Rebalancing Calvin’s Equation of Faith and Knowledge

With the Institutes, Calvin attempted to uproot the Christian faith from its dubious medieval ground in sacramental ecclesiology. He desired to plant it back in the “sure” and “self-authenticating” ground of biblical theology. Whereas sacramental ecclesiology concerned itself mostly with what Christians should do, Calvin’s biblical theology concerned itself with what we should know. It should come as no surprise, then, that Calvin chose to begin his Institutes with the centrality of religious knowledge—of self and of God. And he kept emphasizing knowledge throughout his seminal work, his other writings, and his life.

In fact, even concerning faith itself (which skeptics since Calvin have so regularly pitted against reason), Calvin doggedly affirmed the primacy of knowledge. Unfortunately, this emphasis has had only mixed success in enthroning biblical theology and Spirit-enlightened piety in the Reformed Christian community.

Calvinism, if not Calvin himself, has been accused of replacing a warm and living sacramental ecclesiology with a cold and sterile intellectual theology. Even self-professed Calvinists admit as much.1 And if this was not Calvin’s intention, how did it become his legacy? This question demands that we explore Calvin’s conception of faith more carefully—especially how Calvin wedded faith to knowledge and its assurance.

Calvin’s Definition of Faith

Calvin gives a number of provisional definitions of faith throughout the Institutes, but his most rigorous and complete definition calls faith “a firm and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence toward us, founded upon the truth of the freely given promise in Christ, both revealed to our minds and sealed upon our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (III.ii.7). It does not take an astute reader to note that Calvin’s definition equates faith with knowledge. And Calvin will reiterate this equation in many varied forms throughout the Institutes and his other works. As R. T. Kendall observes:

The position which Calvin wants pre-eminently to establish (and fundamentally assumes) is that faith is knowledge. Calvin notes some biblical synonyms for faith, all simple nouns, such as ‘recognition’ (agnitio) and ‘knowledge’ (scientia). He describes faith as illumination (illuminatio), knowledge as opposed to the submission of our feelings (cognitio, non sensus nostri submissio), certainty (certitudino), a firm conviction (solida persuasio), assurance (securitas), firm assurance (solida securitas), and full assurance (plena securitas). What stands out in these descriptions is the given, intellectual, passive, and assuring nature of faith. What is absent is a need for gathering faith, voluntarism, faith as man’s act, and faith that must await experimental knowledge to verify its presence.2

For many years, most scholars believed that Calvin meant the same thing by knowledge as the moderns—cognitive content, and one can find numerous statements in the relevant literature similar to Kendall’s. But recently, a number of scholars (Richard Muller being perhaps the most persuasive) have begun to dispute the picture of Calvin as a cold intellectualist. In his Unaccommodated Calvin, Muller uses the same data as Kendall to come to a nearly opposite conclusion:

Calvin, it is true, does use terms like cognitio and occasionally scientia for faith, and he does call faith an illuminatio, but—in accord with the approach to Calvin evident in the work of Leith, Vos, and Armstrong—we find that these are balanced by an equally strong insistence on the assurance (securitas) that belongs to faith as faith addresses the human heart and passes beyond mere intellectual comprehension to grasp the whole person.3

That Muller and Kendall should come to nearly opposite conclusions based on the same words becomes bitterly ironic in light of Calvin’s stated purpose for providing a clear definition for faith in the first place:

 . . . Calvin clearly recognizes that often even though the discussants are using the same familiar terms, one party to the discussion may have in mind some difference of intensions or defining characteristics for one or more of these terms than does the other party (III.ii.9). Unaware of these differences, the discussants are unknowingly engaged in nothing more than a mere verbal dispute.4

Clearly, such a verbal dispute has occurred concerning Calvin, faith, and knowledge. Many interpreters of Calvin apply contemporary categories and meanings anachronistically to Calvin, unaware or unconcerned that Calvin may have had different meanings in mind.

Calvin’s Non-Definition of Religious Knowledge

Nonetheless, Calvin’s definition of faith depends to a great degree on a definition of knowledge Calvin failed to provide. Edward Dowey gives voice to the contemporary reader’s puzzlement over this absence: “Since Calvin speaks incessantly of knowledge . . . we might well expect that he has a distinguishable and definable concept of knowledge as such. . . . But this question lies outside Calvin’s interest.”5

But Calvin could not have known the extent to which the very idea of knowledge, and especially certain knowledge, would be challenged in the coming years, especially considering that Calvin’s own profound intellectual contributions played no small part in that challenge. And additionally, as Roland Bainton put it: “The age of the Reformation was altogether too sure of its affirmations to feel the need of systematic investigation of the problem of knowledge.”6 We must remind ourselves that the Reformers were the direct inheritors of a tradition of entrenched authoritarian dogmatism, and such habits of certainty were unlikely to be shaken in one generation.

