John Calvin on Moses’ Science

Thought this might interest some a bit:

…Moses makes two great luminaries; but astronomers prove, by conclusive reasons that the star of Saturn, which on account of its great distance, appears the least of all, is greater than the moon. Here lies the difference; Moses wrote in a popular style things which without instruction, all ordinary persons, endued with common sense, are able to understand; but astronomers investigate with great labor whatever the sagacity of the human mind can comprehend.

Nevertheless, this study is not to be reprobated, nor this science to be condemned, because some frantic persons are wont boldly to reject whatever is unknown to them. For astronomy is not only pleasant, but also very useful to be known: it cannot be denied that this art unfolds the admirable wisdom of God. Wherefore, as ingenious men are to be honored who have expended useful labor on this subject, so they who have leisure and capacity ought not to neglect this kind of exercise. Nor did Moses truly wish to withdraw us from this pursuit in omitting such things as are peculiar to the art; but because he was ordained a teacher as well of the unlearned and rude as of the learned, he could not otherwise fulfill his office than by descending to this grosser method of instruction. Had he spoken of things generally unknown, the uneducated might have pleaded in excuse that such subjects were beyond their capacity. Lastly since the Spirit of God here opens a common school for all, it is not surprising that he should chiefly choose those subjects which would be intelligible to all. If the astronomer inquires respecting the actual dimensions of the stars, he will find the moon to be less than Saturn; but this is something abstruse, for to the sight it appears differently. Moses, therefore, rather adapts his discourse to common usage. For since the Lord stretches forth, as it were, his hand to us in causing us to enjoy the brightness of the sun and moon, how great would be our ingratitude were we to close our eyes against our own experience? There is therefore no reason why janglers should deride the unskilfulness of Moses in making the moon the second luminary; for he does not call us up into heaven, he only proposes things which lie open before our eyes. Let the astronomers possess their more exalted knowledge; but, in the meantime, they who perceive by the moon the splendor of night, are convicted by its use of perverse ingratitude unless they acknowledge the beneficence of God. (Calvin’s Commentary on Genesis 1.16)

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24 Replies to “John Calvin on Moses’ Science”

  1. A few Calvin quotations you left out…

    “Those who assert that ‘the earth moves and turns’…[are] motivated by ‘a spirit of bitterness, contradiction, and faultfinding;’ possessed by the devil, they aimed ‘to pervert the order of nature.'” (John Calvin, sermon no. 8 on 1st Corinthians, 677, cited in John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait by William J. Bouwsma (Oxford Univ. Press, 1988), p. 72)

    “The heavens revolve daily, and, immense as is their fabric, and inconceivable the rapidity of their revolutions, we experience no concussion — no disturbance in the harmony of their motion. The sun, though varying its course every diurnal revolution, returns annually to the same point. The planets, in all their wandering, maintain their respective positions. How could the earth hang suspended in the air were it not upheld by God’s hand? (Job 26:7) By what means could it [the earth] maintain itself unmoved, while the heavens above are in constant rapid motion, did not its Divine Maker fix and establish it? Accordingly the particle, ape, denoting emphasis, is introduced — YEA, he hath established it.” (John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, Psalm 93, verse 1, trans., James Anderson (Eerdman’s, 1949), Vol. 4, p. 7)

    “Albeit the duration of the world, now declining to its ultimate end, has not yet attained six thousand years. … God’s work was completed not in a moment but in six days.” [. McNeil, Ed., Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion 1, Westminster Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 1960, 160–161, 182.]

    Calvin believed that God’s creation was completed not in a moment but in six days. He concluded, based on Genesis 1:5, that God Himself took six days to accommodate His works to the capacity of men. Creation occurred little more than five thousand years in the past, not innumerable ages.

    The Westminster Confession (1647) clearly affirmed that God created the world and all things in it “in the space of six days” (chapter 4, paragraph 1). “In the space of six days” was based on Calvin’s Genesis 1:5 comment. In Annotations upon All the Books of the Old and New Testament (the Westminster Annotations, 1645), the Westminster authors specified concerning Genesis 1:5 that in the latter part of the verse, the word day is the natural day, consisting of twenty-four hours. This Presbyterian Confession, with its traditional view of creation, was also adopted by British and American Congregational and Baptist denominations.

    On the fixity of species/kinds, John Calvin stated in his notes on Genesis 1:24:

    “I say, moreover, it is sufficient for the purpose of signifying the same thing, (1) that Moses declares animals were created ‘according to their species:’ for this distribution carried with it something stable. It may even hence be inferred, that the offspring of animals was included. For to what purpose do distinct species exist, unless that individuals, by their several kinds, may be multiplied?”

    1. Pretty sure I left out more than that as well, Edward, but that was not the point. Calvin clearly allowed for scientific evidences, and didn’t believe the new scientific facts could destroy Scripture. I believe it took the same line as Augustine.

