Tag Archives: Calvin

Reading Karl Barth on Election (11)

Church Dogmatics Study EditionSelection: The Church Dogmatics II/2:103-115, Jesus Christ, Electing and Elected.

In its simplest and most comprehensive form the dogma of predestination consists, then, in the assertion that the divine predestination is the election of Jesus Christ. But the concept of election has a double reference—to the elector and to the elected (103).

For Barth, Jesus Christ is the electing God and the elected human, both the subject and the object of divine election. He is the electing God together with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and it is with this emphasis that Barth begins his exposition:

It is true that as the Son of God given by the Father to be one with man, and to take to Himself the form of man, He is elected. It is also true that He does not elect alone, but in company with the electing of the Father and the Holy Spirit. But He does elect. The obedience which He renders as the Son of God is, as genuine obedience, His own decision and electing, a decision and electing no less divinely free than the electing and decision of the Father and the Holy Spirit. Even the fact that He is elected corresponds as closely as possible to His own electing. In the harmony of the triune God He is no less the original Subject of this electing than He is its original object. … Of Jesus Christ we know nothing more surely and definitely than this—that in free obedience to His Father He elected to be man, and as man, to do the will of God. If God elects us too, then it is in and with this election of Jesus Christ, in and with this free act of obedience on the part of His Son. … It is in Him that the eternal election becomes immediately and directly the promise of our own election as it is enacted in time, our calling, our summoning to faith, our assent to the divine intervention on our behalf, the revelation of ourselves as the sons of God and of God as our Father, the communication of the Holy Spirit who is none other than the Spirit of this act of obedience, the Spirit of obedience itself, and for us the Spirit of adoption (105-106).

In the divine harmony of the eternal will of the Trinity, God determined to be God only in union with humanity in the person of Jesus Christ. The eternal Son of God for his part, was obedient to this divine will, determining himself and being determined for this particular union of God with humanity. His obedience was his own electing—his choosing to be incarnate, to be God-with-us—and his election, his being elected. And in his election we find the only ground of our own election, its promise, and its enacting in time.

In the small-print discussion which follows these assertions Barth insists first, on the basis of a number of texts in John’s gospel, that the action of Jesus the Incarnate in choosing and calling his disciples is itself the action of God’s election:

In the light of these passages the electing of the disciples ascribed to Jesus must be understood not merely as a function undertaken by Him in an instrumental and representative capacity, but rather as an act of divine sovereignty, in which there is seen in a particular way the primal and basic decision of God which is also that of Jesus Christ (106).

Second, he engages in historical discussion to argue that Jesus Christ is not simply elected passively, that is, with respect to his human nature, but is also actively the electing One (106-115). Barth’s motive in prosecuting this argument is pastoral, concerned with Christian assurance: if Christ is only the elect and not also electing, then we must look elsewhere than Jesus Christ to find the ground of our election, and indeed will confront only mystery.

And of the reality of that mystery we know nothing. We cannot even believe it. In face of it we can only attempt to create the necessary knowledge by constructing a decretum absolutum. In such circumstances predestination is not only a higher something behind and above the covenant effected and revealed in the divine-human person of Jesus Christ. In its very essence it is something quite different from this person. It is a hidden decree which we can never recognise as divine and to which we cannot possibly be required or advised to entrust ourselves (107).

For Barth, the election of Jesus is truly the “light of predestination” for us too, but only if Jesus Christ is the subject as well as the object of election: only, that is,

if we can be absolutely certain that in Jesus Christ we have to do immediately and directly with the electing God. If this is not the case, we are exposed always to the doubt that in the election we have to do perhaps with the will of a God who has not bound Himself in covenant with us and who is not gracious towards us (108).

In this section Barth explores the idea of election found in Thomas Aquinas, and over against Thomas’s view he calls Augustine and, especially, Athanasius. He laments that Athanasius’ insight had no continuing influence and development in the history of theology with respect to this question. The Reformers, too, failed to see that Jesus Christ must be the electing God with the result that all their attempts at spiritual consolation direct us elsewhere than Jesus Christ.

