Chapter Summaries from Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion
Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion
Book I – The Knowledge of God the Creator
Chapter I – The Knowledge of God and That of Ourselves Are Connected. How They Are Interrelated
Opening his magnum opus, Calvin takes up the subject of man’s knowledge of God. He asserts three main arguments to this end. First, that without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God. Second, without knowledge of God there is no knowledge and self. Finally, he addresses man before God’s majesty. We will briefly discuss each aspect in turn.
Without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God. As man considers himself he must come to the inescapable conclusion that his gifts, talents and abilities are not derived from within, so must be from without. This necessarily turns his thoughts to God, whether he is aware of this or not. This, the knowledge of his blessings, alone however is insufficient to create in him an affinity for God. Rather, he must also become displeased with his own ignorance, infirmity and depravity before he will be led by it to God.
The corollary to the first point is also true: Without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self. The deficiencies man sees in himself will ever remain pridefully unseen until lack of such demerit is seen in God. It is this stark contrast, seeing God as ultimately righteous, holy and wise, that permits man to then rightfully perceive his own true “ungodliness”. Until this is perceived man goes on in self-flattery assured of his own goodness.
The sum of the aforementioned truths is that effect of man standing before the majesty of God. As man comes face-to-face with who he is in light of who God is, seeing himself as in a mirror that reflects to him clearly all of his blemishes, then he becomes “undone” (Isa. 6:5; see also Judg. 13:22; Ezek. 2:1; 1:28; Job 38:1ff).
Chapter II – What It Is To Know God, And To What Purpose the Knowledge Of Him Tends
In this chapter Calvin continues with man’s knowledge of God and asserts at the outset that piety is requisite for the knowledge of God. Creation reveals God as Creator but only in Christ does he reveals himself as savior, therefore man must perceive Christ as mediator between God and man through whom reconciliation occurs.
Calvin defines piety as “that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces.”. Until man sees God as the fountain of all good and that supreme happiness will only be found in him, he will never submit himself to him. The basis of this submission to God is trust in God and reverence toward him. It does man little profit to know God if he does not trust God as this simply allows that he will be drawn away from any interaction with God by his own depravity. Knowledge without relationship cannot be the foundation of reconciliation.
The pious man recognizes the trustworthiness of God and does not find his ultimate joy in the blessings bestowed by the God in whom he trusts but rather in God himself. Contrary to the impious man, reverence allows that the pious man finds comfort in his God and joy in obedience to God and advancing his glory such that offense to God is unthinkable and escape from perdition is simply a bonus.
Chapter III – The Knowledge Of God Has Been Naturally Implanted In The Minds Of Men
Here Calvin asserts that all men perceive that ther is a God and his is their Creator. Even the pagan Cicero concurs when he stated that there is no people so savage as to not have a deep-seated conviction that there is a God. The very fact of man’s ubiquitous propensity for idolatry is evidence that he gropes for something greater than that which can be found in himself.
It has been argued that religion is simply an arbitrary creation of men to place simpler men into their subjection. While there has indeed been men who have improperly used religion as a tool by which to accomplish this very thing, it is inconceivable that they could have met with any notable success had there been no indwelling inclination toward a knowledge of God in their subjects. This being the case for their subjects, it is equally unthinkable that these men would be devoid of such inward knowledge themselves.
Quite the contrary, there is no such thing as “godlessness”. As much as the God-hater attempts to refute, turn from and cover-up a knowledge of God, he cannot. For such knowledge is not primarily the fruits of academic inquiry but of spiritual embryology – the infant in his mother’s womb has already an imbued, expert knowledge of God’s existence. It is this fact that renders man higher than brute beasts.
Chapter IV – This Knowledge Is Either Smothered Or Corrupted, Partly By Ignorance, Partly By Malice
From scripture Calvin points out that this knowledge, this “seed of religion”, that is planted in all men germinates in very few and ripens in none (Ps. 1:3). Of the larger portion, some are led astray by their ignorance while the others deliberately neglect God. Neither of these groups however are excused as both, as we have noted, have been imbued from the womb an innate knowledge of their Creator. In prideful efforts to fill the void within that remains from having carved God from conscious concern they engage in all manner of ultimately vain speculation and activity that only serves to further distance them from the truth. As Paul proclaims of the wicked, “Striving to be wise, they make fools of themselves” (Rom. 1:22).
It is in the conscious, persistent rejection of God that “ungodly men and fools” (Ps. 12:1; 53:1) become hardened in their sin and unconscious of the existence and truth of God. They deny God and “the fear of God is not before” (Ps. 36:1) them so they revel in their misdeeds assuming there to be no one by whom they will be held to account. But, being worshippers by nature, they craft safe idols made in their own image by which they comfort themselves that they might have some semblance of religion of which they themselves are the ultimate sovereign. “When you did not know God, you were in bondage to beings that by nature were no gods” (Gal. 4:8).
This semblance of religion is also motivated by the knowledge written on man’s heart, however far suppressed, that God is and he will stand in judgement of the unrighteous. All the while however their impotent sacrifices [Aside: See Isaiah 64:6] are rooted more in a self-serving risk-mitigation strategy than any love or allegiance to their Creator. Denying glory to God they trust in themselves and their own works for their salvation.