Saturday, February 13, 2010

Knowledge of God and of Ourselves

By John Calvin

Our wisdom, insofar 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. For, in the first place, no man can survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts toward the God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; no, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone. In the second place, those blessings which unceasingly distill to us from heaven are like streams conducting us to the fountain. Here, again, the infinitude of good which resides in God becomes more apparent from our poverty. In particular, the miserable ruin into which the revolt of the first man has plunged us, compels us to turn our eyes upward; not only that while hungry and famishing we may thence ask what we want, but being aroused by fear may learn humility. For as there exists in man something like a world of misery, and ever since we were stripped 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 (cf. John 4:10) that in the Lord, and non 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; and, indeed, we cannot aspire to him in earnest until we have begun to be displeased with ourselves. For what man is not disposed to rest in himself? Who, in fact, does not thus rest, so long as he is unknown to himself; that is, so long as he is contented with his own endowments, and unconscious or unmindful of his misery? Every person therefore, on coming to the knowledge of himself, is not only urged to seek God, but is also led as by the hand to find him.
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. For, since we are all naturally prone to hypocrisy, any empty semblance of righteousness is quite enough to satisfy us instead of righteousness itself. And since nothing appears within us or around us that is not tainted with very great impurity, so long as we keep our mind within the confines of human pollution, anything which is in some small degree less defiled delights us as if it were most pure just as an eye, to which nothing but black had been previously presented, deems an object of a whitish, or even of a brownish hue, to be perfectly white. Nay, the bodily sense may furnish a still stronger illustration of the extent to which we are deluded in estimating the powers of the mind. 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. Thus too, it happens in estimating our spiritual qualities. So long as we do not look beyond the earth, we are quite pleased with our own righteousness, wisdom, and virtue; we address ourselves in the most flattering terms, and seem only less than demigods. But should we once begin to raise our thoughts to God, and reflect what kind of Being he is, and how absolute the perfection of that righteousness, and wisdom, and virtue, to which, as a standard, we are bound to be conformed, what formerly delighted us by its false show of righteousness will become polluted with the greatest iniquity; what strangely imposed upon us under the name of wisdom will disgust by its extreme folly; and what presented the appearance of virtuous energy will be condemned as the most miserable impotence. So far are those qualities in us, which seem most perfect, from corresponding to the divine purity.
Hence that dread and amazement with which as Scripture uniformly relates, holy men were struck and overwhelmed whenever they beheld the presence of God. When we see those who previously stood firm and secure so quaking with terror, that the fear of death takes hold of them, nay, they are, in a manner, swallowed up and annihilated, the inference to be drawn is that men are never duly touched and impressed with a conviction of their insignificance, until they have contrasted themselves with the majesty of God. Frequent examples of this consternation occur both in the Book of Judges and the Prophetical Writings (Judges 13:22; Isaiah 6:5; Ezekiel 1:28; 3:14; Job 9:4, etc.; Genesis 18:27; 1 Kings 19:18); so much so, that it was a common expression among the people of God, “We shall die, for we have seen the Lord.” Hence the Book of Job, also, in humbling men under a conviction of their folly, feebleness, and pollution, always derives its chief argument from descriptions of the Divine wisdom, virtue, and purity. Nor without cause: for we see Abraham the readier to acknowledge himself but dust and ashes the nearer he approaches to behold the glory of the Lord, and Elijah unable to wait with unveiled face for His approach; so dreadful is the sight. And what can man do, man who is but rottenness and a worm, when even the Cherubim themselves must veil their faces in very terror? To this, undoubtedly, the Prophet Isaiah refers, when he says (Isaiah 24:23), “The moon shall be confounded, and the sun ashamed, when the Lord of Hosts shall reign;” i.e., when he shall exhibit his refulgence, and give a nearer view of it, the brightest objects will, in comparison, be covered with darkness.
But though the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves are bound together by a mutual tie, due arrangement requires that we treat of the former in the first place, and then descend to the latter.

  • Calvin, John. Institutes of the Christian Religion (translated by Henry Beveridge). Hendrickson Publishers, 2008. pp. 4-6.

Sunday, February 07, 2010

Jesus, the Gospels, Gnosticism and Historical Revisionism (Part 3)

One common misconception about the Gnostic gospels is that they portray a purely human Jesus, whereas the four Canonical Gospels make Him more "godlike." This piece of historical revisionism is somewhat ironic given the actual facts regarding Gnosticism and the content of the Gnostic gospels

What must be remembered about the Gnostics is that they held to a dualistic view of the world; for them, physical matter is evil and spirit is good. Thus, when they wrote about Jesus, they actually tended to downplay His humanity or deny it altogether. Docetism, a heretical viewpoint that denies Jesus' humanity, claiming that He only appeared to have a physical body (hence the term Docetic, from the Greek δοκέω, meaning "to seem.") and thus incapable of feeling pain and other feelings. By contrast, the Canonical Gospels fully acknowledged Christ's human nature, while simultaneously affirming that He also has a divine nature.

