Book 1 - Chapter 14 (Parts 1-4)
EVEN IN THE CREATION OF THE UNIVERSE AND OF ALL THINGS, SCRIPTURE BY UNMISTAKABLE MARKS DISTINGUISHES THE TRUE GOD FROM FALSE GODS
In this chapter Calvin continues his arguments for understanding God as a particular kind of God. He does so by addressing four topics: creation, angels, the devil/demonic and the spiritual lessons of creation. This article addresses creation, which occupies the opening and closing of the chapter.
Summary: Calvin’s purpose in discussing creation is to offer what he believes is a more accurate picture of God than is offered by the “heathens” and “philosophers” of the day. He writes that “..we must depict the true God more distinctly that they do. Since the notion of God as the mind of the universe (in the philosophers eyes a most acceptable description) is ephemeral, it is important for us to know God more intimately lest we always waver in doubt. Thus it is his will that the history of creation be made manifest, in order that the faith of the church, resting upon? this, might seek no other God but him who was put forth by Moses as the Maker and the Founder of the Universe.” (pg. 160)
Calvin needs to deal with this issue because there was not only a growing knowledge of other cultures and their creation stories (he mentions the Egyptians) but also the works of philosophers such as Aristotle, all of which raised questions about the accuracy of the Biblical creation story and by extension the traditional understanding of God and the purpose of creation. Calvin’s defense of God as Maker and Founder of the Universe, is based on a literal reading of the six days of creation, as well as the timeline and ages of both individuals and generations in scripture. This leads him to the conclusion that creation “has not yet attained six-thousand years.” (pg.160) Toward the end of the chapter he carries this concept further by declaring that God endowed “…each kind (creature) with its own nature, assigned functions, appointed places and stations..” and that “..he provided for the preservation of each species until the last day.” (pg. 180) Thus the world is and always will be exactly as God made it in those six days of creation. These realities, for Calvin, help us see more clearly who God is.
This literal reading of the creation stories also allows Calvin to show the purpose of creation; that all of creation exists for the benefit of humanity. “Now when he (God) disposed the movements of the sun and stars to human uses, filled the earth, waters and air with living things, and brought forth an abundance of fruits to suffice as foods, in thus assuming the responsibility of a foreseeing and diligent father of the family he shows his wonderful goodness toward us.” (pg. 162) “It is to recognize that God has destined all things for our good and salvation, but at the same time to feel his power and grace in ourselves and in the great benefits he has conferred upon us, and so bestir ourselves to trust, invoke praise and love him.” (pg. 181) In a sense even if the earth were not the center of the universe, humanity was the center of creation.
Reflection: The struggle with faith/evolution and how we are to read the Bible are at the heart of much of the cultural conflict raging in our nation today. The question for us therefore is whether using the best scientific information of our age and a non-literal reading of the scriptures can we too “bestir ourselves to trust, invoke praise and love God”? I believe the answer is yes. Writers and theologians such as Karl Giberson (Saving Darwin), Denis Alexander (Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose) and Kenneth Miller (Finding Darwin’s God) among others, show us ways of living with both evolution and a deep and abiding faith in God. They make the case that committed Christians can believe in evolution. There are also Biblical scholars such as the late Marcus Borg who show us that we do not have to read scripture literally in order to have a prayerful relationship with the living God. Our challenge then is to find that point in our lives in which science and faith can live together.
In this chapter Calvin continues his arguments for understanding God as a particular kind of God. He does so by addressing four topics: creation itself, angels, the devil/demonic and the spiritual lessons of creation. This article will address Calvin’s views on angels.
Summary: In and around the time in which Calvin wrote, there was great speculation as to the nature and role of angels. In light of this what he wants to do is to put the discussion of angels in its proper place; that of the scriptures. Calvin writes, “Not to take too long, let us remember here, as in all religious doctrines, that we ought to hold to one rule of modesty and sobriety; not to speak, or guess, or even to seek to know, concerning obscure matters anything except what has been imparted to us by God’s Word. Furthermore, in the reading of scripture we ought ceaselessly to endeavor and seek out and meditate upon those things which make for edification” (pg. 164). In other words, Calvin is encouraging his readers to stick with what is known about angels in scripture rather than getting caught up in popular speculation.
