Category Archives: Knowledge of God

The Triune God, part 1

Book I Chapter 13 Section 1-13

Calvin now addresses the knowledge of God as He reveals Himself in three Persons. He starts by pointing out that although some have objected to the use of the word “person” to describe God, Calvin argues that it is an important term and that it, along with the word “trinity”, are invaluable to aid our understanding of God and defend against heresies (these will be addressed in more detail in Section 21-29 of this chapter).

Interestingly, Calvin confesses he would happily drop all such terms “provided all would concur in the belief that the Father, Son and Spirit, are one God, and yet that the Son is not the Father, nor the Spirit the Son, but that each has his peculiar subsistence” (persona). Unfortunately history shows that the early church was assailed with all manner of hereies about the Trinity.  Calvin mentions two characters for illustration – Arius and Sabellius.

Arius taught that although Christ was God, He had been created and had a beginning like other creatures. In response the truth was declared that Christ is the eternal Son of the Father and is “consubstantial with the Father” i.e. of the same substance. By contrast Sabellius recognised the triune Godhead, but merged the Father, Son and Spirit together so their was no distinction between them. In reply the church fathers declared that a “Trinity of Persons subsisted in the one God”.

In order to convince his readers of the truth of the Trinity, Calvin moves on to demonstrate the divinity of the Son of God. Calvin does this by firstly highlighting the role of the Son in the creation and sustaining of the world. He then moves onto a number of passages where Jesus expressly takes Old Testament references to Jehovah and applies them to Himself.

Response:

I love how Calvin uses his powers of reasoning in this chapter to expose the falsehood of the Arians and Sabellians. In Section 5 he runs through a mock conversation with them and has them openly confessing the official line on the one hand, but then muttering a whispered caveat to their followers. It’s a great technique to engage his readers and drive the point home of how they deviate from the truth.

It reminds me that heresy is not a word that we hear often these days, but it is still around. And its nature has not changed – it is still half full of orthodox doctrines (so that some would be convinced), but half full of error (so that the convinced are led astray). We still need technical terms that can provide clarity to our creed that can be used to defend against attack. Even if we can never ultimately fully understand or define something as mysterious and wonderful as the Trinity, often the critical thing is to define what it is not so that errors and hereies can be clearly ruled out.

“The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of His being, sustaining all things by His powerful word.” Hebrews 1.3

Father, thank you for those early believers who fought for a correct understanding of who you are. We confess our finite minds cannot fathom the mystery of the “Trinity of persons in one Divine essence”, but we praise you Father, Son and Spirit for your external existence and redeeming work. Amen.

The relational God

labyrinth2Calvin’s Institutes (Book I Chapter X Section 1-3)

In Chapter 10 Calvin returns to the theme of the knowledge of the Creator God as found in the scriptures. By now we appreciate how hard it is to come to a real understanding of who God is. Indeed in Chapter 6 Calvin is honest enough to recognise how hard it is for anyone to come to a true understanding of the Living God. He says “we should consider that the brightness of the Divine countenance, which even the apostle declares to be inaccessible, is a kind of labyrinth, – a labyrinth to us inextricable, if the Word does not serve as a thread to guide our path: and that it is better to limp in the way, than run with the greatest swiftness out of it.” (I.VI.3).

But now Calvin is ready to introduce us to God as he reveals himself in His interactions with mankind.  This enables us to more fully understand and appreciate his attributes as He relates to us as our Creator. The three foundational attributes that God reveals about himself are His:

  1. Loving-kindness – His loving care for His children
  2. Judgment– His disciplining work as a just Sovereign
  3. Righteousness – His saving and preservation of the righteous

His other attributes of truth, power, holiness and goodness are encompassed by these three.

Response:

How true it is that so many today are lost in this labyrinth, dashing headlong towards another dead-end. If, by the Grace of God, we have been shone upon by a shaft of divine light illuminating His character, let us give thanks rather than pretend it was any wisdom or virtue of ours.

God reveals Himself as the relational God, but no one ever said that a relationship with God would be easy. We can’t pick and choose the attributes we would like God to have. We may wish he only had certain attributes that we are comfortable with, but if we are to have a true and meaningful relationship with Him then we must come to Him as He is, not how our culturally moulded sensitivities dictate.

“As a father has compassion on his children, so the Lord has compassion on those who fear Him; for he knows how we are formed, he remembers that we are dust.” Psalm 103.13+14

Father thank you for revealing something of Your character to us, we confess our limited understanding and corrupt minds. Help us to love and adore you as you are and not try to make you fit into our finite minds. We embrace your Fatherhood today and your right to govern this world by Your wisdom and truth, Amen.

Every contact leaves a trace

Book I Chapter V Section 1-6

Those of you that watch CSI (Crime Scene Investigation) will recognise the motto – “every contact leaves a trace”. The evidence can always be found if you know where to look (and you’ve got the latest forensic technology!). Its uncanny how they always seem to be able to figure out the most complex crimes in around 45 minutes, but they manage it.

When it comes to investigating the evidence for a creator, Calvin makes exactly same point in this chapter.  That is, as well as the testimony of the divine seed within us (Chapter 3) we can know God through his creative activity – if we can interpret the evidence before us. We might not be able to see God directly, but Calvin argues that we can see his fingerprints on the world we live in and within our own bodies.

In particular Calvin focusses on the amazing complexity of the human mind and our faculty for reason and judgement. At one point he speaks of “the swift motions of the soul, its noble faculties and rare endowments” and is amazed that the very attributes which point so clearly to the hand of God have been the very things employed to conjure up arguments against the existence of God. He is almost exasperated when he asks the rhetorical question: “are so many treasures of heavenly wisdom employed in the guidance of such a worm as man, and shall the whole universe be denied the same privilege?”.

