Monday, June 13, 2011

Tackling A Theological Chunkster: Day One, Charnock

Stephen Charnock author of:
The Existence and Attributes of God
My goal this year is to read one theological chunkster. The three that came to mind are the three that have been on my shelves the longest: Foundations of the Christian Faith: A Comprehensive and Readable Theology by James Montgomery Boice, Great Doctrines of the Bible: Three Volumes in One: God The Father, God the Son; God the Holy Spirit; the Church and the Last Things by Martyn Lloyd Jones, and The Existence and Attributes of God by Stephen Charnock.

To give you a little perspective: James Montgomery Boice lived 1938-2000, Martyn Lloyd Jones lived 1899-1981, and Stephen Charnock lived 1628-1680. I just noticed that they also go from shortest to longest--the most recent being the shortest, the oldest being the longest! I wonder if authors are getting more concise or if readers are just getting more impatient?!

[There is a new theological chunkster--released January 2011--I'd love to read at some point. The Christian Faith: A Systematic Theology for Pilgrims on the Way by Michael S. Horton. And if there was a way for me to get a review copy from Zondervan, I'd be a very happy blogger!]

So. I decided to give the Stephen Charnock a try. Why? Well, it is the most intimidating of the bunch. If I should fail in my attempt, then, I've got the others as a back up plan.

According to the Stephen Charnock Project, The Existence and Attributes of God was published 1682. The book is two volumes consisting of fourteen discourses.

  • On The Existence of God
  • On Practical Atheism
  • On God's Being a Spirit
  • On Spiritual Worship
  • On the Eternity of God
  • On the Immutability of God
  • On God's Omnipresence
  • On God's Knowledge
  • On the Wisdom of God
  • On the Power of God
  • On the Holiness of God
  • On the Goodness of God
  • On God's Dominion
  • On God's Patience

I haven't looked at the length of all the discourses, still too intimidated, but the first discourse is 66 pages long! Much too long to read in one sitting! At least for me.

My guess is that the first few chapters will prove the toughest for me. And that later discourses will read a bit easier.

So today I read part of "Discourse I: On the Existence of God." I read pages 23 through 41 to be exact. The text for his sermon (or discourse) is Psalms 14:1. I'll include Psalms 14:1-3 simply to give it more context.
The fool hath said in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none that doeth good. The LORD looked down from heaven upon the children of men, to see if there were any that did understand, and seek God. They were all gone aside, they are all together become filthy: there is none that doeth good, no, not one. (KJV)
It probably took me four or five pages before I began to get used to his writing style, his language. And even once I got a little acquainted with it, I won't lie and say it was easy to read. I think his rhetoric, his logical way of lining up everything and saying anything and everything that might arguably fit into his discourse, may discourage some modern readers. (He says in thirty or forty pages what someone else might say in ten.)

While I wouldn't want to be graded on my reading comprehension, while I wouldn't want to take a quiz on the pages I read today, I was able to follow it on a very basic, very general level. Probably as basic as you can get.

The first half of this discourse focuses obviously on the existence of God, on God's revealing himself through nature and conscience to every man and every nation, on the obviousness of God's existence to every nation, tribe, people, society.

He argues that though people may not worship or profess the one true God, the God of the Bible, the God as revealed in the Father, Son, and Spirit, the idea of God--be it monotheistic or polytheistic--exists globally. A nation might have worshipped the sun or moon or a river or whatever, but the idea of worshipping something, the idea of being spiritual or religious, is universal.

He tries to draw distinction between absolute atheists, whom he argues there are very few of in the history of the world, and secret atheists, whom he concludes are those that wish there were no god, those who behave as if there were no god. He writes that from this partial atheism "spring all the wicked practices of the world." And he goes on to insist that
"It is necessary to excite men to daily and actual considerations of God and his nature, which would be a bar to much of that wickedness which overflows in the lives of men." (27)
In other words, if people would actually take the time to read the Bible, to study the nature of God--as revealed in the Word, as revealed in nature--and would live accordingly, live like God was present, was witness to their every word, thought, and deed, then perhaps they would live differently.

It is so easy for sin to get out of control in our lives. We make excuses for it. We dismiss it. We say surely that sin over there in that person is more serious than this little sin in my own life. We say sure God cares about sin--but God cares about the BIG sins. This sin--this that you would judge me for--well, it's so small in comparison, God is just too busy to care about that sin. We say sure I know it may be a problem, but, I don't feel like tackling it now, addressing it now. Surely I don't have to deal with it now, today, I can work on it later--next month, next year, next whenever. Someday I'll surrender this to God, someday I'll make a commitment to God, someday I'll change. But do you know how much fun I'm having?! Do you?! I'll have time to get serious later. Don't bother me with that now. Instead of thinking that "God cares about sin and so should I"...we reverse it and say... "I don't care about sin so why should God?"