That said, Calvin did not abandon us entirely to argue over his words. He at least attempted to make it clear in the Institutes what he did not mean by knowledge, aware perhaps that some would misunderstand him:

For we cannot, properly speaking, say that God is known where there is no religion or piety. (I.ii.1; cf. I.v.9)

. . . that very assent itself [of faith] . . . is more of the heart than the brain, and more of the disposition than of the understanding. (III.ii.8)

When we call faith “knowledge” we do not mean comprehension of the sort that is commonly concerned with those things which fall under human sense perception. (III.ii.14)

It now remains to pour into the heart what the mind has absorbed. For the Word of God is not received by faith if it flits about in the top of the brain, but when it takes root in the depth of the heart . . . (III.ii.36)

These quotations make clear that Calvin’s conception of religious knowledge had far more to do with the submission of the will and the inclination of the affections than the operations of the intellect. Even if the intellect gathered knowledge, saving faith constituted the divine planting of divine knowledge in the affections and will. For this reason, Dowey chooses to call Calvin’s concept of religious knowledge “existential”:

The knowledge of God in Calvin’s theology is never separated from religious and moral concern. . . . A more adequate term [for Calvin’s knowledge] is the word “existential.” By this, we mean knowledge that determines the existence of the knower . . . “deciding knowledge.”

One needs scarcely to prove that Calvin’s concept of religious knowledge . . . can be classified as existential. . . . For him the religious or existential response is not something that may or may not come in addition to the knowledge of God, but is part of its very definition.7

This helps to clear things up. Many scholars have assumed that, for Calvin, right religious knowledge (i.e., correct cognitive content about God) preceded faith, perhaps even produced it. But Calvin probably meant something very different by his equation of faith and knowledge. To him, true knowing happened only when a firm and certain revelation of and from God took root in the heart through the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit and manifested itself in a transformed will. And, according to Calvin, this true knowing was nothing other than saving faith. Without such assured knowledge of God’s being and character revealed to us and sealed to our hearts by the Spirit (as per Calvin’s definition), we cannot have true faith.

So, to Calvin, saving knowledge of God cannot be acquired through the labor of the intellect. This makes sense, of course, for it would hardly have been fitting for Calvin to replace a legalism of meritorious works with a legalism of meritorious knowledge. For Calvin, religious knowledge must be given first by the Holy Spirit and must take root in the heart and will.

Trying to Add Certainty to Faith and Knowledge

The Holy Spirit, then, is the final component of Calvin’s idea of faith and knowledge. As Bainton explains:

Calvin . . . arrived at an accentuated “Augustinianism.” Faith and knowledge are no longer different modes of apprehending the same object at the same time, but rather faith can be described as agnitio, cognitio and scientia, and all the more impregnable because bestowed by God and not achieved by man. The role of the “Augustinian” illuminatio is performed by the testimonium spiritus sancti. The rational natural theology of Aquinas is avoided, because the reason of man has been depraved by the fall, and likewise the inspired theology of the Anabaptists is eschewed as imperilling the revelation once and for all delivered in the Scriptures. The function of the Spirit is merely to illumine the Word.8

But two major problems arise from this more nuanced view of Calvinist knowledge and faith: First, it doesn’t seem that one’s own subjective, fluctuating experience of internal divine revelation would offer reliable, individual assurance of salvation. And, connected to this, how would a person judge between competing claims on the internal testimony of the Spirit? Whose witness of spiritual enlightenment can be trusted when people—even quite learned and virtuous people—disagree?

With increasing urgency as his years rolled by, Calvin recognized this need to provide assurance and certainty to Protestant believers. Calvin’s successors, in the rising tide of Enlightenment skepticism, were even more cognizant of this need. As Muller relates,

The use of a practical syllogism, namely, of various aspects of the doctrine of salvation that could be framed syllogistically for the sake of personal assurance, arose in a context in which a Protestant language of the order and pattern of salvation challenged churchly authority and removed the security once afforded by the more externalized aspects of late medieval understandings of penance, good works, and merits. . . .

