“A Speckled Bird”
His Blossoming Faith
The son of a working-class man who was in his recollection, “unfit for major responsibility,” James Innell Packer was brought up in Gloucester, England, in an environment that hardly seemed a likely incubator for one of the greatest Christian minds of the twentieth century. Spending his childhood fumbling to fit in, Packer’s intellectual and bookish qualities often estranged him from his peers. “A violent collision with a bread van” served to further remove him from social acceptance. In the incident, after being chased into a street by some schoolboys, he was hit by a van and “Lost a bit of [his] head as a result.” From then on he recalls, he “Used to move around wearing on [his] head an aluminum plate with a rubber pad attached around the edge.” Frustrated by being, in his words, “A speckled bird,” Packer struggled to fit in. But his opportunity to play sports, like cricket, and live actively had been dashed with the van accident. Ultimately, he embraced his own intellectual curiosity and spent the bulk of his childhood reading voraciously.
Packer grew up going to church because of the habitual attendance of his parents, but it wasn’t until he was in secondary school that he began thinking seriously about the Christian faith. By the time he entered Corpus Christi College at Oxford in 1944, his vigorous study of the Bible and other Christian writers, including C. S. Lewis, had won his intellectual assent for Christianity. However, Packer recalls, it wasn’t until he attended a meeting of the Oxford Christian Union that he finally made, “A personal transaction with the living Lord, the Lord Jesus.”
Packer didn’t solve his social problems by becoming a Christian, and even at college he began feeling an increased sense of isolation. During this time he happened to start reading some of the great Puritan authors, like John Owen and John Bunyan, and found in their works the inspiration to be ordained and subsequently pursue doctoral studies.
Following Packer’s ordination in the Anglican Church, a providential scheduling mix-up on the part of a friend, changed his life forever. Having double-booked himself for an evening, Packer’s friend asked James to speak to an audience in his absence. This speaking engagement not only broke through Packer’s fear of public situations but also introduced him to his future wife, Kit Mullett, who was sitting in the audience. Together they would have three children, Naomi, Ruth, and Martin and, Packer recalls, a slew of pets.
“Centered on the Lord”
Gaining respect in academic circles, Packer wrote his first book, a critique of Christian Fundamentalism called Fundamentalism and the Word of God, in 1958. Knowing God, his most widely read book, was published fifteen years later in 1973. He worked to found the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy (ICBI). He surprised the academic community in 1979, by leaving his Anglican evangelical community to take a position at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia. Regent flourished because of his presence, growing from a tiny institution into the largest center of theological education in its region. Since arriving at Regent he has published a book every year. Together his books have sold more than three million copies. His wife Kit is quick to point out the source of his success, “His devotion to the Lord is the reason for everything he’s done. His writing, his preaching, his lecturing, his living are all centered on the Lord.” To read more about Packer, a recent biography by Alister McGrath, entitled J. I. Packer, gives a careful and sensitive examination of his life.