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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” (Inst. 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. But this is 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” (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.


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12 thoughts on “A Calvin Clarification”

  1. Andy Scott says:

    This is an excellent clarification. Thank you.

  2. Priscilla Lohrmann says:

    We were just talking about this! I lead a group of highschool girls in reading the Great Books — including the Institutes (a shorter edition.) One of my more thoughtful students was uncomfortable with the “negative” view of people Calvin holds. (Funny, that’s the thing I LOVE about Calvin!) It led to many discussions on a Biblical world view of the nature of man. But I told the group it’s funny, when you hear the word “Calvin” you usually think — predestination. Maybe we should think — total depravity. Anyway, both ideas are inseparable — one leads to the other.

  3. We are told not to think too highly of ourselves, but to think so as to have sound judgment. We are to have sound judgement concerning ourselves. Calvin understood this…we should too.

  4. Priscilla, Calvin doesn’t have a negative view of people; he constantly refers to how human beings are created in God’s image and thus so highly to be valued, and that in itself makes sin all the more reprehensible, because we have marred God’s awesome image in us. As for “total depravity,” it’s not a great term to describe the teachings of the Canons of Dordt; the whole TULIP acronym was made up in the 19th century, and parts of it are really lame in terms of communicating the powerful teachings of that neglected confession (like “limited atonement,” as if Christ were stingy in his grace and only a few dozen people will be saved; definite or intentional atonement is much better). I think when we think of Calvin, the phrase that should come into our minds is: The sovereignty of God.

  5. Priscilla Lohrmann says:

    Thank you, Randy. I do agree with you that Calvin’s main theme is the Sovereignty of God, and that he clearly teaches the high value of God’s image-bearers. It’s just that I am reading the Institutes through the eyes of American teenage girls and realizing how alarmed they are at Calvin’s doctrine of the sinfulness of man. I mean – they agree that they are sinners theoretically. But the degree to which Calvin describes the corruption of man is unpalatable to them. I used the term “negative” only because it is the word they used.

  6. Priscilla, I’ve heard it said that one of the problems with emerging adults is that they don’t feel guilty about anything, so the message of the forgiveness of sins has less effect on them. What they do feel is alienation, and so one approach is to start with different biblical themes, like how God seeks to bring us back into his family (I think of Tim Keller’s Prodigal God and the very powerful DVD that I highly recommend). With this morally messed upn narcissistic, utilitarian generation, we have to move them to the point where they actually recognize their guilt before they can really see the glory of the atonement. At least that’s what some of my colleagues tell me; what do I know? I’m an historical theologian. But I do have a lot of youth and young adults in my congregation, and I do see some validity to it.

  7. Melinda Schmidt says:

    I’m trying to determine why introspection or psychologized self-awareness can’t be what Calvin is talking about. Both introspection (see DAvid in Psalm 51) and psychological understanding have been known to many of us as vehicles to knowing God and His place, His healing, His salvation and His wisdom in our lives. I’m unafraid to believe either of these vehicles can be used by God’s Spirit in our lives. We must GET naked, metaphorically, in order to know our “shaming nakedness.” Like Adam and Eve who came to the conclusion for themselves before God spoke it to them in the Garden after their sin, knowledge of our spiritual nakedness comes from the soul as we recognize and admit what we find there. Let’s help people of all ages toward the self-knowing that American culture seems to have no time for…or self-medicates…or chooses to ignore. Because introspection and psychological takes a lot, a lot of work. My thoughts.

  8. Jan Aiello says:

    I don’t think Calvin had a notion of what you mean by “psychologized introspection”. This is a a very modern reformer and potentially reactionary take on his words. I believe Calvin likely read the psalms and when he said “two parts” he means two separate parts that relate to one another. The one part: knowledge of ourselves actually might not be a reaction to the culture of hyper- self awareness and pop psychology that most reformed theologians hyper-react to today. He might mean reflective understanding of ourselves! As Christians, we do still believe in the power of the Holy Spirit, don’t we? With the the help of our advocate, the Holy Spirit, we can see the truth about our personhood, psyche, emotions, etc. while fully grasping our wretched sinfulness and need for a Savior. It’s possible Calvin was not as much a slave to our modern false dichotomies as you are making him to be.

  9. Calvin states, “Nearly all the wisdom which we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern.”

    Either he contradicts himself of he does not agree that knowledge of God is prior to oneself. I would argue anthropologically that the knowledge of self is prior to God. Think about your life narrative. The truth is that when we encounter God we have a completely new perspective on ourselves, our sin, our inability to save ourselves and the need for God’s grace. God reveals himself as an accepting God and it is our self knowledge and our reading of the scriptures and our application of the Biblical truths in conversion and transformation that integrate both knowledge of God and self.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (PCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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