This week I’m going to take a look at the remaining chapters of Part I before moving on and moving through a bit of Part II.
Knowledge and Idolatry
Chapter 3, “Knowing and Being Known,” deals more directly with the distinction between knowledge about and knowledge of (which I highlighted in last Thursday’s post). I like to call the former “factual” and the latter “intimate.” Concerning the latter, Packer writes that we know a person “according to how much, or how little, they have opened up to us” (35). It is in the person of Jesus, Packer notes, that God has completely opened himself up to us. What’s more, “to know Jesus is to be saved by Jesus, here and hereafter, from sin, and guilt, and death” (38). Packer closes Chapter 3 by emphasizing that although our knowing God is crucial, the fact that he knows us is of the utmost importance. “There is tremendous relief in knowing that [God’s] love to me is utterly realistic, based at every point on prior knowledge of the worst about me, so that no discovery can disillusion him about myself, and quench his determination to bless me” (42). Tremendous indeed.
Chapter 4, “The Only True God,” is not at all what I expected to find in a Chapter about idolatry. Don your controversy caps. I was expecting the same old treatment of idolatry, as anything we focus on more than God. But Packer confronts idols. As in, literal images of Jesus that people bow down to and mental images we conjure up. He says that whenever we imagine mentally, or see in stone or paint, God in one particular moment — on the cross, for example — we lose his majestic totality. Jesus died on a cross, but he also rose in victory and sits enthroned as King over all. We mustn’t, says Packer, focus on just one aspect of God, or our thoughts and praises of him will become distorted and we’ll begin to emphasize certain parts of him over others, usually whichever fits our liking. “Images dishonor God, for they obscure his glory…. Images mislead us, for they convey false ideas about God” (45-46). And so, one might ask, why be so finicky about all this? Packer posits to the positive side of honoring the second commandment literally:
it is a summons to us to recognize that God the Creator is transcendent, mysterious and inscrutable, beyond the range of any imagining or philosophical guesswork of which we are capable–and hence a summons to us to humble ourselves, to listen and learn of him, and to let him teach us what he is like and how we should think of him. (48)
If you want more on this, pick up a copy of the book.
Son and Spirit
Chapter 5, “God Incarnate,” centers on the centrality of the incarnation of God in Jesus. Packer draws a great deal concerning the who/what of the incarnation from John’s Prologue (John 1:1-18). Jesus was God made man, born to die, always in full submission to the First Person of the Trinity and he became poor that we might become rich. The incarnation–the Son of God emptying himself and becoming poor–meant:
a laying aside of glory…; a voluntary restraint of power; an acceptance of hardship; isolation, ill-treatment, malice and misunderstanding; finally, a death that involved such agony–spiritual even more than physical–that his mind nearly broke under the prospect of it…. It meant love to the uttermost for unlovely human beings, that they through his poverty might become rich. (63)
In Chapter 6, “He Shall Testify,” Packer lays out some of the basic concepts of the Christian understanding of the Holy Spirit. He is another comforter like Jesus and, “[i]n the Old Testament, God’s word and God’s spirit are parallel figures” (67). In our day there is little attention given to the Spirit. “Christians are aware of the difference it would make if…there had never been an incarnation or an atonement…. But many Christians have really no idea what difference it would make if there were no Holy Spirit in the world” (69). Packer points out three primary effects of the Holy Spirit: without the Holy Spirit there would be:
- no gospel and no new testament (in this argument Packer manages to completely unhinge the #1 trending topic in Historical Jesus Research, memory theory),
- no faith and no new birth, and
- no evangelism (because there would be no power to convict of the truth).
These ideas are controversial, but no matter your background or current system of theology, whether you’re found more on the “conservative” or the “liberal” side, these are powerful ideas to wrestle with. If there were no Holy Spirit would there really be no New Testament? This question requires a further step, regarding inspiration. Are the words of the N.T. really inspired by the Spirit of God? If so, to what extent? Often times our faith gets reduced to rationality and religion, and we forget about the spiritual stuff, like spiritual re-birth. Sounds too crazy for an academic, doesn’t it? But hey, so does consciousness and love and beauty. We’re spiritual through and through.
Part II, “Behold Your God!”
As I mentioned at the outset of the first part of this review, which we published last Thursday, I’m not going to spend as much time reviewing Parts II and III, because the heart of Knowing God is Part I.
Chapters 7-17 deal with some core attributes of the Christian God. There is incredible insight here, but I only have so much space time to write, and if you’re willing to read thousands of words of review, you may as well read the book.
The first Chapter of Part II, “God Unchanging,” is incredibly relevant to many of the current issues churning the waters of the American Church. The Chapter is structured under six headings, each referring to an aspect of God that remains the same: 1) God’s life, 2) character, 3) truth, 4) ways, 5) purposes, and 6) God’s Son do not change.
When we read our Bibles…we need to remember that God still stands behind all the promises, and demands, and statements of purpose, and words of warning, that are addressed to the New Testament believers. These are not relics of a bygone age, but an eternally valid revelation of the mind of God towards his people in all generations, so long as this world lasts. As our Lord himself has told us, ‘The Scripture cannot be broken’ (Jn. 10:35). Nothing can annul God’s eternal truth. (79)
For me, in an age that values absolute relativism, these words bring great comfort. The last thing I need is a God with the character of a Heraclitean river, which is precisely what I perceive in a great deal of today’s popular “theology.”
Wrestle with these points. Whatever you do, don’t just disregard J.I. Packer because he’s a “stodgy old conservative.” For the missional Christian, his arguments must be dealt with. See you next Thursday for more.
About the author:
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