Books read May 2017


1. William Shakespeare, Measure for Measure, Ed. Jonathan Bate & Eric Rasmussen, Macmillan, The RHC Shakespeare, 2010 (1604)

Interesting morality play and comedy based around the antics of the easy going and rather weak Duke; the apparently highly moral but in reality hypocritical and rapacious Angelo, Deputy Duke; the devout Isabella; and the impatient but deeply in love Claudio and Juliet. The comedy is supplied by Elbow the simple policeman, Froth, a foolish gentleman, Pompey the clown, and Lucio the fool/fantastic.  I had forgotten how much sexual innuendo controls the language of Shakespearian comedy!  As a moral piece this play leaves a sour taste as just about everyone involved has to be tricked into doing the right thing! A rather whimsical overview of the Elizabethan world and playhouse with few redeeming characters.  3 stars

2.  Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Translation with an introduction and notes, Maxwell Staniforth, Preface by  A C Graying, The Folio Society, London, 1964 (c late C2 AD)

Serious thoughts from a serious man, Roman emperor and military leader. Profoundly influenced by the writings of Epictetus’ Stoic philosophy but also quotes frequently from Plato and Euripides. Surprising views about suicide and of course a rather cold approach to emotion in general and passion in particular. Mostly very wise advice from a very wise man. The Meditations is not a continuous argument but a series of observations and rumination about life, morality and ideal human behaviour. Much of it was written during the emperor’s hard fought military battles with the “barbarian” hordes laying siege to the Danubian border of the Empire in middle Europe. It is a serious but engaging read and provides food for a thousand discussions. 5 stars

3. William Shakespeare, Shakespeare’s Sonnets, Penguin Books, Ringwood, 1999. (C17th)

Pithy, complex poetry addressed to both sexes and to the bard himself all about love, lost love, love gained, love stolen; love uncertain, love at great cost, ridiculous love, forlorn love, love from afar, trusting love, longing heart broken love, love for men and love for women. Few words are wasted here and the contracted and sometimes obscure meanings often take some digging out. In spite of all this ingenuity there is still nothing better than:

Shall I compare thee

to a summer’s day?

Thou art more lovely

and more temperate…. 4 Stars.

4. Daryl Tonkin & Carolyn Landon, Jackson’s Track, Viking, Ringwood,1999

Extraordinary historical account of the life of Daryl Tonkin and an indigenous community living in West Gippsland along Jackson’s Track in the temperate mountain ash forests between Drouin and Jindivick in the middle years of the C20th. The community was built around white man Daryl Tonkin and his brother Harry who ran a timber cutting business near Jackson’s Creek. They were Melbourne born but former Queensland cattle drovers who settled at Jackson’s Track and employed many indigenous workers to help with the business. Daryl Tonkin eventually scandalised the local community by setting up a bush home with Euphemia Mullins, an Aboriginal girl and they had nine children. Many other families came to live in the area including the Rose and Hood families and others from the Lake Tyer’s mission in East Gippsland, from related families in Dimboola and from the Walaga Lake area in southern NSW and from elsewhere.  Daryl was self-educated and was encouraged to write his memoir by American  school teacher Carolyn Landon who had come to work at Warragul High School in the late 1990’s and was teaching Pauline Mullins children, the grandchildren of Daryl Tonkin and Euphemia Mullins. When I was principal of St Paul’s Anglican Grammar School in Warragul in the 1990s I met Carolyn and was amazed to learn of a thriving indigenous community living and raising families in the forest area as late as 1962. Pauline herself became an indigenous educator assisting staff at Warragul High School to communicate with indigenous students and is now an oral historian writing especially about indigenous and white Australian relationships. Many of the Mullins/Tonkin children became Australian badminton superstars, winning State and National championships between 1967 and 1986. Lionel Rose of course was to become World bantamweight boxing champion.

The book has many highlights including the story of the Tonkin brothers’ amazing business know-how and successes and the tension with their city based, racist but highly skilled and driven sister Mavis who lived with them for a time. The family almost imploded after Daryl’s decision to live with Euphemia but brotherly loyalty and hard won values won through. In the end, however, it was the combination of four factors that destroyed the thriving 150+  Jackson’s Creek  indigenous community. First the post-war rural drive for farming land and the subsequent need for roads and fences encroached on the size and health of the forest, impacting also on wild-life, the basis of indigenous hunting and food gathering. Secondly an emerging Middle class white community, scandalised by what they saw as primitive indigenous living conditions, combined with ready access to alcohol in Drouin and significant pressure from the local constabulary led to constant political pressure to have the community removed. Thirdly, a conservative Christian evangelistic movement, critical of native beliefs and values  persuaded some families to give up their old ways. Finally a misplaced assimilation theory, forced education pressure in inappropriate schools and forcible resettlement of families into initially inappropriate and inadequately prepared “white” housing in Drouin was followed by the wholesale destruction and bulldozing of the community.

