If you only read one book about God’s existence, it must be Charnock’s The Existence and Attributes of God. There is renewed interest in a Reformed Scholastic like Stephen Charnock due to a new two-volume edition of that work edited by Mark Jones. This is an important contribution because Charnock interacts with previous thinkers like Plato and Aquinas and critically appropriates their philosophical or theological insights when strategic. And yet, Charnock makes his own valuable contributions to our knowledge of God, further reforming the Scholastic tradition utilized by the Reformed Orthodox of his day. A look at his footnotes shows that he was familiar with the critical contributions to this subject and that he made his own contributions and corrections to previous thinkers. I believe this is the most important book about God’s existence and needs to be read by every Christian.
At a personal level, I was pleased to see this renewed interest in Reformed Scholastics like Charnock. I relied on Charnock in my Ph.D. dissertation and for what became my book, The Clarity of God’s Existence. I cherish an older copy from Baker from those student days. When a skeptical professor asked me who gives arguments to show it is clear that God exists, Charnock was at the top of my list. I began with him and then moved on to the challenges of theistic arguments from thinkers like David Hume and Immanuel Kant. Although living before them, Charnock provided the seeds of what grow into answers to their attacks on reason and the knowledge of God. Charnock interacts with previous thinkers like Plato and Aquinas and makes his own valuable contributions to our knowledge of God. Click To Tweet
What Charnock does that is so impressive is that he does not simply argue for an uncaused cause, designer, or moral governor, but he argues for God the Creator. He gives us a full definition of God and then uses individual arguments to prove each attribute. Charnock shows us that God is a Spirit. He argues for the incommunicable attributes of God (infinite, eternal, and unchangeable) and also that God is good, just, merciful, etc. His definition of God is like what is given in the Westminster Shorter Catechism Q4.
His method corrects mistakes of previous theistic arguments. Rather than giving one argument and then concluding, “this is God,” Charnock gives us arguments for each part of the definition of “God.” He demonstrates that God is Spirit, he demonstrates the incommunicable attributes, and he demonstrates the moral attributes of God. In each case, he has given us an argument we can evaluate for soundness.
Charnock begins with Psalm 14:1. Throughout the book, we find his reliance on the Psalms, and this is a reminder to us of how precious they are and the many arguments they give us to know God. The fool says in his heart there is no God. No one seeks God, no one understands, and no one does what is right. Atheism is without excuse. It is not an intellectually or morally defensible position. And yet it is at the core of the human condition. “None seek” means “noneseek.” Although humans might view themselves as doing their best in pursuing God, the truth is that in their postlapsarian natural condition, they are not doing so. No one understands or knows God as they should. Charnock makes the problem of God’s existence an existential problem for all of us. It cannot simply be a fun puzzle or challenge. Each of us must answer before God for our own failure to seek and understand.
Charnock defines three kinds of atheism. He says:
There is a threefold denial of God. 1. Quoad existentiam; this is absolute atheism. 2. Quoad Providentiam, or his inspection into, or care of the things of the world, bounding him in the heavens. 3. Quoad naturam, in regard of one or other of the perfections due to his nature (24).
Today, when we say “atheist,” we usually mean a materialist. We mean a person who says that only matter exists and that matter has always existed. There were ancient materialists like Democritus and there are very obvious contemporary atheists like Richard Dawkins. But this also means those who deny the existence of God, the Creator, who brought the universe into existence rather than existing alongside it from eternity, as Plato and Aristotle taught. It also includes the pantheist who denies the existence of God the Creator by saying that “all is God.” We can call these the dualists (both God and the universe exist without a beginning) and the monists. Charnock makes the problem of God's existence an existential problem for all of us. Click To Tweet
His second definition of atheism makes this a much larger group and is more like what I call Biblical Atheism. This is the atheist who denies the providence of God. We find such a one described in Psalm 73:11 or Psalm 94:7. Here, too, we find Aristotle. Although Charnock will use vocabulary and insights from Aristotle in his theology proper, he is willing to criticize the philosopher for not using reason to understand the providence of God. He, like those in the Psalms just mentioned, posited a God that does not see and does not rule. For this, he was without excuse. This is also the Absolute of theologians like Tillich and being itself in Heidegger. Just like it is clear to reason that God exists, so too it is clear to reason that God rules and is sovereign.
