Category Archives: Knowledge of God

Reflections on reading Book I

Well I’ve finally finished the first of the four books – the knowledge of God and ourselves. I’m taking a quick break from the regular posts to share some of my thoughts after reading Book I of Calvin’s Institutes over the last two months. Four things have struck me:

1. He doesn’t try to square the circle. I have been impressed with how far Calvin will go to grapple with complex issues such as the trinity and providence. He uses many different approaches to try and understand these truths and interacts with many controversial views. But he is also more than willing to stop when human intellect can go no further. He is content to submit himself to the Word as the final authority on these doctrines, not human reason.

2. More apologetics than I expected. I expected lots of teaching on the doctrine of God, but there has been much more apologetical reasoning on the credibility of the scriptures, how we know truth, understanding atheists and assessing false religion. It has been great to see how someone of Calvin’s ability writing in the 16th century approached these issues. The truth is that there were many of the same issues back then as there are now… nevertheless, Calvin was…

3. A man of his time. Living and teaching in the 16th century Calvin had no idea the challenges that were to assail the church from evolution and higher criticism (to name just two). For him it was self-evident that even the non-church goer would acknowledge the divine craftsmanship within the universe. While Calvin does spend time arguing for a Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, some of his arguments need to be supplemented with modern evangelical scholarship.

4. More devotional than academic. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by Calvin’s warmth and devotion during these chapters. He was a man of deep passion for God’s truth. It is clear he loved his Saviour intensely. Calvin sometimes gets a bad press as cold and calculating, but reading his work for yourself its clear these are more characterures than reality.

So onto Book II – the knowledge of God the redeemer. I’m just about managing to keep up with the blogging and reading, lets see how this next book goes, the plan says I’ll be finished on 21st April… God willing.

A straight line with a crooked stick

Book I Chapter XVIII Section 1-4

If God controls all things and directs them according to His plan and purpose, including even the actions of Satan himself, then how can He also be free from all blame as well? This is the most common objection to the doctrine of providence and it is to this that Calvin applies himself in this chapter. He  tries to understand the issue by laying out some proposed solutions:

1. God permits evil but does not will it. This is the idea that God sits back and does nothing when evil occurs, He allows it to happen but does not want it to. The question here is if God “permits” things to happen does He do so willingly or unwillingly? Does He turn a blind eye as a passive spectator or does He in some sense will these things to happen? We know that God cannot be completely in control of all creation, and yet not also be completely in control of evil events occurring in that creation. God Himself testifies in His word that He is in control of events, whether good or evil (e.g. Isaiah 45.7, Amos 3.6). So if we agree that in some sense He is willing, or controlling, these events, that are against His declared will written in the law, does that mean He has two wills?…

2. There are two contrary wills in God. This tries to address the question of how God can decree by a “secret counsel” what He openly prohibits in His law. In Himself His will “is one and undivided, to us it appears manifold, because from the feebleness of our intellect, we cannot comprehend how, though after a different manner, He wills and wills not the very same thing”.

Calvin uses the example of the death of Christ as an event which was against the precept of God (“thou shalt not murder”) but at the same time it was willed by God to happen (Acts 4.28). Augustine puts it this way when speaking of that which is done contrary to His law “nor does He permit it unwillingly, but willingly; nor would He who is good permit evil to be done, were He not omnipotent to bring good out of evil”. Or as Luther put it, “God can use a crooked stick to draw a straight line” or as Dr David Calhoun says in lecture 6 of his lectures on the Institutes: “we do not know how God wills to take place what He forbids to be done”.

3. God is the author of sin. If we agree that God uses the agency of the wicked but also governs their “counsels and affections” for His own purposes then are not the wicked unjustly punished for only doing what He wanted? Is He not complicit in their crimes? But Calvin argues we are confusing God’s will with His precept. for while evil men “act against the will of God, His will is accomplished in them”. He argues that these men are following the evil desires of their hearts and that “they are not excusable as if they were obeying His precepts, which of set purpose they violate according to their lust”. Each is responsible for his own sin, irrespective of how God overrules the outcome.

Response

Confused? That’s probably a good sign, my head hurts. Well does Calvin say “the feebleness of our intellect” in understanding such deep truth. This is a hard teaching and at this point its important not to react by throwing our hands up in the air and saying its impossible to understand any of this so why bother. Calvin recognises this danger and warns against discarding a truth revealed in scripture just because it exceeds our capability to understand it!

He also reminds us that if these truths were not useful to be known God would never have ordered his prophets and apostles to teach them. Even though we cannot understand how God accomplishes His will through evil instruments we cannot deny that this is what the scriptures teach. How should we deal with these hard truths? “Our true wisdom is to embrace with meek docility, and without reservation, whatever the Holy Scriptures have delivered”.

“I form the light and create darkness, I bring prosperity and create disaster; I, the Lord, do all these things.” Isaiah 45.7

Father, once again we have reached the end of human wisdom. Help us to trust in Your wisdom and gracious loving care. As a child trusts their father to do right, we trust you even when we can’t understand you. We are the creatures, you are the Creator. You are infinite, we are finite. Bring us all to the place of clearly understanding what the scriptures teach, and there may we stop and gaze, lost in wonder and adoration at Your infinite wisdom. Amen.

The Triune God, part 2

Book I Chapter XIII Section 14-29

In this section Calvin seeks to demonstrate the divinity of the Spirit as the third person of the Trinity. He points to the Spirit’s omnipresent ministry as an evidence of His divine nature. He also points out the indiscriminate way that scripture ascribes authoritative utterances from God to the Holy Spirit – thus making the Spirit equivalent with God. Finally he raises the question that if the Spirit is the author of our spiritual gifts and means of regeneration and sanctification then how can He not be divine and yet accomplish all this?

In the final section Calvin moves on to discuss in more detail some of the controversies that have arisen over the issue of the Trinity. His strategy to counter them is to repeatedly draw out the unity and distinction within the Trinity found in the scriptures. The Persons of the Trinity are united in respect to their substance and yet distinct in respect to their relationship to each other and role in the creation and redemption of the world.

Response:

This chapter has been the most challenging so far, not because of the length or depth but because of the limitations of language. The Trinity stretches the ability of English, French, Greek etc to its limit in order to try and explain the infinite, to comprehend the impossible, to express the unimaginable. It reminds me of the apocalyptic literature when John, Daniel and Ezekiel etc struggled to capture and record what they were seeing. So we have Ezekiel describing his vision of “wheels within wheels…full of eyes” (Ezekiel 1.16-18).

Similarly when we are trying to understand and describe the Trinity, we are at the limit of simile and metaphor. Even with our most precise language there is very little we can definitively say about the Trinity, but that there is one God in three Persons, each united in substance but distinct in relation to each other.

Like Calvin our response must be one of wonder and awe, not idle curiosity or vain speculation. It is easy to get lost in such mysterious truths and we would do well not to go one inch beyond the revealed truth.

“He (the Spirit) will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you. All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will take from what is mine and make it known to you.” John 16. 14-15

Father, like David we feel that such knowledge is “too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain”, help our finite minds to grasp something of the wonder of your essence – who you are within yourself – your self-existent, self-sufficient nature. Amen.

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