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Often Meditate on the Eternity of God

In my previous articles about Charnock, I explained how he argued that God is a Spirit and, therefore, not material. After this, Charnock turns to the eternity of God. This order has good reason, and it shows us how astute a metaphysician Charnock was. The two great questions for those who would investigate the nature of reality are: is being made up of two substances or just one, and what being is eternal and what temporal? Having settled the first question, that both matter and spirit are real, Charnock now turns to the second. We can see he is following the plan of Romans 1:20: God is eternal, and God’s divine nature (Spirit, etc) is clearly revealed to us in His works. Charnock then directs his readers to Psalm 90 at the beginning of the following section. Psalm 90, a psalm of Moses, proclaims the eternity of God. The creation is changeable, but God is eternal and unchangeable. God is without beginning and without end. Although the truths of God’s eternity are repeated to us in Scripture, Scripture itself affirms that general revelation makes God’s eternity known to all.

Where Metaphysics Begins

It is a general truth that metaphysics starts with what is eternal. A perusal of the philosophical schools of the world will show this to be true. The primacy of the eternal makes sense as our minds are presented with the changing facts of our experience and the material world, and we naturally wonder what came before to cause these things. Furthermore, if what came before was also temporal and changing, we must continue to look for a shared cause. Children are natural philosophers who ask “Why?” and “Where did that come from?” until an exasperated parent tells them to stop. Our mind looks, both logically and ontologically, for what had no beginning, for what is eternal. Something must have existed from eternity. “If we deny some eternal being, we must deny all being; our own being, the being of everything about us; inconceivable absurdities will arise” (291). Our lives and the choices we make reveal the extent of which we have reflected on the eternity of God. The world had a beginning to its being (278). And we, as part of that world, also had a beginning. We are not gods, and we are not and cannot be without beginning. Our lives and the choices we make reveal the extent of which we have reflected on the eternity of God. Click To Tweet

The religious and philosophical systems of the world can be categorized by what they claim is eternal. The truth of both general and special revelation is that only God is eternal. All else is created by God, and to be created means to be brought into being from nothing (creation ex nihilo, 292). The systems of the world, however, deny the eternity of God or set up the world as co-eternal. In doing this, all of them deny both God and the works of God. Consider pantheism, whether in its Western mystical form (Plotinus) or its Eastern mystical form (Advaita). Pantheism, by teaching that “all is one,” denies the distinction between God and the creation and between matter and spirit. Each of us is in some sense, already “god” and is on the journey of the soul to become one with God.

Or consider Plato and Aristotle. So often, these philosophers are relied upon by natural theologians, and yet they both rejected Yahweh, who was revealed to them in the work of creation, and instead posit a demiurge or unmoved mover who is co-eternal with the world. It is Plato who tells us to forsake the world of change and have a mystical vision of the eternal. Compare Plato’s instruction with the Psalmist who tells us to consider the wondrous works of God in creation and redemption and lift up our praises to Him (Psalm 96:3, Charnock speculates this too is a Psalm of Moses). When God spoke to Job, he directed Job to reflect on creation and what is revealed about God.

The Eternity of the World Refuted

Aristotle’s belief that the world had existed from eternity was the inspiration for one of the first Christian philosophy books. Johannes Philoponus wrote “Against Aristotle on the Eternity of the World” to argue that the world is created. He saw the eternality of the world as an essential teaching of pagan philosophy that needed to be rejected; what the pagans spoke of as their deity was not, in fact, God, who is known in all of His works. This pagan ignorance is why the Apostle Paul’s presentation to the philosophers in Athens begins by highlighting his audience’s concession – they do not know God – at which point Paul moves on to demonstrate that God is known from creation. There is no division between the God of the philosophers and the God of the Bible except to say what the philosophers have incorrectly called “God” has very often been something else. True philosophy, as the study of the creation, can and should demonstrate the existence of God as defined in Westminster Shorter Catechism Q4.

