From Your Pastor: John Calvin’s ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion,’ Part 3

The Knowledge of God

“For I believe I have so embraced the sum of religion in all its parts, and have arranged it in such an order, that if anyone rightly grasps it, it will not be difficult for him to determine what he ought especially to seek in Scripture, and to that end he ought to relate its contents.” – Calvin’s preface of the 1559 ‘Institutes’

In 1536, young, twenty-something John Calvin would pen a theological classic that would place it in the stream of earlier Christian classics such as Saint Anselm’s ‘Why God Became Man’, Thomas Aquinas’ ‘Summa Theologiae’, and Thomas a Kempis’ ‘The Imitation of Christ’. This book was the ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion’.

As the quotation from Calvin from his preface of the 1559 edition of ‘Institutes’ states, it was Calvin’s desire to explain Scripture with a deep desire for Christians to know what they believed, and to worship and serve God. Calvin was not interested in just explaining the truth, nor in merely understanding the truth, but He desired to study with the goal of doxology, or the worship and service of God.Piety or godliness was Calvin’s primary concern. Calvin’s thinking can be summed up with the Apostle Paul: O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God…For from Him, and through Him, and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever! Amen (Romans 11:33-36). The knowledge of God was to lead to exalt the Triune God through transformative change and godly worship, all for His glory alone (Psalm 115:1)! There are three important biblical ideas found in the ‘Institutes’: 1) Knowledge of God; 2) True Religion; and 3) Piety. Calvin wrote:

I understand that by which we not only conceive that there is some God, but also apprehend what it is for our interest, and conducive to His glory, what, in short, it is befitting to know concerning Him. For, properly speaking, we cannot say that God is known where there is no religion or piety.

Calvin believed that God had revealed Himself in Holy Scripture so that sinful creatures could know how to enjoy an intimate relationship with the true and living God, to perform true worship of Him, and to live godly lives before Him. He wrote how we can test if our theology is actually true and biblical; he said: “Truth that does not seek to transform the knower is only the empty ghost of knowledge.” Further he wrote that “the theologian should find himself continually drawn on and inspired in his theological quest by a desire for communion and union with God.” As was said of the great Aurelius Augustine (387-430 AD): “Truth entire entered the whole man.”

Calvin believed with Anselm before him in the priority of faith as a gift of God that humbly submits to God’s revelation in Holy Scripture. Thus to have true knowledge, one must be given true faith. Our Lord Jesus said clearly: “If anyone’s will is to do God’s will, he will know whether the teaching is from God or whether I am speaking on my own authority” (John 7:17; cf. Eph. 2:8-10; Heb. 11:1, 6). This biblical-theological methodology of gaining knowledge is summarized as “faith seeking understanding” (Fides Quaerens Intellectum). In fact, Calvin believed with Anselm that the Christian ought to advance through faith in God’s revelation to true knowledge, not to come through knowledge to faith, nor, if she cannot know, recede from faith. But when one is about to attain knowledge, she rejoices; and if unable to understand, she reverences that which she is unable to grasp. In other words, whether one gets it or just grasps at it, it is to bring the Christian to her knees in adoration and glorious praise!

Contrasted with the speculative theology of much of the Medieval Roman Catholics, Calvin’s ‘Institutes’ focused man’s knowledge of God on what God had revealed about Himself. While the Medieval Scholastics tended to emphasize in their theological methodology “What is God in Himself?” (His essence), Calvin believed that one’s methodology of knowing began by asking “Who is God as He is toward us?” (His covenant revelation to His creatures). The focus of Calvin was on how has God revealed Himself in covenant toward us, as He has revealed Himself in Holy Scripture.

This true knowledge of God as it is revealed is with the purpose to invite us to fear God, to trust Him, and to worship Him with purity of life and genuine obedience as we depend upon His goodness toward us. You might say that Calvin and the faithful Medieval interpreters before him had everything in common metaphysically (having to do with God’s essence or being) concerning the knowledge of God, but almost nothing in common epistemologically (how one knows what they know). This was aggravated by two very different understandings of what a sinful man has the ability to do. For Calvin, though man was created reasonable with the ability to think (Eccl. 7:29), without the initiating power of God freeing man’s mind to faith, man would just irrationally refuse the reasonable revelation that is around, within, and in front of him (cf. Rom. 1:19-25; 1 Cor. 2:9-14)!

