Spending Time with Dr. Packer
They say meeting your hero is sure to disappoint, but I didn’t find that to be true with Dr. J. I. Packer. Long before meeting Dr. Packer—when I started working at Regent College in 2017—I was already self-appointed head of the J. I. Packer fan club. I started reading his books during my undergraduate degree when I was a new Christian and found them to be gentle and reliable guides. As my world and mind expanded in my master’s program, I kept turning to Dr. Packer’s articles and books for the most insightful interpretations and most enjoyable prose.
By this point, I decided that I wanted to be just like him—a scholar of Puritan spirituality, a peacekeeper among Christians, and a writer who puts pen to paper as a form of ministry. Then, when I started my PhD, I wrote my dissertation proposal on Dr. Packer, hoping to contribute to (and disagree with some) current scholarship on his theology. By this point, I had read as much of his works as physically possible (though I still can’t say I’ve read everything he’s written). So, you can imagine how ecstatic I was when I then found out that I got a job working with his rare Puritan books and an opportunity to interview him.
When I met and talked with Dr. Packer in person, I was not surprised to find that he was extremely articulate, even at the wise age of ninety-one; he spoke exactly as he wrote. I was also not surprised to hear him deliver line after line of facts about the Bible, theology, and church history, without any notes or even any prompting. He replied to my simple and short questions with complex and brilliant answers.
Yet, what did surprise me was how sweet and pure-hearted he was, not because I expected him to be impolite, but because I was confronted, in a face-to-face, embodied way, with the virtue of Christian humility. The Dr. Packer I see now in my mind’s eye is not just the towering figure of Knowing God, but a towering figure who bent low to wash the feet of those around him.
Thus, my best memories are of simple things I didn’t think someone as important as J. I. Packer would say or do. One occasion I won’t forget was when he delivered a lecture to a small group of students on Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress in the rare book reading room. He charmed everyone, including the baby brought by an eager mom. After he finished and they all left, he turned to me and asked, “So, how did you think it went? I couldn’t read my notes, but I hope it was alright.” At first, I thought he was making a joke—everyone had been enthralled by him for the entire lecture—but then I saw the sincerity in his eyes as he waited for my answer; he was really asking for my opinion. All I said was, “Dr. Packer, it was perfect. Thank you so much,” and he seemed satisfied. The Dr. Packer I see now in my mind’s eye is not just the towering figure of Knowing God, but a towering figure who bent low to wash the feet of those around him. Click To Tweet
Another happy time was during the academic conference on the Puritans we held in 2018. At one point I was walk-running from one room to another, in a tizzy about some conference task, and I heard an “Oh, Jen!” coming from Dr. Packer who was waving his hand and smiling in my direction. I honestly did not expect that, even after meeting me and talking to me, Dr. Packer would have remembered my name; he had met so many people over so many years, after all. It was simple, but it meant a lot to me. Jen didn’t just know Dr. Packer, she was also known by him.
What I learned from spending time with Dr. Packer was that the person I wanted to be like after reading his books was a person who did not let his work, year after year, make him puffed up with knowledge but more and more childlike—someone who was humble before God and other people, never viewing himself as too important to talk to babies, ask if his lecture went well, or pay attention to the assistant.