Stephen Charnock: Learning and Teaching the Nature of God

5 min

Any serious study of the attributes of God must include a classic work written over three centuries ago by a Puritan pastor named Stephen Charnock. His thorough research resulted in a massive book, The Existence and Attributes of God. The work spans 1,149 pages and is recognized as the authority on the nature and attributes of God. Later writers, such as A. W. Tozer, Arthur Pink, and J. I. Packer, relied heavily upon Charnock in their own books regarding the attributes of God.

It is surprising how few people, even among those who read Charnock, know anything at all about his personal life. He was a very humble, modest, and quiet man who would be very pleased that readers would know more about his God than about himself. Nevertheless, it is instructive and profitable to see a bit of the man behind the message in the life of Charnock.

Stephen Charnock was born in London in 1628. His father was a respected lawyer who desired his son to have the benefits of an excellent education. Very little is known of Stephen’s boyhood days, but he seemed to have developed early a habit of deep thought, careful study, and a disciplined, reverent mind.

He was enrolled in Emmanuel College at Cambridge University where he studied among some faithful, Godly professors who made a deep impression upon the young scholar. It was here at Cambridge that Stephen Charnock was converted to Christ. He openly and personally embraced the faith of his fathers. His graduation from Cambridge in 1646 was at a time that mighty upheavals, both theologically and politically, were shaking England and Scotland.

The English Civil War broke out in 1642. This war was between the Royalists who supported the rule of King Charles I, and the Parliamentarians who asserted the rights of Parliament and a limited constitutional monarchy. The outbreak of the war was in the same year that Charnock first entered Cambridge.

By the time the young Charnock graduated four years later, the civil war was in full vigor. Oliver Cromwell had emerged as the hero of the Parliamentarians, and this Godly, determined military commander and his supporters called Roundheads (because of their hairstyles) had gained several signal defeats over the Royalist army. The most significant of these defeats occurred at the Battle of Naseby in June 1645.

During these times of political unrest, there was also a theological battle for supremacy between the recognized Church of England (mostly supported by the Royalists), the Presbyterians (mostly supported by the Scots), and the dissenters and Independents (a varied group of Quakers, Baptists, and other non-conformists). These were confusing and bewildering times!

In June 1646, the King of England was imprisoned by the Parliamentarians. For the first time in centuries of relative stability, England had no ruler! After a brief period when the imprisoned king sought to regain his rule by private communications with anyone and everyone willing to support him, including treasonous communications with foreign powers, the King was tried and condemned to death for treason against his own people. By an act of Parliament, Charles I was beheaded three years after his imprisonment, in January 1649.

Cromwell emerged as the clear leader of the Parliamentarians, and he became the Lord Protector of the Realm in the absence of a monarch. Stephen Charnock watched all this turmoil and upheaval from the solitude of his study.

Upon his graduation from Cambridge, Charnock took a charge as a chaplain in a private residence. There he also became a tutor to the children of a prominent London family. The recently graduated young man began preaching and teaching the Gospel that he loved. Charnock studied Greek and Hebrew, patristic theology (the writings of the church fathers), and took a post at Oxford University in 1650. He sat under the preaching of Thomas Goodwin during his time at Oxford and drank in the pure Gospel with an eager heart.

In 1655, Stephen Charnock took a bold step into the public sphere. He crossed over into Ireland with the family of Henry Cromwell, the son of the Lord Protector. Oliver Cromwell had recently appointed his son Henry to be the Governor of Ireland. Charnock became the court chaplain for the Governor of Ireland and preached to the Governor, his family, his officers, and whoever else was willing to hear him.

The deep well of private study was now open to others, and Charnock’s hearers marveled at his depth of wisdom and the way that he could make difficult subjects so plain and clear. He preached without notes and his powerful preaching, delivered boldly to men of all sorts of religious persuasions, was used by the Holy Spirit to win many to the truth.

Among his audience were Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Baptists, Presbyterians, and even Quakers! It mattered not to Charnock who sat before him as long as the people were willing to hear the truth proclaimed as it is in Jesus. He preached a Christ-centered message that emphasized the Lord Jesus rather than any denominational distinctives, and his preaching was blessed with the presence of the Holy Spirit’s power.

The restoration of the monarchy and the end of the Protectorate in 1660 brought Charnock back to England. The power of Charles II, the son of the beheaded monarch, was absolute and arbitrary. Any ministers who had supported Cromwell were disgraced. Because of his association with the Cromwell family, Stephen Charnock was forbidden to preach publicly.

Stripped of a pastoral charge, Charnock began practicing medicine, a subject that he had studied diligently in his youth. The beloved pastor became a beloved physician, treating sickness in the body as carefully as he had treated the sickness of the sinful heart. At many bedsides, Doctor Charnock was able to administer the healing Balm of Gilead in the ministry of the Gospel. Thus, while the king took away his public ministry, Charnock continued in private to minister to the spiritual needs of men.

In 1666, the Great Fire of London devastated entire neighborhoods. In the general conflagration, the entire library of Stephen Charnock, including many pages of manuscripts, was reduced to ashes. But he was not dismayed by this calamity. Instead, he found consolation in the enduring spiritual value of the truth that cannot be destroyed.

After the rigorous edits of the Restoration were over, Charnock quietly became pastor again at Crosby Hall, a nonconformist congregation that met in a manor house in London. It was here, during the sunset of his days, that Stephen Charnock delivered the series of sermons that was later published after his death as his magnum opus on the attributes of God.

Charnock never married. However, he devoted his entire life and attention to the edification of God’s people and the cure of physical and spiritual maladies. At the end of his life, he struggled with failing memory and poor eyesight. He was forced to preach from notes while carrying a large magnifying glass.

In 1680, Stephen Charnock was translated into the presence of the God Whom he had so eloquently and diligently described to his fellow men. Among his writings were also found and published a work called Christ Crucified: A Puritan’s View of the Atonement, and another, Divine Providence. His writings continue to inspire today as the eyes of men are opened to the spiritual realities of God and His revealed Word.

Sources and Further Reference:

Beeke, Joel R. and Randall Pederson. Meet the Puritans. Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2006.

This article is from our Matters of Life & Death teaching series.

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