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Posts Tagged ‘J I Packer’

I’m not sure how many people judge a book by the blurbs found on it, but I pray that number dwindles greatly.  Because frequently, perhaps more often than not, they are misleading, particularly if they are written by a well-known scholar, author, pastor, etc.

Case in point: a while back Justin Taylor, one of the most popular bloggers in evangelicalism, highlighted a new book put out of IVP, The Roots of the Reformation.  The author, G R Evans, is apparently a well respected Cambridge medievalist.  Taylor includes in his post 4 endorsements of the book, two of which were particularly glowing:

“G. R. Evans is one of our finest scholars, and she has written a superb book placing the story of the Reformation in the wider context of Christian history. Comprehensive, well researched and readable.”

—Timothy George, general editor, Reformation Commentary on Scripture

“Briskly and breezily, but very efficiently, medievalist Gillian Evans here surveys Western Europe’s changing and clashing views of Christianity from the fourteenth century through the seventeenth century. This large-scale introduction is certainly the best of its kind currently available.”

—J. I. Packer, Regent College

But, a month later and Taylor (admirably) issued a ‘mea culpa‘ for implicitly endorsing this highly-praised book.  Why?  What changed his mind?

Because an expert on the subject matter of the book in question actually read the book carefully.

Carl Trueman wrote an absolutely devastating review of the book, pointing out numerous (and I mean numerous) embarrassing errors that undermine the credibility of the book, and thus, the author and those who praise it so unreservedly.  How devastating is this review?  IVP has opted to pull the book off the shelves, revise it (in time for the fall semester, although I wonder if any professor will opt to use it now) and give free ones to those who purchased the 1st edition.  You can read their letter here.

Now, I don’t want to overstate the damage done here.  No one’s salvation is at stake.  There won’t be a generation of scholars who will screw up basic facts about Calvin, Luther and the rest of the reformers.  The 2nd edition will fix the errors and the world will move on.

But I have to wonder about the endorsers, particularly the two I quoted.  Was Packer right when he said the book is “the best of its kind currently available?”  Are the other options so awful that Evans’ book is, in fact, better?  I highly doubt it.  The better question is: did Packer read the book?  Or, perhaps, is Packer qualified to write an endorsement for a book on the Reformation?

Same goes for Timothy George.  He said this book is ‘well researched.’  Did George read the book?  Is he qualified to make such a claim about the book?

I’m being a bit sarcastic.  Both Packer and George are highly qualified scholars.  Their credentials speak for themselves.  They ought to be able to read a book on the reformation and determine its value for classroom use.  But the only real explanation for their high praise is probably the simplest: they didn’t read the book carefully.  Trueman can’t be that much better of a scholar to be able to see frequent errors while they are not.  If so, they aren’t the scholars we all think they are.

So what’s the point in trusting blurbs for a book?  If you can’t trust J I Packer and Timothy George, then who can you trust?  I’ve read too many books that received high praise, only to read the book and wonder if the endorsers actually read it.  But often times it’s a matter of opinion to a certain degree.   In this case, it’s plain and simple.  The book had so many errors it has to be pulled off the shelf.  This isn’t a matter of opinion, it’s a matter of getting basic facts correct.  IVP shouldn’t be the only ones apologizing here.

I’m not the first to note the uselessness (or at least, the limited usefulness) of book blurbs.  Nick Norelli makes the same point here.  Esteban Vazquez (the only blogger to blog less than me) nail it pretty well here.  Or even better, read this.

Anyway, to bring my rant to a close, it’s disappointing to have your suspicions confirmed: sometimes (oftentimes?) endorsers don’t read carefully the book they are endorsing.  The quicker we all realize this, the better off we’ll be.  But we’ll be even better off if endorsers stop doing it altogether.

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What?  Did you think we forgot about this series?

J I Packer carries the theme of wisdom from Chapter 9 into Chapter 10 of his classic book, Knowing God.  Whereas Chapter 9 dealt more with God’s wisdom, Chapter 10 dives into how God grants wisdom to His people and what that wisdom looks like.  In fancy theological language, it looks at wisdom from the standpoint of one of God’s communicable attributes.

