Calvin's Sensus Divinitatis

John Calvin
Of recent interest for religious epistemology is Calvin's sensus divnitatis. It has been taken up as a cornerstone of Reformed epistemology and less recently informed the apologetic strategy, presuppositionalism. The subject of this paper is: what did Calvin mean by the sense of the divine and how did he use it in his argument? The oft cited passage is from the Institutes:

There is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity. This we take to be beyond controversy. To prevent anyone from taking refuge in the pretense of ignorance, God himself has implanted in all men a certain understanding of his divine majesty. Ever renewing its memory, he repeatedly sheds fresh drops. Since, therefore, men one and all perceive that there is a God and that he is their Maker, they are condemned by their own testimony because they have failed to honor him and to consecrate their lives to his will... Therefore, since from the beginning of the world there has been no region, no city, in short, no household, that could do without religion, there lies in this a tacit confession of a sense of deity inscribed in the hearts of all.1
In this paper I will examine three different interpretations of Calvin's sensus divnitatis (hereafter, sensus) put forward by Christian philosophers. Alvin Plantinga advocates the view that the sensus is a propensity or disposition to form belief in God. Paul Helm argues that the sensus refers to a knowledge of the fact or proposition that God exists. Cornelius Van Til argues that Calvin's sensus should be taken to mean a presupposition, accepted by believers and suppressed by unbelievers, by which human knowledge is rendered possible.

Once I have summarized these views I will analyze Calvin's argument and suggest that while Calvin certainly believes there is such a thing as a sense of the divine in every human being, his point at the beginning of the Institutes is that the sensus is useless for the kind of knowledge he wants for his reader if it is devoid of the lens of scripture. Thus, Calvin uses the concept of the sensus in order to provoke the reader into an acknowledgment of their epistemic bankruptcy and to lead them to the Bible as the source of true knowledge of God. As such, the sensus functions, in part, as a rhetorical device, borrowed from the philosophers, and used to get his reader to realize his dependence on scripture for true knowledge of God.

What did Calvin mean by the sensus? Alvin Plantinga argues that Calvin's sensus divinitatis is “an innate tendency, nisus, or disposition to believe in him [God].”2 Rather than an actual belief in the existence of God, Plantinga says that the sensus should be taken as a “strong tendency or inclination toward belief in him.”3 If it were not for human sin, the sensus would produce belief in God on par with belief in any other aspect of external reality. As such, Plantinga takes Calvin to be saying that, as part of the noetic capacities of human beings, there exists “a kind of faculty or a cognitive mechanism” that produces beliefs about God when activated by certain sets of experiences.4

The propensity to form a belief in God is hampered by sin, something that, for Plantinga, hampers the proper function of the human ability to come to knowledge. However, those who believe in God are warranted in such a belief as being properly basic to their noetic structure. Belief in God is to be considered as a properly basic belief because it held without argumentation from another more self-evident premise. While the propensity to believe in God exists universally, actual belief is formed in a variety of circumstances during which the propensity is actualized.5 Plantinga suggests that the other condition that the sensus needs in order to be activated is an encounter with nature.6

Paul Helm objects and suggests that Calvin's view is stronger than Plantinga makes out. Helm argues that, for Calvin, the propensity is always fulfilled, that the knowledge of God is obtained: “mankind is created not only as capable of knowing God, but as actually knowing him... belief in God is natural in the sense of being part of man's original condition, part of what it means to be really or fully human.”7 According to Helm, Plantinga misunderstands what Calvin means by “sense.” Rather than a propensity to be aware of God, “sense” should be taken to mean an actual awareness of God.8 But what does Helm mean by awareness?

Paul Helm argues that the sensus divinitatis has two components. The first he terms “metaphysical-cognitive,”9 a knowledge that there is a God. This is not, according to Helm, an experience of God, nor is it an apprehension of God's essence. We might say it is de dicto, not de re, awareness of God.10 For Helm, the alternative to comprehension of the divine essence is propositional knowledge of God's existence. It is knowledge that God exists.

Helm then argues that Calvin's view of natural revelation in the works of creation is as a continual a posteriori knowledge that acts to sustain the sensus: “By the SD and a triggering environment we gain and retain the knowledge of God. The sensus is thus not merely a sense for knowing God, when it is working properly in the right conditions it is a sense that tells us that there is a God.”11

The second aspect of Helm's interpretation is the “moral-cognitive” component, whereby human beings know that God exists as their creator and sustainer. Whereas the first aspect of the sensus is the knowledge that God exists, the second aspect is knowledge that God exists as the creator of all that is.12 This aspect to the sensus should lead to an appropriate worship of God and even when it merely leads to idolatry, as it does for the heathen, it leads all human beings to a knowledge of good and evil. Helm notes that though this might be taken to imply a de re awareness of God rendering humans guilty before God in a personal sense,13 that this is not what Calvin meant.

A problem with Helm's interpretation is that one might worry that the “god” that exists is open to interpretation. Helm supposes that the sensus performs the moderate task of providing human beings with an awareness of a category for something that functions as creator. For some, this category might be filled with many gods; for others the role might be played by one supreme god. His point is that the sensus cannot supply more than a de dicto awareness of a god category.14 If only a category is meant, even if there is a “seeing-as” component, then what kind of knowledge holds human beings accountable? It seems unlikely that anyone could be held morally accountable for filling the category with whatever material they might have available.

Helm might respond to this objection by saying that Calvin could not allow for a universal de re15 awareness of God since Calvin holds to a doctrine of incomprehensibility that would rule it out. Helm notes that Calvin writes: “his essence is incomprehensible; hence his divineness escapes all human perception.”16 However, Calvin appears to have the God of the Bible in mind in the term divinitatis. After all, just prior to saying that human beings know that God exists as creator, Calvin writes that what God has implanted in all human beings is “a certain understanding of his divine majesty.”17 There appears to be a content to the category to which all human beings have access.

Edward Adams provides another objection at this point. Adams argues that, strictly speaking, the sensus should not be regarded as a proposition even if it is articulated as one. Adams argues that Calvin's sensus idea is derived from Stoic theory articulated by Cicero.18 The sensus should be taken to mean something like a “prior notion” or “preconception.” The difference, for Adams, is that while propositions can be argued for, preconceptions are assumed. Since they are assumed “preconceptions operate as 'yardsticks' or kanones against which theories and opinions can be tested.”19 Adams suggests that the preconception is “innate theological knowledge” that is “chronologically and logically a priori.”20 It is not clear how Adams interprets knowledge of God from nature since he also claims that human reflection on nature serves to validate the sensus. If the sensus is supposed to be the the “yardstick” by which all other opinions are measure then surely it is the sensus that should vindicate the knowledge of God in creation.

Adams provides a good example of many attempts to analyze the sensus. Much of the discussion is how one is to carve up Calvin's sensus that makes sense in epistemological terms. Both Helm and Adams assume that the knowledge of God should be divided into a priori and a posteriori categories. Helm believes Calvin has in mind an a priori god-category filled in by a posteriori contents. Adams believes that Calvin meant that to know God in the a priori sense is to contain a regulative sense of God by which one can attest a claim to divinity. In recent discourse the conflict of internalist and externalist accounts of knowledge play a part in the interpretation of Calvin's sensus. Plantinga, an externalist, reinterprets the sensus to avoid the charge of internalism. His view is that the sensus is dormant until it is activated by an external stimulus. Plantinga thereby escapes the charge of internalism and renders the sensus in externalist terms.21 This should be contrasted with earlier interpretations that were not as cognizant of such a distinction. For example, Edward Dowey says that the sensus is the internal, innate aspect of knowledge of God while the external knowledge is fulfilled by nature.22 Dowey suggests that one could also regard it in terms of subjective and objective knowledge.

One philosopher who takes a different approach is Cornelius Van Til. Van Til attempts to avoid appropriating the sensus to traditional epistemological categories and takes sensus to mean that knowledge of God is the prerequisite for all other human thought. Van Til interprets Calvin to be saying that knowledge of God is the precondition (or necessary condition) for true knowledge of anything else, even knowledge of self: “Calvin recognized that if man is to have true knowledge of himself, he must regard God as original and himself as derivative.”23

Van Til's apologetic method is, in part, based on his conception of Calvin's sensus divinitatis. The sensus, for Van Til, should be understood as the epistemological necessary condition for human knowledge and experience. Even the atheist, Van Til claimed, must know God in order to deny him. It is in Van Til's interpretation of Calvin that we find the idea of two kinds of knowledge – human beings, in their fallen condition, both know God and yet do not know God. Consequently, Van Til allows Calvin to escape many categories more common in modern epistemology.

