ReformedTheology & Spirituality

A Calvinist Reads Calvin: Knowing God Entails Relationship

Welcome back to our ongoing series following the thoughts of John Calvin in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. If you are joining the conversation for the first time, you might want to take a moment to read the first paragraph of the first post in the series. Otherwise, I hope you find the ideas as irresistible as I do.

When we last looked at Calvin’s thought, we examined the relationship between knowledge of self and knowledge of God. In Calvin’s mind, the two are tied together—increasing knowledge in one area will also increase one’s knowledge in the other area. Having established this connection, Calvin turns in chapter two to answer the question, “What does it mean to know God?” His reply is that we should approach knowing God in similar fashion to knowing a person. That is, knowing God involves developing a relationship with him. While examining the two distinctions Calvin uses to expand on this thought, we will find direction for both our theology and our lives.

The first distinction Calvin tackles is whether we should think of God primarily in terms of relationship or of position. That is, is our knowledge of God primarily positional or relational. Rather than going further, let me quote (somewhat extensively) from the Institutes:

“. . . we must be persuaded not only that as he once formed the world, so he sustains it by his boundless power, governs it by his wisdom, preserves it by his goodness, in particular, rules the human race with justice and judgment, bears with them in mercy, shields them by his protection; but also that not a particle of light, or wisdom, or justice, or power, or rectitude, or genuine truth, will anywhere be found, which does not flow from him, and of which he is not the cause; in this way we must learn to expect and ask all things from him, and thankfully ascribe to him whatever we receive. For this sense of the divine perfections is the proper master to teach us piety, out of which religion springs.”1

Stated briefly, it is not enough to know our position in regards to God. Truly knowing God pushes us towards a relationship with him. No other options are left open. To pick up the terms that I introduced above, an understanding of our position in relation to God will also show that our position is relational. To assume that God is not personally involved in the world indicates a failure to know who he is. Proof texts from Scripture could be included to prove the point but, in reality, this theme is woven through the whole of the Bible. It can only be missed by setting out to find a different conclusion.

Following up on this distinction, Calvin provides another by juxtaposing the knowledge of God’s essence with that of his person. As he explains, “Those, therefore, who, in considering this question, propose to inquire what the essence of God is, only delude us with frigid speculations—it being much more our interest to know what kind of being God is, and what things are agreeable to his nature.”2 With the knowledge that we exist in a relationship with God, learning who God is becomes more important than knowing what God is. Calvin seems to follow this train of thought when he goes on to say “What avails it, in short, to know a God with whom we have nothing to do?”3 If God is not concerned with our world and lives, then it doesn’t really matter whether we know anything about him. Take up God studies if you find that to be interesting, but don’t feel compelled to keep learning more. After all, a God who does not directly interact with the world is not going to affect how you live life, regardless of how much you know about him/she/it.

And, here is where the application becomes real for us. Despite knowing that God is intimately involved in the world, our theological studies can become little more than atheistic fact-finding missions. This shift occurs when our studies become wrapped up in working out the minutiae of God. The temptation to focus on the trivia rather than the person is certainly an ever present temptation for academic theologians, but that doesn’t mean lay theologians have nothing to worry about. Even when theology is something you choose to spend free time on, you can still miss the fact that you should be developing your relationship with a person, not gathering an organized collection of bits of information. Or, as Calvin warns at the end of the chapter, “. . . all men promiscuously do homage to God, but very few truly reverence him. On all hands there is abundance of ostentatious ceremonies, but sincerity of heart is rare.”4

In our culture, where science and the scientific method provide the backbone for studies, it is easy to view our education as a series of riddles to solve. Apply enough thought, logic, and experimentation and you’ll come to the end of the puzzle. What Calvin seems to suggest, though, is that God is not a logic problem to master. Rather, he is a person with whom we have the ability to relate. As we continue to learn more about God (which, I hope you are certainly planning on doing), this should be done with a view to maintaining and deepening your relationship with him. The goal is to follow your King better by understanding what he loves and hates. Any other focus for our studies is, quite frankly, a waste of our time.

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Jeff Reid

Jeff Reid

Stories fascinate me. In particular, I am enthralled with authors' ability to capture concepts and bring those concepts to life. Driving this delight is an interest in theology and philosophy. Ultimately, I am excited by opportunities to help others understand abstract ideas through skilled artistic work.

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