Calvin the Conformist

In the last post, we saw Calvin asserting a 6-day view of creation, in reaction to an Augustinian, instantaneous view of creation. Note however, that Calvin’s analysis included absolutely no consideration of evidence from natural revelation (nor did the view Calvin was criticizing). (This is not at all surprising, since in Calvin’s time, science had not yet progressed to the level that it could witness the Gen 1 prophetic revelation of God’s creation acts.) So let’s see what happens when Calvin does have some scientific evidence to reconcile with the Biblical text.

Apparently in Calvin’s time there were some who believed in the “plain” reading of Gen 1:16; i.e. God’s labeling of the “greater” and “lesser” lights meant that, in terms of physical size, the sun was the largest, next the moon, and all the planets and stars “lesser” yet. These literalists found themselves in conflict with astronomers, who claimed in particular that the “star of Saturn” (Beale notes that, biblically, the 5 visible planets are lumped with the sun and moon as the 7 great lights of the heavens) is larger than the moon.

What’s a Calvin to do, with a plain reading of the text on the one hand, and natural revelation (proof “by conclusive reasons”) on the other? Here then, is Calvin’s commentary on Gen 1:16, which is kind of long as a blockquote, but it’s all so good, and so clear, that I can’t bring myself to cherry-pick or bold any smaller version of it:

I have said, that Moses does not here subtilely descant, as a philosopher, on the secrets of nature, as may be seen in these words. First, he assigns a place in the expanse of heaven to the planets and stars; but astronomers make a distinction of spheres, and, at the same time, teach that the fixed stars have their proper place in the firmament. Moses makes two great luminaries; but astronomers prove, by conclusive reasons that the star of Saturn, which on account of its great distance, appears the least of all, is greater than the moon. Here lies the difference; Moses wrote in a popular style things which without instruction, all ordinary persons, endued with common sense, are able to understand; but astronomers investigate with great labor whatever the sagacity of the human mind can comprehend. Nevertheless, this study is not to be reprobated, nor this science to be condemned, because some frantic persons are wont boldly to reject whatever is unknown to them. For astronomy is not only pleasant, but also very useful to be known: it cannot be denied that this art unfolds the admirable wisdom of God. Wherefore, as ingenious men are to be honored who have expended useful labor on this subject, so they who have leisure and capacity ought not to neglect this kind of exercise. Nor did Moses truly wish to withdraw us from this pursuit in omitting such things as are peculiar to the art; but because he was ordained a teacher as well of the unlearned and rude as of the learned, he could not otherwise fulfill his office than by descending to this grosser method of instruction. Had he spoken of things generally unknown, the uneducated might have pleaded in excuse that such subjects were beyond their capacity. Lastly since the Spirit of God here opens a common school for all, it is not surprising that he should chiefly choose those subjects which would be intelligible to all. If the astronomer inquires respecting the actual dimensions of the stars, he will find the moon to be less than Saturn; but this is something abstruse, for to the sight it appears differently. Moses, therefore, rather adapts his discourse to common usage. For since the Lord stretches forth, as it were, his hand to us in causing us to enjoy the brightness of the sun and moon, how great would be our ingratitude were we to close our eyes against our own experience? There is therefore no reason why janglers should deride the unskilfulness of Moses in making the moon the second luminary; for he does not call us up into heaven, he only proposes things which lie open before our eyes. Let the astronomers possess their more exalted knowledge; but, in the meantime, they who perceive by the moon the splendor of night, are convicted by its use of perverse ingratitude unless they acknowledge the beneficence of God.

Just a few things to note in summary:

  • Calvin does not doubt that the astronomers are correct
  • Calvin understands that Moses is not writing a science textbook, but is a “teacher as well of the unlearned and rude as of the learned…descending to this grosser method of instruction.”
  • Calvin is completely unreserved in his praise for the vocational goodness of scientific endeavor.
  • Calvin’s view upholds the integrity both of special and natural revelation.
  • Calvin concludes his commentary by bringing us to the most important purpose of Gen 1: namely to inspire in us awe of God’s power, and gratitude for the goodness of his creation.

Stay tuned, as I wind up this small mini-series in a few days with a third post, to be entitled “Calvin the Toothless Fundy Hick”!

