Calvin’s doctrine of the knowledge of God provides warrant for a biblical apologetic that emphasizes persuading men they are in suppression of the truth rather than providing a demonstration of God’s existence. Since all men know that God exists, claims to ignorance of his existence are merely a veil to justify our rebellion against God. This knowledge of God is the basis upon which apologetics should seek to leave men without the excuse of needing evidence in order to believe. It is this sensus divinitatis, or sense of the Divine, that make all men culpable before God. As such, apologetic methodology is not seeking to demonstrate the truth of God, rather, it is seeking to persuade men of the truth of their guilt.
As Calvin argues in his Institutes, the foundation for any knowledge of God is God himself.[i] Man has neither the ability to know God on his own nor is he entitled to such knowledge from God. C.S. Lewis captures this rightly in his Shakespeare analogy: “If Shakespeare and Hamlet could ever meet, it must be Shakespeare’s doing. Hamlet could initiate nothing.”[ii] Therefore, men who claim to lack evidence for belief in God do so contrary to what God has revealed to us in his word. They forget that in a universe in which God exists, it is God’s prerogative to provide knowledge of himself to his creatures and to define the criteria for such knowledge. Van Til properly states that “any revelation that God gives of himself is…entirely voluntary.”[iii] Calvin condemns the foolishness of such men who suppose they have the authority to determine how God should give witness of himself: “Whence comes this law to mortals that they may by their own authority define what far surpasses the world?… Each man will stand upon his own judgment rather than subject himself to another’s decision…It remains for God himself to give witness of himself from heaven.”[iv] Men who demand God provide a certain evidence of himself forget both their moral and ontological relationship to God. This error requires the same response Paul gives rhetorically to the Romans who forgot the order of their relationship to God: “Has the potter no right over the clay?”[v] The answer is most assuredly “yes!” Therefore, our claims about what we know about God are not justified by what we claim to believe but by what God claims that we believe.
Building on this Romans 1:20-21 anthropology, Calvin argues that God has provided all men with a sensus divinitatis or semen religionis. According to Scott K. Oliphint, “Calvin seems to use these two notions…in a similar way” throughout the Institutes.[vi] Hoeksema describes this religionis as “true knowledge and fear of God and the service of love.” [vii] Using these terms, Calvin “does not only speak of an objective knowledge and an objective religion, but includes the subjective response to that knowledge in the fear and love of God.”[viii] Elsewhere, Oliphint argues that this knowledge “was intuitive, immediate, non-ratiocinative in its apprehension of God.”[ix] Thus, Calvin’s position is that all men have an innate, objective possession that communicates knowledge of God to them such that all are without excuse in knowing that God exists. John Frame reminds us that “God’s revelation is ‘accommodated’ to human understanding.”[x] This knowledge is cognitio insita or implanted knowledge that becomes the foundation for our culpability. B.B. Warfield summarizes Calvin’s position thus far:
“That the knowledge of God is innate (I. iii. 3), naturally engraved on the hearts of men (I. iv. 4), and so a part of their very constitution as men (I. iii. 1), that it is a matter of instinct (I. iii. 1, I. iv. 2), and every man is self-taught it from his birth (I. iii. 3), Calvin is thoroughly assured. He lays it down as incontrovertible fact that ‘the human mind, by natural instinct itself, possesses some sense of a deity’ (I.iii.1).” [xi]
Developing this epistemology from Scripture, Calvin displayed his apologetic as one in which he sought to persuade readers of what they already knew to be true rather than demonstrate what he believed was already plain to them. Speaking of the impious, Calvin appeals to their condition: “Those who are of a mind alien to God’s righteousness know that this judgment seat stands ready to punish transgressions against him…That seed remains which can in no wise be uprooted…If any occasion for despair presses upon them, it goads them to seek him…From this it is clear that they have not been utterly ignorant of God…”[xii] Here, Calvin persuades us that all men, even those in rebellion to God, display this sensus divinitatis by running to him when led to despair. Therefore, we see from these two points that men are without excuse: First, man is entirely dependent on God to reveal himself in which He has by evidence of his word. Second, God’s word argues that we all have been given an internal knowledge of him. God has declared to us that we are compelled to believe from within. Furthermore, our belief is evidenced by our own behavior when calamity strikes.
In addition to this cognitio insita, men have been given cognitio acquita, or acquired knowledge, of God’s existence. Calvin’s sensus divinitatis refers entirely to man’s internal knowledge of God. In order to bring out this knowledge further, God has provided all with external warrant for knowing he exists. Calvin, commenting on Romans 1:20, describes the purpose of the external order: “God being the framer of things, communicates divinity to us.”[xiii] Thus, all men have received external communication through the design of the universe that God exists. This external communication of God to his creation is clearly the point of Paul’s argument in Romans 1:19-20: “What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes…have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.” The interworking of both these cognitio insita and cognitio acquita “prevent anyone from taking refuge in the pretense of ignorance.”[xiv] This conclusion is Paul’s main thesis at the end of Romans 1:20: “they are without excuse.” Therefore, in our apologetic methodology, those who argue that they lack evidence for belief in God and are thereby excused from believing are in stark contrast with what God has revealed about himself and his creation.
