Grappling with the God of the Gospel: Stephen Charnock’s The Existence and Attributes of God
The doctrine of God seems to be the headlining topic in theology right now. An explosion of academic and popular publications are appearing, all aiming to help us to know our Maker and Redeemer more fully. This new interest in God himself is good and right, since the gospel of God aims to reunite sinners with the God of the gospel. Crossway’s new edition of Stephen Charnock’s The Existence and Attributes of God reminds us that God’s character has long been at the core of deep Christian reflection. It should also remind us that these reflections from the past remain richly profitable for Christians today.
The first thing I must say about this new edition of Charnock’s magnum opus is that it is beautiful. The cover is textured to be like the best binding of books from centuries ago. The binding itself is so well done that the pages lie open exactly as you want, whether holding the book or laying it on your desk. The paper is soft and has a warm tone that is easy on the eyes. I am not one to go on about, or even notice, the aesthetics of a book. This two-volume set, however, is striking. It is a delightfully tactile experience to hold this work as you read it. I am sure that I do not own a more beautiful book. This book goes to show that e-books cannot do for you all that a physical book does.
Charnock lived and worked in seventeenth-century England. He was born in 1628 in London, studied at Emmanuel College, Cambridge, pastored for a season in London, taught at Oxford, ministered in Dublin during the Interregnum, and finished his career in a nonconformist congregation back in London, dying in 1680. Charnock’s life intersected with some of the most tumultuous events in English history, during a time when Reformed orthodoxy arguably saw its strongest footing in that country.
Despite the swirling worldly affairs of Charnock’s day, his book on God’s existence and attributes remains remarkably focused on God himself with applications that often transcend time and place. Refreshingly, he never devolves into rants against the culture of his day, even though he would have been on the ecclesiastical outs when he was writing this book toward the end of his life. Charnock’s implicit theme is that God’s glory outshines, overpowers, and is far more worthy of our attention than the mundane affairs of life. We should take our cue from Charnock: when we cannot stand the state of our culture and feel discarded by it, the answer is not to focus on our culture. The answer is to lift our eyes toward heaven to contemplate the majesty of the Most High, so that our souls might be reinflated and we might be newly equipped to tread well through the dismal aspects of this pilgrim age.
The pattern of Charnock’s work also reveals his committed stance as a pastor. The book is vast, and each discourse—roughly equivalent to chapter breaks, at least in dividing the book into topical sections—can stack up to a few hundred pages each. In some ways, readers might be helped by thinking of this work as fourteen smaller books, each devoted to one of God’s attributes. Despite its sprawling nature, however, Charnock always lands each discussion by outlining the “uses” of each attribute. He aimed at pastoral application, giving encouragement for God’s people as we learn to connect the dots between the greatness of God’s own character and what might get us through each day as we walk before the Lord in whatever he gives us to do in this life.
A striking feature of Charnock’s theology is how classical are his convictions about God’s nature and character. The recent resurgence of interest in classical theism (especially drawing on medieval scholasticism) has set some people on edge, concerned that the classical doctrine of God might be at odds with Protestantism’s commitments to Scripture alone and salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Charnock fully dispels such notions, weaving together rich treatments of God’s character, rooted in the creedal and ecumenical understanding of theology proper, with insights into how theology proper pertains to salvation by grace—all set within the sweeping vista of redemptive history. The doctrine of the covenants often appears in the course of his discussions. Applications about Reformed worship abound throughout as well. Charnock models how all confessional Protestants should be committed to both the longstanding Christian tradition as well as Scripture alone and the best of our traditions of orthodoxy.
Another mark of Charnock’s traditional thinking is how he ties together his various insights about God’s nature, especially by drawing on the doctrine of divine simplicity. This doctrine teaches that God has no parts, meaning that he is not the sum of smaller things that add up to compose him, or that we could somehow remove one characteristic from God and still have the others. God is not a LEGO set of attributes but is entirely each and all of his attributes. The soul-stirring upshot of simplicity is that God’s whole character is uniformly consistent, which means God cannot have some lingering corner of his being where he harbors anything but love and mercy for his people. Strikingly, however, Charnock devotes no single discourse to divine simplicity. Nonetheless, it remains a major theme throughout this book as he repeatedly shows how each attribute—such as spirituality, omnipresence, and omniscience—is inseparable from the truth that God possesses an indivisible, simple nature. Although simplicity has fallen out of favor in much modern theology, Charnock reinvigorates our understanding of how this doctrine helps us see the majesty of our perfectly self-consistent God for worship.
Charnock displays the tremendous integration of his thinking again as he relates God’s various attributes to one another. He highlights how God has to be omnipresent because his essence is infinite. He notes how God has to be omniscient about at least things actually in creation—he explains God’s omniscience about what was possible as well—because he is fully omnipresent in every part of creation. These nuggets provide a rich feast for recognizing anew God’s unfathomable glory and greatness.
Readers will be blessed by taking up Charnock’s extensive treatment of the doctrine of God. It will take a while to get through the whole thing. Some investments, however, are well worth our time. A deeper knowledge of the beauty of the Lord is certainly one of them.
Harrison Perkins (PhD, Queen’s University Belfast) is pastor at Oakland Hills Community Church (OPC), a visiting lecturer in systematic theology at Edinburgh Theological Seminary, online faculty in church history for Westminster Theological Seminary, and the author of Catholicity and the Covenant of Works: James Ussher and the Reformed Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2020).