How can we have assurance in respect of our own election except by the Word of God? And how can even the Word of God give us assurance on this point if this Word, if Jesus Christ, is not really the electing God, not the election itself, not our election, but only an elected means whereby the electing God—electing elsewhere and in some other way—executes that which He has decreed concerning those whom He has—elsewhere and in some other way—elected? The fact that Calvin in particular not only did not answer but did not even perceive this question is the decisive objection which we have to bring against his whole doctrine of predestination. The electing God of Calvin is a Deus nudus absconditus [“purely hidden God”]. It is not the Deus revelatus who is as such the Deus absconditus, the eternal God. All the dubious features of Calvin’s doctrine result from the basic failing that what was in the beginning with God must be sought elsewhere than in Jesus Christ (111).

Barth agrees with the Reformed doctrine in so far as it insists that the origin and eternal ground of election must be sought in God. He rejects the tradition, however, insofar as it attributes this eternal ground to the will of the Father apart from and prior to Jesus Christ. For the Reformed, the will of the Father to save (only some) is primary and first, and the election of Jesus Christ is reduced to a means for the accomplishing of this end. The Reformed doctrine was, therefore, “Christless,” a “false start,” which but for a doctrinal and pastoral inconsistency, could have issued only in mysticism or moralism (113). Therewith Barth identifies his central theological move with respect to his own doctrine of election:

And the possibility of such a happy inconsistency should not prevent us from recognising this false start for what it was. Nor must it encourage us to perpetuate the error. It must encourage us rather to correct it, replacing the doctrine of the decretum absolutum by that of the Word which was in the beginning with God (113-114).

Reading Karl Barth on Election (8)

Church Dogmatics Study EditionSelection: The Church Dogmatics II/2:76-93, The Place of the Doctrine in Dogmatics.

The final subsection of §32 concerns the location of the doctrine in the schema of systematic theology. Barth innovates with respect to the tradition by situating the doctrine of election within the doctrine of God; God himself and all God’s works are a consequence of his election. God is God only as the electing God.

As far as I know, no previous dogmatician has adopted such a course. We must ask then: Is it really the case that the doctrine of election forms a part of the definition of the Subject of all Christian doctrine? … We answer this question affirmatively when we maintain of God that in Himself, in the primal and basic decision in which he wills to be and actually is God, in the mystery of what takes place from and to all eternity within Himself, within His triune being, God is none other than the One who in His Son or Word elects Himself, and in and with Himself elects His people. In so far as God not only is love, but loves, in the act of love which determines His whole being God elects (76).

In this subsection Barth surveys six different ways in which theologians have located the doctrine, especially within the Reformed tradition, and more particularly with reference to Calvin. In classical Reformed Orthodoxy, according to Barth, the doctrine followed the doctrine of God, preceding directly the doctrine of creation and the whole remaining content of confession and dogmatics (77). Nevertheless Barth distinguishes his own position from that of Reformed Orthodoxy because the primary tenet of the tradition was not election at all, but the doctrine of the divine decrees of which the election was simply one part. The election, therefore, was grounded in a doctrine of the “absolute world-governance of God,” thus taking God in his relation to the world as its first datum, and understanding the election in light of this (78).

As Barth turns his attention to other ways of considering the location of election he notes that they all speak first of creation and providence and only then of election, either in connection with providence, or with respect to God’s work of salvation.

The most interesting feature of this section is Barth’s discussion of Calvin. Barth notes that in 1536 in the first edition of his Institutes, Calvin linked the doctrine of election with ecclesiology rather than subsuming it under the doctrine of providence. A year later in the first draft of his Catechism, Calvin placed the doctrine immediately after his treatment of Christology and before his treatment of the Holy Spirit and the church. In the later editions of his Institutes (from 1539-1559), it is treated as the climax of reconciliation, as the last word to be spoken concerning God’s work of salvation, which also casts its light on all that has gone before. Finally, in the Confession Gallicana (1559), Calvin adopted precisely the opposite arrangement in which the election was the first word to be spoken with respect to reconciliation.

