Calvin on reality, knowledge and conduct
By Dr. John M. Brentnall
In a highly technical article entitled Philosophic Calvinism (Living for God’s Glory ed. J. R. Beeke, Reformation Trust, 2008 pages 150-159) James Grier argues (using Abraham Kuyper’s Stone Lectures as his starting point) that John Calvin had a unified world view. This view was in principle comprehensive: it embraced theology, philosophy, culture, science and art. “The liberal arts and all the sciences,” said Calvin, “are gifts of God” (Corinthians I.145).
From the many areas of life which Calvin touched, Grier selects three: reality, knowledge and conduct. These areas concern the perennially relevant questions: “What is real?” “How may we know what is real?” and “What should I do once I know what is real?” In this article we shall simplify and supplement (with referenced extracts from Calvin and students of Calvin) Grier’s answers to these questions.
While some thinkers deny the possibility of ever discovering reality, and others offer their own solutions, which amount to nothing more than “a corruption of spiritual doctrine” (Colossians.181), Calvin “provides a rich understanding of what is real.”
Foundational to all other reality is the fact of God, the “uncreated reality.” He is “the triune God of Scripture,” and there is no other able to “interdict His will or actions.” “This self-existing God is sovereign, has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass, and has revealed Himself in nature, in His Son, and in Scripture.” In His wisdom, He chose to create. This act of His brought into being “the second level of reality,” namely, “created reality.” This includes heaven, earth, and everything else that exists.
Because God “sustains all things by the Word of His power,” created reality depends on its Creator for its maintenance as well as for its existence. “Everything in nature depends upon the will of God, and . . . the whole course of nature is only the prompt carrying into effect of His orders” (Psalms V.301)
Thus the Creator-creature distinction is a fundamental aspect of reality. We live in God’s universe and our times are in His hands. We are responsible for ourselves and are accountable to Him at the Last Day.
Calvin also taught that the whole of created reality, “including man, was greatly affected by sin.” This is its present condition, which we can know only by the light of Scripture, where the Creator Himself reveals it. For, said Calvin, quoting Hilary of Poitiers, “God alone is a competent witness for Himself” (Institutes I.13.21)
Calvin further taught that created reality is to be reconciled to God “in the consummation.” This reconciliation springs from “the redemptive victory of Christ,” and includes “a new heaven and new earth wherein dwell righteousness.” Like the present corruption under which it groans, created reality’s “complete renovation” can be known only from Scripture.
Calvin’s teaching on reality is wholly relevant to the situation prevailing in the present-day. Having gained unprecedented control over material and technical resources, man now has power to destroy large populations of his fellow men, or to manipulate them without actually killing them. He has developed a “culture” that excludes God from the public conscience and places every decision in the hands of his own “free choice,” usually assessed by its immediate consequences rather than by a fixed divine standard. This attempt to manage human affairs without God has led to ever greater isolation from reality. And so he lives on in a fictional dream world from which he will not awake until either God converts him or he is hauled before Him in judgment. This is how serious and dangerous our present plight is in our largely godless society. Only by coming face to face with God, the ultimate reality, and with sin, our present reality, shall we be able to see our need of salvation into a new reality created by God in our Lord Jesus Christ.
Grier now moves into the realm of knowledge in his exposition of the Reformer’s teaching. The question here is how reality may be known. Calvin, he observes, often insists on the huge gap “between God’s exhaustive knowledge and our finite knowledge.” This gap, however, does not prevent us knowing truly, though it severely limits our knowledge; God always knows infinitely more than we do. This means that we can know anything only insofar as God reveals it to us. God Himself is the sole source of our knowledge of everything.
While “creation is a reality that declares the glory of God,” and while “the incarnate Son is the full, personal revelation of God to man,” Calvin held that “the revelation of God in Scripture is the primary source of our knowledge.” Indeed, “no doctrine is to be allowed except what He has Himself revealed” (Zechariah-Malachi.532) Calvin is so firm on this point that he declares, “the Lord does not shine upon us except when we take His Word as our light . . . Without the Word, nothing is left for men but darkness” (General Epistles.388)
It is only by the Word that we are brought to realise that both we and the rest of creation have been radically affected by sin. When he studied the Biblical teaching on the Fall, Calvin came to the conclusion that Adam’s “detestable crime” (Institutes II.1.4) polluted both mankind and the entire cosmos.
