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JI Packer: his life and thought by Alister McGrath 

Learn more about the life and faith of one of the most influential evangelical theological and spiritual writers of the 20th century - as well as British Christianity in the 1960s and 70s


JI PackerJI Packer: his life and thought
By Alister McGrath
Hodder and Stoughton
ISBN: 978-0830841776
Reviewed by Terry Young

I guess there are two reasons why people read book reviews – to decide whether to read a book or to find out what it says so that they don’t have to. This review is to help you decide whether to read Alister McGrath on JI Packer.

As an atheist turned Christian, Alister is always worth reading on evidence and apologetics. As a biographer, I have only encountered him on CS Lewis, by whom he has been influenced and whose ghost haunts the pages of this book.

But this is a different type of book, one that might be a biography or a book on theology or even apologetics. As you read, it’s a bit like tasting something new for the first time – maybe a soda farl – and not being sure whether the usual texture compensates for the unusual taste (or maybe the other way around).

To help you decide, here are three questions. First, how much you know about JI Packer and what would you like to know? When I started university in the late ‘70s, I heard of an important book called, Knowing God that I should read, but somehow never did. Alister tells us why that book was so important, how Packer came to write it, and what else he wrote, lectured, preached and led.

Packer was possessed, it seems, of two passions. The first was for theologising which meant doing theology rather than thinking about it or commenting on what others wrote about it. In Knowing God, apparently (for I still haven’t read it), he adopts a balcony metaphor set in a Spanish village one summer evening, where he contrasts those in the street – who are living village life – with those on a balcony above who are observing. It’s not just that Packer wanted people off the balcony, he didn’t believe theology had any purpose if you didn’t ‘do’ it. He didn’t even believe you could work out what you should do unless you did so in the jostle of real life in the street. This may sound odd coming from someone who frequented top universities, but it’s true.

His second was to teach – to express ideas in such a way that anyone could grasp them. By all accounts, he was a gifted teacher, starting with the tricky business of helping undergraduates with their Greek. Those who listened to his lectures reported on his ability to snatch the right turn of phrase or capture an idea with clarity and brevity. The two passions drove most of what he did.

My second helpful question (well these questions are helping me write this review) is: how much do you want to know about what made Packer tick? Alister answers this to some extent in respect to Packer’s beliefs and career decisions, but the focus doesn’t extend to conveying what it was like to be with him, or how he related to his family. Alister has written a proper biography of Packer but I haven’t read it (I’m afraid this review is shining a cruel light on my shortcomings). However, there is definitely a strong sense of the man in the book, and I felt that sadness I feel when I reach the end of every good biography and read about the gap left behind.

My final helpful question is: how much do you know about British Christianity in the ‘60s and ‘70s and how it influenced Christians up to the present day? If you want to know how evangelicals reached out (and fought!) across denominational boundaries, then there is some interesting history here in an accessible narrative. If you are interested in the rise of the Charismatic movement or how places developed that train clergy (or those that set out to provide a theological training for those who specifically do not want to become vicars or pastors), then there is lots of interesting background. The question of history is particularly important, since Packer’s approach to theologising meant reaching back to the Puritans to see how they found answers in their day.  

This matters because our current Christian struggles did not come out of nowhere, so knowing how people crafted arguments in the past is vitally important if we are to sway our nation today.  Like his subject, Alister is lucid as he explains lines of argument, and the narrative clicks along nicely.

If the answer to any of these helpful questions is that you know less than you would like to and want to know a little more, then Packer is your man and Alister is your guide.

Professor Terry Young is an author and member of a Baptist church. He set up Datchet Consulting which combines his experience in industry and academia

Baptist Times, 28/05/2021
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