How would you describe God? On this episode of Open Book, Stephen Nichols and John MacArthur discuss the vast, unfathomable, transcendent nature of God.
STEPHEN NICHOLS: Welcome back to another episode of Open Book. Once again we’re in the church office of Dr. John MacArthur. We know most of your books are in your home office, but we’re here in your church office. Last time we were together we talked about a book that was crucial for you in your ecclesiology, but now we’re going stick on the subject of theology. We’re going to move into theology proper with Stephen Charnock’s The Existence and Attributes of God. Go ahead and tell us about this book.
JOHN MACARTHUR: R.C. Sproul would always say that everything starts with the doctrine of God. I don’t know that I even had any more than a kind of sophomoric understanding of the nature of God until I got to seminary. I started to read Benjamin Warfield a little bit, and this was taking me into places I had never been. Then, I ran into a guy who was a professor of theology in a seminary up North and he said, “You need to read this book.” And he gave me a copy of Stephen Charnock’s The Existence and Attributes of God. It turned out later that we were on opposite sides of the Lordship issue. When I wrote The Gospel According to Jesus and The Gospel According to the Apostles, he took strong issue with me. I even addressed his views in The Gospel According to Jesus. So we were on the opposite side of that issue, and that never resolved in any way to the place where I thought he began to understand the truth.
But anyway, it was at the very earliest part of my life and certainly, Charnock didn’t teach that— no Lordship theology. It was just completely disconnected from that book, that he went that direction which does happen to people. They adopt a theology that accommodates their experience.
NICHOLS: It does happen. You mentioned R.C. saying that everything begins with the doctrine of God. He used to say this a lot— many of us have the same doctrine of God. Even Roman Catholics have a lot in common with our doctrine of God. The problem, R.C. would always say, is do you carry that with you to page two of your theology and page three of your theology? Some people just don’t.
MACARTHUR: I think what was so shocking to me as a twenty-four or twenty-five-year-old guy, was that you could think about God in such endless vast terms. I mean, I thought I had God sort of summed up when I read Pink on the doctrine of God or the Chicago preacher that wrote the little book on God—
MACARTHUR: Yes, Tozer. When I read that I thought, “That’s pretty great stuff.” And it was a little thin book of about 125 pages.
NICHOLS: But they’re helpful.
MACARTHUR: They are helpful.
NICHOLS: They’re meditative.
MACARTHUR: But the depth of this, this is a book that you chew on your entire life. It was such an inexhaustible truth. I couldn’t get to the bottom of it. As you know, when you’re reading a Puritan, they can’t get to the bottom of it either. It just goes on and on, but it just totally altered how I viewed God, with a kind of vastness that put me in awe of Him. If anything most dramatically altered my sense of worship, it was that book. I’m sad to think of someone who doesn’t have the exposure to God in those vast, almost unfathomable terms, because you’re superficially thinking about God, and that leads to superficial worship.
NICHOLS: This is the Psalmist. You bump into this again and again in the Psalms. Just amazed at the depths of who God is.
MACARTHUR: What Charnock does that takes the Psalms beyond that is what the Puritans used to call “use.” Use one, use two, use three, four, five, twenty-five, twenty-six, and they would go from that thought about God, that truth about God, that revelation, that doctrine about God, and they’re gone forever, never to return. That was life transforming for me.
NICHOLS: They would see that as the use of this doctrine for life. They’re really talking about application.
MACARTHUR: But it’s not the kind of application that people think of as if to say, “Do this every day,” or, “Do that every day,” or, “Make this habit.” That’s not what they’re talking about. They’re talking about more life implication, the power of an implication that touches every possible application.
NICHOLS: This is true transformation.
NICHOLS: A renewed mind, and in the process of being renewed.
MACARTHUR: The use was never to change your behavior, it was to change the way you thought, which changed your behavior.
NICHOLS: Those thought patterns.
NICHOLS: One of the things I find interesting is that you bump into this a lot with people, and I guess it’s understandable because they’re just not thinking, “oh it’s true,” but they tend to pit the attributes of God against each other. Even sometimes in Evangelical circles, people will pit the God of the Old Testament— this is the old liberal error— against the God of the New Testament. Books like this are helpful for us, not just in thinking about these attributes, but in thinking of God as what is the doctrine of the simplicity of God.
MACARTHUR: I think if you have a superficial view of God, or, if you have a weak view of God, you will tend to see contradictions. It’s when you have this profoundly far-reaching, vast, incomprehensible view of God that all of those kinds of contradictions disappear. That is simplicity, in the sense that God is one and it’s all together. I found that the more I understood the vastness, and I guess in one sense the complexity of God, the less there was any possibility that I could see a contradiction in anything.
NICHOLS: Just the sheer transcendence of God. I remember talking to R.C. about the holiness of God, and he said it’s not the only way to get at the transcendence of God, but it is one way. But we come into Scripture, we have the glory of God. He dwells in unapproachable light. There’s clearly a view here that we just sometimes are far too casual, and I think in some ways we could connect some dots here. You’re saying the same thing in The Gospel According to Jesus, that we have a bit of far too casual view of discipleship.
MACARTHUR: Yes, absolutely.
NICHOLS: So, there might be some connections here.
MACARTHUR: Well look, if you have a casual view of anything in Christianity it reflects a casual view of God.
NICHOLS: It’s the domino effect.
MACARTHUR: Yes, something is wrong with the starting point. Thinking seriously about God means you think seriously about everything.
NICHOLS: That’s great. Well thank you, I appreciate this. If you haven’t read this, why haven’t you? Go out and get it, it’s Stephen Charnock’s Existence and Attributes of God. Thank you, Dr. MacArthur.
MACARTHUR: One footnote to say about that.
MACARTHUR: The book is unaffected by contemporary culture, or for that matter, any other culture. So that you’re not sorting through any cultural filters, it’s just this pure dealing with the profound realities of God as he reveals himself in Scripture.
NICHOLS: It’s timeless.
NICHOLS: Thank you.