Welcome to our ongoing study of J. I. Packer’s book Knowing God You can find all of the previous lessons using the Knowing God category link. Study materials for the book are also available at william.meisheid.com. Last week we looked at the way Packer has structured his book, examining the three sections and their focus. Today we dive into Packer’s first argument, presented in Chapter 1: The Study of God.
Theology and the Study of God
In the first chapter Packer discusses the critical difference between knowing about God and knowing of God. Knowing about God is the essence of theology, which literally means study of God (theo = God, ology = study of). However, it is possible to know a quite a bit about God but not really know him at all, by which Dr. Packer means personal intimate knowledge, as a child knows a parent, or a person knows a brother or friend, two images we have in scripture: God as Father and Son. Jesus taught us to pray Our Father and while it is fundamental to think of Christ as our firstborn elder brother, he also called his disciples friends”.
Many people, Christian as well as others, have a firm grasp on what God has told us to do, or not do. The Pharisees of Jesus day are a good example. They knew all of the laws and their requirements, down to the minutia of contrasting interpretations. However, Jesus chastised them in Matthew 23:23-24.
Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spicesmint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the lawjustice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.
While they knew their theology, their knowledge had not permeated and changed their heart; it had not guided the intimate actions of their lives. They knew about God, about his law and his demands, but despite their knowledge they were blind when it came to really understanding both God and his fundamental demand on their lives as expressed in Deuteronomy 6:4-6 and reiterated by Jesus in Mark 12:29-31.
The most important one, answered Jesus, is this: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.
You cannot love (agape in this instance, a self-sacrificial love) what you do not really know, what you only know about.
This is especially important today as the effects of existential thinking and post-modernism seep into the fabric of all our lives. It all around us, in music, movies, television and all forms of media, in the opinions of respected commentators, even in those we love and cherish. You say that hasn’t affected me. Well, if you feel isolated, facing almost alone a hostile world around you, where your personal freedom and autonomy of action drive most of your decisions (be honest), where no one is going to tell you what to do, then you may have a problem in coming to know God intimately.
This is not an unusual problem. From my experience our churches are filled with essentially lonely people, who when push comes to shove will admit that for them God is hard or practically impossible to know. It seems that even if we wanted to do this we dont know where to begin. We say admit that it appears to be a really difficult task. To this Dr. Packer simply replies, start where you are. Do a self-assessment of where you stand with God and how well you know him. Be brutally and authentically honest and trust that God will meet you where you are.
Dr. Packer also makes it very clear that theology and biblical ethics (knowing the demands of holiness and righteousness in thought and action), while intrinsically important, are not enough to know God. He then goes even further saying that if we really want to know ourselves, then we must study and come to know God, for we are created in his image. That said, we must begin with theology.
Most regular Christians (discounting clergy, other religious vocations, and professors and other teachers) consider theology something foreign, confusing at best, and generally unapproachable for them. However, Dr. Packer argues that:
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 blindfolded, 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
OK. Lets say you accept that and you agree that for even the common Christian some form of theological study is both necessary and valid, what then? Well, Dr. Packer argues there are five basic truths and three basic themes all Christians should know and understand.
1. God has spoken to man, and the Bible is his Word.
2. God is Lord and King over his world.
3. God is Savior; he alone and no other.
4. God is triune; there are within the Godhead three persons.
5. Godliness means responding to Gods revelation in trust and obedience, faith and worship, prayer and praise, submission and service.
1. We have to deal with the Godhead of God.
2. We have to deal with the powers of God.
3. We have to deal with the perfections of God.
These three themes also make up the major divisions of the this book.
I will be the first to admit that these eight items that Dr. Packer places in front of us are not simple. Getting our minds around them will be hard work, very hard work. They will require study, which begs the question what source materials should we use? The first and foremost source, says Dr. Packer, is the Bible and since most of us do not read Greek and Hebrew it would be useful for us to have multiple translations. In addition, catechisms and other codifications of the faiththe accumulated wisdom of the Churchare helpful, as are other mature Christians. As Proverbs 27:17 tells us, As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.
To be fair we also have to admit that no journey is without its risks. As we follow Gods path onto the plane of theology many dangers face us. Chief among these is our attitude. Dr. Packer stresses that for us theology has to be a practical matter to help us to know how to live and interact with God, not an end itself. This is not knowledge for knowledges sake. We cannot pursue it as a means of building ourselves up, a way to impress others with how much we know. No, besides the joy that comes all those who come to know their God, our goal is to facilitate the living of a Godly life in the service of our Lord and Savior, to answer the call of discipleship.
In this effort we will need to learn a skill, one that might be new to some of us, and that is meditating on the truth that God has revealed about himself. We are not talking about the common eastern definitions of meditation, of emptying your mind or numbing the thought process through repetitively reciting a mantra. We are talking about a guided effort to turn our growing knowledge about God into knowledge of God. We mean instead, as Dr. Packer says, calling to mind, and thinking over, and dwelling on, and applying to oneself, the various things that one knows about the works and ways and purposes and promises of God.
If meditation is a word that doesnt work well for you, then think instead about chewing on, musing over, analyzing or reasoning through, or just plain talking to God. After all God did say, Come let us reason together, so he has already invited us to do this with him, which means he is there already: in, through, over, and under all that happens as we make an honest effort.
The last question we need to address as we seriously begin this journey is can we do this on our own or do we need help? By this I do not mean the help of other writers, or the historic efforts of other Christians that were mentioned above. No, I mean can we do it as a solitary effort? While many have tried, including myself at one time, I would strongly argue against that approach. It is a truly rare and blessed person who can do it all on their own. Not only laziness and distractions, but a lack of focus and time will sabotage your efforts. We all need the help of our brothers and sisters in Christ to hold us accountable, to bounce our ideas and thoughts off of. As Christians we are part of the Body of Christ, not isolated cells. We need those around us to help sustain our efforts, correct our drifting off course, and to just be there when a significant discovery or revelation cuts to the bone, as it will. I guarantee it.
So, if you are not able to study this book with a group of people, then dont give up. I will do my best to be your study partner despite the distance. Between this blog, email, and my personal website I will try to be there, as will the others who may post comments and questions along the way. You are not, nor will you be alone.
Read Chapter Two: The People Who Know Their God. Think about how existentialism, post-modern fuzziness, or self-satisfaction might be affecting your efforts. Begin this week to practice meditating on the truth you have learned in Chapter One, as well as the scriptures referenced in the text. Make this a habit. Remember, for something to become a habit you have to do it every day for at least twenty-one days. One of our primary goals in this study is for proper Christian meditation to become a habit, to become an integral part of our ongoing Christian discipleship experience.
I want to close with a prayer for all those participating in this study.
Dear Lord God, you have challenged us in your Word to study to show ourselves approved and told us to leave aside the milk of the Gospel and mature into its meat. Open our hearts, O Lord, and prepare us to learn of you, to drink deep of your revelation of yourself. And as we come to know you better, O Lord, may we also come to better know ourselves. Grant us, by your grace, success in our efforts. We thank you, O Lord, for your mercy and patience with us as we struggle to understand both you and ourselves better. May everything we do as pursue this path be to your honor and glory. Amen.