If certainty is central to Calvin’s thought, then also uncertainty hovered not far from the center. . . . he affirms that “the testimony of the Spirit is more excellent than all reason” . . . [I.vii.4] and that . . . Scripture is “self-authenticating,” but he then devotes an entire chapter of the 1559 Institutes—longer and more detailed than his discussion of the self-authenticating character of the text—to his discussion of rational evidences of the divinity and “credibility” of Scripture.9

One does wonder: if Calvin believed that only the Holy Spirit could give true knowledge in the heart, why would he be so adamant about the faithful preaching and teaching of the truth of God’s Word to the mind? Why would Calvin have emphasized religious education in Geneva over other ministries (an emphasis that still affects the Reformed tradition today)? Muller may have touched on the reason: most people find more internal comfort from external assurances, and authority in the church is better supported by universal logic than internal testimony. The internal testimony that lit the fires of the Reformation could not provide it stable authority for individual or corporate assurance.

Further, it is impossible to standardize training or education in the enlightenment of the Spirit. After all, “the Spirit blows where He wishes” (Jn. 3:8). Calvin may have made it clear that true learning was not saving knowledge, but he nonetheless believed saving knowledge came at least in part from what truth the mind had acquired. As Calvin said in his commentary on Matthew 15:22, “Faith always springs from the Word of God and takes its origin from true principles, and therefore is always connected with some light of knowledge.”

In other words, knowledge might not save you unless it takes root in your heart, but it cannot take root in your heart if you’ve never heard and understood it. With this, Calvin rejected the Roman Catholic doctrine of implicit faith—the idea that a person could possess true faith implicitly in things of which he knows nothing at all. Particularly, the Roman Catholic church wanted people to believe in the power and mystery of the sacraments and the authority of the church, and they wanted congregants to do this without asking too many questions.

Calvin and the Reformers, seeing the corrupted abusiveness of this doctrine’s application, may have been (albeit understandably) too vehement in its opposition. In some ways, opposition to this doctrine explains Calvin’s dogged emphasis on faith as knowledge. Ignorant or implicit faith was for Calvin what “free will” was for Luther: a buttress upon which the whole system of sacramental ecclesiology rested. And they wanted these gone at any cost.


Calvin could not have known where his ideas would be taken. He could not have imagined that another brilliant Frenchman would, perhaps drawing from the Institutes, come to the very opposite conclusion concerning knowledge—that it was rooted in doubt rather than belief. Calvin could not have guessed that Geneva Academy would be fully rationalistic not even a hundred years after his death, or that his own emphasis on knowledge, however misunderstood, would become the seed of a movement in his name that represented quite little of his pastoral warmth and engaging personality.

And though Calvin and his successors had no power over when, how, and in what measure the Holy Spirit made a person’s heart receptive to the truth, they knew they could fill Geneva, and even the world, with knowledge about God and His Word. They wanted the Holy Spirit to have plenty of material to work with, when and if He chose to turn knowledge about God into the knowledge of faith in God. But in the midst of that endeavor, it seems Calvin’s idea of knowledge—involving intimacy, trust and the turning of the will and affections—has been replaced with a cold intellectualism Calvin never would have endorsed. In the midst of this proliferated knowledge, “flitting about in the top of our brains,” we need the Holy Spirit to move. We need Him to plant Calvin’s seeds of Gospel truth in the heart of Protestantism. May the Holy Spirit choose to do so in our day.


Brain Heart, by Emilio Garcia
  1. In Michael Horton’s SWOT analysis of Calvinism, he pinpoints “Cold Intellectualism” as a manifest or potential weakness. See Michael Horton, For Calvinism (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 170f.
  2. R. T. Kendall, Calvin and English Calvinism to 1649 (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2006), 19.
  3. Richard A. Muller, The Unaccommodated Calvin: Studies in the Foundation of a Theological Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000), 172.
  4. Robert H. Ayers, “Language, Logic and Reason in Calvin’s ‘Institutes,’” Cambridge University Press, Religious Studies, Vol. 16, No. 3 (Sep., 1980), 287.
  5. Edward A. Dowey, Jr. The Knowledge of God in Calvin’s Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1952, repr. 1994), 24.
  6. Roland H. Bainton, “New Documents on Early Protestant Rationalism,” Church History, Vol. 7, No. 2 (Jun., 1938), 180.
  7. Dowey, Knowledge of God in Calvin’s Theology, 24-26.
  8. Bainton, “New Documents on Early Protestant Rationalism,” 181.
  9. Richard A. Muller, Calvin and the Reformed Tradition: On the Work of Christ and the Order of Salvation (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012), 245, 246–247.

One response

  1. “Calvinism, if not Calvin himself, has been accused of replacing a warm and living sacramental ecclesiology with a cold and sterile intellectual theology.”
    This is truly a common sentiment, and it can only germinate from utter ignorance or misunderstanding of John Calvin.

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