J. I. Packer on putting God in a box

In this excerpt from his 1987 essay “Theism for Our Time,” J. I. Packer urges Christians to acknowledge God’s ultimate incomprehensibility on this side of eternity and the limitations of human language to describe him. As valuable as theology is, we must not elevate our concepts and definitions of God to the level of full reality. This can be said even of those that come from Scripture, for the authors were but toddlers, just as we are, to whom the all-knowing Father accommodated his speech and before whom he censored his thoughts so that our small minds could know all that we need to know of him—most simply, that he loves us and wants the best for us, and to that end he laid down his life for us.

Packer warns against the “theological triumphalism” that Christians commonly wield, oftentimes with pure intentions, against the noncommittal subjectivism of today and calls instead for an open-ended theology that is humble in its claims and willing to expand.

“Just as the two-year-old son of a man with a brain like Einstein could not understand all that was going on in his father’s mind if his father told him, so (we may be sure) it would be beyond us under any circumstances to understand all that goes on in the omniscient, all-wise, and not in any way time-bound, mind of God. But, just as the genius who loves his boy will take care that in talking to him he speaks in such a way that all he says can be understood, even though that means reducing it all nearly to baby-talk, and leaving much of his own thinking unvoiced, so God does when he opens his mind and heart in the written Scriptures. . . .

      “The child, though in general terms aware that his father knows far more than his present words express, may yet learn—indeed, is intended to learn—from these words all that as a child he needs to know for as full and happy a relationship with his father as a two-year-old is capable of; and similarly, we may learn from ‘God’s Word written’ (Anglican Article 20)—from Scripture, that is, viewed as torah, God’s fatherly law, proceeding as Calvin put it from God’s own holy mouth—all that we need to know for faith and godliness. But we must never forget that we are always in the little boy’s position in my parable. At no point dare we imagine, therefore, that the thoughts about God that Scripture teaches us take the full measure of his reality. The fact that God condescends and accommodates himself to us in his revelation certainly makes possible clarity and certainty of understanding, so far as our understanding goes; equally certainly, however, it involves limitation in the revelation itself. The fact that through Scripture we know everything we need to know for living with God in faith, hope, love, and joy, does not mean that through Scripture we know everything about God that he knows about himself. 

     “But we forget this, . . . thinking and talking about him in a way that appears to scale him down to the measure of our minds, to make him seem transparent to us by diminishing his transcendence over us, and to lose sight of the revealed fact that he dwells in thick darkness and unapproachable light (1 Kgs 8:12; 1 Tim 6:16; two opposite figures making the same point about intrinsic intellectual inaccessibility). In our proper zeal to stress that scriptural revelation is rational, as against the sleep of reason in the world and zaniness of subjectivism in the church, we forget that even thorough-going Bible-believers are sometimes required, like Job, to go on adoring God when we do not specifically understand what he is doing and why he is doing it.

     “Epistemologically, the point here is that all the analogies for conceiving of God that Scripture teaches us must be treated as open-ended and open-sided; true as far as they take us but at every point incomplete as declarations of God’s being and activity. Certainly they reveal his essence, but we may be sure that there is more to his essence than they reveal. While they are all God’s teaching, they are the teaching of a God who stoops to speak to us, and who, we may be sure, limits the scope of what he says precisely in order that it may be clear, and clearly understood. Religiously, the point is that in our worship of God for what we know of him, and our witness to him in terms of that knowledge, we ought to be humble and modest, remembering that there is certainly a great deal in his mind that he has not told us. We should avoid like the plague any talk that suggests that we have enlisted him on our side, and now have him in our pockets, and that he has kept no secrets from us, and that what we are now saying about him is the last and fullest word on the subject that anyone will ever be able to speak. Confidence in the teaching of God’s written word is to be maintained at all times, but this stance of theological triumphalism and finality is something quite different, and is to be avoided. No doubt it is our necessary polemical stance, both in our confused and divided churches and in our aggressive neo-pagan world, that betrays us into embracing this triumphalist style and mentality; but the fact is that by doing so we abuse our minds, exchange humility for pride and sometimes wisdom for folly, and so spoil our service of the God we love. Apologetically, the point is that if we claim to know everything about God we overreach ourselves, and destroy both our own credibility as witnesses and the credibility of our testimony itself.”

—James I. Packer, “Theism for Our Time,” from God Who Is Rich in Mercy: Essays Presented to Dr. D. B. Knox, ed. Peter T. O’Brien and David G. Peterson (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Lancer Books, 1986): pp. 18-19

What is your reaction to this passage? How can we defend the absolute claims of Scripture without becoming theological triumphalists, or can’t we/shan’t we? What is the point of theology? What defines us as Christians if it’s not the lines we draw around (the definitive statements we make about) God?

God in a box

Cartoon by David Hayward, nakedpastor.com, March 22, 2011.

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