I first met J. I. Packer in Cambridge in the mid-1980s when I was a doctoral student at Cambridge University. He was already J. I. Packer, the elder statesman of evangelical theology—and had been for some time. Knowing God had been published in 1973 and was by then an established bestseller. It was also the first book I gave to the woman who would later become my wife (C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia was the second). It proved to be an apt choice: Packer is one of the handful of authors I’ve met who lived up to, and in his case surpassed, the mental image I had constructed through reading his works.
Packer had come to Cambridge to give a lecture at Tyndale House, a study center for evangelical biblical scholars. That in itself was impressive, as Jim was decidedly an Oxford man. He obtained all his degrees, including his doctorate, from Oxford University and later served as warden of Latimer House, the Oxford counterpart of Tyndale House. He later moved from Oxford to Trinity College, Bristol, and eventually to Regent College, Vancouver, where he taught theology from 1979 to 2016, long after his official retirement.
The topic of Packer’s Tyndale House address was biblical authority and hermeneutics. This quickened my heartbeat, for I had come to Cambridge to answer the question, “What does it mean to be biblical when we speak about God?” I had learned that there was no easy way around the challenge of the plurality of interpretations, in which everyone, or at least every denomination, finds in the Bible what they think is right in their own eyes. Packer clearly understood the problem and faced up to it. That alone was significant. But there was more to come.
Knowing God (The IVP Signature Collection)
J. I. Packer
Knowing God (The IVP Signature Collection)
J. I. Packer
For half a century, J. I. Packer’s classic has helped Christians around the world discover the wonder, the glory, and the joy of knowing God.
Stemming from Packer’s profound theological knowledge, Knowing God brings together two key facets of the Christian faith—knowing about God and knowing God through a close relationship with Jesus Christ. Written in an engaging and practical tone, this thought-provoking work seeks to renew and enrich our understanding of God.
Named by Christianity Today as one of the top 50 books that have shaped evangelicals, Knowing God is now among the iconic books featured in the IVP Signature Collection. A new companion Bible study is also available to help readers explore these biblical themes for themselves.
Packer engaged the big names in 20th-century hermeneutics—Bultmann, Heidegger, Fuchs, and Gadamer—and assessed their significance for coming to know God via biblical interpretation. He then went on to set out an evangelical hermeneutic, laying special weight on the importance of the Holy Spirit’s work as illuminator and interpreter. After his lecture, I asked him about deconstruction, the latest challenge to biblical interpretation at the time. He confessed that he did not know a lot about it, but said that he was interested. “My windows are open,” he commented.
And then he said something to the effect of “That’s for you and your generation to handle.” I got the distinct impression that he was passing the baton. I have been running ever since. That handoff symbolized how the church always relays the faith—from one person to the next. It also had a formative influence on the eventual shape of my dissertation, my calling, and much of my subsequent work.
I got the distinct impression that he was passing the baton. I have been running ever since.
Packer’s Knowing God is not about hermeneutics, but actually knowing God. Packer divides it into three sections: why we should know God, what God is like, and the benefits of knowing God. It is only fitting that I structure my introduction in the same way: why readers should get to know Packer, what Packer’s books are like, and the benefits of reading Packer.
Why Knowing Packer Matters
Packer liked to describe himself as, above all else, a catechist: someone who instructs others in the Christian faith and life. A catechist need not be an academic. By definition, however, a catechist must be an ecclesial theologian, someone whose teaching builds up the church, one disciple at a time. Packer’s catechetical fingerprints are all over To Be a Christian: An Anglican Catechism (2020), an Anglican Church in North America project for which he served as theological editor, and which he wryly referred to as “Packer’s Last Crusade.”
As Packer elsewhere points out, Christianity is not instinctive to anyone. It is learned not on the street but in the pew. The content of the Christian faith—what the apostle Paul calls the “good deposit” (2 Tim. 1:14), what accords with sound doctrine, or what Packer calls the “Great Tradition”—is handed from one generation to the next. A Christian catechism teaches people everything they need to know in order to be a Christ-follower. Doctrine and discipleship fit hand in glove: action without doctrine is blind; doctrine without action is dead.
The old adage, “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach,” simply doesn’t fit Packer. Packer did Christianity quite well, thank you very much, but what he did best was teach, and it was precisely by teaching that he helped others do. The whole point of knowing God (and Knowing God) is, after all, practical: to provide direction for life. Packer’s love of teaching came not only from his love for the subject matter (the God of the gospel and the gospel of God), or even from his love for his students, but from his love of introducing the one to the other.
Doctrine and discipleship fit hand in glove: action without doctrine is blind; doctrine without action is dead.
To know Packer is to know a master teacher from evangelicalism’s “greatest generation,” that group of mid-20th century architects of a middle way beyond fundamentalist and liberal Christianity—people like John Stott, Billy Graham, Carl F. H. Henry, Bernard Ramm, and Harold Ockenga—who affirmed a biblically grounded, orthodox faith even as they brought it to bear on the modern social and intellectual crises of their day.
