by Kate Hanch
While I was researching how Calvin interpreted scripture, I came across this passage in his Genesis commentary. It reminded me of the time my husband and I visited the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. With awe and wonder, we gazed up at Jupiter through a telescope, attempted to identify constellations in the night’s sky, and listened to the guides explain the composition of galaxies. We left feeling finite and grateful. We were but small specks of God’s vast creation.
I imagine this is perhaps what Calvin attempts to express in his commentary on Genesis. As my professor reminds me, Calvin lives in a time of transition: on the cusp of modernity, yet still influenced by the medieval church.
On Genesis 1:16
Moses makes two great luminaries; but astronomers prove, by conclusive reasons, that the star of Saturn…is greater than the moon….Moses wrote in a popular style things which, without instruction, all ordinary persons…are able to understand; but astronomers investigate with great labour whatever the sagacity of the human mind can comprehend. [Astronomy is not] to be condemned, because some frantic persons are wont boldly to reject whatever is unknown to them…astronomy is very useful to be known;…this art unfolds the admirable wisdom of God….because [Moses] was ordained a teacher as well of the unlearned…he could not otherwise fulfill his office than be descending to this grosser method of instruction….since the Spirit of God here opens a common school for all, it is not surprising that [the Lord] should chiefly choose those subjects which would be intelligible to all Moses…rather adapts [the] discourse to common usage. For since the Lord stretches forth…[the Lord’s] 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?…Moses only proposes things which lie 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… [should] acknowledge the beneficence of God” (86-87).
Here are some interesting insights from Calvin:
-“The Spirit of God…opens a common school for all.” This is an interesting implication for pneumatology, especially the Spirit’s role in helping us interpret Scripture. Can this function today, and if so, how?
-Astronomy is a gift from God. Science is good.
-The beauty and vastness of creation leads us to worship God.
-Language, metaphors, and images cannot express the fullness of God’s character. How might this guide our interpretation of Scripture?
Calvin, John. Commentaries On the First Book of Moses Called Genesis. Translated by John King. Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1948.
Wow. So many thoughts about Calvin, some good, some not so. Its odd to think about Calvin being inspired by scientific advancements of his day. Thanks for the insight here.
I wonder if there was something in particular going on that inspired Calvin. Since he died when Galileo was 3 months old, it must have been someone else inspiring him. Any clues who?
Didn’t quite finish typing in details before posting last post. Sorry about that.
Andrew, Calvin may have been familiar with Copernicus, who died in 1546. Other than that, I’m not quite sure. Since his first training was as a lawyer, he would have presumably been exposed to the wider intellectual developments of the era.
That makes a lot of sense.
I find the implications for science to be quite exciting. Rather than creating a stark divide between religion and science we can discuss the idea of the Spirit guiding humanity even in the sciences.
Brian, I was intrigued by the egalitarian impulse of the Spirit, and also the Spirit as teacher.
That as well! When the Church is open to a robust Pneumatology it seems like we are in our most “natural” state as the people of God. Not that doctrine doesn’t matter, but it is dead if there is no ear for the Spirit’s guidance in the present.
If there is one thinking lacking in modern faith, it is an appropriate appreciation for the role of the Spirit. Either people play lip-service to belief and faith in the Spirit without an actual understanding; or lacking a personal relationship with the Spirit; or people wrongfully credit the Spirit with showy ecstatic behaviour.
If Jesus would not act a certain way, the Spirit will not act a certain way since the Spirit is the same Spirit Jesus possessed and both are one and the same.
I agree Brian, the Kingdom of God is the natural sanctuary of the Lord if and when the Spirit of the Lord sanctifies it with His presence – which is another way of saying by living a robust Pneumatology we are put in the state we were created to be in.
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