The question is whether or not Van Til derived this from Calvin's thought: would Calvin join Van Til in affirming that the knowledge of God is the necessary precondition for all human thought? Van Til cites Calvin in support of his idea. Calvin writes of the unbeliever:
Here, however, the foul ungratefulness of men is disclosed. They have within themselves a workshop graced with God's unnumbered works and, at the same time, a storehouse overflowing with inestimable riches. They ought, then, to break forth into praises of him but are actually puffed up and swollen with all the more pride.24
It appears that the “workshop” human beings find in themselves Van Til takes to be both a means of God's revelation of himself to human beings and metaphysically impossible without such a revelation. Calvin goes on to say that fallen human beings, “finding God in his body and soul a hundred times,”25 use that knowledge against the knowledge of God within them. Calvin says that fallen humans also use nature “as a cloak”26 to hide their knowledge of God.

In support of Van Til's conception of the sensus we can see that Calvin thought that knowledge of the truth required God in a causal sense. Calvin asserts that not only is the whole of creation is dependent on God metaphysically, but epistemologically: “Not only does he sustain this universe (as he once founded it) by his boundless might... but also that no drop will be found either of wisdom and light, or of righteousness or power or rectitude, or of genuine truth, which does not flow from him, and of which he is not the cause.”27

Perhaps what Van Til argues is consistent with the above statement of Calvin, but it appears that Calvin himself would sometimes contradict such an interpretation. Calvin does, at times, consider human beings to have their own light of reason by which they come to know. In Calvin's comments on John 1:5 he argues that although human reasoning is darkened in the unregenerate, “some sparkling bits of light keep darting out of the deep and heavy darkness of the human mind.”28 This appears not to comport with Van Til's insistence that human beings know only by presupposing God because it appears that Calvin is insisting that human beings have some ability to know of themselves.

In analyzing the interpretations of the sensus we can see that the various view hold to what might be called various strengths of human awareness of God. However, when we come to analyze Calvin's argument I am inclined to think that Calvin was not intending to postulate one version of the sensus. Rather, I think that Calvin is beginning with the common philosophical assumption and using it to show the bankruptcy of human knowledge without God's revealed words in scripture. Thus, Calvin was attempting to demonstrate two kinds of knowledge – knowledge in accord with God's knowledge and one out of accord with God's knowledge. The necessary condition for knowledge in accord with God's knowledge is the revealed word of God in scripture. There are three reasons I think this apart from what I shall argue is the shape of Calvin's argument itself.

First, what is most troubling about the sensus is its ambiguity. Just what does Calvin mean by it? Which version does he subscribe to? The fact that he uses it ambiguously should indicate that a particular version of it is not necessary to understand his argument. Instead, Calvin may be saying that it does not much matter how you interpret the sensus because no version of it leads to the kind of knowledge he is concerned that the reader obtain.29

Second, the fact that such a concept is most plausibly derived from philosophers rather than scripture should enlighten us to the possibility that Calvin will not ultimately speak positively about such a thing. While a criticism may well be leveled at natural theology, Calvin is concerned more with leading his reader to the light of the gospel as revealed in scripture. Furthermore, the idea that human beings know God was, in Calvin's time, not in the least controversial. If it is an uncontroversial statement we should wonder how Calvin is using it in argument rather than merely what he meant by it.

Finally, the argument appears to have a conclusion not in and of itself, but beyond the sensus. In other words, Calvin appears not to be arguing for the veracity of the sensus itself. Instead he wishes his reader to be led to scripture as the only source of true knowledge that matters. If this is his intention it appears that the sensus should be taken to be a motif for a series of dead ends – innate knowledge, evidences in nature and in the human body, scholastic reasoning—all leading nowhere if devoid of scripture.

Knowledge, for Calvin, is measured not by an innate idea, but by God. God “is the sole standard by which this judgment is measured.”30 If it is by God and, by extension, what God thinks that knowledge is measured, then knowledge (being true belief) is only what accords with God. So long as we overestimate our own ability to know anything, Calvin says, we delude ourselves and know nothing. But when we look to God we find in him “the straighthedge to which we must be shaped.”31 The latter point is not merely about a virtuous life, but about human knowledge, “since no drop will be found either of wisdom and light, or of righteousness or power or rectitude, or of genuine truth, which does not flow from him, and of which he is not the cause.”32 For Calvin, the prerequisite for knowledge is right standing before God for the “pious mind does not dream up for itself any god it pleases, but contemplates the one and only true God.”33 That is to say that to conjure up an alternative god is not to know God at all since it is not the true God.

