John Calvin’s Aristotelean Cosmology

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.

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Reformed Robotics

Mechanical ManSome people within the Reformed world feel that the only way to validate faith is to denigrate reason. If philosophers can attain to a knowledge of divine things, then why do they need faith? There is a bit of intellectualism in that concept. Faith is an intellectual virtue, but faith does not occur apart from the desire of the will moving the mind toward God, and faith should not be separated from the virtues of hope and charity. In other words, the validity of faith, at least in one sense, is inherent within its own definition. Faith requires a repentant heart and an open mind. I think the Reformed argument would go this way if fully spelled out: “Our faith is a purely intellectual assent to theological propositions, the principal one being ‘God exists.’ Therefore if the Christian admits that the philosopher may have a knowledge of God, then our own ‘divine science’ will be merged into pagan ‘divine science.'” 

Of course, I could respond to this Christian argument that a proper definition of natural knowledge and sacred knowledge would solve this problem, since this distinction leaves some knowledge of God to the philosopher by self-evident principles, but knowledge that God reveals about himself  in the first principles of faith is supernatural and only for the Christian to know. As true as the distinction between pagan theology and Christian theology is, that is not my point. I have noticed that those who denigrate reason by denying a knowledge of God to unbelievers or denying that unbelievers may be virtuous tend to treat faith as if it were mere understanding. Once the distinction between natural science and divine science, natural knowledge and supernatural knowledge, philosophy and theology, is done away with by denying the validity of the former, then the latter science must compensate for lack of natural tools by which to unify or explain itself. Theology makes up for the loss of philosophy by either making up its own rules and language, by subjecting the principles of theology to reason as a subordinate knowledge, or both. Granted, those who submit the principles of theology to reason as a subordinate knowledge do not always realize what they are doing. Yet, when nature is done violence, whether “nature” refers to the science of philosophy or the faculty of reason itself, faith is also done violence. 

God converts our souls, he does not recreate them ex nihilo. Grace does not destroy nature but perfects it. Therefore, the function of reason in the natural man is not destroyed when the divine illumination of faith is given. Rather, that natural knowledge is perfected by the conversion of the whole person. The first principles of faith would be useless for the healing of man’s depraved nature if they were not accompanied by a change of the individual’s heart. Those principles would also be useless if they were not somewhat built upon the principles of natural knowledge. For example, the religious knowledge that informs me of Christ’s incarnation assumes that I know what the word “incarnation” means or that I know what it means to be born. And, in terms of the science of theology, the study of the nature of God assumes that one knows the meaning of essence, being, nature, attribute, and so on. 

The “natural man” is that rare bird who is well schooled enough that he has actually taken time to think about the ultimate goal for the human race or a First Cause of the universe and come to the conclusion that there must be a God. If and when this person is converted to the Christian faith, he would not be asked to recant his former knowledge of an ultimate goal of humanity or a First Cause of the universe. Rather, he would be asked to “repent and believe.” This means he would have to turn from seeking after his own desires and the idea that his natural knowledge is sufficient for his own perfection.

Thus, those Reformed folks who denigrate natural knowledge implicitly adhere to a radical separation between nature and grace, faith and reason. This is often couched in terms of worldview. Nevertheless, this solid wall that many have erected between natural knowledge and religious knowledge often leaves the latter lacking in emotion – since desire itself is natural. Theology devoid of the insight of the natural mind becomes a list of propositions tightly organized into columns of rules that one must either adhere to or relinquish the faith. Confessions are also “reanimated” into a modern and robotic system of belief that is simple and practical for the new convert to the Reformed world. It does not come with all of the hang-ups of organs and tissue that one finds in the writings of Luther and Calvin. It does not move on its own or go places that we cannot predict. No, our confessions have no real value apart from the authority of the institutional church. It goes where we want it to go and jumps when we push its buttons. We are the Reformed faith, and it is what we say it is.

