Charnock and the Religious Imagination

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 says the following:

Though God hath manifested himself in a bodily shape (Gen. Xviii. 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 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 i. 18. (Discourse III On God’s Beng a Spirit, p. 185, emphasis mine)

Charnock’s words will surprise many. He is saying that Isaiah did not so much 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. Such is the way we think of imagination today, a concept the ancients referred to as fancy, not imagination. No, Isaiah was illuminated by the Spirit of God, and the illumination involved the use of things Isaiah already understood – a temple, a throne, a robe, 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 some illustrated children’s Bible-storybook, 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 He borrowed to write a third of His Word; He used 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.

And if you think that all this sounds elitist, consider the poetry that a rural shepherd-boy in ancient Israel could write.



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