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Calvin's Epistemology

John Calvin begins his Institutes of the Christian Religion with a discussion of how and what we know. He does not actually use the word epistemology; his approach to knowledge is religious, not philosophical.

  • Greg Uttinger
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The Knowledge of God and of Ourselves

John Calvin begins his Institutes of the Christian Religion with a discussion of how and what we know. He does not actually use the word epistemology; his approach to knowledge is religious, not philosophical. He writes:

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes, and gives birth to the other.1

Man is the image of God. To know himself aright, man must know the God who made him. But for Calvin, knowing God means more than a formal acceptance of some theological formula. It means a love for God, a pursuit of God. "For, properly speaking, we cannot say that God is known where there is no religion or piety."2

Such piety is completely at odds with idolatry. The pious mind submits itself to God's self-revelation.3 Because idolatry, broadly defined, is the common religion of mankind, we might conclude that very few men have any knowledge of God. But Calvin takes us back to who we really are.

A Sense of Deity 

Because man is the image of God, there exists within his very nature a seed of religion or sense of deity that testifies to the existence of the Triune God. In this sense; every man knows God:

That there exists in the human mind, 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.4

This inward revelation is complemented by God's revelation of Himself in the whole of the created universe. "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament sheweth his handiwork" (Ps. 19:1). "For the invisible things of him from [since] the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by [means of] the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse" (Rom. 1:20 ). Calvin writes:

Since the perfection of blessedness consists in the knowledge of God, he has been pleased, in order that none might be excluded from the means of obtaining felicity, not only to deposit in our minds that seed of religion of which we have already spoken, 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 engraven in characters so bright, so distinct, and so illustrious, that none, however dull and illiterate, can plead ignorance as their excuse.5

General revelation, then, is perfectly clear, and all men ought to know God, themselves, and creation properly.

The Necessity of Scripture

Natural man, however, is blinded by his sin (2 Cor. 4:3-4). He suppresses the truth in unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18 ). Because of this, he cannot interpret the world correctly. His heart needs to be changed, and his perceptions need to be corrected by the Word of God. Calvin wrote:

If true religion is to beam upon us, our principle must be, that it is necessary to begin with heavenly teaching, and that it is impossible for any man to obtain even the minutest portion of right and sound doctrine without being a disciple of Scripture. Hence the first step in true knowledge is taken, when we reverently embrace the testimony which God has been pleased therein to give of himself.6

We find true knowledge when we receive the Word of God by faith. That knowledge grows as we bring every thought captive to all that Scripture says. For even the regenerate struggle with sin and unbelief, and we need the spectacles of Scripture to correct our vision of reality. Only in His light will we see light (Ps. 36:9):

For as the aged, or those whose sight is defective, when any book, however fair, is set before them, though they perceive that there is something written, are scarcely able to make out two consecutive words, but, when aided by glasses, begin to read distinctly, so Scripture, gathering together the impression of Deity, which, till then, lay confused in their minds, dissipates the darkness, and shows us the true God clearly.7

The Testimony of the Spirit 

Calvin is the theologian of the Holy Spirit par excellence. In the end, he hinges all our assurance of true knowledge, knowledge of Scripture, of God, of ourselves,  on the secret work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. Scripture, Calvin holds, carries with it the evidence of its divine origin.8 It is self-evidently the Word of God. Nonetheless, only the Holy Spirit can open the eyes of natural man so that he can see Scripture for what it is. Calvin says that "our conviction of the truth of Scripture must be derived from a higher source than human conjectures, judgments, or reasons; namely, the secret testimony of the Spirit."9 Did Calvin, then, reject a rational defense of Scripture? No, but he did subordinate reason to Scripture:

But I answer, that the testimony of the Spirit is superior to reason. For as God alone can properly bear witness to his own words, so these words will not obtain full credit in the hearts of men, until they are sealed by the inward testimony of the Spirit.10