Packer gives two prerequisites for attaining wisdom (p101):

1. We must learn to reverence God.  “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Ps 111:10, Prov 9:10)

2. We must learn to receive God’s word.  “Your command makes me wiser than my enemies… I have more insight than all my teachers for I meditate on your statutes” (Ps 119:98-99, see also Col 3:16, 2 Tim 3:15-17)

Of course, one wonders why Packer didn’t marshal James 1:5 in support, but his point is still well made.

What we learn from Ecclesiastes is that the difficult realities of life show us that we are not as wise as we thought:

…we feel sure that God has enabled us to understand all his ways with us and our circle thus far, and we take it for granted that we shall be able to see at once the reason for anything that may happen to us in the future. (p106)

For the truth is that God in his wisdom, to make and keep us humble and to teach us to walk by faith, has hidden from us almost everything that we should like to know about the providential purposes which he is working out in the churches and in our own lives. (p106)

Packer’s thoughts are good, as far as they go.  That is, I begged for more in this chapter that gives a positive look at wisdom.  I kept wanting to know, what does a wise person look like?  In my opinion, Ecclesiastes only gives one part of the biblical picture of wisdom.  It is mostly (though not entirely) a cautionary tale.  But something like the book of Proverbs, while echoing much of what is in Ecclesiastes, offers a broader picture of “our wisdom.”

That said, Packer is correct.  We often think we are wise, when in reality we show our ignorance in our inability to come to terms with our lack of understanding of God’s ways.  We demonstrate our wisdom by accepting that we cannot fully understand what God is doing in our world.  Those who refuse to admit otherwise betray their arrogance.

Packer ends with a helpful section entitled, “The Fruit of Wisdom” (p108).  And I leave you with his words, with one interjection of my own:

Thus, the kind of wisdom that God waits [fantastic word choice!] to give to those who ask him is a wisdom that will bind us to himself, a wisdom that will find expression in a spirit of faith and a life of faithfulness.

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Knowing God: God Only Wise

Wisdom can be a slippery word to define these days.  I suspect that most Americans would equate wisdom with intelligence or sagacity.  More practically, wisdom might be defined as the ability to make “good” choices.  Most of the time when I say that I made a “wise” choice, this is all I really mean:  It was a good one, viz., it brought about the results I sought.

Along this line of thinking, wisdom is more or less morally neutral.  What constitutes “wise” or “unwise” is largely subjective.  I could say that I was wise in lying to the police officer about my expired registration, because it spared me the displeasure of a ticket.  Biblically speaking, however, I’d be wrong.  Packer corrects this perception of wisdom in the 9th chapter of Knowing God, defining wisdom as “the power to see, and the inclination to choose, the best and highest goal, together with the surest means for attaining it.”  It is “the practical side of moral goodness” (p.90).  Biblical wisdom, Packer notes, is not morally neutral.

God’s wisdom, unlike ours, is perfect, and not limited by a lack of foresight, intelligence, or moral goodness.  His choices are always the best means of realizing his perfect will.  Packer is quick to point out what the ultimate aim of this perfect will is.  This is a crucial point, given our tendency to think that any act of God which brings about personal unhappiness or discomfort is not good (i.e., unwise).  God’s ultimate aim is his glory (p.92):

[God’s] ultimate objective is to bring [humankind] to a state in which he is all in all to them, and he and they rejoice continually in the knowledge of each other’s love – people rejoicing in the saving love God, set upon them from all eternity, and God rejoicing the responsive love of people, drawn out of them by grace through the gospel.  This will be God’s glory, and our glory to, in every sense which that weighty word can bear.

Packer lets the Bible illustrate God’s wisdom in action, through a few brief surveys of the lives of Abraham, Jacob and Joseph.  This is Packer’s springboard to the important point that our own lives can take odd twists and turns, including hardships, that God is working towards his very good ends.  Writes Packer, “We may be frankly bewildered at things that happen to us, but God knows exactly what he is doing, and what he is after, in his handling of our affairs” (p.98).

