The Legacy of Stephen Charnock’s “The Existence and Attributes of God”

A look at the life and work of a (slightly) lesser-known Puritan

Stephen Charnock may not be the most widely recognized of the Puritans when compared to names like Thomas Watson, John Owen, Richard Baxter, or Thomas Brooks. Even so, his classic work Discourses Upon the Existence and Attributes of God has had a long-lasting impact on generations of believers.

Written to provide instruction and encouragement for pastors, theologians, and the everyday believer, The Existence and Attributes of God was published after Charnock’s death in 1680 by Richard Adams and Edward Veal, who had been members of his congregation. This work was written during the last three years of his life and is the culmination of a lifetime of ministry.

Who Was Stephen Charnock?

Stephen Charnock was a 17th Century Puritan theologian and Presbyterian pastor. Born in London in 1628, Charnock would eventually study at Emmanuel College in Cambridge. It was here that Charnock was educated, converted, and first impacted by Puritan theology.

For several years he lived in Ireland with the family of Henry Cromwell, who was Ireland’s chief governor and fourth son of Oliver Cromwell. He served as Cromwell’s chaplain.

Throughout his time in Dublin, his ministry was marked by devotion and passion. Charnock preached every Sunday. His sermons were greatly admired and appreciated. He received an honorary Bachelor in Divinity degree from Trinity College, Dublin, during his time living in the city. His talent and integrity drew followers from other churches, and his ties with the Governor’s family attracted high-ranking individuals to hear him preach.

By all indications, Charnock’s ministry in Dublin was fruitful. However, after Charles II reclaimed the throne in 1660, Oliver Cromwell was bizarrely ‘executed’ posthumously, and Henry Cromwell lost his spot as Governor of Ireland. As a result, Charnock returned to England.

However, due to the Act of Uniformity which required conformity with the practices of the Church of England, Charnock was expelled from the church along with many other faithful Puritan ministers. He could no longer legally be a pastor. Despite not being able to have any official ministry role, Charnock practiced his ministry privately for fifteen years.

When the government restrictions eased in 1675, Charnock accepted an invitation to serve as co-pastor at a congregation in Crosby Square with Thomas Watson, well known for his works A Body of Practical Divinity, The Godly Man’s Picture, and many other Puritan classics.

Watson had been expelled from St. Stephen’s, Walbrook after the Act of Uniformity and had formed a church in the same location. Under their ministry the congregation thrived, and Charnock left a lasting impact through his pastoral ministry and his skillful preaching which drew large crowds.

Charnock passed away on July 27, 1680, at age 53. The details of his death, as with much of his life, are pretty limited. It is recorded that at the time he died he had been delivering a series of discourses on the existence and attributes of God to his congregation at Crosby Hall. He died in the home of Richard Tymns in London, which suggests that his death was sudden.

His body was brought to the church at Crosby Square, where he had so often preached, prayed, and taught. From there, accompanied by a large procession of mourners, it was transported to St. Michael’s Church, Cornhill, where it was laid to rest near the bell tower. His old friend and former classmate at Cambridge, Mr. John Johnson, delivered the funeral sermon.

In this sermon, Johnson said that Charnock was “Always serving the only true and living God, as becomes such a God. All the work wherein he employed and exercised himself with diligence, skill, and constancy, was love to God and souls. His life he examined and squared, until it was exact according to the rule of God’s word.”

Although he was a prolific writer, the only work that Charnock published during his lifetime was a sermon titled “The Sinfulness and Cure of Evil Thoughts.” After his death, others published his written works. Banner of Truth has a great 5-volume set available, and many are readily available for free online.

Written in the last three years of his life, The Existence and Attributes of God is his most well-known and best loved work.

About The Existence and Attributes of God

In recommending that others read this work, JI Packer wrote: “The discourses are the product of a big, strong, deep, reverent mind; they are in every way worthy of their sublime subject and are one of the noblest productions of the Puritan epoch. Charnock displays God’s attributes as qualities observable in the concrete actions of the living God of which the Bible speaks. The technical terms, and sometimes, arguments of scholastic theology are employed, but always with a biblical orientation. Charnock has no desire to speculate but only to declare the works and ways, the nature and character, of the God of the Bible.”

Recently republished by Crossway as The Existence and Attributes of God, this two-volume work has been edited by Mark Jones for greater clarity for the modern reader while still presenting a faithful, unabridged version of the original.

It is broken up into 14 discourses, each of which are preceded by a summary by Jones which helps the reader to better understand and benefit from Charnock’s work.

A review of the discourses included in these two volumes provides insight into the breadth and depth of the material covered:

  • Discourse 1: On God’s Existence provides evidence for the existence of God.
  • Discourse 2: On Practical Atheism discusses how atheism manifests in practice, even among those who profess a belief in God.
  • Discourse 3: On God’s Being a Spirit explores the nature of God as a spirit, exploring the implications and significance of this aspect of His being.
  • Discourse 4: On Spiritual Worship explains the importance and process of worshipping God in spirit, emphasizing the spiritual over the physical in religious practice.
  • Discourse 5: On the Eternity of God explores the concept of God’s eternality, His existence beyond human comprehension of time.
  • Discourse 6: On the Immutability of God focuses on God’s unchanging nature, outlining His steadfastness.
  • Discourse 7: On God’s Omnipresence highlights God’s omnipresence, presenting arguments for His presence throughout all time and space.
  • Discourse 8: On God’s Knowledge examines God’s omniscience, highlighting His infinite wisdom and understanding that surpasses all human knowledge.
  • Discourse 9: On the Wisdom of God looks into the unfathomable wisdom of God, discussing its implications and manifestations.
  • Discourse 10: On the Power of God examines God’s omnipotence, illuminating His supreme power that stands unrivaled and uncontested.
  • Discourse 11: On the Holiness of God delves into God’s holiness, emphasizing His moral perfection and righteousness that sets Him apart from all else.
  • Discourse 12: On the Goodness of God explores the inherent goodness of God, detailing His kindness, love, and benevolence in relation to His creation.
  • Discourse 13: On God’s Dominion discusses God’s supreme authority and dominion over all of creation, expounding on His sovereignty and rule.
  • Discourse 14: On God’s Patience investigates God’s patience, emphasizing His merciful restraint in the face of human failings and disobedience.

In addition to being filled with timeless wisdom from the pen of this Puritan theologian, this two-volume edition from Crossway is beautifully presented and will look great on your shelf. Don’t make the mistake of leaving them unread, however.

As Joel Beeke writes in his endorsement of the set, “This work is a treasure of sound theology and humble adoration of God. The author’s exposition on the goodness of God is alone worth the purchase of these volumes; it is unsurpassed in all English literature.”

To be sure, this work is one of the most in-depth treatments of the doctrine of God, yet it remains incredibly practical and highly readable. Thanks to the diligent work of Jones in updating much of the language, many more Christians will be able to dive deeper into their study of the nature of God with Charnock as their guide.

I highly recommend that you pick up a copy of The Existence and Attributes of God by Stephen Charnock and put it to good use as a means of developing your theological understanding of and love for God.

The Existence and Attributes of God: Updated and Unabridged

This two-volume set contains an updated and unabridged edition of Charnock’s classic work, Discourses upon the Existence and Attributes of God. Readers will experience Charnock’s skillful exegesis, his influential way with words, his insight into human nature, his concern with the practical implications of who God is, and his Christ-focused approach to theology.

Additional Resources on the Puritans

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