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An Interview with Puritan Explorer, JI Packer

July 12, 2018
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“I came to be called an Owenian in the Christian Union; . . . they coined the word to cover me.” — JI Packer

This interview—conducted by Jenny-Lyn de Klerk, Puritan Project Assistant and PhD student at the Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary—is the story of Dr. Packer and the Puritans. It begins with a teenaged Packer's unlikely encounter with John Owen, and traces the relationship right through to the present.

Just as an explorer discovers, surveys, and charts a misunderstood or unfamiliar region, so has J. I. Packer excavated and brought to light the buried books of seventeenth-century English Puritans. And just as explorers get their names on big discoveries, so has the name J. I. Packer become connected to the Puritans. After decades of teaching classes, writing books, being interviewed, and advising theses, he has established himself as not only a Puritan scholar but also a Puritan follower, even calling himself a modern-day Puritan. When, in preparation for this interview, I packed up my countless questions about the Puritans from years of study and ventured out into the now vast world of Dr. Packer’s scholarship, I found that he answered all of them. All but one, that is.

The one road that seemed untraveled was the life of Dr. Packer, the antiquarian book collector. Through digitized copies available online, evangelicals all over the world (including myself) know about and use his donation of rare Puritan books. But it wasn’t until I became Regent College’s Puritan Project Assistant (which involves acquiring rare books, preserving the ones we have, and making them useful for patrons) that I started to speculate about Dr. Packer’s expeditions. What is the story behind these books, and what does Packer hope we will do with them? This interview re-traces the steps of this great Puritan explorer and charts a future course for those who are continuing down a similar path in the same spirit.

Packer recalls the start of his Puritan collection with the story—familiar to many who have come across the Puritans through Packer—of stumbling upon an uncut set of John Owen’s works. Packer had become the junior curator of the Oxford University InterCollegiate Christian Union Library, which was at the “end of a large downstairs room,” and was tasked with sorting through a donation from a member of the Christian Union who had retired and lost his eyesight. Packer describes, the “shelves were full of books [of] items by authors that I had never even heard of,” including Owen. In those days, “nobody . . . knew who John Owen was, . . . I had never heard of him, . . . [and at the age of] nineteen, I didn’t like to think that there were authors in this world whom I knew nothing about.” Intrigued, he took volume seven of Owen’s works off the shelf, flipped through it, and carried it back to his room. He recounts,

I think that God prepared me for this bit of reading, frankly, because Owen seemed constantly to be hammering at points which had been puzzling me in the recent weeks, and he based everything directly on exegesis of Scripture. By the time I finished his treatise, I felt that he had anchored me at the heart of what Scripture was saying about how those who have learned to trust Christ as Savior are to live in union with him so that they grow into his likeness and . . . separate themselves . . . from sinful habits and sinful neglects, of which the twentieth century was full.

Packer was so struck by Owen that he started pestering his friends to read the same works. He remembers, “I came to be called an Owenian in the Christian Union; . . . they coined the word to cover me.” After voraciously reading Owen, Packer turned to the works of contemporary peers like John Bunyan, Richard Sibbes, Richard Baxter, and William Gurnall.

Packer sums up, “it all went on from there.” As he continued to read the Puritans, he began looking for, or serendipitously finding, old Puritan books. He tells the story best:

In those days, there were a number of second-hand bookshops in England, where old seventeenth-century and even sixteenth-century books could be found if you looked for them, and if you knew what you were looking for, and a fair number of those that I donated to the Regent library came to me that way. Also, in those days there was a second-hand book trade that proceeded by catalogue, and there were suppliers who piled up stocks of books—ancient and more ancient—and they didn't open shops, they sent around catalogues, and you bought off the catalogue. There's much less of that these days, indeed there may not be any of it left . . . But in those days, the catalogues were quite numerous and the Puritan entries in them were . . . quite frequent.

He admits, “I never discovered where or rather how these storehouses of Puritan type literature built up; presumably there had always been channels along which a bookseller could inquire, channels along which he would find Puritan material if he was looking for it.”

Another way of acquiring antiquarian books aside from methodical shopping,

was simply finding them; surprise, surprise! And there are a certain number of books which came to me that way, simply because I was the sort of young academic who likes spending time turning over what they had on the back shelves of the bookshop, seeing if there was anything of particular interest to me, and sometimes there was. And then sometimes the bookseller himself didn't know anything about it, and so he said, ‘You can have that for such-and-such’ (and such-and-such was an absurdly cheap price), ‘nobody's interested in that material these days; it doesn't sell. So if you want it I'll gladly lower the price for you.’

“And he did,” said Packer with a smile.

I thought about my experience of hunting down antiquarian books through the more efficient but less quaint channels of bookseller websites and large book fairs, and exclaimed that I wished I found books in this spontaneous and cheap way sometimes. Packer chuckled, “Oh yes, it's different today, my goodness.” I realized that his book-shopping experiences in the days of disinterest and negative stereotyping of the Puritans gave him a unique perspective on old Puritan books. More significantly, his research experiences (seen, for example, in sources used for his 1954 dissertation on Baxter) were much different than mine, which have included an abundance of secondary sources that have helped me synthesize and interpret information.

