I have come to the point where I think self-knowledge is one of the great overlooked virtues in the path to godliness and effective ministry.
Partly this springs from basic theological convictions. Calvin's dictum—
Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other. (Institutes 1.1.1)
—has continued to push me around ever since I first read it. Clearly it had the same effect on the 16th-century reformer himself, because I would argue that he ended up structuring his entire Institutes around this one vital insight. Calvin understood the knowledge of God to be the heart and engine room of what it means to live a truly human and blessed life. And so books 3 and 4 of the Institutes that expound at length on the nature of the Christian life (on faith, justification and repentance; and on the corporate dimension of human existence: on the nature of the church and the state) are all grounded in the first two books, which explore our knowledge of God as creator and redeemer. This four-book structure of the Institutes is a statement—a statement that human beings cannot be understood, either as individuals or as communities, outside the knowledge of God. We only understand ourselves well enough to know how to act in ways that do what is right, and we aim for genuinely good goals when we know God.
Calvin taught this way because he was convinced that there is a basic correlation between human beings and God. We cannot understand either ourselves or our creator apart from knowledge of the other partner in the relationship. Even God is known partly through our self-understanding. We do not storm heaven and know God in abstract; we know God in terms of his relationship with us—we know God fundamentally as creator and redeemer. Our knowledge of God is the knowledge that a creature and a redeemed sinner has—no more and no less.
And so Calvin recognizes that we often grow in our knowledge of God as we grow in our understanding of ourselves. In particular, he highlights our grasp of our wickedness and weakness—our knowledge of our need drives us to grasp more and more clearly how God is our help and solution on every side.
In this twofold conviction, Calvin is distilling the teaching of Scripture. It captures the implications of explicit statements, such as John 17:3 (“And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent”), where knowledge of God is identified with, not just life, but life without any end or limit—eternal life.
But it also grasps the basic the strategy that the Bible uses as a whole. Time and time and time again in both Old and New Testaments, the Bible expounds insights into the character and actions of God, or the nature and character of the hearers, as a basis for its instructions, rebukes, encouragements and exhortations. The way of life, and its characteristic lifestyle, flows out of an understanding of the God who stands over all, and an understanding of who we are. So James can appeal to both who we are and who God is in his diagnosis on the tongue (“With [the tongue] we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so”—Jas 3:9-10) to bring out the sheer wrongness of believers speaking against men and women. And even this rebuke is itself promoting yet another level of self-knowledge—self-knowledge of the persistent presence of the intractable tongue in our lives.
Or Paul can place a string of exhortations as to how we are to conduct ourselves, sandwiched within statements about how God has acted towards us:
Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. (Col 3:12-13)
Here we find that the kind of virtues and behaviours that are integral to having eternal life are linked both to our identity (we are people God has chosen) and to God's action (choosing us and forgiving us). Knowledge of God is linked to knowledge of ourselves, and both together form the basis for exhortation and moral instruction.
This twofold knowledge is constantly obscured among Christians in the present context. The obvious candidate is liberalism. With its conviction that all knowledge must begin from our reason and experience, liberalism (like secularism more broadly) is constantly pursuing a knowledge of ourselves completely abstracted from the knowledge of God. It then seeks to constantly update the church's knowledge of God in light of this new, modern, self-understanding. ‘God’ is constantly a projection of human self-understanding out into the cosmos. In the end, self-knowledge is the only knowledge.
The other danger is more common among people who really really want to avoid any hint of liberalism. Sometimes it occurs with people who have danced a bit with the diffuse Barthianism common in academic theology, and sometimes it occurs through parallel evolution within Reformed theology. Here there is almost no place for a knowledge of the self (or ethics, or apologetics) because such a knowledge is thought tantamount to natural theology. On this understanding, the only knowledge God seeks to give us is a knowledge of himself, or as it is sometimes stated, a knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ. On this view, there is no word of God that speaks of anything other than the Lord Jesus Christ. The Bible exists to proclaim the gospel and nothing else. To know God is the only knowledge that matters.
Neither conviction is biblical, and neither conviction is Reformed. And both approaches need to be firmly rejected because, by different paths, they rob us of the twofold knowledge we need to live lives that please God.
And so we have the knowledge of God and the knowledge of self, and the getting that both are linked to the other. This makes up a complex whole that is almost the whole of genuine wisdom, as Calvin rightly maintained, because these two kinds of knowledge give us what we need to act in ways that do good rather than harm—and that is the true measure of wisdom.
What this means is that while knowledge of self is the junior partner to the knowledge of God, it is nonetheless an essential component to godliness and ministry. And so, in the little series for which this is the first entry, Jennie and I are going to explore just one aspect of the knowledge of self that we consider a good way into the topic.