CharnockI get it. Thinking about the attributes of God can be tough work, but it is work with a payoff. As our minds do the heavy lifting our hearts reap the benefits of bigger affections. We often think of God in small, bland, and largely insignificant terms. We bring God to our level as we construct our view of him by tiny, often misguided thoughts. Thinking biblically—i.e., theologically—quickly leads to our view of God being shattered as we see him getting larger and larger in immensity, glory, and holiness.

Thinking through God’s attributes also helps us know how God relates to us. A firmer grasp on who God is directly relates to who God is for me. Most of God’s self-revelation in Scripture is relational, or covenantal. God explains himself in the context of how he relates to his creation, especially his own people. The fact that God reveals himself not primarily in philosophical or scientific terms but in relational terms should convince us he wants our theology about him to directly influence our relationship with him.[1}

I’ve started slowly reading A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life.[2] Is there any other way to read the Puritans than slowly? Chapter 4 concentrates on Stephen Charnock’s (1628-1680) Discourses upon the Existence and Attributes of God. Charnock, like any good theologian, doesn’t talk about God’s attributes in isolation from each other as if sometimes God is more of one attribute than the other. Instead, God is all of his attributes to their fullest extent at once. Furthermore, these attributes are actually God’s essence. God isn’t simply loving, but he is love. “For though we conceive the essence of God as the subject, and the attributes of God as faculties and qualities in that subject, according to our weak model…yet truly and really there is no distinction between his essence and attributes; one is inseparable from the other. His power and wisdom are is his essence.”[3]

God’s eternity teaches that there never was a time when he was not. There is no beginning or end to God. “His duration is as endless as his essence is boundless.”[4] Here is one description Charnock provides.

“[God] is not in his essence this day what he was not before, or will be the next day and year what he is not now. All his perfections are most perfect in him every moment; before all ages, after all ages. As he hath his whole essence undivided in every place, as well as in an immense space; so he hath all his being in one moment of time, as well as in infinite intervals of time….He is what he always was, and he is what he always will be.” [5]

As the quote indicates, there is a clear synthesis between God’s eternality and God’s immutability. God always has and will exist (eternal) and he always has and will exist in the fullness of his perfections (immutable). There is no change in God because he eternally exists as the whole essence of all his perfections which are “most perfect in him every moment.” Beeke and Jones quote Charnock to explain how these two attributes of God relate. “Immutability in God is a ‘glory belonging to all the attributes of God.’ God has attributes and perfections that are different, but ‘immutability is the center wherein they all unite.’ What God is, He is eternally and unchangeably.”[6]

Doctrine for Life
Let’s briefly consider how God’s eternality and immutability are what the subtitle of the book suggests, doctrine for life. If God is all of his perfections perfectly—all the time—then I never have to pit his attributes against one another. Nor should I worry if at any given moment he is acting out one of his attributes more than the other. Because every person I know is the opposite of this, unless I intentionally remind myself God is not like us I will think of him in finite and false terms. For example, how I treat you might depend on not only the day but the moment you run into me. If I had some great coffee and an easy drive into work, then I’ll probably be in a good mood and so I’ll act with more grace and patience than normal. However, if my morning gets off to a rough start or the day goes south quickly, then you’re more likely to get the impatient and graceless me.

When I’m not thinking rightly about God I start believing his relationship with me and how he treats me must be similar. Maybe God’s had enough of my failings and is tired of me not getting it—and so I imagine I’m in danger of God deciding to give up or lash out on me. When trials or seemingly avoidable pains are placed on my path I can quickly conclude God is not as good or caring as he used to be. Our faith operates from our theology, and unfortunately our theology often starts to err as it’s built upon false thoughts from our own minds instead of truthful thoughts from the mouth of God (Bible). This is why theology is vital for all Christians. We study the Bible so we can know God better and more rightly.

The truth is it takes work on our part to think of God rightly and not piece together a view of God based upon how fallen people act and upon my own thinking and assumptions. Studying God’s eternality and immutability does me good because it reminds me God is not like me or anyone else I’ve come across. He doesn’t relate to me according to up and down moods he’s in but according to his unchanging and perfect character. If he is perfect in all his attributes and is them perfectly all the time, then I can trust he always deals with me according to his goodness, care, and love. In the midst of either frustratingly confusing circumstances or unbearable pain I might not have answers as to the why but I know the Who. During seasons of life where things seem trivial, or where “darkness hides his lovely face,” or even when our hearts are bursting with gratitude, I can know that God has not changed and he is not being anything other than the fullness of God. As James tells us, there is no variation or shifting shadows in God (James 1:17). In you and I, yes; but not in God. That type of theology not only evokes adoration in the moment but it sustains us for a lifetime.

For Christians who tend to shrink because of weak hearts, doubting minds, troubling fears, or soft consciences, we would do well to commit ourselves to studying God’s attributes—especially his love, grace, compassion, and care. As we start to grow in our theology of what God is really like it becomes an immense encouragement to know he is all those attributes all of the time to their fullest extent. God is always all of his perfect perfections.

Footnotes
[1]. This of course isn’t to suggest God’s self-revelation doesn’t involve philosophy or science, and it certainly doesn’t suggest God is not accurate in his revelation. It simply conveys that God’s revelation comes in the context of relationship. He reveals Himself as Maker, Sovereign, and Redeemer.
[2]. Joel R. Beeke and Mark Jones, A Puritan Theology: Doctrine for Life (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012).
[3]. Stephen Charnock, Discourses upon the Existence and Attributes of God (London: Thomas Tegg, 1840), 242. Found in A Puritan Theology, 65.
[4]. Charnock, Existence and Attributes, 175-76. Found in A Puritan Theology, 63.
[5]. Charnock, Existence and Attributes, 178. Found in A Puritan Theology, 63
[6]. A Puritan Theology, 64. Emphasis mine.

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