Fernando Reads Calvin: Book I, Chapter 1

Of the Knowledge of God the Creator: The Knowledge of God and of Ourselves Mutually Connected


I’m going to go out on a limb here — I don’t think there’s a single line in Chapter 1 of Calvin’s work I disagree with. If anything, it’s far more true than I realized when I first read it years ago. Part of that may be due to a changed position: I first read Calvin as a seeker, not sure which branch of Christianity I belonged in and, in that position, the new (and often confusing) options Calvin brought that I had never considered were bewildering and hard. In the years since, however, I like to think I’m a modicum wiser: I have lived more, sinned more, confessed more, and been forgiven for more. I am home in the Anglican church, and so I have a ground to stand on as I read. And, I find Calvin’s opening chapter not only acceptable, but tested and proven.

The chapter is a short one, but full of content. It begins with the simple but loaded thought:

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.

I appreciate Beveridge’s Calvin covering his bases with the word “almost” there. I’m not sure what concession he wanted to leave open, and maybe he didn’t know either. I’ll leave it to the learned in other fields to tell me what sorts of knowledge don’t fall into Calvin’s two categories. Every subject I can think of falls into the latter, even if it’s not at first obviously knowledge of our selves. For even when we study and speak of things beyond ourselves — the weather, or what have you — we speak, really, of our perception or understanding of such things. We illustrate this even with mock questions: “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” has never been funny, but it illustrates how much of our understanding and thinking revolves around our own senses and experience.

To sense, and know, and comprehend, is a recursive deference between thinker and object. Later, other thinkers such as Hume would illustrate this and move towards skepticism. But for Calvin, our senses and our minds that interpret the sensory data both come from God. Calvin’s God is very much like standing near a mountain: you might not realize its size and strength at first; you might not be paying attention to it at all. But take a step back and get a wider view, and you realize the mountain you didn’t notice was not only there the whole time, but it dominated the area. Reading Calvin often requires such backsteps.

Observe the ocean. Imagine its waves crashing against the beach in the evening, wetting your feet. Take a step back from the sight and sound of the waves, and you find yourself thinking about the eyes and ears you are seeing the ocean with, and the sensation of wetness on your own feet. You lose the ocean in contemplating yourself. Another step back and, in our post-Cartesian world questions about the senses themselves come up: what is sight, or sound, or touch, and does it even matter? Calvin, blessed with his unique mind, finds the final step backwards easy: he cannot start this train of thought, without finally contemplating the God who created eyes that see and ears that hear, as well as light and sound waves to be seen and heard.

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 but 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.

Is this insulting? I’ve heard people find it so. Perhaps because they are thinking of what else they know or think they know about Calvinism’s “Total depravity,” they (justifiably) bring that baggage to this passage. Calvin’s language is often strong, so people might balk at “poverty” or “miserable ruin” being used to describe themselves. But Calvin, after all, is describing the condition that sin brings on the world, without Christ. What better term for it? He is, further, drawing the comparison between a sinful world and a sinless God. So in those lights, what disagreement is there? In either case — in saying that Adam ruined Eden, or in saying that whatever good thing I may have, God has infinitely more of it — I fail to see the insult. What’s the alternative? To say that my virtue is comparable to God’s, after all? How silly!

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.

I take this as acknowledgment that a negative knowledge of God is still a knowledge of God — i.e., someone realizes something is missing, but doesn’t know what that something might be. It creates a searching and longing for God. (People seem to think Calvin is anti-salvation or anti-evangelism. Those people are, simply, wrong.) But in tying knowledge of God to a self-knowledge — and, for Calvin, true self-knowledge is knowledge of the Fall — Calvin, I believe, offers an attractive medium between apophatic and kataphatic theology.

For the apophatic theologian, God is high and beyond understanding. To make positive statements about God limits him, by trying to reduce him to things that can be understood. So rather than trying to know things about what God is, apophatic theology says that we can only know what God is not. Kataphatic theology, on the other hand, makes definite statements about God and his character, generally drawn from what Scripture says God is like.

Calvin’s conception of self-knowledge being linked with knowledge of the divine, I feel, keeps the reverence of apophatic theology along with the confidence of kataphatic theology. From positive knowledge of ourselves comes negative knowledge of God, which leads eventually to a form of positive knowledge: I know I am a certain way, I know that God cannot be the same way, and so I intuit what God might be like. In pondering what God is like, I see more clearly what I truly am. Calvin’s self-knowledge is a perpetual overcoming and denial of self-delusion.

Of course, in this différance between knowledge of God and self is knowledge of the Fall, as necessary to human wisdom. Knowledge of the Fall is inseparable from knowledge of humanity.

I don’t consider myself a cynic. But I do think, that to live wisely in the world, one must remember that it is fallen. In many situations there is no right thing to do. Communication is often hampered by misunderstanding — someone might hear a tone of voice incorrectly, and take offense where no offense was intended. In all conversation it becomes difficult to reconcile the words people say, and what they mean. It comes down, essentially, to trust: do you trust a person said what she meant? And do you trust your hearers not to misunderstand you? All these possible miscommunications are the result of an imperfect world, whether you blame it on Adam or Babel.

So in any thing, even to speak of any subject, one has to deal with the corruption of the Fall on the world and every aspect of it — which, by the way, is that the “total” in “Total Depravity” is supposed to refer to. A better word might be “pervasive.” And so we come full circle, to where we started: that, because of the Fall, all our knowledge of the world is fallen knowledge — and so, leads us to a knowledge of God, if we can come out of denial.

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