God Has Spoken 1: Reflections on J.I. Packer’s Book

“Theology is for doxology.” J.I. Packer

As I find myself in the middle of a conversation that is dominated by Evangelistic Atheists (EAs) on the one hand and the heirs (wittingly or unwittingly) of American Fundamentalism on the other hand, I find myself disagreeing with both sides with respect to how they frame the debate and on their assumptions about the nature of Christianity. I have described their almost symbiotic relationship in a series of posts entitled  An Unhappy Marriage.

As one who grew up reading and watching Carl Sagan and other modern scientific apologists, I too imbibed a particular views of Christianity especially with respect to the nature of revelation and of the Christian Scriptures aka the Bible. I accepted their understanding of the nature of Scripture and of Biblical Revelation. This view was reinforced by some Christian relatives, televangelists, and pop-culture in general. For instance, my grandfather was into End-Times charts and, as far as I know, I was the only one of his grandchildren that enjoyed these theological conversations. Like Carl Sagan, I was much more into extra-terrestrials but was fascinated by people’s beliefs in and the idea of supernatural beings as well.

For the most part, those who engage in evolution vs. creationism or science vs. Christianity debate seem to share similar views on the nature of Scripture. Obviously, atheists reject that any text ought to be authoritative in the way Christians hold the Bible to be authoritative but many atheists tend to grant that people like Ken Ham and other heirs of American Fundamentalism are normative with respect to how Christians do and ought to read Scripture.

In moments of reflection like this one, I find this agreement amusing. On the one hand, I and others like me are accused by our fellow Christians of compromising with secular scholarship and undermining the authority of scripture. On the other hand, we are accused by atheists of “cherry picking” Biblical texts when we attend to various genres, cultural, and historical contexts. They also see Christians like myself as compromisers who are holding onto our beliefs despite the evidence. Let it go, they say. In the midst of actual engagement, I find this agreement frustrating.

On this blog, I frequently point people to the excellent and accessible writings of John Walton and Pete Enns. Yet many Christians have been taught to be suspicious of these authors. Ken Ham calls them “compromised Christians” and when I recommend them some Christians even question their salvation. Of course, Ken Ham insists that sharing his views on Genesis 1-11 is not a salvation issue . . . It only undermines the authority of Scripture. Hmm?

On the other hand, most atheists I have encountered dismiss anyone who is writing from a Christian perspective (like Walton, Enns, or Karl Giberson) as biased and untrustworthy. So, they seem only to read (or take second-hand) from the writings of those who share their biases. Now, we all tend to read those who share our convictions. But we all have biases. So, I was taught by none other than J.I. Packer himself that reading the best arguments from those with whom I know (or think I know) I will disagree will sharpen my mind more than reading for instance, J.I. Packer or C.S. Lewis 24/7.

When I approached Packer about writing my first paper and told him I was interested in the problem of evil, he did not point me to John Calvin Institutes, as one might expect, but to John Hick’s Evil and the God of Love (Amazon).

When I met Christ as a young man, my pastor encouraged me to attend Graduate school at Regent College in Vancouver, BC to pursue my interests and grow theologically. At the time, the only name that I recognized from the brochure was J.I. Packer. I had seen and even flipped through his book Knowing God (Amazon) at the our local Christian bookstore, The Upper Room. My first semester at Regent, I enrolled in Dr. Packer’s Systematic Theology A in which he addressed doctrines relating to Scripture, God, Creation, and Scripture. That is when, I first read his book God Has Spoken (Amazon). 

As Packer notes, the book was originally written in 1965 and so may in tone and style seem a bit old-fashioned and was written to respond to a certain brand of liberal theology which was pervasive at the time. Nevertheless, the essential ideas remain relevant. Indeed, in the debate between atheists and YECs, not much has changed. Henry Morris’s The Genesis Flood (Amazon) was published in the same era. In a way, YECs and EAs are still fighting over Beta vs. VHS when most of us have moved on to Blu-Ray and live streaming.

God Has Spoken: The Introduction

“My aim throughout is to prepare the minds of thinking Christian people to read and study their Bibles as Christians should.” (Packer, 13) [emphasis mine]

In the introduction, Packer encourages his readers by emphasizing that reading the Bible ought to bring and, indeed, does bring joy. The deeper one delves into these writings, the more one understands why so many Psalms express delight in God’s word. Still, it is not the text itself but the One to whom the text witnesses that brings joy and delight. The Scriptures usher us in to the presence of Christ. I can attest to this experience myself.

Does this mean that one never goes through dry spells when reading Scripture? No. Yet, those dry spells may be an indication that you need to dig deeper. Okay, you’ve got the alphabet down. Now, it is time to read. Those of us who have studied Greek and Hebrew have definitely experienced dryness and frustration in our reading. However, so does the athlete as they keep their daily exercise and eating regimen. The hard work leads to a deeper pleasure.

Reading the Bible should bring joy. Yet, joy sometimes comes after hard work.

Packer also highlights three things that he wants to say about the nature of Scripture. First, the message does have to do with our eternal destinies. This life is not all there is. The Scriptures guides us in our present circumstances, what he calls “the dressing-room or moral gymnasium.” Now, these analogies should not be taken as escapist. It is precisely what we do here and the good things that we make here that shape the life to come. What Packer is responding to and guarding against is a social gospel which downplayed the promised resurrection and reduced the good news to social activism in the present world. It is not an either/or.

Second, Packer makes a distinction between the book and its message. That is, on the hand, one can get the message of the Scriptures without having cracked open a Bible. On the other hand, merely reading the words on the page does not guarantee understanding or necessarily engender faith.

“So it is not absolutely necessary for salvation that one must read and study the biblical text. It would be gross superstition to think there is saving magic in the mere reading of the text where understanding and faith are lacking; “(Packer, 18)

Indeed, as I witness Christians on-line engagement with their “enemies”, it seems that they do have something of a superstitious approach to the use of the Bible. That is, Christians throw scripture quotes at atheists (and others) as though simply reading the words ought to convince them and lead them to repentance. In some cases, this approach is done in such a mean-spirited and warlike manner that it is clear that the words have been memorized but the meaning of those words have been missed. (See my “WWJT or Christian Twits on Twitter“)

Packer continues that God may communicate the truth and the gospel to men and women apart from Scripture. Indeed, I encourage Christians to assume that the Holy Spirit is already speaking to people. So, the first task of the Christian is not to blitzkreig people with the gospel and Bible verses but to listen to where the Spirit of Christ is already at work. I think we assume that we are called to plant a seed but I suspect that most of the time we are called to nurture what Christ has already sown. Be careful not to crush a bruised reed.

Third, Packer comments that Scripture is not an end itself. Scripture witnesses and points to the living, saving Lord Jesus Christ. (19-20) In light of what I noted above about Christians memorizing the letter but missing the Spirit, I think being reminded that the goal is not to get people to read their Bibles but to meet Christ is pertinent. Moreover, for most converts to Christianity, one does not read the Bible and then come to Christ. Rather, one meets Jesus and the Spirit guides us to the Bible. The phrase is “faith seeking understanding” not “understanding seeking faith.”

Finally, in his introduction, Packer notes that for English speakers there is no excuse for not reading the Bible. There are a plethora of good english translations. He recommends that one have four bibles that range from the more word for word style of something like the ESV or KJV to the paraphrastic style of something like the Good News Bible or The Message. Since, even the 1993 third edition of this book, the comparison and availability of translations has become even easier with the internet. Simply go to www.biblegateway.com for access to many translations in multiple languages which you can compare side by side or even have read to you.

As Mark Twain said,

“The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can’t read them.”

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