Calvin's Theology: Nearly All the Wisdom We Possess

John Calvin is widely known as an accomplished Reformer, Bible commentator, theologian, and preacher. He was these things and more. He also had keen insight into the human soul and contributed greatly to our understanding of a Christian epistemology and theological anthropology. In other words, Calvin helps us to understand the nature of human thinking about ourselves and God.

In the opening to his Institutes of the Christian Religion Calvin devotes two sections of the first chapter to the inextricable connection between our knowledge of ourselves and of God.

Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern (I.1.i.).

This fact is not a mere happenstance. God has determined that we cannot really get a grasp on ourselves without also grappling with him. As the apostle Paul told the Athenian philosophers on Mars Hill, “…in him (God) we live and move and have our being…” (Acts 17:28). Calvin admits here that he is not able to figure out which comes first, knowledge of God or of ourselves. Perhaps that is not so important to know this as long as we see ourselves in the light of God.

As the great Genevan Reformer points out, among other things, we are led to an awareness of our Creator because we did create ourselves. We are not the sources of whatever greatness and giftedness we may possess. Our dependent nature is there for all to see, if we have the eyes to see. This is all true apart from any consideration of our present sinful and miserable condition.

While we were created holy and righteous and good and knowledgeable, we are no longer that pristine condition. We are fallen creatures. First, we are creatures and our dependence upon the Triune God of Scripture is real and constraining on us apart from our sinful rebellion. But sinful rebels we in fact are. Second, we are fallen, sinful creatures. Calvin goes on to tell us that if all we had to go on to assess ourselves and our world around us, we no doubt would think of ourselves more highly than we ought (to borrow the language of the apostle Paul).

The miserable ruin, into which the rebellion of the first man cast us, especially compels us to look upward. Thus, not only will we, in fasting and hungering, seek thence what we lack; but, in being aroused by fear, we shall learn humility. For, as a veritable world of miseries is to be found in mankind, and we are thereby despoiled of divine raiment, our shameful nakedness exposes a teeming horde of infamies. Each of us must, then, be so stung by the consciousness of his own unhappiness as to attain at least some knowledge of God. Thus, from the feeling of our own ignorance, vanity, poverty, infirmity, and—what is more—depravity and corruption, we recognize that the true light of wisdom, sound virtue, full abundance of every good, and purity of righteousness rest in the Lord alone. To this extent we are prompted by our own ills to contemplate the good things of God; and we cannot seriously aspire to him before we begin to become displeased with ourselves (Institutes I.1.i.).

True wisdom comes from above and that involves our knowing God and understanding ourselves in light of this God who has revealed himself to us in nature and Scripture. We were never meant to understand ourselves and our world without reference to God. This is especially true now that we are in rebellion against the holy God of the universe.

Philosophy is the love of wisdom. John Calvin reminds us that true wisdom is rooted and grounded in the God of the Bible. As Proverbs 9:10 reminds us, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” In the end, the eighteenth-century Prussian philosopher Immanuel Kant was wrong. Enlightenment, true enlightenment that is, is not the overthrowing of the bonds of a self-incurred tutelage. Nearly all the wisdom that we possess is founded in knowledge of ourselves as it relates to our knowledge of God. If you would seek to follow the advice of the Greek Delphic oracle and “know thyself,” know God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as he has revealed himself in the world and the Word. Master Calvin reminds us of this. And for that we should be grateful.

Jeffrey C. Waddington (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is stated supply at Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  He also serves as a panelist at Christ the Center and East of Eden and is the secretary of the board of the Reformed Forum.  Additionally he serves as an articles editor for the Confessional Presbyterian Journal.


Jeffrey Waddington