From the above points we see that men are without excuse because they possess both an internal and external confession of the truth of God’s existence. In other words, those who argue they have no reason to believe do so not because they need demonstration of the truth but because they need freedom from their willful suppression of the truth. First, by authority of God’s revelation, we know that men do not need convincing of the truth because they cannot escape the persuasive testimonies God has placed in them and around them. Now we must demonstrate that men are suppressing the truth.
Calvin is consistent with Paul’s argument in Romans 1 when he comments that “though the structure of the world, and the most beautiful arrangement of the elements, ought to have induced man to glorify God, yet no one discharged his proper duty: it hence appears that all were guilty of sacrilege, and of wicked and abominable gratitude.”[xv] It is important to note that Calvin does not see man as without religion but without a proper view of God and his glory. Calvin argues that “there were indeed none who sought not to form some ideas of the majesty of God, and to make him such a God as they could conceive him to be according to their own reason.”[xvi] In other words, it is not that men are without the sensus divinitatis, rather, they suppress this sense by pursuing it in a religion of their own fashioning. This suppression renders the sensus divinitatis ineffective since it no longer leads men to a correct view of God. However, this sensus is sufficient to leave men without excuse. It does so by leaving no man without a religious posture as evidence that all know God exists. Warfield argues that this seed of religion provides the basis for all religion. It is so prevalent in man that it is even the foundation for all who seek to oppose religion:
“[This knowledge of God] forms the silent assumption of all attempts to expound the origin of religion in fraud or political artifice, as it does also of all corruptions of religion, which find their nerve in men’s incurable religions propensities (I.iii.1). The very atheists testify to its persistence in their ill-concealed dread of the deity they profess to despise (I.iv.2); and the wicked…are not permitted by nature to forget it (I.iii.3).“[xvii]
In other words, every motive to abolish or manipulate religion is a profession of religious conviction as a result of all men knowing that God exists. It is this collective of spurious activity to pervert or prevent religion that testifies to our suppression of the truth. Calvin, reminds us that “he who is the boldest despiser of God is of all men the most startled at the rustle of a falling leaf…If for these there is any respite from anxiety of conscience, it is not much different from the sleep of drunken or frenzied persons…”[xviii] All men portray a suppression of the truth by maintaining a passionate corruption of religion. This shows itself in the universality of religion and the fear-driven dogmatism of those who seek to explain religion away.
Because all men contain sufficient testimony of God’s existence and all men distort that testimony, evangelism exists to persuade men of their suppression of the truth, not merely the truth itself. Calvin reasons from Scripture that merely defending Christianity is insufficient because men are in suppression of the truth not ignorance of the truth. Therefore, Christianity does not need to be cleared from the charges of men. Rather, men need to know their true condition. Calvin explains this philosophy plainly in his Institutes:
“They who strive to build up faith in Scripture through disputation are doing things backwards…If I were struggling against the most crafty sort of despisers of God…I am confident it would not be difficult for me to silence their clamorous voices…But even if anyone clears God’s sacred word from man’s evil speaking, he will not at once imprint upon their hearts that belief which piety requires. Since for unbelieving men religion seems to stand by opinion alone, in order not to believe anything foolishly or lightly, both wish and demand a rational proof that…the prophets spoke divinely…But God alone is a fit witness of himself in his world, so also the word will not find acceptance in men’s hearts before it is sealed by the inward testimony of the spirit…The Spirit is called the ‘seal’ and ‘guarantee’ for confirming the faith of the godly; because until he illumines their minds, they ever waver among many doubts.”[xix]
Because man is in a state of suppression of truth, no attempt to justify the truth can free him. Man’s problem is not that the truth is not clear but that the truth, in his eyes, is perverted. Calvin observes that “as soon as [men] begin to think upon God, they vanish away in wicked inventions, and so the pure seed [of religion] doth degenerate into corruptions.”[xix] Therefore, Oliphint argues, “every unbelieving attempt to construct a true natural theology will inevitably lead to condemnation.”[xx] It is ineffective to seek merely to convince man of the truth of God’s existence and the authenticity of his word. This is because man does not struggle to believe in God. Rather, the condition of man’s heart leads him to wield all truth into condemnation instead of freedom. Man’s plight is not that he does not understand truth but that he does not want truth. Warfield in agreement with Calvin argues, “Objectively valid as the theistic proofs are, they are ineffective to produce a just knowledge of God in the sinful heart.”[xxi] Therefore, merely demonstrating the truth that men already know is ineffective.
