Theological Thursdays: Knowing God: The Only True God

This week we look at chapter four of Knowing God, J. I. Packer’s challenging study of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in whom we live and move and have our being. You can find all of the previous lessons using the Knowing God category link. There are also study materials for the book available at  

I have always liked how Packer’s chapters build on each other and how each new chapter creates a foundation of understanding for the next revelation. Last week we examined knowing God and his knowing of us. Packer closes the chapter with a remarkable statement that I would like to repeat so it is driven home.

There is tremendous relief in knowing that his love to me is utterly realistic, based at every point on prior knowledge of the worst about me, so that no discovery now can disillusion him about me, in the way I am so often disillusioned about myself, and quench his determination to bless me.  


Now, having said that God knows me completely and having argued that God wants us to know him intimately, as a child knows their father, we now move on to an issue that can sidetrack those efforts. If we attempt to know God improperly, in ways that instead of revealing more about him, actually obscure who he really is: we move on to idolatry.

When most people hear the word idolatry they think of the pagan or non-Christian worship of false gods. They think of monks prostrate before a golden Buddha or remote jungle tribesman bowing to a stone idol. They may even consider the talismans some people wear around their neck and stroke in times of stress or danger. They don’t think of themselves or anyone in a Christian church. Yet that is Packer’s focus in this chapter. He confronts Christians trying to worship the true God by creating images of him to “assist” them in their prayer and worship. Packer argues, talking of the second commandment:

The commandment thus deals not with the object of our worship, but with the manner of it; what it tells us is that statue and pictures of the One whom we worship are not to be used as an aid to worshipping him.

Note at this point the distinction between illustrations of God the Father or Jesus or the Holy Spirit, and aids to worship. We will look at this more later, but by way of example, the second commandment has been one of the reasons that Protestants have crosses rather than crucifixes in their churches. Aside from focusing on the risen Christ, it prevents even the possibility of crossing that line of using an image, even one so sacred as Christ on the cross, as an aid to Christian prayer and worship. There are two basic problems which Packer addresses:

1. How images dishonor God.
2. Why we seem to want an image, even if it is only one in our mind.

The question for me is not if we have any idolatry in our lives, but what we are going to do with it when we find it.

Dishonoring God

God is so glorious, so absolutely wonderful, that any image we might construct of him would only obscure that magnificence. This is where things like the crucifix come into play in Packer’s argument. He says: 

…the pathos of the crucifix obscures the glory of Christ, for it hides the fact of his deity, his victory on the cross, and his present kingdom. It displays his human weakness, but it conceals his divine strength; it depicts the reality of his pain, but keeps out of our sight the reality of his joy and his power. In both these cases, the symbol is unworthy most of all because of what it fails to display. And so are all other visible representations of deity.

It should be noted that the last phrase applies to all attempts to represent God in any way, including the beautiful creation scene in the Sistine Chapel, a place of worship. But, you argue, surely art is not a problem. That depends, because even when not used in worship, there is a danger of images fixing within our minds a sense or idea of God that limits who and what he is for and to us. In worship, this is a serious problem, especially in churches with stained glass windows that represent various aspects of God or historical events in the life of Christ. Packer uses Isaiah 40:18 to address this context.

To whom, then, will you compare God? What image will you compare him to?

We already start with the problem that it is very easy for us to be led astray into false ideas about God and images have a unique ability to do that. Packer discusses Aaron, who contrary to some misunderstandings was making an image of God, not a false god. The bull-calf was meant to represent the true God, to help lead the Israelites forward giving them something they could see, a rallying point. Instead, it facilitated turning the “festival to the LORD” into a shameful orgy and brought condemnation, fire, and judgment down on the people of God. Jesus told the woman at the well that the Father seeks those who will worship Him in spirit and in truth. Focusing on an image as an aid to worship prevents that, since they can never tell the truth about God.

Packer next takes us from actual physical images to mental images of God. He notes that people say things like, “I like to think of God as [insert favorite image here].” Or they use the negative, “I don’t like to think of God as a judge [or some other image].” What this does, Packer argues, is anthropomorphize God with the limited characteristics of men. While God made us in his image, we must not try to make him over in ours.

Packer now makes an important point, arguing that speculative theology, theology relying on philosophical reasoning or I will go even further, rational logical deduction, is wrong and is addressed by Paul:

“For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe.” 1 Corinthians 1:21

We have to remember what God has told us:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:8-9

Mental idolatry is a trap that leads to pride and arrogance, believing, no matter what we tell ourselves, that we can define God, forgetting that only God defines himself. “Who has known the mind of the Lord?” Paul asks (Romans 11:34b)

In the end, it boils down to respect, respect for God and respect for ourselves. Yes, ourselves. When we elevate our thinking beyond its place and try to usurp what God has left to himself, in essence we don’t respect ourselves, thinking instead that we are better than what God has made. We fall anew to the temptation of Eve; we try to be like God, in knowing and deciding and defining what is.

