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John Calvin on How Creation Displays the Glory of God

Although he tends to be remembered more as a theologian—so much so that not merely a system of soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) but a much greater system that encompasses the doctrines of God, creation, providence, humanity, sin, salvation, and even ethics and politics and economics and the arts bears his name—John Calvin was, more than anything else, a pastor whose passionate concern was that men and women, boys and girls, might know God—a knowing that, as Calvin understood, Jesus Christ (in John 17:3) equated with eternal life.

Born in Noyon, France, in 1509, just eight years before Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses to the door of the Cathedral of Wittenberg and sparked the Reformation, Calvin went to Paris at age 14 to study at the university, after which, at age 21, he went to Orleans and then Bourges to study law. Sometime around 1533, he experienced what he called a “sudden conversion” but about which he left no details in writing. That “sudden conversion,” though, set him on a new course, and by 1536, he was among the pastors in Geneva, Switzerland when the first edition of what would become his most famous work, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, was published. From then until its final edition in 1564, from which I shall quote throughout this talk, he enlarged it repeatedly.

Under pressure from the leading citizens of Geneva, he was banished in 1538 and became pastor to a French-speaking congregation in Strasbourg. When Geneva’s leaders received a letter from the Roman Catholic Cardinal Sadoleto in 1539 challenging their Reformation faith, they asked Calvin to respond, and by 1541 they asked him—now married to Idelette de Bure—to return and become their lead pastor. From then until his death in 1564, Calvin preached, typically four or more times every week, wrote commentaries, trained other pastors and missionaries, and advised the city council on many matters.

It is commonly said that the primary characteristic of Calvin’s teaching is the sovereignty of God, but I think that doctrine, in Calvin’s system, actually plays a subordinate role to the glory of God. His sovereignty is one of various displays of the glory of God. And in the Institutes, the first of the displays of the glory of God is His creation. We may take that term in two senses, both of which properly apply. First, we speak of God’s creation as His action of making all things of nothing. Second, we speak of God’s creation as the result of that action—the universe and everything in it.

In this talk, drawing on Book I chapters 1–5 of the Institutes, I want to introduce you, letting him speak for himself as much as possible, to Calvin’s teaching on how creation—both God’s act of creating, and the resulting creation itself—displays God’s glory, so that he calls it “a kind of mirror, in which we may behold God, though otherwise invisible.”

Calvin begins the Institutes by writing,

Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves. But as these are connected together by many ties, it is not easy to determine which of the two precedes and gives birth to the other.

For, in the first place, no man can survey himself without forthwith turning his thoughts towards the God in whom he lives and moves; because it is perfectly obvious, that the endowments which we possess cannot possibly be from ourselves; nay, that our very being is nothing else than subsistence in God alone. In the second place, those blessings which unceasingly distil to us from heaven, are like streams conducting us to the fountain.

Though our fall into sin blinds us to much of the message through the creation, nonetheless we still can gain some knowledge of God through it, and “We are … urged by our own evil things to consider the good things of God; and, indeed, we cannot aspire to Him in earnest until we have begun to be displeased with ourselves.” Although there are hints at something like the cosmological and teleological arguments for the existence of God—arguments from cause and design—here and elsewhere in the Institutes, Calvin rather takes God’s existence for granted and addresses us primarily not as rational (though he insists that we are) but as sinful and desperately in need of salvation that comes only by, and indeed may even be defined as, knowing God not only as Creator but also as Redeemer.

So we begin to know God by knowing ourselves. But Calvin insists that we cannot properly know ourselves unless first we know God. Why? Because our sinfulness blinds us not only to how the creation reveals God but also to our own pollution, and so, to know ourselves as the sinners we are, we must know something first of God. We cannot recognize our deviation until we recognized the Standard.

So long as we do not look beyond the earth, we are quite pleased with our own righteousness, wisdom, and virtue; we address ourselves in the most flattering terms, and seem only less than demigods. But should we once begin to raise our thoughts to God, and reflect what kind of Being he is, and how absolute the perfection of that righteousness, and wisdom, and virtue, to which, as a standard, we are bound to be conformed, what formerly delighted us by its false show of righteousness will become polluted with the greatest iniquity; what strangely imposed upon us under the name of wisdom will disgust by its extreme folly; and what presented the appearance of virtuous energy will be condemned as the most miserable impotence.

