A Theological Distinction to Engage God’s World
Theologians of old often give us categories and distinctions that equip us to apply Scriptural truths in a more consistent and balanced manner. Calvin’s twofold knowledge of God as Creator and as Redeemer forms the structure of his doctrine of the knowledge of God. In this twofold knowledge, he distinguishes between unregenerate and regenerate man’s knowledge of God. Unregenerate men only know God as Creator partially through corrupted eyes via nature. Regenerate men know God as both Creator and Redeemer, but their knowledge of God as Creator is fuller and clearer because their vision has been corrected through Scripture by the Spirit. This twofold division is instructive for Christians in helping them better engage God’s world as they recognize both the antithesis and point of contact between their knowledge of God and the unbeliever’s.
- Summary of Calvin’s Twofold Knowledge
- Application of the Twofold Knowledge
Calvin’s Twofold Knowledge
Calvin notes that all men have an awareness of God through an implanted knowledge which he says is “a certain understanding of his divine majesty” that leaves men without an excuse (Rom 1:18-19). Even the most uncivilized nation of men possess this implanted knowledge. Despite man’s knowledge of God as Creator, man worships the creature rather than the Creator. Man in his sin is unfit and incapable to know God as Father or Redeemer and this natural knowledge of God is insufficient for salvation. Herein lies the double problem of an unregenerate natural knowledge of God: it is insufficient for salvation nor is it dependable to give true knowledge of God due to man’s corrupted state.
Yet even in this corrupted natural knowledge, Calvin affirmed a positive use of general revelation. First, Calvin does not deny that philosophers can arrive at some true statements about God, but he warns the reader of the philosophers’ “giddy imaginations.” He further elucidates this tension in philosophers (truth/giddy imagination) using an analogy of a traveler passing through a field at night during a thunderstorm. When the lightning flashes the traveler can see “far and wide,” but the darkness returns quicker than he can take a step or receive knowledge of the right way. Though philosophers’ books contain “sprinkles of truth,” they are loaded with “monstrous lies.” Second, Calvin used natural revelation for apologetics and edification. He follows the apologetical/evangelism method of the apostle Paul, who often used natural arguments to point the Gentiles to the one true God. Yet, Calvin is clear that reason cannot lead men to the knowledge of the truth, “who the true God is or what sort of God he wishes to be toward us.”
Therefore, Calvin emphasizes that the knowledge of God as Redeemer can only come through the mediatorial work of Christ via Scripture. Further, the spectacles of Scripture are needed to clearly “show us the true God” who is both Creator and Redeemer. The dull, blurry, and confused nature of man’s knowledge of God as Creator due to his fallen nature is corrected by the lens of Scripture, allowing man to behold God as Father and rightly see God as Creator in nature. Calvin maintains both a robust view of God’s self-revelation in nature paired with a recognition of total depravity that conditions the extent, use, and end of a knowledge of God as Creator via nature.Man in his sin is unfit and incapable to know God as Father or Redeemer and this natural knowledge of God is insufficient for salvation. Click To Tweet
Twofold Knowledge Applied
First, we must regulate a natural knowledge of God in light of man’s fallen nature, but we must do so in tension with common grace. The doctrine of total depravity does not mean that sinners are absolutely and always sinful to the maximum extent, but rather refers to the total corruption of sin so that the sinner’s deepest inclination is away from God rather than toward him. The sinner’s inability to do good does not mean they have lost their will or freedom. What is lost is their “free inclination of the will toward the good.” Indeed, the sinner can possess certain virtues (i.e., in the “eyes” of society), but there is a distinction between virtues and good works. Herman Bavinck writes, “Good, true good–good in the eyes of a holy God–is only what is done out of faith, according to God’s law, and to God’s glory.”
But we must affirm common grace alongside the doctrine of total depravity. Common grace is a key theological limiting concept that safeguards overextending the corruption of the image of God and the antithesis of knowledge between believer and unbeliever. Common grace is seen in God’s general mercy and benevolence towards all fallen image bearers in his acts of providence and further seen in God allowing man after the fall to still possess the image of God and, consequently, natural knowledge of God. This means that we should not be surprised to find truth in the mouths and pens of unregenerate men. This is Calvin’s point when he notes that there is truth to be found in philosophers. Man’s reason is still intact. Man still possesses all of his original God-given faculties. God in his common grace has allowed men still to come to a knowledge of true things in creation despite their corrupted nature. Nevertheless, we must remember the “common” in common grace so that we do not begin to undermine the necessity of saving grace and supernatural revelation to bring men to saving faith in Christ. Common grace does not render unregenerate men’s knowledge of God as Creator as true or clear nor does it elevate reason beyond its limits.
