Penpoint, Vol. 7, No. 10 (Nov. 1996), Covenant Media Foundation, 800/553-3938

Of Taste Buds: Calvin's Apologetic

Pastor Randy Booth



"Consequently, those for whom prophetic doctrine is tasteless ought to be thought of as lacking taste buds" (Calvin, Bk. I, VIII, sec. 2, p. 83).  As seen in this statement, Calvin's apologetic placed the problem of the lack of saving knowledge within the sinner himself and saw no deficiency whatsoever in the abundant evidences God has provided in the created order and the special revelation of Scripture.  Those men in Reformed circles who have portrayed Calvin's apologetic as anything other than thoroughly

presuppositional in nature have failed to accurately represent Calvin's theology.  More specifically, Calvin's presuppositional apologetic stands antithetically opposed to the popular evidentialist or Thomistic apologetic.  The first eight chapters of Calvin's Institutes Of The Christian Religion unquestionably set forth and argue for the absolute necessity of revelation as the epistemological foundation for any saving knowledge of God the Redeemer.  Empirical or rational evidences support the truth, they do not establish it.


It is evident, from the lead position Calvin assigns it in the Institutes, that the epistemological question is fundamental to Calvin's theology.  All men inescapably know God the Creator; even the unbeliever retains some epistemological abilities which should draw him to God.  Calvin maintains that all men have a certain understanding and knowledge over the created order, yet he is not able to find the truth i.e., heavenly knowledge, due to his sin (cf. Institutes, pp. 272-274).  This heavenly knowledge, which is identical with faith, is greater than rational proof or empirical perception.  Contrary to the evidentialist's apologetic, which looks to logic and rational proof for the foundation of this heavenly knowledge, Calvin recognized that this knowledge must begin in revelation as found in Scripture.  Knowledge is foundational to faith, yet the necessary knowledge comes only when one submits to the truth as revealed by God in Scripture.  It is only in Scripture that man may rightly comprehend God as He really is (holy Creator), and at the same time comprehend himself as he really is (sinful creature).  All men have a belief in God (even those who do not believe), yet this is not the same as saving knowledge.  Calvin's apologetic demands that in order to properly know the world and ourselves we must first know God; and to know God, we must first rightly know ourselves and the world.  He states, "As a consequence, we must infer that man is never sufficiently touched and affected by the awareness of his lowly state until he has compared himself with God's majesty" (p. 39).


Calvin contends that all men know God the Creator/judge, due to His common grace, but that they pervert this knowledge and thereby fail to know God the Redeemer, "Here indeed is pure and real religion: faith so joined with an earnest fear of God that this fear also embraces willing reverence...all men have a vague general veneration for God, but very few really reverence him" (p. 43).  This more base kind of knowledge of God cannot be avoided since it is impossible for a man to think of anything concerning himself without simultaneously being confronted with God -- man is made in the image of God.  Calvin observes, "To prevent anyone from taking refuge in the pretense of ignorance, God himself has implanted in all men a certain understanding of his divine majesty" (p. 43).  The only way God can properly be known is by the prior submission to God which results in true devotion and piety (p. 50).  It is impossible for man the creature to escape the knowledge of his Creator/judge.  As God has revealed himself both in nature and in man himself -- man is without excuse.  Calvin was confident that, "men of sound judgment will always be sure that a sense of divinity which can never be effaced is engraved upon men's minds" (p. 45).  Man's problem in not a lack of information, but a perversion (due to his own sinfulness) of the information God has provided.  Calvin's apologetic recognizes that there are no atheists.


The rebellious heart of man is, however, compelled to recognize some god; any god but the true God.  This leads to myriad perversions of the truth (cf. Rom. 1).  The knowledge man does have is suppressed by both ignorance and malice.  Calvin says, "Even though they are compelled to recognize some god, they strip him of glory by taking away his power" (p. 49).  Yet, the clarity of God's revelation strips man of every excuse.  Calvin contends that this knowledge of God is immediate rather than discursive n nature.  This strikes directly against any notion that Calvin held to natural theology Thomism), whereby, natural man, with his natural abilities, could look at the natural world and infer some truth about God.  Instead of men coming to know God step-by-step by some set of logically progressive arguments, Calvin emphasized that men see God directly in creation; " cannot open their eyes without being compelled to see him...But upon his individual works he has engraved unmistakable marks of his glory, so clear and so prominent that even unlettered and stupid folk cannot plead the excuse of ignorance" (p. 52).  However, men ungratefully turn against God and substitute "nature" for God, and "chance" for providence -- this confuses the creature with the Creator. While Calvin sees that the universe is full of evidence which attest to the truth of Christianity, nevertheless, he also realizes that none of this evidence or rational proof can, by its own power, move sinful men to embrace the truth.  The manifestation of God in nature speaks to rebellious men in vain.  The evidence is abundant but ineffective due to the corrupt heart of man.  Calvin notes that, "We see that no long or toilsome proof is needed to elicit evidences that serve to illuminate and affirm the divine is clear that they [evidences] are so very manifest and obvious that they can easily be observed with the eyes and pointed out with the finger" (p. 61).  Calvin was a presuppositionalist -- not an evidentialist!  All ways, other than the true way, are false ways contrived by men and rejected by the Holy Spirit.  Therefore, Calvin recognizes that there is no common ground between error and truth.  He writes, "In short, even if not all suffered under crass vices, or fell into open idolatries, yet there was no pure and approved religion, founded upon common understanding alone" (p. 67).  In the end, Calvin's apologetic allows for a knowledge of God the Creator, via natural revelation, but maintains knowledge of God the Redeemer will require the special revelation and work of God.  Natural revelation is sufficient to render man without excuse but insufficient to bring sinful men to saving knowledge.