And so, “though the knowledge of God and the knowledge of ourselves are bound together by a mutual tie, due arrangement requires that we treat of the former in the first place, and then descend to the latter.”

This knowledge of God that makes possible our knowledge of ourselves is not the mere philosopher’s knowledge of Him as “First Cause.” No,

[W]e must be persuaded not only that as he once formed the world, so he sustains it by his boundless power, governs it by his wisdom, preserves it by his goodness, in particular, rules the human race with justice and judgement, bears with them in mercy, shields them by his protection; but also that not a particle of light, or wisdom, or justice, or power, or rectitude, or genuine truth, will anywhere be found, which does not flow from him, and of which he is not the cause; in this way we must learn to expect and ask all things from him, and thankfully ascribe to him whatever we receive. For this sense of the divine perfections is the proper master to teach us piety ….

And what is piety? It is “that union of reverence and love to God which the knowledge of his benefits inspires.”

The effect of our knowledge [of God] … ought to be, first, to teach us reverence and fear; and, secondly, to induce us, under its guidance and teaching, to ask every good thing from him, and, when it is received, ascribe it to him.

Such a knowledge, Calvin teaches, leads us to trust and “respect his authority in all things, to reverence his majesty, aim at the advancement of his glory, and obey his commands” and to loving and revere Him as father, honor and obey him as master, finding “the very idea of offending him” revolting. This, he says, “is pure and genuine religion, namely, confidence in God coupled with serious fear—fear, which both includes in it willing reverence, and brings along with it … legitimate worship ….”

Thus far chapters 1 and 2 of Book 1. In chapters 3 and 4, Calvin asserts that though it is indisputable that “there exists in the human minds and indeed by natural instinct, some sense of Deity,” nonetheless our sinful nature corrupts our understanding of God and therefore also of His worship, leading most into superstition and idolatry and some few who “look out for hiding-places where they may conceal themselves from the presence of the Lord,” even into atheism.

Yet, “all are born and live for the express purpose of learning to know God, and … all those who do not direct the whole thoughts and actions of their lives to this end fail to fulfil the law of their being.” Indeed, “though experience testifies that a seed of religion is divinely sown in all, scarcely one in a hundred is found who cherishes it in his heart, and not one in whom it grows to maturity, so far is it from yielding fruit in its season.” Instead, most of us “fashion God according to our own whim” and “by departing from the true God … have nothing left but an execrable idol.” And that isn’t all. We never approach even our idols without hypocrisy taking the place of “the voluntary fear flowing from reverence of the divine majesty” that we ought to have. “At length [we] bewilder [our]selves in such a maze of error, that the darkness of ignorance obscures, and ultimately extinguishes, those sparks which were designed to show [us] the glory of God. Still, however, the conviction that there is some Deity continues to exist, like a plant which can never be completely eradicated, though so corrupt, that it is only capable of producing the worst of fruit.”

Nonetheless, as Calvin puts it in the title of chapter 5, “The clarity of God’s self-disclosure strips us of every excuse”:

Since the perfection of blessedness consists in the knowledge of God (cf. John 17:3), he has been pleased, in order that none might be excluded from the means of obtaining felicity, not only to deposit in our minds that seed of religion of which we have already spoken, but so to manifest his perfections in the whole structure of the universe, and daily place himself in our view, that we cannot open our eyes without being compelled to behold him. His essence, indeed, is incomprehensible, utterly transcending all human thought; but on each of his works his glory is engraven in characters so bright, so distinct, and so illustrious, that none, however dull and illiterate, can plead ignorance as their excuse. Hence, with perfect truth, the Psalmist exclaims, “He covereth himself with light as with a garment” (Psalm 104: 2); as if he had said, that God for the first time was arrayed in visible attire when, in the creation of the world, he displayed those glorious banners, on which, to whatever side we turn, we behold his perfections visibly portrayed. … And, first, wherever you turn your eyes, there is no portion of the world, however minute, that does not exhibit at least some sparks of beauty; while it is impossible to contemplate the vast and beautiful fabric as it extends around, without being overwhelmed by the immense weight of glory. Hence, the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews elegantly describes the visible worlds as images of the invisible (Heb. 11: 3), the elegant structure of the world serving us as a kind of mirror, in which we may behold God, though otherwise invisible. For the same reason, the Psalmist attributes language to celestial objects, a language which all nations understand (Psalm 19: 1), the manifestation of the Godhead being too clear to escape the notice of any people, however obtuse.

