Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Stephen Charnock: What is God? (Quid Deus Sit?)

The doctrine of God was the foundational starting point in Reformed dogmatics and was typically arranged under five headings: the names of God, the being of God, the attributes of God, the works of God, and the persons of the Godhead (Beeke and Jones, A Puritan Theology, 60). 

The first three categories - the names of God, the being of God, and the attributes of God - address the doctrine of God in the strict sense. 

The fourth topic - the works of God - concerns the outworking of the divine decree and has an obvious relation to the previous three headings. The Trinity (i.e., the three persons of the Godhead) has its own category because Reformed theologians often spoke of “God” in a twofold sense: essentially and personally. 

Essentially, “God” refers to the divine essence or substance; personally, “God” refers to each (or all) of the three persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. 

Connected to these categories is the humanist series of questions that were commonplace in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century academic discourse: An sit? (Whether it be so?); Quid sit? (What is it?); and Quale sit? (Of what sort is it?). 

Stephen Charnock’s doctrine of God begins by answering the question whether God exists or not. In his magnificent Discourse on the Existence and Attributes of God, the first two "chapters" cover the existence of God as he reflects on Psalm 14:1 and the "Practical Atheism" as he again reflects on Psalm 14:1. 

He then moves to the question of what sort of being God is, followed by a discussion of the most important attributes of God. Of course, the attributes of God are closely related to the question of God’s being, for if the attributes are God’s perfections then we are able to deduce from them what sort of being God is.

This discussion occurs around an exposition John 4:24, “God is a Spirit,” the familiar words which are a part of the dialogue between Jesus and the Samaritan woman.  In the discourse, Charnock 
‘God is a Spirit.’ That is, he hath nothing corporeal, no mixture of matter; not a visible substance, a bodily form. He is a Spirit, not a bare spiritual substance, but an understanding, willing Spirit; holy, wise, good, and just. Before Christ spake of the Father, ver. 23, the first person in the Trinity, now he speaks of God essentially. The word Father is personal, the word God essential. So that our Saviour would render a reason, not from any one person in the blessed Trinity, but from the divine nature, why we should worship in spirit; and therefore makes use of the word God, the being a spirit being common to the other persons with the Father.
-- Stephen Charnock, The Complete Works of Stephen Charnock, vol. 1 (Edinburgh; London; Dublin: James Nichol; James Nisbet and Co.; W. Robertson; G. Herbert, 1864–1866), 260.
Charnock notes that John 4:24 is the only place in the whole Bible where God is explicitly described as a Spirit, at least in these very words (totidem verbis). 
It is the observation of one, that the plain assertion of God’s being a Spirit is found but once in the whole Bible, and that is in this place; which may well be wondered at, because God is so often described with hands, feet, eyes, and ears, in the form and figure of a man. The spiritual nature of God is deducible from many places; but not anywhere, as I remember, asserted totidem verbis but in this text. (Charnock, Works, 262)
If God exists, He must necessarily be immaterial or incorporeal, since material is by nature imperfect.
Spirit is taken various ways in Scripture. It signifies sometimes an aerial substance, as Ps. 11:6, ‘A horrible tempest;’ Heb., ‘A spirit of tempest;’ sometimes the breath, which is a thin substance: Gen. 6:17, ‘All flesh wherein is the breath of life;’ Heb., ‘Spirit of life.’ A thin substance, though it be material and corporeal, is called spirit; and in the bodies of living creatures, that which is the principle of their actions is called spirits, the animal and vital spirits; and the finer parts extracted from plants and minerals we call spirits, those volatile parts separated from that gross matter wherein they were immersed, because they come nearest to the nature of an incorporeal substance. And from this notion of the word, it is translated to signify those substances that are purely immaterial, as angels and the souls of men. Angels are called spirits, Ps. 104:4; ‘Who makes his angels spirits,’ Heb. 1:14. And not only good angels are so called, but evil angels, Mark 1:27. Souls of men are called spirits, Eccles. 12, and the soul of Christ is called so, John 19:30, whence God is called ‘the God of the spirits of all flesh,’ Numb. 16:22: and spirit is opposed to flesh: Isaiah 31:3, ‘The Egyptians* are flesh, and not spirit.’ And our Saviour gives us the notion of a spirit to be something above the nature of a body, Luke 24:39; not having flesh and bones, extended parts, loads of gross matter. It is also taken for those things which are active and efficacious, because activity is of the nature of a spirit. Caleb had ‘another spirit,’ Numb. 14:24, an active affection. The vehement motions of sin are called spirit, Hos. 4:12, ‘The spirit of whoredoms,’ in that sense that Prov. 29:11, ‘A fool utters all his mind,’ ‘all his spirit;’ he knows not how to restrain the vehement motions of his mind. So that the notion of a spirit is, that it is a fine immaterial substance, an active being, that acts itself and other things. A mere body cannot act itself, as the body of man cannot move without the soul, no more than a ship can move itself without wind and waves.
So God is called a Spirit, as being not a body, not having the greatness, figure, thickness or length of a body, wholly separate from anything of flesh and matter. We find a principle within us nobler than that of our bodies, and therefore we conceive the nature of God according to that which is more worthy in us, and not according to that which is the vilest part of our natures. God is a most spiritual spirit, more spiritual than all angels, all souls (μονοτρὸπως). As he exceeds all in the nature of being, so he exceeds all in the nature of spirit. He hath nothing gross, heavy, material in his essence. (Charnock, Works, 262-263).
Charnock, in a similar vein to many Reformed orthodox theologians, argues by way of negation. Charnock affirms that God can be described in two ways: by affirmation (e.g., God is good) and by negation (e.g., God has no body). In Charnock’s view, the way of negation is the best way to understand God; indeed, it is the way we commonly understand God. To describe God, the word “mutable” becomes “immutable”; that is, God cannot change.

By affirming that God is a spirit, one is at the same time affirming what He is not (i.e., He has no body). As opposed to a material existence, God’s being is noncomposite. Moreover, because God is a spirit, Charnock is able to show how this necessarily speaks to His other attributes, a point which will be taken up in a later post. The point that Charnock makes though is that there must be consistency between God’s essence and His attributes; otherwise He cannot be God. 

By beginning with God’s spirituality, Charnock is in line with the Westminster Confession of Faith, which makes spirituality the first of the attributes of God: “There is but one only living and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body” (WCF, 2.1).