Tag Archives: Leland Ryken

Book Review: J.I. Packer, An Evangelical Life

J I Packer -- An Evangelical Life

J.I. Packer: An Evangelical Life, Leland Ryken.  Wheaton:  Crossway Books, 2015.  Hardcover, 431 pages, $39.99 AUD.

I had one recurring thought as I read this biography:  what if J. I. Packer had been born somewhere else other than England?  What if, say, he had been born, raised and educated in the United States?  How would his story have played out differently?  As it is, he was born in England and having spent a good deal of his life there did shape his thinking and influence.  Especially the Church of England has been a dominant force in his life.

This is a unique biography of a unique theologian.  The book is unique because of the approach that Ryken takes – he doesn’t merely give a chronological accounting of Packer’s life.  The first part of the book does that, but part 2 attempts to give a picture of the man and what makes him tick, while part 3 works out some of the themes of his life.

J.I. Packer is well-known to many Reformed readers not only because of the quantity he’s produced, but also the quality.  Just speaking for myself, my first Packer book was his volume on the Puritans, A Quest for Godliness.  This had a huge impact on shaping my attitude towards those saints of old.   Later, when I pursued doctoral studies in missiology, one of my required readings was one of Packer’s first books, Evangelism & the Sovereignty of God.  This slender book powerfully argued that a Calvinistic belief in God’s sovereignty is definitely not a death-knell for spreading the gospel – quite the opposite!   Many people have also benefitted from Packer classics such as Knowing God.

The biographer’s stated purpose was to give the reader an acquaintance with James Innell Packer.  Certainly I did come away from it with a better understanding of the man and his contributions.  For example, you learn of Packer’s significant involvement with the English Standard Version (ESV) – he was the general editor of the ESV, the theological editor of the ESV Study Bible, and has done editing work on every ESV study Bible published by Crossway.  Packer was also deeply involved in debates surrounding biblical inerrancy – a debate that he considered to extend far beyond the confines of the United States.  Packer was one of the drafters of the 1978 Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy.  But you also discover some of his personality – he enjoys jazz music, but reckons jazz took a turn for the worse when Louis Armstrong began playing the trumpet, rather than the cornet.

Readers should not expect to find a critical biography here.  Ryken is obviously a friend of Packer and they have worked together on projects like the ESV.  Ryken is careful to cast his friend in the best possible light – which is what you would expect a friend to do.  However, this does have a drawback in that where a critical stance might have been appropriate, Ryken is either silent or restrained.

As an example, let’s take one of the most controversial affairs in Packer’s life:  his involvement with the 1994 statement entitled Evangelicals and Catholics Together (ECT).  This was an effort to unite Roman Catholics and evangelicals on a common theological basis in order to take a joint stand against social evils like abortion.  Unfortunately, this common theological basis resulted in the lowest-common denominator form of essential doctrines like justification.  Packer was a key player in the events leading to ECT and a signer.  Ryken spends several pages on the controversy, but he doesn’t mention exactly what the critics’ concerns were.  This is completely overlooked.  So are subsequent developments in this saga.  Packer teamed up with Michael Horton to produce another document, Resolutions for Roman Catholic and Evangelical Dialogue.  This document, also from 1994, was signed by numerous high-profile Presbyterian and Reformed theologians besides Packer.  Ryken doesn’t mention it.  Nor does he mention another ecumenical statement from 1998, The Gift of Salvation.  This was produced by many of the same people involved with ECT in 1994, including Packer.  The Gift of Salvation again compromised on the doctrine of justification by faith alone in the interests of ecumenicity with Roman Catholics.

Towards the end of the book, Ryken exclaims that he cannot understand why certain groups and individuals get so angry at Packer (page 411).  It’s a mystery to him.  I can solve that mystery:  it’s because Packer is rather inconsistent on some key teachings.  For example, he claims to hold to the ultimate authority of the Bible, yet he is lenient on evolution.  He claims to believe in justification by faith alone as a foundational doctrine, yet he readily gives this up when working with Roman Catholics.

Throughout his years in the Church of England and the Anglican Church of Canada, Packer “consistently endorsed leniency regarding the presence of liberal forces within Anglicanism” (page 321).  In a conversation with Ryken, Packer noted that other churches deal with errors through discipline;  he then made the novel claim that “debate is also a form of discipline” (page 314).  However, he was almost always on the losing end of important debates and the liberal forces for which he had endorsed leniency pushed him out of the Anglican Church of Canada.  This happened in 2008 over the issue of same-sex marriage.  We can commend Packer for maintaining the biblical position on marriage no matter what the cost.  However, at the same time, one wonders what would have happened if he had been more forceful all along with gospel-deniers in Anglicanism, of which there have been plenty.  Would they have forced him out sooner?  More importantly, was leniency really biblically justified (cf. Gal. 1:6-9)?

