JOHN CALVIN’S VIEW OF NATURAL THEOLOGY
John Calvin is the notorious founder of that branch of Protestant reformed theologies which has always been one of the most outspoken and most passion driven theological positions in the circle of authentic Protestant theologies. John Calvin, educated in the classics, and a true humanist, was primarily influenced by the works of Cicero, Augustine and Plato. His view concerning the role and use of what we call Natural Theology should not be of passing interest to the student of theology, especially because some Calvinists of the 19th century have either denied the possibility of Natural Theology (as in Karl Barth), or denied the use of Natural Theology in dialogues between Christians and non-Christians (as in Cornelius Van Til). On the other hand, many of the greatest Calvinist theologians to ever write, since Calvin himself, have stated openly that Natural Theology is not only possible (for regenerate and unregenerate alike), but that it is a necessary part of any truly orthodox reformation Christian Theology. In light of these differing opinions it seems necessary to consider the words of Jean Calvin himself. In this short article we will be referring primarily to his Institutes of the Christian Religion as it was translated by Henry Beveridge. We will consider Calvin’s claims about Man’s Knowledge of God under three headings: (1) What Calvin means by “knowledge of God” (2) The possibility of knowledge of God, (3) The sources of man’s knowledge of God, (4) The content of this knowledge, and (5) the what man does with this knowledge (or, the effect of this knowledge on man). For more posts on how different calvinists view Natural Theology, see here and here.
What Calvin means by “Knowledge of God”
Calvin, near the very beginning of the Institutes, distinguishes between two types of knowledge: knowledge of God, and knowledge of ourselves (self-knowledge, what I am, how I relate to God and others, the relative state of my life, etc.). He claims that these 2 objects of knowledge are so closely related that it is difficult to determine which must be known first (for example, Calvin would postulate, do we know what we are when we do not know what God is?). He later states that, “By knowledge of God, I understand that by which we not only conceive that there is some God, but also apprehend what it is for our interest, and conducive to his glory, what, in short, it is befitting to know concerning him.” For Calvin, then, knowledge of God is not only knowledge of that God is, nor just of what God does, but, knowledge of what He has revealed to us about Him and our relation to him. This becomes explicit when Calvin states, on the same page, “it is one thing to perceive that God our Maker supports us by his power, rules us by his providence, fosters us by his goodness, and visits us with all kinds of blessings, and another thing to embrace the grace of reconciliation offered to us in Christ.”
There are two points to be made from this quote. First of all, his claim is most certainly true. That is, knowledge of the truth that God exists, is the creator of all things, and rules all things by his providence, goodness and grace though it is important, is, according to revealed scriptures, less important than knowing God has saviour. Secondly, Calvin seems to distinguish between two levels of knowledge of God. The first level, which he deems less important, includes knowledge of the truth that God exists, is the creator of all things, and rules all things by his providence, goodness and grace. The second level, which he deems more important, is knowledge of God as the saviour of those who believe in Christ’s work on the cross. The truth claims of the second level of our knowledge of God are ontologically dependent upon the truth of the claims of the first level. That is, unless God exists, is the creator of all things, and rules all things by his providence, goodness and grace, it is not possible that God be our saviour. Also, that we believe the truth claims of the second level implies that we already either know, or believe, the truth claims of the first level. That is, if I do not, at very least, believe (even by blind faith) that God exists, is the creator of all things, and rules all things by his providence, goodness and grace, then I cannot, in any way, believe that God is my saviour.
Knowledge of God, then, for Calvin, is both knowledge of God as creator, and knowledge of God as saviour.
The Possibility of Knowledge of God
The question that we must now ask is, Can man attain to knowledge of God? To this Calvin’s answer is a resounding “Yes!” Not only can the regenerated man attain to knowledge of God, but the unregenerate man can also attain some knowledge of God. Indeed, as is well known and attested, Calvin claims that all men, regenerate or unregenerate, have within them the sensus divinitatus (the sense of deity). He states, for example, “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.” Be it noted, first of all, that Calvin clearly states that God himself constantly “renews and occasionally enlarges” this sense of deity in all men. That is, though a man may attempt to diminish, destroy, and drown out the sense of deity that God has implanted in his mind, God does not allow him to get rid of it, but constantly brings it back. It should also be noted that this sensus divinitatus makes man “aware that there is a God, and that he is their maker”. This phrase brings out the point that this is not some vague (almost invisible) knowledge of God, but that man is actually “aware” of two very distinct and pointed facts: 1) there is a God, and 2) this God is my maker. For Calvin, whether or not man accepts these two truth statements, he knows them.