For Calvin, the inward testimony of the Spirit gives us greater assurance and certainty than the empirical or rational proofs for God that take human autonomy and neutrality as their starting point. Indeed, the Holy Spirit gives us absolute certainty:

We ask not for proofs or probabilities on which to rest our judgment, but we subject our intellect and judgment to it as too transcendent for us to estimate.11

Furthermore, it is foolish to attempt to prove to infidels that the Scripture is the Word of God. This it cannot be known to be, except by faith.12

A Practical Example

Faith, then, precedes knowledge. Let me borrow an example from the classroom to make this clearer. I ask my students, "What is a cow?" They usually say, It's an animal13 with four legs and two horns." I answer. "What is an animal?" "A living thing." "And what is life?" "Uhhh". Eventually, there is no religiously neutral answer to "What is a cow?" or to "What is life?" For the Christian, a cow is a wondrous creature through which our heavenly Father gives us milk, leather, and steaks. Its life is the active work of God's Spirit. For the secular humanist, the cow is a random amalgamation of carbon-based molecules. The cow's life is molecular motion and interaction manifested in particular macroscopic phenomena. That the cow gives us milk, let alone steak, is an accident of cosmic proportions.

The Christian's knowledge of the cow is based on Scripture. The humanist's distorted understanding of the cow is based on his rejection of Scripture. Yet the Christian and the humanist can both point to the thing in the pasture and say, Cow! And both can enjoy porterhouse steaks. After all, this is our Father's world, and all men do, after a fashion, know both God and His world.

By Way of Application

Christian educators now speak enthusiastically of integrating Bible with the rest of their curriculum. Unfortunately, they also speak of integrating Art with History or Music with Theatre. It seems that they want to mix Scripture and education in the same way they mix peanut butter and jelly. Perhaps we are working with sloppy language; more likely, we are working with sloppy theology. If all of creation reveals God, then every subject in our curriculum, when taught properly, ought to reveal God as well. We do not bring the Bible to our math or science curriculum and try to mix it in. We lay the foundations of Math and Science in Holy Scripture, and we let Scripture illumine all of the facts and all of our thoughts about those facts. This is true for educators; it is also true for anyone who wishes to learn and know.

So how much of Scripture do we need to understand? Ultimately, all of it.14 A few points or principles or fundamentals are not enough. To build an accurate and reliable knowledge of the world, of all of reality, we need to know Scripture thoroughly both as a book and as a system of truth. Thus, in an introduction to his Institutes, Calvin writes:

Hence it is the duty of those who have received from God more light than others to assist the simple in this matter, and, as it were lend them their hand to guide and assist them in finding the sum of what God has been pleased to teach us in his word. Now, this cannot be better done in writing than by treating in succession of the principal matters which are comprised in Christian philosophy. For he who understands these will be prepared to make more progress in the school of God in one day than any other person in three months, inasmuch as he, in a great measure, knows to what he should refer each sentence, and has a rule by which to test whatever is presented to him.15

Calvin's answer to the questions of epistemology is Sprit-illumined Scripture. He offers himself and his Institutes as guide. For the better we know the Bible, the better we will know and know that we know God, God's world, and ourselves.


1. . John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Henry Beveridge translation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1970), Book I. 1, 1.

2. I. 2, 1.

3. I. 2, 3.

4. I. 3, 1.

5. I. 5, 1.

6. I. 6, 2.

7. I. 6, 1.

8. I. 7, 5.

9. I. 7, 4.

10. Ibid.

11. I. 7, 5.

12. I. 8, 13.

13. Actually, they often say a creature at this point, an explicitly theistic answer.

14. The doctrines contained in the creeds of the ancient Church are a good starting point, however. Calvin used the Apostles' Creed as the outline for his Institutes .

15. Subject of the Present Work prefixed to the French edition (1545).

  • Greg Uttinger

Greg Uttinger teaches theology, history, and literature at Cornerstone Christian School in Roseville, California. He lives nearby in Sacramento County with his wife, Kate, and their three children.

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