John Calvin and Science—A View Some Have Never Seen

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“The world was founded for this purpose, that it should be the sphere of the divine glory.” – John Calvin (Sermon 96 on Job)

As I Begin

When I mention to people that I stand in the “Reformed” or “Calvinist” tradition, I’ll often hear this, “John Calvin? Didn’t he believe in predestination?” As if that’s all Calvin taught.

This is why, before I go further, I need to point out that when I talk with true Calvin scholars, most don’t fixate on predestination. Of course, they (and I) know that doctrine of Calvin’s, but they realize there’s so much more in the Reformer’s ideas. So, I’ll leave those themes for another time. Instead, I want to give you a glimpse into how Calvin sees the wider world. Let us enjoy a Calvin some have never seen.

The Big View

In a past newsletter, I mentioned Beldon Lane’s book Ravished by Beauty, and this line strikes me, “This rigorous scrutiny of the natural world in Calvin and the Reformed tradition has led some historians to speak of a Calvinist influence on the development of Western science. Alister McGrath, for example, suggests that Calvin’s contributions to the rise of modern science include his positive encouragement of the scientific study of nature and his elimination of biblical literalism as a major obstacle to scientific investigation.” (By the way, McGrath’s book is A Life of John Calvin).

Lane continues to note (as I did last week) that Calvin directed Christian scholars to make use of these thinkers and “the gold of Egypt” (alluding to Origen’s phrasing), that is, to learn from the insights of pagan thinkers who can help us “in physics, dialectic, and mathematics” (Institutes II.ii.16).

Delight in Astronomy

These comments so far are broad. But Calvin also dialogued about what today we would call specific scientific disciplines. One is astronomy. Again, I’ll lean on Lane’s exposition. “He could speak enthusiastically of the stars as teachers of desire, for example. Delighting in the night sky above Lake Geneva, he saw God’s glory in these flashes of light, ‘as if the stars themselves sang his praises with an audible voice.’ ‘Astronomy may justly be called the alphabet of theology,” he added, knowing that the stars ‘contribute much towards exciting in the hearts of men a high reverence for God.’”

On the topic of astronomy and pondering the glory of the heavens—especially the week after the total solar eclipse that was visible across much of North America—we could add the scientific research into awe and wonder, often evoked by the night or day sky, and how that elevates human souls.

  • Beldon Lane’s insights into Calvin are in Ravished by Beauty: The Surprising Legacy of Reformed Spirituality.
  • Science for the Church has curated some excellent resources on wonder.
  • Jennifer Wiseman, a leading NASA astronomer, talks about her scientific work and her faith with Mark Labberton on his podcast.
  • Astrophysicist and BioLogos President Deb Haarsma has written this beautiful reflection, “Astronomy and the Glory of God.”

Biodiversity and Creation Care

What we describe as biodiversity was, for Calvin, an irreplaceable expression of God’s glory. Calvin spoke of “innumerable variety of things” in the natural world. Lane adds, “He pointed, for example, to the intrinsic value of species diversity, recognizing every colorful creature as offering its own way of glimpsing God’s glory.”

Calvin, in fact, envisioned God’s hand “as actively involved in the propagation of plant and animal life,” offering this warning: “If we burn the book which our Lord has shown us, wittingly undermining the order he has established in nature by playing the butcher in killing the defenseless bird with our own hands—if we thereby prevent the bird from discharging its fatherly or motherly duty, then what will become of us?”(Sermon on Deuteronomy 22:5-8) Let’s not miss that, in noting particularly the loss when we destroy bird life, he turned the question back to us. How are we taking care of the diversity of God’s creation?

Here is where ecology meets doxology. Lane writes, “The continuity of the earth rests on the capacity of the created world to participate in the delight that God takes in all God has made. If God’s creation of the universe is not consciously and deliberately celebrated, it remains radically at risk.”

Calvin saw an intrinsic connection between ecological viability (to use more contemporary terminology) and the church’s exercise of praise: “If on earth such praise of God does not come to pass… then the whole order of nature will be thrown into confusion, and creation will be annihilated” (Commentaries, Psalm 115:7).

Changes in Worship

As we have mentioned, Science for the Church received a grant from Calvin University to see how science can and should affect congregational worship life. (And appropriately, we’re now reflecting on the university’s namesake himself).

Worship is intimately connected with God’s creation. Indeed, Calvin described creation as “the theatre of God.” And Lane offers this, “If the world, then, is indeed absorbed in a theatrical performance of stunning proportions, the liturgical implications of this are astounding. This is especially the case for churches today, where worship too often remains a vacuous and non-sacramental denial of the rest of creation.”

One implication is that we need to take in nature in our worship services and even in our liturgical spaces. I remember once when a consultant advised us on how to make our sanctuary at Bidwell Presbyterian Church more friendly to contemporary worship (and projection of song lyrics, etc.). “Shroud those translucent windows.” We thought about it and concluded, “No, we want the light of the season to shine in.” Light is indeed a key natural feature of our sunny Northern California location.

I think Calvin would be on our side, and I’ll leave him with the final word. He commented on Romans 1:19 by concluding all human beings are “formed to be spectators of the created world and given eyes that they might be led to its author by contemplating so beautiful a representation.”

Lord, open our eyes that we might see.


A black and white headshot of Greg's face with the words Greg Cootsona, Contributing Editor


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