Calvin on Infinity and Condescension

In discussion the name of the Lord as “a definite sign and seal of the presence of God,” Calvin says:

In order to understand better what this means, let us note in the first place that the majesty and glory of God are incomprehensible. Not only do we not see God with our eyes, since he is of a spiritual essence, but when we apply all our sense to know him, we will certainly be dazzled a hundred times over, before we can even approach him. For we are too crude and weak. We can only crawl upon the earth, while the ‘heavens of heavens cannot contain him’ (1 Kings 8:27), as the other passage says. So when we want to approach God, it is certain that we will not be able to and that he is totally inaccessible to us. Therefore, he must come down to us when we cannot reach up to him. And how does he come down? It is not that he changes his place as far as his essence is concerned, but he must make himself known in a familiar manner. So when he conforms himself to our smallness, he does it only insofar as he abases himself. Not that there is change in him, but his coming down refers to our capacity.

Therefore, consider how God, who from all times has had pity on the crude capacities of men, has for that very reason come down to them, since they could not reach up to him. How has he come down? He has done so in the fashion of men, as if to say: ‘Here am I, and when you come through these means, it is the same as if I were manifest to you and you were seeing me with the naked eye’- that is what the ark meant. It was a means by which God made himself known to the people so they would be without excuse and could not say: ‘We do not know which way to begin when we ought to pray to God and honour him. We do not know how he will be our Protector, and how we will feel his help.’ On the contrary, the ark was a standing witness that God wanted to dwell in the midst of the people.

Sermons on 2 Samuel (Banner of Truth), pg. 233

A few comments should be made.

First, this relationship is not due to sin. Rather, this is the divide between Creator and the creature. God’s essence is of another sort than our own. It is infinitely removed from us. However, it can also be immediately near without any need of change, for transcendence is not simply space, which is but a creature itself, but rather a different way of being entirely. Don’t get hung up on Calvin’s negative-sounding terms concerning the human condition. We are “less” than God, and the fact that God wills to dwell with us after our manner is a sign that we are not ontologically repulsive to Him.

Second, God gives visible earthly signs to promise that His presence is with us. When we see the signs, we can know that He is here.

Third, because of these signs, we cannot plead ignorance. We know that God is here.

This entry was posted in calvin, doctrine of God by Steven Wedgeworth. Bookmark the permalink.

About Steven Wedgeworth

Steven Wedgeworth is the pastor of Christ Church in Lakeland, FL. He is also a founder and general editor of The Calvinist International. A graduate of Reformed Theological Seminary (Jackson, MS), a full-time minister, and occasional classical school teacher, Steven lives in Lakeland, FL with his wife, son, and daughter.

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