I once heard Tim Keller remark that our own “books” have not been written yet.  In the case of Abraham, Jacob and Joseph, we can look back at the story of their lives and see how God worked his great plans through them.  But when Joseph was locked up in Egypt, he didn’t have that perspective.  Nor do we, as we face trials and odd turns of circumstance.  What we do have, is the blessed assurance of God’s perfect wisdom.  Our grief, confusion, or pain, then, can always be framed with trust.  We may not know what the reasons are, but we do know what they are not:  Our suffering is not because God doesn’t care, because he’s made a mistake, because he’s forgotten, overlooked, or miscalculated.  God is perfectly wise, and therefore perfectly trustworthy through any circumstance.

As much as I’d love to close this post on the note above, I can never escape the fact that great theological propositions are often cold-comfort when we’re smack in the middle of a trial.  Most of us have had the experience of a well-meaning friend reciting Rom.8:28 to us when we’re in such a place, and most of us have had to nod politely (at best).  Belief in God’s wisdom doesn’t necessarily ease the pain, nor (I would argue) is it meant to.  What it does do is give us hope.  It is the light at the end of the tunnel.  Without it, all suffering and confusion is ultimately unbearable.  We may hurt and weep, but we needn’t despair.  A bright future awaits all of God’s children, and we can count on it.

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Knowing God: The Majesty of God

“Today, vast stress is laid on the thought that God is personal, but this truth is so stated as to leave the impression that God is a person of the same sort as we are- weak, inadequate, ineffective, a little pathetic.”

In chapter 8 of Knowing God, J I Packer discusses the often overlooked subject of the majesty of God.  Packer doesn’t downplay the personal nature of God, nor does he think we should either.  But he does believe, and I think he’s right, that we have so stressed this point that we forget that God is not like us.  He is not a created being.  He is not limited in wisdom.  He does not confuse evil and good.

So how do we rediscover the majesty of God?  Packer gives two suggestions.  First, “remove from our thoughts of God limits that would make him small.”  He looks briefly at Psalm 139 “where the Psalmist meditates on the infinite and unlimited nature of God’s presence, and knowledge, and power, in relation to people.”  I found this particular quote convicting: “I can hide my heart, and my past, and my future plans, from those around me, but I cannot hide anything from God.”

Packer’s second suggestion for rediscovering the majesty of God is “to compare him with powers and forces which we regard as great.”  For this, he looks at Isaiah 40, where God invites us to look at 5 things: the tasks he has done, the nations, the world, the world’s great ones (rulers), and the stars.  All of these fall short of the majesty of God.  In fact, none of these would have their existence if it weren’t for the majestic and powerful God of the universe.

In response, Packer gives 3 points drawn from Isaiah 40 (I’m using the translations offered in the book).

1) When God asks, “To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him?”, this question rebukes wrong thoughts about God.

2) When God asks, “Why sayest thou, O Jacob, and speakest, O Israel, My way is hid from the Lord and my judgment is passed away from my God?”, this question rebukes wrong thoughts about ourselves– specifically that God has abandoned us.

3) When God asks, “Hast thou not known? hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth, faintest not, neither is weary?”, this question rebukes our slowness to believe in God’s majesty.

I appreciate Packer’s emphasis on the majesty of God.  While I completely agree with the belief that God is personal and cares for the littlest details of our lives, we cannot lose sight of the majestic glory of God.  In fact, God’s personal nature is made all the more amazing when I remember just how great he truly is, yet cares for me.

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Knowing God: God Unchanging

Why in the world would we read a text written thousands of years ago for knowledge of God?  Even if they are accurate in their teaching, why would we think that they are still applicable today?  As we read the Bible, we are confronted with cultures vastly different from our own.  How can we bridge that gap?  Should we even seek to build a bridge?

A great start at an answer can be found in Chapter 7 of Packer’s Knowing God.  In short, the linchpin to Biblical relevance and interpretation is the fact that “God does not change in the least particular” (p. 77).  The theological term in mind here is God’s immutability.  Packer expands on this in six ways:  God’s (1) life, (2) character, (3) truth, (4) ways, (5) purposes, and (6) Son do (does) not change.  (Sidebar:  Coming on the heels of a chapter about the Holy Spirit, this reader would have appreciated His appearance in Packer’s list as well as (7).  Of course it follows that if God is immutable, the Holy Spirit is immutable, but why not say it explicitly?)

