Knowledge of God

The OCR AS topic 'Knowledge of God' requires that you study the teachings of the French theologian John Calvin.  Calvin was a key thinker in the Protestant Reformation and is probably best known for his theory of double predestination. Predestination is relevant to this topic, but it is not central to it. The focus is instead on Calvin's teachings about the shortcomings of general revelation and of the 'natural theology' beloved by people like Aquinas and the subsequent necessity of revealed knowledge through special revelation.

Synoptic links

Aquinas' uses natural theology when constructing his arguments about God and Creation and you could consider how successful you think he is in providing meaningful knowledge of God.

The topics Person of Christ and Interpretation of the Bible could help you to evaluate the extent to which Jesus and the Bible provide knowledge of God.

Whilst Calvin is the 'named theologian' in the specification it is also helpful to consider the teachings of the German twentieth century theologian Karl Barth who develops similar  arguments.  You will also find that you can make some interesting synoptic links between this topic and others in the foundation module.

Finally, don't forget to consider whether you think that any real knowledge of God is possible.  If so, how do we go about gaining it?  


John Calvin was born in 1509 in France. His family were educated but not aristocratic and Calvin was fortunate to be receive his schooling with the children of his father's friend.  He was considered a sufficiently promising pupil to receive money from the church to continue his studies and aged fourteen he went to the University in Paris where he gained his degree when he was eighteen.  He then went on to study law (as his father wanted) at Orleans but his real interests lay in theology. Calvin's father died in 1531 and Calvin then abandon his fledgling law career to focus on religion.

The Reformation

During the sixteenth century an increasing number of influential theologians argued that the Roman Catholic Church had become corrupt and that its doctrines were no longer true to the Biblical message.

Things that the Reformers were particularly concerned by included:

  • The selling of 'indulgences' which promised time off purgatory in return for money.
  • The power, wealth and supposed corruption of the clergy, of monks and nuns and of the Pope.
  • Services in Latin which the people could not understand rather than the local vernacular.
  • Doctrines of salvation through good works rather than faith.

Key Protestant Reformers besides Calvin were the German Martin Luther, Swiss reformer Huldrych Zwingli, and the French Martin Bucer (among many others).


Calvin was brought up a Roman Catholic, but his studies at university introduced him to a range of ideas that challenged Catholic theology.  Calvin seems to have abandoned Catholicism in 1533 and left Paris due to the danger he faced by his association with 'heretics' 

In 1536 he set out his beliefs about religion and published his first version of his Institutes of the Christian Religion (which he revised several times of the following decade - it got substantially longer each time!).  In the same year he left France for Strasbourg via Geneva where he ended up staying for two years. He helped to reform the city following the dissolution of the monasteries, the renouncing papal authority and abolishing compulsory church.

However, the reforms did not go far enough for Calvin as he had wanted the church restructured and a closer link between church and state.  He therefore left Geneva (in 1538 living in Strasbourg until 1541.  In 1941 he returned to Geneva. The more moderate reformers had fallen out of favour and Calvin was invited back to help restore order in the city.

Calvin oversaw the restructuring of the church which included the removal of bishops.  Under his influence Biblical sins (such as working on the Sabbath) became crimes.  His 'Ecclesiastical Ordinances' also set out rules about what people could wear and banned dancing.  He tried (and failed) to replace pubs with cafes where grace would be said before all meals.  His reforms were not always popular but he did improve the cities schools through his educational reforms.

Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion is his most famous work but he also wrote commentaries on many of the books of the Bible.  A commentary is a scholarly explanation of what a text means and how it should be interpreted. Calvin's commentaries are useful as they clearly reflect his theological views.

God the Creator and General Revelation:

Imagine a painter or sculpter.  When they create a painting or sculpter then that object will reveal something about them as an artist.  A person studying their work would be able to deduce certain things about them.  For example, they might learn what subject matter interests them.  They might be able to say something about the artists skill and their strengths.  They might be able to make insightful comments about the artists intentions.

This is an argument based on analogy.

If God is the creator of the world then creation is his master piece.  It is a piece of art that God has created.  If he created it out of nothing (ex nihilo) then presumably he was free to create whatever and however he liked.  The idea that creation in someway reveals something about God can be found in the Bible.

  • Psalm 19:1 'The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.'
  • Romans 1:19-20  'For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.' 

Consider: Is this meaningful knowledge of God?  Is it certain?

