Augustine,  Descartes,  Epistemology,  Greg Bahnsen,  Herman Dooyerveerd,  John Calvin

Knowing Me Knowing You

I exist. Am I sure that I exist? Well, as sure as I can be. I think I exist. Isn’t that enough to assure me that I exist. If I am thinking, I must exist. And so goes the familiar logic of Rene Descartes. Descartes proceeds in his pursuit of knowledge from the following starting point: “When we apprehend that we are thinking things, this is the first notion which is not drawn from any syllogism; and when one says, I think, hence I am, or I exist, he does not conclude his existence from his thought as by a force of some syllogism, he must beforehand have known this major, All that which thinks is or exists.”1 Descartes begins to know anything by knowing that he is thinking, he is self-aware. For Descartes, this assumption is the starting point to all other pieces of knowledge.

But what if, in thinking, and thereby assuming ones own existence, one also implicitly assumes something else? What if one cannot be self-conscious without, at the same time, being God-conscious? That is the argument of many theologians, most notably Augustine and Calvin. It also appears in contemporary reformed thought. Greg Bahnsen, for example, writes, “Self-knowledge presupposes God-knowledge.”2

Ontologically, according to the Bible, human beings are created beings; they have no origination in and of themselves. The Bible describes the origin of human life as a created being, one whose life is dependent upon an act of God in creation: “Then God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” (Gen 2:7). Human beings are as dependent for all things thereafter as they were for their initial breath. No human breathes without the provision of God (Acts 17:25) or eats without his sending the rain (Acts 14:7). The Bible claims that human beings are dependent creatures in all areas of life. Even the idols humans have built are built with God’s materials by burning the nutrition God gave them while breathing the air God provided in the lungs which pump according to the plan of God (Acts 17:22-31).

We are just as reliant upon God for our ability to know anything as we are for our breath. Paul tells the Athenians that God gives “to all people life and breath and all things” (Acts 17:25). “All things” must surely include the ability to know. It follows that self-awareness is an ability given to human beings by God.

One might think that knowledge of God requires belief in God, but the Bible also implies that all human beings know God. Paul writes, “that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them” (Rom 1:19). We might say that even the very internal construction of humankind is a evidence of the Creator in the sense that the internal construction of humankind is a revelation of God.

John Calvin writes that our knowledge of self and our knowledge of God is what makes up wisdom: “Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge8 of God and of ourselves.”9 His reason for this appears to be that humans observe their own dependence on God: “No man can survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts towards the God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay, that our very being is nothing else subsistence in God alone.”10 Calvin suggests that all humans know God in their mind as a “sense of Deity.”

There exists in the human mind, 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 renewed 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.11

Furthermore, Calvin has in mind a particular divinity. Being aware of God is God specific. In other words it is a knowledge of the God of the Bible; this knowledge is not drawn by inferring the existence of a god from the “facts” as they present themselves. Accordingly, as soon as a person is aware of themselves they are aware of the Christian God of the Bible.

Our knowledge of God, in this sense, is immediate. It is knowledge uninferred. Likewise our self-awareness is immediate. We neither infer this knowledge from observation nor logic. Rather, we assume our being knowers in order to reason and to observe. This should not be too controversial since we know many other things directly and without performing any formal arguments or proposing any hypotheses. When I feel pain, knowing that I am in pain is not inferred from any other premise.12 In the same way, knowledge of God is neither inferred from evidence nor concluded from logic. Evidence, as Paul uses it, need not mean evidence in order to decide on a given hypothesis. Rather, the evidence of God in nature and human beings’ own internal construction is already “plain to them because God has shown it to them” (Rom 1:19). The knowledge of God might be mediated by temporal reality, sense perception and the like, but it is direct in the sense that there is no inference made from any such perception. This is true of self-awareness in the same way. The awareness of self is the means by which God makes himself known. The knower of God is aware of God from the very beginning of awareness itself.

If this is all true, then a striking conclusion presents itself. Knowledge, then, of anything, contains within it knowledge of God since one is always aware of anything from the point of view of the self. Being aware of anything, including the self, means that the human being is inescapably “face to face”13 with God in all things in all of life. Knowing God and knowing self are not the conclusions to reasoning, but the precondition for all reasoning by all people. This is because the precondition for all human knowledge of anything is God’s existence and his revelation of himself to human beings.

