The Greening of John Calvin

One’s 500thbirthday is an auspicious event (even though one is not around to personally celebrate). So it seems good to me to spend another week with John Calvin.

At the Read the Spirit website, they published an interesting comment in response to the attention that Calvin’s 500th birthday is receiving. You can read the full comment here, but the gist of it was a comment by a pastor that while his congregation is becoming more interested in environmental issues, there is not great clamor for preaching about John Calvin.

That comment prompted a couple of thoughts. First, I suspect Calvin would be aghast at the idea of himself as the focus of a sermon. Or even his ideas being the basis for a sermon. Sermons in Calvin’s view are a proclamation of  God’s Word. The Bible is the basis of preaching. But that doesn’t mean that in the preparation of a sermon or even in the sermon text itself that the ideas and insights of people such as Calvin aren’t useful and needed as aids to understanding.

And secondly, I pondered what Calvin might have to contribute to our theological reflection about the environment. It is important to remember that our concerns about the environment, are just that, our concerns. People in the 16th century thought about the environment differently than we do. Their concerns would be much different than ours. So we must not force John Calvin into 21st century ways of thinking but rather recognize his 16th century view and then see how it might inform us.

Historically Christianity has affirmed the idea that humans have access to two “books” that help us understand ourselves, our world, and God. There is the Book of Nature and the Book of God. Simply put, the Book of Nature is what we see and discover for ourselves in the natural world. The activities of scientists would reside here. The Book of God is revealed knowledge, the things we know because God has revealed them to humankind. The Bible resides here.

These two “books” were not considered to be in conflict or in competition. For Christians including John Calvin, what we discover in nature are pointers, hints, indications that God exists. Nevertheless what we can discover about God in nature will only take us so far. We need God’s revelation in scripture for a more full understanding of the saving acts of God.

Here is how Calvin put it:

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. Therefore, let men be satisfied if they obtain only a moderate taste of them, suited to their capacity.  (Calvin, Commentary on Genesis, Book I, The Argument, trans John King)

From the Institutes:

“Lest anyone, then, be excluded from access to happiness, he (God) not only sowed in men’s minds that seed of religion of which we have spoken but revealed himself and daily discloses himself in the whole workmanship of the universe. As a consequence, men cannot open their eyes without being compelled to see him. Indeed, his essence is incomprehensible; hence, his divineness far escapes all human perception. But upon his individual works he has engraved unmistakable marks of his glory, so clear and so prominent that even unlettered and stupid folk cannot plead the excuse of ignorance…..Yet, in the first place, wherever you cast your eyes, there is no spot in the universe wherein you cannot discern at least some sparks of his glory. You cannot in one glance survey this most vast and beautiful system of the universe, in its wide expanse, without being completely overwhelmed by the boundless force of its brightness. …this skillful ordering of the universe is for us a sort of mirror in which we can contemplate God, who is otherwise invisible.”  ( Calvin, Institutes, Book I, ch V, 1)

And finally ( although there are many more examples)

For he has raised everywhere, in all places and in all things, his ensigns and emblems, under blazons so clear and intelligible that no one can pretend ignorance in not knowing such a sovereign Lord, who has so amply exalted his magnificence; who has, in all parts of the world, in heaven and on earth, written and as it were engraved the glory of his power, goodness, wisdom, and eternity. Saint Paul has therefore said quite rightly that the Lord has never left himself without a witness; even among those to whom he has not sent any knowledge of his Word. It is evident that all creatures, from those in the firmament to those which are in the center of the earth, are able to act as witnesses and messengers of his glory to all men; to draw them to seek God, and after having found him, to meditate upon him and to render him the homage befitting his dignity as so good, so mighty, so wise a Lord who is eternal; yea, they are even capable of aiding every man wherever he is in this quest. For the little birds that sing, sing of God; the beasts clamor for him; the elements dread him, the mountains echo him, the fountains and flowing waters cast their glances at him, and the grass and flowers laugh before him. Truly there is no need for long searching, since everyone could find him in himself, because every one of us is sustained and preserved by his power which is in us. ( Calvin, Preface to Olivetan’s New Testament, in Haroutunian, Joseph, p 60)

While Calvin never makes an explicit case (that I can find) for creation care as we understand it, I do think Calvin’s words can help us as we think about our responsibility to the earth.For Calvin, nature tells us- indeed shouts to us that God is the creator. Creation is one of the ways God makes God’s self known to us. The wonder of the natural world is one way God brings people to faith. Surely we have a responsibility to preserve and protect that witness so that others can recognize the glory of God and come to know God. In addition, Calvin along with the Psalmist and many others in the Christian tradition tell us that nature itself praises God. Calvin believed that to praise God, to worship is most important. How could we not protect and encourage the praise and worship of God?

I’d like to know, what do you think?

You can read the full text of the Calvin quotations at

For your reading pleasure, one more article about Calvin from Cardus and Comment Magazine– that asks the question, “Would John Calvin have come to his own birthday party?”





2 thoughts on “The Greening of John Calvin

  1. Who would have thought that John Calvin would have so beautifully expressed the beauty of God’s creation and God’s desired response to His work? I was touched reading his words–and by your highlighting them.

  2. John Calvin never ceases to amaze me. I have not read his works, only quotes from biographies and the PCUSA webosphere, I must do some more reading. Wonderful, thank you for the new insight.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s