[first published in the monthly congregational Notes, for November, 2018.]
“Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other.” So begins an English translation of what ranks among the most influential Christian writing of the last 500 years, and one of the best single pieces of work to come from the Swiss Reformation. The words are from the beginning of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion, which he first wrote in 1536 in order to demonstrate to the King of France that what was being called a new religion was not new at all but simply a clearer, Bible-based expression of what had always been Christian belief. Since that first small volume was published, it was expanded re-ordered into what is today still one of the best presentations of Christian doctrine and the lifestyle that should flow from that doctrine.
Calvin’s concern to systematise Christian doctrine was never purely academic but always to enhance and enrich true piety, which for him was expressed in Christian daily life. He wrote for the ordinary man, not the scholar. He wrote clearly, logically and Biblically. “For until men recognize that they owe everything to God, that they are nourished by His Fatherly care, that He is the author of their every good, that they should seek nothing beyond Him, they will never yield Him willing service.” In other words, a true, structured knowledge of God is the first requirement for establishing a structured knowledge of man and how to live in community.
So why does Calvin tie together theology and anthropology, especially as nowadays almost all our universities would reject the connection? Simply because that is what the Bible does. (In fact, if they are interested in theology at all, most universities would reduce to simply a minor sub-branch of anthropology; an example of primitive man’s desire for security in a vast, impersonal evolutionary universe.) But, Calvin said, where people are honest, it is impossible for them to consider the wonder of what it is to be human without thinking of God, “because it is perfectly obvious that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone.” And, to complete the circle, understanding the attributes and character of God will help lift mankind up to its proper dignity and save from the folly of self-confidence. “So long as we do not look beyond the earth, we are quite pleased with our own righteousness, wisdom, and virtue; we address ourselves in the most flattering terms, and seem only less than demigods,” and “[S]ince we are all naturally prone to hypocrisy, any empty semblance of righteousness is quite enough to satisfy us instead of righteousness itself.”
It is not surprising then that where Calvin’s Institutes were read and understood, society took on a distinctively Christian ethos quite different from that furthered by Medieval Catholicism. There was a balance between liberty and authority which preserved from the poles of tyranny and anarchy and which encouraged individual liberty and social responsibility. Those were “Protestant” lands. They are also the lands which have been responsible for so much of the social stability and prosperity of “the West” for the last 300 years. As the West now rapidly and foolishly turns away from its Biblical and Calvinist heritage, it will lose that which has made it distinctive, and the world will lose something very special. Instead of real blessing we will be left with the illusion of wisdom and a “semblance of righteousness” where anyone who stands for God will likely be considered a trouble-maker and a nuisance.
Blessings come from God and when He withdraws them no amount of human activity can make up for what is lost. When we eventually realize this, the only solution, as the Prodigal Son in the parable discovered, is to confess our sin and return to our Heavenly Father. If we do that, we shall find, as did the prodigal son in the parable, open arms and great rejoicing. And what is more, we will find what the Prodigal did not, a Welcoming Older Brother, Jesus Christ.