It has been quoted many times, and deservedly so: “Nearly all wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves” (Institutes. I.1.i). What a way to start your magnum opus. No wonder it is repeated frequently.
But the quotation must be taken in context. Often, the line is used as a justification for introspection or a psychologized self-awareness. It is suggested that Calvin (even Calvin!) wanted us to get in touch with our inner self and that Calvin (yes Calvin!) believed that we can’t understand God apart from our own experiences. Sounds good. Sounds relevant. Sounds like something we might say.
The only problem is, it’s not Calvin’s point at all.
True, Calvin argues that we must know ourselves to know God, but what we must know is our “shaming nakedness” which exposes “a teeming horde of infirmities.” Knowledge of self is indispensable because from “the feeling of our own ignorance, vanity, poverty, infirmity” we can recognize “that the true light of wisdom, sound virtue, full abundance of every good, and purity of righteousness rest in the Lord alone.” The goal is not to discern our personality type or figure out our giftedness or get in touch with our past, though all of these have their place. For Calvin, knowledge of self is essential because we will only begin to seek after God when “we begin to become displeased with ourselves.”
Calvin goes on to say that though the two are intertwined, we must start with knowledge of God. Here again, the reason is that we might know how far we are from the glory and holiness of God.
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. Moreover, we are not thus convinced if we look merely to ourselves and not also to the Lord, who is the sole standard by which this judgment must be measured. (Institutes I.1.ii)
We must know God, not in order to understand our feelings, temperament, and history-again there is a place for all this-but to understand our need for God. For when we see God as he has revealed himself, “What wonderfully impressed us under the name of wisdom will stink in its very foolishness.”
Know God. Know yourself. Know yourself to know your need of God. Know God to know you are not gods.
That’s what Calvin means. And that’s true wisdom.