Legal Rather than Evangelical Knowledge: Calvin on the limits of Natural Theology

by Michael S. Horton

While sometimes characterized as the "Age of Faith," the sixteenth century actually had its share of religious skeptics. When John Calvin encountered these men, he often found it necessary to provide arguments that might "shut the mouth of the obstreperous." In other words, he was not opposed to engaging in subtle arguments. At the same time, though, it is instructive to consider his views of the limits of such argumentation. Natural theology is useful to refute the arguments of unbelievers and it may be useful to convince some people of the existence of a God, but we must be mindful lest we forget that natural theology has definite limits. It can never provide saving knowledge.

As we see in his opening to the Institutes, Calvin's great concern in relating faith and reason is pastoral rather than philosophical. While Thomas Aquinas begins his magisterial work by inquiring into the nature of God as supreme being, Calvin's opening question is both practical and existential. The knowledge of God and of oneself, he argues, is dialectical (i.e., getting to know God and ourselves is a process that moves back and forth). Furthermore, this knowledge is chiefly concerned with the relationship between God and humanity. Far from being either a rationalistic or mystical end in itself, contemplating God leads us to self-knowledge. Its chief yield is the realization that we are naked, stripped of all righteousness and any basis for self-confidence. The purpose of this knowledge, then, is to lead to an existential crisis (1.1.1-2). This knowledge of our nakedness is an awareness of our need, but the knowledge that Christ is the solution to our problem is found exclusively in special revelation.

Calvin's approach thus stands in sharp contrast to the goals of the philosophers. Descartes' objective is "to demonstrate the existence of God and the soul."1 Plato aims to contemplate the essence of Being. But Calvin writes: "What wonderfully impressed us under the name of wisdom will stink in its very foolishness. What wore the face of power will prove itself the most miserable weakness. That is, what in us seems perfection itself corresponds ill to the purity of God" (1.1.2). The knowledge of God, far from reinforcing our philosophical and religious presuppositions, undoes them.

The Futility of Speculation
Trying to prove the existence of a supreme beingis not so much wrong as it is pointless, Calvin says. "Now, the knowledge of God, as I understand it," he writes, "is that by which we not only conceive that there is a God but also grasp what befits usand is proper to his glory,in fine, what is to our advantageto know of him."2 That which is to our advantage is that which is proper to God's glory, and vice versa. In other words, our own human experience cannot be separated from theology, for existence is prior to reflection. Our questions are marked out not by speculative, abstract objectivity, but by the concerns of our lives--concerns, nevertheless, that God reveals to us as the great issues of our existence.3

Furthermore, knowledge of God is not an end in itself. Nor indeed is such knowledge even possible if we try to seek out God in his hidden being or general attributes apart from Christ. "In this ruin of mankind no one now experiences God either as Father or as Author of salvation, or favorable in any way, until Christ the Mediator comes forward to reconcile him to us." Knowledge of God the Creator is essential, to be sure. From the "sense of God" written on our conscience and discerned in creation, we can know that God is great, majestic, powerful, just, and good in a providential sense. A Buddhist monk is not wrong about everything. Nor is the Moslem in error when he or she says that God is just and will punish sinners. Even an atheist can appreciate the beauty of a sunset over an Alpine peak. And this is important knowledge: indeed, it should lead us to seek God's self-disclosure in Scripture, which reveals also that God is the one who has promised us reconciliation. But we need to retain this distinction between what can be known about God by nature and what can be known only by Scripture. Calvin writes: "[It] is one thing to feel that God as our Maker supports us by his power, governs us by his providence, nourishes us by his goodness, and attends us with all sorts of blessings--and another thing to embrace the grace of reconciliation offered to us in Christ" (1.2.1). This is more than parenthetical; for Calvin, theology is useless apart from Christology, for apart from Christ there can be no saving knowledge of God. And the only knowledge that is ultimately useful for shipwrecked creaturesis personal knowledge of a Savior.

