I was thinking recently of some former acquaintances who once enjoyed a vital relationship with Christ. Spurred by J.I. Packer’s Knowing God, they sought to grow in their knowledge of God. And grow they did! They loved his word, loved praying to him, and loved gathering with his people in worship of him on the Lord’s Day.
But in time, their knowledge became stale. They continued to read about God in books and treatises. They continued to debate in internet forums with Arminians and open theists. But their interest in God had morphed into a purely academic one. They neglected prayer, fellowship, and worship. Ironically, these people had initially come to Reformed Christianity because they loathed the vapid spirituality that many in evangelicalism practiced, and they sought to better know and understand the God they loved and worshiped. And yet now they have fallen into the very thing the shallow evangelical critics said they would: a failure to actually know God.
Should we flee sappy sentimentalism for a richer relationship with God rooted in a deep knowledge of him? Certainly! But is it possible to pursue knowledge of God as an end in and of itself? Yes! And we must always keep an eye out for this danger.
In reading through some of John Frame’s Selected Shorter Writings, I came across this thoughtful quote:
Is it possible to study the biblical God academically? Christians believe that God is a real personal being, as real as anyone else. He is transcendent and incomprehensible (Rom. 11:33-36). Yet his incomprehensibility means not that he is unknowable, but that he cannot be exhaustively known. We cannot know God as God knows himself, but we certainly can know him. Indeed, Jesus says in John 17:3 that eternal life is precisely to know God and to know Jesus himself. Knowing God, of course, is more like knowing a friend than knowing an inanimate object. But contrary to some accounts, knowing a friend usually involves some knowledge of fact about the friend. At least sometimes it is possible and desirable to learn such facts in a disciplined way, that is, academically.
Of course, the discipline sometimes gets in the way of personal knowledge. If a person spends all day Googling a friend or digging up facts about him in a library, and never talks to the friend or spends time with him, that can affect the personal quality of the relationship. The same can be said similarly with God. Academic knowledge of God is not forbidden, but it is not sufficient to sustain a vital relationship with God. There must also be worship, prayer, trust, repentance, and faith, rejoicing together.
“The Academic Captivity of Theology,” in John Frame’s Selected Shorter Writings: Volume 2 (P&R, 2015), 64. Bold emphasis added.
J.I. Packer, to whom Frame dedicated the second volume of his Selected Shorter Writings, wrote something quite similar:
[I]f you look back to Psalm 119 again, you will see that the psalmist’s concern to get knowledge about God was not a theoretical but a practical concern. His supreme desire was to know and enjoy God himself, and he valued knowledge about God simply as a means to this end. He wanted to understand God’s truth in order that his heart might respond to it and his life be conformed to it. Observe the emphasis of the opening verses: “Blessed are they whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the LORD. Blessed are they who keep his statues and seek him with all their heart …. Oh, that my ways were steadfast in obeying your decrees!” (vv.1-2, 5).
The psalmist was interested in truth and orthodoxy, in biblical teaching and theology, not as ends in themselves, but as means to the further ends of life and godliness. His ultimate concern was with the knowledge and service of the great God whose truth he sought to understand.
And this must be our attitude too. Our aim in studying the Godhead must be to know God himself better. Our concern must be to enlarge our acquaintance, not simply with the doctrine of God’s attributes, but with the living God whose attributes they are. As he is the subject of our study, and our helper in it, so he must himself be the end of it. We must seek, in studying God, to be led to God. It was for this purpose that revelation was given, and it is to this use that we must put it.
Knowing God: 20th Anniversary Edition (IVP, 1993), pgs. 22-23. Bold emphasis added.
May God continue to draw our love and affection to himself as we diligently seek to know and understand his attributes and works!
R. Andrew Compton
Christ Reformed Church (URCNA)