J.I. Packer is one of the first legit theologians whose books I ever read. A pastor of my past realized I was struggling with the sovereignty of God and predestination, so he recommended I read J.I. Packer’s book Evangelism and the Sovereignty of God. It’s a nice, short book, and I managed to finish it pretty quickly, while sitting by a rooftop pool in Vegas. 🙂
The thing about Packer is that he’s in a specific league. It’s the league of theologians we trust. He, John Piper, Francis Chan, Matt Chandler, J.R. Vassar, Mark Driscoll, Timothy Keller, etc… are all acceptable in my little circle of amateur reformers. So it seems like I should agree with the big ideas he presents, but I’ve recently found one that I 100% oppose. Perhaps that’s a good thing… evidence of some sort of maturation into a grown-up, contemplative Christian, but it still irks me a bit, because I’d much rather just follow the league.
In my new Bible study, we’ve been slowly working through Knowing God, which receives the appropriate accolades via back-cover blurbs written by R.C. Sproul, John Stott, Chuck Swindoll, etc… and I’ve been really enjoying it. I’ve been thoroughly impressed with the commitment, knowledge and heart of my fellow Downtown Bible Study attenders, and my Wednesdays are much improved by the increase in edification and sanctification.
Here are a couple of nice quotes from the book for those of you who haven’t read it:
“…interest in theology, and knowledge about God, and the capacity to think clearly and talk well on Christian themes, is not at all the same thing as knowing Him,” (26).
“There is no peace like the peace of those whose minds are possessed with full assurance that they have known God, and God has known them, and that this relationship guarantees God’s favor to them in life, through death and on forever,” 31).
Pretty good, huh?
Right up my alley, for sure.
So we’ve been reading a couple of chapters, then listening to podcasts and reading other things for two weeks, then reading two more chapters, which means that it’s taken up six weeks for us to get to chapter four… which is the chapter I disagree with. The chapter title is “The Only True God”, and it’s about the 2nd commandment:
“You shall not make for yourself an idol in the form of anything in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the waters below. You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God…” (Exodus 20:4-5).
Idolatry is one of the more fascinating sins to me, because of how covertly we can be deceived and because of the variety I find in the idols we create for ourselves. One of my first true spiritual battles centered around softball because it had taken over my entire life. I prioritized it above all else and made daily sacrifices of friends, family, peace, joy, $, time, and even God Himself to the idol of softball.
For the mere fact that I catch myself worshiping a new and different idol every year of my life, I thought this chapter would be perfect for me. However, what I found was J.I. Packer making absolutes of what I perceive to be grey areas. He was writing of the various images the church creates and utilizes, such as the cross. He wrote that, “…statues and pictures of the One whom we worship are not to be used as an aid to worshiping Him,” (44). Now, I really liked his premise that, “…images mislead us, for they convey false ideas about God,” (46). It reminded me of Dr. Frankenstein, who created his monster in his own image. Perhaps our depictions of God are comparable to what Frankenstein’s monster would create if he attempted to depict Victor (Dr. Frankenstein), using his own appearance as a template. This is often how we create images of God. We know that we are created in God’s image, and therefore, use our own appearances as models to follow in depicting Him. I would probably look on the monster’s interpretation of Victor with disgust because it would fall so far from the truth. And perhaps that’s the case with our depictions of God. However, I took GREAT offense that Packer suggested that images of God should not be used EVEN AS AIDS to worshiping Him.
That blew my mind because I considered the ramifications of this convention if it were universally applied. You see, ALL of our attempts at depicting God are imperfect and mislead simply because of their limitations. If we succeed in painting God’s wrath, then we simultaneously fail to display His deep affections for us. If we manage to portray His power, we neglect His gentleness. So I considered what it might be like if we banned ALL imperfect representations of God in our lives… and I was forced to tear down the Sistine Chapel, purge my iPod of every song Hillsong has contributed to the world, and possibly even burn Packer’s own books, including Knowing God. Because nothing we paint, sing, or write completely and perfectly represents the fullness of God. Sadly, if we set out on a crusade to destroy all imperfect reflections of the Almighty, our very lives would be forfeit, because we are flawed and finite image-bearers.
So, even though I agree with the claim Packer makes that we must not replace the true God with an artist’s conception of Him, I’m not even close to believing that all artwork depicting God is sinful idolatry. While I don’t personally feel up to the task of painting the creation of man, I’ve never once caught myself sinning as I viewed Michelangelo’s ceiling or pictures of it. I’ve stood in the middle of the world capital of Catholicism, looking up at an imperfect painting of God’s finger stretched out to His creation, and through even the flawed, limited work of a long-dead man who may or may not have preferred men to women, I glimpsed the Almighty. Because God is capable of stirring our affections towards Him and growing our knowledge of Him in any situation. And viewing that particular image hasn’t set me on a path of false theology anymore than reading the Bible has, because I admit that no matter how perfectly God is set before my limited understanding… even in His own words… I inevitably generate false conceptions of who He is.
It seems to me that Packer’s vehement opposition to church iconography is fine as a personal conviction of conscience, but I want non-believers and baby Christians to have the opportunity to view Mel Gibson’s movie. I want them to stand before the Gates of Paradise in Florence and to sing about Matt Redman’s “10,000 Reasons,” because many a person has been brought to his knees because he realized how gruesome, degrading and excruciating death on a cross was. Many a mind has learned and recalled biblical stories because they’ve been hammered into golden panels on the other side of the world, and many a soul has cried out to his Father in song, because popular song writers have made their own dark nights of the soul into lyrics.
And so, I fearfully find myself in opposition to a great member of that Reformer’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen because I believe chapter four is a bit too heavy of a burden to prescribe for all men. I would certainly urge all men to work out the idols of their hearts with fear and groaning, but I believe a blanket condemnation of artwork depicting God is a return to enslavement under the law. That’s right, Mr. Packer, great theologian you are, it would be a sad hypocrisy to trust your words above what the Lord has taught me in His word. And I am left with the conclusion that I am allowed and required to disagree. 🙂
Any thoughts, dear readers? What’s the deal with idolatry and iconography? Is all man-made artwork that attempts to display God idolatrous? Will I have to give account on that day of judgment for my love of Italian artwork? Ought I to destroy the beautiful cross my grandmother gave me and forget my favorite ceiling in the world?
Are they hindering my attempts at truly knowing Him?
*The edition I’m reading is the one from 1993.