Calvin and Science

By Brian Edgar

The year 1543 was a momentous one. Not only did Nicolaus Copernicus publish De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of Celestial Bodies), his astronomical masterpiece which offered a heliocentric alternative to Ptolemy’s geocentric system but Andreas Vesalius published his equally groundbreaking work in biology – De Humani Corporis Fabrica (On the Structure of the Human Body). And as if that was not enough John Calvin published his own explicit call for an intellectual reformation in theology in his tract The Necessity of Reforming the Church, a tract that would be used for centuries to focus attention on the practical implications of the reformation doctrines of the gospel for the life of the church.These three are illustrative  of a coming revolution of thought and the paper discussed here shows how Calvin’s reformation of theology was intimately connected with the reformation of scientific thought which became the modern scientific revolution.

This paper was originally presented at an ISCAST conference in Melbourne which celebrated the 500th anniversary of Calvin’s birth. The complete article – Calvin and Science – is soon to be made available on the ISCAST web-site as part of  Christian Perspectives on Science and Technology (the peer reviewed on line journal of  ISCAST).

The introduction and conclusion are reproduced below.

Introduction

If one wished to select a particular year to act as a marker for the beginning of the intellectual revolution which led to what we might call “modern science” then one could do much worse than to select the year of our Lord 1543. This was the year in which Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) finally published De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium (On the Revolutions of Celestial Bodies), his astronomical masterpiece which offered a heliocentric alternative to Ptolemy’s geocentric system which had been widely accepted for more than a millennium.  It was, by happy coincidence for those who like neat and decisive beginnings, the year in which Andreas Vesalius published his equally groundbreaking work in biology – De Humani Corporis Fabrica (On the Structure of the Human Body).  As Copernicus provided an atlas of the heavens so Vesalius provided an atlas of the human body. Modern astronomy and anatomy arose together and as they did modern science came into being. These studies were not mere additions to an existing body of thought, they represented a new approach and were nothing less than a call for a comprehensive reformation of thought concerning the human understanding of the way that astronomy, anatomy and the whole natural world, were to be viewed.

By an even happier coincidence, this was the year in which John Calvin published his own explicit call for an intellectual reformation in theology, in his tract The Necessity of Reforming the Church[1], a tract that would be used for centuries to focus attention on the practical implications of the reformation doctrines of the gospel for the life of the church.  Calvin’s reformation was intimately connected with the scientific revolution, and he explicitly linked the work of the anatomist, the astronomer and the theologian: “there is a need of art and of more exacting toil in order to investigate the motion of the stars, to determine their assigned stations, to measure their intervals, to note their properties…. Likewise, in regard to the structure of the human body one must have the greatest keenness in order to weigh, with Galen’s skill, its articulation, symmetry, beauty and use.”[2] But in addition to this, theology is necessary for “without Christ, sciences in every department are vain, and the man who knows not God is vain, though he should be conversant with every branch of learning.”[3]

In Copernicus, Vesalius and Calvin there are not three revolutions in process, but one revolution in three parts, because the hermeneutical method of the Reformers, their theology of God and nature and their distinct turn towards the pursuit of truth through empirical methods provided a philosophical foundation not only for a reformation of the church but also of scientific method. John Macmurray argued that “the one creative achievement of the Reformation was science and the scientific spirit”.[4]

The body of the article will be available at Christian Perspectives on Science and Technology

Conclusion

The conclusion we draw from this concerning Calvin’s overall view of the relationship between science/the natural order and soteriology/the spiritual realm is that while his thought involves a strong defence of the legitimacy of the scientific investigation of the natural world his anthropological dualism illustrates a lack of that dynamic which is necessary for a dialogical, integrative or strongly interactive mode of relationship between the two. His various dualisms (common and special grace, general and special revelation,  body and soul) result in a relationship between science and theology which may be seen as operating in consonance but which cannot have any substantial form of dialogue or integration between the natural and theological realms. The solution to this, I would argue, involves developing a bridge between common and special grace, something which not only has the potential for overcoming the debates about salvation (the dualism of election to salvation and damnation) and revelation (concerning the possibility of a genuine natural theology, as distinct from a theology of nature) but also for providing a more integrated view of both the human person (avoiding substance dualism) and the science-faith relationship in general.

When common grace is said (in contrast to special grace) to contain no soteriological element whatsoever, then not only does this mean the destruction of the real value of any knowledge of God but it also implies, as we have seen, the elimination of the real value and reliability of the scientific information about the natural order which was the foundation for that understanding of God.  What is needed is an approach (one that is consistent with both the scriptures and the earliest traditions of the church) which stresses the work of grace in such a way that there is a greater integration of the salvific work of God in all divine activity, both in the work of the Holy Spirit in the natural world, as well as in the specific revelation of God through the incarnate Christ. There is in this no suggestion that a specific revelation of Christ is not essential for salvation, it is simply a recognition that the revelation which can occur through natural processes ought to be understood as a genuine preparation for Christ. A preparation which is not, as Calvin suggests, completely negated by human sin.  It is, after all, the one Spirit who is operative in both creation and re-creation.

Although Calvin’s understanding of the ultimate value of common grace as nothing but condemnation could, in one sense, be described as a ‘preparation’ for the gospel, the ignorance and futility which is emphasised means that it is a very different view of a ‘preparation’. The suggested alternative, which has salvific grace acting preveniently through the working of the Holy Spirit in the created order: bringing healing, preparing hearts and minds, and enabling a response to God, is by no means new. It has been explored previously, particularly in the Eastern tradition of the church and within Wesleyanism in the west. This has primarily been for soteriological reasons (including concerns about Calvin’s dualism of grace in regard to double-predestination) but we now also see that it has implications for understanding the nature and value of the created order. None of this, however, should undercut the enormous contribution which John Calvin made in regard to the theology of the creation, and yet this alternative approach not only provides the foundation for a real, though limited knowledge of God, but it also attributes a greater intrinsic value to the scientific knowledge which provides the foundation for that knowledge, and thus encourages a closer dialogue and a greater level of integration between scientific and theological realms than would otherwise be possible.


[1] John Calvin, “The Necessity of Reforming the Church”, J. K. S. Reid (trans), Calvin: Theological Treatises (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1956).

[2] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, John T. McNeill, ed, (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960) I, 5, 2.

[3] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians, (Grand Rapids: Christian Classics Ethereal Library), 1 Corinthians 1:20.

[4] John Macmurray, Reason and Emotion, (London: Faber and Faber, 1972) 172.

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