Calvin on the “Light of Reason”

In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin argues that God makes himself evident in both nature and man himself. God reveals himself so clearly that man is without excuse for not knowing him. However, man suppresses the truth about God and thus needs special revelation to truly understand God.

In speaking this way, Calvin explains knowledge in one realm – the heavenly realm. But there are two realms. Here he explains the difference between the heavenly realm and the earthly realm:

It may therefore be proper, in order to make it more manifest how far our ability extends in regard to these two classes of objects, to draw a distinction between them. The distinction is, that we have one kind of intelligence of earthly things, and another of heavenly things. By earthly things, I mean those which relate not to God and his kingdom, to true righteousness and future blessedness, but have some connection with the present life, and are in a manner confined within its boundaries. By heavenly things, I mean the pure knowledge of God, the method of true righteousness, and the mysteries of the heavenly kingdom. To the former belong matters of policy and economy, all mechanical arts and liberal studies. To the latter (as to which, see the eighteenth and following sections) belong the knowledge of God and of his will, and the means of framing the life in accordance with them. (2.2.13)

Regarding men thinking on “earthly things,” Calvin sees a kind of universal reason regarding civil order:

…Hence it is that every individual understands how human societies must he regulated by laws, and also is able to comprehend the principles of those laws. Hence the universal agreement in regard to such subjects, both among nations and individuals, the seeds of them being implanted in the breasts of all without a teacher or lawgiver. (2.2.13)

…some principle of civil order is impressed on all. And this is ample proof, that, in regard to the constitution of the present life, no man is devoid of the light of reason. (2.2.13)

By the light of reason men perceive more than just civil order. It can be the source of admirable work in the liberal arts:

…Therefore, in reading profane authors, the admirable light of truth displayed in them should remind us, that the human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its Creator. (2.2.15)

…Shall we say that the philosophers, in their exquisite researches and skilful description of nature, were blind? Shall we deny the possession of intellect to those who drew up rules for discourse, and taught us to speak in accordance with reason? Shall we say that those who, by the cultivation of the medical art, expended their industry in our behalf were only raving? What shall we say of the mathematical sciences? Shall we deem them to be the dreams of madmen? Nay, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without the highest admiration; an admiration which their excellence will not allow us to withhold. (2.2.15)

It may seem painfully obvious that the work of non-Christians in “earthly things” can be not only legitimate but, moreover, praiseworthy. If that’s what you’re thinking, good for you. But, believe it or not, there are some who doubt the existence of the light of reason and disparage whatever is not explicitly grounded in religion. Well, they will do what they do and say what they say, but they can’t say Calvin is in their corner.


Filed under Epistemology, Two Kingdom

13 responses to “Calvin on the “Light of Reason”

  1. Richard

    Something tells me this won’t stop the good folks at “American Vision” or Vision Forum” from claiming Calvin is in their corner anyway. The “cynic” in me tells me this.

    • Something tells me they don’t visit PB. Probably the realist in me. But they should!

      But for others,this quote is a response to the argument that the concept of natural reason is a novelty among the Reformed.

  2. Richard

    One of the better historical books out there is Dr. Stephen Grabill’s work, found here:
    It’s always fun pointing out to theonomist types that natural law arguments went out of fashion in large part because of Karl Barth. In fact, some of the arguments I’ve read against natural law by theonomists sound EXACTLY like Barth’s objections.

  3. TurturroFan


    Richard mentions theonomy, and as I was reading your post I of thought of Bahnsen. Not so much Bahnsen, actually, but people I know who read and appreciate Bahnsen on apologetics. Sometimes I get the vibe from these brothers that, unless you are a Christian (preferably of the Reformed persuasion, but not necessarily), no matter how intelligent and accomplished you are, you are basically an idiot. (This brings to mind the Wallace Shawn character in the Princess Bride – “Let me put it this way. Have you ever heard of Plato, Aristotle, Socrates? Morons!”). I don’t think it’s intentional, but a certain smugness seems to creep in whereby we can safely disregard our intellectual betters since, being apart from redemption in Christ, they basically don’t know anything at all. To be reminded of Calvin’s opinion on the matter of knowledge revealed to unbelievers is refreshing.

    • TurturroFan? As in, a fan of the actor in the Coen brothers’ movies? That’s outstanding.

      As for your point, I’ve observed the same thing. There’s always a question as to how much “blame” should be attributed to a leader (Bahnsen) vs. where the followers end up. Plus, I hate to sound ad hominen-y but it’s hard to escape noticing that theonomist personality-types have a different bell curve than other types, with a larger percentage of folks that are righter and certainly feistier than thou.

      Recognition of the light of reason does help us to accept a fairly obvious reality, but it’s also humbling.

      • TurturroFan

        Yes, that Turturro. Isn’t being a CB fan is a prerequisite to being accepted on Old Life-type blogs?

        No, I don’t think you can blame Bahnsen, and I think your explanation of those attracted to theonomy (or who deny being theonomists but gag on the words “natural law”) makes sense.

  4. dewisant1

    Then, should we give Pelagius & Arminius a pass? Only get ad hominen-y on those Pelagians & Arminians within our immediate reach? I’m thinkin there’s a reason followers of Bahnsen act & think the way they do (just like you) but I in no way am willing to give Bahnsen a pass on his ideas (or on his reasoning) merely because it attracts a certain personality type (which is a natural law way of thinking about – now that I think about it). For Bahnsen, Arminius, Pelagius, et al to be agreed with, they themselves (I would argue) must needs be the same type.
    Or did I miss the point and my mind got cluttered & the thoughts just rolled off down the gutter…

    • Dewi, it wasn’t a pass as much as it was an observation of correlation and to note that followers can go where their leader never would. I reject Bahnsen’s theonomy and don’t agree with his apologetic method. But he was a minister in good standing in the OPC, so I’m not going to set him up alongside Pelagius and Arminias. Do you think we should?

      • dewisant1

        Nah, I guess your right. Sorry, I can see where you got that. But it wasn’t so much an attempt to set him alongside heretics as it was an attempt to compare followers to followers. They usually “end up” where they are led. Error in, error out.
        On the other hand, and to your other point, both Arminius & Pelagius were, at the time of their controversies, in good standing. And in each case it was Calvinists that fought the good fight (or, in the case of Augustine, can we call him a proto-calvinist?). So maybe being in good standing ain’t what it’s cracked up to be. And my mind is wandering off again – thinking here of the PCA and all of its foibles lately…

      • Dewi, one issue is how we deal with men who are “off” in one degree or another. We look at the error, whatever it is, and we give it weight depending on the degree to which it is against or undermines the confessional standards. I do believe we need to consider the churchly aspect, i.e., whether the particular person is in good standing. That doesn’t mean we can’t criticize a position, but it might tone down the language used to criticize, while remembering that men closer to the situation might understand it better than you or I. Then, if the error is sufficiently weighty, the church should deal with it.

        I know, I know – it’s difficult when there appears to be substantial heterodoxy that persists without appropriate discipline. That might color our opinion of a denomination and/or our involvement with it, but if we consequently jettison the idea of “good standing” I think we lose more than we gain.

  5. dewisant1

    I agree. You’re a wise man, Bluesman…
    But now I have to get my grandson off to cub scouts.

    • …and I’m doing an overnight stint with Cub Scouts on Friday. Yes, I was totally sober when I agreed to do it, so I have no good excuse for my bad judgment. I wonder how many boys will ask me how to spell I-Cup.

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