Packer’s Dusty Puritan Discovery Still Guides and Helps

During J. I. Packer’s second year of undergraduate studies at Oxford, he was invited to serve as the junior librarian at the Christian Union student organization. Having been converted only a year earlier, Packer was new to the Union but, as he would soon discover, so were a recent donation of books. An octogenarian clergyman had recently concluded that he could no longer make use of his library and thus gave them to the Union who, upon receipt, proceeded to pile them in the basement of their meeting space in North Gate Hall for an unknown future.[1] Thereafter, as is now famously told and retold, Packer discovered, as a nineteen year-old, the works of the Puritan John Owen—and the evangelical world has not been the same since.

At the time of this discovery, Packer would later relate his life “was all over the place” emotionally and thus “God used [Owen] to save my sanity.” More than just sorting out Packer, his literal “recovery” of the Puritans would start a movement that not only would bring great and good revived interest in these evangelical forebears, but also would help provide an anchor to the Word of God during the tumultuous 1960s and 1970s in the United Kingdom and abroad.

From this discovery, Packer would later help recover a more faithful understanding of Puritanism. He summarizes “the Puritanism of history” well in A Grief Sanctified (2002), “It was, rather, a holistic renewal movement within English-speaking Protestantism, which aimed to bring all life—personal, ecclesiastical, political, social, commercial; family life, business life, professional life—under the didactic authority and the purging and regenerating power of God in the gospel to the fullest extent possible.” [2]

Even more, Packer would spend a lifetime underscoring how the Puritans of the past can help Evangelicals of the present. As one example, Packer explains how reading the Puritans can correct the hyper-individualism and anti-thinking perspective that pervades Evangelicalism. In A Quest for Godliness (1990), Packer offers that the Puritans have these seven points of wisdom for present day Evangelicals:

  1. The stress on God-centeredness as a divine requirement that is central to the discipline of self-denial.
  2. The insistence on the primacy of the mind, and on the impossibility of obeying biblical truth that one has not yet understood.
  3. The demand for humility, patience, and steadiness at all times, and for an acknowledgment that the Holy Spirit’s main ministry is not to give thrills but to create in us Christlike character.
  4. The recognition that feelings go up and down, and that God frequently tries us by leading us through wastes of emotional flatness.
  5. The singling out of worship as life’s primary activity.
  6. The stress on our need of regular self-examination by Scripture, in terms set by Psalm 139:23-24.
  7. The realisation that sanctified suffering bulks large in God’s plan for his children’s growth in grace. [3]

One could argue, that had not Packer discovered that box of books, his tremendously influential and life altering works, Fundamentalism and the Word of God (1958) and Knowing God (1973), may never have appeared—not to mention the republishing of the Works of John Owen themselves as well as many other volumes in the Puritan canon readily available today. [4]

Even more, Packer’s discovery in Oxford proved vital for helping Evangelicals strengthen their theological foundation, and still is helping. May a new generation continue to follow Packer to make new discoveries like his of their own.

At Midwestern Seminary, we currently have several PhD students reading and writing on the Puritans and Puritan influence. From John Owen, Richard Baxter, and Jeremiah Burroughs, to the Puritan influence on the English Baptists, Jonathan Edwards and D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and then also, of course, the influence of the Puritans on Charles Spurgeon, explored uniquely through his Puritan collection in The Spurgeon Library.

In brief, if you are interested in the Puritans and their legacy, continue the discovery work of J. I. Packer by coming to study them with us at Midwestern.

[1] The location where this took place is North Gate Hall, St Michael’s St, Oxford OX1 2DU, UK

[2] J. I. Packer, A Grief Sanctified (Crossway, 2002), 19.

[3] J. I. Packer, A Quest for Godliness (Crossway, 1990, 2010), 31.

[4] Leland Ryken, J.I. Packer: An Evangelical Life (Crossway, 2015), 265-267. This key event in Packer’s life is also told in Alister McGrath, J. I. Packer: A Biography (Baker, 1998).