He goes on to say  “shall we, by means of a power of judging implanted in our breast distinguish between justice and injustice, and yet there be no judge in heaven?”. Where then did this innate sense of justice come from?

Response:

We are amazing creatures, but do we really think we are the pinnacle of the universe? If in our daily lives we give so much thought and consideration to what seems a simple task to someone who might observe us, why do we observe the highly complex activities of the natural world and say that it is all driven by chance?

“When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honour…O Lord, our Lord how majestic is your name in all the earth!” Psalm 8.3-5+9

Our Father, even when we are amazed at how complex our minds and bodies are, we are microscopic when placed alongside you. Yet you care for us and are tenderhearted towards us, you know our lives intimately and watch our every step. We are humbled by your attention and grateful for all our blessings, Amen.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

Book I Chapter IV Section 1-4

In this Chapter Calvin examines how mankind has responded to the sense of the divine that that we read about in the previous chapters. Have they gratefully acknowledged this truth and sought more light? Unfortunately not; rather than lead them to a deeper understanding of God, they have instead suppressed the truth.

Calvin admits that this suppression may be done ignorantly (and lead to superstition), or maliciously (leading to intentional rebellion against God’s rule).  When the superstition is combined with our natural spiritual blindness, as a result of original sin, it results in spiritual pride and stubbornness.  From this position true knowledge of God is impossible, instead a sanitised, impotent god is constructed in our own image and understanding.  Although Calvin has some sympathy for the spiritually blind, he states that they too are without excuse because their pride leads them headlong into error.

On the other hand there are those who willfully suppress the truth that has been revealed to them. They close their own eyes to his truth and he responds by hardening their hearts.  Calvin suggests that they do not deny God’s existence but his activity – “He (the fool) says to himself “God has forgotten; he covers his face and never sees”” Psalm 10.11. This kind of rebel does not say that God is not there, but that if he is there he will not act.

Calvin’s final point is that a man-made God is always a tame God. True religion is worshipping God on his terms or not at all. Anything else is man’s image projected onto the clouds. Indeed, although the rebel and the superstitious seem poles apart, both groups have this in common – they both abhor the right of God to govern his creatures according to his own justice and truth. The former rejects and runs, the latter kowtows and corrupts – spreading false rumours and misguided opinions from within the walls. Both would rather overthrow God than allow him to exercise his rightful rule and authority.

The true test of whether our religion be superstition or genuine is firstly whether we allow God to be God and not accommodate him to our culture or personal sensitivities and secondly whether the fruit is good. The superstitious would rather indulge than restrain and they finally become lost in “a maze of error”.

Response:

There is a lot to consider in today’s reading. I’m reminded of the passages in the scriptures that speak of those who tried to combine their own misguided views of God with the self-revelation of God through the prophets and apostles. People like Balaam in Numbers 22 and Simon the Sorcerer in Acts 8 stand out as examples of those who really got it wrong.

But the real challenge for me today is how much do I, as someone who believes in the inspiration of scripture, really allow it to alter my view of God and how much do I still try and tame him to fit my own preferences?

“For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as god nor gave thanks to him as God, but their foolish hearts were darkened.” Romans 1.21

Father we come before you to seek to know you as you truly are, not as we would like you to be or as we currently understand you to be. Only you can reveal yourself  – open our hearts and minds to spiritual truths and take down every false view of you. Broaden and deepen our understanding of your character and qualities. Open your word to us that we may see you clearly in every verse. We look to you today, Amen.

Can man live without God?

Can man live without God?Calvin’s Institutes (Book I Chapter III Section 1-3)

The title of this post comes from the title of Ravi Zacharias’ classic apologetic book on atheism. Its also summarises Calvin’s central issue in Chapter 3. Having touched on what we can know of God as our creator in Chapter 2, Calvin now moves on to consider whether the stamp of the creator has left a permanent mark on his creation. Thus, is belief in God something that man has invented or is it “indelibly engraven on the human heart”?

Perhaps the question should be posed this way: do all men, everywhere, over all time, have an innate “sense of the divine” (as Calvin puts it)? The evidence of the religiosity of mankind seems to suggest that a belief in, and worship of, God is something that is not due merely to cultural influences. Calvin is certainly convinced that although there are some atheists in 16th century Europe, the weight of evidence is with him.

However, Western society has shifted in the last 500 years and perhaps Calvin would be less inclined to appeal to “men of sound judgement” to support his case if he was writing today. Western society seems to be determined to rid all trace of that divine spark through its aggressive promotion of secular beliefs. If belief in God was something that came through education and culture then we would indeed have cause to worry, but, as Calvin acknowledges, it is in the womb, not the classroom, that man receives that gift of eternity within his heart.

Response:

After readings Calvin’s arguments and pondering this issue for the last few days I’m left thinking that no one really knows the heart and mind of anyone else on the planet. I am sure there are many people who have never given it one thought and the spark within them is only the glowing embers – but I believe it is there. Why? Because as we learnt in Chapter 1, God knows us better than we know ourselves, if his word tells me it is there in all people then I’m with him. So the question becomes: Does God believe in atheists (to quote another book, this time by John Blanchard)?

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men.”

Ecclesiastes 3.11

Father, thank you that you have left the marks of your handiwork all over our hearts and minds. You made us to yearn for immortality and eternity, I thank you that this is not a futile pursuit. Thank you for this gift and the flame within us to know you more. Amen.

God knows you better than you know yourself

God knows you better than you know yourselfCalvin’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.

Response:

  • 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