From such passages as John 3:3 and 6, Romans 8:6,7, and Ephesians 4:17-20, he concluded that “man’s fallen nature” is now “wholly corrupted” (Piety’s Wisdom – J. Mark Beach. Reformation Heritage Books. 2010.97)
Not only so, all creation groans under the curse that Adam’s rebellion procured. “No part of the world” remains untouched by “a sense of its present misery . . . being now subject to corruption.” (Commentary on Romans 8:19-22). “It is evident to all who can see, that the world is inundated with more than an ocean of evils, that it is overrun with numerous destructive pests, that everything is fast verging to ruin.” (Institutes. The Dedication)
Because this corruption dwells principally in man’s soul, and since “no part is immune from sin” (Institutes II.1.9), our knowledge is clouded and confused in a way that it was not before sin entered. This is why we need both Scripture (in order to know anything aright) and the Holy Spirit (who alone can remove our blindness). Without Scripture, “we would not know creation, history, present reality, and the future.” Without the Holy Spirit, we would remain unable to see what God has clearly revealed.
The Spirit and the Word are thus inseparable. In an oft-quoted axiom, Calvin reminds us that “God does not bestow the Spirit on His people in order to set aside the use of His Word, but rather to render it fruitful” (Gospel Synopsis III.375) God joins His Spirit with the Word because without His efficacy, the Gospel would prove ineffective. Similarly, the Word must never be separated from the Spirit, because without its sure guidance we shall join the “fanatics . . . who, despising the Word, glory in the name of the Spirit, and swell with vain confidence in their own imaginations.” (Isaiah IV.271).
Scripture is therefore the standard by which all truth claims must be tested. Calvin’s reverence for the authority of Holy Scripture is so great that he does not hesitate to call it “the infallible rule” of all things; therefore our whole wisdom consists in “embracing with gentle docility, and without any exception, all that is delivered in the sacred Scriptures.” (Institutes I. 18.4)
Consequently, our knowledge is true only when it corresponds with what God knows and has revealed about the objects of our knowledge. This axiom is applicable to every sphere of knowledge, “since God has interpreted every aspect of creation” for us. Because “all truth coheres in the mind of God, we can test truth’s claims” to see if they correspond with God’s knowledge as revealed in Scripture. When they do, we can accept them; when they do not, we must reject them.
Furthermore, when we read God’s creation as He explains it in His written Word, we realise that it is “a cosmos and not a chaos.” Calvin’s admiration of the works of God in creation, including man, was unbounded, even when he recognised their vitiation by sin. He terms the universe “that beautiful theatre” and “this most ample and beautiful machine” (Isaiah III.225, footnote; Institutes I.5.1) Its unity, beauty and order should evoke from us thoughtful gratitude, especially when “God has destined all things for our good and salvation” and has bestowed such “great benefits” on us. So, we should “bestir ourselves to trust, invoke, praise and love Him” (Institutes I.14.22).
Grier concludes this section of his study by cautioning us that though “everything that God has revealed is knowable,” we must not pry into what He has concealed from us. There is a vast unknown containing the “secret things” that “belong to Him” alone (Deuteronomy 29:29). Consequently, we should be “content with the measure of revelation” He has been pleased to make, and “willingly to be ignorant of what is deeper than this” (Four Last Books of Moses. III.377). Even when we reach the limits of our knowledge, it is never so unclouded but that “some dimness or obscurity” still “hangs over” our spiritual sight (Ephesians 212).
But we do not need to know the things God has hidden from us. Enough for us that He has revealed “some things truly,” though not exhaustively. So we must continue to think God’s thoughts after Him and bring every thought into subjection to Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God.
Calvin’s teaching on knowledge is no less relevant to our present plight that his teaching on reality. Unless we are brought to view everything through the lens of Holy Scripture (Calvin calls the Bible our spectacles) we shall never view anything as it really is. We shall be left to perish in our own purblind notions. Lord, open Thou our eyes, and show us the wondrous things in Thy Law.