So far Calvin has implied that for human beings to know rightly they must know “piously.” We might conclude that human beings who do not know God rightly do not know him at all. However, it is at this point that Calvin speaks of the sensus divinitatis. He claims that, contrary to what one might conclude from what he has just said, everyone, even those who deny God, know God by virtue of the sensus. However, since impious people know God yet deny him there is a conflict between two kinds of knowledge. Calvin portrays the sensus as a knowledge against which impious people wage war only to certainly loose:
The world... tries as far as it is able to cast away all knowledge of God, and by by every means to corrupt the worship of him. I only say that though the stupid hardness in their minds, which the impious eagerly conjure up to reject God, wastes away, yet the sense of divinity, which they greatly wished to have extinguished, thrives and presently burgeons.34
If by “every means” we can take Calvin to be saying by means of human faculties of knowledge, then we might say that the dividing line in Calvin's thought is much less about a priori and a posteriori categories and more about knowledge in accord with the standard of God and knowledge that is out of accord with God. Human beings in a fallen state know against knowledge and believe against belief. This usurpation of human faculties is illustrated by Calvin's assertion that “miserable men do not rise above themselves as they should , but measure him by the yardstick of their own carnal stupidity.”35 Calvin's pointed comments remind us of the ancient maxim that man, as Protagoras supposedly said, is the measure of all things.

For Calvin, the battle waged by unbelief is a loosing one. Even when practicing idolatry, Calvin says, human beings prove the very thing they wish to deny. Since “no household” can do without religion this is tantamount to a “tacit confession of a sense of deity.”36 In other words, the sense of deity is universal and reveals itself whether one is a Christian or not. Consequently, acts of rebellion actually serve to demonstrate and not disguise the sensus. In the battle of knowledge impious knowledge cannot win for, even in the best attempt to know against the knowledge of God, an atheist proves what he seeks to deny.37

In chapter five we find a change of tone, one that extolls the knowledge of God in nature. Calvin continues in a less warlike tone by comparing the knowledge that ought to be derived from nature with what actually is derived from nature. In nature God displays his marks of glory, his insignia.38 The universe acts as a mirror that reflects God39 and acts as a witness that declares God's wisdom.40 Human beings themselves, being part of nature, also reveal God: “infants, while they nurse at their mother's breasts, have tongues so eloquent to preach his glory that there is no need at all of other orators.”41

If, we might wonder, there is no need for another orator, then have we not come to the end of our search? If it is possible to know the creator in this way, then haven't we found true knowledge of God? This response in the reader, I think, is exactly Calvin’s intention. He wishes the reader to be stirred up, to be optimistic that he has got the answer. And while the reader is elevated, Calvin will pull out the ground from under him. For Calvin, it is at this very point that man sees himself as he is: “Here, however, the foul ungratefulness of men is disclosed.”42 There is, in principle, no need to go outside to see all this; it is already known from the “storehouse” of “overflowing riches” that are within human beings. All human beings are “compelled to know—whether they will it or not—that these are the signs of divinity; yet they conceal them within.”43 Such knowledge ought to lead us to worship and to hope for the future life,44 but “such is our stupidity that we grow increasingly dull toward so manifest testimonies, and they flow away without profiting us.”45 Such testimonies in nature reveal God, but such knowledge is fruitless for the knowledge Calvin hopes his reader to obtain.

What, then, for Calvin, is the necessary condition by which a human being might have the error put right? Can he by his own means see God, himself and the world aright, in accord with its standard? For Calvin, the truth seems to be that man has not got within himself the wherewithal to usurp his fallen nature. What is needed is God's revelation in his word and the regeneration for faith. The sensus is not vindicated, activated or affirmed in nature (as if nature has such power), but in the scripture:46 “But with the aid of spectacles will begin to read distinctly; so Scripture, gathering up the otherwise confused knowledge of God in our minds, having dispersed our dullness, clearly shows us the true God.”47 In other words, all that the sensus has so far produced is taken up by scripture and made to produce right knowledge of God.

Calvin's conclusion, then, is to begin the Institutes as he means to go on – with what the Bible has to say about God: “All things will tend to this end, that God, the Artificer of the universe, is made manifest to us in Scripture, and that what we ought to think of him is set forth there, lest we seek some uncertain deity by devious paths.”48 I take, given the context of the statement, “all things” to refer to the content of the Institutes. If what we ought to think about God is what is found in Scripture and any other path is “devious,” and only leads to an “uncertain deity,” it is plausible that Calvin has come to his conclusion. However else one might want to talk about knowledge of God, the Institutes,will focus on one source of knowledge and on one kind of knowledge – revealed knowledge of God in scripture.

