Nicholas Wolterstorff on John Calvin’s Christian Humanism

Among the central claims of Christian humanism is the idea that the pursuit of knowledge in various disciplines (i.e. philosophy, history and the natural sciences) is valuable because it equips Christians with wisdom necessary for being shaped into the image of God as revealed in Christ. Indeed, the Christian God is believed to be wisdom itself–thereby substantiating the tired cliche, “all truth is God’s truth.”

Although the great Reformation theologian John Calvin is perhaps better known today for controversial understandings of predestination and the atonement, there is no question that he embodies the spirit of Christian humanism (as Professor Nicholas Wolterstorff has shown in his lecture on John Calvin’s Christian humanism this past Monday). To illustrate, consider the following passage from his Commentary on Genesis:

The greater light I have said, that Moses does not here subtilely descant, as a philosopher, on the secrets of nature, as may be seen in these words. First, he assigns a place in the expanse of heaven to the planets and stars; but astronomers make a distinction of spheres, and, at the same time, teach that the fixed stars have their proper place in the firmament. 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.

There are at least four important points for us here:

  • With elegance and clarity, Calvin illustrates an apparent discrepancy between the biblical text and the scientific work of his contemporaries. Instead of pretending that there is no problem, or dogmatically asserting the absolute truth or falsity of one “side” of the issue, he displays confidence in reason by being willing to call a certain interpretation of scripture into question: namely, the idea that Moses knew more about the diameter of the moon than the astronomers who have spent their lives working such things.
  • Far from castigating scientific findings which seem to call such interpretations of scripture into question, Calvin is eager to support and encourage such enterprises; for both astronomy and theology work to reveal and celebrate “the admirable wisdom of God” insofar as it is possible for our finite intellects to do so.
  • Calvin pays careful attention to the necessity of understanding proper knowing as an activity that is always received in context. For this reason, we should not chide Moses for language that appears sloppy or incorrect to a more modern astronomy. Just as God grants his people knowledge via  specialized scientific discourses in modernity, so does he grant wisdom that manifested in ancient discourses. It takes hard work and scholarly attention to do justice to these hermeneutical issues.
  •   Finally, just because science is given “free reign” to thrive in its own areas of inquiry, it does not follow that science is intelligible in and of itself. According to any robust theology of creation, there is no such thing as science qua science if that means that it exists on its own as an independent framework of understanding. On the contrary, it is precisely because God has made himself known in the natural world that it is possible to do science in the first place. Thus, in a way, science is itself a variation of theology.

This is but a snippet of the eloquence and rigor that characterizes Calvin’s impressive oeuvre. Any contemporary Christian humanism owes a great deal to his work.

Watch Dr. Wolterstorff discuss the difference between Analytic and Continental Philosophy and how each relates to Christian Humanism.


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