John R. Franke introduces his recent book, The Character of Theology: A Postconservative Approach (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), with a couple quotations from Calvin’s Institutes: “Without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God,” and “without knowledge of God there is no knowledge of self” (Institutes, vol 1., 1.1.1). What does this mean for Franke? Franke explains that this should teach us of the importance of contextualizing our theology:
“Calvin’s observation continues to provide a helpful model for reflecting on the character of theology and suggests that we must always be attentive not only to the knowledge of God but also the knowledge of ourselves as human beings if we hope to practice and approach to theology that leads to wisdom. We must also be attentive to the fact that the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves are not available to us in the form of timeless and undisputed teaching. Instead, we learn from the history of Christian thought that doctrines and conceptions of God and the nature of the human condition, as well as many other magnificant matters, have been developed and formulated in the context of numerous social, historical, and cultural settings and having in turn been shaped by these settings. This suggests that in the discipline of theology we must take account of the particular social and intellectual settings in which we engage in theological reflection and exploration. This is part of the knowledge of ourselves that is crucial for theology” (14).
He goes on, but I am sure you get the point. Let me concede here that I am sure John Franke would run circles around my theological and philosophical knowledge. But this remark is almost as funny as David Clark’s: “Most people . . . are metaphysical realists” (To Know and Love God [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003], 353).
Franke, of course, is wrong. Were he to take Calvin’s entire argument seriously, he would realize that Calvin did not have the highly individualized conception of the human person that he does. Calvin is not talking about “historical and global manifestations” of Christianity, as Franke is. He is talking about something far more enduring, and not so particular. Calvin is talking about understanding the nature of mankind, not some postconservative mush about “ever-shifting contexts and circumstances.” The theology of Christianity does not and should not change to speak to these different contexts. The theology of Christianity remains constant, speaking to every man everywhere, because it addresses the true nature of all mankind. Similarly, the theological conception of God himself is the same God in each setting, and must be in truth one and the same idea for it to be the same God. Thus the idea of God theologically informs our universal state as mankind. Listen to the words of our Protestant father himself:
“Our wisdom, in so far 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 towards the God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone. In the second place, those blessings which unceasingly distil 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 upwards; 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 stript 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 (see Calvin on John 4:10), that in the Lord, and none 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” (Institutes, vol 1, 1.1.1).