Science in Christian  Perspective                                                                                                                                       



The Roots of the Scientific Revolution:

Reformed Theology

Biology Department
Wheaton College
Wheaton, IL 60187

From: JASA 37 (September 1985): 158-168. 

It has been generally accepted that the Reformed tradition had an influence on the development Of science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. What the nature of that influence was is less well understood. This study examines Calvin's theology of nature and proposes that both the rationale for, and the methodologies of, the study of nature characteristic of the scientific revolution can best be understood as growing from these theological roots.

It has been attested by a variety of sources in the history of science that Protestantism in general, and the Reformed tradition in particular, played a crucial role in the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century. Historians of science such as Charles Coulston Gillispie1 and Robert K. Merton2 explain the involvement in terms of sociological factors, though, not theological ones. Gillispie is very specific in this regard, stating:

The correlation of Calvinist behavior patterns ... is a very general feature of Western cultural history. There can simply be no doubt that protestant and bourgeois milieux have encouraged talent and ambition to rise through science, and that catholic and aristocratic milieux have inhibited the development of scientists. Scotsmen and Dutchmen flock through the history of science; Irishmen and Spaniards are scarcely to be found. But the forces are sociological, not doctrinal.3

Attempts by Christian historians and philosophers to explain the relationship of science and religion have, on the other hand, been more in the realm of Christian apologetics than history of science. R. Hooykaas, for example, shows that men of intelligence can also be men of faith and tries to articulate why science and faith are compatible.' But I believe that this does not go far enough in explaining the relationship. Gillispie is wrong: the forces were indeed doctrinal. Hooykaas is too restrained: Calvin's theology of nature was the intellectual roots of the tree which we call the scientific revolution. Biologically, the purposes of a root system are to provide anchorage for the plant in the soil and to absorb from the soil those materials which can be used by the plant as it grows. Calvin's theology of nature served those functions for science in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The focus of this study, therefore, will be Calvin's writings, Calvin's theology, and not the developmental changes of Calvinist theology. In the examination of his works, I will

(1) delineate elements of Calvinism which were factors in the developing philosophy of nature within the reformed tradition;

(2) contrast, at times, certain elements with other
views known or held at that time; and

(3) describe the impetus Calvinism had on science in terms of the combination of factors discussed, a combination which was unique to Calvinism, although~ individual elements could be found elsewhere.

Such a study should help both the theologian and the scientist to recognize the importance of the scientist's over-all world view to the science which is produced. In a subsequent paper I hope to examine Lutheran theology and the type of science which resulted in that theological milieu.

1. Calvin's Basic Presuppositions and Principles

Some background comments are necessary before an analysis of Calvin's theology of nature can be made. A starting point might be the first two questions in Calvin's Geneva Catechism of 1541 (and the parallel question and answer which opens the Westminster Shorter Catechism of 1647). In the Geneva Catechism, one begins as follows:

Question: What is the chief end of human life?

Answer: To know God.

Question: Why do you say that?

The introductory question and answer of the Westminster Shorter Catechism is this:

         Question: What is the chief end of man? Answer: To glorify God and enjoy Him forever.

There is a degree to which these questions summarize the essence of all of Calvin's teachings, for the rest of his writings is an exposition on this theme. In his commentary on Jeremiah 9:24 he states: "Today, all sorts of subjects are eagerly pursued; but the knowledge of God is neglected. . . . Yet to know God is man's chief end, and justifies his existence. Even if a hundred lives were ours, this one aim would be suf f icient for them all."5

Yet it is not just man which exists to glorify God. All of creation attests to its creatureliness by glorifying its Creator. The commentary on Psalm 19:1 portrays clearly Calvin's view:

[The Psalmist] introduces the heavens as witnesses and preachers of the glory of God, attributing to the dumb creature a quality which, strictly speaking, does not belong to it, in order the more severely to upbraid men for their ingratitude, if they should pass over so clear a testimony with unheeding ears. This manner of speaking more powerfully moves and affects us than if he had said, The heavens show or manifest the glory of God.6

Calvin emphasizes the effect which Creation's glorifying of God should have on men as he continues to explain this Psalm:

