Knowledge of self, knowledge of God, and even the very existence of God are three topics which can elicit a wide variety of discussions and even arguments in our modern time. There are those who would say that God no longer matters. There are those who would say that God is at the center of their world. How do we reconcile these differing views? Does John Calvin have anything to say about these topics?
According to dictionary.com knowledge is defined as follows: acquaintance with facts, truths, or principles, as from study or investigation; general erudition. As we consider this definition it would appear that knowledge is mostly dependent on human effort. This idea is in direct contrast to Calvin’s thoughts proposed in his first book of the Institutes.
Calvin reminds us that in fact knowledge of God and knowledge of ourselves are interconnected. They are not simply something that we can do. They cannot be separated.
Book 1 Chapter 1 section 1 states:
“For, in the first place, no man can survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts towards the God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone. In the second place, those blessings which unceasingly distil to us from heaven, are like streams conducting us to the fountain.”
Calvin also states that we cannot even truly know ourselves unless we first know God when he states in section 2:
“On the other hand, it is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he has previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself.”
This idea of contemplating the face of God is best exemplified in Luke’s account of the transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36). In this story we have the opportunity to experience the very glory of God.
From these two ideas it is clear that Calvin justifies self-knowledge as well as knowledge of God as something integral to the human condition. Both are necessary. How then can we say that atheism even exists?
Atheism is defined as follows: The doctrine or belief that there is no God.
In fact Calvin postulates that all human beings, because of their very nature of being created in the image of God, must at some level acknowledge the existence of God.
“That there exists in the human minds and indeed by natural instinct, some sense of Deity, we hold to be beyond dispute, since God himself, to prevent any man from pretending ignorance, has endued all men with some idea of his Godhead, the memory of which he constantly renews and occasionally enlarges, that all to a man being aware that there is a God, and that he is their Maker, may be condemned by their own conscience when they neither worship him nor consecrate their lives to his service. (institutes bk 1 chap 3 section 1).
Additional information summarizing Calvin’s position on Atheism is available in the article called “In Search Of An Honest Atheist.”