Calvin, Bonhoeffer and Knowledge of God

Calvin takes as a basic axiom that the knowledge of ourselves and our knowledge of God is the most important aspect of knowing in general – of religious epistemology. They are tied together in an intimate way, Calvin says – from our knowledge of ourselves, we’ll come to a knowledge of God. However, no one can come to a true knowledge of themselves without a true knowledge of God. The two are tied together intimately.

Calvin treats knowledge of God first, and descends to the self later on – from the knowledge of ourselves, we can deduce only that we’re in a world of misery, and that we desire to rest in something greater. Our natural knowledge of God is suppressed or ignored, despite there being a kind of imprint of the divine on the heart and mind (this is an axiom for Reformed epistemology). The basic point, however, is that the knowledge of the self is tied together with knowledge of God – in Calvin’s case, our self-knowledge is knowledge of our need for God. For a brief exposition, see:

What happens, according to Bonhoeffer, is that when we begin to think and reflect upon ourselves, all our knowledge becomes self-knowledge, and takes part in the disunion of the knowledge of good and evil:

‘Man knows good and evil, but because he is not the origin, because he acquires this knowledge only at the price of estrangement from the origin, the good and evil he knows are not the good and evil of God but good and evil against God.’ (‘Ethics’, p. 23)

Knowledge of good and evil is the cause of all the disunion in man’s life – and the cause of death in man’s life. The problem isn’t that we know good and evil, and try to do the good, but fail, and see that we need God – the problem is that we know good and evil, apart from God, against God. In Bonhoeffer’s terminology, we become a god against God:

‘…man, knowing of good and evil, has finally torn himself loose from life, that is to say from the eternal life which proceeds from the choice of God…Man knows good and evil, against God, against his origin, godlessly and of his own choice, understanding himself according to his own contrary possibilites; and he is cut off from the unifying, reconciling life in God, and is delivered over to death. The secret which man has stolen from God is bringing about man’s downfall.’ (‘Ethics’, p. 23-24)

Bonhoeffer, contra Calvin, says that the knowledge of the self isn’t tied to knowledge of God – knowledge of the self is born out of disunion with God. This is an inversion of what’s a fairly key point in a lot of philosophy and theology – the knowledge of the self.



Bottom up or Top Down?

Predestination is a fairly big topic with Christianity. Part of what makes it so interesting, I think, is that so many other things come into play – anthropology, sotieriology, christology, metaphysics, philosophy, etc – predestination really is one of the broadest things to talk about in Christianity. There’s a lot of differing views about this issue but generally it can be boiled down to a manageable number. But before you talk about predestination as such, I think there’s a pretty important contextual issue lurking in the background: is predestination bottom-up or top down?

To break that down a bit: how does predestination work? What are the mechanics of it? Does God select people who will be saved from all eternity (this would be the bottom up approach)? Most in the Reformed tradition would agree with this. The rest are either positively damned by God (this is not as common a position within the Reformed tradition) or passed over by God (this is a bit more common). In a nutshell, God chooses whom He will save.

The other approach is the top-down approach, and it’s a position most commonly associated with Karl Barth, though this idea can be found in somewhat different forms (but the overall spirit is the same) in some of the Fathers – Athanasius comes to mind. Basically on this approach, Jesus is the elect (and the reprobate, but that’s something I’m not quite familiar enough to explain that well) humanity. In Jesus, humanity has been elected. On this view, all humanity is elected in God’s election of Christ. This is a very, very, very rough breakdown – Barth really developed the snot out of this idea and it takes up about a billion pages in the Church Dogmatics.

The bottom up approach is, like I said, often associated with Reformed theology and specifically Calvinism – though I would argue that Calvin did not embrace such a version of predestination – I’d argue that Calvin held to a universal atonement, though not necessarily of the kind Barth held to. The classical Reformed position of limited atonement developed later than Calvin and is not the way he would have gone with the doctrine (all of this is in my humble opinion, of course). There’s some metaphysics behind limited atonement that I don’t think jive with Christianity – but that’s a discussion for another time.

The point of this is that I hold to the top-down approach – that in Christ God has elected humanity to be joined to Himself. All humanity has been elected in Christ by virtue of Christs election by God.

The Wounds of God

Can we wrong God?

Nicholas Wolterstorff argues in his books ‘Justice: Rights and Wrongs’ and ‘Justice in Love’ that we can in fact wrong and even wound God by failing to treat people justly. Wolterstorff ties these notions together by pointing out that God loves each person with love as attachment – to wrong that which you are attached to is to wrong you. To treat people unjustly is to treat unjustly that to which God is attached. Wolterstorff draws upon the thought of John Calvin to fortify his thesis – in his commentary on Genesis, Calvin argues that because of the image of God engraved on each person, ‘God deems Himself violated in their person’. Roughly, to harm a person is to harm God. ‘…no one can be injurious to his brother without wounding God Himself.’ Wolterstorff develops this though in more detail but that’s the basic idea.

This relates to the doctrine of impassibility that I’ve been thinking on lately – Wolterstorff does not hold to the doctrine. Calvin, however, makes a small but crucial point: ‘God deems Himself violated in their person.’ So in a sense, it seems that Calvin and Wolterstorff are at odds. Calvin says that God ‘deems Himself’ violated or injured, while Wolterstorff argues that:

‘On account of God’s attachment to human beings, one wrongs God by injuring a human being.’ (‘Justice in Love’, p. 154)

Wolterstorff does not make Calvin’s distinction that it is God who ‘deems Himself’ injured – at least so far as I can tell. Wolterstorff would hold that God is indeed wounded by our treating fellow humans unjustly, while Calvin holds that God ‘deems Himself’ injured. There is a substantial difference here.