David shows how it is that the heavens proclaim to us the glory of God, namely, by openly bearing testimony that they have not been put together by chance, but were wonderfully created by the supreme Architect. When we behold the heavens, we cannot but be elevated, by the contemplation of them, to Him who is their great Creator; and the beautiful arrangement and wonderful variety which distinguish the courses and station of the heavenly bodies, together with the beauty and splendour which are manifest in them, cannot but furnish us with an evident proof of his providence. Scripture, indeed, makes known to us the time and manner of the creation; but the heavens themselves, although God should say nothing on the subject, proclaim loudly and distinctly enough that they have been fashioned by his hands: and this of itself abundantly suffices to bear testimony to men of his glory. As soon as we acknowledge God to be the supreme Architect, who has erected the beauteous fabric of the universe, our minds must necessarily be ravished with wonder at his infinite goodness, wisdom, and power.7

Implicit in this commentary are Calvin's views on God as Creator, on man's capacity to know God postfall, and the ways God still speaks to man in order to restore him to sonship. Let us look at each of these in more detail.

For Calvin, the fact that God was Creator of the Universe was linked closely with his views of God's Providence and the doctrine of Predestination. He discusses in the Institutes the fact that creation was not a momentary, instantaneous event but that God's creative work took six days to complete.8 This fact is important to Calvin for two reasons: (1) "that we might not find it irksome to occupy our whole life in contemplating it," and (2) that "we ought in the very order of things diligently to contemplate God's fatherly love toward mankind, in that he did not create Adam until he had lavished upon the universe all manner of good things.9 He continues this theme in the sixteenth

Sara Joan Miles teaches biology and serves as Health Professions Counselor at Wheaton College. She has an M.R.E. from Texas Christian University, an M.S. in Biology from the University of Illinois, has done graduate work in anthropology at Hartford Seminary, and has completed everything except her dissertation for the A.D. in History of Science at the University of Chicago. She also served as a missionary-teacher for three years in Zaire.

chapter of Book 1, which is entitled "God by His Power Nourishes and Maintains the World Created by Him, and Rules Its Several Parts by His Providence," with the first subsection being "Creation and providence inseparably joined."10 In the editions published between 1539 and 1554, Calvin included both the ideas of providence and predestination in this chapter, but in the final edition he separated them. This was not because he no longer considered them related, but because he saw the latter to be more related to the redemptive work of the Holy Spirit. Nevertheless, the close relationship is still seen in this section in comments such as this:

But faith ought to penetrate more deeply, namely, having found him Creator of all, forthwith to conclude he is also everlasting Governor and Preserver-not only in that he drives the celestial frame as well as its several parts by a universal motion, but also in that be sustains, nourishes, and cares for, everything he has made, even to the least sparrow.11

In the next section Calvin contrasts the concepts of Providence and fortune or chance, and the section title summarizes his conclusion: "There is no such thing as fortune or chance." For Calvin, the fact that God was Creator required a God who was still actively involved in His creation and a cosmos which was submitted to His will in all of its activities.

One can summarize this section by noting that Calvin's doctrine of God as Creator of the universe requires a sharp cleavage between Creator and Creation (hence denying pantheism and various forms of monism), insists on the continued involvement in and sustaining of the creation by the Creator (refuting deism), and affirms the orderliness and stability of the natural world as a result of Divine Will (rejecting both fatalism and chance). The Creator is also Lord, and, as a part of creation, man is called to acknowledge the Creator's Lordship: "Let us therefore remember ... that there is one God who so governs all natures that be would have us look unto him, direct our faith to him, and worship and call upon him."12

A second concept which must be dealt with prior to a discussion of Calvin's theology of nature concerns his doctrine of man. With Calvin, this meant a study of man before the sin of Adam and a study of man in his fallen state. The latter was, in addition, divided into unregenerate man and regenerate man. One thus begins with an understanding of what it meant for man to have been created in the image of God. Calvin rejected the Lutheran pastor Andreas Osiander's claim that the image of God was both physical and spiritual. Calvin retained the view that this pertained to the spiritual realm, and indeed "located" the image in the soul.13 To be created in God's image meant, first of all, that man's nature was different qualitatively from all other living creatures. In his commentary of Genesis 1:26 he says, concerning the meaning of "image of God" the following: "But here the question is respecting that glory of God which peculiarly shines forth in human nature, where the mind, the will, and all the senses, represent the Divine Order."14 Yet the spiritual nature of the image did not keep man from physically and mentally demonstrating his difference with the rest of creation.

