As I committed to reading through Calvin’s Institutes with a friend, in honour of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation this year, I thought it would be worth jotting down some bits that I found particularly interesting. Here’s the quote for today:
Yet hence it appears that if men were taught by nature, they would hold to nothing certain or solid or clear-cut, but would be so tied to confused principles as to worship an unknown god [cf Acts 17:23].
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 1, 5.12
Hang on, didn’t Calvin just go to great pains to emphasise that nature around us points us back to God? Because that part made sense — I’ve heard that line of thinking many times before. Although I’ll admit, usually we will talk about how amazing creation is in order to counter the atheist view that the world was a random accident.
This is why I was surprised when I first read it — it almost seems as though Calvin has taken a 180 turn and started to attack his own view from earlier. But what he’s actually doing is something we generally fail to think about: looking at the world around us doesn’t tell us who God is or what he’s like. This is a really important distinction! Any other religion in the world could look at creation and infer that their God/gods made it. But just staring at the amazing world around us tells us nothing of what God himself is like. It’s like trying to work out what a person is like from looking at a photo of their house. You may get a sense of how much money they have, but not what their personality is. Whether they’re someone you would get along with or dislike, whether they’re worth inviting to your birthday party or if you’d rather never speak to them again.
Imagine that instead of seeing a photo of their house, you had a letter addressed from them to you. Perhaps a cup of coffee together at a café. How much difference does it make actually hearing them talk! There’s a relationship there now, not your misguided assumptions based on something they made. That’s why it’s vital that we listen to what God says about himself, us and life in his Word. If we just look at our world and make assumptions, we’re going to be looking to an imaginary god of our own creation.