An examination of Calvin's theory of knowledge in his theology and exegesis

John Joseph Denniston, Fordham University


The thesis of the study involves several affirmations about Calvin's theory of knowledge. First, the reformer's ideas about knowledge are central to his theological program. Not only was this true for the 1536 edition of the Institutes of the Christian Religion but throughout his other writings. Calvin's convictions about knowledge are evident in his biblical commentaries, sacramental theology, sermons and correspondence. Second, researchers have been divided over the question of the relationship of Calvin's Institutes and his other writings; that is, some researchers maintain that the reformer did not intend to create a unified system of theological writings. This study proposes that Calvin's writings include specific statements by the reformer which affirm his intention to have the Institutes serve as an introduction to his commentaries and other writings. Calvin's ideas about knowledge are one of the ways in which he indicates that there is a deep unity in his writings. Third, some researchers have maintained that the reformer breaks completely with the humanist tradition in which he was educated; however, a close reading of his writings indicates that the reformer continued many of the humanist goals espoused by Erasmus and others. The similarities and differences between Calvin and other humanists is analyzed in this study. Calvin's ideas about knowledge indicate his revision of humanist concerns. Chapter One of the study documents the opinions of scholars, especially those neo-orthodox theologians, who deny that Calvin permitted what is known as a "natural" theology. Chapter Two discusses Calvin's theological program, and reveals that the reformer's theology is a theology of the Word. He considers the task of the theologian and the exegete to be identical. Chapter Three offers an analysis of his theory of knowledge. The chapter reveals that Calvin's understanding of saving knowledge is tied to the illumination of the intellect by the Holy Spirit. For Calvin, the knowledge of God is not something humans on their own can achieve. Chapter Four offers an explanation of the reformer's presuppositions in his commentary writing and observes how his theory of knowledge serves as a tool of his exegesis. Scripture is understood by the reformer to be the objective knowledge of God made known through the Word, which is the personal address of God to the individual. Chapter Five documents the ways in which Calvin's ideas about knowledge shape his teachings on the sacraments. The reformer's teachings on the sacraments confirm the opinion that there is a deep unity in his writings that is shaped by his convictions about knowledge. Chapter Six studies Calvin's sermons and correspondence for indications of his ideas about knowledge that confirm the thesis of the study.

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Recommended Citation

Denniston, John Joseph, "An examination of Calvin's theory of knowledge in his theology and exegesis" (1991). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI9127029.