In order for the demonstration of the truth to be effective, men must be in a condition in which they are persuaded to love the truth. Therefore, as demonstrated in the above quote, Calvin argues that persuasion is the work of the Spirit. In our evangelism, then, our aim is not merely an attempt at demonstrating what is true, rather, we are seeking to press the truth of God’s word upon listeners in the hopes that the Spirit would work in them. This means that much of evangelism is less persuasion of men and more persuasion of God. This does not mean that God must be persuaded of his will but that prayer and intercession are the effective means of bringing the Spirit’s work upon men. Is prayerlessness not the reason that churches are lacking in true conversions today? Rather than seeking God for men we have convinced ourselves we must seek men for God. The problem is that without God no one can be saved. Jesus reminded the disciples that “it is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all.”[xxii] Therefore, methodologies aimed at gathering people for the purpose of demonstrating the truth of God in the hopes that they be converted will be fruitless. Even if some are persuaded, the arrival of counter evidence later on will persuade them the other way. Men need the rebirth that only God provides. Oliphint laments the Enlightenment’s effects on contemporary evangelism: “There has been, since roughly the eighteenth century, an underlying assumption of reason’s capability to know God on its own, an assumption that is at odds with Reformed orthodoxy.” [xxiii] Evangelistic methodology is rendered useless apart from the Spirit for without the Spirit they remain unconvinced of their corruption. Rather than seeking to demonstrate to the ineffectual reason of man, we must plead with God to revive men while we proclaim the Gospel to men.
In contemporary evangelism, we need to ask the question: Do men need evidence of God or persuasion of guilt? Calvin’s doctrine of the knowledge of God is a needed reminder today that we must return to the work of the Spirit in evangelism. All men know that God exists but all men corrupt this knowledge for our own purposes. This means that our evangelism cannot merely be one of eloquence and truth. We do not have the power to convert other men even if our arguments contain the right truths. Because it remains God’s prerogative to provide knowledge of himself to men, it remains his prerogative to raise men from the grave. Therefore, our evangelism must return to a God-centered methodology. We must return to gospel evangelism that is powered by prayer-fueled churches. Apart from the Spirit’s illuminating work, no men can be persuaded of their true condition.
Calvin, John. Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans. ed. John Owen. Calvin’s Commentaries 19. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979.
Calvin, John. Commentaries on the Acts of the Apostles. ed. John Owen. Calvin’s Commentaries 19. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979.
Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion. ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols., Library of Christian Classics 20-21. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960.
Frame, John. The Doctrine of God. A Theology of Lordship Series. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2002.
Hoeksema, H. C. “Calvin’s Theory of Semen Religionis.” In Protestant Reformed Theological Journal vol. 8, no. 2, (1975).
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2001.
Lewis, C.S. Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. Orlando, Florida: Harcourt, Inc., 1955.
Oliphint, Scott K. “A Primal and Simple Knowledge.” In A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008.
Oliphint, K. Scott. Reasons for Faith: Philosophy in the Service of Theology. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2006.
Van Til, Cornelius. “Nature and Scripture.” In The Infallible Word: A Symposium by the Members of the Faculty of Westminster Theological Seminary, 2011 edition, ed. N. B. Stonehouse and Paul Wooley, 263-301. Philadelphia, PN: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1967.
Warfield, Benjamin B. “Calvin’s Doctrine of the Knowledge of God.” In Calvin and Calvinism, 29-130. New York: Oxford University Press, 1931.
[i] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1960), I.iii.1
[ii] C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy (Orlando, FL: Harcourt, Inc., 1955), XIV.
[iii] Cornelius Van Til, Nature and Scripture (Philadelphia, PN: P&R Publishing, 1967), 3.
[iv] Calvin, Institutes, I.v.13.
[v] ESV, Romans 9:21
[vi] Scott K. Oliphint, A Primal and Simple Knowledge (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2008), 27.
[vii] H. C. Hoeksema, “Calvin’s Theory of Semen Religionis,” Protestant Reformed Journal 8, no. 2 (1975): 27.
[viii] Hokesema, “Calvin’s Theory of Semen Religionis,” 33.
[ix] Scott K. Oliphint, Reasons for Faith (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2006), location 142.
[x] John Frame, The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2002), location 4582.
[xi] B. B. Warfield, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (New York: Oxford University Press, 1931), 3.
[xii] Calvin, Institutes, I.iv.4
[xiii] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 73.
[xiv] Calvin, Institutes, I.iii.1
[xv] Calvin, Romans, 71.
[xvi] Ibid., 73.
[xvii] Warfield, Calvin’s Doctrine, 3.
[xviii] Calvin, Institutes, I.iii.2.
[xix] Calvin, Institutes, 1.7.4.
[xix] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 169.
[xx] Oliphint, A Simple and Primal Knowledge, 38.
[xxi] Warfield, Calvin’s Doctrine, 41-42
[xxii] John 6:63, ESV
[xxiii] Oliphint, Reasons for Faith, location 153.