It’s not a perfect biography, but it was certainly an interesting one.  Readers will gain an understanding of the life and times of this unique, and sometimes perplexing, theologian.  The writing is excellent and easy-to-understand (like Packer himself), but because of Ryken’s approach, there is some overlap and repetition between the parts.   This isn’t the first biography of Packer, but it is the latest.  I’m also quite sure that it won’t be the last – much more remains to be said about his life and legacy, for better and for worse.


ESV for “Joe the Bus Driver”

I’ve been reading Leland Ryken’s biography of J.I. Packer.  Ryken mentions several times Packer’s involvement with the English Standard Version.  Packer served as the general editor of the ESV (and apparently still does).  In chapter 14, Ryken points out that Packer’s writing was almost always directed to a general audience.  This extended to his work on the ESV as well:

I will add that Packer’s concern for the ordinary reader surfaced strongly during the deliberations of the translation committee of the English Standard Version.  The utterance for which Packer became best known was “Joe the bus driver.”  Packer championed the cause of Joe the bus driver when the committee considered lexical alternatives for the English language rendering of a Hebrew or Greek word.  He wanted the rendition that would be most clear to Joe. (J.I. Packer: An Evangelical Life, 196).

Sometimes you’ll hear folks talking about how the English of the ESV is too difficult, especially when compared to the NIV.  The anecdote illustrates that the production of the ESV was sensitive to this concern.  Did they succeed?  Well, you could see this chart produced by Zondervan (publisher of the NIV).  The Canadian Reformed Committee for Bible Translation (which I served on till recently) did its own research into this and found something similar to Zondervan’s conclusion.  You can find that report over here.  I’ll be the first to agree that the ESV is not perfect, but which Bible translation is?


Read the Puritans, Love the Puritans

Watson All Things

Every now and then I still run into prejudice against the Puritans amongst Reformed folk.  I deeply lament this.  Hundreds of years later, there is still much of value that can be gleaned from these Reformed giants of old.

I was introduced to the Puritans while in university.  An online friend from South Africa moved to Edmonton to study.  He had a nearly complete collection of the Puritan Paperbacks published by Banner of Truth.  He got me hooked.  My copy of Thomas Watson’s classic All Things for Good was a gift from this brother — still a treasured gift and one of my favourite books.

We discussed theology and the Puritans endlessly in those days.  We talked about the prejudices that many people have against the Puritans.  He pointed me to two books that dispel the myths surrounding these men.  These books are still worthwhile and I want to recommend them to those readers who are willing to have an open mind.

The first is Leland Ryken’s volume, Worldly Saints: The Puritans As They Really Were.  This book takes a balanced look at Puritanism.  Ryken takes apart the caricatures that have often been painted — for instance, he has an entire chapter on marriage and sex.  Be ready to rethink the label “Puritan” when it comes to those subjects!  The book tackles the Puritan approach to a number of subjects and then concludes with two summary chapters.  One deals with some of the things the Puritans did wrong, the other with what they did right.

The other volume I want to recommend as an introduction to the Puritans is J. I. Packer’s A Quest for Godliness: The Puritan Vision of the Christian Life.  This is a more theological book, but with a focus on how theology bears on living as a Christian.  This was one of the strengths of many Puritans.  They understood that doctrine was not a game theologians play, but the foundation and root of a God-pleasing existence.  Packer’s book does touch on many Puritan figures, but he spends the most time with John Owen.  If you need to be convinced to read the Puritans, Packer presents a compelling case.

I love the Puritans and have for many years.  I get a lot of spiritual nourishment from reading their works.  That said, not all Puritans are equal.  Not all Puritan works are of equal value.  Some, like Thomas Watson, were dynamic preachers and communicators.  Because of his use of vivid word pictures, his writing has a timeless quality.  Others were excessively verbose, at times convoluted, and sometimes brought methods that belonged in the academy into the pulpit.  However, they were Reformed, many effectively combined emphases on head and heart, they all understood the gospel, and they believed that an understanding of the amazing grace of God in Christ would compel one to strive for holiness.   One can find valid reasons to criticize some of the Puritans in certain times for this or that.  However, the same can be said for Reformed figures of any era or background.  No matter who we’re reading, we must always chew the meat and spit out the gristle and fat.  If you begin with Ryken and Packer, you’ll quickly figure out where to find some of the best cuts.


