Charnock and the Religious Imagination

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“What comes into our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us,” wrote A. W. Tozer. What should come into our minds when we think about God, particularly since He is a spirit, and not to be visually represented?

Stephen Charnock’s The Existence and Attributes of God is one of the greatest works on the person and nature of God. Speaking on God’s being a spirit, Charnock writes,

Though God hath manifested himself in a bodily shape (Gen 18:1), and elsewhere Jehovah appeared to Abraham, yet the substance of God was not seen, no more than the substance of angels was seen in their apparitions to men. . . . Sometimes a representation is made to the inward sense and imagination, as to Micaiah (I Kings xxii. 19) and to Isaiah (vi.1); but they saw not the essence of God, but some images and figures of him proportioned to their sense or imagination. The essence of God no man ever saw, nor can see (John 1:18).1Discourse III On God’s Being a Spirit, p. 185, emphasis mine

Charnock’s words will surprise some. He is suggesting that Isaiah did not see God in His essence, but God represented to his finite mind in his imagination. Charnock uses imagination in the classic sense: that faculty of mind which enables you to understand unseen things by analogy. Charnock did not mean that Isaiah was visualising God, or inventing scenes of God in his mind. No, Isaiah was illuminated by the Spirit of God, and the illumination involved the use of things Isaiah already understood—a temple, a king on a throne, a robe and its train, an altar, smoke, live coals and seraphim. These images served as analogies—potent ones, which so affected the mind and heart of Isaiah that he was profoundly humbled and consecrated to God. God did for Isaiah what He is still willing to do for us: He took the truth of His Word, in which He is universally depicted through analogies, and illuminated Himself to a heart humble, obedient, and hungry enough to receive Him.

The catch is this: God’s analogies or word pictures must be supported by careful, sober thought, enriched by the best and noblest influences. If your concept of a robe and its train comes from Disney’s animated The Emperor’s New Groove, if your concept of an altar with live coals comes from Veggie Tales, if your concept of a temple comes from Indiana Jones and if your concept of seraphim comes from a Hollywood sci-fi flick, I doubt your reaction to such analogies will be, “Woe is me, for I am ruined.”

The religious imagination is our idea of God, reality and ourselves. Scripture shapes our religious imagination, but what we include in the life of the mind will further shape our understanding of Scripture’s analogies.

Certain things are analogous by nature, and therefore crucial to the imagination. Music uses sound to picture ideas, moods, and feelings. Poetry uses metaphor, rhythm, and meter to capture and portray an experience. The plastic arts (painting, sculpture, woodwork, architecture, etc.) seek to portray a view of reality, and evoke affections. Literature seeks to remove us from our own world, to portray reality in another, so as to return us to our world with a renewed moral vision, a better understanding of God, the world and ourselves. When you think about it, we did not create music, poetry, or story—these things were analogies given to us by God. Poetry was not a human invention that God borrowed to write a third of His Word; He gave us a pattern that had always existed in His mind. In other words, if God has made these things, and given them to us to aid our understanding of who He is, it is up to us to simply obey and try to understand the pattern so as to put it to best use.

If we neglect to understand the meaning of these phenomena which are part of God’s design, we neglect our religious imaginations. In so doing, we harm our ability to see God in His Word.

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1 Discourse III On God’s Being a Spirit, p. 185, emphasis mine
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David de Bruyn

Pastor New Covenant Baptist Church, Johannesburg, South Africa

David de Bruyn was born in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he now pastors New Covenant Baptist Church and resides with his wife and three children. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). David hosts a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa, serves as a frequent conference speaker, and is a lecturer at Shepherds Seminary Africa.