In the light of what is real and what is knowable, Grier closes his discussion of these issues with the Reformer’s teaching on what we should do. “For Calvin, divine command constitutes the essence of man’s moral obligation.” Some commands God gave in Scripture were obligatory only for a time; others are binding forever. Of the former were the Old Testament sacrifices; even the “New covenant commands such as baptism, witnessing and prayer” will not be obligatory on the new earth. By contrast, the thread of unity for the perpetually binding commands runs through all Scripture, from the creation ordinances of Genesis, through the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount, into the fabric of the apostolic epistles and the life of the Church. They are the standards by which we shall all be judged at the Last Day.
In a practical passage of great spiritual power, Calvin shows us our duty in the light of our redemption by Christ. As he urges us to be wholly consecrated to God in the light of His mercies in Christ, he writes: “All we think, speak, plan and do should be for His glory . . . We are not our own: let not reason and will therefore determine our plans or the things we need to do. We are not our own: let us therefore look beyond what the flesh suggests is good for us. We are not our own: let us therefore forget ourselves as much as we can – ourselves and everything around us . . . we are the Lord’s: let us then live and die for Him. We are the Lord’s: let His will and wisdom govern all we do. We are the Lord’s: let every part of our lives be directed to Him as their sole end” (A Guide to Christian Living. Banner of Truth. 2009. 18-19; translated from Institutes. III.7.1).
At this point a “biblical theory of values comes into play,” for seeking the Lord’s will in all we do raises the question of values. The value of anything, Calvin believed, is based on what God stipulates as good for us. Because “God has declared what is good in His revelation . . . we are not free to place whatever value we wish” on anything. Our values should be taken from God’s evaluation, whether of “people, groups of people, objects,” or “events,” for He “has given value to all things He has created.”
As Grier draws his study to a close, he reflects that one of the beauties of a Calvinistic world view is that it correlates reality, obligation and value. It does not value according to personal or group preference, but according to God’s evaluation. Some things are intrinsically valuable, because God has set a high value on them. His glory and kingdom belong to this class, because they are ends in themselves, and not means to higher ends. Other things are extrinsically valuable. These derive their value from their productivity and benefit to mankind. They are not ends in themselves, but means to higher ends.
In order to evaluate everything as God does, we must deny ourselves whatever worldly folk value, leaving ourselves “no place at all first either to pride, or arrogance, or ostentation; then either to avarice, or desire, or lasciviousness, or effeminacy, or to other evils that our self-love spawns.” On the contrary, our conduct before God and men should show godliness, righteousness and sobriety (Institutes III.7.2). In this spirit we should value God above all and our neighbour as ourselves, and prepare ourselves for cross-bearing with patience (Institutes III.7.8; 7.4; 8.10,11).
One of the most prominent roles Calvin gives to God’s people in this world is to display that part of the image of our Maker in a life of order, lived “in response to divine grace and in dependence on divine provision.” This was the law for man in Eden, and forms a major part of his restoration through Christ. Every believer must therefore exhibit a life of the utmost “rectitude and integrity” (Nelson D. Kloosterman, in Calvin For Today. Reformation Heritage Books, 2009.197)
Lastly, Grier stresses the importance of the motives that impel us to choose the right and the good in our daily conduct. “Many motives have been proposed, but the most promising are gratitude for undeserved grace, fear of God, and faith as allegiance or loyalty to Christ.” May these be a threefold cord to bind us to true godliness.
The bewildering and chaotic conduct, both of the world’s leaders and of the nations, calls loudly to us to turn a deaf ear to the ideal of a worldwide confederacy of nations, and to turn back to our forsaken heritage, grounded in the morality of Scripture (see Isaiah 8.12-13, 20). When world leaders act without any reference to this perfect guide, they clearly show their contempt for the social and cultural roots that lie in the depths of God’s own character. If every moral decision is to be taken detached from these roots, what kind of fruit can we expect but “the law of the jungle”? Man will continue to suppress the image of God in which he was made and degrade himself to the level of the brute. Is it not evident that notions of evolution upwards inevitably thrust man downwards? Help, Lord, for vain is the help of man.
Grier’s summary of Calvin’s teaching on reality, knowledge and conduct, is a great help to understanding the world’s present crisis and the only way out of it. How we need a mighty movement of His Holy Spirit to cause us to return to Him whom we have so guiltily forsaken, and to proclaim His glories to all and sundry, whether they hear or forbear! Such an outpouring would herald the time when “the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” (Habakkuk 2:14). The summary also indicates, without a shadow of doubt, that the only resting-place for the feet of our souls is the solid bedrock of God’s inerrant Word.