It is also important to note the following statement about whether or not man can know something of God. “I only wish to observe here that this method of investigating the divine perfections, by tracing the lineament of his countenance as shadowed forth in the firmament and on the earth, is common both to those within and to those without the pale of the church.” This important claim not only shows that Calvin thought that it was possible to know something of God by observing his creation, but also, that this knowledge was possible for all men, whether they be regenerate or unregenerate. When he talks of the “method of investigating the divine perfections, by tracing the lineament of his countenance as shadowed forth in the firmament and on the earth” he is describing, to a T, Natural Theology – the study of what man can know about God from the things he has created. He states quite clearly that this study, this “investigation”, is possible both for those within the church (the regenerate), and for those without the church (the unregenerate). In light of the claims that we have seen above, one is not only entitled, one is, indeed, obligated, if one wishes to follow in the steps of John Calvin, to accept that Natural Theology is, for all men, regenerate and unregenerate, not only possible, but, indeed, a viable source of truths concerning God.
The Sources of Man’s Knowledge of God
In light of what we have already seen it seems obvious that Calvin accepts at least two sources from which humans can glean knowledge about God. However, to make it more explicit, we will consider a number of quotes directly from the Institutes. If one considers only the titles of the chapters in the Institutes one will, straight away, notice that Calvin claims that God reveals himself both in Creation (chapter 5) and in divinely inspired scriptures (chapter 6). As no orthodox reformation theologian would argue with the claim that God reveals himself in scripture, and, especially, as this short article is about Calvin’s views on Natural Theology, we will only consider what Calvin has to say about God’s self-revelation in Nature.
Calvin states that God reveals himself to man in nature, in three ways: (1) through creation itself, (2) through man’s nature & man’s history, and (3) through Gods providential control of the creation and man. Take, for example, this statement, “He [God] has been pleased, in order that none might be excluded from the means of obtaining felicity [“the perfection of blessedness [felicity] consists in the knowledge of God”], not only to deposit in our minds that seed of religion of which we have already spoken [the sensus divinitatus], but so to manifest his perfections in the whole structure of the universe, and daily place himself in our view, that we cannot open our eyes without being compelled to behold him. His essence, indeed, is incomprehensible, utterly transcending all human thought; but on each of his works his glory is engraved in characters so bright, so distinct, and so illustrious, that none, however dull and illiterate, can plead ignorance as their excuse.” Here Calvin states that God has not only given, to all men (regenerate and unregenerate) the sensus divinitatus, but, on top of that, He also gives to all men, in nature (in all the things He has created), the proof of his existence and glory. This knowledge of God, attained through the contemplation of creation, is available to all men, everywhere, regenerate or not. This is Natural Theology.
Calvin continues, “In attestation of his wondrous wisdom, both the heavens and the earth present us with innumerable proofs, not only those more recondite proofs which astronomy, medicine, and all the natural sciences are designed to illustrate, but proofs which force themselves on the notice of the most illiterate peasant, who cannot open his eyes without beholding them…No man, however, though he be ignorant of these [the more recondite proofs presented in the liberal studies and natural sciences proving the existence and attributes of God], is incapacitated for discerning such proofs of creative wisdom as may well cause him to break forth in admiration of the creator.” In this quote we see two important claims. First of all, Calvin recognizes that man, through his scientific and philosophic study of creation, has discovered “innumerable proofs” of the existence and attributes of God. Calvin is most likely referring to the many proofs (arguments or demonstrations) for the existence and attributes of God that have been discovered, throughout the history of the church, by the likes of Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and those who followed in their steps. Secondly, Calvin also recognizes that even if someone is unable to understand these arguments, many of which require years of in-depth study to grasp, he is still confronted with proof of God every time he considers creation. This quote makes it clear that Calvin thinks that man can attain knowledge of God through creation, and this either by simple observation, or by scientific and philosophical study.
Calvin also notes that what is true concerning our observation of God’s creation is also true of our considerations of our very selves, “The same is true in regard to the structure of the human frame.” He also states that God reveals himself in his providential governing of the world.
In concluding this section it might be worth our while to finish with this interesting statement in which Calvin declares that the best way to seek God – the most direct path and fittest method – is to contemplate Him in creation, “Hence it is obvious, that in seeking God, the most direct path and the fittest method is, not to attempt to pry into his essence, which is rather to be adored than minutely discussed, but to contemplate him in his works, by which he draws near, becomes familiar, and in a manner communicates himself to us.” This statement demonstrates, without a doubt, that Calvin thought that Natural Theology was not only a viable way of knowing God, but one of the most fruitful.
