Calvin wrote his Institutes as “a key to open a way for all children of God into a good and right understanding of Holy Scripture” (p.7). So it is appropriate that the first chapters are about the role Scripture plays in leading us to a true knowledge of God (and, consequently, to a true knowledge of ourselves, I.i*).
But, from the outset, Calvin is at pains to emphasise that this knowledge of God is not a cold, abstract, theoretical knowledge of God. For Calvin, a genuine knowledge of God is inseparable from piety, by which he means “that reverence joined with love of God which the knowledge of his benefits induces” (I.ii.1). Knowing God means that we will find our “complete happiness in him” (I.ii.1).
Book I of the Institutes is concerned with the knowledge of God as Creator; the knowledge of God as Redeemer in Christ will be the theme of Book II. This knowledge of God as Creator is that “primal and simple knowledge to which the very order of nature would have led us if Adam had remained upright” (I.ii.1, emphasis added). That is, whereas we all know deep down that there is a God (I.iii), and whereas the universe and the flow of history reveal God to us (I.v), that knowledge of God is “either smothered or corrupted, partly by ignorance, partly by malice” (I.iv). We therefore need the light of Scripture if we would come to know God the Creator (I.vi).
But how are we to know that Scripture is reliable? Not on the basis of the testimony of the church, since the church is “built on the foundation of the prophets and apostles” (Eph 2:20; I.vii.2), and thus the church owes its own authority to Scripture. Nor is it on the basis of rational proofs. Instead, Scripture is “self-authenticated” (I.vii.5) through the inward witness of the Holy Spirit. “For even if it wins reverence for itself by its own majesty, it seriously affects us only when it is sealed upon our hearts through the Spirit” (I.vii.5). That is not to say there are not good reasons “to establish the credibility of Scripture” (I.viii): for example, its majesty, its antiquity, its record of miracles, the fulfilment of its prophecies, and the way it has been received by the church through the ages.
Finally, we should not set Word and Spirit against each other. “God did not bring forth his Word among men for the sake of a momentary display, intending at the coming of his Spirit to abolish it. Rather, he sent down the same Spirit by whose power he had dispensed the Word, to complete his work by the efficacious confirmation of the Word” (I.ix.3).
(I hope I’ve not misrepresented Calvin in my summary of these chapters. Some parts were quite heavy going, dealing with the nature of God’s self-revelation through our hearts and through his creation, and the way in which that revelation is obscured by our sinfulness. Hopefully things will become a little more concrete in the following chapters!)
- References are given as book.chapter or book.chapter.section, e.g., II.iv.1.