May 04, 2023

Derek Thomas on Packer’s Knowing God

Stephen Nichols & Derek Thomas
Derek Thomas on Packer’s Knowing God

God is immeasurably more majestic than our minds can imagine. Today on the Open Book podcast, Derek Thomas tells Stephen Nichols about a book that greatly influenced him as a student preparing for ministry.


Dr. Stephen Nichols: Dr. Thomas, it’s nice to see you again.

Dr. Derek Thomas: It’s good to be seen.

Nichols: Thanks for letting me back into your library.

Thomas: Thank you.

Nichols: We’re still in your new office library, so we’re going to have to get over to your old library here soon.

Thomas: Yes. I do have fake books on this wall opposite me.

Nichols: I see that. It’s a quilt.

Thomas: My daughter made this quilt.

Nichols: How nice.

Thomas: They’re books on bookshelves.

Nichols: She knows you very well, doesn’t she?

Thomas: Yes.

Nichols: Speaking of books on bookshelves, you picked a classic here—well, two classics. We did Basic Christianity—that was the classic last time. Then another classic by another Brit.

Thomas: Jim Packer.

Nichols: Jim Packer. Most people know him as J.I. Packer. We’re talking about Knowing God.

Thomas: In 1974, I’m a senior at college and about to graduate. But by this point in time, I had joined Alfred Place Baptist Church, where the minister was Jeff Thomas.

Nichols: Okay, so we are going to come back to this, because you’re no longer a Baptist.

Thomas: We will come back to that part of my journey later, maybe.

Nichols: Meanwhile, in 1974.

Thomas: I announced to the elders there that I felt a call to the ministry, and I was sent on a weekend. My memory is that it was a Friday, Saturday, until Sunday afternoon event at Bristol College, where Jim Packer, Alec Motyer, Colin Brown, Gervais Angel, and the woman who wrote commentaries on the Old Testament—one on Haggai—Joyce Baldwin was there. And we were assigned one of those to give us a kind of interview, and I got Jim Packer.

Nichols: That’s great.

Thomas: I had just been given this book by dear friends of mine at the church.

Nichols: There’s an inscription in here. It says, “Derek, with fond memories in our Lord Jesus, Ron and Rose L.”

Thomas: Ron and Rose Loosely. Ron was a deacon at the church, and later, I think, an elder. And they were just a wonderful, wonderful couple who showed a lot of interest in college students. And they lived out on this farm. He had worked at the university. The desk that is in my study at home, which is an oak desk, came from the university and was a gift from him. And they just loved Jesus and wanted to encourage me, and they bought me Jim Packer’s Knowing God. And the reason they bought it was I had been studying, in the Christian Union along with other students, The Existence and Attributes of God by Stephen Charnock.

Nichols: Sure. Classic.

Thomas: And that had become the theme for the year’s studies. So we were looking at the attributes of God, and this book was on the table. I think I must have mentioned it to somebody that I need to buy this book by whoever Jim Packer was.

Nichols: But you were a poor college student.

Thomas: Right.

Nichols: Couldn’t put two nickels together.

Thomas: And the next thing I knew, Ron and Rose Loosely had bought me this book.

Nichols: Can we just pause about this book for a little bit? So first of all, when I read Knowing God—I think most of the people listening to this may have read Knowing God—they had a very American-looking published paperback. This is not. This is a very British-looking hardback. It’s got a great little spine label for Hodder and Stoughton. This was printed in 1974. That’s when the book came out.

Thomas: It had just emerged. It was brand new when I got it.

Nichols: This is vintage Knowing God. There’s one other thing I notice here on the inside, right off the inside end paper. You have circled—you have a number, 154, encircled. I think I know what that is, but do you want to tell me what that is?

Thomas: I made a little catalog of all the books I had.

Nichols: That’s great.

Thomas: And partly because, within a year, we were heading to Mississippi, my wife and I, for seminary. I think I took this book with me, and we numbered all the books.

Nichols: That’s great.

Thomas: But this is before computers.

