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J. I. Packer, the Schoolyard Bully, and an Inattentive Bread Truck Driver

[My new book on J. I. Packer’s view of the Christian Life opens with this biographical note.] Continue reading . . .

[My new book on J. I. Packer’s view of the Christian Life opens with this biographical note.]

I don’t think it an exaggeration to say that I owe much of what I am as a pastor and theologian to the combined influence of a schoolyard bully and an inattentive bread truck driver. Such are the mysteries of divine providence that largely account for the remarkable spiritual influence, not only on me personally but on the whole of the evangelical world, of one James Innell Packer. I’m not alone in this assessment of Packer’s impact, as the readers of Christianity Today identified him as second only to C. S. Lewis when it came to the most influential theological writers of the 20th century. But how did the bully and the bread truck driver enter the picture?

The answer to this question takes us back to September 19, 1933, and the city of Gloucester, England. J. I. Packer was only seven at the time of the incident, having been born on July 22, 1926, the son of a clerk for the Great Western Railway. It was from the grounds of the National School in Gloucester that the young Packer was chased by the bully, himself an obviously unwitting piece of the providential puzzle that would ultimately make Packer into the man we know and love him to be. Who knows what was passing through the mind of that bread truck driver. Were his eyes momentarily distracted by some random event? Was he day-dreaming? Or was he fully engaged and must the blame be laid at the feet of young Packer himself? Regardless, the force of the collision thrust the seven-year-old to the ground, inflicting on him a serious head injury.

Packer was immediately rushed into surgery where he was treated for “a depressed compound fracture of the frontal bone on the right-hand side of his forehead, with injury to the frontal lobe of the brain” (Alister McGrath, 7). It left Packer with an indentation on the right side of his forehead, still quite visible today. The accident was “thought to have damaged my brain,” wrote Packer (Rediscovering Holiness, 40). More than 80 years later one can only conclude that, if anything, it served rather to stimulate what we have come to know and appreciate as one of the great Christian minds not merely of the past century but in the history of the church these past 2,000 years.

The recovery was not without its inconveniences, as the young Packer was forced to withdraw from school for a period of six months. From that time until he went to university, Packer wore a protective aluminum plate over the injury. Needless to say, this was not the sort of thing that would contribute to a young man’s participation in athletics or widespread acceptance among his peers. This only reinforced his tendency to keep unto himself and thrust him into a more secluded life of reading and writing.

When he turned eleven, like most boys his age, Packer anticipated a bicycle for a birthday present. But given their lingering and well justified concerns about their son’s head injury, sending him into the streets once again did not strike his parents as the wisest course of action. Instead, he received an old Oliver typewriter. Once he had overcome his initial disappointment, Packer took to typing with a fervor. To this day, notwithstanding the many technological advances we all now enjoy, Packer still writes all his books on an old-fashioned typewriter! I doubt if any of us who have been so richly blessed by his ministry are inclined to protest.

The Packer home was nominally Anglican, and his church attendance, though regular, was spiritually uneventful. On reaching the age of 14, Packer consented to his mother’s request that he be confirmed in their local church. “Confirmation, as the Church of England understands it, marks the point at which an individual chooses to affirm his or her faith on their own behalf, rather than simply rely on promises made on their behalf at their baptism by their parents and godparents” (McGrath, 7).

The journey to genuine conversion was soon to take on several interesting turns, the first of which came in conversations with the son of a Unitarian minister in between their regular chess games. Packer, 15 at the time, was not persuaded by his arguments. The notion that Jesus was little more than an ethical model simply made no sense to him. “If you are going to deny the divinity of Christ,” said Packer,” “which is so central to the New Testament, you also deny all the rest of it. If you are going to affirm that the ethic of Jesus is the best thing since fried bread, well then you ought to take seriously what the New Testament says about who He is. That got me going” (J. I. Packer, “The Lost Interview,” www.worldmag.org, Dec. 7, 2013, by Joel Belz).

His newly awakened interest in Christianity was deepened upon the discovery of the early works of an increasingly popular author, C. S. Lewis. The latter’s Screwtape Letters (1943), followed by his best-selling classic, Mere Christianity (1944), proved stimulating to Packer. So too were his conversations with friend Eric Taylor whose own conversion experience left him wondering what he himself lacked and how it might be attained.

Upon his arrival at Oxford University in 1944, Packer fulfilled his promise to young Taylor that he would pay a visit to the Oxford Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (the OICCU). On Sunday evening, October 22, 1944, the Reverend Earl Langston was preaching, boringly according to Packer. But half way through the sermon something changed. Langston “started telling at length the story of his own conversion and suddenly everything became clear. I am not a person who gets much in the way of visions or visuals, but the concept called up a picture which was there in my mind was that here I am outside of the house and looking through the window and I understand what they are doing. I recognize the games they are playing. Clearly they are enjoying themselves, but I am outside. Why am I outside? Because I have been evading the Lord Jesus and His call” (“The Lost Interview,” Belz).

At the conclusion, as was customary at such meetings, they sang Charlotte Elliot’s famous hymn, “Just as I Am.” And so, “about 100 feet from where the great evangelist George Whitefield committed himself to Christ in 1735, James I. Packer made his own personal commitment” (McGrath, 18).

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