Shane on Calvin and Catholics: Submission a Virtue?

(Note: This is my 200th post.)

My good friend and colleague Shane Wilkins has recently written a post entitled “Is submission to (the Pope’s) authority a virtue?. Go read it.

This post will not directly engage Shane. Rather, it will jump off of his concluding citation of Calvin. Shane cites Calvin in the Institutes 3.2.2. What I want to point us toward is Institutes 3.2.7. Here Calvin gives us his well known definition of faith:
“Now we shall posses a right definition of faith if we call it 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.”
Faith is knowledge? Hold on! That may be all well and good for you cerebral academics, but what about we average people in the pew? Our lives are full of our children’s dance recitals, annoying coworkers, traffic, and all the rest. ‘Knowledge’ isn’t exactly what we need. We need something more like an emotional connection, a friend to lean on, a pick-me-up every weekend to give us the spiritual strength to carry on.

Now, two out of these three ‘needs’ I can sympathize with. An emotional connection to God, and God as a friend to lean on are well and good. God as a pick-me-up is tripe, but I don’t want to elaborate on that here. Anyway, Barth has something to say about the relationship of faith and knowledge:
“The fact that man stands before God who gives Himself to be known in His Word, and therefore to be known mediately, definitely means that we have to understand man’s knowledge of God as the knowledge of faith.” (Church Dogmatics 2.1, 12)
This statement is fascinating. It is going in a lot of directions at the same time. Let me try to unpack it a bit. First, the knowledge of God is the knowledge of faith. Barth elaborates a little bit further down the page when he writes, “It is in this occurrence of faith that there is knowledge of God.” Calvin says that faith is knowledge; Barth says that knowledge comes with faith. Are these two things contradictory? I don’t think so. To say that faith is knowledge does not imply that faith is the result of knowledge, that is, that on the basis of knowledge one acquires or otherwise ‘chooses’ faith. To say that knowledge comes with faith is to say that on the basis of faith, we have a – to use Calvin’s language – “firm and certain knowledge.”

Second, on what basis do we say that knowledge comes with faith? Because the human person “stands before God who gives Himself to be known.” What is this except a relationship? It is in this relationship, where God addresses the human person and the human person renders a faithful response, that there is knowledge of God. So, need an emotional connection or a friend to lean on? Have we got a deal for you!

Third, what do we mean when we say that knowledge comes with faith? What are the relationships between knowledge and faith, and all the other things that describe faith – like trust, love and obedience? This is no quantitative, zero-sum game for Barth. In his mind, each one of these things is a way to accurately describe the wholeness that is faith. He writes on this very page, “But these various determinations of faith are not to be understood as parts or even certain fruits of faith. Each one is the determination of faith in its entirety.” However, there is an order to these things that privileges knowledge. Knowledge is that determination of faith which “unites and distinguishes” all the others, as Barth writes on page 13, and “Without it faith could not be all those other things as well. As knowledge it is the orientation of man to God as an object. And only then can it be those other things as well.”

Why this is the case is commonsensical. You have to know someone before you can trust, love or obey him or her. The same goes for God. Of course the kind of knowledge in view here is not (merely!) academic knowledge (although I maintain that this sort of knowledge is a unique form of participation in God’s own self-knowledge, but that would require a much longer post), but personal knowledge (did Polanyi read Barth? He knew TF Torrance…), that is, knowledge of God as an objective reality whom engages us in relationship.

So, need an emotional connection or a friend to lean on? Have we got a deal for you! Of course, this doesn’t mean that faith is not a “firm and certain knowledge”…

Anyway, these ramblings of mine have almost no bearing on Shane’s post, which you need to go read. It’s for your own good. Scurry along now!


I was expecting something on the topic of submission to the pope!

Good post, though. I like your integration of Calvin, Barth, and Torrance.
Yeah. This post didn't generate the hits that I expected based on my own estimation of the content, but then I realized that might be due to the title...Shane's post was the impetus of my own reflections.

Consequently, Shane got some good response from Catholics, and you (anyone interested) should check it out. I also helped him to fend them off in his comments section, and it looks like I carried the day - at least they haven't replied for a little while. :-)

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