The concept in the film The Bourne Identity comes to mind when considering parts of the first three chapters of the Institutes. Like Jason Bourne, all humanity has a natural instinct or awareness of an identity that goes beyond what immediately meets the eye (in this material world), but it is suppressed in many ways, often seeping out in various forms of idolatry (1.3.1):
That there exists in the human minds and indeed by natural instinct, some sense of Deity, we hold to be beyond dispute, since God himself, to prevent any man from pretending ignorance, has endued all men with some idea of his Godhead, the memory of which he constantly renews and occasionally enlarges, that all to a man being aware that there is a God, and that he is their Maker, may be condemned by their own conscience when they neither worship him nor consecrate their lives to his service. Certainly, if there is any quarter where it may be supposed that God is unknown, the most likely for such an instance to exist is among the dullest tribes farthest removed from civilisation. But, as a heathen tells us, there is no nation so barbarous, no race so brutish, as not to be imbued with the conviction that there is a God. Even those who, in other respects, seem to differ least from the lower animals, constantly retain some sense of religion; so thoroughly has this common conviction possessed the mind, so firmly is it stamped on the breasts of all men. Since, then, there never has been, from the very first, any quarter of the globe, any city, any household even, without religion, this amounts to a tacit confession, that a sense of Deity is inscribed on every heart. Nay, even idolatry is ample evidence of this fact. For we know how reluctant man is to lower himself, in order to set other creatures above him. Therefore, when he chooses to worship wood and stone rather than be thought to have no God, it is evident how very strong this impression of a Deity must be; since it is more difficult to obliterate it from the mind of man, than to break down the feelings of his nature – these certainly being broken down, when, in opposition to his natural haughtiness, he spontaneously humbles himself before the meanest object as an act of reverence to God.
Whenever God isn’t acknowledged, man acts as a usurper of his glory, because, as Calvin points out in 1.2.1, all human skill, intellect, and power (indeed, life itself) are gifts from God:
My meaning is: we must be persuaded not only that as he once formed the world, so he sustains it by his boundless power, governs it by his wisdom, preserves it by his goodness, in particular, rules the human race with justice and judgement, bears with them in mercy, shields them by his protection; but also that not a particle of light, or wisdom, or justice, or power, or rectitude, or genuine truth, will anywhere be found, which does not flow from him, and of which he is not the cause; in this way we must learn to expect and ask all things from him, and thankfully ascribe to him whatever we receive.
And so, working backwards, we can appreciate the wisdom in the opening of the Institutes where Calvin declares the absolute necessity of two kinds of knowledge: knowledge of self and knowledge of God. Any individual or society which lacks a knowledge of God will remain oblivious to its true identity, and perpetual usurpers of God’s glory, claiming for self what belongs to God alone. In the end, the very definition of what it means to be human is lost.
Links to Reformation 21 blogs through the Institutes for the upcoming week’s reading assignments: