Review: Divine Providence: A Classic Work for Modern Reader by Stephen Charnock

To paraphrase the concern of one of the leading theologians of the past century: one of the great issues with reading texts from within the tradition, but from a much earlier time, is that it is as if we live in a completely different world. The pressing issues, the organization of thought, the way we use words, and even the items of basic knowledge we assume, are all different. These differences tend to alienate us from the great thinkers in our heritage.

The concern of this theologian is not without merit. When the modern reader sits down with a book from the English Reformed of centuries past, it can feel as if he or she were Mork trying to understand Mindy. Concepts Mindy takes for granted (e.g., refrigerators, the way one ought to wear clothes, which limbs ought to be resting on a chair) are all completely novel and confusing to Mork. How much more ought a work of the seventeenth century (fraught with even more dated “givens” flowing from an even more temporally distant milieu) to baffle its modern readers?

The danger, of course, is for the modern reader to abandon completely the project of learning and growing in understanding by mining the treasures of theological works from the past. To answer this challenge, Editor Carolyn B. Whiting has undertaken the difficult task of mediating the work of Stephen Charnock on divine providence for those who want to enjoy it in the modern day. Through careful (but much-needed) editing, Whiting has endeavored valiantly to prevent the estrangement wrought by time from keeping this work from the hands, hearts, and minds of the masses. The result is the very helpful volume, Divine Providence: A Classic Work for Modern Readers, published by P&R. This edition of Charnock’s work renders it accessible, so that even a layperson from outside the tradition could profit from reading it. Whiting’s careful work, however, also preserves the style, vivid imagery, turns of phrase, and tonal warmth that draw people to such works in the first place.

One especially helpful element of this edition is how thoroughly Whiting has bridged the gap between the ages in terms of assumed knowledge. Though products of this country’s modern educational system may have no idea who Xenophon, Plutarch, or even or Socrates were, Charnock’s readers would have learned of these and other such writers from a young age. Though instruction in Latin was once considered vital to elementary education, the modern reader may only have learned a few phrases. Whiting’s editorial diligence shines through in the abundance of footnotes that help the reader by supplying needed background. When Charnock employs knowledge of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, Whiting diligently footnotes or translates as necessary. When Charnock references an ancient author or emperor, Whiting provides relevant information on each particular individual’s significance. Even when Charnock makes an observation on God’s providence in using evil (“the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life”) to spark the English Reformation, Whiting provides a helpful footnote on Henry the VIII’s divorce from Catherine of Aragon.

Whiting provides the reader with all the background information one could need to comprehend this work. So diligent has she been, that she even includes footnotes explaining the lives and work of Luther, Melanchthon, and Calvin. She even helpfully defines terms such as the confessional Protestant conception of “church,” “hypostatic union,” and “church militant.”  Her meticulous work in this area is evident. The result is a book that even a young Christian from outside the Protestant tradition could pick up and understand easily, without any prior knowledge.

Another helpful feature of this edition is the way in which she has arranged this work. This edition not only divides the book by its three major themes (“That God Exercises Providence in the World,” “God Orders All His Providences for the Good of His People,” and “Believers Have an Interest in God’s Providences), it also divides the work into short, manageable chapters with theme verses and helpful summaries of the main idea at the beginning of each chapter. When the treatise introduces a new angle of reflection on the Providence of God, Whiting adds appropriate organizational cues for the sake of comprehension. Additionally, she sub-divides chapters with bold thematic headings. She also provides study questions after each chapter that offer the reader a chance to pause and reflect.

In the front of the book, this edition also features a thorough analytical outline of the work as a whole (including the subheadings of each chapter), so that readers can quickly refer to the points he has found most helpful. The back of the book features an exhaustive index of every Scripture reference made in the work. Whiting has done yeoman’s work, as the index fills nine pages—even after being put in three columns per page. Even if not used as a primer on divine providence, this work would serve as a helpful addition to your library as a reference resource on divine providence.

Whiting further helps clarify and strengthen Charnock’s work by rescuing him from the ways in which he was a product of his own time. She does this by trimming superfluous materials and stylistic idiosyncrasies where necessary, correcting factual errors, and footnoting the ways in which new information has shaped scholarship since Charnock’s day. She does an admirable job of curbing Charnock’s tendency toward tangents that obscure the main point. For instance, where Charnock distracts from his main point about submitting to God’s providence by attacking the Qur’an, Whiting moves the material to a footnote. Similarly, when Charnock falls into polemics against Roman Catholicism, she trims it by adding a footnote. Where Charnock makes dubious allusion to the legend of cackling geese warning the Romans of the coming Gauls, Whiting makes less dubious use of the editor’s power to footnote.

Where modern scholarship has updated the learning of Charnock’s day, Whiting also helps to remove or to perfect Charnock’s remarks by way of footnote. E.g., Charnock overstates the arguments for God’s providence based on the incorrect notions of his day—be it citations from Grotius about how copper interacts with snake bites, overestimations of Ptolemy’s role in the formation of the Septuagint, surmises made from the supposed descent of all Europeans from Japheth, or even just observations made from the Authorized Version where modern translators have found better texts—Whiting helpfully footnotes such distractions in order to mine the treasure of the main point.  This is not to say that all such antique charm has been removed from the text. Where such illustrations are vital to the argument (e.g., reference to the use of leeches by doctors as an illustration of God’s “holy ends in permitting sin”), she leaves the text untouched. In fact, despite all the updating of format, many admirable turns of phrase are preserved. From marine illustrations, to the story of a grasshopper helping a lute player with a broken string, to the very pastoral rhetorical flourishes throughout (e.g., “only he can bless us; only he can blast us” or “we deal with a God who is not bound by means, who spares no expense in miraculous succors, who delights to perfect his strength in the creature’s weakness”) Charnock shines perfected yet authentic.

Whiting’s labor of love has made this work readable and profitable for the average person in the pew who might otherwise find the idea of reading Charnock intimidating. She has given the church an opportunity to hear (in translation) the practical, pastoral voice of wisdom from another time. She has done the weeding and trimming so that the modern reader can enjoy the flower garden, and the result is an excellent reader’s edition of a classic work.

© Jeffrey Karel. All Rights Reserved.


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