The Knowledge of God in Calvin’s Commentary on I Corinthians 2
By John Drury
The focal point of the knowledge of God in this selection from Calvin’s commentaries is the Holy Spirit. One could say that he presents here a pneumatic structure of theological knowledge. The term pneumatic in no way implies that Calvin’s epistemology does not have a Trinitarian shape or a Christological content.[i] Nor does it preclude a proper place for human reason. As the following exposition will demonstrate, the Spirit is simply in the foreground as the focal point around which these other aspects are organized.
The initial reason for the necessity of the Spirit is the human incapacity to know God. Calvin states that God has “shut up all mankind in blindness.” (v. 10). The knowledge of God is in “a secrete recess, inaccessible to mankind” (v. 11). The gospel “far transcends the perspicacity of human intellect” (v. 7). Human knowledge of the gifts given by Christ is “not acquired in a natural way” (v. 12). The animal man, who Calvin defines as “any man that is endowed with nothing more than the faculties of nature” (v. 14), cannot know the things of God without the Spirit of God. It is instructive that Calvin does not here account the incapacity of human knowledge to its carnality, but precisely the soul, which cannot know God on its own (v. 14). “It is not owing simply to the obstinacy of the human will, but to the impotency, also, of the understanding, that man does not attain to the things of the Spirit” (v. 14).
The solution to the problem of human intellectual incapacity is precisely the gift of the Spirit. As God, the Spirit knows God, “for nothing that is in God escapes the notice of the Spirit of God” (v. 10). “God is known only by his Spirit” (v. 15). The content of the Scriptures is known only as “God elevates our minds to it by his Spirit” (v. 10). The “Spirit of God, from whom the doctrine of the gospel comes, is its only true interpreter, to open it up to us” (v. 14). The spiritual power that may accompany the message of Christ is performed by the “hand of God” (v. 4). Even the additional demonstration of “effect of its influence” has “come forth from God” (v. 5). The knowledge of God is pneumatic because from start to finish it is produced by an act of God.
Such pneumatic agency is crucial because Calvin here presents revelation as self-grounding. As he puts it, Paul’s doctrine rests on the “authority of God alone” and “it is a property of faith to rest upon God alone, without depending on men” (v. 5). Even the spiritual man who does know the word of God does so only on the basis of the word itself (v. 15). The Spirit does not merely impart knowledge to know about the truth, but also ensures that this knowledge will be accepted: “We are not merely enlightened by the Lord to perceive the truth, but are also endowed with a spirit of discrimination, so as not to hang in doubt between truth and falsehood, but are able to determine what we ought to shun and what to follow” (v. 15). Calvin even goes so far as to say that “the word of the Lord constrains us by its majesty, as if by a violent impulse, to yield obedience to it” (v. 4). Clearly Calvin understands the Spirit to reveal God’s word “without any foreign aid” (v. 5, v. 13).
Why is the self-grounding character of divine revelation so important to Calvin? The knowledge of God must depend on God so that it can be sure and certain, for “the assurance of faith is not subject to men” (v. 15, emphasis added). One could argue that “assurance” is the theme of this selection. Faith must rest upon God alone “for it requires to have so much certainty to go upon, that it will not fail, even when assailed by all the machinations of hell” (v. 5, emphasis added). Knowledge of God is too important to be a matter of “hesitation” (vs. 11). Rather, “those who have a testimony of this nature from the Holy Spirit, have an assurance as firm and solid, as if they felt with their hands what they believe, for the Spirit is a faithful and indubitable witness” (v. 11, emphasis added). “Hence we may know the nature of faith to be this, that conscience has from the Holy Spirit a sure testimony of the good-will of God towards it, so that, resting upon this, it does not hesitate to invoke God as father” (v. 12, emphasis added). Calvin says that Paul wishes to express “the assurance of confidence” (v. 12, emphasis added). It is for our sake that knowledge of God comes only by way of his Spirit. For the Spirit of God alone can provide assured knowledge of God.
Calvin’s pneumatic account makes one wonder what part if any the human intellect plays in the knowledge of God. Calvin makes it clear that there is such a thing as “true wisdom” and that Paul’s preaching was open to “sound and unbiased judges” (v. 6). The spiritual person actively “adapts spiritual things to spiritual, in accommodating the words to the subject” (v. 13). There is genuine human agency inasmuch as one’s “understanding is regulated by the illumination of the Spirit of God” (v. 14). As regulator, the Spirit is in position of authority. Yet the human intellect is actively engaged in the knowledge of God. Most intriguingly, Calvin allows that elegance of speech may help the truth (v. 5). Here, spiritually illumined human wisdom is shown to be capable of aiding an otherwise self-grounding truth. However, the important point is that Calvin only allows for the possibility of human aid while ultimately recommending its absence. Why? Because it is better to preach “without dependence on human wisdom” in order to point to the fact that faith is “founded on the word of God alone” (v. 5). The word of God stands “in no need of such helps” (v. 1). God’s truth “may indeed by helped by [human wisdom], but it ought not to rest upon it” (v. 5). Thus Calvin carves space for the human intellect in knowing God, but it must never become a ground of authority. For assured knowledge of God is grounded in God alone.
In order to begin to characterize his exegetical style, one can identify specific techniques used by Calvin. The following habits can be found in this particular section. It is recommended that this preliminary list be modified by further commentary selections.
Paraphrasing – Calvin repeatedly puts the biblical text in his own words, expounding and embellishing upon the text in order to convey its sense. Note: Luther uses a similar procedure.
Simplest Option – With regard to the meaning of a word or phrase, Calvin will lay out a number of options. He then will indicate which option befits the context. If more than one option is fitting, he typically chooses what he calls the “simplest” option. Vs. 3, 8, 9
Mediating Extremes – Paralleling Battles’ analysis of the Institutes, Calvin also mediates between extremes in his commentaries. In this particular selection, he points to true divine wisdom between absence (insane ignorance) and excess (adornment of the truth with human wisdom). Vs. 6, 8, 13
General Sense – Calvin sometimes expresses preference for a more general sense of a particular word. The general sense allows Calvin to focus on the larger argument of the passage as well as increase its applicability. For example, he understands “spirit and power” (v. 4) to refer not only narrowly to miracles but generally to all demonstrations of spiritual power, including preaching. Vs. 4, 5, 8, 12, 14
Reply to Objection – Calvin replies to a number of objections throughout his commentary. He sometimes paraphrases the question or objection, followed by a formulation of his response. It would be of historical interest to investigate which objections were actual and which were potential. Vs. 8, 9, 10
Implied Assumption – Calvin may indicate an implied assumption used by the biblical author. He contends that the author’s argument would be weakens without this particular assumption. This assumption then becomes Calvin’s point. V. 14
Implied Context – Calvin may illumine an elusive biblical phrase by placing it in a larger theological context. For instance, he explains God’s ordination of wisdom for our glory in terms of the “implied comparison” between the law and Christ. V. 7
Relating Terms to other Terms – Calvin specifies the sense of particular words by noting how they relate to other words in the passage. For instance, the word “fear” in understood specifically as it related to “weakness.” V. 2, 3
[i] See John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians (Translated by John Pringle; Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1993) pg. 113, v. 12. Hereafter cited in text by verse for convenient cross-reference to alternative translations.