October 8, 2008

J. I. Packer on Theology and Bible Reading

I just read a gem of an essay by J.I. Packer called "Theology & Bible Reading" in The Act of Bible Reading edited by Elmer Dyck. It is a collection of essays by faculty of Regent College from 1996.

Packer's thesis is that theology and bible reading go hand in hand. He believes this now (but didn't in his youth, which was some time ago). The argument that theology (thought and speech about God) is elitist is attacked quite vigorously. Anyone who speaks about God is in a sense, a theologian, so why not be a good one by coupling theology with bible study? It is an interesting circle: theology gives you the framework to understand what God has said to us, but bible reading gives you the message itself.

Packer discusses the disciplines of theology. Starting with exegesis of a passage (the original meaning of the passage), Packer walks you through organizing exegetical findings (biblical theology), study of what past Christians made of the passage (historical theology) and developing a disciplined framework (systematic theology). Apologetics (defense of the faith), ethics (ideals of Christian behavior), missiology (fulfillment of ministering tasks appointed us by God), spirituality) life in communion with God) and liturgy (worship of God) follow. The disciplines wrap up with practical theology, how to do god's work and glorify His name in our particular serving roles and situations.

Packer talks briefly about how the liberal theological views coming out of the enlightenment led to a distrust of traditional theology. It took a resurgence of fundamentalist scholarship to get us where we are today.

Packer then follows with relating bible reading and theology in four tasks:

1) Receptive – noting all that is said about what God has done, is doing or will do.

2) Critical – relating historical Christian positions to the biblical language.

3) Applicatory – drawing practical guidance from God's revelation for contemporary life.

4) Communicative – finding ways to edify believers, instruct unbelievers correct notions and rebut antagonistic positions.

Packer wraps up with why everyday folks should be concerned with theology. How it shows us a coherent, consistent approach to the bible and how it sets out the substance of the bible. In essence, how theology keeps bible reading a "He" exercise and not a "me" exercise.

I would recommend this essay to anyone as an immensely readable and thoroughly enjoyable read.


Anonymous said...

Good post, Andy. Writing on this particular subject has always been one of Packer's greatest strengths.

He addresses the same theme in the first chapter of "Knowing God" (which I believe should be required reading for every new believer!).

He begins that chapter with a quote by C.H. Spurgeon:

"It has been said by someone that "the proper study of mankind is man." I will not oppose the idea, but I believe it is equally true that the proper study of God's elect is God; the proper study of a Christian is the Godhead. The highest science, the loftiest speculation, the mightiest philosophy, which can ever engage the attention of a child of God, is the name, the nature, the person, the work, the doings, and the existence of the great God whom he calls his Father.

There is something exceedingly improving to the mind in a contemplation of the Divinity. It is a subject so vast, that all our thoughts are lost in its immensity; so deep, that our pride is drowned in its infinity. Other subjects we can compass and grapple with; in them we feel a kind of self-content, and go our way with the thought, "Behold I am wise." But when we come to this master science, finding that our plumbline cannot sound its depth, and that our eagle eye cannot see its height, we turn away with the thought that vain man would be wise, but he is like a wild ass's colt; and with solemn exclamation, "I am but of yesterday, and know nothing." No subject of contemplation will tend more to humble the mind, than thoughts of God....

But while the subject humbles the mind, it also expands it. He who often thinks of God, will have a larger mind than the man who simply plods around this narrow globe.... The most excellent study for expanding the soul, is the science of Christ, and Him crucified, and the knowledge of the Godhead in the glorious Trinity. Nothing will so enlarge the intellect, nothing so magnify the whole soul of man, as a devout, earnest, continued investigation of the great subject of the Deity."

The book just gets better from there!

Andy C said...

Thanks for the quote! I love Spurgeon, I find him to be theology in poetry.

Sad to say, I have only just begun to read Packer. Knowing God will be on my must read list, but I have a lot of required reading first.

Thanks for the heads up on what goodies to expect as I read on.