This was a remarkable change in doing theology. There is a strong covenantal influence upon Calvin’s theology both in form (methodology) and content (teaching/substance). For Calvin, knowledge of God was not God’s knowledge, but what humans can know of Him. Calvin warned that on the path to true wisdom and sound knowledge, one is to be one’s guard against three errors: (1) Ignorance (about God’s revelation), (2) Inappropriate and excessive curiosity (asking questions about God that hasn’t been revealed), and (3) Theological knowledge that did not transform one’s heart and life. This reveals the heart of Calvin as a theologian, to be a pastor-theologian. He desires to inform, to speak where Scripture speaks and to be silent where Scripture is silent (Deut. 29:29), and to expect personal transformation by the Spirit through true theological knowledge. This was the true and sound wisdom of his thesis:

“All the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves.”

True knowledge of God and sound and biblical wisdom understood that God’s existence was self-evident, though man refused to recognize this because of sin, that faith is to be seeking understanding and is not equal with reason because reason has been tainted by sin, and that arguments for the existence of God must never form our theological foundation, because the best one can do with what they know is to suppress, smother and corrupt the truth into idolatries and mythologies. Arguments for the existence of God could be props and good supports for faith, but only revelation from Holy Scripture should be the Christian’s foundation. What good is it if God has clearly revealed Himself, yet man denies it, or perverts it, or corrupts it, or seeks to smother it? What good is it to prove a god, but to not acknowledge the True and Living Triune God? Calvin taught that this was at best to commit idolatry and to rob the true God of his honor and glory!

Calvin knew that man’s whole self was tainted and marred by sin, and must be freed by God’s grace and power to be submissive from the heart to Scriptural revelation as it is revealed by the Spirit. God has clearly revealed Himself within man, and in creation, and so natural revelation is clear and natural theology is possible from what God has revealed. However, though the natural revelation is clear, because of sin’s taint on man’s heart and mind, natural theology is impossible. Man will never properly use the clear revelation in the “light of nature” to find the one and living true Triune God, but only idolatry or “my-theology” (mythology).

Though man can know much about God in creation and conscience, man’s understanding and heart smothers and corrupts this truth. Therefore, though God is clearly revealed, He has been kind to grant to us Holy Scripture. Calvin used the imagery of spectacles to describe what Scripture did for sinful man:

Just as old and bleary-eyed men or those with weak vision, if you thrust before them a most beautiful volume, even if they recognize it to be some sort of writing, yet can scarcely construe two words, but with the aid of spectacles will begin to read distinctly: so scripture, gathering up the otherwise confused knowledge of God in our minds, having dispersed our dullness, clearly shows us the true God.

Calvin’s ‘Institutes’ was his life’s teaching and writing project to help Christians to understand Holy Scripture and to have the spectacles that sinful man needed, while fully dependent upon the illuminating and enlightening of the work of the Holy Spirit. Calvin wrote:

“By this power [of the Holy Spirit] we are drawn and inflamed, knowingly and willingly, to obey Him, yet also more vitally and more effectively than by human willing or knowing” (Institutes, 1.7.5, 1559 edition).



To be continued…


Let us pray with Calvin:

“Grant, Almighty God, that since it is the principal part of our happiness that in our pilgrimage through this world there is open to us a familiar access to you by faith, O grant that we may be able to come with a pure heart into your presence. And when our lips are polluted, O purify us by your Spirit, so that we may not only pray to you with the mouth but also prove that we do this sincerely, without any dissimulations, and that we earnestly seek to spend our whole life in glorifying your name; until being at length gathered into your celestial kingdom, we may be truly and really united to you, and be made partakers of that glory, which has been brought forth for us by the blood of your only begotten Son. Amen.”


Next Study: Calvin’s Institutes, Part 4: Theological Content and Growth of Institutes



Bibliography/For Further Reading

Beach, J. Mark. Piety’s Wisdom: A Summary of Calvin’s Institutes with Study Questions.

Beeke, J, Hall, David W., and Haykin, Michael. Theology Made Practical: New Studies on John Calvin and His Legacy.

Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion (1541, Calvin’s Own Essentials Edition).

__________ Edited by John T. McNeill. Institutes of the Christian Religion (2 Volumes)

Calhoun, David B. Knowing God and Ourselves: Reading Calvin’s Institutes Devotionally.

Godfrey, W. Robert. John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor.

Gordon, Bruce. John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion: A Biography.

_________. Calvin.

Hall, David W. and Lillback, Peter A. A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes: Essays and Analysis (Calvin 500 Series).

Lane, Anthony N. S. A Reader’s Guide to Calvin’s Institutes.

Lawson, Steven J. The Expository Genius of John Calvin

McKee, Elsie Anne, ed. John Calvin: Writings on Pastoral Piety (Classics of Western Spirituality).

Parker, T. H. L. Calvin: An Introduction to His Thought

Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church, Vol. VIII: The Swiss Reformation

Selderhuis, Herman J. John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life.

________. The Calvin Handbook.

________. Calvin’s Theology of the Psalms.

Wendel, Francois. Calvin: Origins and Development of His Religious Thought