It is true that Calvin did partly share and partly inaugurate four different conceptions of the place and function of the doctrine of election. But it is also true that we do not find amongst these the conception which is usually described as classical in Reformed dogmatics. Calvin never connected the doctrine of predestination with that of God, whether directly or indirectly (86).

What Calvin did appear to find in the doctrine of election was this—a final (and therefore a first) word on the whole reality of the Christian life, the word which tells us that the existence and the continuance and the future of that life are wholly and utterly of the free grace of God (86).

Of the four proposals made by Calvin, Barth considers that of his Catechism the best, since it understands election as “an event which works itself out between Christ and the Christian” (88).

Barth’s own method is to attach the doctrine, with Reformed Orthodoxy, to the doctrine of God, and with Calvin, to the doctrine of reconciliation, which is and must be the first, central and definitive word of Christian dogmatics:

The doctrine of election is the last or first or central word in the whole doctrine of reconciliation as [Calvin] rightly perceive[d]. But the doctrine of reconciliation is itself the first or last or central word in the whole Christian confession or the whole of Christian dogma. Dogmatics has no more exalted or profound word—essentially, indeed, it has no other word—than this: that God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself (88).

The doctrine of election thus serves to identify God as the gracious God and to bring all the works of God under the reign of grace. There is no aspect of existence not encompassed by divine grace. The election is the divine self-determination that God wills to be God solely in Jesus Christ, and to be known, loved, feared and worshipped only as this God (91). Barth insists that this emphasis on divine grace was Calvin’s deepest priority:

We must see the election at the beginning of all the ways of God, and treat of the doctrine accordingly. We believe that in so doing we shall not be disloyal to the intention which activated Calvin especially as he drew up those different outlines. We shall rather be taking up and realising this very same intention (90).

Reading Karl Barth on Election (4)

Church Dogmatics Study EditionSelection: The Church Dogmatics II/2:34-44, The Foundation of the Doctrine.

In the second sub-section of Barth’s prologue to the doctrine of election, he considers the source and foundation of the doctrine. He begins by identifying four insufficient bases for the doctrine including simple repetition of the tradition, the utility or usefulness of the doctrine, Christian experience, and a focus on the omnipotent divine will. Of these, Barth focuses especially on the third and fourth items which although wrong in form (52), are yet somewhat correct in intent or substance, in that they at least direct their attention to the elect person and the electing God. Barth declares his methodological hand early:

We must at this point recall the basic rule of all Church dogmatics: that no single item of Christian doctrine is legitimately grounded, or rightly developed or expounded, unless it can of itself be understood and explained as a part of the responsibility laid upon the hearing and teaching Church towards the self-revelation of God attested in Holy Scripture. Thus the doctrine of election cannot legitimately be understood or represented except in the form of an exposition of what God Himself has said and still says concerning Himself. It cannot and must not look to anything but the Word of God, nor set before it anything but the truth and reality of that Word (35).

Barth does not reject tradition, of course, but insists that it cannot be the subject and norm of dogmatic effort. Rather its function is to serve the Word.

But we shall be doing Calvin the most fitting honour if we go the way that he went and start where he started. And according to his own most earnest protestations, he did not start with himself, nor with his system, but with Holy Scripture as interpreted in his system. It is to Scripture that we must again address ourselves, not refusing to learn from that system, but never as ‘Calvinists without reserve.’ And it is to Scripture alone that we must ultimately be responsible (36).

