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

A Recent Portrait of J.I. Packer

Last week I wrote the first part of what will be a several-part review of J.I. Packer’s Knowing God

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:

  1. no gospel and no new testament (in this argument Packer manages to completely unhinge the #1 trending topic in Historical Jesus Research, memory theory),
  2. no faith and no new birth, and
  3. 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.

Knowing God by J.I. Packer

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.

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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 @

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    Greg commented on April 25, 2013 Reply

    Thanks for this series of posts!

    I’ve not read Knowing God, but the review of Ch. 4 sparked some thoughts and questions for me. The comments on mental idolatry are well taken, in that we must continually ask God to keep us from constructing ideas of Him that are distorted or reflections of ourselves, but what, if anything, does Packer do with Paul’s statement to the Colossians, “He [the Son] is the image [literally, “icon”] of the invisible God…”? Early Christian artists found it acceptable to produce images of God precisely because God had finally given an image of Himself in the person of Jesus. “Images dishonor God, for they obscure his glory.” How does this square with the reality of the Incarnation? What about those people who actually saw Jesus? Surely it was not improper for them to meditate on the mental images they had of Jesus?

      John Hundley commented on April 25, 2013 Reply

      Greg, thanks for your comment. Packer doesn’t address Col. 1:15, but what he does say is this: “…to the extent to which the image fails to tell the truth about God, to that extent you will fail to worship God in truth” (47). The person of Jesus is the only true image of God, the very expression of his being, flowing forth from God himself. On the other hand, when *we* paint or sculpt Jesus, our produced Jesus is flowing forth from *our* artistic expression, which is fallen (even if being perfected), and thus depicts a Jesus that falls short of the true Jesus. Packer exhorts us to worship God “in spirit and truth,” and leave the image-making to God.

      I hope that helps!

        Greg Bond commented on April 25, 2013 Reply

        Thanks for the followup!

        Yes, but the same is true about the things we write, say, and sing about God, too. Poets, preachers, theologians, and composers at their best still fall short of grasping perfect truth, of perfectly depicting Jesus. As such, each can readily cause others to develop untrue pictures of Jesus. Yet the poet, preacher, theologian, and composer are not rebuked for their efforts. For their works, like the painter’s, are imperfect prayers that point toward that which is perfect.

    John Hundley commented on April 26, 2013 Reply

    Good point Greg!

    Hmm. Well, Packer is writing with the 2nd commandment in mind. Perhaps God recognizes a greater fallibility for us when we use images from representative art (like paintings and sculptures) for our worship. Here’s what Packer says:

    “The biblical way to apply [our imagination] is to harness our verbal and visual imagination to the task of appreciating the drama and marvel of God’s historical doings, as is done in the Prophets and the Psalms and the book of Revelation, rather than to fly in the face of the second commandment by constructing static and seemingly representational images of him” (51).

    What are your thoughts about this?

      Greg Bond commented on April 27, 2013 Reply

      Hi John,

      Several thoughts that are not as well-formed as I’d like (then I probably ought to sign off, haha)…

      (1) Some Christian traditions (and some Talmudic tradition, I just learned) understood/understand the commandment against idolatry to be further explanation of the 1st commandment rather than a distinct commandment in itself (which makes sense, especially when looking at Moses’ speech before the repetition of the Ten Commandments in Deuteronomy). In that time and place, if a people had a god, they had an idol to go with it. Thus, this commandment indicated God was to be worshiped exclusively rather than as just another god (even the foremost god) in a pantheon. For God was truly God, whereas the gods of the surrounding peoples were no more than lumps of whatever material had been used to make the idol.

      (2) So God should not be worshiped alongside a collection of idols, but what about making idols for only the one true God? Well, doing so would have provided identification with the non-existent gods of the surrounding nations and elided God’s utter realness and exclusivity (“Oh, so you just have one idol instead of all these others?”). Related to this, idols were often made to resemble things from the created order (cattle, serpents, birds, what have you) and were constructed from created materials (metals, wood, precious stones, etc.). But God was not simply in charge of and identified with one or a few aspect(s) of creation, thus allowing space for other gods to be in charge of and identified with other aspects of creation. No, God was the one God over all of creation and thus necessarily transcended it and thus couldn’t be imaged.

      (3) Additionally, there was the issue of the god’s power and the idol. The surrounding peoples realized that the idols they made were in some way not the *fullness* of their gods. (That is, if they made an idol of a sun god, the sun obviously still rose and set each day, so it hadn’t somehow been fully condensed into the idol. They recognized some transcendence in that regard, I suppose you could call it.) However, they did believe that through particular ceremonies, some power of the god could be made to take up or coaxed into taking up residence in the idol, which could then be taken into battle or be otherwise used to bring prosperity, provided the appropriate appeasements were maintained. The commandment against idolatry, then, refutes these notions that God’s power is somehow able to be manipulated through jumping through elaborate hoops (and seems related to the prohibitions against sorcery and witchcraft).

      (4) As you mentioned in the review, you anticipated a treatment of idolatry that primarily addressed it as regarding those things we put in front of or beside God (to borrow the language of the 1st commandment). This fits well with the understanding that the 1st two commandments are either a single commandment, as in (1), or are at least closely related. And that understanding (though oft-repeated) is deeply insightful, in that it exhorts us to see those places where we are not following the greatest commandment, to “love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all our soul and with all our might,” which is the very definition of having no other gods beside God.

      (5) This understanding seems to tacitly recognize, too, that some aspects of the commandment against idolatry had very culturally contextual applications and are not as applicable today, as I’ve sought to demonstrate. Though I’ve also attempted to identify the root sin issues in play, which can certainly be manifested in similar or new ways in subsequent periods and cultures.

      (6) I closed (2) by saying that the commandment against idols was to communicate God’s transcendence, which thus prevented attempts to image Him. But the grand mystery of the Incarnation is that God performed the ultimate condescension, in that the second person of the Trinity became a man. Fully God, fully man. God expressed a perfectly true image of Himself in the created world in Jesus. Surely those who saw Jesus had certain images of Him emblazoned in their minds for the rest of their lives that they continually returned to for contemplation and in giving testimony to others! Surely the shepherds never forgot seeing that babe in a manger, whom angels sang! Surely Simeon cherished until his death the memory of holding his Savior in his hands! The blind, whose first sight in this world was of their Savior’s face, oh how they must have treasured those images! Surely the Three always remembered the sight of Jesus transfigured! Surely the disciples recalled again and again the images of Jesus blessing and breaking bread and blessing and passing the cup at the Last Supper! Surely they meditated on the memory of Jesus watching their feet! Surely John always recalled the picture of the crucified Jesus entrusting Mary to his care! Surely Mary Magdalene always clung to the sight of the supposed gardener who called her by name! Surely Peter never forgot the look in Jesus’ eyes when Jesus asked Peter if he loved Him and told him to feed His sheep!

      (7) When reading Scripture, it is natural to create mental images of the events being described. God has uniquely gifted people throughout the ages to visually present images of Jesus to the world, such as those described in (6). These visual representations can be invaluable for pointing people to and firing their imaginations for the realities behind the words of Scripture. The painter or sculptor, like the poet, theologian, or preacher, may sometimes fall short in attempting to depict an image of Jesus truthfully, so again, it’s important to recognize each as offering imperfect prayers, and each must take care to strive for the true, the good, and the beautiful.

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