Fernando Reads Calvin: Book I, Chapter 2

What it is to Know God. — Tendency of this Knowledge.

In the second chapter of his work, Calvin clarifies a bit of what he said in the first chapter, and building on it. In some ways it complicates the issue, at least for my purposes here. Calvin and I — indeed, any two humans — have different frameworks in mind, and we’re both bringing personal baggage to this discussion.* It’s one thing when Calvin says, “Knowledge of God increases knowledge of ourselves, and vice versa” and I say “Jean, I completely agree.” But now Calvin says “And what I mean by knowledge is…”, and it turns out I break with him.

What we have here, then, is the first break between the Wesleyan (or at least, this Wesleyan) and Calvin’s thought. It’s subtle maybe, and perhaps not what some might expect at casual first glance. But it’s emblematic of the larger issues, as I will try to show.

By the knowledge of God, 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. [. . .] Since, then the Lord first appears, as well in the creation of the world as in the general doctrine of Scripture, simply as a Creator and afterwards as a Redeemer in Christ, — a twofold knowledge arises.

Just as Calvin’s statement that our wisdom is twofold in knowledge of God and of ourselves, knowledge of God follows the same structure. What Calvin is here saying, is that we can only have knowledge of God by our relationships with him. This relationship has two parts, and all human beings have at least the first: the Creator/creature relationship. Only Christians, however, have the fullness of it, which adds a Forgiver/forgiven relationship to it. For Calvin, this is the only appropriate theology. We can understand God as Creator, and as Redeemer. There are surely more aspects to him, but we cannot know them. Why? Simply because that is not our relationship to him. We are subjects. And the subjects of a king will hardly be expected to know details of the king’s personal life that he has not chosen to share.

In other words, we can’t know about God as God, or at the very least not as God knows God. We don’t know what the Trinity thinks to/towards/about/within/among itself. We weren’t there “before” the creation of the world to know what God was like “before” he was actually the Creator. (What a terrible word, “before.” It creates a false impression of what I mean; but then there are no words for what I mean really.) If humanity ceased to exist, right now, God would still be God, and if God had never created the universe he wouldn’t be any less God than he is now. Whatever “God” means in that context, we don’t know. So, as Calvin says, Those, therefore, who, in considering this question, propose to inquire what the essence of God is, only delude us with frigid speculation. Trying to think (or even worse, debate!) theological aspects of God outside of relationship will only result in idolatry.

I believe all of the above.

My break with Calvin comes in the ways and hows of that relational knowledge.

But although our mind cannot conceive of God, without offering some worship to him, it will not, however, be sufficient simply to hold that he is the only being whom all out to worship and adore, unless we are also persuaded that he is the fountain of all goodness, and that we must seek everything in him, and in none but him.

For what it’s worth, I think the above statement is true as well, except as I said — when I say the statement above, I mean something different by it.

Let’s take, for example, the claim that one cannot think of God without worshiping him. That’s a bold claim. I think it could be true, but if and only if one has a very broad view of “worship.” Consider the person whose child is injured or killed in some crime. In her rage and shock, she wonders, “How can this happen?” and again, “I demand punishment.” In the raw heartbreak of emotion and the cry for justice, there is (qua Rob Bell) implicit the knowledge and desire for God in his absence, or at the absolute very least the imagination that there is a God. Such persons might not know God as God — this Trinitarian deity, the Son of God crucified for the sins of the world — they have no idea about that. But in the abstract, nevertheless, they are speaking out as a created being before a Creator. They are still working within that irrevocable relationship Creator-God has with his creatures. And they are longing for him to come. They are like Job — and Job did not know Christ. That longing, thirsting, aching hunger for God… yes, I’d call that worship.

Is such “worship” salvific? Perhaps not. Why should it be? That’d be like saying that starving people could live off of their hunger instead of food.

But this worship cannot exist in Calvin’s paradigm. He simply does not look at God in that way. God is the source of all good — for the Calvinist and the Wesleyan both. So then, if one sees goodness or even beauty enduring in the midst of such turmoil, the Wesleyan can say “Even now, God is here.” But Calvin says instead, “since God is not there, it cannot actually be goodness or beauty, but some lie.” And so, Calvin’s statement — despite being true in some sense— is one I can’t hold, in the way he means it.

For this sense of the divine perfections is the proper master to teach us piety, out of which religion springs. [ . . . ] For, until men feel that they owe everything to God, that they are cherished by his paternal care, and that he is the author of all their blessings, so that nought is to be looked for away from him, they will never submit to him in voluntary obedience; nay, unless they place their entire happiness in him, they will never yield up their whole selves to him in truth and sincerity.

Let me rephrase that. Now, it’s possible I’m misunderstanding this (and if you have an alternate reading, please share it.) But it sounds to me as though it says, “Until one trusts God, one can never come to obey him.” In other words, one cannot be saved until one is already saved. Which, though it’s grossly simplistic, is a pretty fair way of looking at Calvinism (said the poet).