In turning to Scripture, however, care must be exercised lest Scripture be misused:

Is it right to go to the Bible with a question dictated to us by experience, i.e., with a presupposition which has only an empirical basis, in order then to understand the statements of the Bible as an answer to this question, which means chiefly as a confirmation of the presupposition which underlies the question? … If it is to be a question of the divine judgment, as it must be in dealing with the doctrine of election, then Scripture must not be brought in simply as an interpretation of the facts of the case as given by our own judgment. The very facts which we consider must be sought not in the realm of our experience but in Scripture, or rather in the self-revelation of God attested in Scripture (38).

Barth insists that the doctrine of election cannot be read off our experience of the results of gospel proclamation and human response. Such an approach not only is a misuse of Scripture but presumes that the judgement of human experience is equivalent with divine judgement. Barth’s discussion in this matter, then, is a decisive repudiation of Calvin’s approach (39-41), whom he accuses of feeling very competent to distinguish “if not the reprobate, at least the stupid and deceived and wicked who in that age formed so distressingly large a majority of men” (40).

The fact which above all others inspired Calvin, and was thus decisive for the formation of his doctrine, was not at all the contrast between the Church on the one hand, and on the other the heathen world entirely unreached by the Gospel. … Again, it was not the positive observation that at all times the Gospel has both reached so many externally and also seemed to prevail over them internally. … [but] that other fact of experience which excites both pain and anger, the fact of the opposition, the indifference, the hypocrisy and the self-deception with which the Word of God is received by so many of those who hear it (80 per cent, according to the estimate there given). And it is this limiting experience, the negative in conjunction with the positive, which is obviously the decisive factor as Calvin thought he must see it. It was out of this presupposition, laid down with axiomatic certainty, that there arose for him the magnae et arduae quaestiones [great and difficult questions] for which he saw an answer in what he found to be the teaching of Scripture (39-40).

Behind this approach is a presupposition that election concerns God’s eternal and decisive foreordination of every individual in their private relation to God, which is then understood, on the basis of experience, in terms of election and rejection. Although Barth accepts that every person does indeed stand in a private and individual relation to God, and that this relation is indeed decisively determined by God’s election, he nevertheless rejects the presupposition that election is focussed first and primarily on the individual, and the corollary idea that each individual’s private relation to God is thereby unalterably established and determined in advance. God’s election is gracious and free, focussed specifically and primarily on Jesus Christ and his people, and only then on the individual (41-44). The great danger, Barth suggests, is that reading divine election from our experience of the fruitfulness or otherwise of the proclamation of the gospel will result in a portrayal of the electing God who resembles “far too closely the electing, and more particularly the rejecting theologian”! (41)

Reading Karl Barth on Election (2)

Church Dogmatics Study EditionSelection: The Church Dogmatics II/2:12-24, The Orientation of the Doctrine of Election.

Barth then develops his next major point, namely, that the doctrine of election must be understood as gospel, as grace. There can be no parallel or coordination of election and reprobation otherwise the good news becomes “bad news” (12-18; the reference to “bad news” is on page 18).

The truth which must now occupy us, the truth of the doctrine of predestination, is first and last and in all circumstances the sum of the Gospel … Its content is instruction and elucidation, but instruction and elucidation which are to us a proclamation of joy. It is not a mixed message of joy and terror, salvation and damnation. … The election of grace is the sum of the Gospel—we must put it as pointedly as that. But more, the election of grace is the whole of the Gospel, the Gospel in nuce. It is the very essence of all good news (12-14).

Barth acknowledges that the doctrine “throws a shadow” (13), but insists that the No must be spoken only in service of the Yes which is the first and last word. For Barth, the doctrine must be understood unequivocally as gospel. Barth notes that this positive statement of the doctrine has been asserted throughout the tradition, which indicates its “evangelical character.” Barth provides a brief biblical overview of the nature of election as grace in which he insists that there are not two columns in the Book of Life, but one column only. Whence, then, the doctrine of “double predestination”? Barth traces the concept through Augustine, Aquinas, Isidore of Seville, Gottschalk, Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and the Arminians.