But this is not what people seem to be interested in when they approach apologetics in a merely theoretical way: "What is God? Men who pose this question are merely toying with idle speculations," Calvin asserts. The sort of absent deity of the Epicureans (deists, in modern parlance) is of no use to us. "What help is it, in short, to know a God with whom we have nothing to do?" (1.2.2). Thus, he is unimpressed with the Platonic contemplative model, adopted by medieval mystics and speculative theologians. It is thisworld (not a realm of ideas and forms) that is, after all, "the theater of God's glory," one of Calvin's favorite metaphors. Even the knowledge of God as Creator does not lead us into speculation concerning essences and substances, but into the existential question: "What is my obligation to this God if he is my Creator?" "For, to begin with, the pious mind does not dream up for itself any god it pleases, but contemplates the one and only true God. And it does not attach to him whatever it pleases, but is content to hold him to be as he manifests himself."4

Everyone Knows God In a Legal Sense at Least
In chapter three of the Institutes, Calvin argues that the knowledge of God is implanted in the conscience prior to any acquired knowledge. This theme will be reiterated by the Reformed scholastics (as it had been by their medieval predecessors) as the cognitio insita(implanted knowledge). But, like his successors, Calvin also insists that this type of knowledge is legal rather than evangelicalin character. This is crucial especially for Reformed believers today, when this distinction seems to be fading. Everyone knows God, but as Creator, Law-Giver, and Judge. "There is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity [sensus Divinitatis]." Calvin argues that there is a great deal of common ground in creation for agreement on general principles of morality, justice, beauty, and even truth. One does not require special revelation in order to create a reasonably just society, a beautiful work of art, or even a common sense of morality based on the law written on the conscience (2.2.15). Surely, Christians and non-Christians could agree on many issues related to the common good. And, we can infer (given his positive evaluation of many of the advances of philosophy in secular matters) that Calvin would approve of appealing to philosophical arguments in apologetics.

As creatures, believers and unbelievers share common ground even in the possession of general religious instincts. For, even after the fall, religious instincts are intrinsic to human nature. "Indeed, even idolatry is ample proof of this conception" (1.3.1). Calvin asserts that while there are many who deny God's existence, they cannot be entirely godless because of theimago Deiwhich they still bear (1.3.2-3). But, in opposition to Cicero's optimism, Calvin argues that this natural religion degenerates instead of progresses (1.3.3). By "extinguishing the light of nature, [people] deliberately befuddle themselves," not by denying God's existence outright, but "in despoiling him of his judgmentŠ, they shut him up idle in heaven" (1.4.2). Nobody is really an atheist; rather, we are all idolaters by nature.

Nonetheless, Calvin retains a remarkably high estimation of creation and this world. It is not merely a preface to redemption, but a glorious revelation in its own right. Yet our own corruption sees damnation in the majesty of God. We end up worshipping the creation and hiding from the Creator. Because of our condition, God's power, wisdom, and glory inspire fear rather than devotion. If God is powerful, he can destroy us; if he is wise, he can figure us out; if he is glorious and majestic, we can only shrink in his presence instead of praising him. "There are innumerable evidenceŠ," to which "astronomy, medicine, and all natural sciencesŠ" attest. "Indeed, men who have either quaffed or even tasted the liberal arts penetrate with their aid far more deeply into the secrets of the divine wisdom. Yet ignorance of them prevents no one from seeing more than enough of God's workmanship in his creation to lead him to break forth in admiration of the Artificer" (1.5.2). But, like a jealous inferior who strives to be God himself, humanity exchanges admiration for disgust. Infants nursing at their mothers' breasts "have tongues so eloquent to preach his glory that there is no need at all of other orators" (1.5.3). And yet, we speak of fate, chance, and other alternatives to the God who cares for us.

The chief products of natural theology, then, are pantheism and deism; either divinity is pushed into the world or God is pushed out of this world into heaven (1.5.5). Creator and creature become confused or alienated in every religious and speculative philosophical system. Because of our sinfulness, we are "struck blind in such a dazzling theater" (1.5.8). Like Adam and Eve, we run from the presence of God, a presence which ought to console us but cannot because of our sinfulness.