We trust Scripture, then, because it is a faithful revelation by the God who does not change about Himself.  The culture and context of Scripture might often differ widely from our own, but the God who acted and spoke in that context is no different today than He was then.  This is one of the reasons why I believe that one of the safest questions ever to ask of the Bible is, “What does this say about God?”  You can’t miss, because if something was true of God then, it is true of God now, and will be true tomorrow.

We must always bear in mind, however, that inasmuch as God does not change, He is also a personality.  As such, He is dynamic and relational.  He responds to us, our circumstances and our prayers, this fact the Bible readily asserts.  It is possible to get so wrapped up in God’s immutability that we forget that His actions do change; only they change in ways that do not violate His character, purposes, ways, etc. (e.g., God relents from destroying the Israelites at Sinai upon Moses’ intercession in Ex. 32:14).  Interesting enough, this is foundation to one of the (manifold) reasons why we pray.

I found Packer’s concluding paragraphs among the most convicting in his book (p. 81):

If our God is the same as the God of the New Testament believers, how can we justify ourselves in resting content with an experience of communion with him, and a level of Christian conduct, that falls so far below theirs?  If God is the same, this is not an issue that any one of us can evade.

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Knowing God: He Shall Testify

Knowing GodAh, the Holy Spirit.  It’s amazing to me how little knowledge there is of the Holy Spirit.  You’d think there would be more emphasis and biblical teaching on him, being part of the Trinity (i.e., God) and all.  Yet, most churches and Christians know very little of what the Bible teaches on the Holy Spirit (I’m not pointing fingers outward, by the way, the circles I run in are just as guilty, more on that to come).  In the words of J I Packer, in chapter 6 of Knowing God, the Holy Spirit is “divine yet ignored.”

Christian people are not in doubt as to the work that Christ did, they know that he redeemed us by his atoning death, even if they differ among themselves as to what exactly this involved.  But the average Christian, deep down, is in a complete fog as to what work the Holy Spirit does. (p68)

Packer focuses on two main reasons to see the Holy Spirit as important: (1) the inspiration of Scripture and (2) regeneration.  If it weren’t for the Holy Spirit, we wouldn’t have the Bible itself, because he inspired the authors to write it.  Nor would we have Christians, because the Holy Spirit is the one who convincts sinners and brings new life to their heart.  Packer is, of course, absolutely correct in making both points.

But part of me can’t help but note that there’s so much more than that.  This is the difficulty of a book like this, that Packer cannot dive deeper into what the Scripture teaches on a topic as broad (and crucial) as the person and work of the Holy Spirit.  If I could have placed a bet on what Packer would write about the Spirit, well, I’d be a rich man.  It’s a shame, however, because the predictability is disheartening: a charismatic would write about manifestations of the Spirit, a Reformed theologian would focus on inspiration and regeneration, many Baptists would focus on the fruit of the Spirit, and so on.  Each group is woefully partial in their emphases.

And this is part of the problem Packer decries here in this chapter.  I could ask Packer: what about the spiritual gifts?  What does Paul mean when he calls the Spirit “a deposit” (Eph 1:14) or refers to the “firstfruits of the Spirit” (Rom 8:23)?  What does it mean to live/walk by/in the Spirit?  What does it mean to be filled by the Spirit?  Let me be clear- what Packer says about the Spirit is spot on and to be appreciated.  But I finish the chapter with more questions than answers, and can’t get away from what Gordon Fee always says about the Holy Spirit- that in the New Testament church, the Holy Spirit was an “experienced reality.”

I guess it’s unfair to knock Packer on this point, since he’s trying to keep everything short and sweet (though a couple more pages wouldn’t kill the reader).  I want to close by repeating his application points, which are excellent (71-72).

  • Do we honor the Holy Spirit in our faith, acknowledging the authory of the Bible?
  • Do we honor the Holy Spirit in our life, by seeking to apply the Bible he has inspired?
  • Do we honor the Holy Spirit in our witness, realizing that he alone does the convincted and saving?

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One of the things I marvelled at when reading The Da Vinci Code was author Dan Brown’s claim that the early church, (in a power grab, of course), shrouded Christ’s humanity in a veil of divinity, thus obscuring His humanity.  This created the need for the church as a mediator of Christ’s revelation, otherwise Jesus would be incomprehensible.  Brown’s claims are backed up by several gnostic “gospels,” such as those found at Nag Hammadi.

What was amazing to me about this view, (aside from the fact that it is historically puerile and hopelessly inconsistent to the point where one wonders if Brown even bothered to read a gnostic text, or even look up the word “gnosticism”), was that Brown made such an effort to assert Christ’s humanity, and emphasize his human ministry.  This was interesting to me merely on a personal level, because for the bulk of my Christian life, I have had far greater struggles convincing non-Christians of Christ’s divinity.

This struggle, I learned, was actually much easier than describing what Christ’s divinity actually meant.  How was he God and man?  This difficulty could have been much reduced if only I had read Packer’s 5th chapter in Knowing God.  Here, with the simplicity and clarity that has made this book so popular, Pakcer tackles the incarnation:  Jesus as fully human and fully divine.

Particularly helpful in this chapter is Packer’s precision in expressing that Jesus was not God minus certain divine characteristics, but God plus humanity.  His explanation of Paul’s text in Php. 2:7 is helpful (p.60,63):

When Paul talks of the Son as having emptied himself and become poor, what he has in mind, as the context in each case shows, is the laying aside not of divine powers and attributes, but of divine glory and dignity…a volutary 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.

As well as one may be able to describe Christ’s nature, we should note that it will always be mysterious and intrinsically baffling; there is nothing in the universe that serves as an accurate analogue for the Trinity.  God is our only example.  All we can do is express what the Bible teaches.

But even after understanding (best I could) the Bible’s teaching on Christ’s nature, I encountered a third struggle when I met with some Jehovah’s Witnesses to discuss the Bible.  Jehovah’s Witnesses deny Christ’s divinity, and instead claim that he was a created being, and while he may be ontologically superior to us, he is not divine.  As I labored to reason with them through the Scriptures that Jesus is indeed the God-man, a chilling question surfaced in my head:  What’s at stake?  Does it matter that Jesus was human and divine?  Am I still Christian if I deny this?

Packer hints at the ramifications of Christ’s nature in the beginning of his chapter.  Gallons of theological ink can be spilled to answer why it is crucial to Christianity that Jesus be divine and human.  Consider my very brief, very incomplete list:

  1. Jesus as the God-man is the only adequate explanation for the information we have of him (i.e., Scripture).  It best accounts for his self-understanding, his actions, words, and teachings.  If he were not divine and human, Jesus was either a lunatic, an apparition, or a scoundrel.  None of these seems a plausible option.
  2. Jesus’ nature as God-man means he is the perfect atoning sacrifice for our sins in kind (he is human) and quantity (he is infinite).  Even more, we might ask of Scripture:  Who alone saves?  Who alone forgives sins?  It is only and always God.  Jesus is no savior if he is not God.
  3. Jesus’ nature explains the resurrection.  How could one die, yet raise himself up again by his own authority (see Jn. 10:17-18) if he were not both God and man?
  4. Jesus’ nature cements the authority with which we understand his teaching.  If he’s just another guy with amazing, revolutionary things to say, why would we listen to him over and against the teachings of Siddhārtha Gautama or Karl Marx?
  5. If Jesus were not human, we lose the awesome realization of how deeply God loves us, and the expanse of Christ’s humility.  C.S. Lewis says it this way in Mere Christianity (p.179):

The Eternal Being, who knows everything and who created the whole universe, became not only a man but (before that) a baby, and before that a foetus inside a Woman’s body.  If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug or a crab.

Packer concludes with the practical application of my point above, that as we model God, and “make our attitudes the same as Christ Jesus,” (2 Cor. 8:9), we too become poor, so that others might become rich.

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