When we talk about God’s attributes we try to answer questions such as “Who is God?” and “What is God like?” Now, these questions may seem futile—how can our finite minds grasp who God is or what He is like? These questions may also seem rather abstract, questions that scholars, but not ordinary Christians, may find fascinating. Instinctively, we tend to be much more interested in what God has done for us rather than in who He is. In a sense, this is understandable. Arguably, one of the achievements of the Protestant Reformation was to refocus people’s minds on what God had done for them in Christ. John Calvin frequently criticized medieval theologians for “merely toying with idle speculations” about the nature or the essence of God. However, Calvin and the other Reformers did not deny the utility of thinking about God’s attributes. On the contrary, they encouraged a knowledge of God that would foster pietas, as they called it, what Calvin defined as “that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces.”
However, the topic of God’s attributes was explored in greater depth by seventeenth-century Reformed theologians. Among those, no one wrote a more comprehensive study than the English Puritan Stephen Charnock. His Discourses upon the Existence and Attributes of God is the most extensive Puritan treatise on the doctrine of God. It was written at the end of his life for the congregation in Bishopsgate, London, that Charnock copastored with another famous Puritan, Thomas Watson. Unfortunately, the work was left unfinished when Charnock died in 1680 while writing a discourse on the patience of God. The work displays the qualities that make him one of the best Puritan theologians: a sharp mind, remarkable exegetical skills, and a peculiar gift for striking metaphors and analogies. However, this work is especially valuable and still worth reading today because of its typical Puritan emphasis on practical applications.
Charnock never gives the impression that the attributes of God are simply qualities that describe who He is; rather, He affirms the classical Christian doctrine that God is all His attributes fully at the same time. There is no distinction between His attributes and His essence (divine simplicity). Charnock’s focus is also firmly Christocentric, as he always shows how Christ claimed these divine attributes for Himself. Now, these discourses on the existence and attributes of God are nearly one thousand pages long, and one may ask why he wrote so much on this topic. I believe it is because Charnock knew that glorifying God is our privilege and duty as Christians, and we cannot glorify Him as we should if we do not have a right view of His attributes. Charnock’s colleague in Bishopsgate, Thomas Watson, wrote that to “glorify God” means, among other things, to have “God-admiring thoughts.” This is exactly what Charnock tries to instill in us through those discourses. In one of the introductory discourses he makes the crucial point that worship is essentially an act of understanding, an idea that we desperately need to recover today. Says Charnock:
Worship is an act of understanding, applying itself to the knowledge of the excellency of God, and actual thought of his majesty, recognizing him as the supreme lord and governor of the world, which is natural knowledge; beholding the glory of his attributes in the Redeemer which is evangelical knowledge.
Let us start where Charnock starts, with God’s eternity. Charnock begins by affirming that it is possible for us to think about such an attribute. Although we clearly cannot grasp fully what God’s eternity means, we can understand that this attribute is real:
Though we cannot comprehend eternity, yet we may comprehend that there is eternity; as though we cannot comprehend the essence of God, what he is, yet we may comprehend that he is.
Scripture helps us by talking about these things in a way that is accessible to us. In fact, the text of Scripture that Charnock exegetes as a starting point for his reflection is Psalm 90:2: “Before the mountains were brought forth, or ever thou hadst formed the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, thou art God” (KJV). This is a suitable text because it clearly states the eternity of God in a way our finite mind can understand: it stresses the preexistence of God (“before the mountains were brought forth”) and the future extension of it “from everlasting to everlasting.” Charnock says,
Though the eternity of God be one permanent state without succession, yet the Spirit of God, suiting himself to the weakness of our conception, divides it into two parts, one past before the foundation of the world, another to come after the destruction of the world.
Charnock then endeavors to explain what God’s eternity means, distinguishing it from other “kinds” of eternity. In particular, the eternal life promised to those who are in Christ. God’s eternity is “His own” eternity; God has life in Himself, by His essence, and not by “participating” in someone else’s eternity. But how can we describe God’s eternity? For Charnock, the best way to understand it is by “negation”—stating what He is not. God is without beginning, end, or “succession.” While all these “negative attributes” are a source of wonder, the one that seems to capture Charnock’s imagination, and the one that I think should capture our imaginations, is the absence of beginning, because it highlights the unchangeable resolve of God to save men:
The gospel is not preached by the command of a new and temporary God, but of that God that was before all ages. Though the manifestation of it be in time, yet the purpose and resolve of it was from eternity.