How Can We Know 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.”

This is the opening sentence of Calvin’s great work the ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion. I had a chance to read this while at theological college and would love to commend it to you.

Jean Calvin was a hugely influential French theologian during the Protestant Reformation

and much of his thought and work has shaped the face of Evangelical Christianity today; indeed the preaching and teaching I have sat under for most of my Christian life has clear influence and inspiration from the voice of Calvin, such that I was well acquainted with him, in a sense, before I had read a word of his works or even heard his name! However, reading his Institutes myself was a real joy and a delight, and I wanted to share some brief thoughts and reflections from one of the main themes of this work ‘How We Know God’.

As you can see above, Calvin begins by helping us think through how it is possible to know God. And as the opening sentence suggests, to know God involves understanding, who he is, our relationship to him and understanding ourselves; all of which are intertwined. When we understand ‘original sin’- that because of the fall of man (depicted in Genesis 3) we are all born into sin- the revelation of our helplessness and total depravity causes us to look upward to God. It is only possible to truly know God when we understand his holiness compared to our sinfulness and our need for him. Calvin likes to use the word ‘piety’, a word that, in today’s culture, probably carries a negative connotation. However, Calvin uses it to define this true knowledge of God. Piety therefore, is a sincere feeling which loves God as Father as much as it fears, trusts and reverences him as Lord, and leads to an embracing of his righteousness and a longing to please him and give him all glory. 

Having said this, Calvin also argues that despite our corruption, there is in everyone a

natural awareness of God; every culture, however barbarous, has had a deep-seated conviction of a deity beyond its own existence. In line with Romans 1:18-32, he appeals to the revelation of creation itself speaking to us of a creator- yet we suppress this truth and so are left without excuse. He later (in chapter 5) returns to show us how God is revealed to us in the fashioning of the Universe, where he states ‘men cannot open their eyes without being compelled to see him.’ One of my favourite lines from the opening chapters (mostly because of the humorous translation) is where he contests that true atheism is nye on impossible:

‘…not a few appear, who deny that God exists, yet willy-nilly they from time to time feel an inkling of what they desire not to believe.’

We see this often in the face of disaster or suffering, don’t we? 

However, as Calvin notes, we so often confuse the creature with Creator and corrupt the knowledge of God through our own distortions. Rather than seeing that God reveals himself through his creation of us, in that we are made in his image, we begin to distort this by trying to create a god in our image. This leads to superstitions, idolatry and hypocrisy and ultimately turning away from the true God.

But hang on a minute… this all sounds a bit philosophical and not very evangelical doesn’t it? Well don’t panic! So far Calvin has set the scene and now he goes on to say that nature in itself will not give us a true, full revelation of God. For Yahweh- the sovereign Lord over all creation, who perfectly governs and judges- has compassion on lost, rebellious sinners. In his loving, Fatherly kindness he does not leave us blind and helpless, he comes to recall us and bring us back into right, loving relationship with him by revealing himself through scripture. Another and better help is provided, a  clearer and more proactive

communication. Through scripture, we are presented with the true revelation of God, through scripture we meet his Son, and the Spirit opens our eyes to receive him into our hearts. Scripture takes us beyond human reason or conjecture and onto the mystery revealed and authoritative testimony of the Holy Spirit. Calvin is clear: it is only as the Holy Spirit seals the truth on the believer’s heart through scripture that we can understand the authority of God’s word. Without scripture, we cannot know God fully and truly; within it we have all we need for salvation and for sanctification. 

It is in scripture that we see the beauty of the Trinity- the true nature of God- revealed! Having argued that to make an image of God is idolatrous and displeasing to God, Calvin then explains that God has given us a revelation of his character ‘in a measure to “lisp” in speaking to us’, that accommodates the knowledge of himself to our inferior capacity, i.e. communicated to us in a way we as humans can understand; God as triune yet one. He shows that God is one God in three persons and that to understand this is to know God fully. God the Father reveals himself wholly through the nature and work of the Son, the Son brings glory to the Father and gives us the Spirit to continue pointing us to him and to bring us home.

But God is not a ‘cold and barren’, ‘momentary Creator’ who leaves us to fend for ourselves. Calvin comforts us that ‘he exercises especial care over each of his works’- the true nature of God shines forth in his continuing work of sustaining and providing for us. God is in complete control of every circumstance and though it is often difficult to perceive it, it is true that ‘he works all things for the good of those who love him (Romans 8:28); in him we live, move and have our being (Acts 17:28).

Written by Jon Herring, Pastor of Grace Church Leatherhead

Posted on September 16th, 2016

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