So what do the scriptures teach about angels? Calvin offers this definition, “…that angels are celestial spirits whose ministry and service God uses to carry out all things he has decreed” (pg.165). He continues, “…that angels are dispensers and administrators of God’s beneficence toward us. For this reason scripture recalls that they keep vigil for our safety, take up themselves our defense, direct our ways, and take care that some harm may not befall us” (pg. 166). Calvin then offers a wide variety of textual proofs from the Psalms, prophets, Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. In terms of Jesus we are reminded that angels ministered to Christ after his temptation and announced Jesus’ resurrection.
The next topic which is addressed is that of guardian angels. Calvin is not really sure what to do with this. “But whether individual angels have been assigned to individual believers for their protection, I dare not affirm with confidence “(pg. 167). He then follows with some scriptural observations from Daniel about angels with specific nations to watch over, but concludes, “…I do not know whether one ought to infer that each individual has the protection of his own angel” (pg. 167). He also rejects the idea that each person has two angels, one good and one bad that are attached to each person.
Calvin concludes his discussion of angels by making several observations. The first is that we ought not to try to decide which angels are great than others. Though some angels such as Michael, appear to have a greater position than other angels, Calvin encourages his readers to let some mystery about angels remain. Second, angels are real, and not simply “impulses that God inspires in men or those examples of his power which he puts forth” (pg. 169). Third, we are reminded that the angels are not God; that the divine glory does not rest in them. They are creatures just like the rest of us. Finally we are to spend our time focusing on God and not on angels, for only God is worthy of our attention.
Reflection: What is fascinating to me about Calvin’s discussion is that it could be a discussion contained within any number of books on the shelves of modern day religious bookstores. For some reason we human beings have a fascination with angels. Wikipedia lists around 35 films (with actors ranging from Nelson Eddie to Nicholas Cage) that concern angels and Google returns almost 87 million references to them. In some ways, we might suppose that angels matter because they demonstrate a concrete caring of our creator. Whatever your take on angels however, I would argue that Calvin has it right when he encourages us to focus on God and God alone, as what matters.
In this chapter Calvin continues his arguments for understanding God as a particular kind of God. He does so by addressing three topics: creation itself, angels and the devil/demonic. This article will address Calvin’s views on the devil/demonic.
Summary: The devil and the demonic were considered to be concrete realities in the day and time in which Calvin lived and worked. Nonetheless Calvin is still forced to defend the existence of the devil/demonic and does so by offering a thorough discussion of their reality and what it means for believers.
Calvin begins with a reminder that scripture does not speak about the devil in order that we become fascinated by him, but that we be forearmed against his temptations. “All that scripture teaches us concerning devils aims at arousing us to take precaution against their strategies and contrivances, and also to make us equip ourselves with those weapons which are strong and powerful enough to vanquish these most powerful foes.” (pg. 172) We need these precautions because devils are, “…an enemy who is the very embodiment of rash boldness, of military prowess, of crafty wiles, of untiring zeal and haste, or every conceivable weapon and of skill in the science of warfare.” (pg. 173) In a sense Calvin understood life to be a continuing battle in which the forces opposed to God relentlessly attempt to deceive and overwhelm God’s people.
This enemy, Calvin notes, is not a single devil but many. “…scripture makes known that there are not one, not two, nor a few foes, but great armies, which wage war against us…we are therefore taught by these examples that we have to wage war against an infinite number of enemies…” (pg. 173, 174) As regards the “devil” we read “But the frequent mention of Satan or the devil in the singular denotes the empire of wickedness opposed to the Kingdom if Righteousness.” (pg. 174) Nonetheless, this kingdom of evil has at its head a prince who holds away over them just as Christ holds sway over the church.
