Calvin for the Third millennium
There is a section of John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion which has always stuck in my mind as central to his view of the relation between religion and the sciences. It deals with reason and faith (Book II, Chapter ii, sections 16-18). To Calvin reason is the most excellent blessing of the divine spirit and ‘one of the essential properties of our nature.’ God will punish those lazy believers, he says, who do not make use of the works of the ungodly in physics, symbiotics, mathematics and other similar sciences.
To Calvin there is nothing inherently wrong with reason as such. His peer is the Renaissance. And yet the reasoning about God by philosophers ‘invariably savors somewhat of giddy imagination.’ Some of them are ‘blinder than moles’, he states, and if there is any light in what they say, it is as rare and useless as a single flash of lighting in a dark night. He hints that momentary insight is lost in the enveloping darkness of the night and falls short of an enduring comprehension of the entire landscape of existence.
Yet reason and science are so precious to Calvin that in his interpretation of Genesis 1:16 he sides with the astronomers’ view of creation and dismisses the Genesis account because Moses ‘being an ordained teacher as well of the unlearned and rude as of the learned, could not otherwise fulfill his office than by descending to this gross method of instruction (Calvin 37 sermon).’ Calvin, following his hero St Augustine, regards God as representing order. It is rather central in his thinking. He interprets God ‘placing it in the heavens … a habitation subject to no changes (exegesis of Psalm 119:89 in Calvin 40 sermon).’
However Calvin does not want that separation to be so severe as to jeopardize its relevance; God’s celestial order impinges on man’s disorder, he thinks. To him the prophets in general and Jesus in particular bridge the gap. For instance in his exegesis of Acts 2:17 (sermon four) he calls them accurate observers of their times who spoke figuratively ‘before their time’ and applied their ‘style unto the capacity of their time.’
Science and reason are not comprehensive enough to Calvin’s way of thinking. To achieve the state of enlightenment and comprehension of the entire landscape of existence one has to venture beyond the fleeting and vain power of the intellect and seek the foundation of truth. And to Calvin the only source of truth is God’s grace without which God-given reason is vain.
These sermons delivered at St Andrew’s attempt to be true to the basic meaning of the scripture passages of the lectionary for each particular Sunday and to their interpretation in Calvin’s forty-odd volumes of commentary in my library.
Yet they are also strongly informed by what, I am sure, Calvin, if he were alive today, would call the social sciences of the twentieth century: ungodly. The sermons represent my fundamental understanding of biblical functionality. Yet they also prevent ‘slothful’ neglect of up-to-date scholarship in the anthropological psychological and sociological disciplines.
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