The Content of Man’s Knowledge of God
Calvin clearly believes that all men, regenerate and unregenerate, can and do “truly” know something of the true God, who is the creator and sustainer of all that is; and that this knowledge is revealed to man, by God, in nature. Just what does Calvin think that man can know about God from nature? This is where the distinction, mentioned above, comes into play. From nature man can truly know the truth that God exists (the true God), is the creator of all things, and rules all things by his providence, goodness and grace. He cannot, however, know that this God desires to be united with him – in other words, man cannot, from nature, know God as saviour.
Calvin lists a number of the truths that all of humanity, from nature, can know about the one true God. We can, first of all, know his power. Which is one of the attributes that Paul, in Romans 1:19-20, says that all unregenerate men know. Calvin does not think that humanities knowledge of God stops with His power. Rather, “from the power of God we are naturally led to consider his eternity, since that from which all other things derive their origin must necessarily be self-existent and eternal.”
Calvin also thinks that man can know of God’s goodness, as well as God’s majesty, and God’s wisdom, about which he says, “The excellence of the divine wisdom is manifested in distributing everything in due season, confounding the wisdom of the world, and taking the wise in their own craftiness (1 Cor. 3:19); in short, conducting all things in perfect accordance with reason.”
The list is not long, and certainly not exhaustive. What matter, however, is not how much humanity is able to know about God from nature, but the fact that, for Calvin, all humans are capable of “truly” knowing something about God as they consider the things he has created, and how he providentially governs his creation. This knowledge, as far as Calvin is concerned, is not reserved for the regenerate, but, rather, even the unregenerate possess, or are actually capable of possessing, this knowledge, and it is based upon the fact that they possess this knowledge, but reject it, that they are condemned by God.
What Man does with this Knowledge (or the Effect of this Knowledge)?
We are led to our final point, in which we must consider how, according to Calvin, man reacts to this knowledge. Calvin is very clear that though all of humanity, from all times and places, are both implanted with the sensus divinitatus (innate knowledge of God) and able to come to some knowledge of God from creation, in spite of this knowledge they reject God. “Whether they will or not, they cannot but know that these are proofs of his Godhead, and yet they inwardly suppress them.” It is important to note that, for Calvin, all of humanity truly does have (or has access to) knowledge that God is, that He is the creator of all things, and that he rules all things by his providence, goodness and grace. It is incoherent to talk about a possibility that is cannot become actual, therefore, if it is possible for man to know God from nature, then it is incoherent to say that this cannot become actual. Furthermore it seems that some men have come to knowledge of God from nature, as Calvin states above when he discusses the scientific and philosophical arguments for the existence of God. As such, Calvin truly believes that man really can and does obtain true knowledge of the true God from creation. Secondly, and this point only goes to prove the previous point, humans suppress this knowledge. You can only suppress something that is present to you. If you do not know that X, then you cannot suppress the knowledge that X. Therefore, if man suppresses his knowledge of God, then he actually has knowledge of God that can be suppressed.
The above statement is clearer in the following quote, “The expression of David (Pss. 14:1, 53:1), ‘The fool has said in his heart, There is no God,’ is primarily applied to those who, as will shortly farther appear, stifle the light of nature, and intentionally stupefy themselves. We see many, after they have become hardened in a daring course of sin, madly banishing all remembrance of God…As a just punishment of the wicked, after they have closed their own eyes, God makes their hearts dull and heavy, and hence, seeing, they see not.” Note, in this quote, that God’s blinding of the eyes of those who reject their knowledge of Him comes after they have already rejected their knowledge of God. God simply confirms them in their choice. They are not born blind. Rather, as we saw above, Calvin states that all men see clearly that God exists. Rather, as this quote, and many others, shows, Calvin thinks that though man is, from birth, able to know something of God through the things He has made, when man later rejects what he has learned of God, that man is confirmed in his choice by God.
Calvin does not, however, think that the person that God has blinded (in giving them their very own desire) is left without a witness to God, “Still, however, the conviction that there is some Deity continues to exist, like a plant which can never be completely eradicated, though so corrupt, that it is only capable of producing the worst of fruit. No, we have still stronger evidence of the proposition for which I now contend, i.e., that a sense of deity is naturally engraved on the human heart, in the fact, that the very reprobate are forced to acknowledge it.” According to Calvin, it is due to the fact, among other things, that humanity suppresses this knowledge, that God condemns humanity.
We could continue, for quite a while, listing quote after quote in which Calvin claims: (1) that all of humanity is able to know something of God without the divinely inspired scriptures, that is, through the sensus divinitatus and through contemplation of the creation of God, and (2) that though man attains to this knowledge he willfully rejects it (which implies that he really possesses it), and (3) that because of this willful rejection God condemns man. This, however, does not seem necessary, as we have already sufficiently examined the subject of this article – Calvin’s Natural Theology.
