Blogging The Institutes
Excerpts taken from Institutes of the Christian Religion (1541 Edition) by John Calvin
Translated by Robert White
Chapter 1: The Knowledge of God
If we think of how inclined the human mind is to forget God, how easily it is led into error, by what flights of fancy it dreams up, hour by hour, new and counterfeit religions, we may readily understand how necessary it was for the heavenly doctrine to be couched in written form, lest it perish through forgetfulness, or be lost through error, or be corrupted by the impudence of men.
So it is that David first of all declares that the heavens proclaim God’s glory and the firmament his handiwork, and that his majesty is revealed in the orderly succession of day and night. He then goes on to celebrate God’s word, saying: ‘The law of the Lord is spotless, converting souls; the testimony of the Lord is true, giving wisdom to the humble; the righteous deeds of the Lord are just, rejoicing the heart; the precepts of the Lord are clear, enlightening the eye’ (Psa 19:7-8). What he means is that the message of God’s creation is universal, for all peoples, but that the teaching of the word is the school peculiar to God’s children.
Calvin asserts the word of God became necessary because while natural revelation reveals God’s power and many of His invisible attributes, in the hands of corrupted man, this knowledge can easily be twisted to suit his own purposes. Historic pagan religions bear witness to this fact. Ancient Greek culture invented deities that controlled particular aspects of nature instead of giving the one true God the glory He is due for His sovereign reign over all the cosmos. Many civilizations of old have followed their own imaginations in defining who or what brushed the blank canvas of space with a full palette of color, beauty and diverse complexity.
We need the written Scriptures because if God speaks to us at some point in history and it be not put to pen and parchment but only travels via oratory, poor recall and error will inevitably creep into the narrative and God’s decrees would be forever lost. We’ve all played that childhood game in school where the teacher whispers a secret in one student’s ear and it is repeatedly whispered across the classroom until the last person is asked what the message said. The whole class erupts in laughter as the message at the last doesn’t resemble anything close to the original utterance. Whether by misapprehension or deliberate distortion, the integrity of the message is compromised. The written word guards against such errors. Yes, God spoke through His holy prophets but their deeds and words were recorded in written form to be preserved through the centuries.
In quoting Psalm 19 Calvin pointedly makes a sobering observation. God’s revelation of Himself in nature is universal. In other words God has proven His existence to all people everywhere. However, the revelation of Himself in totality – His character, nature and saving grace – comes through the testimony of the Scriptures, specifically only to those He has called His children according to divine election before the foundation of the world. All the apologetic acumen in the world won’t convince unbelievers that the bible is God’s word. Only the illumination of the Holy Spirit can accomplish this. That is why salvation is the greatest miracle of all. And it happens every single day across every nation, in every tribe, tongue and people group.