Q&A: John Calvin and the Need for Scripture

John Calvin and the Need for Scripture

What are the main ways we can come to know God?

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Answer

In the early chapters of the The Institutes, Book 1, primarily chapters 1 through 7 and 8, Calvin is arguing it's a long argument that he gets to but he's arguing for the necessity of Scripture. Again, by God's general revelation, his revealing himself within the order of creation, within his providential guiding and directing of the affairs of men and nations, and of our own lives and the law written upon our hearts, we can come to a knowledge of his existence, that he is a benevolent power, that he is a sovereign Lord. Yet, in our rebellion we are running away from that. We seek to reject that truth. And Calvin's argument is that we need, as fallen creatures, we need and he calls it a twofold knowledge we need to be returned to a knowledge of God as our creator, and we need to be brought to a knowledge of God as our redeemer. And Calvin, following Scripture, argues that this knowledge only takes place historically, in events. That's why the distinction between general revelation general revelation is given to all creatures at all times irrespective of locale and then we use the language of special revelation. I don't really care for that term, one that suggests that general revelation isn't special, and second, it doesn't really get at it. I think particular revelation is a better revelation. Particular revelation is a revelation that takes place in space and time. It's given at a particular point to particular people. And that's the nature of all historical interaction, historical events, historical relationships. God undertakes a series of redemptive acts, acts that are meant to restore relationship, restore his creatures, bring them back to him. But that bringing back includes both a knowledge of him as creator to be brought back into that first knowledge, and a knowledge of God as our redeemer. We speak of these acts in Scripture as the history of redemption, the mighty acts of God, the mighty deeds of God, and they culminate in, they find their center in Jesus. Calvin wants to make the point that knowledge of God is fundamental, it is I'm going to go so far as it's pointless as a lesson until it comes to Jesus. I like the way that Al Walters, my friend Al, put it. He said, "You look at this world outside of Jesus and it's just dirt." In Christ, this is my Father's work, because he brings us back to that knowledge. But you can see here that, in Christ, that redemptive knowledge actually comes first, even though in the order of creation God has revealed himself in creation before he redeems things. In the order of sin and redemption, a redemptive knowledge actually comes first; there's a priority to redemptive knowledge. And that redemptive knowledge is in Jesus, so that Calvin would say, "Christ always comes to us dressed in the robes of Scripture."

Answer by Dr. Michael D. Williams

Michael Williams is the Professor of Systematic Theology at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, MO, where he has been teaching since 1996.