However, the argument, for the Christian, is based on a belief in scripture’s authority. Scripture describes and interprets human experience and provides a particular understanding of human thought. However, not everyone accepts the Christian narrative. Paul tells us that unbeleif is not a complete lack of knowledge, but a suppression of knowledge. Paul says, “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Rom 1:21).

The kind of reasoning one might use with an unbeleiver is one that attempts to help the unbeleiver acknowledge his knowledge of God. Augustine develops his argument for the Trinity in such a way. He suggests that in our self-awareness we know a unity of consciousness and, at the same time, a plurality. “The mind” Augustine writes, “cannot be adventitious to itself… Assuredly, from the moment of its beginning to be, the mind has never ceased to know itself, to understand itself, and to love itself… Therefore, in its act of turning upon itself in thought, a trinity is presented… Here, then, is where we may recognize the image for which we are seeking.”15 Augustine discovers in the doctrine of the Trinity the blueprint for understanding his own mind. He can know himself rightly. The challenge, then, to an unbeliever is how to account for such a unity and diversity in human self-consciousness. As far as I am aware no unbeleiving philosoper has ever provided a satisfactory answer to that problem.

It is the same with morality. If I ask my unbelieving friend if he thinks there is a moral law and he replies yes, I could say that the only way to account for such a law is the existence of a moral law giver. I could then talk about God’s goodness, justice and mercy. However, what I also need to account for is the knowledge my friend already has that there is a moral law, his moral consciousness. I need to explain not only a metaphysical precondition for his thinking, but an epistemological precondition. Therefore, I will also contend that he does indeed already know God. And by knowing God, my friend knows God’s goodness. As Paul says “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived” (Rom 1:20).

What then explains the fact that my friend will reply that he does not know God as he is at all? Bahnsen argues that the reason for the apparent paradox is that human beings, in their unregenerate state and even in their regenerate, but still prone to sin, state are self-deceptive. They hold to one belief (knowing God) and another (not knowing God) at the same time. The first belief (I know God) leads to a discomfort leading to obtaining another belief (I do not know God) in order to evade the other.16 Bahnsen’s summary of self-deception is “(1) S believes that p, (2) S is motivated to ignore, hide, deny (etc) his belief that p, and (3) By misconstruing or rationalizing the evidence, S brings himself to believe falsely that ‘S does not believe that p.’”17

This argument is entirely convincing to me as I can say from experience that I have engaged in self-deception of this kind on many occasions. Whilst to argue that self-deception is an empirically demonstrable phenomenon might be difficult, it stands well as an explanation for the apparent paradox. Of course it is no good merely telling someone that they are self-deceived since, if they are self-deceived, they are not going to admit such a condition readily. Rather, one must show that they really do believe in something even while they deny it.

Finally, if knowledge of self presupposes knowledge of God, knowledge of self is never an isolated awareness. It is an awareness in relation to God.

Dooyeveerd argues that human philosophy has been unsuccessful in its seeking of the answer to the question, what is man, for precisely that reason. He famously said that the mysterious “I” is “nothing in itself.” In other words, the human being has no autonomy and can only be what it is by virtue of the work of God. Philosophy fails in as far as it attempts to premise its love for wisdom on an autonomous human knower.18 For Dooyeveerd, the self is known only in relation to God.19 To say this is to usurp the order of thinking subject who then knows God. It is to say, instead, that the knowledge of God is the very condition for self-knowledge: “Man’s self-knowledge can become actual only in the light of God’s revelation… The relation of man’s nature to God is not something which is added to an already complete, self-enclosed, isolated nature; it is essential and constitutive for man’s nature, and man cannot be understood apart from this relation.”20 That is to say that self-awareness presupposes God-awareness since in order to know anything at all, including that we are thinking, it must be revealed to us.

Self-awareness, therefore, contains an orientation to the revelation of God. Implicit to our self-awareness is our relationship with God. The orientation of the person is not made after awareness, but simultaneously since the self is not self-generated; the self is only conscious of itself by virtue of reception of knowledge (being related to God who reveals). Paul tells us that the reason people do not appear to be aware of God is that they “deny the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom 1:18). As the psalmist writes, it is the fool who has “said in his heart ‘there is no God’” (Ps 14:1).