To know Packer, finally, is to meet a “theologizer”: someone who set out and communicated in crisp, concise speech what there is to be known of the reality of God on the basis of the Scriptures. To read Knowing God is to experience the reality of God, not simply the reality of J. I. Packer. God is infinite, to be sure, but Packer puts as much of God’s reality into prose as a human can: “Packer by name; packer by nature” (as he once described himself).
What Knowing Packer Involves
Knowing God is best seen as the first part of a Trinitarian trilogy. Readers are advised to follow up with Growing in Christ and Keep in Step with the Spirit. All three books teach theology, but the kind of theology that is not meant simply to idle in one’s head. Packer himself kept in step with his English Puritan forebears, like William Ames, who defined theology as “the teaching [doctrina] of living to God” (The Marrow of Theology).
To know Packer, one must understand his passion for the Puritans. The love affair began in a dusty basement in Oxford, where Packer discovered a set of 24 volumes of the Puritan divine John Owen (1616–83). He had to cut open the pages. When he did, what blew out was not musty but fresh air: a serious and realistic account of the Christian life, which acknowledged the reality of indwelling sin—and the means of dealing with it.
Historians of Roman Catholicism view Vatican II (1962–65) as one of the most important events in 20th-century church history. Its purpose was to refresh the church and bring it up to date, and it did so by “retrieving” the past—namely, revisitng the writing of patristic theologians from the earliest centuries of the church. Packer’s discovery of John Owen may not figure in the annals of church history in quite the same way, but to know Packer is, similarly, to appreciate his retrieval of Puritan theologians.
Packer founded the Puritan Studies Conference after World War II. From the start the idea was that the Puritans deserved to be studied not out of some antiquarian interest but for the sake of providing guidance to the contemporary church. He later wrote his doctoral dissertation on the Puritan pastor-theologian Richard Baxter. Packer was never interested in the oft-reviled “Puritan morality” per se. The stale stereotype of Puritans as straitlaced, prudish naysayers is simply a caricature of the real thing, which is altogether more glorious and exciting. What attracted Packer to Puritan writing was their compelling vision of teaching people how to live with, for, and before God. Here were sharp thinkers who were also deeply spiritual. The Puritans valued doctrine and devotion, in equal measure.
Here were sharp thinkers who were also deeply spiritual. The Puritans valued doctrine and devotion, in equal measure.
Knowing Packer means coming to grips with the Puritan conviction that all theology is also spirituality. Modern evangelicals who put a premium on having spiritual experiences must learn from 17th-century Puritans who put a premium on becoming spiritually mature, which involves forming godly disciplines—habits of life conducive to the formation of godliness. Packer advised people not to read the Puritans unless they were interested in spiritual growth. My advice is similar: you shouldn’t read Packer unless you’re serious about spiritual transformation. The knowledge of God does not sit idly in the mind, but is living and active, and insists upon a personal response.
It may be that the church historian who aptly dubbed Packer “the Last Puritan” was right, but if Packer had his druthers, perhaps the last could be first—the first of a new generation of, why not, 21st-century Puritans? After all, the whole point of Packer’s retrieving the Puritans is to renew the present.
Benefits of Knowing Packer
Packer once defined theology as “the use of the mind and the tongue to celebrate God and get clear in one’s thinking and talking about him.” The point is that doctrine directs disciples toward doxology in everything they do. (“So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God,” 1 Cor. 10:31.) The glory of God was the motivation of everything Packer did. Knowing God matters because if we do not know God, we cannot glorify him. And glorifying God is why there is something rather than nothing, and why we are all here.
Packer may have been the last of the “greatest generation” of evangelical theologians. He continued to teach into his 90s, and even when classroom teaching was no longer possible, he still found ways to communicate what he was learning. His last book provided wise instruction for those who are nearing the end of their respective races and want to learn how to finish well: Finishing Our Course with Joy: Guidance from God for Engaging with Our Aging (2014).
To read Packer’s publications is to visit milestones marking his and other pilgrims’ progress through the various stages of Christian life. This is the primary benefit of knowing Packer: not to become more like him, but to be inspired to become more like Christ. Every pilgrim needs words to sustain us in the journey. The benefit of knowing Packer is having a wise, godly, and winsome companion along the way.
This is the primary benefit of knowing Packer: not to become more like him, but to be inspired to become more like Christ.
Packer packed his thought into a three-word phrase: “adoption through propitiation.” This is why knowing God is, for Packer, much more than an intellectual exercise. To know God is to relate to the Creator of all things as one’s loving Father. I don’t think Packer ever recovered from this literally earth-shattering knowledge—namely, that the old world is passing away (2 Cor. 5:17; 1 John 2:17; Rev. 21:1), because in Christ and through the Spirit the Lord is making all things new. The chapter on adoption is, not surprisingly, one of the highlights of Knowing God.
As you come to know God better through reading this book, then, remember that God knows you by name as his beloved son or daughter. So: start reading Knowing God, open your windows, and prepare to be blown away.
Adapted from Knowing God by J. I. Packer, foreword by Kevin J. Vanhoozer. Copyright (c) 2021, 1973 by J. I. Packer. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.