Calvin, Lewis, and Knowing Yourself

John Calvin and C.S. Lewis seem to be worlds apart. If they had a theological debate, there’s no doubt they would have many points of disagreement. Calvin was, of course, a Reformer, and he espoused his system known as “Calvinism.” Lewis was an eclectic of sorts, a self-professed lay minister, and he was decidedly “Arminian.” Calvin was a sixteenth century pastor in Switzerland. Lewis was a twentieth century literature professor in Great Britain.

Yet at the same time, there is some overlap between these two men. One of the great things about Christianity is that the essentials of the faith make for strange (and willing) bedfellows.

The essential I have in mind is that unless we know God, we cannot know who we are. In the first chapter of Book I of his Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin writes:

Our feeling of ignorance, vanity, want, weakness, in short, depravity and corruption, reminds us, that in the Lord, and none but He, dwell the true light of wisdom, solid virtue, exuberant goodness. We are accordingly urged by our own evil things to consider the good things of God; and, indeed, we cannot aspire to Him in earnest until we have begun to be displeased with ourselves. For what man is not disposed to rest in himself? Who, in fact, does not thus rest, so long as he is unknown to himself; that is, so long as he is contented with his own endowments, and unconscious or unmindful of his misery? Every person, therefore, on coming to the knowledge of himself, is not only urged to seek God, but is also led as by the hand to find him. On the other hand, it is evident that man never attains to a true self-knowledge until he have previously contemplated the face of God, and come down after such contemplation to look into himself. For (such is our innate pride) we always seem to ourselves just, and upright, and wise, and holy, until we are convinced, by clear evidence, of our injustice, vileness, folly, and impurity. Convinced, however, we are not, if we look to ourselves only, and not to the Lord also—He being the only standard by the application of which this conviction can be produced.

Over 390 years later, near the end of Mere ChristianityLewis echoes Calvin with his own unique touch:

The more we get what we now call “ourselves” out of the way and let Him take us over, the more truly ourselves we become. There is so much of Him that millions and millions of “little Christs,” all different, will still be too few to express Him fully. He made them all. He invented—as an author invents characters in a novel—all the different men that you and I were intended to be. In that sense our real selves are all waiting for us in Him. It is no good trying to “be myself” without Him. The more I resist Him and try to live on my own, the more I become dominated by my own heredity and upbringing and surroundings and natural desires. I am not, in my natural state, nearly so much of a person as I like to believe: most of what I call “me” can be very easily explained. It is when I turn to Christ, when I give myself up to His Personality, that I first begin to have a real personality of my own.

For Calvin, true knowledge of God produced a true knowledge of himself. For Lewis, turning to Christ unleashed his true personality. Different words. Different contexts. Same glorious principle: when we know God through Jesus Christ, we begin to see ourselves for who we really are and who we were intended to be.

Apart from God, we are stuck in a delusion, esteeming ourselves more highly than we ought and selling ourselves short of what we could become. In this delusion, we are left to be our own god—a role we were never meant to play and one which weighs far more than we can bear.