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A Calvinist Reads Calvin: Where Knowing Starts

Thank you for electing to read this post!1 If you are just joining this series, I would recommend reading the first part of the first post in the series. It will give you the context for my own exploration of Calvin’s Institutes and why you are invited to join me. Ironically, the selection we will be exploring deals with our basis of knowing. In the grand scheme of the book, we are beginning the first section of the treatise, dealing with “the Knowledge of God the Creator.”2

The opening of the first chapter sets the stage: “Our wisdom, insofar as it ought to be deemed true and solid wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”3 These two facets, knowledge of God and of self, are closely related for Calvin. Looking at the relationship between these two aspects of wisdom is the theme of the first chapter in the Institutes. As his thoughts progress, Calvin presents the conclusion that true knowledge and wisdom ultimately begin with God. In order to reach this position, Calvin examines the relationship between self-knowledge and knowledge of God from two different approaches.

The first approach begins with our self-knowledge. Seeing the good things in our lives directs our attention back towards God. Calvin describes this by saying that “ . . . no man can survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts toward the God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; no, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone.”4 He goes on to say that “. . . those blessings which unceasingly distill to us from heaven, are like streams conducting us to the fountain.”5 In Calvin’s thought, we see an echo of Man’s purpose in Genesis: “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness . . . So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:26-27).6 The same fact is approached from different perspectives. Genesis establishes the likeness between God and Man. Man is created to be an image of God on earth. Calvin, working the other direction, sees in Man the image of God and moves from the picture to the original.

This, though, raises a question: if the good things in humanity should remind us of God, why aren’t there more Christians? Shouldn’t there be more people driven back to God by their humanity? Delving into this question is worth a standalone post, so I won’t pretend to have a full answer. Instead, I’m raising it for your consideration, and to provide a teaser of the answer I think we’ll be getting from Calvin down the road. Ten chapters along from our current chapter, Calvin states that “. . . the human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols.”7 That is, we don’t turn to God because we intentionally choose not to see him. Paul’s introduction to Romans lends support to this suggestion: “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened (Romans 1:21). That all being said, I would enjoy hearing your input on this question as well.

Turning back to Calvin’s argument, we turn to our sinful nature. More specifically, how our knowledge of our sin is impacted by our knowledge of God. Calvin argues that we cannot truly understand how sinful we are until we have glimpsed God’s nature. “On the other hand, it is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he have previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself.”8 This knowledge of our own sinfulness cannot be reached by mere self-knowledge because of two things. First, there is our tendency to hypocrisy: “For, since we are all naturally prone to hypocrisy, any empty semblance of righteousness is quite enough to satisfy us instead of righteousness itself.”9 It’s not that we aren’t trying to do what is right, but that we are too easily satisfied with ourselves. A gesture, perhaps half-hearted push to do a bit more, and we have all we need to convince ourselves that we are great people. Aiding this charade is our lack of a comparison to set the standard. Calvin puts it this way: “And since nothing appears within us or around us that is not tainted with very great impurity, so long as we keep our mind within the confines of human pollution, anything which is in some small degree less defiled delights us as if it were most pure . . .”10 Compared with a broken world, our lives often look fairly decent. And, thanks to all the connections possible in our tech-rich existence, the opportunities to see and compare with the brokenness are extensive.

As a further proof of how knowledge of God and self-knowledge are mutually reinforcing, Calvin turns, generally, to the instances in Scripture where men meet God. Consider Isaiah’s response to seeing God: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5) Calvin observes that “ . . . men are never duly touched and impressed with a conviction of their insignificance, until they have contrasted themselves with the majesty of God.”11 This in turn provides a way to evaluate our own understanding of God. If there is a lack of humility in approaching the throne, then perhaps we don’t really know God as we ought.

This then, is the summation of Calvin’s argumentation in the first chapter of book one: Wisdom begins with God and grows as both knowledge of God and self-knowledge grow. On the one hand, as we learn about ourselves, we are directed back to God as the source of all good things. On the flipside, the more we see of God’s goodness and majesty, the more we realize how evil and small we are. These contentions are not inarguable. If nothing else, these arguments touch on the effects and extent of the Fall. As those discussions play out though, we should all be reminded of how important it is to continue learning about God. Only through knowing who he is and what he loves will we understand both how the world should work and how we can bring it further under his rule.

If self-knowledge directs us back to God, why don’t more people seem to be seeking him? Is looking at numbers even an appropriate way to measure this?

How much does our sin nature impact our ability to understand the world? Another way to ask this: does our sin affect our reason and if so, how and to what degree?

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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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