In many ways this story is a tiny microcosm of white/indigenous relationships across Australia in the middle years of the twentieth century. Daryl Tonkin lived happily in Jackson’s Creek for 22 years and in his final years drifted back to bush living in the Jackson’s Creek area although maintaining his love and care for Euphemia and their children. Daryl died, age 90 in 2008. Carolyn Landon went on to do extensive research about the whole Jackson’s Creek community and her results and further information about this story can be found in Jackson’s Track Revisited: History, Remembrance and Reconciliation: Brabulwoolong Woman, published by Monash University.  Jackson’s Track is a truly unforgettable story! 5 stars.

5. Gabriel Garcia Márquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude, translated from Spanish by Gregory Rabassa, Ringwood, Penguin Books, 2009 (1967, 1970-English).

This is Colombian born Marquez’s passionate, energetic and enthralling novel about one hundred years in the life of a mythical, isolated  South American village, Macondo in a mythical Columbia. He is still probably the most read Latin American novelist today and Marquez won the Nobel Prize for his efforts over two years which nearly beggared his family.   The story follows four generations of the family of one José Arcadio Buendía and his formidable wife Úrsula Iguarán. In each generation one of the sons is named José Arcadio so the family tree in the Penguin edition and hopefully in others, is necessary for a constant reminder of who was who and when. Like many Latin American writers, Marquez demonstrates a significant debt to Argentinian poet, philosopher and short story writer Jorge Borges, with its combination of the literary style of magic realism with historical elements. One example is the account of the1928 banana war massacre in Ciénaga, near Santa Marta in Columbia allegedly backed by US marines.

This is a wild, haunting, sad, funny, erotic, at times frustrating and always challenging read!  The narrative operates at many levels and can be read as:a commentary on the fragility, “thinness” and trauma of human civilisation; on the erotic power of true love and passion versus the drivenness of lust; on the impact of European hegemony over South American politics and life; on the ultimately ridiculous divisions between “left” and “right” in politics and the horrific lies and pointlessness of war; on the complexity and perhaps ultimate futility of the search for the world’s knowledge, especially perhaps its failure to overcome passion; on the power of nature to reclaim lost human worlds; on the depth of the spiritual life-force which can survive the worst of human nature,  shallow moral rules, and religious invention. This is not a book to pick up and put down. It needs to be read with attention and at say three sittings but it repays with a thousand ideas that will remain in the mind of the reader for a long time.

The link between the four generations of Buendias is the mysterious Gypsy philosopher Melquiades who lives throughout the 100 years and keeps re-appearing to the four José Arcadios and who has written the meaning of the lives of the Buendia family and much else on parchments written in code…in Sanskrit , which was his mother tongue, and he had encoded the even lines in the private cipher of the Emperor Augustus and the odd ones in a Lacedemonian military code!  (Shades of Leonardo Da Vinci!) The attempt by each José Arcadio to decipher these documents is a thread that unites the novel although its power and interest lie elsewhere.    Five stars and counting.

Wise thoughts from Marcus Aurelius: Meditations.

Wise words from  Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, Roman Emperor and philosopher (AD 121-80)

Marcus Aurelius learned Stoic teaching by reading the Discourses of the philosopher Epictetus. (AD C50-C120). Stoicism is a deterministic, pantheistic and materialistic philosophy in which everything which happens is ruled by a supreme Logos or Reason. Marcus Aurelius calls this reason various names including God, the gods, Nature, Zeus, providence, fate, necessity or law. In the material world, reason, the supreme power is fire, air or force; in humanity it is soul, reason, mind or breath.

In Stoicism man’s chief end is happiness expressed in virtue. God or Nature  guides every kind of growth into perfection..a natural life ruled by reason resulting in virtue. This will ensure that person is not tossed around by emotion or passion and is insulated against every event or trauma in life including death because self-discipline, unflinching fortitude, just and virtuous dealing and complete freedom from passion are the marks of the virtuous person. Stoicism encourages kindness towards others including those who do evil things (they need “instruction”) and rates ethical, just and true behaviour as the highest good. There is no life after death and mankind’s task is to live a virtuous life seeing death as part of the natural order. In what comes as a serious shock Marcus Aurelius is quite at ease with suicide if living in a reasonable society is not possible. It is possible to live on earth as you mean to live hereafter. But if men will not let you, then quit the house of life; though not with any feeling of ill-usage. ‘The hut smokes; I move out.’ No need to make a great business of it. Nevertheless, so long as nothing of the kind obliges me to depart, here I remain, and none shall hinder me from doing what I choose—and what I choose is to live the life that Nature enjoins for a reasonable member of a social community.