Packer closes with an addition for the 1993 version, in which he addresses the use of images for devotional or didactic (instructional, such as for children) purposes. He points out that he is not speaking against symbolic art, only representational art. On that thought I need to say something. Some people are so fearful of even symbolic art that they forbid things like the chi-rho symbol. This symbol has been used by Christians since time immemorial. It is a combination of the Greek letters that begin the words Christ the King.

My daughter was making decorations for a St. Patrick’s Day themed singles evening at her church and came up with the idea of having a large Chi-Rho symbol suspended from the ceiling over the food table in the center of the room. She also was going to screen the Celtic triune symbol, representing the Trinity, on the all the table cloths. The young, pastor-in-training, who oversaw the details for this large monthly gathering (over a thousand singles) nixed the idea since he was concerned some people might find it idolatrous. He said to my daughter, of all people, “Have you ever read chapter two of J.I. Packer’s Knowing God?” She told him she had read it over six times and had studied it with her father, but thought that maybe he meant chapter four. Rather than argue with him she abandoned all the work she had done and settled on using only the 400 shamrocks they had made that will be attached to four artificial green garlands creating a tent-like effect over the food area. The five foot Chi-Rho hanging in the center and the triunes on the table cloths would have completed the design.

These representational, not devotional images posed no threat to idolatry and actually would have been a good way to spark conversation. Even the shamrocks, which she was allowed to use, have a spiritual context as Patrick used the three-leaf clover to explain the Trinity to the Druids who controlled Ireland during his initial period of evangelism.

Yes, it is important to be faithful and true, but on the other hand it is just as important to be balanced and reasonable. One of the issues that came up during one of the discussions on this chapter (it became the tenth question on my study notes), was how would you relate a movie like The Passion of the Christ to the concerns of this chapter? The crux of the discussion centered on the problem with all films being representational, not symbolic, while on the other hand, the possibility of it being used for worship was extremely low. We all had mixed feelings, since it took almost a year before I got the overwhelming image of James Caviezel out of my head when I thought of the crucifixion.It still, at times, impinges on me to this day

I know this chapter touches on sensitive issues, ones that many from liturgical, Orthodox, and Catholic backgrounds will find too stringent. I only ask that you approach the arguments Packer makes with a spirit of humility and discernment and remember God will never ask you what [insert church authority here] said for you to do or think, he will ask you what you did and thought after your own honest study of scripture to show yourself approved. 

Grace and peace be to you this day and the rest of Lent.

4 thoughts on “Theological Thursdays: Knowing God: The Only True God

  1. Interesting conclusion. I haven’t read J.I.Packer but amazingly, my son and I just read Matthew 16 this a.m. Jesus says in connection to his loaves and fish miracles, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” v 6,11 We have been unchurched for awhile but God has been so faithful in providing “honest study of scripture”. No, I’m not calling J.I. Packer or church authority a Pharisee. We simply talked about how God is revealing truths, with much overlap in our case; similar revelation from many different sources. Looks like the Holy Spirit. Just glanced at Brad Bright’s book, God is the Issue, and it sounds like some of my blog comments. We are living in exciting times. Aslan is on the move.
    I really liked the symbols, being Welsh and all!

  2. Speaking of Aslan, one area Packer doesn’t address is allegory, since Aslan is an allegory for Jesus Christ, the Lion of Judah. It doesn’t quite fit symbolic or representation art, being somewhere in between.

    I find symbols and symbolic gestures in worship very powerful and that is one reason I have always liked liturgical worship.

    Grace and peace on your search to become “churched” again. May God direct your feet on the path he has chosen.

  3. My pastor just loves J. I. Packer and he frequently recommends his books. So Our small group decided to read “Knowing God” to dig into a little more depth.
    When we got to “The Only True God” chapter on idolotry we could not believe what he was saying. It is like he is from another planet or something. Our group was four couples from varied backgrounds from legalistic Baptist to Catholic and we are equally dumbfounded at what he was saying. It seemed so totally legalisitc that we had to put down the book as as group. It was almost like he was one of the throng from the Reformtion period that was going through the churches burning all the sacred art. It made it so that I could not trust anything else he was saying.

    It may be true I need to go back and try reading it again. Maybe God is working on my mind and will give me a different view of what he is trying to say but my first pass was very negative.

    You are indeed doing a great job with your analyis. Keep up the great work.
    Wayne Moran

  4. Wayne, I understand your reaction, since in our media culture his position is such a shock. However, you have to remember, it is always in the context of worship and understanding who God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are.

    Last year, while working with the men’s group at the church I was attending, we did this chapter in the middle of the uproar over The Passion of the Christ. We all agreed that it was a problem for us in that Gibson’s images were now our images and when we thought of the cross, it was quite some time before we could not see his presentation as the presentation. This is a good example of what I think Packer is getting at.

    The creating of images is also at the center of our desire to know God. We are uncomfortable with, as those around the Jews used to say, the “unseen God”. This topic should probably be another post, more fully developed.

    Grace and peace and I hope you and your group again take up the book. Remember, you are called to be Bereans, and your questioning of Packer’s position doesn’t invalidate him (no man is infallible) but validates your quest to do what the book demands, to know your God.

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