Calvin’s Institutes (Book I Chapter I Section 1-3)
One of the most famous sentences in the Institutes is the opening line…”almost all wisdom consists of two parts – knowledge of God and of ourselves.” In this short chapter Calvin describes his thoughts on how we begin to come to an understanding of a real knowledge of ourselves and God. His thesis is that to know God we must also know ourselves and visa versa.
Calvin sees it as self-evident that mankind’s innate reason, sense of justice and sense of the divine are indicators of the origin of these qualities in the creator. Moreover, the constant stream of blessings from God should lead us back to the origin of such blessings. He goes on to argue that our own natural condition of moral bankruptcy resulting from Adam’s fall should cause us to seek our spiritual sustenance from God and result in humble reverence towards him.
Why then is mankind in such denial of these truths and so unwilling to turn to God? Because they are unaware of their true state. Calvin argues that man naturally doesn’t know himself or realise his true position.
Only when we look into the face of God do we really understand the depth of our corruption – as we really are and not as we see ourselves. Until we stop making created things the measure of goodness we will never realise how bad things are. Its as if we have spiritual cataract that colours everything we view in this world with a misguided view of our true nature, particularly our righteousness, wisdom and virtue. Because everything we have ever seen or contemplated in this world is also tainted we have no conception of the depths of these virtues within God’s being. To prove his point Calvin mentions the cherubim as created beings that are sinless and pure, who yet cover their faces from the holiness of the Lord.
- The best of man’s goodness, graciousness and wisdom are mere imaginings of beauty when set beside the divine attributes.
- If those created beings who are without sin are overwhelmed in God’s presence, what should our response be?
- If a glimpse of his glory made Moses’ face radiant, then to see his true majesty would truly devastate us and yet how often we come before this God so easily and cheaply.
“All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.” Isaiah 64.6
Oh Father, we confess our amazement at how patient you are with us. We think we understand ourselves and our hearts, but before you every desire and thought is laid bare. You are the one who see us as we really are, while we only skim the surface of our sinful hearts. Help us always to rely on the complete and perfect redemption that takes away all our known and unknown faults, makes us whole again and one day will set us perfect before you. We rest in you and the cross of Jesus Christ. Amen
If your wondering how much commitment would be required before commiting to the reading plan then this is a link to an online version of the Beveridge edition:
These will help give you an idea of how much reading is scheduled for each day – normally about 3 pages. I read the first day’s section the other day and it took 7 minutes to read. However, understanding it is another issue!!
Most people only know the name Calvin as the cheeky young boy with the pet tiger called Hobbes, however the first Calvin is one of the most important fathers of the Christian faith. Over the last few months of 2008 I became increasingly convicted to dust off my copy of Calvin’s Institutes from my shelf. It has been sitting there for a good few years looking at me every time I passed by the bookshelf. I initially did some digging and found some free lectures on the web: http://www.worldwide-classroom.com/courses/info/ch523/ that I have started listening to… and I even found a daily reading plan to help me read it in a year that I am going to work through starting in January.
At first I managed to put the still small voice to the back of my mind that was telling me to spread the net wider and see if there is anyone out there who would join me in the challenge of reading the whole of Calvin’s Institutes during 2009…however, it seems that Calvin is everywhere I look at the moment! Just the other day I saw that the editors of Reformation21 are doing a blog on the Institutes every week day during 2009 (http://www.reformation21.org/calvin/) and they have written a couple of short articles, notably “10 Reasons to Read the Institutes”, including:
“1. Because it the most important book written in the last 500 years.
2. Because it is foundational for every Reformed systematic theology ever since.
3. Because Calvin was the best exegete in the history of Christianity.
4. Because Calvin is one of the five greatest theologians in Christian history.
5. Because he wrote it as a “sum of piety” not as an arid, speculative dogmatic treatise.
6. Because it gave J.I. Packer the idea for “Knowing God.”
7. Because you will know God better, if you read it prayerfully and believingly.
8. Because it’s the 500th anniversary year of Calvin’s birthday. Don’t be a party pooper.”
The writer concludes with this challenge: “Now, did you ever read the Institutes carefully from beginning to end? It is one of the most important theological texts ever written and has been the source of immense help to Christians for four and a half centuries.”
So, after realising 2009 is the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth in 1509, I knew it was all over and I had to submit…it would be now or never. So, I’m giving in to the challenge and asking you if you want to join me to read through the Institutes in 2009.
I’m only looking for one or two others to join me in reading it and/or discussing the issues and topics that arise. For those of you who have already read it and are familiar with it, then feel free to feed into the discussions.