Calvin’s Theology: Nearly All the Wisdom We Possess

"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."

True wisdom comes from above and that involves our knowing God and understanding ourselves in light of this God who has revealed himself to us in nature and Scripture. We were never meant to understand ourselves and our world without reference to God. This is especially true now that we are in rebellion against the holy God of the universe.


John Calvin is widely known as an accomplished Reformer, Bible commentator, theologian, and preacher. He was these things and more. He also had keen insight into the human soul and contributed greatly to our understanding of a Christian epistemology and theological anthropology. In other words, Calvin helps us to understand the nature of human thinking about ourselves and God.

In the opening to his Institutes of the Christian Religion Calvin devotes two sections of the first chapter to the inextricable connection between our knowledge of ourselves and of God.

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. But, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern (I.1.i.).

This fact is not a mere happenstance. God has determined that we cannot really get a grasp on ourselves without also grappling with him. As the apostle Paul told the Athenian philosophers on Mars Hill, “…in him (God) we live and move and have our being…” (Acts 17:28). Calvin admits here that he is not able to figure out which comes first, knowledge of God or of ourselves. Perhaps that is not so important to know this as long as we see ourselves in the light of God.

As the great Genevan Reformer points out, among other things, we are led to an awareness of our Creator because we did create ourselves. We are not the sources of whatever greatness and giftedness we may possess. Our dependent nature is there for all to see, if we have the eyes to see. This is all true apart from any consideration of our present sinful and miserable condition.

While we were created holy and righteous and good and knowledgeable, we are no longer that pristine condition. We are fallen creatures. First, we are creatures and our dependence upon the Triune God of Scripture is real and constraining on us apart from our sinful rebellion. But sinful rebels we in fact are. Second, we are fallen, sinful creatures. Calvin goes on to tell us that if all we had to go on to assess ourselves and our world around us, we no doubt would think of ourselves more highly than we ought (to borrow the language of the apostle Paul).

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