Second, while there is an antithesis of knowledge between unregenerate and regenerate men, maintain a point of contact between the two by virtue of the fact that all men are made in God’s image and have an implanted knowledge of God (Ps. 19:1, Acts 14:15-17; 17:23; Rom. 1:19-20). Fallen men still possess the image of God. Though they have lost original righteousness and natural religious fellowship with God, they are still made in God’s image implanted with a natural knowledge of God, and designed to worship God. The unregenerate and regenerate man are still both creatures designed for the same end, the glory and worship of God. However, the former is still dead in sins while the latter has been restored by the gospel. But it is in light of this point of contact, that we engage the unregenerate man by showing this point of contact, exposing their false worship of the creation and pointing them to the true worship of God found through the saving work of Jesus Christ.
Third, the Scriptures are the necessary corrective lens in order to see God rightly as both Creator and Redeemer. If a man is left to natural revelation alone, he is left to seek an unknown God (Acts 17:23). There is a difference between seeking the favor and grace of God through the Word in the promises of Christ in contrast to seeking the unknown god through nature. Therefore, the Christian does not leave behind their Christian faith when they enter nature. On the contrary, they stand upon their Christian faith derived from the Scriptures and look through it in order to engage and enjoy nature as a revelation from their God whom they have come to know through Jesus Christ.
 This doctrine also forms the structure of Calvin’s first two books in The Institutes of the Christian Religion.
 Calvin’s distinction between unregenerate and regenerate knowledge of God is consistent with later Reformed scholastics’ distinction between true and false theology.
 Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1:43. Calvin writes in his commentary on Romans 1:20, “It hence clearly appears what the consequence is of having this evidence—that men cannot allege anything before God’s tribunal for the purpose of showing that they are not justly condemned. Yet let this difference be remembered, that the manifestation of God, by which he makes his glory known in his creation, is, with regard to the light itself, sufficiently clear; but that on account of our blindness, it is not found to be sufficient. We are not however so blind, that we can plead our ignorance as an excuse for our perverseness. We conceive that there is a Deity; and then we conclude, that whoever he may be, he ought to be worshipped: but our reason here fails, because it cannot ascertain who or what sort of being God is.” John Calvin, Commentary on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Romans, trans by. John Owen (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 71.
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1:44.
 Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1:39.
 Muller writes, “In view of the problem of human sinfulness, true natural theology must be a natural theology of the regenerate… and an unregenerate natural theology arising outside the church, must belong to the category of theologica falsa.” Muller, Richard A., Dictionary of Latin and Greek theological terms: drawn principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology, Second edition. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2017), 361.
 Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1:277.
 John Calvin, Commentary Upon the Acts of the Apostles, trans by. Henry Beveridge, vol. 2 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 12–20, 154. Muller summarizing Calvin’s view of natural theology and use of natural arguments notes that Calvin appears to assume even unregenerate men still possess the capacity from nature and providence to develop “valid teachings concerning God.” Richard A. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena to Theology, vol. 1, Second Edition. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003), 276.
 Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1:53, 66, 278, 341.
 Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1:40. Muller, Post-Reformation Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena to Theology, 1:289.
 Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 1:71.
 Joel R Beeke and Paul M. Smalley, Reformed Systematic Theology Volume 1: Revelation and God, 1:256,257.
 Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Sin and Salvation in Christ, vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI, 2006), 119-125.
 Second London Confession 1:1; 20:2-3.
 Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology, ed by. James T. Dennison, trans by. George Musgrave Giger (Philippsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 1997), 1.4.7.
John Sweat is a marine veteran that serves as one of the pastors at Covenant Community Church in Lake Butler, Florida. He is a husband to Heather and a father to four girls. John is currently pursuing a ThM in historical theology from Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary.