“I just don’t think that God would be like that.” “Surely God wouldn’t do that!” “I think that God is…?” etc. I’m sure you’ve heard or made many claims like this. We all think we have God’s character pinned—whether we’re a Christian who likes to read the Bible, we’re aware of a vague spiritual “vibe”, or we utterly reject the notion of God as hateful. But how do we get to our conclusions of what God is like?! Here’s a quote from Calvin on the issue:
For, as I have said before, such is our inclination to vanity, joined with rash boldness that, as soon as God’s name is mentioned, our mind is unable to refrain from lapsing into some absurd invention. Therefore God, willing to provide a remedy for this evil, adorns his divinity with sure titles, and so fences us in, as it were, that we may not wander hither and thither and rashly contrive for ourselves some new god—if, having abandoned the living God, we set up an idol.
John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book 2, 8.15
Calvin uses some hilariously colourful language here, I’ll admit there have been some laughs as I’ve read through Institutes. His idea might be a little grating to you, but hopefully, you’ll admit that everyone has a slightly different view of who God is. Calvin calls this “vanity” and “rash boldness” because each of us assumes (on the whole) that our idea of God is right. (this includes those of you who think any God would be “unknowable”—that’s still an assumption about God)
When you think about it, it would be insane if we presumed the same things about other people that we presume about God. For example, imagine a stranger coming up to you and saying “Your name is Stanley. You live in London, England and your favourite food is lasagne”. Before you can respond to stranger 1, another person you have never met comes up to you and says “Your name is Rosalind. You live in Dallas, Texas and your favourite food is green tea ice cream”. Then a third stranger says “Your name is not actually important. You are of no real descript character, you don’t really “live anywhere”. In fact, you’re basically just someone who tries to love people as best you can”. I’d be baffled and annoyed at this point. Who are these people to tell me what I’m like?! I have a name—I don’t like it if people call me Stanley or Rosalind.
You can see now why Calvin calls this “vanity” and “rash boldness” now! It would be an extreme arrogance that you could guess someone’s name and character without them revealing it to you. Thankfully, God clears all this up and gives us more information: boundaries for understanding him. He tells us his name, how we can relate to him, and what he’s like. Now, of course, it’s still hard for us as humans to comprehend God totally (as he is so vast), but it’s better than making things up!!