For Calvin, the intricate design evident in the solar system, the stars, and every part of the earth itself all testify to God’s wisdom and glory, but Man [is] the loftiest proof of divine wisdom,” “a microcosm (miniature world), as being a rare specimen of divine power, wisdom, and goodness, and containing within himself wonders sufficient to occupy our minds, if we are willing so to employ them.” Far from this being reason to boast, however, the fact that, unless God regenerates us, we ignore this testifies of our guilt:

Can anything be more detestable than this madness in man, who, finding God a hundred times both in his body and his soul, makes his excellence in this respect a pretext for denying that there is a God? He will not say that chance has made him differ from the brutes that perish; but, substituting nature as the architect of the universe, he suppresses the name of God. The swift motions of the soul, its noble faculties and rare endowments, bespeak the agency of God in a manner which would make the suppression of it impossible, did not the Epicureans, like so many Cyclops, use it as a vantage ground, from which to wage more audacious war with God.

Calvin ridicules “those who, led away by absurd subtleties, are inclined, by giving an indirect turn to the frigid doctrine of Aristotle, to employ it for the purpose both of disproving the immortality of the soul, and robbing God of his rights.” He has in mind those who, in the final analysis, deny the distinction of the soul from the body. The thinking he describes is remarkably like the secular, materialistic naturalism of our day.  “Under the pretext that the faculties of the soul are organized [which I take to mean, determined by the matter of the body], they chain it to the body as if it were incapable of a separate existence, while they endeavor as much as in them lies, by pronouncing eulogiums on nature, to suppress the name of God.” The result is to exalt nature to the place of God. “But there is no ground for maintaining that the powers of the soul are confined to the performance of bodily functions,” he says. Rather, the very fact that the mind—or soul—of man occupies itself with things irrelevant to the body’s needs—measuring the heavens, counting the number of the stars, ascertaining their magnitudes, their relative distances, the rate at which they move, and the orbits which they describe—testifies that the soul is more than just the body and is designed to look to higher thing than matter alone.

What shall we say but that man bears about with him a stamp of immortality which can never be effaced? But how is it possible for man to be divine, and yet not acknowledge his Creator? Shall we, by means of a power of judging implanted in our breast, distinguish between justice and injustice, and yet there be no judge in heaven? Shall some remains of intelligence continue with us in sleep, and yet no God keep watch in heaven? Shall we be deemed the inventors of so many arts and useful properties that God may be defrauded of his praise, though experience tells us plainly enough, that whatever we possess is dispensed to us … by another hand?

In light of this, “Let each of us, therefore, in contemplating his own nature, remember that there is one God who governs all natures, and, in governing, wishes us to have respect to himself, to make him the object of our faith, worship, and adoration. Nothing, indeed, can be more preposterous than to enjoy those noble endowments which bespeak the divine presence within us, and to neglect him who, of his own good pleasure, bestows them upon us.” He sees as “glorious manifestations” of God’s power natural phenomena such as “thunder, … lightning, … raging tempests …, and a perfect calm; keeping the sea, which seems constantly threatening the earth with devastation, suspended as it were in air; at one time, lashing it into fury by the impetuosity of the winds; at another, appeasing its rage, and stilling all its waves.” But he also sees in events