The implication of what I have argued is that the problem regarding Calvin's view on natural theology can be given light. Calvin does not deny natural knowledge of God; God is plain to see in nature. Nor does Calvin deny the human ability to know God; everybody knows God. Calvin argues that human beings, even while they know God in a fallen way, cannot know God clearly due to their depravity. Natural theology is not denied, but given its proper place. That God exists, therefore, should be taken as a basic belief and need not be proven. But even in examining the evidence of nature it is clear from nature that God exists. Thus it is not wrong to attempt to do so. However, even while human beings have the sense of deity, they continue to deny what they know. Calvin insists that human epistemology is not ethically neutral, but prejudiced by our relationship with God, our piety. Thus Van Til is correct to say:
Calvin, following Paul argues constantly that God is clearly revealed in nature. He argues that the reason why man does not find God in nature is that he, man, has been blinded by sin. According to Calvin, it is man's ethical hostility to God that keeps him from seeing the true situation about himself and his environment. Calvin says that the light of God shines everywhere was with the brightness of the sun but that men have, as it were, taken out their eyes and therefore do not see this light.49
If what I have said carries any weight it may have some implications for the Reformed view of natural theology. Some, like Warfield, claim that Calvin approved of natural theology while others, like Barth, claim that Calvin condemns natural theology. If Calvin is delineating between two kinds of knowledge then we may be able to understand him to be saying that while some will only obtain a knowledge of God through the sense of deity others will be given knowledge of God in special revelation. While the sensus ought to produce knowledge of God it in fact does not because of human sin. For one who looks at the same creation, equipped with the same sensus, but does so through the lens of scripture and with a regenerate heart, he does so only because of the gift of such knowledge from God. It is, therefore, a matter of perspective.

1John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John McNeill (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006), I. 3. 1.
2Alvin Plantinga, “Reason and belief in God,” in Faith and Rationality (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1983).
3Ibid., 66.
4Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 172.
6“Reason and belief in God,” 67.
7Paul Helm, John Calvin's Ideas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 222.
8Ibid., 221.
9Ibid., 224.
10Ibid., 225.
11Ibid., 226.
12Ibid., 227-8.
13Cf. Alvin Plantinga, Warranted Christian Belief (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 177.
14John Calvin's Ideas, 234.
15de re means “of the thing” and is used to indicate an awareness of a thing whereby it has particular content; whereas de dicto means “of the word” and indicates that it is the statement in question not the content of the thing.
16Inst. I. 5. 1.
17Inst. I. 3. 1.
18Cf. Charles Partee, Calvin and Classical Philosophy (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1977), 29-41.
19Edward Adams, “Calvin's View of Natural Knowledge of God,” in International Journal of Systematic Theology, 3 (November 2001), 285.
20Ibid., 288.
21The difference between an internalist and externalist approach to epistemology is that internalists suggest that belief can be justified by factors internal to the subject. Externalists deny that this is possible. Cf. Noah Lemos, An Introduction to the Theory of Knowledge, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 109.
22Edward Dowey, The Knowledge of God in Calvin's Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1952), 72.
23Cornelius Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1974), 157.
24Inst. I. 5. 4.
27Inst. I. 2. 1.
28John Calvin, Calvin: Commentaries, ed. Joseph Haroutunian (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1958), 131.
29Cf. William Davis, “Calvin's Legacy in Philosophy,” in David W. Hall & Marvin Padgett, Calvin and Culture: Exploring a Worldview, (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 2010), 117.
30Inst. I. 1. 2.
32Ibid., I. 2. 1 (emphasis mine).
33Ibid., I. 2. 2.
34Ibid., I. 3. 3.
35Ibid., I. 4. 1.
36Ibid., I. 3. 1.
37“The impious themselves therefore exemplify the fact that some conception of God is ever alive in all men's minds,” Inst. I. 3. 2.
38Ibid., I. 5. 1.
39 Ibid.
40Ibid., I. 5. 2.
41Ibid., I. 5. 3.
42Ibid., I. 5. 4.
44Ibid., I. 5. 10.
45Ibid., I. 5. 11.
46Cf. “Calvin's View of Natural Knowledge of God,” 283.
47Inst, I. 6. 1.
49Cornelius Van Til, The Case for Calvinism (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1963), 107.


Slimjim said...

Thanks for this analysis and letting Calvin speaks for himself. I read the first book of Calvin's institute long ago and I remember thinking how it seem so "Van Tillian" then...