Chapter 4 of Knowing God is always one of the most interesting to discuss. It is here that Packer deals with the second commandment and proper worship of God. His basic premise is that the 2nd commandment, which is a prohibition of idols, is talking about making an idol or representation of God Himself. Many Christians take it as setting up an idol and worshipping it instead of God, but Packer argues this would be nothing more than repeating the first commandment. For the sake of conversation we’ll go with Packer’s notion here, with the caveat that not all agree with him.
Regarding physical images of God, Packer states two reasons why this commandment is given: 1) Images dishonor God, for they obscure his glory, and 2) Images mislead us, for they convey false ideas about God (45-46). In essence, we can’t capture the glory of God in an image, so we’re creating false (or incomplete) impressions about him that do not honor who God truly is.
Truthfully, I don’t really have an issue with Packer here. Where most people get tripped up is on the next section, regarding mental images. The idea is the same as the previous point, that our mental images dishonor God and mislead us about him. Our mental images cannot capture the fullness of the glory of God, so making those images is breaking the second commandment.
I have a number of thoughts on this chapter, so let me run down the list. NB: these mostly deal with the mental images portion of the chapter.
1) I wish Packer would have handled the issue of the Son separately from the Father. The fact is that Jesus did come in a physical form. He is seen after his resurrection in a physical form. Is there significance to the fact that Jesus is desribed in physical terms in Revelation 1, whereas the Father is not in Revelation 4? It would have been nice for Packer to address this.
2) If we cannot ever have a picture of God in our mind, then I feel like God has played a cruel joke on us. Were the original hearers really expected not to picture a shepherd when they heard Psalm 23? What about when God talks about his “right arm” stretching out to save Israel? Is one to repent for having a picture of an arm pop into their mind?
3) I hear Packer’s concern for not capturing the fullness of God in an image, whether physical or mental. But, can’t we say the same thing about using words to describe God? If I say God is a loving Father, which is certainly biblical, am I sinning because I’m not emphasizing the fullness of God’s character? How would one ever capture all who God is accurately, in any form of communication? I’m reminded of Haddon Robinson’s words: “every sermon borders on heresy.” His point- you can’t capture everything in a sermon, thus you run the risk of short-shrifting God. If you are preaching on the love of God, you naturally will not focus on the wrath of God. That, of course, means you might mislead your listeners to think that God has no wrath. Welcome to the challenge of living with human limitations! I’m not sure why a mental image is any different from these other potential problems.
4) I’m not sure Packer adaquetly accounts for sanctification here. The Bible teaches that believers go through a process of sanctification- being made holy. What may be used for evil can now be used for good. For instance, my mouth as an unbeliever may speak lies. But as a believer, the Lord sanctifies me and uses my mouth to proclaim truth. This process includes the sanctification of the mind. So couldn’t an image in that sanctified mind be good?
I do have some strong agreements with Packer, lest anyone think I dismiss this chapter easily.
1) There is, even with my caveat about sanctification, a serious danger of imagining God as we would like to imagine him rather than the biblical revelation of him. You don’t have to talk to a Christian very long to realize that God is often spoken of in limited terminology: Father, Savior, Friend, etc. Those are all true and good, but they often reflect what that person wants God to be rather than what he fully is. Often times the picture of God one has reveals more about the person than it does about God.
2) The second commandment “is a summons to us to recognize that God the Creator is transcendent, mysterious and inscrutable, beyond the range of imagining or philosophical guesswork of which we are capable-and hence a summons 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). Amen and amen.
3) There are cultures in which one would do well to heed Packer’s warning. I think specifically of a place like India, where people are accustomed to worshipping an idol that represents a god. To introduce images into a culture such as this could be extremely dangerous.
I enjoy rereading this chapter every year. Part of the reason is because it forces me to step back and look at my life and ask myself whether or not I’m truly worshipping and recognizing God for who he is. Am I guilty of only focusing on those aspects of God’s character that I find most palatable? Do I create an image of God that I prefer, over against who God has revealed himself in the Bible? While I know many people will read this chapter and easily dismiss Packer’s point, I think it offers a wise and valuable look into the idolatry of our hearts.
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