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Calvin on the Internal Knowledge of God


In Romans 1:18-20 we are taught that all men and women born into this world know God and are without excuse because God has revealed Himself in creation:

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. 21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.

Calvin understood that this internal knowledge of God from creation is "naturally inborn in all". He says it is an 'awareness of divinity' or 'a certain understanding of [God's] divine majesty.'  No one escapes this knowledge and thus no one can forget that there is a God, 'although many strive with every nerve' to do so (Institutes 1.3.3).

However, this internal knowledge of God, which 'can no wise be uprooted', does not lead to true knowledge of God.  As Dr. Calhoun explains in my lecture notes:


Calvin says internal revelation is instinctive and ineradicable but ineffective. God has sown a seed of religion but scarcely one man in a hundred is met with who fosters it and none in whom it ripens. So, that internal witness is there in its two forms of sense of divinity and seed of religion, awareness of God and conscience. It is there and cannot be eliminated. However, it does not bear good fruit. It bears bad fruit in various ways, as we will see. Only the worst fruits—false religion marked by superstition and hypocrisy—come of it. Why is this true? Why is it ineffective? Is it because God did not make it strong enough? No, the sense of divinity and seed of religion are perfect witnesses to the majesty of God and to the law of God. However, it is ineffective since, as Calvin puts it in Book I, Chapter 4, part 2, “People deliberately befuddle themselves.” Adam sinned. We are descendants of sinful Adam and we sin too. I like the way Calvin says it: “People deliberately befuddle themselves.”


Then Dr. Calhoun gives this illustration:

One of the best illustrations of this is found in one of the Narnia books, The Magician’s Nephew. It is talking about Uncle Andrew, and it says, Ever since the animals had first appeared, Uncle Andrew had been shrinking further and further back into the thicket. He watched them very hard, of course, but he was not really interested in seeing what they were doing, only in seeing whether they were going to make a rush at him. Like the witch, he was dreadfully practical. He simply did not notice that Aslan was choosing one pair out of every kind of beast. All he saw, or thought he saw, was a lot of dangerous, wild animals walking vaguely about, and he kept on wondering why the other animals did not run away from the big lion. When the great moment came and the beast spoke, he missed the whole point for a rather interesting reason. When the lion had first begun singing long ago when it was still quite dark, he had realized that the noise was a song and he had disliked the song very much. It made him think and feel things he did not want to think and feel. Then, when the sun rose and he saw that the singer was only a lion—“only a lion,” he said to himself—he tried his hardest to make himself believe that it was not singing and never had been singing, only roaring— as any lion might in a zoo in our own world. “Of course it cannot really have been singing,” he thought. “I must have imagined it. I have been letting my nerves get out of order. Whoever heard of a lion singing?” And the longer and more beautifully the lion sang, the harder Uncle Andrew tried to make himself believe that he could hear nothing but roaring. The trouble about trying to make yourself stupider than you really are is that very often you succeed. Uncle Andrew did. He soon did hear nothing but roaring in Aslan’s song. Soon, he could not have heard anything else even if he had wanted to.

To me, that seems to be an amazing picture of Calvin’s thought. People deliberately befuddle themselves, and they cannot hear or see what is there.