John Calvin (Source: nothisown.com)
John Calvin (Source: nothisown.com)

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.

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