In sum, Stoicism means a life of steely determination to live calmly, reasonably and virtuously and to encourage others to do the same. Whatever the world may say or do, my part is to keep myself good; just as a gold piece, or an emerald , or a purple robe insists perpetually, ‘Whatever the world may say or do, my part is to remain an emerald and keep my colour true. [Book 8:15]

Meditations was written in Greek and consists of twelve “note” books of philosophical observations…there is no consistent argument, just a series of remarks and discussions, some just a sentence, others up to three pages. In addition to Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius drew frequently from Plato and Euripides and less often from Hesiod, Homer and Aristophanes and some of his quotations are from sources now unknown. Many of these  notes and ideas were noted down during Marcus Aurelius’s lengthy  and very tough campaigns against the Barbarian hordes on the Danube frontier.

The following quotations are from: Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, translated and notes by Maxwell Staniforth and Preface by A C Grayling, London, The Folio Society, 2002.

Courtesy and serenity of temper I first learnt from my grandfather Verus  Book 1:1

My mother set me an example of piety and generosity, avoidance of all uncharitableness—not in actions only, but in thought as well —and a simplicity of life quite unlike the usual habits of the rich.  Book 1:3

To my great grandfather I owed the advice to dispense with the education of schools and have good masters at home instead— and to realise that no expense should be grudged for this purpose! Book 1: 4

Thanks to Diognetus I learnt not to be absorbed in trivial pursuits…[eg stamp collecting??]  Book 1:6

From Rusticus …I was to be accurate in my reading, and not content with a mere general idea of the meaning;  Book 1:7

It was the critic Alexander who put me on my guard against unnecessary fault-finding . People should not be sharply corrected for bad grammar, provincialisms, or mispronunciation….Book 1:10

To my mentor Fronto I owe the realisation that malice, craftiness, and duplicity  are the concomitants of absolute power; and that our patrician families tend for the most part to be lacking in the feelings of ordinary humanity.

Alexander the Platonist cautioned me against frequent use of the words ‘I am too busy’ in speech correspondence, except in cases of real necessity; saying that no one ought to shirk the obligations due to society on the excuse of urgent affairs. Book 1:12

Catulus the Stoic counselled me never to make light of a friend’s rebuke… Book 1:13

From my brother [note: Marcus Aurelius did not have a brother…Staniforth: most probably a corrupt text..] I learnt to love my relations, to love the truth, and to love justice……and became acquainted with the conception of a community based on equality and freedom of speech for all, and a monarchy concerned primarily to uphold the liberty of the subject.  He showed me the need for a fair and dispassionate appreciation of philosophy, an addiction to good works, open-handedness, a sanguine temper, and confidence in the affection of my friends. Book 1:14

The qualities I admired in my father were….his complete indifference to meretricious honours; his industry, perseverance, and willingness to listen to any project for the common good … Book 1:16

To the gods I owe…finally, that with all my addiction to philosophy I was yet preserved from either falling a prey to some sophist or spending all my time at a  desk poring over textbooks and rules of logic or grinding at natural science. Book 1:17

Are you distracted by outward cares? Then allow yourself a space of quiet, wherein you can add to your knowledge of the good and learn to curb your restlessness. Book 2:7

In your actions let there be a willing promptitude, yet a regard for the common interest; due deliberation, yet no irresolution; and in your sentiments no pretentious over-refinement. Avoid talkativeness, avoid officiousness. Book 3:5

If mortal life can offer you anything better than justice and truth, self-control and courage — that is, peace of mind in the evident conformity of your actions  to the laws of reason…Book 3:6

keep your principles constantly in readiness for the understanding of things both human and divine; never in the most trivial action forgetting how intimately the two are related.  Book 3:13

Nowhere can a man find a quieter or more untroubled  retreat than in his own soul; above all,  he who possesses resources in himself, which he need only contemplate to secure immediate ease of mind—the ease that is but another word for a well-ordered spirit. Book 4:3

Do not copy the opinions of the arrogant, or let them dictate your own, but look at things in their own light. Book 4:11

Life, in a word, is short; then snatch your profit from the passing hour, by obedience to reason and just dealing. Book4:26

Either a universe that is all order, or else a farrago thrown together at random yet somehow forming a universe. But can there be some measure of order subsisting in yourself, and at the same time disorder in the greater whole? Book4:27

Give your heart to the trade you have learnt, and draw refreshment from it. Book 4:31

If, then, you would avoid discouragement, never become unduly absorbed in things that are not of the first importance. Book 4:32

to do justice is the only wisdom. Book 4:37

You have no real love for yourself; if you had, you would love your nature, and your nature’s will.  Book 5:1

Cultivate these, then, for they are wholly within your power: sincerity, for example, and dignity; industriousness, and sobriety. Avoid grumbling; be frugal, considerate, and frank; be temperate in manner and speech; carry yourself with authority.  Book 5:5

philosophy wills only what your nature wills… Book 5:9

….Cultivate these, then, for they are wholly within your power: sincerity, for example, and dignity; industriousness, and sobriety. Avoid grumbling; be frugal, considerate, and frank; be temperate in manner and in speech; carry yourself with authority.  Book 5:5

philosophy wills only what your own nature wills…

can there be anything more agreeable than the exercise of the intellect? Book 5:9

look at the characters of your own associates; even the most agreeable of them are difficult to put up with ; and for the matter of that, it is difficult enough to put up with one’s own self.  Book 5:10

Your mind will be like its habitual thoughts; for the soul becomes dyed with the colour of its thoughts….Book 5:16

the chief good of a rational being is fellowship with his neighbours—for it has been made clear long ago that fellowship is the purpose behind our creation. Book 5:16

Do not fall a too hasty prey to first impressions. Book 5:36

…even dying is part of the business of life; and there too no more is required of us than ‘to see the moment’s work well done.’ Book 6:2

To refrain from imitation is the best revenge. Book 6:6

…pretentiousness is the arch deceiver, and never more delusive than when you imagine your work is most meritorious  Book 6:14

In all things call upon the gods for help—yet without too many scruples about the length of your prayers; three hours so spent will suffice.  Book 6:23  hmmm!

…no pain is contrary to the nature of man, as man, so long as he is doing man’s work. And if it accords with nature, it cannot be evil. Book 6:33

All proceeds from the one source, springing either directly or derivatively from the universal sovereign reason. Even the lion’s open jaws, the deadly poison, and all other things that do hurt…Book 6:36

with things formed by Nature, the power that fashions them is still within them, and remains in them. All the more, then, should you have it in reverence, and be assured that if only you live and act according to its will, you will have all things according to your liking.  Book 6:40

when we limit our notions of good and evil strictly to what is within our own power, there remains no reason either to bring accusations against God or to set ourselves at variance with men.  Book 6:41

he who directs all things will find some good use to make of you, and give you your place among his helpmates and fellow labourers. Book 6:42

If the gods took counsel together about myself, and what should befall me, then their counsel was good. For it were hard to conceive of divinity counselling unwisely. After all, what incentive would they have to work my hurt? Where would be the gain, either to themselves or the universe  which is their chief care? Book 6:44

In this life one thing only is of precious worth; to live out one’s day in truthfulness and fair dealing, and in charity even with the false and unjust. Book 6:47

The man of ambition thinks to find his good in the operations of others; the man of pleasure in his own sensations; but the man of understanding in his own actions. Book 6:51

a  man’s worth is no greater than the worth of his ambitions. Book 7:3

…God is one, pervading all things; Book 7:9

Just as a gold piece, or an emerald, or a purple robe insists perpetually, “Whatever the world may say or do, my part is to remain an emerald and keep my colour true.”  Book 7:15

Happiness, (εὐδαιμωνια), by derivation means ‘a good god within’; that is, a good master-reason. Book 7:17

Do not indulge in dreams of having what you have not, but reckon up the chief of the blessings you do possess, and then thankfully remember how you would crave for them if they were not yours. At the same time, however, beware lest delight in them leads you to cherish them so dearly that their loss would destroy your peace of mind. Book 7:27

Put on the shining face of simplicity and self-respect, and of indifference to everything outside the realms of virtue or vice. Love mankind. Walk in God’s ways. Book 7:31

Of pain. If it is past bearing, it makes an end  of us; if it lasts, it can be borne. Book 7:33

If a man has greatness of mind, and the breadth of vision to contemplate all time and all reality, can he regard human life as a thing of any great consequence?’ — ‘No, he cannot.’—‘So he won’t think death anything to be afraid of?’— ‘No.’  [Plato: The Republic, 486] Book 7:35

Chief of all features in a man’s constitution, therefore, is his duty to his kind. Next after that comes his obligation to resist the murmurs of the flesh. …..And thirdly, the constitution of a rational being should make him incapable of indiscretion. Book 7:55

Dig within. There lies the well-spring of good; ever dig, and it will ever flow. Book 7:59

The art of living is more like wrestling than dancing… Book 7:61

the needs of a happy life are very few. Mastery of dialectics or physics may have eluded you, but that is no reason to despair of achieving freedom, self-respect, unselfishness, and obedience to the will of God.  Book 7:67