  2. And my point was that Calvin was willing to reinterpret and ignore even the most plain descriptions from Scripture for the sake of the new science of astronomy. In fact Augustine taught that there was no dispute from Scripture that water lay above the starry firmament. Luther said the same a thousand years later. But almost a generation after Luther was born, Calvin wrote, “it’s beyond common sense to believe in waters above the stars.” So the invention of the telescope was what forced people like Calvin to begin reinterpreting Scripture, based more on commonsense than biblical exegesis, no matter how clear the Scriptures said something. And though Calvin did not accept heliocentrism he probably would have today since astronomers have detected nearby stars with rings of matter and planets circling them, which reinforces the view that our star also works in pretty much the same fashion, a heliocentric system. But the Bible depicts all objects moving above the earth, moved by God in fact, and the earth held in place by God. Again, Scripture fails to commonsense observation, no matter how plain the words of Scripture. The same happened once Christians took up hammers and made maps of the earth’s strata and noticed that certain species died lived at different times and their strata lay in different relative order. Calvin’s six day theory of creation, based on some plain biblical descriptions, was demolished by “commonsense observation.”

    Of course none of this “destroys Scripture” is just means the Bible begins and ends with mythical views of the cosmos, from Genesis 1 to the New Jerusalem in Revelation. That of course makes one wonder just how many myths lie inbetween those two.

    1. And? Edward, one should try to understand the doctrine of accommodation in regards to Augustine and Calvin and how it was employed.

      Myths aren’t false stories, but a natural way of explaining something supernatural.

  3. Hi Poly,

    Accommodationism is interpretationism. That’s your interpretation. You are the one seeking to accommodate Scripture with modern knowledge.

    By the way, you don’t appear to have read the responses of several Evangelicals to accommodationism in regards to interpretations of Genesis 1. Denis Lamoureux, Paul Seely, and Peter Enns, have articles and reviews on the web that explain why accommodationism fails in regards to Genesis 1 and modern cosmological knowledge. Some of their works can be found at the American Scientific Affiliation website (an Evangelical Christian organization that is older than ICR or AIG). Just search there under “accommodationism.” Or seek out the blogs and writings of those authors elsewhere online. I cite their works in the endnotes of a chapter I recently composed on Biblical Cosmology. (The book containing my chapter will be appearing in April.)

    Best, Ed

  4. Walton’s view is that in it’s ANE context, Genesis 1 depicts a flat earth and a solid firmament with water above it. I’m glad to hear you’re happy with that. Walton also notes parallels between Genesis 1 and the building of a temple. But there are also items in Genesis 1 that do not fit with temple construction as Peter Enns, Denis Lamoureux and Paul Seely point out. Walton is also aware of such difficulties, and as I said, Walton is also well aware that it is a flat earth cosmos being depicted. Walton in fact was influenced by Seely to come to his original conclusion as can be seen in the references to Seely in Walton’s NIV APPLICATION COMMENTARY ON GENESIS.

    I deal with the question of the ANE context of Genesis 1 in my chapter in the upcoming book. The context is far wider than even Walton has yet recognized.

    1. I didn’t say I bought everything he said – I simply like his direction.

      I am studying it myself, but only for a post. While there are parallels for sure, I believe that the opposites provide the theological key, so to speak.

      I think that the ANE myths are pretty important, and indeed, acknowledging that Genesis 1 could be a myth in the classical sense helps to move us in the right direction.

  5. “Genesis 1 could be a myth in the classical sense”

    O.K. so the Bible begins with a classical myth.

    What about the last book in the Bible featuring the New Jerusalem that comes down from heaven, another myth?

  6. On the difference b/w ancient cosmologies and ours, I sent this to a friend recently (I also have a chapter coming out in April on “The Cosmology of the Bible” in a book titled, The Christian Delusion) :

    The difference b/w ancient cosmologies and ours: They interpret acts of nature as direct acts of God, personally decided upon by the Deity. Crops fail? God had a reason. Plague, war? God’s will. Good harvest? We have pleased God. Today we concentrate more on finding practical ways to beat nature, not accept our fate as if everything that happened was God’s personal decision being foisted on us. We invented the lightning rod for instance. (Catholics used to ring holy bells and say prayers to avoid tall church steeples being hit by lightning.) And we developed medical and agricultural science. And we have peace-making committees and movements. Neither do we sacrifice goats before rolling up our sleeves and doing cancer research. We don’t imagine we can actually change God’s mind or obtain blessings or avoid curses with sacrifices and prayers. We wear seat belts. We do statistical analysis to determine where the greatest most likely dangers lay, or where the most likely profits may be gotten. At most, we say a little prayer, just in case God’s listening. Most people don’t pray and fast for days or practice literal sacrifices to try and get things done in this life. We’ve gone from religious to practical. But back then it was considered practical to build the biggest damn ziggurats that could be seen for miles in every direction, or pyramids, or other temples. Temples were big business, the more gorgeous and expensive the better. GOD MUST BE SHOWN HOW MUCH WE BELIEVE IN HIM AND HOW CERTAIN WE ARE THAT HE WILL HELP US! HE MUST BE APPEASED! HE MUST BE PETITIONED INCESSANTLY. THAT’S WHAT PRIESTS ARE FOR! IT’S THEIR JOB! Today, if we worship anything, it is CAUSALITY. We try to figure out how things work, from engines to electronic circuits to the synapses of the human brain. We seek causes by looking outward with telescopes and looking inside with microscopes, even electron microscopes. And we certainly don’t fear peeking in in God’s backyard with telescopes or sending probes as far as Pluto or walking on the moon, even after KNOWING what happened to the folks who tried building a brick tower to heaven, and even though we know that “The heavens are the heavens of the Lord, but God has given man the earth.” ONLY the earth.

    Also see Jason Rosenhouse’s blog entry on “Interpreting Genesis” which is getting a lot of hits. It’s in response to Kent Spark’s latest BIOLOGOS piece.

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