Calvin clearly believes that man is able to truly know and understand, from his contemplation of creation (whether it be the simple gazing upon creation of a person in wonder, or the scientific or philosophical gaze of the scientist or philosopher), the truth that God exists, is the creator of all things, and rules all things by his providence, goodness and grace. This just is Natural Theology. Therefore, we seem warranted to claim that Calvin believes that Natural Theology is both a possible, and a necessary, way of knowing God. Though this knowledge of God cannot save man, which is what necessitated, according to Calvin, a divinely inspired written revelation, it is still true knowledge of the true God, which prepares men to receive the divinely inspired written revelation in which they can learn of God the saviour.
Cf. Karl Barth, The Knowledge of God and the Service of God According to the Teaching of the Reformation, trans. J. L. M. Haire and Ian Henderson (London: Hodder & Stoughton Publishers, 1938). Karl Barth, “No”, in Natural Theology, trans. Peter Fraenkel, ed. John Baillie, 65-128 (1946; repr., Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2002).
It is a well-known fact that Van Til never claimed that Natural Theology was impossible (to do so, as we will see, would be to deny his Calvinistic heritage), rather, Van Til claimed that Natural Theology was only “truly” possible for the true Christian. Cf. Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, vol. 5 in In Defense of the Faith (1974; repr., Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 1982), 15, 56-57, 64, 72-73, 76, 79, 100-109, 197, etc.
Cf. Two articles by the great reformed theologian from Princeton, B. B. Warfield. Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, “The Idea of Systematic Theology,” in Studies in Theology, vol. 9 of The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, 49-87 (1932; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2000). Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield, “The Task and Method of Systematic Theology,” in Studies in Theology, vol. 9 of The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, 91-114 (1932; repr., Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 2000). As well as, Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, 3 vols. (1940; repr., Peabody, Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003). See especially the first 30 pages of volume 1. See also the Calvinist Baptist Theologian, A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology, 3 vols in 1 (1907; repr., Old Tappan, NJ: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1979). One could go on, but there is no need to overdo it.
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge (2007; repr., Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2012).
Ibid., 4-5. This claim is difficult. For example, can man truly know God until he reaches heaven? The New Testament seems to say no. For example, Jesus tells his disciples that no man has ever seen God, and that the only to the Father is through Jesus; if you know Jesus, then you “know” God. So, no man, prior to the celestial state, can “truly” know God. If it is not possible, on this earth, to truly know God, and if one must truly know God in order to truly know thyself, then it is not possible, on this earth, to truly know thyself. In other words, no “true” knowledge would be possible until the celestial state is attained. This, of course, creates further difficulties which I will not go into at this point.
This is an important distinction for Calvin. Cf. Ibid., 7, 8, etc.
Ibid., 9. Cf. Ibid., 10.
We will come back to the « content » of man’s knowledge of God later. The point here is to bring to evidence that, for Calvin, the sensus divinitatus has a distinct and clear content that can be formulated in a truth statement and either accepted or rejected as true.
Rom. 1 :19-20.
Calvin, Institutes, 16.
Ibid., 20. I am sincerely incapable of comprehending how Calvin could possibly hope to deduce God’s eternity and self-existence from His power. It certainly seems that the deduction should be the other way around. Be that as it may, we are not here considering the strength of his position, but, rather, we are simply explaining it.
Ibid., 13-14, 18-24.
Cf., Ibid., 13, 22-26, etc.
Cf. Ibid., 24-29.
For further references, some of which may disagree, in part, with my conclusions, see: Michael Horton, « Knowing God: Calvin’s Understanding of Revelation », in John Calvin and Evangelical Theology: Legacy and Prospect, ed. Sung Wook Chung (Louisville, KY: WJK Press, 2009), 7-11. Wilhelm Niesel, The Theology of Calvin, trans. Harold Knight (London: Lutterworth Press, 1956), 39-53. Pierre Maury, “La théologie naturelle d’après Calvin”, Bull. de la Société de l’Histoire du protest. Franç., 84, (1935), 267ff. Jean Daniel Fischer, Le Problème de la théologie naturelle étudié d’après Calvin (Dissertation, Strasburg, 1936). Edward A. Downey, Jr., The Knowledge of God in Calvin’s Theology, 3rd ed., (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1994), 50-56, 72-86. B. B. Warfield gives an explanation that is, in all points, quite similar to the explanation that I have given above in his "Calvin's Doctrine of the Knowledge of God", in Calvin and Calvinism, vol. 5 of The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1932), 33-48.