When you have done a good action, and another has had the benefit of it, why crave for yet more in addition—applause for your kindness, or some favour in return—as the foolish do. Book 7:73

Do without flinching what man’s nature demands; say what seems to you most just—though with courtesy, modesty and sincerity.  Book 8:5

an opportunity of pleasure is something no good man would ever repent of having let pass. If follows, therefore, that pleasure is neither good nor helpful. Book 8:10

so a rational being has power to turn each hindrance into material for himself, and use it to set forward his own endeavours.  Book 8:35

a mind that is free from passion is a very citadel. Book 8:48

Dilatory action, incoherent conversation, vague impressions; a soul too inwardly cramped; a soul too outwardly effusive; a life without room for leisure—avoid such things…..How be lord yourself…by safeguarding the right to be your own master every hour of the day, in all charity, simplicity and modesty. Book 8:51

it is a sin to pursue pleasure as a good and to avoid pain as an evil…if he is bent on the pursuit of pleasure, he will not stop at acts of injustice, which again is manifestly sinful….He therefore who does not view with equal unconcern pain or pleasure…clearly commits a sin. Book 9:1

Despise not death; smile, rather, at its coming; it is among the things that Nature wills….Never, then, will a thinking man view death lightly, impatiently, or scornfully; he will wait for it as but one more of Nature’s progress. Book 9:3

A man does not sin by commission only, but often by omission. Book 9:5

Everything bears fruit; [including evil and immorality] man, God , the whole universe, each in its proper season.  Book 9:10

Work yourself hard, but not as if you were being made a victim, and not with any desire for sympathy or admiration. Book 9:12

do not expect Plato’s ideal commonwealth….Philosophy is a modest professor, all simplicity and plain dealing. Never try to seduce me into solemn pretentiousness. Book 9:29

…When will you be content with your present state, happy in all about you, persuaded that all things are yours, that all comes from the gods, and that all is and shall be well with you, so long as it is their good pleasure and ordained by them for the safety and welfare of the perfect living whole — so good, so just, so beautiful—which gives life to all things..Book 10:1

For when a man realises that at any moment he may have to leave everything behind him and depart from the company of his fellows…every care, every distraction is laid aside; his only ambition is to walk in the straight paths of law, and by do doing to become a follower of God. Book 10:11

Now your remaining years are few. Live them, then, as though on a mountain-top Book 10:15

Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.  Book 10:16

Do we need 10 volumes of Karl Barth’s Dogmatics?

Karl Barth writes in Church Dogmatics 1.1 The Doctrine of the Word of God, London/New York, T&T Clark, p/b 2004 (1936) p.88

The presupposition which makes proclamation proclamation and therewith makes the Church the Church is the Word of God. This attests itself in Holy Scripture in the word of the prophets and apostles to whom it was originally and once for all spoken by God’s revelation.

This is true but who we worship is not the holy scripture but the Lord of all creation. We believe God has revealed Himself to prophets and apostles, and supremely in Jesus the Messiah who taught his disciples orally. The Scripture writers were inspired by God’s Spirit to trust God and to write down God’s words in the various ways and styles  in which they came to know, believe and trust in God and in Jesus His Son and they also wrote down those experiences and histories and traditions of those who came before them. They wrote within the human world view and understanding of their times as they drew near to God and He inspired them to write.

What they wrote was remembered initially orally and eventually written down either by the them or others and collected and brought together by others again. None of these saints responsible for the final form and translation of the words of Holy Scripture were superhuman and so none of what they spoke and wrote, and what has been collected and translated is necessarily inerrant or even complete e.g. there are gaps in the Old Testament text; there are singular words whose meaning today is uncertain because there is no other context to gauge its meaning; there are passages whose words are known but whose meaning is ambiguous;  there are textual uncertainties because with many available early texts and translations the task of identifying the most likely original text is not an exact science although the methodology is highly developed; in some cases such as the ending of Mark’s Gospel there seems to be a section missing; in some cases of apostolic writing, especially Paul he explicitly states that his view is his own, or is the custom of the churches he founded not from the Lord. Peter’s own writing suggests that sometimes what Paul wrote is hard to understand. In addition the apocalyptic sections of both the Old Testament and the New Testament are highly symbolic and the key to their interpretation although perhaps clear to their first audience is not always completely clear today.

The upshot of all of this is that the Word of God we proclaim is  the triune God who has chosen to reveal Himself in creation and in His incarnate Son and He has given us His Holy Spirit to be with us and to write and know in our hearts his everlasting love and truth. His revelation is indeed in the written word and as the written word says, in the beauty and wonder of HIs created universe evolving over billions of years, and in the power and guidance of His Holy Spirit who inspires and teaches us daily of God’s will for our lives.

