Calvin and the Astronomers

John CalvinNo, its not a 70’s rock band. I mean  the John Calvin (1509-1564).

The excerpt below is from Calvin’s Commentary on Genesis, (1554, Latin ed., 1578 English) ed.) This is what he has to say about  Chapter 1, verse 16. of Genesis.  Calvin, like others of his day, believed Moses wrote Genesis. They didn’t have any evidence to the contrary. As you read this, notice what Calvin has to say about astronomers and their discoveries and Scripture.

16. The greater lightI 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.

 Nicolaus Copernicus

 Calvin was living on the cusp of the Copernican Revolution. By around 1512, Copernicus is circulating a manuscript, Commentariolus which advances the theory that the earth moves around the sun.  Copernicus published De revolutionibus orbium coelestium in 1543 where he proposed what becomes known as the Copernican Theory.  Galileo and his “problems” occur after this time. And Darwin is of course, much later.

Calvin really isn’t worried about what astronomers might discover. My hunch is that Calvin couldn’t imagine that science could discover anything that God wasn’t already, in some way, aware of. And, as Calvin writes elsewhere, God comes to us in ways that we can understand.

It seems to me, Calvin has a good approach to the science and religion debate. I’d like to know, what do you think?

5 thoughts on “Calvin and the Astronomers

  1. Thanks for this piece from Calvin. Time and again, I realize how gifted Calvin was. Though he’s too often noted only for his work on predestination (not always his finest hour), the breadth and generosity of his spirit is immense. His regard for science is obvious, and he’s rightly aware of the Text and its realm, and the realm of science. Partners, like folks waltzing: each with their own part, yet together, the whole emerges beautifully.

  2. We understand that the cycle of seasons we experience is because of the tilt in the earths axis and that the earth revolves around the sun once a year. The season determines to a large extent to type of weather experienced on a day to day basis. Wind patterns are determined seasonally and instigated by the fact the earth is spinning on its axis. The rise and fall of the tides are caused by the rotation of the earth and its relationship to the gravitational effect of the moon. We know too, that the relationship between the earth and sun, speed of revolutions, speed of rotation, degree of axis tilt etc are intricately fine tuned so that life as we know it is possible.
    All this knowledge was introduced with a new understanding of the universe by Copernicus as mentioned in the article above. As also mentioned, Calvin did not take on board this concept. As suggested it was new and quite contriversal at that time.
    My question is did Calvin’s ignorant understanding of how the universe worked result in an erronous understanding of Gods involvelment in and control over the universe? If the earth was motionless at the center of the universe and the sun moved around it, how did the distinct seasons occur? What caused the movement and direction of the wind? What caused the tides? etc etc. In his state of ignorance and believing in God his only explanation would have been to give the cause and control of such basic natural events to God. Did this thinking lead to his system of belief that was acceptable in its day but contradicts how we now know God has made our incredible universe to work.
    In all my reading I have not come across this angle of discission before and welcome any response.

    1. Warren, Thanks for reading my blog and your response. I am not a historian of science or theology, but here is what I think, based on my personal study. Calvin, thought about the seasons, etc like everyother person in his day. The scientific observations necessary to think like we do, were just begining to be made. Until the telescope is invented and accessable to people, and some progress in mathmatics is made, there was not reason for people to change their thinking about things like weather. It took a surprisingly long tiime for people to figure out what the atmosphere is made of, for example. Calvin’s basic stance toward science appears to be, I think, a practical one. He wasn’t threatened by the findings of science. Calvin believed that science was not going to discover anything that would be a surprise to God or that would contradict a belief in God. For Calvin, the findings of science could only serve to help people be amazed at the wonder of creation and then be amazed and grateful for the Creator. I actually think that Calvin’s aproach to science is very helpful and intructive for us today.

  3. Pingback: Orion Telescopes

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