Seminar 4: The Knowledge of God
By Steve Jeffery, 21 Jun 2017
Module T1.1 Introduction and the Doctrine of Revelation
Seminar 4: The Knowledge of God
The reading for this seminar takes us to a well-known section at the beginning of Calvin’s Institutes on the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves (Calvin, Institutes, I.i-vi [1:35-74]). It’s worth paying close attention to the development of the argument in this portion of Calvin’s work (especially chapters i-iv and vi) in order to grasp fully what Calvin is saying, both because it lays some important foundations for what follows, and also because some contemporary scholars have misread Calvin at this point.
In order to help you understand what Calvin is saying in these chapters, I’ve included a brief outline of his argument below, along with some comments about how people sometimes misunderstand him. Much of this outline can be gleaned simply from the chapter headings in Calvin’s work, which, though not written by Calvin himself, nonetheless provide helpful and largely accurate pointers to the direction of Calvin’s thought. Note: this should not be taken as a comprehensive summary of all the nuances of Calvin’s thinking here, but only as a guide to the overall flow of his argument.
Once you’ve got a feel for what Calvin is saying here, you’ll quickly see that this section (along with the key biblical passages to which Calvin refers) have profound significance for understanding the status of non-Christian religions, the fate of the unevangelized people of the world, and a range of other important contemporary issues.
If you’re pressed for time, omit the questions marked with a *.
Outline of the argument in Calvin, Institutes, I.i-v
Chapter i. We can’t know ourselves fully without knowing God (I.i.1), but we can’t know God fully without knowing ourselves (I.i.2). Let’s start with God (I.i.3).
Chapter ii. To know God truly and rightly means not just to know that he exists, but to revere, trust and honour him. (Calvin is talking here about the kind of knowledge that would have been possible for us if Adam had not sinned, simply by observing God’s self-revelation in creation.)
Chapter iii. All people have some “knowledge” of God through God’s self-revelation in creation (I.iii.1). Indeed, even the many religions of the world prove this (I.iii.2). Not even the most wicked of men are able to cast of all knowledge of God (I.iii.3).
Chapter iv. But this “knowledge” (spoken of in the previous chapter) is smothered (Romans 1), as people turn from the true God revealed in the creation to idols of their own making or imagination.
Chapter v. Again, all creation speaks clearly about the glory of God (esp. I.v.1-10), but all people ignore and suppress this knowledge (esp I.v.4, 11-15).
Chapter vi. Scripture is therefore necessary for anyone to know God as Creator.
This brief outline helps to clarify how some people misunderstood Calvin’s argument at this point. They note rightly that Calvin affirms the doctrine of Natural Revelation – that is, God reveals himself in the creation of the world, so that even non-Christian religions reflect a deep-seated awareness of God’s existence (I.iii).
However, they then wrongly conclude that this Natural Revelation leads people to a Natural Theology – that is, that people develop a right understanding of God’s character, and even a right relationship with God, through his revelation in the created world.
This is a misunderstanding of Calvin (and of the Bible, for that matter). For Calvin, following the apostle Paul in Romans 1, argues that all people suppress this Natural Revelation of God, with the result that Natural Revelation does not lead anyone to a true knowledge of God (I.iv). Instead, Natural Revelation alone results only in idolatry. We need Scripture in order to come to a true knowledge of God (I.vi).
Questions to think about
a. If someone who had never heard of Jesus and never read the Bible were stranded alone on a desert island, what could they discover about God?
b. If the person described in the previous question died without hearing about Jesus, could they be saved? Why or why not?
c. I have a good friend who’s a Buddhist. He’s a delightful chap, but he doesn’t believe in Jesus. What does God think of him?
d. Read Psalm 19. What do vv. 1-6 tell us about how we can find out about God? Why do you think vv. 7-11 are included at this point in the Psalm?
e. Read Romans 1:18-32. According to these verses, what has God revealed about himself in the creation? What do we naturally tend to do with this knowledge?
In I.i (book I, chapter i), Calvin explains how the knowledge of God is related to the knowledge of ourselves.
1. “No one can look upon himself without immediately turning his thoughts to the contemplation of God” (I.i.1). Why not? According to Calvin, what particular aspects of the world lead us to contemplate God?
2. “Man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face” (I.i.2). What does Calvin mean by this? What examples does he give?
In I.i.3, Calvin discusses some important biblical evidence to support the point made in the previous section, namely that “Man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face” (I.i.2).
3. What biblical evidence does Calvin provide in I.i.3 to support the point made in the previous section?
In I.ii, Calvin discusses in more detail what he means by “the knowledge of God,” the nature of such knowledge, and so on.
4. What does Calvin mean by “the knowledge of God” in I.ii.1? What kind of response to God should such knowledge involve (I.ii.1-2)?
In I.iii, Calvin explains and seeks to prove that there is in the natural human mind “an awareness of divinity.”
5. What evidence does Calvin give in I.iii.1 that “there is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity”?
For reflection: What do you think of the evidence that Calvin gives here? Are you persuaded? Why or why not?
6. What would Calvin say to someone who thought that “religion was invented” by men as an instrument of power (I.iii.2)?
For reflection: Where do you think Calvin would say that the various different religions of the world come from?
I.iv is a crucial portion of this part of Calvin’s Institutes, for it explains what men and women do with the knowledge of God which has been implanted within us.
7. How do human beings naturally respond to the “seed of religion” implanted within them (I.iv.1)?
8. What would Calvin say to people who thought that “zeal for religion ... is sufficient” (I.iv.3)?
For reflection: How would Calvin respond to the claim that some non-Christians are genuinely seeking to worship and serve the true God?
For reflection: What implications does Calvin’s argument have for contemporary evangelism?
9. In I.iv.4, Calvin discusses “a second sin.” What is this sin, and how (according to Calvin) do people commit it?
For reflection: How does Calvin’s argument so far (I.i-iv) fit with what Paul says in Romans 1:18–32?
In I.v Calvin covers in more detail some of the themes he has already discussed in the previous chapters. I suggest you move more quickly through this chapter, though you may find it helpful to look at the sections highlighted in questions 10 and 11.
*10. In what particular ways does God make himself known to humanity (I.v.1-2)?
*11. How do we naturally respond to what God has revealed to us (I.v.4-5, 9-13)?
*12. What important points does Calvin make as he summarises his argument in I.v.14-15?
13. What has God done in order “to direct us aright” to him (I.vi.1)?
14. How should God’s revelation in Scripture affect how believers look at and understand the world around us (I.vi.3-4)?
For reflection: How does Calvin’s argument in these chapters shape your attitude to evangelism?