Many theologians have used the idea that creation reveals something about God and used this to try to deduce things about the way God is.  For example, Aquinas believed he could deduce that;

  • God must be a necessary being because the world reveals that contingent beings must be brought into existence by other things.
  • God must be purely spiritual because our experience of the world shows us that matter is subject to change
  • God accounts for the movement from potentiality to actuality because we see that things do not 'move' unless something causes them to do so.
  • God exists!  Without God the world could not exist.

Others have argued that the way that the world is reveals God's compassion and love (he creates a world full of beauty) and his power and intellect (the world is immensely complex).  Theology done like this is sometimes termed 'natural theology' based on 'general revelation'.  William Paley's teleological argument is a famous example of natural theology.

Key terms

General Revelation: The way that God is revealed constantly through his creation.  It is 'general' in the sense that it is available to everyone at all times and in all places.

Natural Theology: Theology done on the basis of general revelation using our reason to work out things about God.  

God as creator is knowable by all people whether or not they are Christian, provided that they use their reason to work out what the existence of the world implies.

Calvin agreed that God as the divine creator is revealed in the world. Furthermore, he agrees that some Natural Theology is possible.  However, overall he was very negative about the scope of Natural  Theology.  It cannot reveal meaningful things about God because of the damage done by the Fall and it cannot result in salvation.  He says that our Natural Knowledge condemns us because it removes our excuse of ignorance.  We cannot say that we were unaware that God exists because General Revelation shows that he does.

Sensus Divinitatus (Sense of Divinity)

For Calvin, everyone has a 'sense of divinity'.  By this he means a general awareness of God.  In the 1550 edition of his Institutes of Christian Religion he states that

'...all people recognise that there is a God and that he is there creator.'

He argues that even those least likely to believe in God - remote tribes cut off from the rest of civilization - actually have religious beliefs.  

'If ignorance of God is to be looked for anywhere, surely one is most likely to find an example of it amongst the more backward peoples and those who are really remote from civilization.  Yet in fact (as a pagan has said) there is no nation so barbarous, no people so savage, that they do not have a pervasive belief that there is a God'.

In his view, this provides strong evidence for the claim that belief in God is universal.  

'...this, in fact, points to a sense of divinity inscribed in the hearts of all people'.

The idea that belief in God is a universal feature of human nature goes back to Marcus Tullinus Cicero so Calvin did not originate it.  (Someone like Feuerbach would  argue that even if  in God is universal then this says more about human nature and human need than it does about God!  I.e. it is not a basis for knowledge of God.)

(Seeds of Religion)

Everyone has the potential to become religious and the seeds of religion are everywhere.  However, like any seed they must be nurtured and cared for if they are to bear fruit.  The seed itself is the starting point, but it is useless unless it develops.

The world as God's sculpture and God's theatre:

Calvin uses several analogies to explain God' relationship with the world.  

  1. Firstly, creation is God's mirror.  As his work of art and (as set out above) it seems reasonable to assume that a work of art reflects something of its creator.
  2. Secondly, the world is the theatre of God's action.  God is known through his actions, through the things that he does, through examples of Special Revelation as God acts in the world.  Many theologians have argued that we cannot know anything about the essence of God but we can know about his actions because it is through his actions that we encounter him.

The Fall:

Calvin's understanding of the effects of the Fall was influenced by Augustine's teaching.  The Fall damages our ability to know God through Natural Knowledge in two ways.

  1. Suffering enters the world.  In the Genesis story Adam and Eve live in Paradise until the fall when struggle and pain become a part of their reality for the first time. This means that creation (God's work of art) has been damaged and spoiled.  It no longer looks as the creator intended it.  It is as though acid has been thrown at it and the paint has run.  There are still indications of the way that it should look, but it no longer reflect the omniscient, omnipotent, omnibenevolent God any more.  It is like the mirror has been broken and the reflection distorted.
  2. Human nature is damaged: Natural Theology is done using reason.  As we have seen in the Human Nature module for Augustine and many others the Fall damaged the human capacity to reason.  We can still do it, but we are much more likely to make errors of judgement.

Humans become fallen creatures, unable to reach God by their own efforts and totally dependent upon him for salvation.  Their fallen status means that they require a saviour.  He says 'After the ruin of Adam, no knowledge of God could be profitable to salvation without a mediator.'

Calvin says that the writings of non-Christian philosophers and theologians do contain some truth as they can draw on their natural knowledge of God.  However, the limitations of natural knowledge mean that the truth in their work is mixed up with 'confused imaginings' (i.e. false and made up beliefs).

'I do not deny that here and there we can see in the books of the philosophers some sentence said to be of God, well written; but in these there is always an appearance of such inconsistency that one can clearly see that they only had confused imaginings of him.  It is true enough that God gave them some small savour of his divinity, so that they could not claim ignorance in excuse of their impiety...'

