Calvin versus Aquinas on General and Special Revelation

The second very obvious feature of Calvin’s Institutes noted by our pastor is the place assigned to Scripture. On the basis of present general revelation alone, no one actually knows God truly as Creator. Hence the need of Scripture.
Now, in order that true religion may 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. Hence, there also emerges the beginning of true understanding when we reverently embrace what it pleases God there to witness of himself. 7

Even the world of natural and historical fact with which science deals cannot be truly interpreted by anyone who is not a Christian.

Combining these two points, the clear revelation of God is the universe, both in man’s environment and in man himself, and God’s revelation in Scripture produces a remarkable result. According to the first point, which is based on Paul’s letter to the Romans, every man knows God. No one can help but know God. Self-consciousness immediately involves God-consciousness. According to the second point, no one knows God except through Scripture. No one even knows any fact of nature for what it is, as created, directed, and controlled by God, except through Scripture. No one knows how to combine “logic” and “fact” aright in the universe except through revelation.

Both points set Calvin’s position over against that of Aquinas. The first does so by stressing the fact that wherever he looks man is naturally and unavoidably confronted with the face of God. It is only by suppressing the truth that man can be said “not to know” the truth. Man cannot be a sinner against God unless he knows God in the sense of Romans 1. On the other hand, man cannot be rescued from sin, i.e., unless he knows God in a saving sense through the death and resurrection of Christ applied to him by the regeneration of the Holy Spirit.

According to Aquinas, the creation of man in the image of God does not mean that man unavoidably knows God. The revelation of God round about and within man is not so clear as to make it impossible for man not to know God, and himself as the creature of God. Man does full justice to the evidence within and about him if he merely concludes that God probably exists. Aquinas argued that man’s knowledge begins with sensation. There is in this knowledge of God derived from sensation an inherent uncertainty. We can only be certain of what God is not. Any positive statement about God on the basis of natural revelation must, in the nature of the case, be a subjective projection and as such must be uncertain. Finite man cannot be expected to have, through natural revelation, any certain knowledge about God. Ignorance of God is not blameworthy. Why should man be accountable for knowing God and God’s requirement for man, if God has not clearly revealed himself to man?

Calvin’s point concerning the absolute necessity of Scripture also sets off his position from that of Aquinas. Since man’s ignorance of God is blameworthy, this ignorance can be removed by nothing else than the redeeming work of Christ. Only Scripture as the word of Christ reports God’s work of redemption in Christ. Only through the mirror of Scripture, therefore, can general revelation be seen for what it is.

For Aquinas, on the other hand, Scripture occupies no such important place. It is not indispensable for the right interpretation of nature. Ignorance of God is not necessarily, at least not exclusively, the result of a misinterpretation of nature. Ignorance of God is inherent in human nature as finite. Hence this ignorance is not exclusively culpable ignorance. The Bible as the message of redemption is not necessary for man’s proper interpretation of natural revelation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s