The basic demand by which any presentation of the doctrine must be measured, and to which we ourselves must also conform, is this: that (negatively) the doctrine must not speak of the divine election and rejection as though God’s electing and rejecting were not quite different, as though these divine dealings did not stand in a definite hierarchical relationship the one with the other; and that (positively) the supremacy of the one and subordination of the other must be brought out so radically that the Gospel enclosed and proclaimed even in this doctrine is introduced and revealed as the tenor of the whole, so that in some way or other the Word of the free grace of God stands out even at this point as the dominating theme and the specific meaning of the whole utterance (18).

Barth identifies three central characteristics which all “serious” conceptions of the doctrine have in common: “they all find the nerve of the doctrine, the peculiar concern which forces them to present and assert it, in the fact that it characterizes the grace of God as absolutely free and thereby divine” (19). This grace is free, mysterious, and righteous (18-24). There is no cause for election other than God’s free grace. No works or righteousness or even faith are the ground for being elect. God’s grace and therefore his election is mysterious and incomprehensible, and so can be investigated only in faith and adoration. God cannot be called to account before the bar of human reason. Finally, the tradition has also insisted that in the exercise of his free and mysterious grace, God is also righteous. At this point, Barth qualifies the tradition insisting that only as we understand who God is can we agree that election is righteous. If the believer’s agreement is forced, if they harbor secret questions, doubts or protests about the nature of election, it is not true adoration: “We are not bowing before the caprice of a tyrant. Our submission cannot be such that it is accompanied by a still-remaining and ever-increasing inward complaint and resistance” (22). There can be no sacrifice of the intellect in this matter; conversely, we must allow our intellect to be instructed by God: the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

Barth provides a number of citations from Calvin (23) in which Calvin argues that “God’s will is reason” because God is perfectly just and the fount of all justice. There is no higher court of appeal to which God must give account. God’s justice may be secret; it is also blameless.

For the will of God is so much the highest rule of justice, that whatever he wills must be considered just. So when it is asked why God acts in such-and-such a way, it must be replied, ‘Because he wills’. But if you go further, and ask why he has willed it, you ask for something greater and more sublime than the will of God, which cannot be found … We are not describing a lawless God, who is a law unto himself… The will of God is not only pure of all wickedness, but is the purest rule of perfection, even the law of all laws [Inst. iii.23.2].

If a mortal man pronounced that he willed or commanded that his will was to be reason, I would say his statement was tyrannical. But to extend that to God is a terrible sacrilege. For it is not permissible to attach anything improper to God, such as that desire springs up in him as it does in men. But by this merit of honour, it is attributed to his will that it be worthy of being reason, since it is the fount and rule of all justice (23; Congrég. C.R. 8, 115?).

Barth thus accepts these three primary characteristics of the doctrine of election in the tradition. To the degree the tradition expounded Scripture as testimony to the work of the triune God, it may be considered Christian theology, and their intention—if not their results—may be accepted (24). Therefore he concludes this discussion of the orientation of the doctrine by viewing these three central characteristics through the lens of the gospel (25-34). The election of God is not bare choice as though the concept of choice can be absolutized.

Paul Helm, Rationalising the Spirit?

Paul Helm
Paul Helm

In his discussion of Calvin’s doctrine of Scripture, Paul Helm betrays a somewhat rationalist approach to the internal witness of the Spirit:

Calvin is not here saying that the activity of the Spirit which is sufficient to establish the authority of the Word of God is unreasonable or irrational or non-rational in character. How could that be when the Spirit is the Spirit of the most wise and all-knowing God? “Scripture is its own evidence” means what it says. The Spirit’s work is not purely subjective persuasion, a groundless feeling of conviction. It is rather that the Spirit testifies to or illumines the cognitive content of the objectively true Scripture. Strictly speaking, such illumination does not need any rational or empirical considerations external to the message of Scripture to add further support to it even though such data may be provided.

