A Reader’s Guide to a Christian Classic
The Existence and Attributes of God by Stephen Charnock (1628–1680) is one of the standout works from the Puritan era. This is quite an accomplishment when one thinks of the hundreds of well-known books and discourses that emerged from the pens of those theological giants. Published two years after his death, it was regrettably not yet fully completed, with fourteen Discourses finalized but more planned.
There has been no shortage of praise for Charnock and his work since its publication. Historian Edmund Calamy (1671–1732) speaks of Charnock’s reputation as a theologian:
He was a very considerable scholar, there being scarcely any part of learning he was unacquainted with. He had a peculiar skill in the original languages of the Old and New Testament. His natural abilities were excellent. He had, what rarely meet, a strong judgment, and a lively imagination. He was a very eminent divine.
Erasmus Middleton (1739–1805) called him “one of the greatest men in the church of Christ, with respect to his depth, clearness, accuracy in true divinity.” He added, “He was the Author of those unparalleled discourses on the Existence, Attributes, and Providence of God.”
Anglican hymn-writer Augustus Toplady (1740–1778) similarly commented on the greatness of the Discourses: “Perspicuity and depth; metaphysical sublimity and evangelical simplicity; immense learning and plain, but irrefragable reasoning; conspire to render that performance one of the most inestimable productions, that ever did honour to the sanctified judgment and genius of a human being.”
Joel Beeke once remarked to me that Charnock’s magnum opus is the one “must-read” on the doctrine of God from the Puritan era, and he added that the Discourse on God’s goodness is “alone worth its weight in gold, and is unsurpassed in all of English literature.” Jerry Bridges, in reading the Discourse on God’s holiness, at roughly half a dozen pages in, found himself on his knees before God, overcome with his holiness. As he got up and started reading again, a few pages later he was again on his knees before God.
Left alone with only two books for the rest of my life, I would happily keep myself busy in the knowledge of God with the Bible and Charnock’s masterpiece!
Theology for the Pews
Perhaps to the surprise of some readers today, the Discourses are written chiefly for homiletical (preaching) purposes. While there would be some obvious editing to the sermons, we must keep in mind that the pages before readers today were meant to be heard in the pews of the church where Charnock ministered alongside Thomas Watson. (Incidentally, one can’t help but envy the hearers of two of the most gifted theological wordsmiths alive in Britain at the time.)
The sophistication of this work does not mean it is inaccessible to the lay reader. In fact, what makes this work a sort of classic is Charnock’s ability to take perhaps the weightiest doctrine (the doctrine of God) and write on it in a way that not only scholars and pastors can appreciate, but also Christian laypersons — though, in today’s age, it may require a great deal more focus than the average Christian book.
Each of the fourteen Discourses contains an exposition of a well-known Bible text. Charnock would often choose the locus classicus for each topic, usually in continuity with other Reformed treatments on the same subject (for example, Psalm 14:1 on God’s existence). This was a typical approach for homiletical discourses on theological doctrines. As one quickly notices, Charnock is concerned with the practical implications of who God is, which means practical atheism takes up a major part of his treatment on God’s existence.
While more people were beginning to doubt God’s existence in the latter part of the seventeenth century, the major threats to the doctrine of God’s existence in that period were, first, attacks upon a classical understanding of God and, second, the ever-present reality of failing to live as though God exists and cares about our thoughts and actions. Charnock’s work is a penetrating analysis of the extent of these problems, but he also offers many solutions to our practical atheism.
While Charnock’s work looks at the existence and attributes of God, we should not think he lacks a strong focus on Christ. Littered throughout each discourse are golden nuggets on how each attribute relates to Christ. In fact, some of Charnock’s best thoughts on Christ in relation to the divine attributes appear in the “uses” section of each Discourse. This is a crucial observation, for the simple reason that even in the application of the doctrine of God we see Charnock anchoring his Discourses in the person of Christ.
The “uses” (or “instructions”) sections in the Discourses show us just how practical the doctrine of God is for Christian living. Without his applications, the work would be like a beautiful car but without wheels. Today we still suffer to some extent from the idea that a theology book is not very practical, and a practical book should not be too theological. This concept is demolished by Charnock’s work, which is as practical as it is theological and vice versa.
“If Calvin was known for ‘lucid brevity,’ I think Charnock should be known for lucid sophistication.”
Some of the more popular Puritan theologians, such as John Owen (1616–1683) and Richard Baxter (1615–1691), wrote extremely sophisticated treatises. Their learning was perhaps unparalleled among English-speaking theologians in the seventeenth century. And when you read the two of them, you sometimes need a “translator” of sorts — yes, for their works in the English language! But Charnock does not require a “translator.” He is simpler and clearer and has better turns of phrase than the other two. In other words, if any of these men belong on Twitter, it is Charnock (and Watson). If Calvin was known for “lucid brevity” (as he himself described his aim), I think Charnock should be known for lucid sophistication.
The beautiful turns of phrase used by Charnock are a result of putting his learning to use to bless God’s people in the pew. His metaphors and analogies are Christlike insofar as he possessed a remarkable grasp of the natural world (“consider the lilies,” Luke 12:27). He was a Renaissance man par excellence; and his medical training shines through in the metaphors, illustrations, and analogies that surface on most pages of his work. His insight into human nature is also a major strength of his expositions. One gets the impression that Charnock’s erudite understanding of God enabled him to peer deeply into the human soul and all the sinful peculiarities that beset us even in a state of grace.
Big Book on a Big God
Why should you read Charnock on The Existence and Attributes of God? Quite apart from what has been said above, we should remember that the twentieth century was not a great century for the doctrine of God. Christians today still entertain ideas about God that are unorthodox, perhaps unwittingly due to poor or inadequate teaching. The remedy begins in the pulpit, but it also includes our private and corporate study.
“You are entering a big world as you learn of a big God.”
With the recent reprint of Charnock’s Discourses, pastors can easily access a work that has stood the test of time and read a treatment on God that will illuminate their own preaching. J.I. Packer once remarked to me that the best compliment he could give Martyn Lloyd-Jones was that he “brought God into the pulpit.” When the “Doctor” preached, it was clear God was powerfully present. If pastors are going to bring God into the pulpit, it will not happen if they are not consumed with the same God that Charnock so eloquently writes about.
In addition, whether as a pastor or a layperson, when reading Charnock, you are not simply reading a singular Christian thinker, but someone who widely engaged the broader Christian tradition. You are encountering other thinkers that span many centuries and traditions (even pagan poets and philosophers). You are entering a big world as you learn of a big God.
It is quite an accomplishment to read a work of over 1700 pages, but it seems to me that anyone who thoughtfully and prayerfully tackles this work will never be the same again. This book truly is life-changing. And if you are somewhat intimidated by the size, consider, at the very least, reading the Discourse on God’s goodness, and prepare to fall on your knees before God in humble thankfulness for the manifold mercies that he shows to you each day (many of which you have likely ignored).
It was a pleasure to edit these two volumes by Charnock in the hope of meeting a pressing need in the church today for a more robust, more biblically and theologically informed view of God that will stir not only the minds but also the hearts of God’s people. In my mind, few books from the last several hundred years can quite help the church today like Charnock’s Discourses in the never-to-be-sufficiently praised Existence and Attributes of God.
Mark Jones is the senior minister of Faith Vancouver Presbyterian Church and author of Knowing Christ.