… above the ordinary course of nature, the evidence of his perfections …. For in conducting the affairs of men, he so arranges the course of his providence, as daily to declare, by the clearest manifestations, that though all are in innumerable ways the partakers of his bounty, the righteous are the special objects of his favor, the wicked and profane the special objects of his severity. It is impossible to doubt his punishment of crimes; while at the same time he, in no unequivocal manner, declares that he is the protector, and even the avenger of innocence, by shedding blessings on the good, helping their necessities, soothing and solacing their griefs, relieving their sufferings, and in all ways providing for their safety. … those things which men call fortuitous events, are so many proofs of divine providence, and more especially of paternal clemency, furnishing ground of joy to the righteous, and at the same time stopping the mouths of the ungodly. But as the greater part of mankind, enslaved by error, walk blindfold in this glorious theatre, [Psalm 107] exclaims that it is a rare and singular wisdom to meditate carefully on these works of God, which many, who seem most sharp-sighted in other respects, behold without profit. It is indeed true, that the brightest manifestation of divine glory finds not one genuine spectator among a hundred.

Still, neither his power nor his wisdom is shrouded in darkness. His power is strikingly displayed when the rage of the wicked, to all appearance irresistible, is crushed in a single moment; their arrogance subdued, their strongest bulwarks overthrown, their armor dashed to pieces, their strength broken, their schemes defeated without an effort, and audacity which set itself above the heavens is precipitated to the lowest depths of the earth. On the other hand, the poor are raised up out of the dust, and the needy lifted out of the dung hill (Ps. 113: 7), the oppressed and afflicted are rescued in extremity, the despairing animated with hope, the unarmed defeat the armed, the few the many, the weak the strong. The excellence of the divine wisdom is manifested in distributing everything in due season, confounding the wisdom of the world (cf. 1 Cor. 1:20), and taking the wise in their own craftiness (1 Cor. 3: 19; cf. Job 5:13), in short, conducting all things in perfect accordance with reason.

Calvin was widely read in the philosophers and no doubt recognized that they offered sophisticated arguments for and against the existence of God, but he was more concerned to speak to the common man and to impress on him not some abstract philosophical doctrine but something that strikes to the depth of his heart:

… there is no need of a long and laborious train of argument in order to obtain proofs which illustrate and assert the Divine Majesty. The few which we have merely touched, show them to be so immediately within our reach in every quarter, that we can trace them with the eye, or point to them with the finger. And here we must observe again (see chap. 2 s. 2) that the knowledge of God which we are invited to cultivate is not that which, resting satisfied with empty speculation, only flutters in the brain, but a knowledge which will prove substantial and fruitful wherever it is duly perceived, and rooted in the heart. The Lord is manifested by his perfections. When we feel their power within us, and are conscious of their benefits, the knowledge must impress us much more vividly than if we merely imagined a God whose presence we never felt. Hence it is obvious, that in seeking God, the most direct path and the fittest method is, not to attempt with presumptuous curiosity to pry into his essence, which is rather to be adored than minutely discussed, but to contemplate him in his works, by which he draws near, becomes familiar, and in a manner communicates himself to us.

By the knowledge thus acquired, we ought not only to be stimulated to worship God, but also aroused and elevated to the hope of future life. For, observing that the manifestations which the Lord gives both of his mercy and severity are only begun and incomplete, we ought to infer that these are doubtless only a prelude to higher manifestations, of which the full display is reserved for another state. …

It must be acknowledged, therefore, that in each of the works of God, and more especially in the whole of them taken together, the divine perfections are delineated as in a picture, and the whole human race thereby invited and allured to acquire the knowledge of God, and, in consequence of this knowledge, true and complete felicity.

Nonetheless, though “we are in a manner forced to the contemplation of God (a circumstance which all must occasionally experience), and are thus led to form some impressions of Deity, we immediately fly off to carnal dreams and depraved fictions, and so by our vanity corrupt heavenly truth. This far, indeed, we differ from each other, in that everyone appropriates to himself some peculiar error; but we are all alike in this, that we substitute monstrous fictions for the one living and true God …,” and so “The manifestation of God is choked by human superstition and the error of the philosophers. … and hence there is scarcely an individual to be found without some idol or phantom as a substitute for Deity.”

