Friday, May 22, 2009

Correcting a Misquote of Calvin

Much has been made recently of John Robbins’s quote of John Calvin as having said: “I call that knowledge, not what is innate in man, nor what is by diligence acquired, but what is revealed to us in the Law and the Prophets.” Unfortunately, Robbins didn't reference Calvin, although after some searching I was able to find it.

Before we examine the context of the quote Robbins used, let us look at the place where Calvin systematized his views. While reading through Calvin trying to track down the quote, it is apparent that the biggest problem with Robbins’s use of Calvin is that Calvin used a variable definition of knowledge. He used it in various ways depending on what subject he addressed, yet he took great pains to describe exactly how he was using the term. For instance, Calvin showed how he used the term differently when he stated: “Here I do not yet touch upon the sort of knowledge with which men, in themselves lost and accursed, apprehend God the Redeemer in Christ the Mediator; but I speak only of the primal and simple knowledge to which the very order of nature would have led us if Adam had remained upright” (Institutes of the Christian Religion 1. 2. 1). Calvin differentiates between knowledge that lost men have and knowledge that would be gained from nature were it not for the sinful effects of Adam’s fall. These are obviously two very different things, yet Calvin had no trouble using the same word (“knowledge”) for both concepts.

Calvin’s ease of using the term “knowledge” in multiple ways is found in the pains he takes to be specific as to which version he is using in any particular case. For example:
First, as much in the fashioning of the universe as in the general teaching of Scripture the Lord shows himself to be simply the Creator. Then in the face of Christ [cf.
2 Corinthians 4:6] he shows himself the Redeemer. Of the resulting twofold knowledge of God we shall now discuss the first aspect; the second will be dealt with in its proper place.

(Ibid. 1. 2. 1, italics mine)

First in order came that kind of knowledge by which one is permitted to grasp who that God is who founded and governs the universe. Then that other inner knowledge was added, which alone quickens dead souls, whereby God is known not only as the Founder of the universe and the sole Author and Ruler of all that is made, but also in the person of the Mediator as the Redeemer.

(Ibid 1. 6. 1)
If we delve even further, we see that Calvin believed that one gained real knowledge from the external senses—knowledge of God, even if not salvific knowledge. For we read:
We see that no long or toilsome proof is needed to elicit evidences that serve to illuminate and affirm the divine majesty; since from the few we have sampled at random, whithersoever you turn, it is clear that they are so very manifest and obvious that they can easily be observed with the eyes and pointed out with the finger. And here again we ought to observe that we are called to a knowledge of God: not that knowledge which, content with empty speculation, merely flits in the brain, but that which will be sound and fruitful if we duly perceive it, and if it takes root in the heart.

(Ibid. 1. 5. 9)
We have taught that the knowledge of God, otherwise quite clearly set forth in the system of the universe and in all creatures, is nonetheless more intimately and also more vividly revealed in his Word.… We, however, are still concerned with that knowledge which stops at the creation of the world, and does not mount up to Christ the Mediator.

(Ibid. 1. 10. 1)
Indeed, the knowledge of God set forth for us in Scripture is destined for the very same goal as the knowledge whose imprint shines in his creatures, in that it invites us first to fear God, then to trust in him.

(Ibid. 1. 10. 2, italics mine)
The examples could be multiplied. In fact, it is rather easy to simply do a word search through the Institutes, looking for “knowledge” and you’ll see that Robbins’s quote is inadequate for us to know what Calvin meant. Indeed, given the pains with which Calvin sought to clarify which concept of “knowledge” he was currently addressing, Robbins’s quote looks to be no different than any of the above. In other words, for that section Calvin limits “knowledge” to Scriptural knowledge. And since we have seen Calvin use the term “knowledge” in things that manifestly were not related to Scripture, it is improper for Robbins to have used that quote as if Calvin was a Scripturalist.

And once we look at the context of Calvin’s quote, it becomes very clear. For Robbins did not even quote the entirety of the sentence Calvin wrote. The entire (English--the Latin is actually longer) sentence is:
And I have said that religion ought not to be separated from knowledge; but I call that knowledge, not what is innate in man, or what is by diligence acquired, but that which is delivered to us by the Law and the Prophets.

(Calvin’s Commentary on Jeremiah 44, italics in original)
In other words, it is as if Calvin said, “Religion should not be separated from knowledge of Scripture.” That doesn’t convey nearly the sense that Robbins wished this passage conveyed. And if one is a student of the Reformation, he will already know exactly to whom Calvin’s comments were addressed before I even quote the entire paragraph:
This ought to be carefully observed; for at this day were any one to ask the Papists by what right they have devised for themselves so various and so many modes of worship: devotion alone they say will suffice, or a good intention. Let us then know that religion, separated from knowledge, is nothing but the sport and delusion of Satan. It is hence necessary that men should with certainty know what god they worship. And Christ thus distinguishes the true worship of God from that of vain idols, “We know,” he says, speaking of the Jews, “whom we worship.” (John 4:22) He then says that the Jews knew, even those who worshipped God according to what the Law prescribes, — he says that they knew whom they worshipped. He then condemns all good intentions in which the superstitious delight themselves, for they know not whom they worship. And I have said that religion ought not to be separated from knowledge; but I call that knowledge, not what is innate in man, or what is by diligence acquired, but that which is delivered to us by the Law and the Prophets.

(Ibid, italics original)
In other words—and this should be no shock at all—when Calvin taught sola Scriptura, he limited the use of the term “knowledge” to a knowledge of Scripture. When Calvin quoted Jesus as saying of the Jews, “We know whom we worship,” it was because the Jews had Scripture. That was how the Jews knew who they worshipped.

It is therefore a butchery of logic to attempt to wield a portion of Calvin’s sentence as a claim that Calvin agreed with Scripturalism.


  1. I've stayed out of this discussion for several reasons, one of which is because this is ta Presbyterian argument, and I'm not a Presby. However, with that said, I do keep up with Calvin studies and other historical studies in Reformed theology, and I'd point out here also that, if one reads the section on Arminianism in Protestant Scholasticism: Essays in Reassessment, there's a a nifty discussion about the Arminians as the ones who rejected the innate knowledge of God in man. Now, if Robbins, are rejecting that, then that does, indeed strike me as a historically Arminian move, so to appeal to Reformed historical theology in this matter further strikes me as a misunderstanding of Reformed historical theology at best, historical revisionism at worst.

  2. Scripturalism does not deny what is historically defined as "innate knowledge", except consistent Clarkians would not call such a thing "knowledge". Scripturalism is primarily a system of epistemology proper, not ontology of epistemology. Why can't opponents even represent Scripturalism correctly, instead of attacking tons of straw men?

  3. You just said, in the first clause, that "Scripturalism does not deny what is historically defined as 'innate knowledge'," only to immediately negate what you said in the first clause by what you added in the second: "except consistent Clarkians would not call such a thing 'knowledge'."

    What has been historically defined as innate knowledge as been historically understood to be real knowledge. If, therefore, Scripturalism rejects the traditional definition, it thereby denies innate knowledge.

    Hence, there's no straw man here. Rather, a blatant equivocation of terms–from the Scripturalist side of the debate.

    Or are you distinguishing between "Scripturalism" and "consistent Clarkians"?

    If you treat these as synonymous terms, then the equivocation remains.