Book 3 Chapter 21 Section 1-7
“As we know, there are known knowns. There are things we know we know.
We also know there are known unknowns. That is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns, the ones we don’t know we don’t know.”
US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, February 2002.
So reads one of the most memorable quotes of recent years. I was reminded of this quote when reading the first in four of Calvin’s chapters on election and predestination (chapters 21-24). I think Calvin would agree that there are many things within the sovereign election of God that we know we know, there are a lot of other things that we know we don’t know, and there are some things we don’t even realise we don’t know….confused? We’ve only just started!
Calvin begins by emphasising the purpose of God in revealing these truths to us, even if we do not understand their full depth. The teaching has two aims – to humble us, making us feel how much we are bound to him, and, secondly, to give a sure ground to our confidence in him. God’s desire is not that our understanding of election leads us to insecurity or idle speculation, but a firm and secure faith. If we are trusting in Christ’s death and resurrection then we are safe, for Christ “promises safety to all that the Father hath taken under his protection.”
Secondly Calvin states that we should not be ashamed to embrace the revealed truths of scripture. God makes it clear that there are some things that he has hidden from us (for his own reasons) and there are other things that he has expressly made clear (Deuteronomy 29.29). We should not be afraid to admit our ignorance in certain issues – such as this present topic. As he elegantly states “let us not be ashamed to be ignorant in a matter in which ignorance is learning.”
But there are those who say the potential implications of teaching this doctrine – that God choose a people before time began to be his and in time redeemed them through no goodness or works of their own – are too dangerous. They say it should be not be mentioned in case people fall into the traps of endless curiosity or proud presumption. While Calvin recognises the need for moderation (indeed these four chapters represent only a small proportion of his total teaching in the Institutes), he exhorts us to speak when scripture speaks and remain silent when scripture is silent. To leave no teaching of scripture neglected and no curiosity of man entertained.
He sums as a general rule that “the secret things of God are not to be scrutinised, and that those which he has revealed are not to be overlooked, lest we may on the one hand be chargeable with curiosity, and on the other, with ingratitude.” We should be thankful to God for what he has chosen to reveal, even if it is it not as much as we would want to know.
How hard it is to maintain this balance that Calvin strives for – the balance of scripture. To expound those passages that speak of the call of God to all mankind, alongside those which speak of the blessedness of the chosen flock. Our task is not to join the dots, but rather to preach the whole counsel of God. Let us not shirk back from the glorious passages on election, just because we cannot answer every question that the teaching raises. If it is true it must be preached, if it is done with love and balance, God will honour the results.
This topic challenges us to come back to examine our knowledge of ourselves – are we too proud to allow God secrets from us? Do we demand that the creator God explains all his actions and justifies his every move to his creatures? Whether we would like this or not, this is not the God we worship. This doctrine is despised by many today, but for those within the family of God, submission and worship are the only right response.
We have been shown a tiny glimmer of the majesty of the divine wisdom and the blinding light almost makes us feel as though we would be better in the darkness. But what would our faith rest upon without the assurance provided by this teaching? We would be an insecure people, constantly fretting and worrying. God had good reason to reveal a glimpse of his eternal plan for his people – let us respond in wonder and adoration that he not only chose us before the beginning of the world to be his, but he also told us that is what he did through his word. Rightly taught this teaching brings great strength and security to the people of God. Let us not neglect it when we have the opportunity to teach it.
“Do not be quick with your mouth, do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few.” Ecclesiastes 5.2
“But who are you, O man to talk back to God? Shall what is formed say to him who formed it “Why did you make me like this?” Does not the potter have the right to make out of the same lump of clay some pottery for noble purposes and some for common use?” Romans 9.20+21
Father, here is where humility is needed most in your people, we tread on holy ground for you have condescended to let us touch the hem of your robe and understand something of your eternal plan. May we not be ungrateful but thankful that you deemed to reveal so much of your secret ways. Amen.