J. I. Packer, one of the most respected and well-known theologians of our time, passed away on Friday, July 17, at the age of 93.
Once named to Time magazine’s list of the 25 Most Influential Evangelicals in America, James Innell Packer wrote what many consider the definitive classic evangelical book of the twentieth century, Knowing God, which has sold more than one million copies in North America alone.
Jeff Crosby, publisher for IVP said, “J. I. Packer was a man who knew and loved God and helped others to do likewise. Knowing God, which we first published in 1973, is but one example from his life of writing and teaching.”
“There’s a difference between knowing God and knowing about God,” Packer wrote. “When you truly know God, you have energy to serve Him, boldness to share Him, and contentment in Him.”
As the author of forty-seven books, as well as untold numbers of journal articles, book reviews, dictionary entries, and forewords, Packer’s prolific work has impacted countless pastors, thought leaders, theologians, and authors.
Jim Hoover, who served as an editor at IVP for thirty-five years, said, “Jim Packer was a remarkable presence. I had the privilege of meeting with him on various occasions over the years, and he always impressed me as a man of grace and humor, erudition and humility, a man who loved God and who, though he crafted what he said carefully even in casual conversation, never took himself overly seriously. He was extremely generous, some might say overly generous, almost never declining to provide endorsements in his support of young writers.”
Packer was born in a village outside Gloucester, England, on July 22, 1926. When he was seven, while being chased by a bully as he left school, Packer suffered a severe head injury in a collision with a van. Unable to participate in sports after the accident, Packer instead turned his attention to his love for reading. And when he turned eleven, Packer was gifted an old Oliver typewriter from his parents. Little did they know that their son would go on to craft every word of every one of his books on a typewriter.
Bob Fryling, former publisher for IVP, said, “I was privileged to know Jim Packer as a distinguished IVP author. He had a joyful countenance and a godly pastoral heart. But he used to joke about being hard-headed because he had a metal plate in his forehead from an accident in his youth. However, it was not by accident that Jim became known for his clear theological thinking and writing. He was always able to get to what he would say to be ‘the nub of the issue’ no matter how complex it was.”
Packer’s time studying at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, became another formative experience for his future as a prolific author and theologian. During his years at school he attended lectures by C. S. Lewis, whose thought became an influential part of Packer’s life and work. While at Oxford he also committed his life to Christ at an evangelistic service sponsored by the campus InterVarsity chapter.
Following the completion of his doctorate in philosophy, Packer went on to teach at Oak Hill Theological College in London before attending Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, where he underwent theological training for ordination into the Church of England. And in 1954 Packer married Kit Mullet and they had three children: Ruth, Naomi, and Martin.
During his time in England, Packer took on a number of theological college–based roles, including working as principal of Latimer House, Oxford, serving as principal of Tyndale Hall, Bristol, and then as associate principal of Trinity College, Bristol. In 1979, one of Packer’s friends from Oxford convinced him to teach at Regent College in Vancouver, British Columbia.
A tribute to Packer on the Regent College website reads: “Jim’s arrival helped to establish Regent as a theological destination. He remained what he described as a ‘Regent Man’ for the rest of his career. He was the first faculty member to hold the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and he taught a wide range of classes, including Systematic Theology and Puritan Theology as well as theological expositions on his favorite Pauline letters.”
Packer preached and lectured widely in Great Britain and North America, and served as general editor of the English Standard Version of the Bible published in 2001, and as theological editor of the Study Bible version. In 2014, Packer was named Author of the Year by the Association of Logos Bookstores. He was a frequent contributor to and an executive editor of Christianity Today, and wrote numerous articles published in journals such as Churchman, SouthWestern Journal, Reformation & Revival Journal, and Touchstone. In addition to Knowing God, his books include Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God (1961), Keep in Step with the Spirit (1984), A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life (1994), Weakness Is the Way (2013) and many others.
As an author with IVP for nearly a half century, Packer left a lasting impression on those he interacted with on various projects. Fryling said, “Jim was graciously articulate in giving wonderful endorsements to a multitude of authors and books. One day at lunch with some colleagues I asked him, ’Jim, how would you describe the uniqueness of IVP?‘ After a brief pause he said, ‘Some publishers tell you what to believe and other publishers tell you what you already believe, but IVP helps you to believe.‘ We were so grateful for not only his kind and generous affirmation, but we were a bit stunned that he had captured in a brief moment what indeed was integral to IVP’s vision and mission. He was a publisher’s dream!”
Packer is also remembered for being a lover of jazz music. “One of the most enduring memories I have of Dr. Packer is set in the most unlikely of places: Preservation Hall in the heart of the French Quarter in New Orleans," Crosby recalled. "We had invited Jim to come to the CBA International book convention in July of 2000 to promote his book Never Beyond Hope. Only half in jest he said he would come, so long as someone took him to hear the Preservation Hall Jazz Band! I and other colleagues gladly obliged, and as we sat together throughout the evening on rickety benches in the damp, musty, historic hall, the joy on the face of the life-long jazz music listener was absolutely radiant.”
The Regent College tribute page describes Packer as witty, disciplined, and faithful: “When he was writing daily, Jim wrote 2000 words (on his treasured manual typewriter) before breakfast. When asked if he wanted a dictionary loaded onto his iPad (a device he used as his eyesight deteriorated), he smiled sheepishly and admitted, ‘Well, I haven’t needed one so far.’
“For all his accolades and accomplishments, Jim’s focus was always, always, on Christ. He said The Book of Common Prayer’s Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer services at the beginning and end of each day, often arising at 4 a.m. to do so. Even recovering from a broken pelvis in his last year, he would sink to his knees to pray preceding the Eucharist.”
Cindy Bunch, associate publisher and director of editorial for IVP, said, “In July 1988 I started working at InterVarsity Press while finishing seminary. That summer I took Dr. J. I. Packer’s week course on puritanism at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. Little did I know that some years later I would acquire two books with him: Never Beyond Hope and Praying. I was also able to collaborate with him on a number of Knowing God-related books and Bible studies. And now his experience of knowing God is fully realized.”
Packer himself sums up his life, faith, and eternity best: “There is no peace like the peace of those whose minds are possessed with full assurance that they have known God, and God has known them, and that this relationship guarantees God’s favor to them in life, through death and on forever.”