Theological Thursdays: Knowing God: Watcher or Walker?

In the 1973 Preface to his book Knowing God, J.I. Packer borrows an image from John Mackay’s book, A Preface to Christian Theology, and introduces a distinction between two types of Christians: balconeers and travelers, or what I call watchers and walkers.

To Packer and to the underlying purpose of his book, this distinction is paramount. To know God, Packer argues, you cannot just observe the footprints of God and muse on them in an abstract sense. Packer contends that you have to get down from the ivory tower and actually walk in His steps; you have to journey with God through your life to know God in your life. And, in doing so, we find not only knowledge of God but also what we need to know in life. As Jeremiah reminds us:

This is what the LORD says: “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls. Jeremiah 6:16a

I would also suggest that being a walker requires living in a way that takes Hebrews 6:1-3 seriously.

Therefore let us leave the elementary teachings about Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again the foundation of repentance from acts that lead to death, and of faith in God, instruction about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And God permitting, we will do so.

From Packer’s viewpoint, the first question we all need to ask ourselves is: Are we a watcher or a walker and how will we know when we are one or the other? With that in mind, do you look at the questions life sends your way or examine the events transpiring in front of you from a safe distance or do you see those events as affecting you directly, making demands on your understanding of and the way you live out your life?

Before you answer that question, I think that this is a good time to examine the difference between the Hebrew and Greek views of knowledge. There is a fundamental difference between the ways the Greeks and the Hebrew viewed knowledge. Greeks did not necessarily feel a responsibility to or for what they knew, while Hebrews did. Greeks felt perfectly comfortable pursuing knowledge for the sake of knowledge itself.

Much of the basis of our current thinking in science and technology is Greek in its underlying premise. With statements like, “Let it take its course. It is not my concern. I am merely an observer,” the Greek view allows the avoidance of taking responsibility for the knowledge one discovers. The mere advancement of science/knowledge is a desirable goal on its own, apart from any moral considerations. The thrill of discovery is an end in itself.

As I think about the world around me, I see this Greek view reflected in the paradigm of the news/journalistic cameraman or photographer who just records, but does not get involved in the horror in front of him. That doesn’t mean that the person behind the lens fails to feel empathy or compassion, just that there is no fundamental requirement to act on what they see. They are there to observe, record. As a result of this view, for example, they believe that the combatants in a conflict should leave them alone. Their chief concern is, “Are you getting this?”

For the Hebrew, to know something meant that there was a moral and ethical necessity to act on that knowledge. This is the basic premise underlying God’s revelation of Himself in scripture and how scripture requires us to respond to that revelation as we study to show ourselves approved. God holds us accountable for what we know. I believe that it is no accident that mankind’s first sin was a sin that involved the acquiring of knowledge and afterwards that God demanded accountability for that knowledge.

Living in a post-modern world, we have an additional problem and that is the “spirit of the age”. Packer believes that skepticism and the naturalistic leaven of the Renaissance outlook is a cancer that eats away at our understanding of God and his control over the world he created. Written in 1973, Packer doesn’t address the additional problem of post-modernism.

I love a quote from George Grant’s lecture on Basil of Caesarea concerning the remarkably post-modern thinking of the Arians:

The only thing certain to the Arians was that Orthodox Christianity was wrong, everything else was negotiable. Hat tip Jollyblogger

Post-modern Christians have to also deal with the death of apologetics. It is argued (ha!) that it is useless to argue about God and truth and the historical formulations of the faith. The expressive individualism of the post-modern gestalt rejects the demands of arguments and demands (ha! 2X) only observation and experience have value, but experience for experience’s sake, experience reduced to amusement. Truth? That is an outworn concept, since everything is negotiable or at best relative.

While Packer does not cover this post-modern dilemma directly, his basic demands about what the task of coming to know God requires come face to face with problem. Packer makes two fundamental demands. He asks us to:

1. Engage the knowledge of God by abandoning our Greek view of being an observer and instead become a Hebrew who takes the knowledge that God gives about who and what we are and who and what He is and then accept the responsibility that knowledge places on our life, on our thoughts, and on our actions.

2. Expect the experience of God to change us. While Packer doesn’t directly argue this, I believe it underlies all of his thinking. God is not an amusement park, existing for our mere enjoyment, for our “experience”. God is real, the substance and source of all realness. He is the one in whom we live, and move, and have our being.

While that does not mean that the experience of God cannot be enjoyable, it can, ecstatic even, but that is not God’s purpose. The experience of God is meant to conform us to image of Christ, to transform us into a new creation, a creation in which the Imagio Deo accurately portrays the truth of God’s intended purpose in the creation of mankind.

So, if these kinds of challenges excite you, rouse the best in you, then you are a prime candidate to join us on this journey.

I want to close with a poem by Edward William Bok (1863–1930). The Americanization of Edward Bok. 1921.
XXXV. At the Battle-Fronts in the Great War.

For the passing souls we pray,
Saviour, meet them on their way;
Let their trust lay hold on Thee
Ere they touch eternity.

Holy counsels long forgot
Breathe again ’mid shell and shot;
Through the mist of life’s last pain
None shall look to Thee in vain.

To the hearts that know Thee, Lord,
Thou wilt speak through flood or sword;
Just beyond the cannon’s roar,
Thou art on the farther shore.

For the passing souls we pray,
Saviour, meet them on the way;
Thou wilt hear our yearning call,
Who hast loved and died for all.

See you next week when we will engage the premise of Section One of Knowing God.

1 thought on “Theological Thursdays: Knowing God: Watcher or Walker?

  1. Thank you. For the years of study and meditation and obedience and joy in the Lord–and the grace of Christ that gives you the opportunity to collaborate with the Holy Spirit.

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