Still, come away with this all with the reassurance that for Calvin, knowledge of God and ourselves means knowledge of God as Creator and Saviour — and that, believably, true knowledge of this sort instills love. Because Calvin ends the chapter, at least, with something I can agree on (with one allowance):

Such is pure and genuine religion, namely, confidence in God coupled with serious fear — fear, which both includes in it willing reverence, and brings along with it such legitimate worship as is prescribed  by the law. And it ought to be more carefully considered that all men promiscuously do homage to God, but very few truly reverence him. On all hands there is abundance of ostentatious ceremonies, but sincerity of heart is rare.

— remembering, of course, that God’s judgment always begins in the Church.

*Yes, reading a person’s book totally counts as having a conversation with that person. If you’re a good reader, that is.

It makes sense that only Christians can have knowledge of God the way Calvin sees it, though. After all, if God can only be known relationally as Creator and Saviour, and is Creator of all and Saviour of (at least in the present sense) only some, it makes sense that the unsaved can only know half of God, at best.

For more on that, read Mary Shelley’s masterpiece Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus. Either the 1818 or 1831 will do.

  1. Alright, you asked for alternative interpretations, so here is what I’ve got.

    Note: I do not have The Institutes in front of me, so I can only go no the context you gave. But here goes.

    “Unless they place their entire happiness in him, they will never yield up their whole selves to him in truth and sincerity.” -Calvin

    I’m not sure that this sounds as if it means salvation. Your initial interpretation seems true: Until one trusts God one cannot obey him. I’d add ‘Until one trusts God for happiness, one cannot fully and sincerely trust him.’

    My thought here is that salvation happens to the broken, and so does sanctification. We cannot fully obey God until we fully trust him. But do we need to fully obey in order to be saved? I hope not.

    I grant that Calvin’s previous statement seems more linked to salvation, when he says

    “For, until men feel that they owe everything to God, that they are cherished by his paternal care, and that he is the author of all their blessings, so that nought is to be looked for away from him, they will never submit to him in voluntary obedience.”

    It seems to me that obedience grows with knowledge, and vice versa. This is a lot like the two-fold model of knowledge (of God and of Self). As knowledge of God increases (knowledge here meaning true knowledge), so will obedience.

    Somewhere grace lines up in there, but I suppose that will come later.

    Does that make any sense?

    • It does make sense. However, there are two reasons I was attributing the obedience to salvation:

      First, I’m operating a sort of assumption — one that may be proven false as I keep reading — that repentance is an act of obedience, at least for Calvin. Because he puts a lot of emphasis on the law (not as law vs. grace, but as Christ fulfilling the law) it seems that repentance, compelled as it is by irresistible grace, is an act of obedience and submission. Only then, once the call to repent has been obeyed, can sanctification begin.

      Second and related, I think the first reason is a fair reading, because Calvin speaks of the twofold knowledge of God as Creator and Saviour, and this is all God can be known as. We all have the Creator/creature relationship, but the Forgiver/forgiven relationship is more rare. As he said, God is first Creator to us all, and only afterwards Redeemer. Thus, it would appear to me that he is saying, that only once knows and trusts God as a creature to the Creator and believes that as Creator he is the source of all good things, only then can he enter into the Forgiven/forgiver relationship by being saved.

  2. I will begin with the huge caveat that I have read very little of Calvin’s Institutes–so forgive any ignorance and or misreading–having once been part of a Reformed Church, most of my understanding of Calvin is grounded in that community’s interpretations.

    All that being said is it seems that retroactively you disagree with Calvin from the very get-go, namely, you both are working with radically different notions of what “knowledge” is as such. Calvin would never say this, but in a sense everyone is saved already–they simply need “the understanding” to recognize it. Thus the typical “turn” images in Reformed hymns of god needing to reorient oneself towards god (one is always already relating to god, but through grace one is awakened, born-again, turned, wooed, etc).

    I think James makes a great point about these “two” modes of knowing being reciprocal–this is, in short, because they are the basics of all hermeneutics: I gather information about that which is outside and interpret it, from these interpretations I gather principles by which to interpret (which for Calvin seems to be a greater or truer knowledge), which I read back onto what is outside of me, ad infinitum. So too with the twofold knowledge of god–god as outside the self, i.e. creator, is always already leading everyone to a knowledge of god as personal and within the self (which, once again, seems a greater and truer knowledge for Calvin).

    Thus the woman-who-worships by crying out for justice is not receiving salvific grace only because the first sort of knowledge, the implicit cry to the creator-god, the god of the law, the god of justice, etc, does not lead her back to the go who saves, the second kind of knowing, the god who she killed and has already forgiven her if she simply realize this. For Calvin this “realizing,” this “knowing,” or “understanding” is not some mind-act, but highly physical, thus my preference for the term “realizing” (i.e. true knowing then would be, it seems, knowing which leads you back to the first mode of knowing with renewed understanding–i.e., to approach the god of justice with sacrifices, rites, baptism, eucharist, etc., which all in turn lead back to knowledge of god as the one who has already forgiven).

    Now, just for clarification, I may not fully support the sketch of Calvin’s soteri/epistem-ology just outlined above, but this has been my understanding of it. But then again I think during my Reformed days I was a closet Zen Calvinist (which, apparently, is a thing), so this may not be as traditional of a reading of Calvin as I think.

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