Wednesday, January 07, 2009

1 The Institutes: Want to Know Yourself? Know God!

At the beginning of Calvin's Institutes I am always struck by what I find to be a most useful summary of "wisdom":
Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. (p. 35, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
This statement and the accompanying chapter lay out a very important foundation for our pursuit of any wisdom at all - in this brief chapter, Calvin lays out the bare facts of life - that one cannot possibly know God without obtaining true knowledge of our frailty; and that one cannot truly know onesself until he knows the power and majesty of God. This seemingly circular argument is neverthless flawless - and ultimately is undergirded by the illumination of the Holy Spirit, which is required for either of these true conceptions to come to us.

In section 1.1, Calvin writes that we cannot, without understanding the weakness and impotence of ourselves, lift our eyes out of the muck in which we live. If we are enabled to examine ourselves in any light at all, our thoughts upon reflecting on the facts of our existence will necessarily rise above ourselves... though this requires us to get out of our natural pridefulness and man-centeredness. We must be discontented with our state, or we won't look.
Thus, from the feeling of our own ignorance, vanity, poverty, infirmity, and-what is more-depravity and corruption, we recognize that the true light of wisdom, sound virtue, full abundance of every good, and purity of righteousness rest in the Lord alone. To this extent we are prompted by our own ills to contemplate the good things of God; and we cannot seriously aspire to him before we begin to become displeased with ourselves. (p. 36-7, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
Isn't this evident, today? We see millions of self-impressed individuals, looking after man's achievements, and man's self-perfectability - man's thoughts and man's dreams are seen as paramount... and this because we cannot be bothered to consider our REAL state.

In section 2, Calvin turns the other side of the card... we cannot know ourselves without knowledge of God. He writes,
Again, it is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself5 unless he has first looked upon God's face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself. For we always seem to ourselves righteous and upright and wise and holy -this pride is innate in all of us-unless by clear proofs we stand convinced of our own unrighteousness, foulness, folly, and impurity. Moreover, we are not thus convinced if we look merely to ourselves and not also to the Lord, who is the sole standard by which this judgment must be measured. For, because all of us are inclined by nature to hypocrisy, a kind of empty image of righteousness in place of righteousness itself abundantly satisfies us. And because nothing appears within or around us that has not been contaminated by great immorality, what is a little less vile pleases us as a thing most pure-so long as we confine our minds within the limits of human corruption. (p. 37-38, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
One is truly ignorant of self-knowledge without knowledge of the almighty God - for if our thoughts never ascend upward, will we not be doomed to live with our eyes trained on things below, with excessive delusions of human grandeur? Our world is full of those satisfied with ethics derived from humanistic considerations, as though they are on good ethical ground in their systems that fail to reference God almighty "I am a good person" is the motto of the day - but this cannot last when brought face to face with God Himself. Calvin is rather pointed on this subject, writing
As long as we do not look beyond the earth, being quite content with our own righteousness, wisdom, and virtue, we flatter ourselves most sweetly, and fancy ourselves all but demigods. Suppose we but once begin to raise our thoughts to God, and to ponder his nature, and how completely perfect are his righteousness, wisdom, and power-the straightedge to which we must be shaped. Then, what masquerading earlier as righteousness was pleasing in us will soon grow filthy in its consummate wickedness. What wonderfully impressed us under the name of wisdom will stink in its very foolishness. What wore the face of power will prove itself the most miserable weakness. That is, what in us seems perfection itself corresponds ill to the purity of God. (p. 38, Institutes of the Christian Religion)
Finally in section 3, Calvin addresses the impact of this vision of God upon a man. When even the most holy of men encounters the living God, there is but one reaction... awestruck amazement and self-abasement. Holy fear. This Calvin illustrates by his examples of Job, Abraham and Ezekiel (and I would add, Isaiah), who fell down on their faces, literally or figuratively, when encountered by God Himself. I fail to understand how today's "buddy-buddy god" has taken the place of Jehovah God, the God of all power and might, holy and awesome. That those who content themselves with this view of God can consider their view "humble" is far beyond me. How any can claim humility and a true knowledge of self if God is not known as absolutely Holy and Sovereign is something I cannot grasp. It is inconsistent with the examples of our most holy elder brothers in the faith, and with the Biblical picture of who we are and who God is.

In the next chapter, Calvin takes up the subject of knowing God - what is that knowledge, and what is its purpose.


Dr._Jim Husen said...

Cool blog. I read the article on wisdom as knowing God and self quoting Calvin. I too have been impressed with this idea from Calvin for many years and return to it often. Most recently in reading Colossians 1:9-10 "And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding,so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God." (ESV)

Jim (


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