Book 1 Chapter 1 Section 1-3
Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and or ourselves.
– John Calvin
At Northland, our classes concerning basic Christian living and counselling had a catchphrase: “your view of God affects your view of yourself.” By this, it was meant that until you properly understood God, you could not properly understand yourself.
Calvin takes this theme as essential to the understanding of Christianity. Even as I type, we’re watching Judgment at Nuremberg, the 1961 Spencer Tracy movie where Nazi war criminals stand on trial for crimes committed during World War II. Right now, they’re showing real footage of the concentration camps after the liberation. Are these things morally wrong? Is there such a thing as right? By what standard do we judge these things as wicked? Calvin writes in the first chapter, titled “The Knowledge of God and that of Ourselves are Connected. How They Are Interrelated”:
Because nothing appears within or around us that has not been contaminated by great immorality, what is a little less vile pleases us as a thing most pure – so long as we confine our minds within the limits of human corruption. Just so, an eye to which nothing is shown but black objects judges something dirty white or even rather darkly mottled to be whiteness itself. Indeed, we can discern still more clearly from the bodily senses how much we are deluded in estimating the powers of the soul. For if in broad daylight we either look down upon the ground or survey whatever meets our view round about, we seem to ourselves endowed with the strongest and keenest sight; yet when we look up to the sun and gaze straight at it, that power of sight which was particularly strong on earth is at once blunted and confused by a great brilliance, and thus we are compelled to admit that our keenness in looking upon things earthly is sheer dullness when it comes to the sun.
So it happens in estimating our spiritual goods. As long as we do not look beyond earth, being quite content with our own righteousness, wisdom, and virtue, we flatter ourselves most sweetly, and fancy ourselves all but demigods. Suppose we but once begin to raise our thoughts to God, and to ponder his nature, and how completely perfect are his righteousness, wisdom, and power – the straightedge to which we must be shaped. Then, what masquerading earlier as righteousness was pleasing in us will soon grow filthy in its consummate wickedness. What wonderfully impressed us under the name of wisdom will stink in its very foolishness. What wore the face of power will prove itself the most miserable weakness. That is, what in us seems perfection itself corresponds ill to the purity of God.
When things like the holocaust are brought to mind, it is easy for mankind to shape, after a fashion, their own standards of right and wrong without regard to God. Indeed, many call God to account for such atrocities, or claim that an all good, all sovereign God cannot exist. But when we behold the holocaust, there is no moral meaning to these events. And when the existence of God is included, and His holiness is examined, we see that every human is dirt compared to the sun. Every human is unworthy of heaven, unworthy of God. For, as Calvin says later, every human has the contagion of sin coursing through their soull.
Thus, to know God is to know yourself. And this means to know that God is holy, and we are full to the brim with sin. This is the foundation of all Christian theology. Calvin will continue to build on this foundation throughout the Institutes.