Posts Tagged ‘theology’

Knowing God: The Study of God

Why study theology?  Why spend hours praying over biblical texts?  What are we hoping will happen to us when we study who God is and learn His character?

Knowing GodChapter 1 of J I Packer’s Knowing God helps direct us in our pursuit of knowing God.  He starts the chapter with a quote from Spurgeon.  Spurgeon notes that the study of God ought to do three things: humble the mind, expand the mind and console.  The more we learn about God, the more we ought to realize our limitations and finiteness.  The effect ought to be humbling.  Our minds will also find themselves expanding as we try to comprehend the God who created and sustains the entire universe.  Finally, the problems and grieves of the soul will find their comfort and consolation in God Himself.

What do we do about the problem of arrogance?  After all, many of us know people whose study of God simply fed their intellectual pride.  It’s not hard to see examples of this in the church, though I’ll point out seminary students and professors aren’t the only ones prone to this- I’ve met plenty of Christians who have no desire to study theology who are just as guilty of immense spiritual pride (indeed, the fact they don’t feel the need to study the Bible at all may be a sign of that pride).

Packer is well aware of the potential for this problem (pp21-22).

For the fact that we have to face is this: If we pursue theological knowledge for its own sake, it is bound to go bad on us.  It will make us proud and conceited…  To be preoccupied with getting theological knowledge as an end in itself, to approach Bible study with no higher a motive than a desire to know all the answers, is the direct route to a state of self-satisfied self-deception.

Packer’s remedy:  “Our aim in studying the Godhead must be to know himself better…  As he is the subject of our study, and our helper in it, so he must himself be the end of it” (p23).

Ultimately, our motivation will dictact what we get out of our study of God.  If our motive is get smarter, we’ll achieve that- and a healthy dose of arrogance on the side.  We will deceive ourselves into thinking that we actually do know God, when in reality all we know is stuff about God.  If our motive is truly to know God, he will be faithful to reveal himself.  After all, his desire is to make himself known.  And when he does, we can revisit Spurgeon’s points above and discover for ourselves just how right he was.

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One of the highlights of the fall for me is rereading J I Packer’s classic book, Knowing God.  We read it every year in our discipleship and missions training school, and for good reason.  If you’re impressed with quantity, the book has sold over 1 million copies.  At the very least this attests to the fact that many people have found this book useful in their Christian growth.

But some of Knowing Godus are less enamored with numbers than others are.  After all, there are number of bestselling books that quite frankly aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on, though I’m not naming any names (coughdanbrowncough).  Books are popular for any number of reasons: celebrity authors, Oprah’s Bookclub, clever marketing, and so on.  None of these necessarily speak to the quality of the book, and in some cases it may speak negatively.  And even the perceived usefulness of a book noted above is no true indication of its merit- see: Joel Osteen books, high sales totals of (I’m not doing a good job of not naming names, am I?).

There are other bestsellers that top the charts because they are simply wicked good.  It is our contention that Packer’s Knowing God is that kind of book, though I’m not sure he’d understand or appreciate the term “wicked good.”  Brian and I have decided that we’d like to blog through this modern day Christian classic, one chapter per week.  I first read Packer’s book in David Wells‘ Systematic Theology class.  It ended up being my favorite theology book of all the ones I read in seminary, in large part because it captures the “why” of studying theology and knowing God so well.  Knowing God is no mere intellectual exercise.  Packer’s concern is that we truly know God, not just know about Him and about His book.  And in knowing God, the life of the Christian and the church will be forever changed.

So we hope you’ll join us in our quest over the coming weeks and months.   We invite you to read along with us and offer your thoughts along the way.  If you do not own a copy, get one.  Beg and borrow if you must, even contemplate stealing, though don’t act on it.  However you get the book, read it, digest it and participate in our discussions.  Hopefully we’ll all come away knowing the God we worship all the more.

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Many, many thanks to Connie at Crossway Books for this review copy.  Thanks and apologies to Connie and Danny that it’s taken me a year to get around to a review of this book, a delinquency for which I have no good excuse, save several weak ones that perhaps taken together…

 I am as intimidated as I am happy at the chance to review William Lane Craig’s Reasonable Faith, which Craig himself supposes to be his “signature book” (p.11).  I have already commented on the excellent introduction to this book here, and would commend it to anyone who would question prima facie the merit Christian apologetics.

The purpose of the book, Craig states, is to focus primarily on the theoretical issues of Christian apologetics, as opposed to offering a manual of “how to’s” (p.23).  Pragmatists (among whom I count myself) needn’t worry, however.  While Craig does indeed focus on theory, he touches down often enough to help the reader apply what has been discussed.  That said, make no mistake that this is not a light read.  This is a book for study and careful reflection, not a cozy morning on the porch.  Consider, for example, some titles taken from the table of figures (p.9):  “Cyclic Ekpyrotic Scenario,” “Oscillating Model with entropy increase,” and “Bubbles of true vacuum in a sea of false vacuum.” 