So the Bible as we now have it, God’s word to us written down, is not inerrant or to be worshipped. It is inspired by God and early copies of its contents have been remarkably kept for us in almost miraculous ways e.g. the work of Tischendorf and the discovery of the Qumran early texts of the Hebrew Old Testament. We need to take very seriously indeed the words of the Bible for within it we find the very Word of God for our lives on earth. We ignore God’s Word to us in the written word at our peril because we throw away the gift of His Holy Spirit interpreting these words to us. To lose ourselves in mystic meditation can be spiritually rewarding and we must continually seek to draw nearer to God. But we are not just called to be spiritual individuals cultivating our own spiritual health.

We are also called, indeed predestined for a vocation, to be active witnesses of the glory of God, to be a holy priesthood, to bear witness to His revelation so that the light of God’s love can shine brightly and clearly in our lives even though we live in a world laid siege to by powers of evil which exist, which hurt and which destroy lives on earth. There are mysteries here hard for us to understand. Why did God choose Israel and then the first apostolic generation?  We can only say with Job, who are we to question God?  Why does he even allow evil within His creation? The only satisfactory answer to this second question is the genuine freedom God gifted to heavenly beings and to His creation. Which of us would willingly give up our freedom for a robotic existence?

Why is all this so hard that it needs theologians to wrestle with its true meaning? It is clear that each of us has different spiritual gifts and these gifts distributed by the Spirit include teaching, ministering and proclamation. Who of us would like to be without, say for me, C S Lewis, Lesslie Newbigin, Leon Morris, F F Bruce,  Alister McGrath, Peter Adam, John Macquarie, P T Forsyth,Helmut Thielicke, N T Wright or Phillip Yancey? Do we need 10 volumes of Dogmatics from Karl Barth?…I’ll let you know if and when I ever finish reading them!  But  for most of us mere mortals our task is simple…to read, mark and  inwardly digest God’s Word written and in creation, then live faithfully, courageously and trustingly with hope and love and to witness joyfully, truly and appropriately until we indeed can behold God’s glory face to face and ask Him our questions ourselves and then we won’t need Karl Barth to explain it all! But for now..I am finding Karl Barth as helpful and stimulating as I did forty two years ago when I first read   The Doctrine of the Word of God for my London BD studies.


A dialogue with J I Packer’s book “Knowing God”.

Amazing book; enough material for a year’s discussion!

Some issues which interested me..

  1. Chapters 1-4:  Knowing God…How can we really ever know God if “his thoughts are higher than our thoughts and his ways higher than our ways”?
  1. p55: re images of Jesus. What do we really think about Jesus pictures in Sunday School rooms? Christ Pantocrator images e.g. in the Hagia Sophia? a crucifix in church or worn around the neck; Greek iconography? movies about Jesus? What would have happened had Jesus become incarnate in an age of photography? See Peter Adam’s excellent book “Hearing God’s words: Exploring biblical spirituality, Downers Grove, Ill, Apollos, IVP, 2004 chapter 5 for a really helpful discussion of this issue.
  1. p60:  How much of a problem for Christian communication and unity is the doctrine of the Trinity?  cf p71: Do we need to preach the Trinity more?

iv) pp66-70 re the Kenotic theory that Jesus “emptied himself” of his divinity…are we persuaded by Packer’s argument that at times Jesus chose “not to use” his divine knowledge? (p68 divine capacities restrained…

vp71  Do we have a major problem as we live our “Middle Class Christianity?”

vi) p75  Why are there so few books on the Holy Spirit compared with those about Jesus? p76 Ought we not to concern ourselves about the Holy Spirit more than we do?

vii) p80 the present barrennes of the Church’s life;  p92: Our faith and our worship is flabby.  Is Packer too harsh in his criticism of the late C20th church? What would he think of BAC?

viii) p85  Are we comfortable with an immutable God?

ix)  pp87f …he [God] shows his freedom and lordship by discriminating between sinners, causing some to hear the gospel while others do not hear it; and moving some of those who hear it to repentance while leaving others in their unbelief…really?? or is Packer too bound to his Calvinism here rather than to scripture?

x) p88 God does not repent but p89 God does repent! Which is correct?

xi) p93:  ….the God with whom we have to do is not a mere cosmic principle, impersonal and indifferent, but a living Person, thinking, feeling, active, approving of good, disapproving of evil, and interested in his creatures all the time.   Is God a “Person”? What does this mean? Where do we find this in the Bible?  Why does C S Lewis picture God as a lion, not as a human being in The Narnia Chronicles?

xii)  p97  Do we agree that the great ones  [world leaders e.g. Stalin/Trump/Roosevelt/Churchill/Elizabeth 11 do not run the world?

xiii) p101 God’s wisdom is not, and never was, pledged to keep a fallen world happy, or to make ungodliness comfortable. Not even to Christians has he promised a trouble-free life; rather the reverse. He has other ends in viewer life in this world than simply to make it easy for everyone. 