Despite his admiration for the breadth and depth of what can be known apart from special revelation (i.e., Scripture), Calvin believes that the nearer to religionthat natural revelation leads one, the more certain it is that one is led not to God, but away from him. The solution is not to attempt to penetrate the divine essence, however. "We ought not to rack our brains about God; but rather we should contemplate him in his works" (1.5.9). Again in opposition to the Platonic disapproval for locating the knowledge of God in the world of appearances and particulars, Calvin insists that we must turn our concentration to things that can

be easily observed with the eyes and pointed out with the finger Š not that knowledge which, content with empty speculation, merely flits in the brain, but that which will be sound and fruitful if we duly perceive it, and if it takes root in the heart.Š Consequently, we know the most perfect way of seeking God, and the most suitable order, is not for us to attempt with bold curiosity to penetrate to the investigation of his essence, which we ought more to adore than meticulously to search out, but for us to contemplate him in his works whereby he renders himself near and familiar to us, and in some manner communicates himself (1.5.9).

A theology "from below," Calvin's approach is concerned with divine self-disclosure in this world, not with human penetration into the divine chamber; it takes for its theater the linear scope of human history rather than the supposedly higher noumenal (i.e., spiritual-rational) sphere. Thus, it is also an inductive approach: as one works from the particulars of divine self-disclosure through God's works, only then can one gain sound theological insight. Again, this knowledge serves a practical rather than merely theoretical goal: "Knowledge of this sort, then, ought not only to arouse us to the worship of God but also to awaken and encourage us to the hope of the future life" (1.5.10).

Although Calvin the humanist has great respect for the philosophers, he cannot help but include them in the mass of superstition: Plato "Švanishes in his round globe" (1.5.11). Against any celebration of mind over matter, Calvin insists that "each man's mind is like a labyrinthŠ. But among the philosophers who have tried with reason and learning to penetrate into heaven, how shameful is the diversity!" Their brilliance masks their "fleeting unrealities." The Stoics introduce their absurdities, Calvin says, without the slightest evidence for their arguments. In sharp contrast to those who would argue that the nearer one approaches religion, the closer he or she is to truth, Calvin is inclined to believe the very opposite. Ultimately, he comes to this pass: "Hence it appears that if men were taught only by nature, they would hold to nothing certain or solid or clear-cut, but would be so tied to confused principles as to worship an unknown god" (1.5.12). Calvin envisions lamps being placed everywhere in creation, offering ample testimony to God's existence and attributes, but the darkness of the human mind and heart lead not to a beatific vision, but to a bewildering array of competing religious and philosophical speculations.

The Necessity of Special Revelation for Evangelical Knowledge
In his sixth chapter, Calvin turns to Scripture. Surely Scripture, special revelation, would lead people to a sound knowledge of God the Creator. Here, "not only does God teach the elect to look upon agod, but also shows himself as theGod upon whom they are to look."5 To be sure, Scripture does not tell us everything in order to satisfy our curiosity. Furthermore, not all things in Scripture are equally plain, but "it is better to limp along this path than to dash with all speed outside it." God's Word provides a far more complete revelation of God than does creation, since its Artificer actually opens his lips. His works are supplemented by his words (1.6.3).

As with Luther, Calvin finds the inscripturated Word to be the only rock in a whirlpool of subjective opinion. "Hence the Scriptures obtain full authority among believers only when men regard them as having sprung from heaven, as if there the living words of God were heard" (1.7.1). The Word and the Spirit belong together, and thus Calvin moves to the role of the Spirit's witness, "stronger than all proof." Credibility in doctrine depends on our full confidence in God's Word. The prophets invoke God's name for their writings with great care and purpose. Again, the central concern for Calvin is pastoral; he seeks to care for those whose consciences would vacillate and find no comfort. We must rise above human reasoning, judgments and conjectures and this can only be done when the Holy Spirit joins the Word as its "notary public." This is no capitulation to fideism in the face of poor arguments, an evasion of the critical questions:

True, if we wished to proceed by arguments, we might advance many things that would easily prove--if there is any god in heaven--that the law, the prophets, and the gospel come from him. Indeed, ever so learned men, endowed with the highest judgment, rise in opposition and bring to bear and display all their powers in this debate. Yet, unless they become hardened to a point of hopeless impudence, this confession will be wrested from them: that they see manifest signs of God speaking in Scripture. From this it is clear that the teaching of Scripture is from heaven. And a little later we shall see that all the books of Sacred Scripture far surpass all other writings (1.7.4).

We have some common ground with unbelievers. In nature, there is some revelation about God. But nature can only tell us that he is a Judge; it does not tell us of his fatherly kindness in the provision of Christ. Nature provides legal knowledge of God, but only Scripture reveals the Gospel, the evangelical knowledge of Christ.

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