Institutes Study: Book 1, Chapters 1-5

Week 2 Study Questions

1. Why must both the knowledge of God and the knowledge of man be understood for man to possess true knowledge?

Calvin states that true knowledge “consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.”  Both must be understood because they are inseparably interconnected.

2. What is it to know God?

a. “We know God as he is toward us, not as he is in himself”

b. There is a hidden depth to God that we cannot penetrate.

c. We know what God wants us to know. Francis Schaeffer used to put it this way: “We know God truly, but we do not know God exhaustively.”

d. Our knowledge of God cannot be that kind of knowledge that flutters or flits in the brain. We shall not say that, properly speaking, God is known where there is no religion or piety.

e. That does not mean that we add piety, devotion to God, or obedience to God to the knowledge of God, but they are part of the knowledge of God. Nobody is going to know God without worshiping God. We cannot not just sit back with a casual intellectual frame of mind and try to think about God. In the introduction, McNeill says it well when he says, “Since we owe everything to God, in Calvin’s pages we are everywhere confronting God, not toying with ideas or balancing opinions about Him. So, when we think of knowledge, we have to think of knowledge that leads to devotion and obedience to God.

3. How is the knowledge of God demonstrated to be naturally implanted in the minds of men?

a. Through the conscience of man.

b. Through the idolatry of man.  “No, even idolatry is ample evidence of this fact.  For we know how reluctant man is to lower himself, in order to set other creatures above him.  Therefore, when he chooses to worship wood and stone rather than be thought to have no God, it is evident how very strong this impression of a deity must be; since it is more difficult to obliterate it from the mind of man, than to break down the feelings of his nature–these certainly being broken down, when, in opposition to his natural haughtiness, he spontaneously humbles himself before the meanest object as an act of reverence to God.”

4. How is the knowledge of God stifled or corrupted?

Through pride and vanity. “Mingled vanity and pride appear in this, that when miserable men do seek after God, instead of ascending higher than themselves as they ought to do, they measure him in vain speculation.  Hence, they do not conceive of him in the character in which his is manifested, but imagine him to be whatever their own rashness has devised.  This abyss standing open, they cannot move one footstep without rushing headlong to destruction.  With such an idea of God, nothing which they may attempt to offer in the way of worship or obedience can have any value in his sight, because it is not him they worship, but, instead of him, the dream and figment of their own heart.”

5. List several reasons given to prove the knowledge of God from God’s creation and providence.

a. God manifests his perfections “in the whole structure of the universe and daily places himself in our view, that we cannot open our eyes without being compelled to behold him.”

b. “On each his works his glory is engraved in characters so bright, so distinct, and so illustrious, that none, however dull and illiterate, can plead ignorance as their excuse.”

c. Calvin elaborates that astronomy, medicine, and all the natural sciences are designed to illustrate proof of God.

d. Calvin quotes the psalmist, “Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings thou hast ordained strength” (Psa 8:4).  Calvin continues, “Thus he declares not only that the human race is a bright mirror of the Creator’s works, but that infants hanging on their mother’s breasts have tongues eloquent enough to proclaim his glory without the aid of other orators.”

e. “The swift and versatile movements of the soul in glancing from heaven to earth, connecting the future with the past, retaining the remembrance of former years, no, forming creations of its own—its skill moreover, in making astonishing discoveries, and inventing so many wonderful arts, are sure indications of the agency of God in man.  What shall we say of its activity when the body is asleep, its many revolving thoughts, its many useful suggestions, its many solid arguments, no, its presentiment of things yet to come?  What shall we say but that man bears about with him a stamp of immortality which can never be effaced?  But how is it possible for man to be divine, and yet not acknowledge his Creator?  Shall we, by means of a power of judging implanted in our breast, distinguish between justice and injustice, and yet there be no judge in heaven?  Shall some remains of intelligence continue with us in sleep, and yet no God keep watch in heaven?  Shall we be deemed the inventors of so many arts and useful properties that God may be defrauded of his praise, though experience tell us plainly enough, that whatever we possess is dispensed to us in unequal measures by another hand?”

f. “For in conducting the affairs of men, he [God] so arranges the course of his providence, as daily to declare, by the clearest manifestations, that though all are in innumerable ways the partakers of his bounty, the righteous are the special objects of his favor, the wicked and profane the special objects of his severity.”

g. While Calvin speaks of creation and providence as a “glorious theater” and states that the greater part of mankind is blindfolded to the true divine qualities of it, he also notices that there is “scarcely an individual to be found without some idol or phantom as a substitute for Deity.”  He continues, “Like water gushing forth from a large and copious spring, immense crowds of gods have issued from the human mind, every man giving himself full license, and devising some peculiar form of divinity, to meet his own needs.”

h. Calvin therefore argues that man is prompted in every way to worship.  Yet though creation and providence “exhibit so many bright lamps”, they are “altogether insufficient of themselves  to lead us into the right path.”

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