Calvin on Faith: Assurance and Knowledge

Faith Rests on Knowledge

According to Calvin, in conversion the mind is renewed to appreciate the message of the Incarnation and to apprehend the gratuitous promise by Spirit-given faith, and the will is renewed in such a way that the person turns to God in piety and obedience. In his concept of faith, Calvin could not conceive of faith apart from knowledge: “Faith rests not on ignorance, but on knowledge” (Institutes III.2.ii). Knowledge of God is founded on particular self-disclosures of the Word of God and made effective through the persuasive, internally testifying, and illuminating work of the Holy Spirit in faith.

More Than Ordinary Understanding

Calvin distinguishes between the knowledge of faith and ordinary intellectual comprehension: “When we call faith ‘knowledge,’ we do not mean comprehension of the sort that it commonly concerned with those things which fall under human sense perception” (Institutes III.2.xiv). Calvin appeals to the common distinction between seeing and believing, in which to believe is precisely not to see an object but to accept that object on the testimony of another. He cites Paul, “While dwelling in this body, we wander from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not sight (2 Cor. 5:6-7)” and comments as follows: “By these words he shows that those things which we know through faith are nonetheless absent from us and go unseen. From this we conclude that the knowledge of faith consists in assurance rather than comprehension” (Institutes III.2.xiv). Calvin argues that humans can have knowledge of God only because God first accommodates to us in Christ and Scripture. He argues that humans cannot arrive, by themselves, at the truth about God. Left on our own, we are only good idolaters.

Persuaded to Faith

That is why Calvin says we live in a space of acknowledgment or recognition, not knowledge, where the human calling is less to grasp than to be grasped. For Calvin, the knowledge of faith is more persuasion than cognition: When we call faith “knowledge,” we do not mean comprehension of the sort that is commonly concerned with those things that fall under human sense perception. For faith is so far above sense that man’s mind has to go beyond and rise above itself in order to attain it. Even where the mind has attained, it does not comprehend what it perceives. But being persuaded of what that which it does not grasp, by the very certainty of this persuasion it understands more than if it perceived anything human by its own capacity‚Ķ Those things which we know through faith are nonetheless absent from us and go unseen. From this we conclude that the knowledge of faith consists in assurance rather than in comprehension (Institutes III.2.xiv).

Belief and Hope

This means that most of the time Christians do not know, we believe and hope. In his theology of faith, Calvin acknowledges the impossibility of securing the truthfulness of our knowledge of God in anything other than the revelation in Christ, which is illuminated and testified to by the Holy Spirit.