Below are a couple of quotes from the Gospel of Thomas. It is to be noted that unlike the rest of the writings quoted, the Gospel of Thomas came much earlier than most of them and is not fully Gnostic. In fact, some of the sayings in Thomas are variations of what Jesus really said in the Canonical Gospels, and thus may be considered orthodox. Now, some people have erroneously claimed that Thomas presents an unadorned portrait of Jesus as being merely human. This, however, is not the case. There are statements in Thomas that portray Christ as being much more than an ordinary human being. For example, there is the exchange between Jesus and Thomas in saying 13:

Jesus said to his disciples, "Compare me to something and tell me what I am like." Simon Peter said to him, "You are like a just messenger." Matthew said to him, "You are like a wise philosopher." Thomas said to him, "Teacher, my mouth is utterly unable to say what you are like." Jesus said, "I am not your teacher. Because you have drunk, you have become intoxicated from the bubbling spring that I have tended." And he took him, and withdrew, and spoke three sayings to him. When Thomas came back to his friends they asked him, "What did Jesus say to you?" Thomas said to them, "If I tell you one of the sayings he spoke to me, you will pick up rocks and stone me, and fire will come from the rocks and devour you."

And then there is this statement in saying 77:

Jesus said, "I am the light that is over all things. I am all: from me all came forth, and to me all attained. Split a piece of wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there."

The Gnostic texts that come later than Thomas go even further than this. For example, in the Apocalypse of Peter, distinction is made between the human being who is nailed to the cross and the heavenly Christ. The former is nailed to the cross, while the latter raises Himself above the human being, laughing:

When he had said those things, I saw him seemingly being seized by them. And I said "What do I see, O Lord? That it is you yourself whom they take, and that you are grasping me? Or who is this one, glad and laughing on the tree? And is it another one whose feet and hands they are striking?"

The Savior said to me, "He whom you saw on the tree, glad and laughing, this is the living Jesus. But this one into whose hands and feet they drive the nails is his fleshly part, which is the substitute being put to shame, the one who came into being in his likeness. But look at him and me."

And then there is the Gospel of Philip. In this gospel, Jesus is portrayed as a shape-shifter who is able to change His appearance at will. This accords well with the Docetic view that Jesus didn't really have an actual physical body:

Jesus took them all by stealth, for he did not appear as he was, but in the manner in which they would be able to see him. He appeared to them all. He appeared to the great as great. He appeared to the small as small. He appeared to the angels as an angel, and to men as a man. Because of this, his word hid itself from everyone. Some indeed saw him, thinking that they were seeing themselves, but when he appeared to his disciples in glory on the mount, he was not small. He became great, but he made the disciples great, that they might be able to see him in his greatness.

And there is the Gospel of Truth, which affirms the eternality of the Jesus as the Son, and bestows exalted titles upon Jesus, such as "the name:"

And the name of the Father is the Son. It is he who, in the beginning, gave a name to him who came forth from him - he is the same one - and he begat him for a son. He gave him his name which belonged to him - he, the Father, who possesses everything which exists around him. He possess the name; he has the son. It is possible for them to see him. The name, however, is invisible, for it alone is the mystery of the invisible about to come to ears completely filled with it through the Father`s agency. Moreover, as for the Father, his name is not pronounced, but it is revealed through a son. Thus, then, the name is great.

There are many more such texts that present similar views, but it will suffice to present these as sufficient evidence that the Gnostic Gospels are too slender a reed to support the weight that is being accorded to them by modern conspiracy theorists and historical revisionists.

In summary, it has been shown that 1) the deity of Christ is not a late invention, but is an apostolic tradition dating to the earliest days of Christianity, 2) the fourfold Gospel is also an apostolic tradition, and cannot reasonably be said to have originated in Nicaea in any way, and 3) the so-called "Gospels" that were written by the Gnostics do not portray Christ in a the manner that popular conspiracies would have you think. It would do the reader well to do more careful research on this matter and see what the truth behind the Christian faith really is. For more information, books such as The Missing Gospels and Reinventing Jesus are very helpful in presenting clear and accurate information on these topics.

In Christ,