Since Packer is one of our key rare book donors, I asked him how he thought these books should be understood and used. In his characteristically bold yet winsome manner, he replied,

Well, I think there is something wrong, frankly, if one pursues the Puritans—tries to get a hold of volumes of their writings and so on—when one’s primary concern isn’t personal spiritual growth. My reason for saying that is that the Puritans themselves wrote their material in the first place as ingredients in sermons. A lot of the Puritan works are actually series of sermons, so that you could say . . . that the Puritans preached books.

He seemed proud to be associated with a library where the “focus of interest is spiritual life.”

In fact, Packer explains, the devotional character of Puritan works is what made them publishable and sellable in their own time, since this type of literature was in demand. Protestant devotional literature basically began (in a methodical or intentional sense) with William Perkins, the first Anglican “who saw it as his prime business to produce devotional stuff for all the Christians of England.” Perkins wrote large amounts of devotional literature to be sold, as was custom, by peddlers who went door-to-door with travelling shops of books, “which they themselves knew and were able to recommend and even expound.” For example, the famous Puritan preacher and author Richard Baxter owed his conversion to reading a copy of Sibbes’s Bruised Reed that his father had purchased from a peddler.

Knowing of Packer’s commendation of the Puritans for excelling in communication, I asked what made their devotional works so well-written and what methods they used to evoke emotion. Hearkening back to his quotable quote that “the Puritans preached books,” Packer says that in those days, the style of the written sermon and spoken sermon were similar. Both employed an “emotional rhetorical style” that used “very straightforward statements with applicatory punches as the preacher went along.”Instinctively, the Puritans used this style in order to have the strongest impact possible on their hearers and readers. Saying it plainly yet memorably like the Puritans themselves, Packer summarizes, “it is a matter of simply being natural, that is talking to people from the pulpit and then from the pages of a book in the way that you would talk to them in the flesh if you were with them in a life-threatening situation.”

Packer’s own lucid communication style—even seen in this short interview—has done much to help modern readers navigate the Puritan world. He was not only one of the first to re-discover and find meaning in these sources, but also became a primary driving force behind the dramatic change from attitudes of negativity and disinterest to excitement and curiosity. In light of his unique involvement, I asked where he hoped Puritan studies will go in the future. Happy for us Puritan scholars, he says, “Puritan studies have already established themselves sufficiently for one to be able to affirm with confidence that they have come to stay. That is, the Puritans put enough of study and of themselves into their books . . . for people to write doctoral theses about them.” These theses should focus on “establish[ing] the Puritan pattern of seeking holiness and forming holy habits, [and] highlighting the cultural frame within which this sort of reflective humanism developed.” The years that this Owenian spent as a young man attempting to convince his friends to read the Puritans—and then as an established scholar attempting to convince the Christian world—have paid off. He concludes that after two hundred years of silence, “I don’t expect to see [Puritan studies] buried again.”

Finally, in response to my question about how students and scholars should apply the Puritans without committing historical fallacies, Packer instructs: “understand the Puritans [and] what they were after and give priority in your own life- and ministry-thought to the things which they gave priority to, that is . . . piety.” Drawing from years of experience he explains, “it’s only later . . . that you’ll know enough to discern their limitations.” According to Packer, the focus of Puritan studies should be the God with whom they communed, and Christians today should seek to emulate and carry on the Puritans’ primary work of “teach[ing] people how to live with God.”

Through the adventures of one British explorer wearing a mackintosh, we are given a small look into process of discovering, studying, and passing on old books from one person to another. The tale began with a young Jim Packer discovering the long-forgotten Owen and becoming a full-fledged Owenian who prods his friends to join him on the road of Puritan literature. Then, a maturing Packer searched catalogues and strolled the streets of England, happening upon another dusty, unknown, and unused Puritan book, and celebrating the fitting (and cheap) addition to his growing collection. Finally, after much pioneering scholarship, an almost-retired, magnifying-glass-using Packer made a large donation (not unlike the Christian Union donor before him) of the completed collection to the school at which he spent much of his career nurturing a new generation of Puritan adventurers. Now his artifacts—representing years of not only reading the Puritans but also living the Puritan way of life—sit next to the office of a rare books assistant who was born forty-six years after his first expedition, and they will continue to sit there as adventurers file through year after year. 

Unlike the uncut set of Owen’s works that Packer discovered years ago, these books have been opened, read, and written in; but some are still unknown or unappreciated, and deserve to be mined for spiritual gems. Packer reminds us now, as he has done tirelessly throughout his life, that the old and rare can be the most lively and relevant for our daily lives, and that what makes this possible is the ongoing work of an everlasting and unchanging God who fills the world with treasures for us to uncover and leads our hearts to explore.

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