Within the Reformed world (in the South at least) there seems to be two main types of student: the first type is loyal to the denomination and presbytery and will never consider objecting to the confession at any point, and the second type reacts to what they perceive to be a strict intellectualism  by seeking to make everything practical – these are the ones who are evangelizing in the community every weekend. Sometimes the groups overlap, but not usually. What I have seen is a genuine lack of theological aesthetic that comes from a wise soul who takes the time, or perhaps can’t avoid gazing in wonder at things natural and divine and marvels at the deep mysteries waiting to be discovered in both realms. Instead, you find faculties warring between the Biblical Studies department and the Systematic Theology department. The former is usually a reaction against the Reformed Robotics mentality of the latter, yet to the opposite extreme. 

This type of Reformed theology that I call Reformed Robotics is not confined to a single camp but comes from the generally Puritan mentality of “Church vs. world.” The distinction between philosophy and theology is not even a tertiary issue for most of us, but what really matters is the battle against “the liberals.” Lectures in the biblical studies department are centered upon textual issues contra Liberali, with almost no time devoted to the discussion of theological issues that practically leap out of the text. In fact, certain professors are masters at skipping every “difficult” text – theologically “difficult” not textually “difficult.” But, when your team only plays defense, the whole game is played by the movements and progressions of the other team. 

When the beauty of natural knowledge and its contribution to theology are disdained out of fear, either that the faith will lose its value or that the liberals will take over the church, theology becomes a Robot devoid of desire-provoking beauty and mystery, and is then used as a defensive tool for the Reformed Magesterium. Unfortunately, when this happens most of the truly intellectual types within the church find residence elsewhere (Anglicanism, Methodism, Catholicism, etc.) and those intellects that remain tend to be mere intellects, preaching a theology that lacks real substance. A Quodlibetal of difficult issues would be counterproductive to the agenda. 

Fortunately, this is not true of every Reformed person, though the exceptional sorts may be difficult to find; and it was not true for earlier generations, as I have attempted to demonstrate with this blog. The issue of the proper role of faith and reason is difficult and requires meditation for sure, but we should thrive on the difficult issues because extraordinary challenges generate extraordinary solutions. And, if grace perfects nature, then faith will supply answers for some of the errors and weaknesses of reason. But, when nature is seen as inherently evil, faith tends to take the place of reason and becomes a purely intellectual duty, and the science of Reformed Robotics is born.

Reason and the Authority of Scripture in Richard Hooker and John Calvin

Richard HookerThe typical Reformed understanding of Richard Hooker’s “three-fold chord” of authority states that Hooker created a hierarchy that began with reason, then tradition, and the authority of Scripture is placed at the bottom. I was taught, as many others have been, that this theology was a precursor to Enlightenment philosophy. Once reason is established as the ground of faith, then the articles of the faith become tainted with all manners of erroneous doctrines. Paul Avis explains that Hooker did not believe that reason validates faith, rather the opposite is true:

Except in its fundamental gospel, scripture is not self-explanatory; it requires the application of reason. In defending himself against the charge of Walter Travers at the Temple Church that he had introduced scholastic distinctions and rational subtleties into the exposition of scripture, Hooker explained what he meant by reason. He meant not his own individual reasoning capacity, but ‘true, sound, divine reason . . . reason proper to that science whereby the things of God are known; theological reason, which out of principles in scripture that are plain, soundly deduceth more doubtful inferences’ and brings to light the true meaning of the ‘darker places’ of scripture (III, p. 594f). (Paul Avis, Exploring Issues of Authority in the Spirit of Richard Hooker; available here.)

Thus, it is only out of scriptural principles “that are plain” that reason functions to shed light upon certain doubtful texts. This fact places Hooker within the tradition of “faith seeking understanding,” so conspicuous in Augustine and Anselm. This concept of reason is also perfectly agreeable with the thought of John Calvin, particularly chapter VIII of book I of the Institutes entitled “SO FAR AS HUMAN REASON GOES, SUFFICIENTLY FIRM PROOFS ARE AT HAND TO ESTABLISH THE CREDIBILITY OF SCRIPTURE.” In this chapter Calvin affirms that Scripture is “not sustained by external props” such as reason; yet, we may use reason to prove the authority of Scripture. 

