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.
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.
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.
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.