Best Christian Books of All Time Reviews: Knowing God, Pt. I

Knowing God, J.I. Packer

During the month of March, here at InterVarsity’s Emerging Scholars Blog, we offered a distraction away from the tomfoolery of the NCAA and held a little tournament of our own. “What are the best Christian books of all time?” we asked. And you answered. We had hundreds of nominations for works of poetry, fiction, romance. You name it. Some of the books that made it to the bracket surprised me, but what really caught my attention were some of the outcomes of the early rounds. Several of the first round losers were my favorites. Over the next few weeks I’ll write reviews of a few of the early losers in hopes of bringing some of you into the marvelous light of Christian literature, J.I. Packer and N.T. Wright.

Today’s review features Knowing God by J.I. Packer. Now I must point out that this classic of lay theology–although having sold over one million copies–was ousted by Blaise Pascal’s Pensees. Really? I find it very difficult to imagine that more of our Facebook voters have read Pensees than Packer’s Knowing God. Maybe the French title was just more intriguing for those who hadn’t read either one. Who knows.

But I do know this: Some of the wisdom in J.I. Packer’s Knowing God has profoundly impacted me. Not only the ways in which I think about God in the abstract sense, as the title might suggest, but my daily life; and the book has even had a hand in altering the outcomes of some of my major life decisions. My decision about which grad school to attend, for example.

Packer opens by telling his readers that this book will not be treatise on God. Rather, it is a “string of beads: a series of small studies of great subjects, most of which first appeared in the Evangelical Magazine” (11). The book is structured just as one might after hearing such a description. The main body is broken up into three Parts, each of which are then broken up into several chapters. The first of these Parts concerns itself with the knowledge about and knowledge of God. This is an incredibly important distinction for Packer. In Part II he describes some of the most central attributes of God (e.g. “The Love of God,” “God the Judge,” “The Grace of God,” etc.). In Part III he moves in and gives what could probably be summed up as answers to different aspects of this question: “What does all this mean for one who calls herself a Christian?”

Books that are broken up in such a systematic fashion, especially theological works, usually lend themselves to a quiet corner where they promptly take up the perennial hobby of dust-gathering along with those old college textbooks you’ll never read again but keep. Just in case. But not this one. Knowing God is full of powerful stories of transformation, descriptive scenes drawn from the likes of the Trojan War, and delicately spoken insights about the fullness of the Christian experience.

I’m going to spend the greatest amount of time reviewing Part I, because that’s where I’ve found the heart of the book.

Packer opens Part I, Chapter One (“The Study of God”) with an excerpt from a sermon of a twenty year old C.H. Spurgeon:

There is something exceedingly improving to the mind in a contemplation of the Divinity . . . He who often thinks of God, will have a larger mind than the man who simply plods around this narrow globe . . . I know nothing which can so comfort the soul; so calm the swelling billows of grief and sorrow; so speak peace to the winds of trial, as a devout musing upon the subject of the Godhead.

Then, with what is likely the most widely known quotation from this work, he confronts the idea that theology is only for the minister or the “theologian”:

Knowing about God is crucially important for the living of our lives. As it would be cruel to an Amazonian tribesmen to fly him to London, put him down without explanation in Trafalgar Square and leave him, as one who knew nothing of English or England, to fend for himself, so we are cruel to ourselves if we try to live in this world without knowing about the God whose world it is and who runs it. The world becomes a strange, mad, painful place, and life in it a disappointing and unpleasant business, for those who do not know about God. Disregard the study of God, and you sentence yourself to stumble and blunder through life blindfold, as it were, with no sense of direction, and no understanding of what surrounds you. This way you can waste your life and lose your soul.

Knowing God is the set of labels on a rough topographical map of the rugged country that is the study of God and the Christian life. But the book directs its readers toward more than a refined understanding of the Divine. Although Packer is certainly interested in introducing theology as a contemplative science, he is also, and more so, interested in pointing out the reason for that contemplation. The danger of theology for its own sake is that “it is bound to go bad on us. It will make us proud and conceited. The very greatness of the subject matter will intoxicate us, and we shall come to think of ourselves as a cut above other Christians because of our interest in it and grasp of it . . .” (21).  I’m sure that if you haven’t been on the dealing end of this pride, you’ve been the one who’s felt its weight bearing down on you from a conceited theologian. So what can we do? The rule, says Packer, for turning our knowledge about God into knowledge of God, “… is simple but demanding. It is that we turn each truth that we learn about God into matter for meditation before God, leading to prayer and praise to God.”

Jaded Christians often call seminaries “cemeteries.” It is, I think, because young men and women spend too much time studying about God and too little time with their object of study. I can know all about you–where you live, what you do for a living, what music you like–having never met you. The same goes for God. Universities are filled with brilliant scholars and theologians who are spiritual corpses.

Chapter Two, “The People Who Know Their God,” begins with a story. “I walked in the sunshine with a scholar who had effectively forfeited his prospects of academic advancement by clashing with church dignitaries over the gospel of grace. ‘But is doesn’t matter,’ he said at length, ‘for I’ve known God and they haven’t.’” I ask myself, Would I do the same? Packer here quotes Paul’s letter to the Philippians, “‘But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. . . . What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord . . .’” (25).

In this Chapter Packer lays out plainly his distinction between knowing of and knowing about, as well as the evidence of knowing of God. As I mentioned above, knowing about is objective, “scientific” knowledge, but knowing of is the intimate knowledge as lifelong friends have of one another. He lays out four evidences of this second type of knowledge of God. Those who know God 1) have great energy for God, 2) have great thoughts of God, 3) show great boldness for God and 4) have great contentment in God.

Take this week to chew on and savor some of these profound ideas. Do you know your God? Is there evidence of that in your life? When I began this review I thought I could fit it all into one post. 1250+ words later and I’m having second thoughts. Stay tuned for part two next week (edit: Part II available by clicking here). While you’re waiting, if you don’t already own a copy of Knowing God, do yourself a favor and buy the book.

John Hundley

My wife and I live in South Hamilton, MA where I'm pursuing an MDiv at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary and she's serving as Intervarsity staff on campus at Northeastern University. I study Theology and History and Philosophy "as ends in themselves" (in the Aristotelian sense), as well as for a further, more complete end: a deeper understanding of my King and, thus, a more dynamic relationship with him. I graduated this past spring (2013) with BA in Religious Studies (Hinduism and Buddhism concentration) and a minor in Classical Greek (Homeric/Ionic/Attic/Doric/Koine, appx. 8th BCE - 5th CE). The study of the ancient world in its original context and language fascinates me, especially that of the Early Christians, Ancient Jews and Hellenes. For more of my writing, see my blog @ www.philotheology.com

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2 Comments

  • Julie Reynolds commented on April 18, 2013 Reply

    Blaise Pascal was the lone scientist in the group. There may indeed be more people in the group who have heard of Pascal than Packer.

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