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John Calvin’s Aristotelean Cosmology

October 17, 2009

Aristotelean CosmologyMany of John Calvin’s references to Aristotelean cosmology occur during his later years, representing his mature theology. Christopher Kaiser has shown that Calvin viewed the universe through the lens of Aristotelean natural philosophy. (Kaiser, “Calvin and Natural Philosophy,” in Calviniana, vol. X) He accepted such ideas as the concept of natural place (the earth is the center of the spheres due to its weight), the system of homocentric spheres (the ten spheres interconnected and moved by the primum mobile), and the subordination of terrestrial cycles to the revolutions of the heavenly spheres.

Kaiser notes that Calvin, as Aquinas and Bonaventure before him, sought to remedy the problem of the distant primum mobile with the providential guidance of the Christian God. Calvin did this by extending the sovereign guidance of the divine hand beyond the sphere of the Moon, where Aristotle placed a limit. Rather than solving the problem of how the earth remains stable while the enormous celestial spheres drag and press upon it by using a solution from Aristotle himself, Calvin substituted the providence of God who holds the earth upon the outer waters and keeps it stable as the celestial spheres move. According to Kaiser, “For Calvin, of course, there was a clear correlation between the concept of stability and order in the natural sphere and the sense of God’s protection in the personal and social spheres.” (ibid., p. 89) Therefore, the idea of God holding the earth in place brings much hope to believers that while the social sphere may be torn apart by tyrants God remains holding everything in place.

Kaiser asks where Calvin got his ideas and how he was influenced to read and write in such Aristotelean terms. The answer is that he was partly following the concepts of the times, since Aristotle’s cosmology had been accepted as an authentic representation of the universe for hundreds of years. However, Calvin was also influenced by those near him, sparking his interest in natural phenomena and causing him to delve more deeply into the texts of Aristotle. Kaiser lists all of Calvin’s influences in this matter. Particularly interesting is the fact that many of Calvin’s writings on Arisotelian natural philosophy came during and after the arrival of the Italians, Peter Martyr Vermigli and Jerome Zanchi, both scholastically trained Aristoteleans. Kaiser’s list follows:

Based on the evidence cited here, a plausible account of the origins of Calvin’s understanding of Aristotelian natural philosophy would be as follows. Calvin probably became interested in and informed about the subject during his college days in Paris; his approach to Aristotle’s natural philosoph appears to be that of a humanist like Jacques Lefere d’Eteples or Francois Vatable, who may have been his Hebrew instructor at the College royal in 1531-32. Calvin’s interest and understanding were heightened by his study of Seneca (early 1530s), his reading of Basil’s Hexaemeron (early 1540s), and by the publication of Luther’s Lectures on Genesis (1544). This led to his first treatment of the distribution of the terrestrial elements and the mechanics of the celestial spheres … Finally, in the mid-1550s, Calvin thought more deeply about the problem of the stability of the earth in the midst of a whirling cosmos. This further development may reflect the influence of Vermigli and Zanchius. (ibid., pp. 91, 92)

It is interesting to think that Calvin’s theology may have become more Aristotelean during the final years of his life due to the influence of his Italian acquaintances, who were known both for their humanism and scholasticism.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Peter Escalante permalink
    October 17, 2009 4:18 pm

    Fascinating. Thanks much for this.


  2. November 23, 2009 12:14 pm

    Very interesting. I’ve been reading Ethics by Aristotle and one of our pastors saw me reading it and asked if Aristotle saw men as good or bad. I said, “both”. He then commented about Calvin and Arminius. Maybe, implying that bad people can’t have ethics or be ethical and Arminians fool themselves into thinking they can do any good. I told him Aristotle said it was very difficult to be ethical. But by pushing passion aside and with good reasoning one could begin to act more ethically. I think he is confusing an ethical person with a person who trusts his self-righteousness for salvation. So did Aristotle view himself as one who needed to be forgiven and saved by God? Ken

    • November 23, 2009 2:16 pm

      There is no evidence that Aristotle saw himself as a “sinner” in need of forgiveness. In his opinion there was only one type of “righteousness”, the kind that man develops on his own. “Reason” for Aristotle is surely not the radically subjective and autonomous faculty that Kant makes it to be, but it is fully capable of discovering divine secrets without the need of any revelation from the gods. Likewise, the practical reason is able to make man good by taming the passions through the development of character habits (i.e., virtues). The traditional Christian response to Aristotle (via Thomas Aquinas) sees his “righteousness” through the lens of Augustine’s Civitate Dei. In that book Augustine distinguishes between the City of God – the church in the world and the blessed in heaven – and the City of Man – the world of sinners or the damned exemplified by the biblical city of Babel. Aristotle’s “righteousness” applies to the City of Man. Pagans and Christians alike can attain to a certain level of virtue (i.e., the Cardinal virtues) by bringing the passions into conformity with reason. Yet, this is a deceptive sort of “righteousness” in that it cannot lead to perfect happiness. In order to attain perfect happiness in the visio Dei man needs the supernatural virtues of faith, hope, and love. These are divine virtues that are above reason – reason can only attain objects which are connatural with it. Therefore, Aristotle’s Ethics needs to be perfected with St. Paul’s Ethics. Prudence, Justice, Temperance, and Fortitude only render man “righteous” by man’s standards. God, however, requires faith in Christ, love for God and neighbor, and hope in the eternal inheritance in the celestial city.

      Pax Domini,



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