John Calvin and Science—So Many Surprises

One of my favorite insights into why we need to integrate faith and science comes from John Calvin: “If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God” (Institutes 2.2.15).

Calvin, the 16th century Protestant Reformer, not only asserted that we can discover truth in a variety of places, but that if we don’t accept the truth we find, we actually disgrace our God. At the time, he was thinking of secular philosophies. Still, since one of those philosophers, Lucretius, pondered “the nature of things,” or “natural philosophy” (the name for science until the 1830s), it’s really not a stretch to say that Calvin believed we needed to engage true scientific insights no matter the source.

There are several books that analyze Calvin’s views on nature, but the best to my mind is Beldon Lane’s Ravished by Beauty: The Surprising Legacy of Reformed Spirituality. In it, Lane emphasizes that, for Calvin, the beauty of creation becomes a witness to God. (Full disclosure: Much of what follows leans on Lane’s analysis). And since this side of Calvin is not well-known, I will simply let the Genevan Reformer speak for himself.

Creation and the Piety of Pleasure of Creation

At the heart of science is a deep appreciation, and even love, for the natural world. Calvin believed that the beauty of creation (or nature), and the pleasures therein, were means to contemplate God’s goodness. “The Lord clothed the flowers with the great beauty that greets our eyes, the sweetness of smell that is wafted upon our nostrils, and yet will it be unlawful for our eyes to be affected by that beauty, or our sense of smell by the sweetness of that odor? … Did he not, in short, render many things attractive to us, apart from their necessary use?” (Institutes III.9.2)

Though he could certainly warn against twisted and undisciplined desire, Calvin found that appreciating positive pleasures was deeply spiritual. (Lane notes, for example, that his salary was supplemented by 350-700 liters of wine a year). Put another way, the beauty of creation—and relishing it—was an act of spirituality, or to use Calvin’s preferred term, “piety.”

Indeed, Calvin wrote, “For in this world God blesses us in such a way as to give us a mere foretaste of his kindness, and by that taste to entice us to desire heavenly blessings with which we may be satisfied. As soon as we acknowledge God to be the supreme architect, who has erected the beauteous fabric of the universe, our minds must necessarily be ravished with wonder at his infinite goodness, wisdom, and power.” Let me add that, in talking with scientists over the past several decades—like biologist Jeff Hardin—it’s this love of nature that most often launched them into the calling of being a scientist.

The Universe as Sacrament

The great Reformed philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff, in his 1981 Kuyper Lectures, went so far as to say that Calvin “saw the universe sacramentally.” He commented: “For him, reality was drenched with sacrality… Calvin’s reforms meant a radical turn toward the world…. the world to which one turns is a sacrament of God.”

For Calvin, creation is not something incidental, but indeed central, to connecting us with our God and Creator. “We see, indeed, the world with our eyes, we tread the earth with our feet, we touch innumerable kinds of God’s works with our hands, we inhale a sweet and pleasant fragrance from herbs and flowers, we enjoy boundless benefits; but in those very things of which we attain some knowledge, there dwells such an immensity of divine power, goodness, and wisdom, as absorbs all our senses” (Commentary on Genesis, book I).

Calvin—who often caviled against idolatry—even penned these stunning lines: “I admit, indeed that the expressions ‘Nature is God,’ may be piously used, if dictated by a pious mind….” And then he seemed to catch himself, “but as it is inaccurate and harsh (Nature being more properly the order which has been established by God), in matters which are so very important, and in regard to which special reverence is due, it does harm to confound the Deity with the inferior operations of his hands.” (Institutes I.v.5.) Here he almost stepped into pantheism (as was also true of the great American Reformed theologian and philosopher, Jonathan Edwards). Seeing the potential error, Calvin created a solid and imposing fence around this field of thought, leaving ample room for a spirituality of creation.

A Closing Note during Eastertide

We, of course, are in the season following Easter, and so I close with this: In commenting on Romans 8:19-23, Calvin wrote, “There is no element and no part of the world which, touched with the knowledge of its present misery, is not intent on the hope of the resurrection.”

It seems that, following Calvin, a resurrection ethic is one that leads us to care for this beautiful creation because it indeed is a pointer to the grace and goodness of God… because it leads us to praise our Creator.

May it be so. Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!