Temet Nosce: Calvin and the True Knowledge of Self

John Calvin (1509-1564) on engraving from the 1850s. Theologian, founder of Calvinism. Engraved by T. Woolnoth and published in London by Wm. S. Orr & Co.

It is said that the ancient Greek maxim “know thyself” (Gk. γνῶθι σεαυτόν, Lt. temet nosce) was once inscribed in what is now the ruins of the forecourt of the temple of Apollo at Delphi. From Aeschylus, to Socrates, to Plato, and even to the Wachowski brothers’ The Matrix, this ancient aphorism at the very least shows the power of the human mind in arriving at a most essential truth: To know one’s way around this life, and how one ought to conduct oneself to the divine and to fellow man, one must know oneself and the bounds of mortality. Clearly, an oversimplification of such a long-lived maxim, but one that will suffice for this entry.

“The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, And the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding.” – Proverbs 9:10

Enter John Calvin, the formidable French theologian, pastor and reformer of the 16th century. His insight into this maxim is most valuable and worthy of the reader’s consideration:

“It was not without reason that the ancient proverb so strongly recommended to man the knowledge of himself. For if it is deemed disgraceful to be ignorant of things pertaining to the business of life, much more disgraceful is self-ignorance, in consequence of which we miserably deceive ourselves in matters of the highest moment, and so walk blindfold.
But the more useful the precept is, the more careful we must be not to use it preposterously, as we see certain philosophers have done. For they, when exhorting man to know himself, state the motive to be, that he may not be ignorant of his own excellence and dignity. They wish him to see nothing in himself but what will fill him with vain confidence, and inflate him with pride.”

Calvin, Instit. 2.1.1

In other words, man naturally looks inward with a blindfold, looking at a fantasy rather than the reality. What will one see when this blindfold is removed?

But self-knowledge consists in this, First, When reflecting on what God gave us at our creation, and still continues graciously to give, we perceive how great the excellence of our nature would have been had its integrity remained, and, at the same time, remember that we have nothing of our own, but depend entirely on God, from whom we hold at pleasure whatever he has seen it meet to bestow; secondly when viewing our miserable condition since Adam’s fall, all confidence and boasting are overthrown, we blush for shame, and feel truly humble. For as God at first formed us in his own image, that he might elevate our minds to the pursuit of virtue, and the contemplation of eternal life, so to prevent us from heartlessly burying those noble qualities which distinguish us from the lower animals, it is of importance to know that we were endued with reason and intelligence, in order that we might cultivate a holy and honourable life, and regard a blessed immortality as our destined aim.
At the same time, it is impossible to think of our primeval dignity without being immediately reminded of the sad spectacle of our ignominy and corruption, ever since we fell from our original in the person of our first parent. In this way, we feel dissatisfied with ourselves, and become truly humble, while we are inflamed with new desires to seek after God, in whom each may regain those good qualities of which all are found to be utterly destitute.
In examining ourselves, the search which divine truth enjoins, and the knowledge which it demands, are such as may indispose us to every thing like confidence in our own powers, leave us devoid of all means of boasting, and so incline us to submission. This is the course which we must follow, if we would attain to the true goal, both in speculation and practice.”

Calvin, Instit. 2.1.1

Calvin offers two considerations of self-knowledge:

In considering the knowledge which man ought to have of himself, it seems proper to divide it thus, First, to consider the end for which he was created, and the qualities—by no means contemptible qualities—with which he was endued, thus urging him to meditate on divine worship and the future life; and, secondly, to consider his faculties, or rather want of faculties—a want which, when perceived, will annihilate all his confidence and cover him with confusion. The tendency of the former view is to teach him what his duty is, of the latter, to make him aware how far he is able to perform it.”

Calvin, Instit. 2.1.3

All human beings owe their allegiance to God by virtue of being created by Him. And in creation God “put eternity into man’s heart” (Eccl. 3:11). Thus, man owes a lifelong allegiance to God in this world and in the next. Yet, it is a mark of true self-knowledge to feel the limitations that sinful mortality brings to the human experience: the inability to know oneself and God aright. If man cannot even see himself properly (as a fallen, sinful being at enmity with God), much less will he be able to know God truly. And if man cannot know himself and God truly, he cannot by his own faculties reach out to him. This must lead to humility and acknowledgment of finitude and the need of grace.

“For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: “I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.” – Isaiah 57:15

Once man knows himself and God aright, and thus humbles himself, knowing no dignity and worth in himself perfect enough to merit a relationship with his Creator, the gospel shines brightly:

“Our deliverance begins with that renovation which we obtain from Christ, who is, therefore, called the second Adam, because he restores us to true and substantial integrity.”

Calvin, Instit. 2.15.4

It is when man truly despairs of himself and eagerly waits upon God’s mercy, having no perceived claim or right to it, that he knows himself and God correctly. It is when man looks up from below and to the cross above that his darkened mind is dissolved, and a new creation takes place.

“I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” – Ezekiel 36:25-28

Having established that it is not the merit of man that moves God to save him, the question arises, what does? In speaking about John 3:16, Calvin warmly states,

“Christ means to do nothing else than establish the love of God as the ground of our salvation. When we try to go beyond this, the Spirit himself slams the door in our face; he teaches us by Paul’s mouth that God’s love is founded in his own will and purpose (Eph. 1:5). And it is obvious that Christ spoke as he did so as to turn men’s attention from themselves to the mercy of God alone. God does not declare that he was led to deliver us because he found us worthy of such a blessing. On the contrary, he attributes the glory of our deliverance solely to his love. This appears more clearly from the added statement: the Son was given to men that they may not perish. Therefore, unless Christ rescues the lost, all are doomed to eternal ruin. Paul expresses the same thing in terms of temporal sequence: We were loved while we were enemies because of sin (Rom. 5:10). For surely, where sin reigns, there is only the wrath of God which carries death with it. It follows that mercy alone reconciles us to God and, in so doing, restores us to life.”

“The Christian Life.” Calvin: Commentaries, by John Calvin, Westminster John Knox, 2006, pp. 192–193.

By divine love alone for His glory and our salvation is the Christian freed from faculties tainted by sin, from enmity with God to friendship with God, and whose mind can discern aright the world in which he was made, and the word of the God who made him and the world in which he was placed.

“Put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds,  and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” – Ephesians 4:22-24

What was to be man’s portion and inheritance? God himself.

“While the mute creation downward bend
their sight, and to their earthly mother tend,
Man looks aloft, and with erected eyes,
beholds his own hereditary skies”

Calvin, Instit. 2.15.3

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