I’ve been reading the new Essentials Edition of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion since this summer. This is not an edited version, but a new translation of the 1541 edition of the Institutes. I am enjoying it very much. As I’ve been reading, I’ve thought at times, I should blog about this. Unfortunately, for much of the fall I was editing my own book so there wasn’t much time to blog on it. I have a bit more time these days, so I thought I would go back. My desire is to encourage others to read this volume.
It begins with a chapter on the Knowledge of God. This should be no surprise to anyone familiar with The Institutes of the Christian Religion. This volume is not broken up into 4 books like the one edited by McNeill. The material is, at times, covered in a different order. Additionally, this edition is not as exhaustive as future editions would be.
The first paragraph is familiar:
“The whole sum of our wisdom- wisdom, that is, which deserves to be called true and assured- broadly consists of two parts, knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves.”
As made in the image of God, we cannot truly know ourselves without knowing God. As we know God, we discover that “he is the fount of all truth, wisdom, goodness, righteousness, judgment, mercy, power and holiness.” The purpose of this knowledge is that we would worship and honor him.
The purpose of knowing ourselves is “to show us our weakness, misery, vanity and vileness, to fill us with despair, distrust and hatred of ourselves, and then to kindle in us the desire to seek God, for in him in found all that is good and of which we ourselves are empty and deprived.” In other words, we see our depravity and the marring of his image that we might seek like in him. It sounds harsh, but it is similar to Paul’s discussion of the purpose of the law prior to conversion, to reveal our sin and drive us to Jesus.
This is why it is wisdom; this knowledge is to be acted upon, not simply studied abstractly. Knowledge of self is intended to encourage us to seek after God, and leads us to find him. Calvin then notes that “no one ever attains clear knowledge of self unless he has first gazed upon the face of the Lord, and then turns back to look upon himself.” This is similar to Isaiah 6, when the prophet saw God in his glory and then finally saw himself as he really was.
Calvin notes that an awareness of God is common to all people. We all have some “understanding of his majesty.” Calvin is quite dependent on Romans 1 as he thinks through all of this. He is not a speculative theologian, but one who seeks to understand what has been revealed to us in Scripture, and its implications. Romans 1 instructs us that people turned from the true God to idols, “exchanging the truth for the lie ” (Rom. 1). In rejecting the truth, we have become perverted by self-will. Instead of seeking all good in God, we have settled for the lie of the Serpent in the Garden and seek it in and by ourselves: for our glory, not his. Instead of seeking to submit to him, people resist and rebel against him. As Paul says in Ephesians and Colossians, people are at enmity with God. We fall prey to superstition and servile fear. People flee from him, as a guilty Adam and Eve fled from the sound of God approaching them. This servile fear is “not enough to stop them from resting easy easy in their sin, indulging themselves and preferring to give fleshly excess free rein, rather than bringing it under the Holy Spirit’s control.” In other words, pride drives us to think we deserve better, and know better than God what is good for us. Fear leads us to believe that God does not have our best interests at heart and therefore his law is oppressive.
As we discover in the Psalms, he is good and wants good things for us, including trusting him to guard, guide, protect and provide for us. He wants us to trust him to redeem and rescue us.
Calvin briefly discusses the “Book of Nature” or creation which reveals his invisible qualities. If we study nature, and we should, we will discover much that testifies to his wisdom. We also see that he is revealed in his works of providence. We see that foolishness has consequences. (see Psalm 19 for instance)
But, as Romans 1 makes clear our thinking has become dark and futile. We don’t see what we should see, even though it is clear. The problem isn’t the Book of Nature (natural revelation) but how we understand and interpret it. We are without excuse. Instead of believing, we “so obscure God’s daily works, or else minimize and thus dismiss them” so that “he is deprived and robbed of the praise and thanks we owe him.”
We are dependent on God’s special revelation (Scripture) as a result (the second stanza of Psalm 19). We needed a book because we are prone to forget and are easily led into error. To know God we are utterly dependent upon the Scriptures (and the Spirit’s illumination).
Here Calvin reminds us that Scripture’s authority comes from God, as his word. It is not determined by the church (contra Rome). He briefly develops the ideas of the Spirit’s inner witness, it’s wisdom and truth and history of the truth which confirm the authority of Scripture.
“It is therefore not the role of the Holy Spirit, such as he is promised to us, to dream up fresh and original revelations, or to fashion a new kind of teaching, which alienates us from the gospel message which we have received. His role is rather to seal and confirm in our hearts the teaching provided for us in the gospel.”
The chapter ends with a slightly different form of “triple knowledge” than that expressed in the Heidelberg Catechism: “God’s mercy, one which the salvation of us all depends; his judgment, which he daily visits on the wicked, and which awaits them with even greater vigor, to their eternal shame; and his righteousness, by which his faithful people are generously preserved.”
“However, since God does not allow us to behold him directly and up close, except in the face of Christ who is visible only to the eye of faith, what remains to be said concerning the knowledge of God is better left until we come to speak of the understanding of faith.”