Before Calvin concludes this section he needs to deal with three very important matters. The first is to acknowledge that even though Satan was created by God, Satan’s evil is not God’s fault. “Yet, since the devil was created by God, let us remember that this malice, which we attribute to his nature (Satan’s), came not from his creation but from his perversion.” (pg. 175) Second, Calvin wants to make clear that Satan is not God’s equal, but stands under God’s power. “Therefore Satan is under God’s power…and that when we say that Satan resists God…we at the same time assert that this resistance and this opposition are dependent upon God’s sufferance.” (pg. 176) In fact Satan “…carries out only those things which have been divinely permitted to him and so he obeys his Creator, whether he will or not, because he is compelled to yield to him service whenever God impels.” (pg. 176) Third, we can be assured that God will win out over the powers of evil. “And Christ, by dying, conquered Satan, who had the “power of death” and triumphed over all his forces, to the end that they might not harm the church.” (pg. 177)
Reflection: For many of us the entire discussion of the devil/demonic is one that we have relegated to television and the movies. However, I believe that if we “transport” ourselves to the time of Calvin we will appreciate the sense of the demonic. In a prescientific world, filled with brutal warfare, violence, the regular reoccurrence of the Black Death along with high infant and childhood mortality and you begin to get a picture of a world in which the demonic does not seem far away. In addition the church had focused on the demonic as a means of explaining evil in the world.
In this chapter Calvin continues his arguments for understanding God as a particular kind of God. He does so by addressing four topics: creation itself, angels, the devil/demonic and the spiritual lessons of creation. This article will sum up what Calvin believes we can learn from creation.
Summary: Calvin wraps up” this chapter with a summation of the spiritual lessons we ought to learn from creation. “Meanwhile let us not be ashamed to take pious delight in the works of God open and manifest in this most beautiful theatre.” (pg. 179) He goes on the remind his readers that while creation is not the prime reason to believe, it is a truism that all we see is God’s and ought to cause us consider the reasons why God made it. In addition Calvin sees God’s hands at work not only in the original six-day creation as recorded in Genesis, but God’s continuing care for it. “We shall likewise learn that he nourishes some (parts of creation) in secret ways, and as it were, from time to time instills new vigor into others…” (pg. 180)
The first lesson we are to learn from creation is that God is a God of order. Calvin refers to God as the one who “stationed, arranged, and fitted together the starry host of heaven in such wonderful order that nothing more beautiful in appearance can be imagined; who so set and fixed some in their stations that they cannot move” (pg. 181) The second lesson is that God is a God of power. “It is so too when we observe his power in sustaining so great a mass, in governing the swiftly revolving heavenly system, and the like For these few examples make sufficiently clear what is to recognize Go’s powers in the creation of the universe.” (pg. 181)
The purpose of all of this contemplation of God’s creation (while noting that God is a God of order and power) is to bring us to thankfulness and trust. “It is to recognize that God has destined all things for our good and salvation, but at the same time to feel his power and grace in ourselves and in the great benefits he has conferred upon us, and so bestir ourselves to trust, invoke praise, and love him.” (pg. 181) Calvin continues, “God himself has shown by the order of creation that he created all things for man’s sake.” (pg. 181-182) We know this is so because God, in creating all that there is, created humanity on the last of the six days: using each of the previous five days to “prepare everything that he foresaw would be useful” for humanity. (pg. 182) Because God did all of this for us, Calvin believes that there should be “no doubt whether this most gracious Father has us in his care, who we see was concerned for us even before we were born! How impious would it be to tremble for fear that his kindness might at any time fail us in our need…” (pg. 182)
Calvin ends this section by reminding us that we are God’s children “whom he has received into his faithful protection to nourish and educate…we are to trust that he will never leave us destitute of what we need for salvation…” (pg. 182)
Reflection: Calvin has often been portrayed as a hard-nosed, unloving, legalistic sort of person. What we witness in this part of this work is something very different. We see someone whose heart is filled with an appreciation for the beauty of nature. He almost waxes poetic about the love that God has for us as God’s children. Calvin is thus someone who has rejected the medieval image of a God who hangs us over the edge of hell and replaced it with a loving God who has insured that we have all that we need for life and salvation. I wonder how many of us have, when looking on the beauty of this world, have thought the same thing about God; that here is a God who loves and cares for us because this God has given us such an amazing place in which to live?