[O]nce we have embraced it [the authority of Scripture] devoutly as its dignity deserves, and have recognized it to be above the common sort of things, those arguments [from reason]  – not strong enough before to engraft and fix the certainty of Scripture in our minds – become very useful aids. (Institutes, I.8.1.)

Thus, for Calvin and Hooker, reason is not the foundation of revelation. Rather, reason reveals that which is hidden or unclear within revelation. These hidden truths may not be discerned by those who lack faith because the Scriptures “breathe something divine.” (ibid.) In order to have this sort of understanding through reason, one must first believe. Those who place reason over revelation as a higher authority treat the instrument as the foundation. Reason does not establish the truths found within the Scriptures. It reveals those truths that have already been established by divine authority.

Peter Martyr’s Rules for the Right Use of Images

Baptism of Jesus by Da Vinci
The Baptism of Jesus by Da Vinci

Peter Martyr’s philosophy of images in worship is a portrayal of the typical Reformed view. He cites Epiphanious and Jerome as church fathers who agree with his position, that images should not be used in worship because men are already inclined toward idolatry. Images provoke the senses, and because of that they are less profitable than those sources that lift up our minds to contemplation.  On the other hand, Vermigli does not disallow images of Christ and the apostles, so long as they are confined to the economic sphere.

Wherefore, my opinion is, that images oughte utterly to be removed out of holy temples. But in other places there may be some use of them. At the least, they may bring an honest pleasure, which may have some utilitie ioyned with it, if they represent those thinges whiche are monuments and examples of pietie. But they are in no case to be suffered, no not in other places also, if they shoulde become occasions of idolatrye. For then must we always imitate Ezechias. Neither ought we at any tyme to attribute more unto them, then unto the holy scriptures. For who falleth downe uppon hys knees, and worhippeth the booke eyther of the new Testament or of the olde? None undoubtedly, which is godly wise. And yet in them both, Christ and also the workes of God are more truely and expressedly set forth unto us to contemplate, than they are in all the images of the world. Neither is this to be passed over, that the maner of having images came unto us rather from the Ethnikes, then from the practice of holy men. (Peter Martyr Vermigli, Commentary upon the Epistle to the Romanes, p. 32.)

Statue of St. George that Martyr says may be used for its allegorical meaning.
Image of St. George which Martyr says may be used for its allegorical meaning.

He continues to give two principles that the pious Christian should follow when seeking artwork for use within the sphere of the home or school:

And also if we have images privately, two other thinges also ought diligently to be taken hede of. First, that they be not lying images, so that under the title and name of sayntes, they represent not those which ever were extant. Suche as are the signes of George, of Christopher, of Barbara, and of such lyke, which are by images and pictures obtruded as sayntes, when as there is nothyng found, of certainty touching them. Nowbeit, I deny not, but that some things may sometimes be painted, which may by an allegoricall signification profitably enstructe the beholders. Farther, we must beware that the pictures or tables be not filthy or wanton, wherewyth to delyght our selves, lest by the syght of them, should be provoked wicked lustes. (Ibid.)

As usual, Martyr’s discussion on this topic is a bit more moderate than some of the more iconoclastic Reformed divines who came after him. Yet, such stricture will always seem a bit authoritarian for our modern sensibilities. Vermigli and Calvin both hold to a much lower view of the senses than we are used to. Calvin even castigates the use of the imagination in general, an idea that receives a more moderate treatment by Vermigli. But, the somewhat iconoclastic spirit of the Reformers should not be taken out of context, as we often do. Here, Vermigli gives a more moderate view. The imagination was created good, and so long as it does not lead us to idolatry or over indulgence then religious images are permissible, outside of the church.

Unity and Identity

We are brethren, let us also be colleagues.  What have we to do with the disgraceful titles of Remonstrants, Contra-Remonstrants, Calvinists, or Arminians?  We are Christians, let us also be like-minded.  We are one body, let us be also of one spirit. [Joseph Hall, Member of the British Delegation; from his sermon to the delegates at the Synod of Dort dated 19 Nov. 1618]