His third definition pertains to the denial of particular parts of the definition of God. For instance, the open theist denies that God is unchangeable. Or the anthropomorphite denies that God is infinite. Both of these are usually the outcome of a failure to understand the so-called problem of evil. Here, Charnock points us to that highest and ultimate end: the knowledge of the glory of God. God rules over all things for the revelation of His glory. And our highest end is to see this glory revealed in all of His works. This both provides a solution to the problem of evil and also a teleology for all of the events of our lives.
He also discusses practical atheism, which brings atheism home to each of us. Practical atheism means living as if there is no God. It is living as if God is not real. Charnock tells us it is ungrateful contempt of God. Such a person could say the right words and claim to hold to the right theories but live as if there is no God. In fact, the way it normally works is that a person is living this way, and when called to give an account of their lives, it is then that their mind casts about looking for an intellectual defense. This is the condition of self-deception that then gets shared with others as self-justification. Atheism is an attempt at just such self-justification.
Charnock tells us the biblical solution, also knowable from general revelation, for practical atheism: the fear of the Lord. All understanding begins here. We are not able to get away with intellectualizing our belief about God and not having it affect our lives. Such a condition exhibits a lack of the fear of God. Even in the prelapsarian state, we would have a fear of God as the reverence and awe due to the sovereign Creator. But postlapsarian, when we come to understand our condition in unbelief, not understanding God as we should have, we are aware of our sin and the holiness of God. We know our just condemnation. Atheism is an attempt to solve this burden by denying it is real. It is a false remedy that, in the end, brings ruin. Charnock points us to that highest and ultimate end: the knowledge of the glory of God. Click To Tweet
He says, “Let us labor to be sensible of the atheism in our nature, and be humbled for it.” It is contrary to reason. “The unreasonableness of it concerns God. It is the high contempt of God. It is inverting the order of things; a making God the highest to become the lowest; and self the lowest to become the highest.” We attempt to make ourselves god and deny the true God. It is the original sin and it is the sin that each person commits. The atheist exalts himself and calls God a liar by saying he is seeking, but there is not enough evidence of God.
Practical atheism is the denial of the law of God. That law begins by commanding us to love God. This law is written on our hearts, meaning it is the very nature of things. By nature, as rational beings, our duty is to love our Creator and seek to know Him. Sin is an act contrary to the nature of things as ordained by God. In that sense atheism, unbelief, is the first sin. It is the root sin that gives sprout to the other sins. We neglect to know the will of God, and we are not inclined to keep the known will of God. “Let us be sensible of the atheism in our nature, and be humbled for it.”
Having dealt with atheism, Charnock then turns to a discussion of the worship of God. All humans ought to worship God. And yet we find, even among the philosophers who call themselves lovers of wisdom, the neglect of the love and worship of God. He uses Hebrews 11:6 as the verse that explains worship. We are to earnestly seek God, knowing that He is real, and He rewards those that seek Him. God is the “rewarder” meaning that we know not only that God is but that we ought to love and seek God and that He will redeem us. This knowledge of God is intimate and personal. It is what is meant by the phrase “face to face.” God told Abraham, “I am your very great reward.” We can know who God is not merely know about God.
God is a spirit, and therefore we worship in spirit. Just as practical atheism begins with neglect, so too it is a sin to neglect the worship of God. “Not to give God our spirit is a great sin. It is a mockery of God, not worship, contempt, not adoration.” Think of the pagan philosophers who have spoken about God but both failed to know God as they should have and failed to worship God. The worship of God is a duty for all humans. He says:
Worship is a duty incumbent upon all men. It is a homage mankind owes to God, under the relation wherein he stands obliged to him; it is prime and immutable justice to our own allegiance to him; it is as unchangeable a truth that God is to be worshipped, as that God is; he is to be worshipped as God, as creator, and therefore by all, since he is the Creator of all, the Lord of all, and “all are his creatures, and all are his subjects. Worship is founded upon creation (Psalm c. 2,3).