Advertisements

8 Responses

  1. Great point in this thread Rube.

    E

  2. Credit where due; I learned of this “conformist” position of Calvin’s from some guest on Hugh Ross’ Creation Update who had written a book about Calvin and science (although it’s also right there in the Gen 1 commentary)

  3. Calvin thought Saturn was a star? Bloody fool.

  4. OMG, Richard Dawkins?!?! I love your art — how long have you been rapping?

  5. No disagreement, just extending Calvin’s argument:

    Camper 1 (attacked by wild animal): “Get this beast off me!”
    Camper 2: “Idiot, that’s not a beast, it’s a dog!”
    Camper 3: “No, idiot, it’s a wolf!”
    Camper 4: “No, idiot, it’s a timber wolf!”
    Camper 5: “No, idiot, it’s a Canis lupus!”
    Camper 6: “No, idiot, it’s a Canis lupus cubanensis!”

    No doubt Camper 1, on his way to the hereafter, appreciates knowing that it was not a beast, but a Canis lupus cubanensis, that did him in.

    I’ve seen people criticize the Bible for blending birds and bats, fish and whales. Anyone who considers Scripture deficient for labeling a whale a fish needs to denounce Moby Dick as well, since Melville had his whaling men chase many a fish.

    More specific classification proves no lack of intelligence in those who use less specific. That whales share many biological features in common with other mammals adds nothing to Jonah’s story; the term “fish” for a water-dwelling creature is sufficient.

    Every generation can reorganize the previous generation’s knowledge. Deriding their parents as fools on that basis, however, fails to anticipate the next generation’s reorganization.

  6. RubeRad: Calvin does not doubt that the astronomers are correct

    As you pointed out in your previous post, the astronomers had not, by that point, calculated billions of years. A big qualifier there.

    RubeRad: Calvin understands that Moses is not writing a science textbook, but is a “teacher as well of the unlearned and rude as of the learned…descending to this grosser method of instruction.”

    So do YECers.

    However, the words “descending” and “grosser” are misleading. Different forms of writing target different audiences for different purposes. That some forms (internet l33t slang, for example) lack the worth of others does not suggest all forms may be ranked in a strict hierarchy of worth.

    So Calvin disappoints me a bit here: in respecting scientific discourse he bows too far, willingly denigrating Spirit-inspired Scripture as inferior in method. Hemingway showed us that skilled writing often leaves out the irrelevant; we might wonder what data concerning sizes and distances of moon and stars would have added to the purpose of Genesis 1.

    RubeRad: Calvin is completely unreserved in his praise for the vocational goodness of scientific endeavor.

    Hmm. I’ll quote my on-the-record praise for the vocational goodness of scientific endeavor — which, although not completely unreserved, should be (I believe) sufficient:

    forester: I support science. I’m grateful to Darwin for honest inquiry, as I am to evolutionists and other scientists for their continuing to collect evidence. I don’t expect them to begin with baseline assumptions from the Bible, nor to investigate non-materialistic issues; I do expect them to give honest consideration and grueling scrutiny to published studies based on creationist hypotheses. Since I suspect evolutionists of unquestioned assumptions and groupthink, I poke and prod their studies with questions — and as a Christian who welcomes challenges from all comers, I’m extremely suspicious of the evolutionary community’s entrenched attitude toward questions from outsiders. But scientists must continue investigating, hopefully with truly open inquiry without an a priori commitment to evolution that borders on the tautological. Then, if the evidence continues to lead us away from what we see in Genesis, that’s God’s problem, not ours.

    I wonder: if Calvin lived in today’s age of stem cells and human cloning, would he issue “completely unreserved” praise for the vocational goodness of scientific endeavor? What would he have thought of Nazi human experimentation? Perhaps “completely unreserved” praise isn’t warranted.

    RubeRad: Calvin’s view upholds the integrity both of special and natural revelation.

    So will mine once I’ve finished putting it all out there.

    RubeRad: Calvin concludes his commentary by bringing us to the most important purpose of Gen 1: namely to inspire in us awe of God’s power, and gratitude for the goodness of his creation.

    I’ll be getting back to you on that goodness.

  7. […] little quote that demonstrates pretty clearly that Calvin (in addition to being a creationist, a conformist, and a toothless hick fundy) was a short-earther. In Institutes 1.8.4, while discussing the […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: