By Sue Careless
A version of this tribute also appears in The Anglican Planet
One of the most influential evangelicals in the English-speaking world died on July 17, just shy of his 94th birthday. Canon Dr. J. I. Packer was an English-born Anglican priest and theologian, the author of nearly 70 books; he is probably best known for the spiritual classic, Knowing God (1973).
In its foreword Packer wrote: “As clowns yearn to play Hamlet, so I have wanted to write a treatise on God.” He wanted it to be a practical road map for travellers, not for theorizing onlookers on balconies. “Thus (for instance) in relation to evil, the balconeer’s problem is to find a theoretical explanation of how evil can consist with God’s sovereignty and goodness, but the traveller’s problem is how to master evil and bring good out of it.”
Packer was deeply influenced by the works of John Calvin and the English Puritans and brought 17th-century Puritan devotion to life for both his students and his readers. In 2005 he was named as one of the 25 Most Influential Evangelicals by Time Magazine.
One of his biographers, Leland Ryken, noted that “Although Packer could write specialized scholarship with the best, his calling was to write mid-level scholarship for the layperson… he regarded his informal theological writings for the layperson to be his calling.”
Packer served as general editor of the English Standard Version (2001), an evangelical revision of the Revised Standard Version of the Bible, and he considered the project one of his greatest contributions to the global church. He was also theological editor of the ESV Study Bible (2008).
He had a significant influence among American evangelicals from serving for more than 30 years as senior editor and visiting scholar for Christianity Today. When the magazine conducted a survey to determine the top 50 books that have shaped evangelicals, Packer’s Knowing God came in fifth.
James Innell Packer was born on July 22, 1926, in Gloucestershire, England, the son of a railway clerk and a homemaker. He had hoped for a bicycle on his eleventh birthday but providentially, as it turned out, was given a typewriter instead. He was raised in a nominally Anglican home
He won a scholarship to Oxford University, where he became a committed Christian at the age of 18 and became active in the Christian Union. He studied for the ministry at Wycliffe Hall, and earned a doctorate from Oxford, writing his dissertation on Puritan Richard Baxter’s doctrine of salvation. “It was the Puritans,” Packer noted, “that made me aware that all theology is also spirituality.”
He was ordained a priest in 1953 in the Church of England and a year later married Katherine “Kit” Mullet, a Welsh nurse to whom he was devoted. She proved a mainstay to Packer’s domestic life, and a source of constant encouragement.
He served as a curate in Birmingham for three years, but more of his professional life was spent at the typewriter or in the lecture hall than in the pulpit. He taught at Tyndale Hall, Bristol from 1955 to 1961, and then returned to Oxford as librarian and then principal of Latimer House, an evangelical research centre he established with John Stott to produce resources for spiritual renewal of the Church of England.
In 1966, the three most notable British evangelicals were the Welsh independent minister Martyn Lloyd-Jones and the Anglicans, Stott and Packer. At the National Assembly of Evangelicals in London that year, Lloyd-Jones called on evangelicals to come out of denominations in which they were “united with the people who deny and are opposed to the essential matters of salvation.”
Stott and Packer clashed publicly with Lloyd-Jones, rejecting his bid for a unified British evangelical church. They organized the first Evangelical Anglican Congress at Keele a year later, publicly committing to full participation in the Church of England. When Packer co-authored Growing into Union in 1970 with two Anglo-Catholics, Lloyd Jones broke formally with Packer, ending the Puritan Conferences that they had co-founded and then hosted for nearly two decades.
The authority and reliability of Scripture had been a central theme in Packer’s work since he published his first book, Fundamentalism and the Word of God, in 1958. It came as no surprise when he signed the famous Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy twenty years later, affirming a conservative position on the issue.
Packer’s willingness to work with Catholic Christians would lead to a clash with the Chicago Statement’s primary author, R. C. Sproul, and other conservative evangelicals in 1994, when he partnered with Richard J. Neuhaus as a leader of Evangelicals and Catholics Together. The group’s founding statement affirmed significant doctrinal agreement and called for cooperation in evangelism and cultural renewal in the face of a rising secularist tide.
In 1979, Packer left a senior post at Trinity College, Bristol, an Anglican evangelical seminary, to join the faculty of Regent College in Vancouver. He was Regent’s first Sangwoo Youtong Chee Professor of Theology and remained part of the faculty for the rest of his life.
He became an important leader within the Anglican Church of Canada, playing a key role in the Essentials movement, which sought to renew theological orthodoxy within the denomination. Packer spoke to 700 Anglicans at the formative Essentials ‘94 conference held in Montreal, and his address was published as a chapter in the book Anglican Essentials (1995).
In Vancouver, Packer and his wife joined St. John’s (Shaughnessy) Anglican Church, then the largest congregation in the Anglican Church of Canada. However, in 2002, when the synod of the Anglican Diocese of New Westminster in Vancouver authorized its bishop to produce a service for blessing same-sex unions, Packer was among the synod delegates who walked out in protest.
“[T]his decision, taken in its context,” he said, “falsifies the gospel of Christ, abandons the authority of Scripture, jeopardizes the salvation of fellow human beings, and betrays the church in its God-appointed role as the bastion and bulwark of divine truth.”
In February 2008, St. John’s voted to leave the Anglican Church in Canada altogether and realign with the newly formed Anglican Network in Canada (ANiC). On April 23 of that year, Packer handed in his licence to Michael Ingham, the Bishop of New Westminster. The Anglican Network in Canada would subsequently join the Anglican Church in North America.
Packer served as theologian emeritus of the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA) since its creation in 2009, and was general editor of To Be a Christian: An Anglican Catechism, a 160-page document which was approved in 2014 by ACNA’s College of Bishops. He was awarded the St. Cuthbert’s Cross at the Provincial Assembly of ACNA that year by retiring Archbishop Robert Duncan for his “unparalleled contribution to Anglican and global Christianity.”
By late 2015, due to his failing eyesight, Packer was no longer able to continue writing or travelling. Still he regularly attended the early Sunday morning Eucharist at St John’s and afterwards the Learners’ Exchange, where he was often a presenter.
Just a few days after suffering a fall, Packer died peacefully in hospital with Kit and their priest at his bedside. Kit said she can’t imagine life without her husband. He died on their 66th wedding anniversary and she commented that it was “like Jim to make things convenient for me. I won’t forget which day he died!”
University of British Columbia historian Dr. George Egerton said he considered Packer “a dear friend and mentor,” and said of him,“He was famous and revered for his best-selling books but was utterly without pretensions. He had time for anyone. If you needed an article for a journal, or a review, he was always happy to oblige. He loved conversation, and had an eager eye and ear for the absurd and comic, not least from within conservative Anglican circles. He knew his sermons were sometimes too long and a bit dry but he could make them memorable. Once at St John’s, when seeing a few too many heads nodding off, he shouted out ‘sex,’ and then smiled and quietly resumed, noting he now had everyone’s attention.
“His Christian legacy is enormous and global, as apologist, defender of Anglican biblical fidelity, tremendous organizer, and mentor to countless readers and friends. It brings me joy to think of his entry to heaven, to be greeted by his Lord, and the Heavenly Hosts, and that great cloud of witnesses, who have gone before — especially John Owen, Richard Baxter and John Calvin. What a conversation!”
Packer is survived by Kit; their three children, Ruth, Naomi, and Martin; and two grandsons. Regent College has established the J.I. Packer Scholarship in his honor. Packer’s final work, The Heritage of Anglican Theology, will appear in 2021.
Sue Careless is Senior Editor at The Anglican Planet.