General revelation teaches that God is and that God should be worshipped. All humans are held responsible for this. But Charnock is careful to affirm the regulatory principle of worship. “Though the outward manner of worship acceptable to God could not be known without revelation, and those revelations might be various; yet the inward manner of worship with our spirits was manifest by nature: and not only manifest by nature to Adam in innocence, but after his fall, and the scales he had brought upon his understanding by that fall.” You see here the same things taught in Chapter 21 of the Westminster Confession (Of Religious Worship and the Sabbath Day). The Christian affirms that the world displays the glory of God to all. All of God's works praise him. Click To Tweet
Worship describes our highest good. When we worship God we affirm the truth about God and how His glory is known. We point to His works in both creation and redemption. Like the believers and the angels in Revelation we praise God. This is unlike some mystics who claim our highest good is a non-cognitive experience of being in itself. Reformed Scholastics like Charnock did utilize the Greek notion of contemplation, but they also had to refine it since it involved a withdrawal from the material world. By contrast, says Charnock, the Christian affirms that the world displays the glory of God to all. All of God’s works praise Him. To make anything else our highest good is idolatry: “Whatsoever any man aims at in worship above the glory of God, that he forms as an idol to himself instead of God, and sets up a golden image, God counts not this as worship.”
His teaching about worship can be summarized this way: just as it is clear that God exists, so too it is clear that we ought to worship God. Just as nature reveals God, so too it reveals that God was to be glorified. He gives an argument to support this by appealing to Psalm 100 and our nature as a rational being. Just as we know by an act of reason that we are creatures and did not make ourselves, so also we know that we ought to serve our Creator. This is a rational requirement. To do otherwise is to violate reason.
Charnock keeps us focused on the truths of God known to our rational minds. Worship flows from knowing God. Click To Tweet Man cannot consider himself as a thinking, understanding, being, but he must know that he must give God the honor of his thoughts, and worship Him with those faculties whereby he thinks, wills, and acts. He must know his faculties were given him to act, and to act for the glory of that God who gave him his soul and the faculties of it; and he could not in reason think they must be only active in his own service, and the service of the creature, and idle and unprofitable in the service of his Creator.
God Alone is Eternal
Having dealt with atheism and unbelief, and then worship, he next turns to what can be known about God and how it is known. He begins with the eternity of God. His reflections begin with Psalm 90:2. And there is good reason for starting with eternity. Paul tells us that the eternal power of God is clearly revealed in the things that are made. Genesis and John both begin by distinguishing what is eternal and what is created. Charnock, in his usual careful manner, takes time to define “eternal” and tells us the first point in that definition is that what is eternal is “without beginning.”
He starts with the incommunicable attributes. And he shows us how they all hold together. Whatever is eternal is also unchanging and infinite. These are united, but they are also different. Some thinkers speak of “eternal” as if it only means “unchanging,” and so the incommunicable attributes are for them: unchanging, unchanging, and infinite. He avoids this mistake by defining “eternal” as first “without a beginning.” He then shows how an eternal being is also unchanging and infinite. This is the simplicity of God, a belief Charnock held in continuity with the medieval scholastics before him. God is not made of parts like a material object. And also the attributes of God are all united as one meaning you cannot have a being that is eternal but changing and finite. Whatever is eternal is also unchanging and infinite. Compare this to Aristotle, who taught that the material world is changing but had no beginning.