Book Review: Understanding English Bible Translation

Understanding English Bible Translation: The Case for an Essentially Literal Approach, Leland Ryken, Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2009.  Paperback, 208 pages, $15.75

The two most highly emotional and controversial issues in church life have to be music and Bible translations.  Both have the potential to be hugely divisive and both find people with very strong opinions.  I admit to being one of those people when it comes to Bible translations.  In the mid-1990s, the Canadian Reformed Churches were entertaining a change from the commonly-accepted Revised Standard Version to the New International Version (NIV).  Our Synod Abbotsford in 1995 decided to recommend the NIV for use in our churches.  I thought that was a mistake then and I still think it was a mistake today.  Our churches could have done better then and they could surely do better now.  After ten years of preaching with it, I’m still not impressed with the NIV.  So, obviously, Leland Ryken didn’t have to convince me that an essentially literal Bible translation is to be preferred.  Nor did he need to persuade me of the problems with a dynamic equivalent translation or translations that lean in that direction (like the NIV).

Ryken is a professor of English at Wheaton College and was involved with the production of the English Standard Version (ESV).  Obviously, he is not unprejudiced and that’s reflected throughout the book.  While he nowhere comes right out and endorses the ESV, it’s quite obvious that the conclusion the reader should reach is that the ESV is the translation conservative Bible-believing Christians and churches should be using.  It is also difficult to miss the fact that this book is published by Crossway, the same company that publishes the ESV.

Understanding English Bible Translation briefly surveys the history of the English Bible.  What follows is a comparison of the “two main genres of English Bible Translation.”  By “genre,” Ryken means “approaches,” and those two main approaches, of course, are either essentially literal or dynamic equivalent.  Ryken extols the virtues of the essentially literal approach, while exposing all the warts and blemishes of the dynamic equivalent.  To be fair, he does see some value in dynamic equivalent translations.  They are useful as commentaries on Scripture.  Part Four outlines Ryken’s expectations for an “Ideal English Bible Translation.”  Putting all of this together, one reaches the conclusion that the ESV is about as close to ideal as you can get.  The final part of the book deals with the use of the Bible in Christian churches.  He rightly outlines the problems that arise in church life from the use of dynamic equivalent editions of the Bible.  Especially when it comes to preaching and teaching, it is preferable to have a Bible that provides minimal interpretation and protects the “exegetical potential” of the biblical text.

As mentioned above, Ryken didn’t need to persuade me.  However, I’m afraid that he might have a difficult time persuading those who are not already persuaded.  He exposes the elitism and snobbery of proponents of the dynamic equivalent approach.  He quotes Eugene Nida:  “The average reader is usually much less capable of making correct judgments…than is the translator, who can make use of the best scholarly judgments” (31).  However, it seems to this reviewer that Ryken falls into a similar trap when he alleges that those who hold to the dynamic equivalent approach view “the Bible as a deficient book in which the authors miscalculated what readers can handle” (149).  Elsewhere he writes that these translators are set on correcting the Bible.  This seems to be a caricature and less than charitable.  I find it difficult to believe that these translators actually believe the Bible to be deficient – Ryken certainly doesn’t provide any quotes to support such an allegation.  Their views would seem to be more nuanced than that.

Ryken is a professor of English literature and the value he places on literary quality undoubtedly is related to that.  He argues that “the Bible is a literary anthology,” and that “a translation is adequate only if it respects the literary nature of the Bible” (140).  According to Ryken, literary writing is “overtly artistic” and rises above the level of ordinary conversation in terms of vocabulary and syntax.  He maintains that the Bible is literary writing.  There is some truth to this argument, but I do think that Ryken pushes it beyond the reality of the original Hebrew and Greek texts.  The reality is that there is literary unevenness in both the Hebrew Old Testament and Greek New Testament.  Some of the human authors possessed obvious literary gifts, while others were more earthy.  Shouldn’t an essentially literal translation reflect the diversity in literary quality found in the original texts?  Or does the essentially literal translator envisioned by Ryken have the responsibility to bring up the level, i.e. to “correct” the Bible?

That criticism notwithstanding, the author raises many good and helpful points.  I share his concern that dynamic equivalent translations (or translations that lean in that direction) impel Christians and churches to theological impoverishment.  A translation that often has to be corrected from the pulpit has the potential to corrode the credibility of the Word of God for the regular person in the pew.  Essentially literal translations in the footsteps of the KJV are definitely to be preferred.  I only wish that Ryken had tempered some of his rhetoric – if he had done so this could have been a book to highly recommend.  In the meantime, the NIV as we know it is going out of print.  What will replace it is unknown at this time, but it may very well be an edition that includes gender-neutral language.  This could be the time for the Canadian Reformed Churches (and others) to move back to an essentially literal translation.