In Calvin’s employment of both internal and external proofs of this fundamental feature of his theology, we must note the tension between what we may call the “orderly” versus the “disorderly” aspects of Calvin’s thought. Appealing to the external proofs is “orderly”: such “proofs” can be studied, taught and argued about. By the use of them in preaching and teaching the authority of the Scripture can be safeguarded in the churches. By contrast the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit to the Word is “disorderly”, or at least potentially so; it is granted personally, at the behest of the Spirit who is, as Calvin stresses, sovereign in dispensing this gift. Such a gift and its reception cannot be built into the educational and political structures of the church: it cannot be bequeathed by the church’s ministry to the next generation in any way that guarantees success (Helm, Calvin: A Guide for the Perplexed, 33).

Again, on page 31 Helm argues that,

Self-authentication is a consequence or corollary of Calvin’s emphasis that only God can witness to God and that only if God directly witnesses to himself is that witness thoroughly trustworthy. … How does the Spirit witness? … By powerfully disclosing to us the cognitive and affective content of Scripture, its “message” (original emphasis).

In this instance Helm reports what he wishes Calvin had said rather than what Calvin actually said. In Institutes 1.7.4 Calvin asserts,

Thus, the highest proof of Scripture derives in general from the fact that God in person speaks in it. … We ought to seek our conviction in a higher place than human reasons, judgments, or conjectures, that is, in the secret testimony of the Spirit. … For as God alone is a fit witness of himself in his Word, so also the Word will not find acceptance in men’s hearts before it is sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit. The same Spirit, therefore, who has spoken through the mouths of the prophets must penetrate into our hearts to persuade us that they faithfully proclaimed what had been divinely commanded.

Calvin’s reference to the Spirit is not that the Spirit illumines the content of Scripture to modern readers as Helm suggests, but that the Spirit convinces the heart of the divine origin of Scripture:

Let this point therefore stand: that those whom the Holy Spirit has inwardly taught truly rest upon Scripture, and that Scripture indeed is self-authenticated; hence, it is not right to subject it to proof and reasoning. And the certainty it deserves with us, it attains by the testimony of the Spirit. For even if it wins reverence for itself by its own majesty, it seriously affects us only when it is sealed upon our hearts through the Spirit. Therefore, illumined by his power, we believe neither by our own nor by anyone else’s judgment that Scripture is from God; but above human judgment we affirm with utter certainty…that it has flowed to us from the very mouth of God by the ministry of men. We seek no proofs, no marks of genuineness upon which our judgment may lean; but we subject our judgment and wit to it as to a thing far beyond any guesswork! … We feel that the undoubted power of his divine majesty lives and breathes there (1.7.5).

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It is true that in chapter eight Calvin does detail a number of reasons for regarding the Scripture as inspired and authoritative. But his argument is framed at the beginning and end with statements which insist that such reasons are not authoritative, and are not proofs by which to convince the unbeliever, although they do serve to strengthen the faith of those who are already convinced of Scripture’s authority:

Unless this certainty, higher and stronger than any human judgment, be present, it will be vain to fortify the authority of Scripture by arguments, to establish it by common agreement of the church or to confirm it with other helps. For unless this foundation is laid, its authority will always remain in doubt. Conversely, once we have embraced it devoutly as its dignity deserves…those arguments—not strong enough before to engraft and fix the certainty of Scripture in our minds—become very useful aids (1.8.1).

Calvin’s conclusion to the chapter is similar:

There are other reasons, neither few nor weak, for which the dignity and majesty of Scripture are not only affirmed in godly hearts, but brilliantly vindicated against the wiles of its disparagers; yet of themselves these are not strong enough to provide a firm faith, until our Heavenly Father, revealing his majesty there, lifts reverence for Scripture beyond the realm of controversy. Therefore Scripture will ultimately suffice for a saving knowledge of God only when its certainty is founded upon the inward persuasion of the Holy Spirit. Indeed, these human testimonies which exist to confirm it will not be vain if, as secondary aids to our feebleness, they follow that chief and highest testimony. But those who wish to prove to unbelievers that Scripture is the Word of God are acting foolishly, for only by faith can this be known (1.8.13).

