Who needs theology? According to J. I. Packer in his book “Knowing God,” we all do.

In the first chapter of J. I. Packer’s book Knowing God he proposes the question, “Who needs theology?” and then offers this response:

A fair question! — but there is, I think, a convincing answer to it.  The questioner clearly assumes that a study of the nature and character of God will be impractical and irrelevant for life.  In fact, however, it is the most practical project anyone can engage in.  Knowing about God is crucially important for the living of our lives.  As it would be cruel to an Amazonian tribesman to fly him to London, put him down without explanation in Trafalgar Square and leave him, as one who knew nothing of English or England, to fend for himself, so we are cruel to ourselves if we try to live in this world without knowing about the God whose world it is and who runs it.  The world becomes a strange, mad, painful place, and life in it a disappointing and unpleasant business, for those who do not know about God.  Disregard the study of God, and you sentence yourself to stumble and blunder through life blindfolded, as it were, with no sense of direction and no understanding of what surrounds you.  This way you can waste your life and lose your soul. [emphasis mine]

That paragraph helps to explain why I have not once regretted spending four years of my life earning a bachelor’s degree in Bible from a Bible college that took God and his Word seriously.  I have been asked from time to time what possible value that could have in today’s world, and my answer is, “Every possible value.”  Like Packer said in the above quote, this is God’s world, and it, and our life in it, does not make sense to us if we do not know him first and most of all.

In the preface to the 1973 edition of Knowing God Packer explains that “the conviction behind the book is that ignorance of God — ignorance both of his ways and of the practice of communion with him — lies at the root of much of the church’s weakness today.”  He then identifies two trends that have produced this result.  Here’s one:

Trend one is that Christian minds have been conformed to the modern spirit: the spirit, that is, that spawns great thoughts of man and leaves room for only small thoughts of God.  The modern way with God is to set him at a distance, if not to deny him altogether; and the irony is that modern Christians, preoccupied with maintaining religious practices in an irreligious world, have themselves allowed God to become remote.  Clear-sighted persons, seeing this, are tempted to withdraw from the churches in something like disgust to pursue a quest for God on their own.  Nor can one wholly blame them, for churchmen who look at God, so to speak, through the wrong end of the telescope, so reducing him to pigmy proportions, cannot hope to end up as more than pigmy Christians, and clear-sighted people naturally want something better than this.  Furthermore, thoughts of death, eternity, judgment, the greatness of the soul and the abiding consequences of temporal decisions are all “out” for moderns, and it is a melancholy fact that the Christian church, instead of raising its voice to remind the world of what is being forgotten, has formed a habit of playing down these themes in just the same way.  But these capitulations to the modern spirit are really suicidal so far as Christian life is concerned. [again, emphasis mine]

And that was written thirty-seven years ago!  Unfortunately the situation doesn’t seem to be improving, though I don’t think it is entirely hopeless.  As long as we have life and breath it is still possible to “stand by the roads, and look, and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is; and walk in it, and find rest for [our] souls.”  That was what God said to his people through his prophet Jeremiah several thousand years ago.  Their response?  “But they said, ‘We will not walk in it.'”  Hopefully our response will not be the same.

——

Justin Taylor recently posted a three-part video interview with J. I. Packer on the subject of theological training at his blog, Between Two Worlds.

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