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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” (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.

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8 thoughts on “Was Calvin Advocating Introspection as the Way to Know God?”

  1. stevenkopp says:

    Thanks for the post. I’m wondering if you (are any of your illustrious readers) have any thoughts on the work of Brennan Manning. I have the “Ragumuffin Bible” which contains a bunch of his excerpts. Sometimes his quotes make me squirm a bit (like when he starts talking about knowing yourself, or he pits relationship against law, etc.) I’m not sure if it’s just him being taken without proper context or if he really is a bit off-base.

  2. a. says:

    “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.” let us press on to know the Lord; for He delights in loyalty and in the knowledge of Him. Hos 6:3,6
    Holy, Holy, Holy, is the LORD of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory; our eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts. So, may the Father of glory, in this 2014, continue to give us a spirit of wisdom and of revelation, increasing and multiplying to us the knowledge of Him and of Jesus,our Lord, making our ears attentive and inclining our hearts to Him. Isa 6:1-5; Eph 1:17; 2 Pet 1:2 ; Col 1:10

  3. This article nails it! It speaks to the current trend of introspective self discovery that has permeated Christian culture. Sadly, this trend is a result of the selfism of our age and the popular psycho-babble related to it. “Self-actualization” is one example. But Kevin DeYoung does a great job showing that it is the knowledge of our wretched state that really matters in order for us to realize our need for the gospel–not the knowlegde of inner selves. We need to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus–it’s that simple!

  4. Dayetoven Raleigh says:

    I am amazed that I saw this, God was showing me this all weekend prior to reading this.
    being displeased with ourselves should expose our depravity,
    meditating on our depravity helps us to be aware of how not like God we can be day to day/.

  5. Susan says:

    Oh, yes! Knowing how much we need God helps us know him.

    It’s a mistake to read modern categories into a text that’s much too old to have used them.

  6. Christine says:

    Steven…we need to stay away from Brennan Manning. He was a mystic monk who practiced contemplative prayer…among other unscriptural things. Here is a good article that speaks to some of that,

  7. A surplus trouble which on the web discussing could present is often a self-belief within the man. Given it is going to be a lot easier in order to examine online, somebody here is incredibly self conscious together with scared probably will include trouble employing by utilizing exactly who many people really is essentially. Any person rather is similar to house the two oceans.

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Kevin DeYoung

Kevin DeYoung is the senior pastor at Christ Covenant Church in Matthews, North Carolina. He is chairman of the board of The Gospel Coalition, assistant professor of systematic theology at Reformed Theological Seminary (Charlotte), and a PhD candidate at the University of Leicester. Kevin and his wife, Trisha, have seven children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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