[Tlhe integrity with which Adam was endowed is expressed by this word [image], when he bad full possession of right understanding, when he had his af f ections kept within the bounds of reason, all his senses tempered in right order, and he truly referred his excellence to exceptional gifts bestowed upon him by his Maker. And although the primary seat of the divine image was in the mind and heart, or in the soul and its powers, yet there was no part of man, not even the body itself, in which some sparks did not glow. . . . From this we may gather that when his image is placed in man a tacit antithesis is introduced which raises man above all other creatures and, as it were, separates him from the common mass.15

The true nature of this image, according to Calvin, is best seen by discovering what redemption through Christ does. His conclusion is that the renewed man in Christ acquires first knowledge, and then righteousness and holiness. "From this we infer that, to begin with, God's image was visible in the light of the mind, in the uprightness of the heart, and in the soundness of all the parts."16 The knowledge of which he speaks is the knowledge of God (as Redeemer and Creator), but, as we shall see later, it is related to and includes a knowledge of creation.

For Calvin, the fact that God was Creator required a God who was still actively involved in His creation and a cosmos which was submitted to His will in all of its activities.

Adam's fall and man's sin mean that the image is marred. Calvin saw this as meaning that all supernatural gifts were taken from him, but he agreed with Augustine that the natural gifts were only corrupted. By the former he meant such things as faith, love of God, desire for holiness, and love of neighbor. But he also includes soundness of mind and uprightness of heart. This results in a corruption of the natural gifts which remain, including human reasoning and understanding. Several passages in Book 11, chapter ii, section 12 discuss this subject, and Calvin's views may be best illustrated in the following:

When we so condemn human understanding for its perpetual blindness as to leave it no perception of any object whatever, we not only go against God's Word, but also run counter to the experience of common sense. For we see implanted in human nature some sort of desire to search out the truth to which man would not at all aspire if he had not already savored it. Human understanding then possesses some power of perception, since it is by nature captivated by love of truth.... Yet this longing for truth, such as it is, languishes before it enters upon its race because it soon falls into vanity, Indeed, man's mind, because of dullness, cannot bold to the right path, but wanders through various errors and stumbles repeatedly, as if it were groping in darkness, until it strays away and finally disappears. Thus it betrays how incapable it is of seeking and finding truth. 17

The point at which we see the corruption most clearly is as man seeks to know God and heavenly things. However, when reason and human understanding are applied to earthly things, such as government, household management, mechanical skills, and the liberal arts, man's efforts are neither worthless nor ineffective. Even the unregenerate man may display wisdom in civil law, dexterity in mechanical skills, or insight in the realm of science. This point is emphasized by Calvin in the section entitled "Science as God's gift:"

Whenever we come upon these matters in secular writers, let that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God's excellent gifts. If we regard the Spirit of God as the sole fountain of truth, we shall neither reject the truth itself, nor despise it wherever it shall appear, unless we wish to dishonor the Spirit of God. . : , , Shall we say that the philosophers were blind in their fine observation and artful description of nature? ... Shall we say that they are insane who developed medicine, devoting their labor to our benefit? What shall we say of all the mathematical sciences? Shall we consider them the ravings of madmen? No, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without great admiration .... But shall we count anything praiseworthy or noble without recognizing at the same time that it comes from God?18

