The Authority of Scripture

Chapter Summary of Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion

Book One, Chapter VII – Scripture Must Be Confirmed by the Witness of the Spirit, Thus May Its Authority Be Established as Certain: and It Is a Wicked Falsehood that Its Credibility Depends on the Judgment of the Church

It must be resolutely asserted that the authority of Scripture comes from God himself through his Holy Spirit. It is not, as some say, man’s prerogative to question its authority and sit in judgment of its veracity. Mocking the Holy Spirit, men have assumed such a judgment is, and can only be, the rightful role of the church. Quite the contrary, the church itself is dependent on the Scriptures. Paul teaches that the church is “built upon the foundation of the prophets and apostles” [Eph. 2:20]. This being the case, their teachings/writings necessarily precede the church and are the authority by which it was founded. Being self-authenticating, the truth of God’s word is not verified, but simply recognized by the church.

An oft quoted phrase of Augustine has been used to refute this understanding in which he plainly said that were it not for the authority of the church he would not have believed the gospel. However, one must remove this statement from its context to come to such a conclusion. In this instance Augustine was speaking of those who as yet have not the illumination by the Holy Spirit that is requisite for belief in the gospel. Instead, here he is speaking of the reverence one may have regarding the consensus of the church that is the tool (means of grace) by which the unbeliever may be first rendered teachable and avail themselves of the gospel. Augustine, specifically in The Usefulness of Belief, firmly holds the position that those so quickened should rely not on the opinion of man to judge what is truth but on that which is solidly certain, namely, the very Word of God itself. This certainty is testified to the inward parts of the believer by that which is greater, more sure, more convincing than any reason or argument of logic, namely, the Holy Spirit. “My Spirit which is in you, and the words that I have put in your mouth, and the mouths of your offspring, shall never fail” [Isa. 59:21 p.]. It is by the Holy Spirit that divine revelation is self-authenticated and is sealed upon the hearts of the elect. This word is subject then only to the Spirit’s moving and not human wisdom. Indeed, “only those to whom it is given can comprehend the mysteries of God” [Matt. 13:11].

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Man’s Knowledge of God

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.

God Reveals Himself To ALL Mankind!

Chapter Summary of Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion

Book One, Chapter V – The Knowledge of God Shines Forth in the Fashioning of the Universe and the Continuing Government of It 

God has made clear through his creation his existence and has made manifest his glory. Man, for his part, fails to know and worship him and thus falls into superstition and confusion. Persistence in their error leaves man without excuse.

Not only has God imbued man innately with a knowledge of himself, he continues to speak almost deafeningly of his being and glory through the divine majesty displayed in his creation [see Rom. 1:19-20]. The evidence of which Paul speaks is not hidden, rather it is unavoidably witnessed and understood by even the most common of men in nature, the heavens and even their own bodies. Indeed, Aristotle called man himself a “microcosm” as it is the most resounding evidence of the power, goodness and wisdom of God in all creation. Therefore even the deaf, dumb and blind are also without excuse as man need look no further than their own being to be convinced. Knowing the lengths to which God has gone to ensure all men will know of him we, with David, break into doxology and exclaim, “[w]hat is man that thou art mindful of him?” (Ps. 8:4)

Though such a response of praise is appropriate and justified man rather, in pride and ingratitude, turns from God. In turning from God, the Creator, they turn to nature, the creation, as the basis on which they see themselves as ontologically superior to the beasts. Because the soul finds physical expression through the body they minimize (or eliminate) the distinction and assume the soul is dependent on the body for its continued existence. In perverted understanding these men suppress the need for God, even the existence of God, from their remembrance.

It is not laudable intellectual inquiry that leads men to discover alternatives to explain the presence of their own remarkable gifts and that of the rest of creation. Rather, their rejection results from purposive, base, wicked suppression of the truth in unrighteousness [Rom. 1:18]. Even still, in God’s government of his creation we see not an immediate “tit-for-tat” correlation between the sin of man and the judgement of God. While he hates all sin as odious he is pleased to punish one with alacrity while demonstrating patience with another, though their will come recompense for all. For it is God alone who is utterly sovereign over the lives of men. While this will be starkly demonstrated in the judgment of men, it is seen universally in the seemingly coincidental occurrence of their daily lives.

Rather than vainly striving to peer into the being and essence of God man rather ought to contemplate his majesty and glory through his works within and without by which he has deigned to communicate with us. In considering his divine excellencies and the understanding of the necessity of the punishment of all sin it is, without extensive investigation, apparent that wickedness must come to an end. That wickedness is not yet at its end we must conclude there to be a work of God as yet unfinished. This logically leads us to an understanding of a life yet to be lived where the unrighteous will have their final punishment and the righteous their reward.

Despite the indwelling knowledge of God, man refuses to “know” God. All of the evidence of creation and providence do nothing to reveal him to the blinded and wicked heart that has inclined itself toward human superstition and philosophies – propagated by his own sinful inclination to suppress the truth, and further still by those “intellectuals” who have taken up the role of illumining the minds of men. So far from reason has man come in his denial of truth that he has made, in his mind, the illogical logical and branded it scholarship [see Acts 17:23, the worship of an “unknown god”]. Worshipping a man-conceived, unknown god is no trivial matter. It is for this reason that God speaks to our minds from the heavens. In nature he calls us to the Creator of all nature. In his divine revelation his speaks to our hearts filling us with “food and gladness” (Acts 14:15-17). Having such general revelation – from without, and special revelation – from within, man is left with no excuse and utterly nothing to mitigate the ultimate evil of his sustained rejection of God.