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The Purpose of Theology

As we approach the study of God, we need to consider the purpose for our pursuit of this knowledge. We need to question our motives. J. I. Packer asks, “What is my ultimate aim and object in occupying my mind with these things?” “[T]heological knowledge for its own sake,” he writes, “is bound to go bad on us.”


“Knowledge puffs up. . . . The man who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know” (1 Cor 8:1–2).

To be preoccupied with getting Theological knowledge as an end in itself, to approach Bible study with no higher motive than a desire to know all the answers, is the direct route to a state of self-satisfied self-deception. We need to guard our hearts against such an attitude, and pray to be kept from it. . . . There can be no spiritual health without doctrinal knowledge; but it is equally true that there can be no spiritual health with it, if it is sought for the wrong purpose and valued by the wrong standard. In this way, doctrinal study really can become a danger to spiritual life, and we today today, no less than the Corinthians of old, need to be on guard here.

But, says someone, is it not a fact that a love for God’s revealed truth, and a desire to know as much of it as one can, are natural to every person who has been born again? Look at Psalm 119: “teach me your decrees”; “open my eyes that I may see wonderful things from your law!”; “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!”; “give me discernment that I may understand your statutes” (vv. 12, 18, 97, 103, 125). Do not all children of God long, with the psalmist, to know just as much about our heavenly father as we can learn? Is not, indeed, the fact that we have received a love for his truth in this way proof that we have been born again? (See 2 Thess 2:10.) And is it not right that we should satisfy this God-given desire to the full?

Yes, of course it is. But if 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. . . . 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 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 aquaintance, 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 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.

—J. I. Packer, Knowing God (InterVarsity Press, 1993), 22–23.

Posted 2008·10·08 by David Kjos
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Posted in: Godliness · J I Packer · Knowing God · Scholarship
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#1 || 08·10·08··10:44 || Daniel

In picturing the marriage supper, it is often helpful to envision an utra-orthodox theologian sitting himself down close to the throne and being asked to give up his seat to someone like Finney.

It reminds us that obedience and surrender coupled to an imperfect theology will trump a perfect theology that is coupled to worldliness and sin.

Maybe Finney is over the top as an example, but I like to use him as my example anyway - it just rubs some people to imagine Finney receiving crowns from the King, and for some reason their agitation tickles me. Am I evil? ;)

#2 || 08·10·08··11:46 || David

Yes, you are evil.

You could at least choose someone who is actually going to be at the marriage supper, maybe someone like Arminius, Barth, or Wesley, rather than a wolf in sheep's clothing who denied the very foundations of the gospel. Even setting theology aside, Finney was hardly an example of obedience and surrender. If we were to play word association, and you said "Finney," my first thought would not be "heretic," it would be (after "scary looking guy") "ego." Finney was surrendered to one thing: doing what was right in his own eyes. His arrogance led him to condemn anyone who didn't possess his god-like wisdom.

I'm quite serious. While you may think your use of Finney is "over the top," I don't think my assessment of him is. I do not recognize his theology or life as consistent with Christianity at all.

Anyway, I hope my agitation has contributed to your ticklification.

#3 || 08·10·08··13:41 || Daniel

Ticklefication index is pleasingly high, thank you.

I will allow Arminius since you prefer, but I reserve for myself the possibility that Finney was a genuine believer (horribly, and inexcusably confused doctrinally speaking... but still a genuine believer).

#4 || 08·10·08··14:52 || donsands

"He wanted to understand God's truth in order that his heart might respond to it and his life be conformed to it."

The Word of God is sweet as honey, and it also cuts to the soul's deepest thoughts.
I like what David said, "Taste, and see that the Lord good!"
And Jesus said, "I am the bread of life, he who eats this bread will never die."

Some very good thoughts here by Dr. Packer. Thanks.

I to thought Finney was a false gospel preacher. Paul said if anyone teaches a different gospel, then they need to be accursed, even an angel, or even Paul himself, or Finney, or me.
Finney claimed he preached the right gospel. The genuine gospel, he stated, was the false gospel.

"he [Finney] proclaimed was a different gospel from that of historic Protestantism. By denying the forensic nature of justification, Finney was left with no option but to regard justification as a subjective thing grounded not in Christ's redemptive work but in the believer's own obedience--and therefore a matter of works, not faith alone."

#5 || 08·10·08··15:32 || David

Come now, Daniel, could anyone this scary-looking be a genuine believer?

Seriously, I have no interest in condemning anyone to hell, nor do I have the power to do so. But when the name of Finney is invoked as a preacher of the gospel, I must warn people that he preached a false gospel. If I know that he preached a false gospel, I can pretty well assume that his faith was in a false gospel, as well. And if his faith was in a false gospel, where does that put him now? It makes no sense to say that although Finney's gospel will damn you to hell, he might be in heaven.

#6 || 08·10·09··14:47 || Daniel

I could not (and would not) defend Finney's theology --he was a heretic!

It is plain that his understanding of the gospel was so heavily inflated by his errant theology that no right thinking person would invoke the name of Finney as a sound preacher of the gospel, yet because we are not justified by having a perfect theology, I am not comfortable writing him off as damned. How perfect must our theology be in order for us to be saved?

Seriously, if we start off with a sound gospel and a genuine profession of faith, do we thereafter move from a justified state to a condemned one because subsequent to our conversion our theology fails to reflect that which saved us?

It is just a slope I can't feel comfortable walking on.

Regardless of whether he was saved, we can take some serious instruction from his life:

If the queen of the South will rise up at the judgment with the men of Christ's generation and condemn them because she came from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and something greater than Solomon was there, then perhaps Finney will also rise up at the judgment condemning orthodox theologians whose pristine and academic orthodoxy was unfortunately coupled to a self satisfied spiritual inertia. If one zealous heretic so influenced the world, that raises the bar significantly for all of us, and really looks bad for those who followed him. ;)

#7 || 08·10·09··15:43 || donsands

Actually Finney seemed to fill the role of the pristine and academic to a point i would think. Seems he may have been like Saul before he became paul. Also, I believe his later year testimonies were more grace filled, if I remember correctly.
He did get out there and preached to a lot of people, and in the preaching of Christ crucified and risen; repent and believe, I'm sure God's mercy may have fell on some hearts.

"Regardless of whether he was saved, we can take some serious instruction from his life"
I agree.

Good discussion.

#8 || 08·10·09··17:57 || David

Daniel, of course we are not justified by having perfect theology, but we are justified by faith, and not faith in just anything, but in the biblical gospel.

Finney never professed faith in that gospel, but zealously repudiated it. I don't believe he "[started] off with a sound gospel and a genuine profession of faith." Nothing I've read of his conversion, teaching, or life gives me any indication that his faith was in anything but a religion he manufactured to his own specifications.

That's what I'm saying--that Finney's religion was not just bad Christianity, but that it wasn't Christianity at all.

#9 || 08·10·10··09:06 || Daniel

David, I know you know this, so this is not for your sake, but for the sake of anyone else reading the meta...

We are not justified by faith in the gospel, we are justified by faith in Christ, and that faith in Christ is accounted to us the very righteousness by which we are justified.

That is certainly good news that we ought to proclaim, but we must be clear - we are not justified by trusting that this is good news, nor even by trusting that this is simply true. That would be to intellectually assent to the validity of the gospel - which is categorically (if subtly) different than trusting in the person of Christ Himself, and in the promises by which we acquire His righteousness through which we are justified in God's court.

Finney did not articulate the way the gospel saves in a correct way - his religion was wrong. But it is one thing to assert that a man's religion is wrong, and to do so based upon the evidence found in his own writing; yet it is something else to insist that because the man's religion was wrong, he personally --had never-- placed his trust in Christ.

Am I too generous, and too gracious when I allow the hope that this man was saved? Or am I too soft to judge him? I don't know. But I do know that I am inclined from within to make a clear distinction between the man's theology which I can rightly denigrate, and the man's profession of faith, which I can only speculate about.

Consider this though - the man worked tirelessly in the name of Christ, and not against that name. Do not be tempted, as some will be, to whittle that down and lessen it by attacking his understanding of who Christ is - the bottom line is that he was sold out to serve the Christ that God Himself illumined (or failed to illumine) in scripture. If the man's intellect and pride distorted that image that does not change the fact that he was utterly committed to serve the Christ he believed to be there.

