose coming out of the church. Well, there was a degree of harshness, people who ride on Lloyd Jones and Packer about the 1970 ending of Puritan conference, shunning.
I want to just take time out to praise Packer for being an exceedingly generous man. He has repeatedly said to the current day that Lloyd Johns is the most stellar example of Christianity that he has ever known. So that's really saying a lot about generosity after Lloyd John's shunning.
And Dr. Rankin, how would you characterize the enduring legacy of this book growing into union?
I think it has no enduring legacy. It created a firestorm. I think it played its part in blocking the merger or Alternatively, the book didn't because actually the convention the convention halls at Canterbury in York preceded the publication of the book. But the joint effort of these four men had an effect in blocking the merger. I don't think there was any long term effect other than the discipline.
Dr. Rankin j. i Packer aligned himself with the aect movement, the evangelicals and Catholics together movement and received quite a lot of criticism for doing so. Why is it the packer aligned himself with this movement?
Well, I've hinted at one answer. He's an ex minister at heart. I remember seated being seated across the lunch table from another day of Christianity Today and he said, Look, Packer is a great tech humanist. Well, he is indeed. Packer actually answered that question in a column in Christianity today. And he gave three reasons for joining a movement. He felt a kinship with the Catholics and the Protestants who were The movement he thought it acknowledged that togetherness that already existed.
he said it was an opportunity to join forces against a secular and I would call pagan culture. So common cause against the degeneracy of the times. So he threw himself into the fray. I just would observe with you that I think really dating back to his college years. He enjoyed transcending denominational bounds. Let's go back to the college years. He was converted 10 years 10 days after arriving at Oxford University as a student, and it was under the auspices of inter varsity varsity as a kind of jellicle melting pot. So I think we can see already back then that Packer personally enjoyed moving among all genuine Believers so he was inclined already by temperament and background showing interest in evangelicals and Catholics together.
Hmm. And and Dr. Rankin what would you say I Packers hopes for evangelical Roman Catholic dialogue.
I didn't actually ask him that.
I will just say about the movement has Packer was involved in it that it began as common cause against the common enemy, namely the degeneracy of Western culture. And I think when the opposition quickly arose from non conforming evangelicals, that the movement more from being this combined combined tract against secularism into a an ecumenical movement so that the dialogue became the goal and Packer did not disagree with my assessment on that. I don't I think he hoped initially or a joint front against common enemy After all, the causes anti abortion. Gay, that was a shared viewpoint. So that was that was the hope I think. I have not myself been able to uncover any long term cultural influence of them
all knowledge you know more about
Dr. Rankin, if I can close our time together with a question that I've been asking all of our interviewees on this program, and that is this, what would it mean for the church to be united? How would we as Christians recognize this unity and what can we do to pursue this unity?
I'm going to slightly rephrase the question, what would Christian unity look like? And I'm prepared to give you five snapshots from the life of j pal That would answer the question, what would that look like? I'll just say, a leading theme and what I'm about to say is unity can exist through parature movements. Now, I mean that very loosely as a designation and even through the nomination channel, so I'm prepared to give you five snapshots. Let's return to jack Packers college experience was converted at an evangelistic service sponsored by the local intervarsity chapter upon conversion, and during his four years as an undergraduate, he would say that intervarsity was the leading spiritual input into his life. Now, the University chapter at Oxford was not without its tensions, but we don't need to go into that now. It was a group of Christians from well from different backgrounds. There were Anglicans in the Christian Fellowship but but the Plymouth brass We're very prominent, for example. So that was a unified group. They were evangelizing at Oxford.
University Jeff, I would give is the 20 years of Puritan conferences. That would be a nonconformist or reformed the Anglicans, no one do it. But within that community, the unity and the the excitement and spiritual energy were just unbelievable. Now, it's only by an act of imagination that we can see the revival. Puritanism has been the key to spiritual revival, but it
was that way.
So they had the annual meetings. They had speakers, there was fellowship. The ministers who attended were ready to go back into their local parishes. That's Christian unity.
in Oxford Packer was we're gonna let them warehouse for a decade. That's a solidly Anglican effort. It was an attempt to coordinate the efforts of evangelicals in the Church of England. A denominational better, we might say, but that was Christian unity. They generated tremendous zeal for truth. And we're making gains in the liberal man mind denomination. They were unified. This was a great time to be alive. Then let's fast forward to Packers moved to America. And again, it was in the reformed circles that I think his influence was most widespread Calvinistic or reformed. So I think the annual conferences, the Philadelphia conference on Reformed theology,
for example, Packer was a stalwart
for them later RC schools and I remember when the Philadelphia conference was at a tie tied stepping into the North exit college church in wheaton and looking through the glass door As at the evening meeting, the church was packed
that was Christianity, and Packer was in the center of it.
Neither it nor the
last need to take that into account. And my final snapshot is one that would come out of predicted. Packer spent half a century in the liberal Church of England, and then the Anglican Church in Canada. I look upon it as you know, kind of losing venture. And it appeared that Packers Anglicanism might be at its end when he was expelled from a church in Canada but he has reached his finest hour as an Anglican. He is active at the denominational level of the alternative Anglican Church in North America. That's my label. I call them at eight when he was aged At seven he had been he was back from a week on the east coast and a week on the West Coast doing committee work for the alternative Anglican Church in the one case composing, helping to compose a catechism and the other liturgy Packer is honored in this group he is listen to the group has unity so much as we might be surprised, it's a denominational expression of Christian. Now I infer that perhaps you and I people listening to the broadcast went on for more than that. I want to say I think the snapshot show that Packers the Christian Unity has emerged most strongly when people begin with documentary and they don't have to feel each other out. They don't have to explore where they agree and disagree. They know they're on the same page and they can celebrate the truth and disseminated By comparison, I would say that Packers ventures into formal ecumenical dialogue have produced disappointing results and disharmony. I'm not blaming him and the least that we look at the growing anti union that brought on Angela, it caused a lot of doors. Packers involvement with evangelicals and Catholics together, closed a lot of doors. And it's the more parish church and even denomination efforts of the ones I've described. That for me would be the picture of Christianity. I will also say that one lesson we can carry away In addition, we personally as Packer personally can pursue unity wherever we find it. And for Packer personally, these joint ecumenical efforts to explore a doctrinal agreement with the Catholics and disagreement have been personally rewarding. So he's actually Across the board,
but when he's taken the step into formal ecumenical dialogue,
he has disaffiliated himself with other groups. One lesson is a disappointing one we can't. For Christian unity, we have to affiliate it doesn't have to be ecclesiastical or organizational. But we affiliate with a group. And when we affiliate with one group, we seem to close the door to other groups. So that's a disappointing lesson, but I think it's there.
It's been our honor today to be speaking with Dr. Leland rakin, former professor of English at Wheaton College and author of J. I Packer and evangelical life. This is an incredibly rich and detailed life of J. I Packer. Thank you so much, Dr. Rankin, for joining us today. Welcome