Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Calvin's Chicken and Egg Problem

In the first chapter of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin describes a chicken and the egg conundrum. To wit, he tells us there are two types of knowledge 1 and it is unclear which came first:
Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other. (Calvin, Institutes, chapter 1)
The Chicken

Man, according to Calvin, (he'd be thrilled that I agree) must first have some knowledge of himself if he is even to seek knowledge of God. In particular, man must become aware of his own wretched and miserable (is that redundant?) moral state. It is the man whose moral self-esteem is low who in desperation turns his gaze upward. It is somewhat indifferent to his self-esteem is other areas, such as profession and relations—it is the self-awareness of one's moral poverty that causes one’s will toward God to bend. Calvin writes:
For as there exists in man something like a world of misery, and ever since we were stript of the divine attire our naked shame discloses an immense series of disgraceful properties every man, being stung by the consciousness of his own unhappiness, in this way necessarily obtains at least some knowledge of God. Thus, our feeling of ignorance, vanity, want, weakness, in short, depravity and corruption, reminds us that in the Lord, and none but He, dwell the true light of wisdom, solid virtue, exuberant goodness. We are accordingly urged by our own evil things to consider the good things of God;  (Calvin, Institutes, chapter 1)
The Egg

The flip side is that you cannot recognize your own moral bankruptcy (sin) until you have some objective standard of goodness with which you can compare and contrast your private shortcomings. Calvin writes
On the other hand, it is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he has previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself. For (such is our innate pride) we always seem to ourselves just, and upright, and wise, and holy, until we are convinced, by clear evidence, of our injustice, vileness, folly, and impurity. Convinced, however, we are not, if we look to ourselves only, and not to the Lord also —He being the only standard by the application of which this conviction can be produced. (Calvin, Institutes, chapter 1)
He paints a rather good picture:
If, at mid-day, we either look down to the ground, or on the surrounding objects which lie open to our view, we think ourselves endued with a very strong and piercing eyesight; but when we look up to the sun, and gaze at it unveiled, the sight which did excellently well for the earth is instantly so dazzled and confounded by the refulgence, as to oblige us to confess that our acuteness in discerning terrestrial objects is mere dimness when applied to the sun. (Calvin, Institutes, chapter 1)
The point is clear enough. There is a bootstrapping process. It can perhaps be thought of an iterative computer algorithm, and the underlying code implementing the algorithm is the Law of God written in some fashion on our hearts long before Moses. If we introduce no bugs in the program, it will eventually (sometimes with a long runtime) convict us. Additional inputs come from creation, and the attributes of God plainly seen therein.

1 A more mathematically precise delineation is:  there are two types of knowledge: 1) What you learned in kindergarten and 2) What you didn't learn in kindergarten.

2 All this discussion is in human-perspective terms, with the understanding that we are speaking of secondary causes accomplishing God's will.  After all, this is John Calvin we're discussing.

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