And so Calvin concludes that the creation, though in itself it does display the glory, the wisdom, the power, the majesty of God, is because of our self-imposed, sin-imposed blindness, insufficient to communicate those things to the unregenerate:

In vain for us, therefore, does Creation exhibit so many bright lamps lighted up to show forth the glory of its Author. Though they beam upon us from every quarter, they are altogether insufficient of themselves to lead us into the right path. Some sparks, undoubtedly, they do throw out; but these are quenched before they can give forth a brighter effulgence. Wherefore, the apostle, in the very place where he says that the worlds are images of invisible things, adds that it is by faith we understand that they were framed by the word of God (Heb. 11: 3), thereby intimating that the invisible Godhead is indeed represented by such displays, but that we have no eyes to perceive it until they are enlightened through faith by internal revelation from God. …

But though we are deficient in natural powers which might enable us to rise to a pure and clear knowledge of God, still, as the dullness which prevents us is within, there is no room for excuse. We cannot plead ignorance, without being at the same time convicted by our own consciences both of sloth and ingratitude. It were, indeed, a strange defense for man to pretend that he has no ears to hear the truth, while dumb creatures have voices loud enough to declare it; to allege that he is unable to see that which creatures without eyes demonstrate, to excuse himself on the ground of weakness of mind, while all creatures without reason are able to teach. Wherefore, when we wander and go astray, we are justly shut out from every species of excuse, because all things point to the right path. But while man must bear the guilt of corrupting the seed of divine knowledge so wondrously deposited in his mind, and preventing it from bearing good and genuine fruit, it is still most true that we are not sufficiently instructed by that bare and simple, but magnificent testimony which the creatures bear to the glory of their Creator. For no sooner do we, from a survey of the world, obtain some slight knowledge of Deity, than we pass by the true God, and set up in his stead the dream and phantom of our own brain, drawing away the praise of justice, wisdom, and goodness, from the fountain-head, and transferring it to some other quarter. Moreover, by the erroneous estimate we form, we either so obscure or pervert his daily works, as at once to rob them of their glory and the author of them of his just praise.

So, in the end, is God’s self-revelation through creation futile? Calvin would have answered with a resounding “No!” not only because it leaves men without excuse but also because God has acted through another sort of revelation to cure our blindness. “God bestows the actual knowledge of himself upon us only in the Scriptures”:

Therefore, though the effulgence which is presented to every eye, both in the heavens and on the earth, leaves the ingratitude of man without excuse, since God, in order to bring the whole human race under the same condemnation, holds forth to all, without exception, a mirror of his Deity in his works, another and better help must be given to guide us properly to God as a Creator. Not in vain, therefore, has he added the light of his Word in order that he might make himself known unto salvation, and bestowed the privilege on those whom he was pleased to bring into nearer and more familiar relation to himself. … For as the aged, or those whose sight is defective, when any books however fair, are set before them, though they perceive that there is something written are scarcely able to make out two consecutive words, but, when aided by glasses, begin to read distinctly, so Scripture, gathering together the impressions of Deity, which, till then, lay confused in our minds, dissipates the darkness, and shows us the true God clearly. God therefore bestows a gift of singular value, when, for the instruction of the Church, he employs not dumb teachers merely, but opens his own sacred mouth; when he not only proclaims that some God must be worshipped, but at the same time declares that He is the God to whom worship is due; when he not only teaches his elect to have respect to God, but manifests himself as the God to whom this respect should be paid.

The Scriptures introduce us first to God as our Creator, “but also as a Redeemer, in the person of the Mediator. … Accordingly, [Psalm 19,] after mentioning that the heavens declare the glory of God, that the firmament shews forth the works of his hands, that the regular succession of day and night proclaim his Majesty, proceeds to make mention of the Word” which ‘is perfect, converting the soul; … sure, making wise the simple; … right, rejoicing the heart; … pure, enlightening the eyes.’ … For though the law has other uses besides, (as to which, see Book 2 c. 7, sec. 6, 10, 12,) the general meaning is, that it is the proper school for training the children of God—the invitation given to all nations, to behold him in the heavens and earth, proving of no avail. … Since the human mind, through its weakness, was altogether unable to come to God if not aided and upheld by his sacred word, it necessarily followed that all mankind, the Jews excepted, inasmuch as they sought God without the Word, were laboring under vanity and error.”

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