The reason for the professed lack of awareness of God in unbelievers is not lack of awareness of God, but that they willfully orient themselves in opposition to that knowledge. They believe against their belief, know against their knowledge. This is the sinful nature of human beings and this is the true nature of our supposed neutrality. The Bible says that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction” (Prov 1:7). Unbelief, therefore, is not lack of knowledge, but a hatred of the knowledge of God. This is what justifies the wrath of God resting upon unbelievers who “by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Rom 1:18). It will not be possible to say to Christ on the day of judgment that we were not aware of the existence of God and so are not responsible for our belief in him. Furthermore, it will not be possible to say that we were aware of him yet worshiped him in an alternative form in another religion. For it is God in his “invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature” (Rom 1:20) that has been known.

1Quoted from Descartes’ response to Gassendi’s objection that cogito ergo sum is a syllogism in publisher’s preface to Rene Descartes, The Meditations and Selections from the Principles of Rene Descartes (La Salle: Open Court Publishing Company, 1950), v.
2Greg Bahnsen, “The Mind Body Problem in Biblical Perspective,” 1972,
3James Anderson, “If Knowledge Then God,” Calvin Theological Journal 40 (2005): 61-68.
4James Anderson, “No Dilemma for the Proponent of the Transcendental Argument,” Philosophia Christi 13 
5“If Knowledge Then God,” 62.
6James Gould, ed., Classic Philosophical Questions (Columbus: Merrill Publishing Company, 1989), 350-360.
7“If Knowledge Then God,” 63.
8Latin: cognito
9John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. Henry Beveridge, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 37.
11Ibid., 43.
12cf. Greg Bahnsen, Van Tils Apologetic (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1998), 183.
13Van Til writes, “If he self-conscious he is also God-conscious. No matter how men may try they cannot hide from themselves the fact of their own createdness. Whether men engage in inductive study with respect to the facts of nature about them or engage in analysis to their own self-consciousness they are always face to face with God their maker.” in Cornelius Van Til, The Defense of the Faith (Pillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 2008), 253.
14We know God “as he is” in the sense that we know that his attributes are real, necessary to the being of God (at least some), unique to God and most basic as qualities of God. This is not to say that we know God as he knows himself or that we know him comprehensively. Cf. John Frame, The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, 1987), 30-33.
15The Trinity, XIV, 13, x.
16Greg Bahnsen, “The Crucial Concept of Self-Deception in Presuppostional Apologetics,” Westminster Theological Journal 57 (1995).
18Love of wisdom in a Christian sense is love of God since God is wisdom.
19In the Twilight of Western Thought, 181-183.
20G. C. Berkouwer, Man: The Image of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1962), 22-23.

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.


  • Dan widdion

    Hey ben that was quite a read. This subject is of deep personal interest to me because having suffered from panic attacks from time to time, the main symptom for me is a sudden and overwhelming sense of unrelity. When that happens I am thinking "am I still really here / is this really real?" Then, after the attack has past I am both happy its past, but also very concerned as to how God allows his people to experience such things like unreality. When those times happen I sometimes say something or pinch myself to make sure I'm still actually there! In terms of the main point you making, it seems a bit frustrating that to make one aware of their true connection to god, the process is a bit complicated. I heard that as we are made in Gods image, we therefore long for god, because we are made in his image. Yesterday I door knocking with some local evangelists and found 3 people who answered the door, said they didn't go to church, didn't know god personally but would like to. At that point I needed to both relate to that persons life as best as I could, to tell the truth (which most are running from or have denied) and at the same time to trust god to prompt me and ultimately trust in him to convict their spirit and leave it with God.
    Best regards – Daniel Widdison cornwall uk

  • Ben Holloway

    To be or not to be. There can be no question without be. At one time he was all that be. He be was all that be. Then he made we. We be because he made we be. Long ago we attempted to be he. This is how we be now. We avoid he and make non-be he instead of he (who be he whatever we might say). Even then we have no be unless he be. Even when we deny he we assume he be. When we be thinking, we be thinking only because we be and we be only because he be. I be because he be because he is be. He be be. He be and is not non-be, therefore no be can be and not be at the same time. Yet I be not he. I only be because he be and made me be. Even when we make we he, he be he just as he has always been he. Even when we made be our own be beginning with we, originating with we, he be and we be because he be and made we to be. Then we said there is no be, there is no we. He still be and so did we. So he became one of we and even though we deserved the full wrath of he, he took what should have come to we. One day we will meet he and know he as he be. Then we shall remember he who beed and be and always will be