To Know Ourselves…

Living makes sense and gives joy only when we live out that relationship before God.

The question “What is man?” must be answered by a sentence that has a reference to God in it. When, in the pursuit of the project of the self, we a priori exclude the person of God we not only cut ourselves off from knowing him, but from knowing ourselves. The project ends in frustration.  Fulfilled life requires that we know God in Jesus Christ (Jn 17:3).  By implication, exclude him and we lose all sense of proportion.

 

Calvin’s Institutes opens with a strikingly important sentence–crafted first by a young man in his mid-twenties and only fine tuned between its first appearance in 1536 and its final expression a few years before his death. Wisdom–the knowledge coupled with practical understanding and piety that is the underlying concern of the entire project–involves knowing God and knowing ourselves. Truly to know ourselves we need to know God; come to know God and at last we see ourselves in our true context.

The thought–as commentators on the Institutes point out–is not entirely original.  But its roots (as they do not always note) go way beyond the Augustinian tradition of theology, to the opening chapter of the Bible.  God made man as his image (Gen. 1:26). Our creation, our very being, is defined by that relationship to him. Living makes sense and gives joy only when we live out that relationship before him.  So the question “What is man?” must be answered by a sentence that has a reference to God in it.

When, in the pursuit of the project of the self, we a priori exclude the person of God we not only cut ourselves off from knowing him, but from knowing ourselves. The project ends in frustration.  Fulfilled life requires that we know God in Jesus Christ (Jn 17:3).  By implication, exclude him and we lose all sense of proportion. For when we measure ourselves by ourselves we turn out to be the ideal height! But when we are persuaded that God is the fountain of every good, and we seek and find him (or are found by him), then, says Calvin, we begin to taste “complete happiness.” Only then will we gladly give ourselves to the Lord.

Who Is He?

If my first question about God is “What is he?” then I am already mistaken. The really important question is “Who is he?” “What is God like?” The biblical answer is that he is the fountain of all good and that he reveals himself as such in creation.  Yes he is a Judge. The naïve reader would expect Calvin to stress that! But grasp this: God is in himself so very good that “even if there were no Hell Christian believers would shudder to offend him.” Yes, he  is that good!

Of course, all men know there is a God. (And, paradoxically, idolatry is one of the clearest proofs of that.) For a certain knowledge of him (albeit not covenant fellowship, not saving knowledge) is inescapable.

For one thing, we are his image. The sense of dependence on him and duty to him is engraved in us and can never be effaced, albeit we repress and stifle it. The echoes of our destiny and calling to live as God’s image can never be silenced, never finally repressed, no matter how hard we try.

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