THE INSTITUTES OF THE CHRISTIAN RELIGION
The Knowledge of God and of Ourselves Mutually Connected—Nature of This Connection
Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other. For, in the first place, no man can survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts towards the God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone. In the second place, those blessings which unceasingly distil to us from heaven, are like streams conducting us to the fountain. Here, again, the infinitude of good which resides in God becomes more apparent from our poverty. In particular, the miserable ruin into which the revolt of the first man has plunged us, compels us to turn our eyes upwards; not only that while hungry and famishing we may thence ask what we want, but being aroused by fear may learn humility. For as there exists in man something like a world of misery, and ever since we were stript of the divine attire our naked shame discloses an immense series of disgraceful properties every man, being stung by the consciousness of his own unhappiness, in this way necessarily obtains at least some knowledge of God. Thus, our feeling of ignorance, vanity, want, weakness, in short, depravity and corruption, reminds us . . . that in the Lord, and none but He, dwell the true light of wisdom, solid virtue, exuberant goodness. We are accordingly urged by our own evil things to consider the good things of God; and, indeed, we cannot aspire to Him in earnest until we have begun to be displeased with ourselves. For what man is not disposed to rest in himself? Who, in fact, does not thus rest, so long as he is unknown to himself; that is, so long as he is contented with his own endowments, and unconscious or unmindful of his misery? Every person, therefore, on coming to the knowledge of himself, is not only urged to seek God, but is also led as by the hand to find him.
John Calvin generally gets a bad rap for the brand of Calvinism that basically says that God predestined some people for heaven and others for hell. While many people do believe that, it’s a bad reading of Calvin and a worse reading of the Bible.
In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin wrote:
We are not to reflect on the wickedness of men but to look to the image of God in them, an image which, covering and obliterating their faults, an image which, by its beauty and dignity, should allure us to love and embrace them.
John Calvin was a humble man, though Voltaire went on to call him the “Pope of the Protestants.” He saw every man as an image bearer of God and therefore immeasurably valuable.
In his book The Great Books Reader, John Mark Reynolds said:
Oddly, despite his influence, few who aren’t theologians read Calvin. He doesn’t appear on the curriculum of many “great books” programs. If my students are not Calvinists, the few things they think they know about Calvin are often false and almost always negative. Simultaneously, Calvin is being revived in conservative evangelical circles hoping to deepen their intellectual and theological rigor. Too frequently these students know Calvin but have never thought critically about his ideas.
Both Calvinist and non-Calvinist students are often shocked when they read Calvin, because as with any seminal thinker, he often is more flexible than later creedal formulations in the Reformed communities. Calvin may be a Calvinist, but he’s not a narrow one!
Do you align completely with a creed? Why or why not?
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In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
John Mark Reynolds is the president of The Saint Constantine School, a school that aspires to preschool through college education. He is also a philosopher, administrator, and joyous curmudgeon. Reynolds was the founder and first director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He was provost at Houston Baptist University where he was instrumental in starting the graduate Apologetics program and a cinema and new media arts major. John Mark blogs at Eidos on the Patheos Evangelical platform and has written for First Things and the Washington Post. He is an owner of the Green Bay Packers.
D I G D E E P E R
John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion
Russell D. Moore
If today John Calvin were discovered alive and in suspended animation, frozen in a block of ice somewhere in the French Alps, most people probably wouldn’t consider this good news. After all, the unfrozen Calvinist lawgiver rarely is thought of as the kind of figure modern audiences would want to drag back up.
His writings don’t have the wink-of-the-eye, puckish grin that even his contemporary Martin Luther seems to sometimes convey in his many writings. Moreover, Calvin, although associated with some bland but commendable features such as hard work and thrift, is mostly known for awful things, such as burnings at the stake and the predestination of people to hell.
Calvin is too important, though, to leave him frozen in caricature, and he’s too significant to leave him simply to his tribe of theological partisans. John Calvin—most significantly in his Institutes of the Christian Religion—offers insight to all in the Christian tradition, including those who consider themselves the furthest away from “Calvinism.”