Yet, we find someone as influential as Thomas Aquinas acknowledging that we cannot know by reason that God created the world. He states “that God is the Creator of the world; hence that the world began, is an article of faith (First Part, Q46 Art 2). And then also, “We hold by faith alone, and it cannot be proved by demonstration that the world did not always exist.” In order to prove this point, he considers arguments affirming the world could have existed from eternity. Charnock, however, gives us the tools to refute each one of these arguments.

Aristotle relied on the ideas of actuality and potentiality to explain change. The Aristotelian system faces the following problem: if matter has any actuality on its own, then it is independent and uncreated. This is the Platonic view of the Demiurge, who shapes already existing matter to imitate the forms. This view can be refuted by demonstrating that matter cannot have existed from eternity. On the other hand, if matter has no actuality on its own, then it had a beginning.

With Charnock’s help, we can argue that the platonic system, and the idea that matter has existed from eternity, is false. We can also reject the view that matter, although dependent for existence, has been created without a beginning. Such a view posits a distinction without a difference in that matter has no actuality on its own yet existed without a beginning. Furthermore, if the material world or the human soul has been changing from eternity to become actual and has not yet done so, it will never do so. Much like in systems of reincarnation that teach the soul has been eternally striving for enlightenment but has not yet reached it, the final insight is resignation to the impossibility of reaching that goal. The alternative is that neither the soul nor the material world has existed from eternity.

Beliefs and Systems

These reflections remind us that beliefs come in systems. Charnock is presenting us with the theistic system in contrast to secular systems. Aristotle’s system is not theistic to the degree he argues for the eternity of the world. Aristotle’s world had no beginning and may have gone through innumerable cycles, which explains why it appears somewhat new (we are making new discoveries, etc.), but it is actually from eternity. His system developed out of a basic belief about eternity. Different views concerning that which is eternal lead to different beliefs about creation, human nature, and our chief end.

Because God is eternal He has the power to be as good as His word. Click To Tweet Perhaps today, we use “worldview” rather than “system,” but “system” does a better job of capturing what is going on. A system is the idea that beliefs are logically connected to each other both horizontally and vertically. What that means is that some beliefs are more basic to a system than others. A system’s beliefs about that which is eternal and its belief about how we know that which is eternal are basic in that system. So, while Aristotle may have some useful arguments about what is eternal (for instance, that something must be eternal), his system cannot be adopted wholesale because it is logically contrary to the Christian system. Charnock helps us see this.

Many of Charnock’s arguments demonstrating that the material world cannot have existed from eternity come up in his discussion that God is a spirit and not material. In contrast to the worldly systems, Charnock builds on the foundation of clear general revelation when he says that eternity is only proper to God and not communicable (291). God is not merely the former/shaper of the world (Plato), nor is God a distant and impersonal unmoved mover co-eternal with the world who sits unaware of us without providential rule (Aristotle). Instead, Charnock spends the great portion of this chapter on what we can derive about God just by knowing that God, and God alone, is eternal (without beginning). He tells us:

Time began with the foundation of the world; but God being before time, could have no beginning in time. Before the beginning of creation, and the beginning of time, there could be nothing but eternity; nothing but what was created, that is, nothing but what was without beginning . To be in time is to have a beginning; to be before all time is never to have a beginning, but always to be; for as between the Creator and creatures there is no medium, so between time and eternity there is no medium. It is easily deduced that he that was before all creatures are eternal, as he that made all creatures is God (281)

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Owen Anderson

Dr. Owen Anderson is professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Arizona State University, and serves as adjunct faculty at Phoenix Seminary. He has been a visiting scholar at Princeton Seminary, as well as a fellow at both Princeton University and University of Colorado, Boulder. He is the author of several books, including The Natural Moral Law: The Good After Modernity (Cambridge University Press, 2012), The Declaration of Independence and God: Self-Evident Truths in American Law (Cambridge University Press, 2015), and Job: A Philosophical Commentary (Logos Papers Press, 2021). Dr. Anderson holds a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Arizona State University.

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