It is certainly possible that Finney's arrogance and pride blinded him to the true Christ, and that his conversion was false, and that the immediate and utter change in his life was all manufactured by his own will - and that he spent the rest of his life expounding the scriptures that he adored and doing so in the name and service of the Christ he found therein (if filtered through the lens of his own theology - and don't we all do this?) - I say, it may be that a false Christ grabbed a hold of him and caused this utter change and tireless lifelong ministry. I will allow that.

But I like to think in terms of grace and generosity. I say he may have been saved, and if pressed I would incline myself to say he probably was -- in spite of his error and its magnitude. It's just how I am wired I guess. If I ever read that he denied the faith, or that he believed you could be saved without it - I would change my opinion in a heart beat. But from what I have read, he believed you could only be justified by faith in Christ - he added a lot of theological baggage to that, so that according to his theology those who were saved were only saved so long as they were perfectly sinless - but this kind of error, though it stems from wrong presumptions, and is built on bad theology - is a post-justification type of error as far as I can see. If you start off with the Pelagian assumption that there there is nothing within or without us to incline any of us to sin, that Adam's sin was bad, but had no lasting fallout - and if you allow that to train your theology so that you conclude that a man is saved by his own choice, and saved from sin - it follows that if you chose to sin you lose your salvation, so that you are only saved so long as you remain sinless - it is going to affect the rest of your theology. You are going to have to justify how that all works, and being an intelligent fellow, and clever - he was able to rationalize the Pelagian error by legalizing the Christian endeavor - a gross, gross error, but seriously a theological one which by no means demands that his faith be false. A clever man's errors are far more erroneous than a simple man's errors - because the clever man is able to buttress his errors by his intellect. Knowledge, does puff up.

So that's all I am saying. I give him the benefit of the doubt. I am hopelessly generous in that way. :)

#10 || 08·10·10··11:19 || David

if filtered through the lens of his own theology - and don't we all do this?

Not me. My theology is completely pure, objective, and biblical, untainted by any other influence. The suggestion that it might be otherwise is frankly offensive. I am wounded by the insinuation--Oh, the agony of heart!--that one whom I believed was my friend could so viciously assassinate me!

[Here I pause to dry my eyes and compose myself.]

I agree that salvation is by faith in Christ; but Christ, I know you'll agree, is not some abstract notion. He is a specific person who did a specific thing for a specific reason; and those specifics are the gospel. Certainly, saving faith is more than a belief in those facts; but it is never less. If our faith is in some false notion of those things, it is a worthless faith.

So I don't believe faith in Christ can be separated from faith in the gospel. They are one and the same.

Of course, I don't know with certainty the state of Finney's faith. All I have to go on are his writings, and according to his writings, the Christ he believed in had done something different than the Bible says he did. He taught that a man must make for himself a new heart, and that all that was required to become a Christian was to purposefully determine to do so.

That was the gospel he worked tirelessly for. He worked tirelessly in the name of Christ, but consider this: if someone works tirelessly in the name of David, but thinks David is some IT guy in Manitoba, regardless of his sincerity and zeal, he's not really working in my name, is he?

I suppose I could be exaggerating the deviance of Finney's theology. But from what I know, I prefer the Papist Jesus to Finney's Jesus.

#11 || 08·10·10··11:34 || Daniel

Oh wicked heart that could wound my dear friend so... Were my soul a well, and my tears the draining of it, would that suffice to stave this horror in knowing the pain my wayward words have wrought?

What is this stabbing pain in my chest? Surely it is that questionable tuna and not regret? <sniffle>


I am satisfied if you leave just one ounce (or eve some smaller fraction thereof) of possibility in your heart that CGF may have (possibly) been a genuine convert.

#12 || 08·10·10··12:04 || David

If the facts are as I see them, Finney is in torment today. However, if there are facts unknown to me that contradict my assessment of the man, as I grant there could be, then it is possible that I am wrong. After all, I never claimed to be infallible--only nearly so.


#13 || 08·10·10··15:35 || Daniel

Well, okay, but only since you offered such hope without disclaimer or reserve.

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