Jupiter Is God: Calvin on Aratus’s Notitia Dei
In ipso enim vivimus, movemur, & sumus: sicut & quidam vestratum poetarum dixerunt, Nam huius progenies etiam sumus. (John Calvin’s translation of Acts 17:28)
For in him we live, move, and have our being; as certain of your poets have said, “For we also are his progeny.”
I have mentioned St. Paul’s Areopagus Address and Calvin’s commentary upon it before. In the previous post on this passage I noted Calvin’s opinion on Paul’s use of demonstration. In essence, he said that Paul did not seek to demonstrate God’s existence to the Athenians since all men, even pagans, already have a natural knowledge of God imprinted in their souls. Rather, Paul’s method was to show the Athenians (a) “what” God is (i.e., he is not physical) and (b) how God must be worshipped (i.e., not as if he requires anything from man). Later in his commentary Calvin reveals a bit more of his thoughts on natural theology. He comments on the passage quoted above in which Paul quotes from the pagan poet Aratus (from Phaenomena 1-5):
Now, that I may return unto this sentence which I have in hand, it is not to be doubted but that Aratus spake of Jupiter; neither doth Paul, in applying that unto the true God, which he [Aratus] spake unskilfully of his Jupiter, wrest it unto a contrary sense [in alium sensum detorquet – i.e., Paul does not “twist” the meaning of “Jupiter”]. For because men have naturally some perseverance [sense] of God [Aliquo Dei sensu imbuti sunt], they draw true principles from that fountain. And though so soon as they begin to think upon God, they vanish away in wicked inventions, and so the pure seed doth degenerate into corruptions; yet the first general knowledge of God [generalis Dei notitia] doth nevertheless remain still in them. After this sort, no man of a sound mind can doubt to apply that unto the true God which we read in Virgil touching the feigned and false joy, that “All things are full of joy.” Yea, when Virgil meant to express the power of God, through error he put in a wrong name. (Commentary upon the Acts of the Apostles, XVII.28.)
That last sentence is so butchered by the translator that I am obligated by prudence to quote it correctly. The Latin reads, In hunc modum quod de Iove fictitio habetur apud Virgilium, Iovis omnia plena, ad verum Deum transferre nemo sanae mentis dubitet. This sentence should read, “In this way that which is said of the fictitious Jupiter by Virgil, ‘All things are full of Jupiter,’ no one doubts to apply to the true God.”
Therefore, it is the name “Jupiter” which is fictitious and incorrect, but the substance of that knowledge is the true God. Many are amazed by these passages from Calvin, the rigid Reformer who saw men as “totally depraved” and natural knowledge as utterly worthless. True as those statements are in some sense – Calvin does say these types of things in certain passages – they prove inadequate when we “read the footnotes” – i.e., when they are viewed in the light of his whole corpus. This knowledge of God does render the unbeliever without excuse coram Deo but it is knowledge nonetheless.