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.

Aristotle’s Errors

Bonaventure said that Aristotle erred by rejecting Exemplarism – that the universals are real.  Aquinas said that Aristotle erred in not recognizing the Trinity of Persons in the Godhead.  Peter Martyr Vermigli said that Aristotle erred in hiding the truth about God from the uneducated.

Christ the Medium

Wolfhart Pannenberg, in his book Metaphysics and the Idea of God, concludes that Jesus is the solution to the over-abstraction of the concept of God by modern philosophy.  Jesus is concrete.  He is real and actually existed in history as the Principium of all creation.  Pannenberg did not say anything new by employing this argument for the reality of Truth in Christ.  St. Bonaventure said the same thing in the 13th century. According to him the Idea of God is the Word who is Jesus.  For the Father to know himself is for him to know the Word and the Spirit.  Because the Ideas of all things find their unity in the Word for God to know his creation is to know his essence as it exists in the mirrored form in creatures.

When the Word took on flesh he fulfilled the role of medium between creation and God.  He is the ultimate convergence between phusis and Theos.  Men therefore can have knowledge through the illumination brought through the image of the Word inherent in him. But of course true knowledge comes through faith and the indwelling of the Word Jesus Christ in the believing person. The hypostatic working of Christ’s human mind with the divine is the Exemplar of the mind of the redeemed man. The church has the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 2:16). Pannenberg uses a form of Medieval Exemplarism following in the reappropriation of neo-Platonism by St. Augustine and its continuation by Anselm, Bonaventure, Aquinas, et al against the radical Hegelian and Heideggerian fissure between theology and philosophy.