The Knowledge of God Has Been Naturally Implanted in the Minds of Men

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  • The Knowledge of God Has Been Naturally Implanted in the Minds of Men

    by John Calvin

    1. The character of this natural endowment

    There is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity.2 This we take to be beyond controversy. To prevent anyone from taking refuge in the pretense of ignorance, God himself ehas implanted bin all men a certain understanding of his divine majesty. eEver renewing its memory, he repeatedly bsheds efresh drops.3 bSince, 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. If ignorance of God is to be looked for anywhere, surely one is most likely to find an example of it among the more backward folk and those more remote from civilization. Yet there is, as the eminent pagan says, no nation so barbarous, no people so savage, that they have not a deep-seated conviction that there is a God.4 And they who in other aspects of life seem least to differ from brutes still continue to retain some seed of religion. So deeply does the common conception occupy the minds of all, so tenaciously does it inhere in the hearts of all! 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.

    Indeed, even idolatry is ample proof of this conception. We know how man does not willingly humble himself so as to place other creatures over himself. Since, then, he prefers to worship wood and stone rather than to be thought of as having no God, clearly this is a most vivid impression of a divine being. So impossible is it to blot this from man’s mind that natural disposition would be more easily altered, as altered indeed it is when man voluntarily sinks from his natural haughtiness to the very depths in order to honor God!

    2. Religion is no arbitrary invention

    bTherefore it is utterly vain for some men to say that religion was invented by the subtlety and craft of a few to hold the simple folk in thrall by this device and that those very persons who originated the worship of God for others did not in the least believe that any God existed.5 I confess, indeed, that in order to hold men’s minds in greater subjection, clever men have devised very many things in religion by which to inspire the common folk with reverence and to strike them with terror. But they would never have achieved this if men’s minds had not already been imbued with a firm conviction about God, from which the inclination toward religion springs as from a seed. And indeed it is not credible that those who craftily imposed upon the ruder folk under pretense of religion were entirely devoid of the knowledge of God. If, indeed, there were some in the past, and today not a few appear, who deny that God exists, yet willy-nilly they from time to time feel an inkling of what they desire not to believe. One reads of no one who burst forth into bolder or more unbridled contempt of deity than Gaius Caligula;6 yet no one trembled more miserably when any sign of God’s wrath manifested itself; thus—albeit unwillingly—he shuddered at the God whom he professedly sought to despise. You may see now and again how this also happens to those like him; how he who is the boldest despiser of God is of all men the most startled at the rustle of a falling leaf [cf. Lev. 26:36]. Whence does this arise but from the vengeance of divine majesty, which strikes their consciences all the more violently the more they try to flee from it? Indeed, they seek out every subterfuge to hide themselves from the Lord’s presence, and to efface it again from their minds. But in spite of themselves they are always entrapped. Although it may sometimes seem to vanish for a moment, it returns at once and rushes in with new force. If for these there is any respite from anxiety of conscience, it is not much different from the sleep of drunken or frenzied persons, who do not rest peacefully even while sleeping because they are continually troubled with dire and dreadful dreams. The impious themselves therefore exemplify the fact that some conception of God is ever alive in all men’s minds.

    3. Actual godlessness is impossible

    eMen of sound judgment will always be sure that a sense of divinity which can never be effaced is engraved upon men’s minds. Indeed, the perversity of the impious, who though they struggle furiously are unable to extricate themselves from the fear of God, is abundant testimony that this conviction, namely, that there is some God, is naturally inborn in all, and is fixed deep within, as it were in the very marrow. Although Diagoras7 and his like may jest at whatever has been believed in every age concerning religion, and Dionysius8 may mock the heavenly judgment, this is sardonic laughter,9 for the worm of conscience, sharper than any cauterizing iron, gnaws away within. I do not say, as Cicero did, that errors disappear with the lapse of time, and that religion grows and becomes better each day.10 For the world (something will have to be said of this a little later)11 tries as far as it is able to cast away all knowledge of God, and 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. From this we conclude that it is not a doctrine that must first be learned in school, but one of which each of us is master from his mother’s womb and which nature itself permits no one to forget, although many strive with every nerve to this end.

    bBesides, if all men are born and live to the end that they may know God, and yet if knowledge of God is unstable and fleeting unless it progresses to this degree, it is clear that all those who do not direct every thought and action in their lives to this goal degenerate from the law of their creation. This was not unknown to the philosophers. Plato meant nothing but this when he often taught that the highest good of the soul is likeness to God, where, when the soul has grasped the knowledge of God, it is wholly transformed into his likeness.12 In the same manner also Gryllus, in the writings of Plutarch, reasons very skillfully, affirming that, if once religion is absent from their life, men are in no wise superior to brute beasts, but are in many respects far more miserable. Subject, then, to so many forms of wickedness, they drag out their lives in ceaseless tumult and disquiet.13 Therefore, it is worship of God alone that renders men higher than the brutes, and through it alone they aspire to immortality.14


    1 “Hominum mentibus naturaliter… inditam.” The revelation of God “within” man (ch. iii) is extinguished by human sin (ch. iv). The same is true of that which comes to man “from without” through God’s signs and tokens (insignia, specimina) in external nature (v. 14). Thus these chapters, iii–v, require for full understanding Calvin’s entire doctrine of man: as created, I. xv; and as ravaged by sin, II. i–v.

    2 “Divinitatis sensum.” This term and “seed of religion,” used immediately below (cf. I. iv. 1), refer generally to a numinous awareness of God, and are closely related to conscience, which is a moral response to God. Cf. I. i. 3 and Comm. John 1:5, 9. On verse 5, Calvin writes: “There are two principal parts of the light which still remains in corrupt nature: first, the seed of religion is planted in all men; next, the distinction between good and evil is engraved on their consciences.”

    3 Cf. Cicero, Tusculan Disputations II. x (LCL edition, pp. 172 ff.).

    4 The pagan (ethnicus) is Cicero. Calvin’s view that all men have a natural sense or intimation of deity is in accord with the presupposition of all the characters of Cicero’s dialogue On the Nature of the Gods, including the Epicurean, Velleius, who asks: “Where is there to be found a race or tribe of men which does not hold, without instruction, some preconception of the gods?” Nature of the Gods I. xvi. 43 (A. S. Pease, M. Tulii Ciceronis De natura deorum, pp. 294 f.; LCL edition, pp. 44 f.).

    5 This and the following section continue to reflect Cicero’s Nature of the Gods in which the Epicureans’ belief in gods is discounted by their critics. They are linked with those who escape superstition by denial and regard religion as an invention designed to subject men to government. Calvin, in De scandalis (1550), charges some of his contemporaries by name with atheism (CR VIII. 44 ff., with footnote 5; OS II. 200 f.). J. Bohatec, in Budé und Calvin, pp. 149–240, examines this topic at length with specific references to Pierre Brunei, Agrippa von Nettesheim, Étienne Dolet, Simon Villanovanus, Bonaventure des Périers, François Rabelais, Antonius Goveanus, and Jacques Gruet.

    6 Roman emperor, A.D. 37–41; grandnephew and successor of Tiberius Caesar. Suetonius says of this depraved emperor that he despised the gods but was so terrified when it thundered that he would leap from his bed and hide under it. (Lives of the Caesars IV. li; LCL Suetonius I. 482.) Cf, Comm, Harmony of the Evangelists, Matt. 26:69–75 (tr. LCC XXIII. 322).

    7 Diagoras of Melos, called “the atheist” (a contemporary of Socrates), Theodore of Cyrene, and Protagoras the Sophist are taken by Cicero as examples of atheistic impiety. (All three were for this obliged to leave Athens.) (Nature of the Gods I. i. 2; I. xxiii. 63; LCL edition, pp. 4 f., 61 f.)

    8 Dionysius, tyrant of Syracuse, 405–367 B.C. His reputed acts of sacrilege and pillage are related by Cicero in Nature of the Gods III. xxxiv. 83 (LCL edition, pp. 368 f.). Cf. Calvin’s reference in Comm. Seneca On Clemency I. xii (CR V. 92).

    9 “Sardonius risus.” Calvin uses the expression probably with a recollection of Vergil’s proverbial allusion, “Sardonius amarior… herbis,” more bitter than Sardonian (Sardinian) herbs. (Eclogues vii. 41; LCL Vergil I. 51.)

    10 Calvin dissents from the opinion expressed by Cotta, the Academician in Cicero’s Nature of the Gods, who refers to man’s belief in God “which is only strengthened with ongoing time and more firmly rooted with the ages and the generations of men.” (Nature of the Gods II. ii. 5; LCL edition, pp. 126 f.)

    11 Cf. I. iv. 1.

    12 Plato, Theaetetus 176. To escape evil and attain true wisdom, men must “become like God… righteous, holy, and wise” (LCL Plato II. 128 f.). Cf. Phaedo 107 C (LCL Plato I. 368–371).

    13 Apparently a reference to Plutarch’s dialogue, Bruta animalia ratione uti, in which Gryllus, whom Circe has transformed into a beast, indicates examples of the superiority of animal behavior to that of perverted humans (ch. 7) (LCL Plutarch, Moralia XII. 516 ff.).

    14 Cf. II. ii. 12, 17, where “reason” is said to be that which distinguishes men from the brutes.
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