This confusion about what God is actually like and, more importantly, how he wants to be worshiped and how humans should behave mean that natural knowledge can only be a starting point.  The correct response to the a sensus divinitatus is to turn to scripture to find out more about God.  Natural knowledge, Calvin says, removes the excuse of ignorance.  Non Christians cannot claim that they only sinned because they did not know God existed as their natural knowledge means that they know he does.  Calvin says that 'none shall take refuge in the plea of ignorance'.  For Calvin, those who fail to turn to scripture are like people who know that laws exist but do not bother to find out what those laws are.  

God the Redeemer and Special Revelation:

So, whilst General Revelation provides everyone with a starting point, it should lead further.

'God is known in the first place simply as the Creator, no less by this beautiful masterpiece the world than by the general teaching of the Scriptures and then afterwards appeared as our redeemer in the face and person of Jesus Christ.'

Consider what Jesus might be said to reveal about God either through his teaching about God or through his own actions.

How/why is it helpful that Jesus was (according to Christians) himself fully human as well as fully God?  What does this enable him to do?

Calvin believed that Jesus was literally God in human form - God incarnate. If Jesus was both God and man then he was uniquely placed to bring human beings knowledge of God in a way which is accessible to them.  Through Jesus' teaching and through his actions he was the 'self-revelation' of God, or God as he wants to be known.  

In John 14:9 Jesus says 'Whoever has seen me has seen the Father'.  Jesus brings personal knowledge of what God is like whereas General Revelation just tells people that God exists.  

  • Consider this analogy:  Think of a celebrity.  You know of their existence.  You are aware of them, but you don't know them.  Now imagine that they chose to befriend you, to tell you about themselves and to talk directly to you. This is like the difference between the awareness of God that all people have and the close personal relationship that Christians can have.  
  • A key point for Calvin is that in order for people to have any real knowledge of God he has to chose to reveal himself.  Think back to the analogy.  You could study a celebrity, stalk them, make notes on their behaviour, even send them letters asking questions but you gain no actual knowledge until they choose to communicate with you.  Until then everything you 'know' is guess work.

Calvin said

'We know God, not when we merely understand that there is a God, but when we understand what it is right for us to understand about him, what is conducive to his glory.'

Knowledge of God has a specific purpose which is that it enables us to be in the right relationship with God and to worship him in the correct way.  Natural knowledge fails to do this.  For Calvin, theology should always be done from a faith perspective, there is no purpose to academic discussions about the possible existence of God.

Special Revelation

Special Revelation: The way God is revealed in a special way at particular times and particular places.  Unlike General Revelation is is not available all the time in the same way to everyone.

Revealed Knowledge: Knowledge based on special revelations of God. Unlike natural knowledge it is not done by reason but consists primarily of faithfully receiving what is believed to be God's word.

Jesus is an example of God's Special Revelation.  He is present in a particular way at a particular time.  The Bible is a record of Jesus and thus is a record of God's self-revelation.  Calvin has a high regard for scripture and believes that it contains everything about God which is worth knowing.  Contemplating God's general revelation can never add to the wisdom revealed in the Bible.  Calvin says that the Bible is

'fully certified to the faithful [because] it came down from heaven, as though we heard God speaking from his own mouth'

In other words, it is the Word of God.  It is the primary way that people gain knowledge of God and Calvin says that we should humbly learn from it.

'Our knowing should be nothing else than the receiving, in a spirit of meekness and docility, of all that we are taught by the Scriptures.'

God's hiddenness

Calvin believed that even though God is revealed in a meaningful way through Jesus he remains 'other'.  He is beyond our understanding and we can never gain complete knowledge of him.  Calvin says that 'His essence is so incomprehensible that his majesty is hidden, remote from all our sense'

Other views on natural and revealed knowledge:

Martin Luther:

Calvin's fellow reformer Martin Luther held very similar views about the relationship between natural and revealed knowledge.  The following extracts are taken from Luther's commentary to Galatians.

'According to John 1:18, God does not want to be known except through Christ; nor can be he knownin in any otherway.'

'This is certain and true knowledge of God and divine persuasion, which does not fail but depicts God himself in a specific form.'

'Everyone naturally has a general idea that there is a God.  This can be seen from Romans 1:19-20...In any case, the various cults and the religions, past and present, among all nations are abundant evidence that at some times peopld have had a general knowledge of God.  Whether this is was on the basis of nature or from the tradition of their parents, I do not propose to discuss now.'

