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Talking Different Languages: John Calvin on Genesis 1 and Science

"He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere." ~John Calvin on Genesis 1

The observation that it is hard to square a literal reading of Genesis 1 with science is by no means new.  But that observation has not always been the bur in the Church’s saddle that it seems to be today.  And, in fact, from the very beginning non-literal readings of Genesis 1 have been endorsed by many of the leading lights in the Church’s theological tradition.  Here we could cite Saint Augustine, Justin Martyr, and Origen, to name a few.  But on this score I thought it might be interesting to look at my favorite Reformer, John Calvin.

Genesis begins by describing the world as a dark watery chaos to which God brings light and shape and life. Genesis 1:6 describes the second day of this process as follows:

And God said, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.”

Now the trouble with reading this verse as a literal or scientific account of how the world was formed should be obvious to anyone who is paying attention.  Here I will hand it over to Calvin:

Moses describes the special use of this expanse, “to divide the waters from the waters,” from which words arises a great difficulty.  For it appears opposed to common sense, and quite incredible, that there should be waters above the heaven.  Hence some resort to allegory, and philosophize concerning angels; but quite beside the purpose.  For, to my mind, this is a certain principle, that nothing is here treated of but the visible form of the world.  (Commentaries on the First Book of Moses called Genesis, 1:6)

For Calvin it was clear that the language of Genesis 1 is not scientifically precise, but impressionistic.  Genesis 1, according to Calvin, is not a scientific textbook and doesn’t speak science’s language.  “He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere,” he goes on to say.

Calvin picks up this line of thinking again in his comments on Genesis 1:16, where he makes it clear that he believes Genesis 1 is written not in the technical language of modern science but in the folksy language of ancient poetry, the “common usage” of Moses’s audience:

I have said, that Moses does not here subtilely descant, as a philosopher, on the secrets of nature, as may be seen in these words…. 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…. Nor did Moses truly wish to withdraw us from [astronomy] 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….. Moses, therefore, rather adapts his discourse to common usage.  (Ibid, 1:16)

"Moses describes the special use of this expanse, 'to divide the waters from the waters,' from which words arises a great difficulty. For it appears opposed to common sense, and quite incredible, that there should be waters above the heaven." ~Calvin on Genesis 1:6

This strain in Calvin’s thinking as an interpreter of Scripture fits within Calvin’s broader idea that in Scripture God has not, per impossibile, given us exact transcripts of divine thought processes but rather has, of necessity, accommodated his Word to the “varied and changeable” intellectual, moral, and conceptual capacities of men (Institutes II.11.13).  Whenever God speaks in Scripture, He knows His audience and adapts his Word so as to effectively communicate with them.  Genesis was originally written for an ancient pre-scientific people and so it is not written in modern scientific terms.  It’s as simple as that.

And, of course, for Calvin this observation in no way diminishes the stature of Scripture as God’s inspired word for us.  Quite the opposite really.  It is precisely because God wishes to communicate with us, finite, enculturated creatures that we are, that He accommodates His word to our capacities (Institutes I.11.13).  Here we see the divine humility about which C.S. Lewis wrote on grand display, lovingly woven into the very fabric of Scripture.

A final word is in order before signing off.  All too often it is assumed that a “traditional” or “conservative” reading of Genesis will be a literal reading and that anything else is but “liberal” pandering to Darwinism.  This assumption is flatly false and is only kept alive by our evangelical amnesia as to what the Fathers, the Medieval Doctors, and the Reformers actually said.  The grand Christian Tradition, which I am as keen to conserve as anyone, is far, far richer and more subtle than we often realize.



6 thoughts on “Talking Different Languages: John Calvin on Genesis 1 and Science

  1. Well, I’m sorry it’s just me again, but this post deserves recognition. Also, that’s a great graphic of the cosmos!
    To my great disappointment, I’m going to have to miss tomorrow’s conference. There’s just no way a six-hour round-trip will fit into the rest of the day. Blessings on the program and participants..

    Posted by nanbush | April 12, 2012, 3:56 am
  2. I’m so glad you posted this! I’ve wanted to check on this myself, but my copy of Calvin’s Commentaries are in a box in Charlotte (and have been for years). Do you think there is a sense in which evangelical Christian’s in America are “post-Calvin” and, therefore, will remain unfazed by this? Many seem to pick and choose from the “giants” on whose shoulders we stand. Calvin has been one that many trust with an implicit faith (extremely ironic given Calvin’s own take on the subject, Inst. III.ii.2). I admit, if this was brought to my attention 8-10 years ago it would have demanded extra attention, and probably a lunch with my pastor.

    Posted by Bobby Rhodes | April 12, 2012, 1:18 pm
    • Glad you liked it, Bobby! Looking forward to seeing you tonight.

      As to your comment, I think I need to say two things: First, insofar as American evangelicals conceive of themselves as being “post-Calvin” in the sense of not caring what Calvin said about things, you and I are more “traditional” or “conservative” than they are. I always remind my Fundamentalist and non-denominational friends of this when they try to call me a “liberal” for not reading Genesis as a scientific cosmogony. And since when did being a Christian who believes in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the inspiration of Scripture, and the importance of the Tradition, has a realist ecclesiology, and is a Calvinist become “liberal”? Most folks who throw that word around have no idea what it means. It’s just a convenient stick with which to beat people with whom we disagree.

      Second, I don’t think American evangelicals can ever really be totally “post-Calvin.” The shape of American biblicism owes so much to Calvin that it’s hard to make it coherent without him. The fact is that American evangelicals owe their squeamishness about the idea of having a “canon within the Canon” (a la Luther) or having an authoritative interpretive Magisterium (a la Catholicism) to their Calvinist roots. I don’t think American evangelicals are so much “post-Calvin” as much as evangelicalism is an amnesiac movement. Like the guy from Memento, evangelicals can only remember some of the distant past (i.e., what the Bible says) and then whatever happened a just few minutes ago–but almost everything else is completely lost on us.

      Posted by dmwilliams83 | April 12, 2012, 3:07 pm
  3. Reblogged this on Bobby Rhodes’ Blog and commented:
    Check out this post by a friend from seminary. Does it matter what Calvin thinks about the popular style of the language in Genesis 1?

    Posted by Bobby Rhodes | April 12, 2012, 1:22 pm


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NCSU Graduate Christian Fellowship

Hi! I'm David, the campus minister for InterVarsity's graduate and faculty ministries at NC State and Meredith College. I hope you'll join me as I learn to "practice resurrection" in the City of Oaks, in her universities, and in the wider world. You can contact me at dmwilliams83@gmail.com

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