This entry is written by Mr. John Bennetch, Vice-president of the JCM board.
John Calvin, influential 16 th century French theologian and pastor, at the ripe old age of 27, wrote in the first few lines of his magnum opus Institutes of the Christian Religion, “Nearly all wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” This single line is perhaps the most-oft quoted of Calvin’s writings, but it is often taken out of context and without reading further. Calvin breaks this down into two main ideas; first that without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God and secondly that without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self.
Understanding the intertwining of these two pursuits is a lifelong quest. And it is not a solitary pursuit. For in knowing God and knowing ourselves, we need perspective that can only come from outside ourselves.
Throughout the history of humankind, people have sought to know God in various and sundry ways. But in this endeavor, God has graciously guided us by giving us the Holy Scriptures, and in them revealing to us how we can know him, follow him, and experience the delight of knowing him.
When Calvin wrote about the knowledge of God, he was not speaking of knowing about God. He was speaking of knowing God. To a certain extent, knowing about God can be accomplished outside of relationship, but knowing God only happens in the context of a relationship with God’s son, Jesus. God makes the seemingly audacious statement through his Son Jesus that if we want to truly know him, we need to place our faith in Jesus, and in him alone.
This relationship with God through faith in Jesus is not a solitary pursuit. Relationship with God is pursued through the relationships that are developed through a church; a community of people who are committed to pursuing God together and who study the Bible, pray together, and observe the sacraments together. Without these relationships, we cannot truly know God.
Similarly, the knowledge of self is a pursuit that takes place in the context of relationship. Just as a mirror tells us what we cannot see without its aid, so relationship is the context in which we can begin to see ourselves accurately and grow in our knowledge of self. Family, friends, faithful pastors, peers at work or school, neighbors- all of these relationships form a system in which we function and grow. All that we have experienced in our past figures into the complex challenge of knowing ourselves.
As I’ve grown and (hopefully) matured into a grandfather in his 60’s, I’ve realized that there are memories and experiences we had as children that we carry with us through our entire lives. Sometimes these are positive and encouraging; but for others they can be painful and crippling. Learning how to appropriately empathize with those who are struggling and hurting is something to which god calls us, and often it is in bearing the burdens of others that we learn to know ourselves more fully. As we begin to understand why we respond as we do to various situations coming out of our family of origin, we’re moving along the path to knowing ourselves. Our friends help us along the way, holding before us the mirror of their perspective. God helps us as well, giving us wisdom through his Spirit and the mirror of Holy Scripture.
Knowledge of God and knowledge of self: true wisdom. Wisdom that will help us to delight in God, to delight in others, and to delight in who God has called us to be. May we all be blessed to grow in such wisdom!