Furthermore, although Charnock and Aquinas both believe in creation ex nihilo, Aquinas is not optimistic that reason alone can prove the material world had a beginning out of nothing. Charnock, by contrast, believes we can know that the universe had a beginning out of nothing by reason. He gives invaluable arguments at each step. And here he gives an argument to show that something must be eternal (without beginning). This forms the foundation for our knowledge of God and of the creation. God alone is without beginning. The creation had a beginning. Charnock shows us that we can know that the universe had a beginning by reason. Click To Tweet
Charnock then proceeds to give us arguments to show that the universe had a beginning. “Whatever changes cannot be eternal. If God were not eternal, he were not immutable in his nature. It is contrary to the nature of immutability to be without eternity; for whatsoever begins, is changed in its passing from not being to being. It began to be what it was not; and if it ends, it ceaseth to be what it was.” He tells us that only God is eternal, nothing was before him or co-eternal with him. “Eternity is proper only to God, and not communicable. It is as great a madness to ascribe eternity to the creature, as to deprive the Lord of the creature of eternity.” God is the creator, not merely the molder of pre-existing and eternal material. God is the creator and that means:
Creation is a producing something from nothing. What was once nothing, cannot therefore be eternal; not being was eternal; therefore its being could not be eternal, for it should be then before it was, and would be something when it was nothing. It is the nature of a creature to be nothing before it was created; what was nothing before it was, cannot be equal with God in an eternity of duration.
This is an argument against those who say that the universe is eternally dependent on God and there was no creation ex nihilo. Charnock argues there can be no eternal but dependent being. We cannot share in the incommunicable attributes of God. But we can be united to God through the knowledge of God. Click To Tweet
Besides those philosophers like Plato and Aristotle that say the material world is without a beginning, there are also those who say that our own soul is eternal without a beginning. Some versions of this say we were once God, then we were put into a material body, and we reincarnate in material bodies until we find a way to take the journey of the soul back to being God. But Charnock soundly argues: “There is no creature but is mutable, therefore not eternal. As it had changed from nothing to something, so it may be changed from being to not being. If the creature were not mutable, it would be most perfect, and so would not be a creature, but God; for God only is most perfect.
Challenges in our modern age
And that is precisely what the readers get as they continue through the rest of Charnock’s work. He continues on to teach us about the many attributes of God. We have considered all we can here, and the reader must now make Charnock their own by spending time considering the many arguments he puts before us. He helps us to avoid many mistakes of previous writers and prepares us for the challenges that were ahead of him in the modern age.
Those challenges are a good place for us to end. Remember the emphasis Charnock put on reason. Because we are rational creatures, we can use reason to know God through His works. When David Hume and Immanuel Kant critique the theistic arguments, they often point out real weaknesses that theists must address. Charnock answers these by using individual arguments to prove individual attributes rather than expecting any one argument to give us all of theism. Remember the emphasis Charnock put on reason. Because we are rational creatures, we can use reason to know God through His works. Click To Tweet
What Hume and Kant could have, and should have done, is note these weaknesses and then shore them up with sound arguments showing the clarity of God’s existence. This is why challenges are so useful and should not be ignored or easily dismissed. They are an opportunity for growth. But what they did instead was turn to the non-rational. They denied that reason can be used to know reality. And philosophy since that time has been a war against reason. Even those who claim to use reason, such as the positivists, will tell us it cannot go beyond the world of sensation. Sadly, we find Christian intellectuals also abandoning reason and looking for non-rational ways to explain Christianity.
Charnock provided us with the seeds needed to reply to Hume and Kant. We cannot expect him to have perfectly anticipated the challenges of the unbelievers after him. But these challenges are not really new, and so an acquaintance with the form they have taken in the past will prepare us for the future. At root, unbelief is a denial of the eternal Logos which is the light of man.
We can and should be the first in line to affirm that the existence and providence of God are clearly revealed to all humans at all times because we can use reason to study general revelation. Reason allows us to know reality, the highest reality, God. Any challenge to reason is a challenge to the knowledge of God. We live in an age where all distinctions are being denied, where our highest officials do not even know the fundamental truths about the human conditions. We have moved from the neglect of reason to the rejection of reason. Equip yourself to reply to this challenge by understanding your created nature as a rational being. Read and study Charnock deeply. Let me end with a reminder he gives us:
How dreadful is it to lie under the stroke of an eternal God! His eternity is as great a terror to him that hates him, as it is a comfort to him that loves him.