The Institutes was written first in 1536, with the final version completed in Latin in 1559. Calvin, a French convert from Catholicism to the ideas of the Protestant Reformation, quickly established himself as the early protest movement’s most influential theologian. While those who have never read Calvin firsthand often assume the volume is obsessed with speculative notions about divine sovereignty and the order of God’s decrees of election and reprobation, the excerpt here better represents something of the broader tone and substance of the Reformer’s thought.
The tome’s initial sentence establishes a core theme in Calvin’s work: “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” At first glance, this statement might seem to be exactly what we might expect from one so often associated with coldly cerebral Christian rationalism and abstract speculation. But the discussion Calvin begins on “knowledge” is far more complex, and far more engaging, than that.
First of all, Calvin here is setting the context for a vision of all of life as theological. By this, I don’t mean merely that Calvin believes there is what some would call a Christian “worldview,” a theologically informed way of thinking about all aspects of existence. Calvin means more than this. He means that every human being is, by definition, a theologian.
Every “word”—that is, every means a person has for making sense of his reality—is inescapably a “word about God,” a theology.
In addition, this truth is grounded above all in the creaturely nature of humanity. Referencing the apostle Paul’s speech to the Athenians at Mars Hill, Calvin notes that it is in Creator God, by necessity, that every human person “lives and moves” (Acts 17:28). For Calvin, the universal impulse of humanity to worship gods or ideologies or themselves is hardly a coincidence of evolution. The sense of the divine is embedded in all human persons, as part of God’s image itself. This awareness is activated by the icon of God’s glory present in the created cosmos all around us. If we do not acknowledge this primal reality, we simply cannot apprehend ourselves as we really are, or the universe as it really is.
Further, it is not simply that all persons ought to be able to realize there is a God, if only they were to pay careful enough attention to the evidences for His existence. It is instead that all persons do, immediately, recognize this. Moreover, they recognize not only God’s existence, but they also recognize, personally, the God who is. So why is there not a universal worship of the God in whom Calvin believes, the God of the Jewish and Christian Scriptures, the God of Jesus of Nazareth?
This is where John Calvin’s view of sin emerges. Again, he’s oft-misrepresented as having a gloomy, world-denying pessimism about humanity. Some of his followers throughout the centuries have yielded to this caricature. But Calvin’s view of sin isn’t censorious or cranky. Instead, this doctrine explains why worship is so difficult for humanity as it is. It is not, in Calvin’s view, that we sin because we believe the wrong things; it is, rather, that we believe the wrong things because we sin.
In other words, human persons, in our fallenness, crave our own autonomy—the illusion that we are gods to ourselves. In order to protect this delusion and remain “free” from our Creator, we convince ourselves of what deep in our consciences we cannot deny—the reality of God, His moral law, the coming judgment.
Calvin here, echoing Paul, anticipates some of the psychological theories of later centuries in presenting a picture of the role the affections play in shaping the way we think. Sigmund Freud may have been quite wrong about many things, yet who can deny that human persons are motivated by more than merely rational impulses but additionally by an often dark and nearly incomprehensible psychic undertow? Calvin would root this in the fallen nature of the human condition. In order to know God and to know ourselves, Calvin insists, we must face this truth.
This is hardly a “pessimistic” picture, though, in the larger mosaic of Calvin’s thought. Human persons can rightly read the cosmos, and ourselves, through the revelation God has disclosed in the person of Jesus Christ and in the “spectacles” of the Scriptures.
Calvin’s view of revelation, and of knowledge as fundamentally a question of worship, grounds the importance in Protestant Christianity of preaching and widespread reading and study of the Bible in the languages of the people. This tradition, as it expanded in missionary movements and revivalist awakenings, shaped much of the trajectory of modern European and American thought.
Reading John Calvin’s Institutes, you’ll likely find points of disagreement, perhaps even major disagreements. But also you’ll probably—whatever your religious communion—find the insights of a mind shaped by immersion in the Scriptures, in the church fathers, in Western classical thought. And, behind this, you’ll discover a man who recognized something of what it meant (1) to be a creature, and (2) to look in worship and humility for the Creator in whom he lived and moved.
Russell Moore, PhD, is the dean of the School of Theology and senior vice-president for Academic Administration at Southern Baptist Theology Seminary. He is also a senior editor at Touchstone magazine and author of several books, including Adopted for Life and A Theology for the Church.
John Mark Reynolds, The Great Books Reader: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2011).