Was Malcolm Fraser correct? Life wasn’t meant to be easy!

xiv)  p102 …Christian joy is greatest, when the Cross is heaviest….Is this true? I don’t recall too much joy in Gethsemane or on the Cross.

xv) p109 We may be frankly bewildered at things that  happen to us, but God knows exactly what he is doing, and what he is after, in his handling of our affairs. (cf Job) I think this is true but it is hard to cope with sometimes.

xvi) p111  A list of the incommunicable (to man) and communicable qualities of God. What do we think of this list?

xvii) p113 It is to be feared that many Christians spend all their lives in too unhumbled and conceited a frame of mind ever to gain wisdom from God at all.  cf Proverbs 11:2 With the lowly is wisdom.

xviii) p114 Do you spend as much time with the Bible each day as you do even with the newspaper?  [or Facebook?]

xix) p116 There is a need for realism in our lives. Most of us live in a dream world, with our heads in the clouds and our feet off the ground; we never see the world , and our lives in it, as they really are. …Packer’s solution is that we pay more attention to Ecclesiastes.p117 Ecclesiastes describes our misconceived quest for understanding. p118 The God who rules it [the world] hides himself. Rarely does this world look as if a beneficent  Providence were running it. Rarely does it appear that there is a rational power behind it all. p119 [the result is] personal spiritual inertia combined with critical cynicism about the churches and supercilious resentment of other Christians’ initiative and enterprise. Behind this morbid and deadening condition often lies the wounded pride of one who thought he knew all about the ways of Godin providence and then was made to learn by bitter and bewildering experience that he didn’t.

xx)  p120  [Ecclesiastes] clearly has no time for the super spirituality which is too proud, or ‘too pious’ ever to laugh and have fun.

xxi) p127 Truth in the Bible is a quality of persons primarily, and of propositions only secondarily.  I think this opposes the idea of propositional revelation.

xxii) p129 …liberal theology, with its refusal to identify the written Scriptures with the word of God, has largely robbed us of the habit of meditating on the promises…

xxiii) p132  When Paul says,’the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given to us’ (Rom.5:5, KJV), he means, not love for God, as Augustine thought, but knowledge of God’s love for us.  [brave man to argue with Augustine!]…the New Testament set forth this knowledge, not as a privilege of a chosen few, but as a normal part of ordinary Christian experience.

xxiv) p133  Packer opposes the emphasis on spectacular spiritual gifts present in the charismatic movement of his day (mid 1970s) We have become preoccupied today with the extraordinary, sporadic, non-universal ministries of the Spirit to the neglect of the ordinary, general ones….Paul had to insist that without love— sanctification, Christlikeness, —tongues were worth precisely nothing.

xxv) p139  Packer quotes Berkhof Systematic Theology, p70): [God’s love is] that perfection in God which prompts him to deal bountifully and kindly with all his creatures….but on p140 Packer appears to differentiate between sinners…God’s love is an exercise of his goodness towards individual sinners. It is not a vague, diffused good-will towards everyone in general and nobody in particular; ….it involved first, the choice and selection of those whom he would bless, and second, the appointment of the benefits  to be given to them…[ Personally, and not just because I have been reading Rob Bell, I cannot find this idea in Scripture. Romans makes it quite clear that “while we were yet sinners Christ died for us” and that Christ died for the ἀσεβης [the ungodly].  Christ did not just die for those individuals he chose before the foundation of the world.

xxvi) p148 Packer believes the average Christian and church-goer knows nothing about the grace of God and believe they can please God by churchmanship and morality.  Do we agree? On p149  Packer quotes  German/Jewish poet and philosopher Henrich Heine allegedly said on his death-bed God will forgive …it is his business.  [Packer calls him a French free-thinker]  Packer’s view is what decides each individual’s destiny is whether or not God resolves to save him from his sins, and that this is a decision which God need not make in any single case…..[ I do not see this as grace but as a potentially maverick tyranny] What do we think? [see no. ix… this again looks more like Calvinism than Biblical theology to me.]  cf p153 where Packer refers to predestination but does not deal with its meaning and purpose.