The only sufficient guide for anyone, who would come to God the Redeemer, is Scripture.  While Aquinas (and the modern evidentialist), argues that men may know God naturally, Calvin understands the necessity of Scripture as a prerequisite to properly interpret the creation.  Calvin's position is summarized in his statement that, "Just as old bleary-eyed men and those with weak vision, if you thrust before them a beautiful volume, even if they recognize it to be some sort of writing, yet can scarcely construe two words, but with the aid of spectacles will begin to read distinctly; so Scripture, gathering up the otherwise confused knowledge of God in our minds, having dispersed our dullness, clearly shows us the true God" (p. 70).


Thomism and evidentialism do not allow for the noetic effects of sin.  Calvin's presuppositional apologetic not only appreciates the full effects of the fall, it also recognizes the absolute necessity of presupposing the truth of Scripture in order to understand the created order.  The "spectacles" of Scripture must be in place before anything else can properly be known at all.  It is necessary that the Scripture be the starting-point i.e., the ultimate authority, if truth is to be apprehended by a man.  Calvin drove this point home when he said, "Now, in order that true religion might shine upon us, we ought to hold that it must take its beginning from heavenly doctrine and that no one can get even the slightest taste of right and sound doctrine unless he be a pupil of Scripture" (p. 72).  Only when the Scriptures are believed and obeyed does sinful man even begin to have an epistemological foundation for true knowledge; as Calvin said, "...all right knowledge of God is born in obedience" (p. 72).


The authority of Scripture comes from God Himself -- it is a self-attesting authority.  Scripture's authority is not founded upon the authority of the Church (as Roman Catholicism maintains), rather, the Church is established upon the authority of Scripture.  Calvin does not even argue over the divine inspiration of Scripture, nor does he seek credibility for its authority from something outside itself -- Scripture's truth is self-evident!  Calvin did declare, "Indeed, Scripture exhibits fully as clear evidence of its own truth as white and black things do of their color, or sweet and bitter things do of their taste" (p. 76.).  So important was this point to Calvin's apologetic that he commended the prophets for not dwelling upon "rational proofs," and he commended his readers saying, "We ought to seek our conviction in a higher place than human reasons, judgments, or conjectures, that is, the secret testimony of the Spirit" (p. 78).


Blind faith is not what Calvin calls for since he contends that Scripture is credible and reasonable as well as containing sufficient proofs.  These evidences, or proofs, are confirmatory in nature, and they do not function apart from the proper presupposition of submission to the self-attesting authority of Scripture.  Rather than establishing the authority of Scripture, these evidences only confirm its authority.  In so doing, these evidences serve to aid our Christian faith or conviction.  Calvin expresses his doctrine of evidences when he says, "Unless this certainty, higher and stronger than any human judgment, be present, it will be vain to fortify the authority of Scripture by arguments, to establish it by common agreement of the church, or to confirm it with other helps.  For unless this foundation is laid, its authority will always remain in doubt.  Conversely, once we have embraced it devoutly as its dignity deserves, and have recognized it to be above the common sort of things, those arguments -- not strong enough before to engraft and fix the certainty of Scripture in our minds -- become very useful aids" (pp. 81-82).


Calvin's apologetic was clearly presuppositional.  The modern day Calvinists who adhere to an evidentialist apologetic have not been true to Calvin and his theology.  In fact, their apologetic stands in antithesis to Calvin's teaching concerning how men come to a true knowledge of God.  If the taste buds of the unconverted man cannot appreciate the sweetness of prophetic doctrine, then no quantity of the saccharine of rational proofs will stimulate him to swallow the Christian faith.