J. I. Packer: Theological Biographer
J. I. Packer would have been a fantastic biographer.
He is widely recognized as a masterful summarizer of theology. “Packer by name, packer by trade” he likes to say. But not as well-known is his gift for summing up a man. In a compact way he is able to describe a man’s physical characteristics and give a sense of what it was like to interact with and learn from him.
What a fascinating human being he was! Slightly built, with a great domed cranium, head thrust forward, a fighter’s chin and a grim line to his mouth, he radiated resolution, determination, and an unwillingness to wait for ever. A very strong man, you would say, and you would be right. You can sense this from any photograph of him, for he never smiled into the camera.
There was a touch of the old-fashioned about him: he wore linen collars, three-piece suits, and boots in public, spoke on occasion of crossing-sweepers and washerwomen, and led worship as worship was led a hundred years before his time.
In the pulpit he was a lion, fierce on matters of principle, austere in his gravity, able in his prime to growl and to roar as his argument required.
Informally, however, he was a delightfully relaxed person, superb company, twinkling and witty to the last degree. His wit was as astringent as it was quick and could leave you feeling you had been licked by a cow. . . .
In 1952 he complained to me of the presence at the Puritan conference of two young ladies from his congregation. ‘They’re only here for the men!’ said he. ‘Well, Doctor,’ I replied, ‘as a matter of fact I’m going to marry one of them.’ (I had proposed and been accepted the night before.) I thought that would throw him but it didn’t at all. Quick as a flash came the answer, ‘Well, you see I was right about one of them; now what about the other?’ That’s repartee for you! He did not suffer fools gladly and had a hundred ways of deflating pomposity. Honest, diffident people, however, found in him a warmth and friendliness that amazed them.
For he was a saint, a holy man of God: a naturally proud person whom God made humble; a naturally quick-tempered person to whom God taught patience; a naturally contentious person to whom God gave restraint and wisdom; a natural egoist, conscious of his own great ability, whom God set free from self-seeking to serve the servants of God.
Packer goes on to write:
Nearly forty years on, it still seems to me that all I have ever known about preaching was given me in the winter of 1948-49, when I worshipped at Westminster chapel with some regularity. Through the thunder and the lightning, I felt and saw as never before the glory of Christ and of his gospel as modern man’s only lifeline and learned by experience why historic Protestantism looks on preaching as the supreme means of grace and of communion with God. Preaching, thus viewed and valued, was the centre of the Doctor’s life: into it he poured himself unstintingly; for it he pleaded untiringly. Rightly, he believed that preachers are born rather than made, and that preaching is caught more than it is taught, and that the best way to vindicate preaching is to preach. And preach he did, almost greedily, till the very end of his life. . . .
He was physically small, with a bulging forehead, furrowed brow, and goatee beard. Alpine knee-breeches housed his American legs, his head sank into his shoulders, and his face bore a look of bright abstraction. Nothing special there, you would think; a serious, resolute man, no doubt, maybe a bit eccentric, but hardly unique on that account. When he spoke, his English though clear was not elegant, and his voice had no special charm; British ears found it harsh, and if stirred he would screech from the podium in a way that was hard to enjoy. Nevertheless, what he said was arresting, however he might look or sound while saying it. It had firmness, arguing vision; gentleness, arguing strength; simple clarity, arguing mental mastery; and compassion, arguing an honest and good heart. There was no guile in it, no party narrowness, no manipulation, only the passionate persuasiveness of the prophet who hurries in to share with others what he himself sees.
You can read more of his biographical sketches—including Luther, Calvin, Baxter, Whitefield—in the fourth volume of his collected works on honouring the people of God.