xxvii) pp161-165  Packer makes it very clear here that judgment  for everyone is based on works using Romans 2 and various Gospel passages. This would have been unusual in 1975 evangelicalism and folk like N T Wright still get into strife from more fundamentalist brethren for saying this. My only disagreement is Packer’s statement on p161 that the heart of the justice which expresses God’s nature is retribution. This is not scriptural. The heart of the justice of God is Exekiel: God desires not the death of a sinner, but rather that he turn from his wickedness and live and John 3:16 God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son that everyone who believes in him will not perish but will have eternal life.  on p164 Packer understands the sheep “going to the right” as those who helped Christians, not just anyone in need. I do not believe Matthew’s text demands this interpretation.

xxviii)  p171 God’s wrath in the Bible is always judicial…that is, the wrath of the judge administering justice..Again this is too stark. Scripture is much more ambivalent…e.g. Psalm 103:8-10  The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever.  He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor requite us according to our iniquities.

xxix) p172 Packer suggests secondly that God’s wrath in the Bible is something they choose for themselves. While I think this is true for those who know and yet deliberately flout God’s commandments, it is not clear to me that folk who have never heard of the God of the Bible are deliberately choosing to reject God…their only knowledge is what can be perceived about God from the things which have been made (Romans 1). They will be judged according to the light they have received I think. I would feel stronger about Packer here if he had exegeted Romans 1 here.

xxx) p172 again: The essence of God’s action in wrath is to give people what they choose, in all its implications; nothing more, and equally nothing less. God’s readiness to respect human choice to this extent may appear disconcerting and even terrifying, but it is plain that his attitude here is supremely just…This is an amazing statement by Packer and looks far more like an Arminian position that an Calvinist position. In xxv Packer says that “God will choose those he will bless” whereas here he is saying that individuals can choose to disobey God and God will treat them accordingly as Scripture promises. So the saved are predestined (Calvinism) but the damned choose their fate (Arminianism). I am confused by Packer in this section. Can anyone help me understand him?

xxxi) p177 No doubt the sight of small sects cheerfully consigning the whole world, apart from themselves, to hell has disgusted many. [I agree and am just as anxious if a large section of the church “cheerfully consigns the whole world to Hell]. I keep coming back to John Milton: A man’s mind is its own place and of itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.]

xxxii) p 180 …people have got into the way of following private religious hunches rather than learning of God from his own Word…[I agree!]  On p181 Packer describes liberal theology (e.g. Brunner & Niebuhr) as Santa Claus theology. He accuses liberals of leaving folk with a kind God who means well, but cannot insulate his children from trouble and grief. When trouble comes, therefore , there is nothing to do but grin and bear it. In this way, by an ironic paradox, faith in a God who is all goodness and no severity tends to confirm people in a fatalistic and pessimistic attitude to life. [The problem for evangelicals is that, like liberal Christians, they have the same ironic paradox…when trouble comes to them it is the same…they have to grin and bear it…they have no Packer’s point here is somewhat weakened I think].

xxxiv) p.184 The distinction between “common” and “special” grace. Do we agree?

xxxv) p191  The anthropomorphisms in Scripture. But God is personal …how do we know which attributes are real and which are anthropomorphic?

xxxvi) p198 How many of our churches today are sound, respectable— and lukewarm?

xxxvii) p.219  Packer’s only treatment of universalism.  Those who in this life reject God will for ever be rejected by God. I am not defending universalism but Packer gives no Biblical reference for  this statement other than Jesus’ words about Judas which are ambiguous and the separation of the Son from the Father on the cross produced by the sin of the world.

xxxviii) p237 Christian ethics

xxxix) p241 I’m glad my Dad is a good driver..but what about other drivers??

xl) p238 on Christian prayer

xli)p244  Hope. Very few Christian writers write about hope.

xlii) p248 Various expressions for being “born again” e.g. a single transforming psychic event …

-full surrender; the Keswick experience; baptism in the Holy Spirit; entire sanctification; beatification; sealing in the Spirit; tongues;  a second conversion….a false magical type of supernaturalism.  This is all helpful stuff I think. cf p249 ..So it is not as we strain after feelings and experiences, of whatever sort, but as we seek God himself, looking to him…

xliii) p250  What do we understand today by the term “holiness”? We become “royal children” with responsibilities but there is always the danger of legalism …yet we are a royal priesthood..

xliv) p.256  What assurance do we have? I personally find deep assurance in joint prayer with another believer….cf p258 What is “the double witness”?

xlv) pp265-271 Guidance including 6 pitfalls. p271…”there are no rules!!!”

xv) p277  Inward trials…Misapplied doctrines; p 280 the wrong remedy (cf Job); p282 losing sight of grace.  All very helpful advice

xvi) p287  Chapter 22 is a commentary on the Book of Romans..”the high peak of Scripture”.  I agree although Romans cannot be read without Genesis 12 and Isaiah 49.