'...there is a twofold knowledge of God, general and particular.  All people have the general knowledge, namely that God exists, that he has created heaven and earth, that he is righteouls, that he punishes the wicket, etc.  But people do not know what God proposes concerning use, what he wants to give and to do, so that he might deliver us from sin and death, and to save us which is the proper and the true knowledge of God'

Luther used the analogy of finding a face familiar without really knowing the person to illustrate the difference between knowledge of God through General Revelation (recognising a face) but without the knowledge from Special Revelation (actually knowing him).  He goes on to say that Jews and Muslims worship God in the wrong way because they know he exists, but not what he wants.

Luther, like Calvin, believed that Natural Knowledge without Revealed Knowledge is a danger.  He says that idolatry arises when people make up their own ways of worshiping God.  Without any type of knowledge of God this idolatry would not occur.

Jonathan Edwards (1703-58)

Many theologians would say that Calvin underestimates the potential of natural theology.  The American theologian Jonathan Edwards is an example of a theologian who had a very positive appreciation of Natural Theology.

'It is very fit and becoming of God who is infinitely wise, so to order things that there should be a voice of His in His works, instructing those that behold him and painting forth and shewing divine mysteries...The works of God are but a kind of voice or language of God Himself.  And why should we not think that he would teach and instruct by His works in this way as well as in others, by representing divine things in his work.'

Edwards was not arguing that natural knowledge could replace revealed knowledge but he certainly seems to think that is has a function beyond merely making us aware that a God exists.  For Edwards, creation provides us with a constant reminder of God's presence and it teaches us in a memorable and accessible way divine truths.

'If we look on these shadows of divine things as the voice of God purposely by them teaching us these and those spiritual and divine agreeably and clearly it will tend to convey instruction to our minds, and to impress things on the mind and to affect the mind, by which we may, as it were, have God speaking to us

Barth/Brunner Debate (twentieth century):

Karl Barth (1886-1968) was a Prussian theologian who rejected liberal Christianity in favour of what was termed 'neo-Orthodoxy'.  Neo Orthodoxy was a return to tradition and to the insights of the reformers.  Barth uses Calvin's ideas but seems to go even further than Calvin.

  • Barth says that God is 'radically other' than (i.e. completely different to) human beings.  We are finite, contingent, fallen, limited in knowledge, material etc.  God is infinite, eternal, necessary and spiritual.  This means that it will never be possible for us to understand God.  It would be like trying to pour Niagara Falls into a milk jug (or the brain of Stephen Hawking into Homer Simpson)!
  • Human language is limited because our terms are created to describe human experiences.  When applied to God they cannot do justice to him. Even if we say 'God is love' we need to qualify that statement by saying that God is loving in a way far beyond what we can understand.
  • Our limitations mean that we can only know anything at all about God if he chooses to reveal it to us.  We do not have the capacity to do effective Natural Theology on the basis of General Revelation.
  • Religion is a human construct which in itself cannot get to God.  However, God can choose to use our human constructs to reveal himself to us. Imagine we tried to build a huge skyscraper to reach an alien civilization. We would obviously fail.  However, technologically advanced aliens could choose to land on the helipad at the top of the skyscraper in order to communicate with us.  We did not succeed in reaching them, but they chose to interact with us in the way that we expected.  Religion cannot reach God, but God can act within religion.
  • However, God is also free to act through anything else should he choose.
  • Barth speaks of the three-fold Word of God found in 1) the Bible (written word) 2) Churchpreaching (the preached word) 3) Jesus (the living Word).For Barth the 'Word' of God is that experience that Bible or Church can create.  The Bible is not 'God's Word' in the fundamentalist sense, but is does mediate God's word when it affects people.  Likewise, it is not God's revelation, but it is pregnant with revelation and brings it about.

Strengths of Natural Theology:

  • It is available to everyone which avoids the moral problems associated with saying that only those who have read the Bible can know God and thus only they can receive salvation.
  • It provides physical evidence for God and provides a route for theology done on the basis or reason and evidence rather than faith and miracles.
  • There is a certain logic to the idea that a creator will be revealed through their creation.  Similarly, many people do feel that the existence of the universe and the order and beauty within it do require an explanation.

Weaknesses of Natural Theology:

  • Obviously Natural Theology only works if you believe that there are good grounds for saying that the world was created by a God.  
  • Furthermore, it is ambiguous.  The world contains suffering and poor design. Is this just a reflection of the Fall?  Does it show that it cannot come from a good and powerful God?  
  • Finally, the understanding of God gained from Natural Theology seems vague.  It is certainly far less detailed and insightful than the type of theological understanding based on the teachings of Jesus.

Further Reading:

Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy entry on Calvin here.