Helm seeks to avoid any subjectivity in the person’s relation to God, and to objectify and rationalise the work of the Spirit. His claim with respect to the nature of the internal witness of the Spirit is at odds with Calvin, and misrepresents his teaching. It is also at odds with the Apostle Paul’s concept of the internal work of the Spirit as an immediate inner witness in the believer’s heart (e.g. Romans 8:12-16 cf. 1 John 2:20, 27).

Of course, we should by all means preach and teach the Scriptures, and even the reasons we might give for trusting the Scriptures. Calvin, too, said this. He also taught the illuminating work of the Spirit with respect to doctrine in Institutes I.ix.1, where he asserts that the Spirit has the task of “sealing our minds with that very doctrine which is commended by the gospel.” But to limit the work of the Spirit to this cognitive-illumining work is to go beyond what Calvin said.

Rather than marginalise the work of the Spirit in the life of the church and the believer, we should teach it and pray for it, expect it and celebrate it, and truly trust that Scripture is indeed self-authenticated because God reveals his grace and power there, as Calvin taught. But never let us be guilty of having more confidence in our own ability to defend and interpret Scripture than in God’s grace and power to make himself known in and through these sacred writings.

Calvin’s “True and Sound Wisdom”

Calvin holding InstitutesNearly all the wisdom we possess,
that is to say, true and sound wisdom,

consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.

So begins Calvin’s monumental Institutes of the Christian Religion. In tonight’s class we have our first seminar based on the opening chapters of Book 1. By the end of the semester we will have worked our way through Book 1 and into the first chapter or two of Book 2 (except for the chapter on the Trinity: we will keep that for next semester so the students have something to look forward to!).

I wonder how this cohort of students will respond to the great Swiss Reformer? In the past, I have had some students appreciate him, some despise him, some find him difficult to read and comprehend, and some argue that they should not have even to read him.

I have encouraged to class to engage him rigorously, carefully and with due respect. I consider the Institutes to be the most important Protestant theology yet penned, because it gathered and systematised the thought of the early Reformation in its most complete and exalted form, and set a pattern for theological reflection and exposition that continues until this day. That does not mean, of course, that we must adhere to all of his positions. We are free to question his proposals, dispute with him, even reject him if we believe we have sufficient grounds. The problem too often, however, is that we think we can dismiss Calvin before we have read him, listened to him, heard him, understood him. In such cases our rejection says much more about us than it does about him and his work.

Back to Calvin’s opening words: what does he mean? I think I am still learning the depths of this seemingly simple statement. For Calvin, we live and move and have our being in God (cf. Acts 17:28). Every moment of our existence is lived in the immediate presence and under the immediate rule of this divine sovereign. If this is the case, then “true and sound wisdom” is learning to acknowledge and accept this as the reality of our existence and to live in its light. That is, we are learning to be God’s creatures, and so to acknowledge God as Creator, Ruler, Sustainer and God. We are learning to take our place under his reign, and so find ourselves lifted up and freed.

This knowledge becomes the “law of our creation.” In knowing God we come to know ourselves, our place in the cosmos, the fundamental principle of our life, the goal and telos of our existence. So thus, we might begin to gain wisdom. The great tragedy, of course, is that this is precisely what we refuse to do.

Besides, if all men are born and live to the end that they may know God, and yet if knowledge of God is unstable and fleeting unless it progresses to this degree, it is clear that all those who do not direct every thought and action of their lives to this goal degenerate from the law of their creation (I.iii.3).

Finally, it is also worth noting that Calvin’s goal is wisdom – sapientia – rather than abstract knowledge. He is not interested in a philosophical or speculative knowledge that seeks to understand all mysteries but does not issue in a life of love and reverence towards God.