Nichols: Some time, I’ll have to get a look at the Derek Thomas catalog. So, I’m also looking now at the back fly of it and the end papers in the back of the book, and you’ve got some page numbers marked. But what I find even more interesting is all the stuff you have shoved in the back of your book. It’s a wonder that you didn’t break the spine. There’s all kinds of things here: there’s five words to describe the plan of redemption, and looks like that’s a sermon or a talk.

Thomas: A talk that I must have given somewhere.

Nichols: Can we tell the people what you thought the five words were? Go right ahead.

Thomas: They are wisdom, love, justice, power, and faithfulness. And I think these are five words that are taken from Knowing God, which is why it’s in here.

Nichols: And then I’m seeing—at one time, was this your sermon manuscript? This looks like—what is this, about four-by-six, maybe, little pieces of paper? We’ve got a nice little paper clip together there. And this is “The Purpose of the Law.”

Thomas: Yes, this looks like from my first computer and dot matrix printer. So this is probably 1980, which is when I first got a computer. And these are—what, five by four? Small enough to hide inside the Bible and not to look too clunky. And what do we mean by the law and the threefold use of the law? And again, probably notes culled from Knowing God.

Nichols: Of course, this is a classic book. Many people have read it. And if you are at this stage of your life, you’re teaching on the attributes, you’re wanting to go to seminary, you’re showing an interest in becoming a minister of the gospel. What do you remember the most about this book, just impacting your thinking?

Thomas: That God was greater, more majestic, more unfathomable than I had imagined Him to be. That there are many ways of thinking about the doctrine of God and the classification of attributes and so on, and communicable and incommunicable is one way of doing that. But Jim Packer’s—how do you write 250 pages at a fairly dense level—not too dense, but it was . . .

Nichols: There’s meat in here.

Thomas: Yes, yes. And all you’re doing is describing what God is like, and using categories lifted from Scripture to do so. And in one way or another, Jim Packer’s books—and I probably have all the books he’s ever published in the other library . . .

Nichols: Which we’ll get to.

Thomas: . . . he has meant a great deal to me.

Nichols: I remember he talks about mountains a lot in this book, and it’s an easy move from the majesty of—Scripture does this as well, the psalmist does this—take us from mountains to the majesty of God and who God is.

Thomas: But I have this memory of seeing him in his office in Bristol in 1974, surrounded by Puritan books, many of which I was unaware of at that time. And he had this hole in his head. All I could remember was my mother saying to me, “If somebody’s got some odd characteristic, don’t stare,” and so the whole time I’m sitting there, and he’s on the other side of the desk, and I’m thinking, “Don’t stare at the hole.” But it’s just an inch above his eye, so if you’re looking at him in the eye, you’re concentrating not to raise your eye a little. And he gave me just extraordinary advice. And I said to him I wasn’t sure whether or not I should become an Anglican, because my mother was an Anglican. I was still trying to sort out my ecclesiology.

Nichols: Sure.

Thomas: And he said: “Why in the world would you want to do that? Stay where you are.”

Nichols: That’s great—but you didn’t. But we’ll talk about that later, too. Packer talks about this dent, hole in his head. It was that moment where he had the accident as a kid and was wanting to play rugby. He talks about rugby as if it was all-consuming in his life. Then he gets that, and his father, I think, gives him a typewriter as a young boy.

Thomas: Because he was to write.

Nichols: And he was to write. And he did write.

Thomas: And he did.

Nichols: Well, thank you, Dr. Thomas. It’s been a real pleasure, and this is a real delight. I hope that I have the Christian integrity to make sure I give you this particular copy of Knowing God back. It’s a beautiful copy, and really enjoyed talking to you about it. Thank you.

Thomas: Thank you.

Nichols: I’m Steve Nichols, and that was another episode of Open Book. Open Book is a podcast about the power of books and the people they’ve shaped. If you’ve enjoyed this episode, please leave a rating or review wherever you’re listening. It’s the best way to help others discover us. We’ll be back in the library next week, so please join us again for another episode of Open Book.