Gerrish on Calvin on Faith as Knowledge
B.A. Gerrish, Grace and Gratitude: The Eucharistic Theology of John Calvin (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2002):63-4.
“Calvin’s well-known definition of faith appears in book three, chapter two, of his 1559 Institutes: ‘Now we can agree on the right definition of faith if we say that it is firm and certain knowledge of the divine good will (benevolentiae) toward us, based on the truth of the free promise in Christ, and both revealed to our minds and sealed on our hearts through the Holy Spirit.’ Calvin’s assignment of faith to the domain of knowledge (cognition) has often been perceived as a contrast between him and Luther, whose emphasis was rather on faith as confidence or trust (fiducia). The contrast is easily overdone. But it is certainly true that there has been a marked tendency throughout the history of the Reformed tradition, from Zwingli to Karl Barth (1886-1968), to frame the cardinal theological question in cognitive terms. Calvin is no exception. Gustaf Wingren, indeed, accused Barth of exchanging the Reformation question of righteousness for the modern question of knowledge. But this is to identify the Reformation with Martin Luther. Among the Reformed, it was a question of knowledge from the very first.
“It would be a mistake, however, to take ‘knowledge’ in Calvin’s definition of faith to denote mere acquaintance with information provided. Faith is a matter of the heart, not just of the brain. Perhaps the initial moment in faith, as Calvin sees it, can best be termed in English ‘recognition’: it has to do, above all, with recognizing God in his true character, seeing God for who he is. No principle is more fundamental to Calvin’s theology than what he calls his ‘rule of piety’: to be clear about who the God we worship is. From this rule it follows that only the firm and certain knowledge of God that is faith can draw the line between true worship and idolatry or superstition. There is no religion where truth does not reign: if the end of life is to serve God’s glory, knowledge of God must come first. Calvin by no means belittles confidence in God, or love for God either; rather, he holds tenaciously to the axiom that there cannot be either one where the character of God is misperceived. Faith must lead the way.”