Craig is very thorough, and very technical, but the diligent reader needn’t worry; let not the titles above scare you away.  Like many (most?) matters in study, the reward you will reap from careful reading of this book is well worth a few trips to the dictionary, or re-reads of a paragraph.  To be fair, I should also mention that text isn’t all cyclic ekpyrotic scenarios, either, and Craig often explains the terms he uses in the lucid, frank prose that makes him one of my favorite apologists.  At the very worst, while you not come away being able to describe why the cyclic ekpyrotic scenario fails to explain the universe, should you find yourself witnessing to an astrophysicist who has interest in such matters, boy do you have the book for him!

Craig’s book is broken down into five major sections, an arrangement inspired by some of the principal themes of post-Reformation Protestant theology:  faith, man, God, creation and Christ (or de fide, de homine, de Deo, de creatione, and de Christo, as Craig titles them, much to the pleasure of my nerdliness).  I shall break down this review roughly along these lines, so as to keep each post managable.

Each section begins with a historical background viz., how have other thinkers addressed this issue?  These are immesely helpful, and well-written.  They also do well to remind us, in the tradition of Isaac Newton, that we stand on the shoulders of thousands upon thousands of great minds.  Craig’s development is chronological, and lays the groundwork for his own, present day “assessment,” which follows.

In De Fide, Craig makes an important distinction:  There is a difference between knowing the Christian faith to be true and showing the Christian faith to be true.  He goes on to explore both of these topics at length, fleshing out the details of each.  For Craig, the heart of knowing Christianity to be true is the work of Holy Spirit testifying that it is true (e.g., pp. 43, 46).  Craig’s support for this is a perfect blend of  copious  Scriptural support (e.g., 1 Jn. 3:24; 4:13) and well-reasoned arguments.  This mixture is seasoned with rebuttals to common objections.

Consider, for example, Craig’s response to the “objection” that some neuro-scientists can artifically stimulate certain areas of the brain to induce “religious experiences.”   A believer’s experience of the witness of the Holy Spirit, then, is not a function of the Holy Spirit so much as a physiological phenomenon.  It follows, that we ought not to trust this “sense.”  Craig notes, however, that other senses, such as hearing and vision, are clearly associated with certain parts of the brain, and they are also manipulable to induce sounds and sights that do not truly exist.  Do we therefore dismiss our vision and hearing as unreliable?  (p.50)  Even more, that there is an area of the brain associated with religious experience could actually be taken to testify that God made us that way.

De Homine, which is easily my favorite chapter, examines “the Absurdity of Life without God.”  I’ve lightly touched on this issue before, but Craig dives in with a full bore, exploring “the disastrous consequences for human existence, society, and culture if Christianity should be false” (p.65).  Put simply, this is the best chapter I’ve ever read on the topic.  Craig holds no punches, and explicitly spells out exactly how hopeless, meaningless and, well, absurd, human life is without God.  This of course does not prove that there is a God, but it does show the inconsistency of a happy atheist.  Frequent quotes of popular atheists often make Craig’s point for him, such as his embarassment of Richard Dawkins on pp.80-81.  (N.b., This is not the only time Craig makes Dawkins look like a hack; the interested reader could also consult reviews of Dawkins’ work by Marxist literary critic Terry Eagleton or Christian philospher Alvin Plantinga).

My review is a scant 90 pages into this 400+ page book, but in my opinion, it is already well worth the price of admission.  In part 2, I will tackle the two lengthy chapters that comprise De Deo.  I promise that it will take less than one year for me to do so.

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One of the first courses I downloaded from biblicaltraining.org was the late Dr. Ron Nash’s foundations lecture, History of Philosophy. The series consists of seven lectures of about 30 minutes each.  The course is very much introductory, and decidely limited in scope.  However, please do not take this as a negative comment. This series is a great appetizer, as it were, for further study on these important topics. To that end, Dr. Nash frequently plugs his book Life’s Ultimate Questions, and the longer, similarly-titled lecture series offered in the “Leadership” section of biblicaltraining.org.

I once heard a preacher joke that philosophers seek to answer all the questions that nobody really asks. To wit: When did you last wonder how you know what you know? For most people, the answer is “never.” However, the philisophical topic of epistemology is very much conerned with this question. Why does this matter? In his first lecture, and in the lectures that follow, Nash fleshes out some of the practical implications of such topics.  Have you ever heard somebody say that they don’t believe in God because there is no way to prove He exists? What is at stake here is fundamentally a question of (drum roll) epistemology: How do we know?  The person demanding proof of God’s existence is also making a statement about their worldview: They believe the only way one can know anything is through proof.  Nash notes that this worldview, however, is self-defeating.  Why?  Because it cannot stand up to its own terms.  Namely, you cannot prove that the only way to know something is by proving it.

I would commend the class to anybody looking to whet their appetite for philosophy, theology and apologetics.  Understanding the basic components of a worldview, and thinking through the resulting implications, can be a powerful witness to unbelievers, and often a much needed corrective to our own views.  Nash is an easy listen, and does well to keep the technical jargon to a minimum, and well-explained when necessary.  At the very, very worst, you’ll be a hit at parties when you squeeze the word “epistemology” into a casual conversation.  And by “hit” I mean “geek.”  Welcome to our world.

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