J.I. Packer’s passing was one of the great losses of 2020. If you are looking for a short introduction to his work, J.I. Packer: His Life and Thought by Alister McGrath is the perfect book for you. McGrath does an excellent job of alternating short biographical sketches with what Packer was working on at the time and the impact it had on the church.
McGrath points out in the introduction that many think of Packer as a North American theologian. People don’t know much about his impact on evangelicalism in the United Kingdom. He writes:
This book focuses on Packer’s origins, education and ministry in the United Kingdom, which were an essential part of his formation as a Christian and as a theologian.
McGrath begins with the quintessential J.I. Packer origin story. Packer was apparently always a bookish child, but a childhood accident that prevented him from being able to roughhouse made him even more so, which really set the course of his life.
The book follows Packer through key moments and phases in his life. McGrath zooms in on important time periods, like Packer coming to faith and stumbling upon the Puritans when he needed a practical theological framework. He goes into detail around the writing of Packer’s important works and some of the controversies that he dealt with. And then he zooms back out to summarize periods of teaching and serving in ministry.
As the title suggests, McGrath weaves chapters between the biographical narrative to explain J.I. Packer’s theological thoughts. McGrath includes just enough details to keep the narrative flow of the book, while also giving a taste of Packer’s theology and writing. And then he brings right back into the biographical narrative. As previously mentioned, the book focuses on his time and work in the UK, while only spending a few chapters at the end to summarize his popular time in North America.
J.I. Packer: His Life and Thought made me want to read more Packer. In just a short book, it made it clear that Packer had a deep love for the practical aspect of theology. It wasn’t just abstractions and theory to him. J.I. Packer wanted to know how to live out his faith in a deep way, and that’s what he studied, taught, and wrote about.
Packer also had a love for the local church and people. He knew very earlier that he wasn’t being called to just academics. His calling was to serve God’s people as a “theological educator.” Throughout his career in the UK, he was always concerned with teaching “how to do theology,” rather than just giving people the final product. Even into his retirement years, Packer emphasized the churches need to rediscover the “lost art of catechesis.”
Christians who know their faith, can explain it to enquirers and sustain it against skeptics, and can put it to work in evangelism, church fellowship, and the many forms of service to God and man for which circumstances call.
J.I. Packer: His Life and Thought packs a lot into a short read. You can’t help love Packer’s humble desire to help people know God and live out their faith in practical ways. It’s a great introduction into his work. You can get a copy here.