So getting back to Charnock...

He writes,
He that seeks to God according to the mind of God, must believe that he is such a God that will pardon sin, and justify a seeker of him; that he is a God of that ability and will, to justify a sinner in that way he hath appointed for the clearing the holiness of his nature, and vindicating the honor of his law violated by man. No man can seek God or love God, unless he believe him to be thus; and he cannot seek God without a discovery of his own mind how he would be sought. For it is not a seeking God in any way of man’s invention, that renders him capable of this desired fruit of a reward. He that believes God as a rewarder, must believe the promise of God concerning the Mes­siah. Men under the conscience of sin, cannot tell without a divine discovery, whether God will reward, or how he will reward the seek­ers of him; and therefore cannot act towards him as an object of faith. Would any man seek God merely because he is, or love him because he is, if he did not know that he should be acceptable to him? The bare existence of a thing is not the ground of affection to it, but those qualities of it and our interest in it, which render it amiable and delightful. How can men, whose consciences fly in their faces, seek God or love him, without this knowledge that he is a rewarder? Nature doth not show any way to a sinner, how to reconcile God’s provoked justice with his tenderness. (28)
I think what he is saying is significant--weighty. Even if I'm not able to put it into my own words exactly. I believe the argument he is making is that people can believe in the existence of "a god" to a certain degree, but knowledge that there is a Creator God is not in and of itself a saving kind of faith. That people need more than that. That the existence of God is revealed by nature and reason, but, that is not enough. People need God's revelation--through the Spirit, through the Word--to come to a saving faith. Or perhaps for that "unknown" god to become a personal God, a saving God, a God worthy of worship and love, you need to KNOW him as HE really is. You need to come to God through the Son.

He then goes on to talking about atheists saying,
"What if some men be blind, shall any conclude from thence that eyes are not natural to men? shall we say that the notion of the existence of God is not natural to men, because a very small number have been of a contrary opinion? shall a man in a dungeon, that never saw the sun, deny that there is a sun, because one or two blind men tell him there is none, when thousands assure him there is." (33)

What a folly is it then in any to contradict or doubt of this truth, which all the periods of time have not been able to wear out; which all the wars and quarrels of men with their own consciences have not been able to destroy; which ignorance and debauchery, its two greatest enemies, cannot weaken; which all the falsehoods and errors which have reigned in one or other part of the world, have not been able to banish; which lives in the consents of men in spite of all their wishes to the contrary, and hath grown stronger, and shone clearer, by the improvements of natural reason! (35)
You really get a sense of the time, I think, when reading a book several centuries old.

What would Charnock think of the modern world? Would he be surprised at how large that number has grown? at how many now have a "contrary opinion"? What would he make of the past century--the postmodern movement, the increasing "tolerance" of the church, of all the compromises that have been made so the church could "stay relevant" and "seeker friendly"? About the attack on the Bible, about the attack on absolutes? The shift from "prove to me that God doesn't exist" to "prove to me that God exists". I'm used to hearing "reason" used against faith. I'm used to people arguing that faith in God, faith in the Bible is unreasonable. In today's world, it is more common for unbelievers to be calling us fools. In Charnock's book the reverse is true, of course. He argues that it is unreasonable to not believe in the existence of God.

One phrase I liked was how Charnock talks about how the knowledge of the existence of God is
"A notion sealed up in the soul of every man." (36)
There's one more thing I'd like to share from today's those that would say that man created God out of fear, that man created a God because he was afraid...he writes,
Fear is the conse­quent of wickedness. As man was not created with any inherent sin, so he was not created with any terrifying fears; the one had been against the holiness of the Creator, the other against his good­ness: fear did not make this opinion, but the opinion of the being of a Deity was the cause of this fear, after his sense of angering the Deity by his wickedness. The object of fear is before the act of fear; there could not be an act of fear exercised about the Deity, till it was believed to be existent, and not only so, but offended: for God as existent only, is not the object of fear or love; it is not the ex­istence of a thing that excites any of those affections, but the relation a thing bears to us in particular. God is good, and so the object of love, as well as just, and thereby the object of fear. (41)

I don't know about you, but this is a connection I'd not really thought about before. Not to that degree anyway. Fear as a consequence of wickedness and sin. That God did not create man--in his perfect state, in his sinless state, fearful. That fear--worry, anxiety, stress--is a consequence of man's fall.

I hope to read the rest of Discourse I soon. I would love to hear your thoughts and comments!

© Becky Laney of Operation Actually Read Bible

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