Monday, January 12, 2009

Reading Through Calvin's Institutes

With this year being the 500 anniversary of John Calvin's birth, I decided to read through Calvin's Institutes of Christian Religion. I have read it before, although it was always in bits and pieces. This time I am intending to read through the whole thing from beginning to end through the year. The plan I am using is the one from Reformation 21, who are also blogging through the Institutes following the same plan.

I am considering blogging my thoughts as well. I did not do so for the first week where we read through the prefatory address, although I did find it an interesting read.

This week we start into Book one from 1.1.1 to 1.2.1.

This section starts with these wonderful words, "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." As Calvin continues he looks at how these two areas of knowledge are bound together so that truly knowing oneself points a person to God while truly knowing God due to the many amazing things that make up human beings. Even more than that, even our weaknesses point us to God, "Indeed, our very poverty better discloses the infinitude of benefits reposing in God . . . Thus from the feeling of our own ignorance, vanity, poverty, infirmity, and --what is more--depravity and corruption, we recognize that the true light of wisdom, sound virtue, full abundance of every good, and purity of righteousness rest in the Lord along. To this extent we are prompted by our own ills to contemplate the good things of God; and we cannot seriously aspire to him before we begin to become displeased with ourselves."

I had not considered this for a long time. Too often it is easier to think that our weakness, infirmity and the wrong we do don't point us to God. However, that begs the question, why do virtually all of us have a sense that certain things we do are wrong. Why do we have a sense of morality and sense of justice and sense of rightness. I know some will say this is a result of evolutionary forces that resulted in those with genes that acted in these ways our surviving those who don't. However, that is not survival of the fittest. It does not seem to fit to me, although I don't really want to get into a long discussion on it. Yet, as I considered this for myself, I realized that as I see my own faults and corruption, it reminds me of the perfection, purity and beauty of God.

This goes the other way as well. For we cannot know ourselves unless we know God. In particular we cannot correctly understand who we really are unless we measure ourselves by God. Calvin put it this way, "For we always seem to ourselves righteous and upright and wise and holy--this pride is innate in all of us--unless by clear proofs we stand convinced of our own unrighteousness, foulness, folly, and impurity." In fact, because there is so much and so many people who are greatly corrupt, we get the feeling that because we are less corrupt, we think ourselves pure. What that means, as Calvin points out, "As a consequence, we must infer that mans is never sufficiently touched and affected by the awareness of his lowly state until he has compared himself with God's majesty."

This is not something new to me. It is something that I have considered and studied and preached before. However, in many ways Calvin said it much better than I ever could.

Chapter 2 starts to examine what it is to know God. First Calvin points out that knowledge of God is more than knowing there is a God, but also knowing how it is good for us to know him. That means that there is no proper knowledge of God where there is no religion or piety. Calvin defines piety a little later in this first section of chapter 2 this way, "I call "piety" that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces. For until men recognize that they owe everything to God, that they are nourished by his fatherly care, that he is the Author of their every good, that they should seek nothing beyond him--they will never yield him willing service. Nay, unless they establish their complete happiness in him, they will never give themselves truly and sincerely to him."

That final line I quoted from Calvin stuck me. It was a reminder that God does not demand part of me, but all of me. He does not want me to find part of my happiness and satisfaction in him, but all of it. More than that, it made me realize how easy it is to seek the satisfaction that only God can give in thing that although good, are not meant to bring such satisfaction. It reminded me that I don't know God as well as I should.


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