Calvin thus affirms that human reasoning and understanding, as natural gifts of God, still operate in both the regenerate and unregenerate man, but because of the fall, they are inadequate and inaccurate in leading man to knowledge and understanding of God, nature, or himself. and whereas some have discovered aspects of truth, more often they have promoted error, superstition, and human traditions, Calvin was especially distraught by the error taught by both Plato and Aristotle that reason, if it takes command, is able to lead to a good and blessed life, but that the senses may lead to error (cf. Calvin's discussion in Institutes II.ii.2 3). This false reliance on reason leads to "self-sufficient intellectualism," to use John T. McNeill's term,19 and was to be seen soon after Calvin in the resurgence of natural theology. Calvin would not elevate reason to that lofty position because of the fall. Instead, he declared that man's ability to know, enjoy, and glorify

God by looking at nature and using his reason was futile for two reasons: first, man seeks to know God in the wrong way; and, second, he obscures the truth of creation in tradition and superstition. Since man can no longer know God as He reveals Himself through His works, and since reason does not lead us to God, Calvin concludes that God has revealed Himself in a new way-His Word (both Christ and the Scriptures).

Thus the Word leads to faith, and faith, according to Calvin, is superior to all opinion. Scripture is the sole means of avoiding error and correcting faulty reasoning.

Calvin's epistemology becomes clear in Book 1, chapter vi, which be titles "Scripture Is Needed as Guide and Teacher for Anyone Who Would Come to God the Creator." God is known only by revelation, and He reveals Himself in two ways. T.H.L. Parker has an extended discussion of this subject in his interesting book Calvin's Doctrine of the Knowledge of God,20 and he calls the two ways the oracula Dei and the opera Dei. Calvin introduces the subject in this manner:

That brightness which is borne in upon the eyes of all men both in heaven and on earth is more than enough to withdraw all support from men's ingratitude-just as God, to involve the human race in the same guilt, sets forth to all without exception his presence portrayed in his creatures. Despite this, it is needful that another and better help be added to direct us aright to the very Creator of the universe. It was not in vain, then, that he added the light of his Word by which to become known unto salvation .... just as old or bleary-eyed men and those with weak vision, if you thrust before them a most beautiful volume, even if they recognize it-to be some sort of writing, yet can scarcely construe two words, but with the aid of spectacles will begin to read distinctly; so Scripture, gathering up the otherwise confused knowledge of God in our minds, having dispersed our dullness, clearly shows us the true God.21

The title of this chapter and the passage just quoted from that chapter illustrate what has been called the "formal principle" of the Reformation: the Holy Scriptures are the standard by which all things are to be judged. Their function is to teach man who God, the Creator, is, now that he can not know Him by His works. Calvin declares that we should be able to "learn from Scripture that God, the Creator of the universe, can by sure marks be distinguished from all the throng of feigned gods. "22 Thus the Word leads to faith, and faith, according to Calvin, is superior to all opinion. Scripture is the sole means of avoiding error and correcting faulty reasoning. Moreover, Scripture is the means by which we can make sense of the world in which we live. Parker summarizes Calvin's views in these words:

The Scripture is a thread, guiding us through the labyrinth, the enigma of the universe in which we live. The revelation which was frustrated by man's blindness becomes, objectively as well as subjectively, revelation by the illumination of the Holy Spirit. The universe is now perceived to be, not an unmeaning or accidental system, but the opus Dei. World history and personal experience of life is no longer regarded tragically, comically or satirically as a chaotic or cosmic sequence of events, but as the opera Dei. The Creator, executing His eternal purpose by His sovereign power, upholds and orders all things. That revelation which our sin vitiated into a condemnation, the Word of God restores to a source of knowledge of the Creator. If we begin with the Scriptures and learn to know God from them, we find that the same thing is said by God in His works23

For the regenerate man, therefore, nature as a part of the opera Dei becomes a true source of knowledge of God, when it is interpreted by the oracula Dei. Moreover, as a potential source of knowledge, it is a legitimate and necessary object of study. Calvin emphasizes this point in his commentary on Psalm 40:6:

[H)owever diligently a man may set himself to meditate upon the works of God, he can only attain to the extremities or borders of them. Although, then, so great a height be far above our reach, we must nevertheless endeavour, as much as in us lies, to approach it more and more by continual advances; as we see also the band of God stretched forth to disclose to us, so far as it is expedient, those wonders which we are unable of ourselves to discover.23

Calvin insists that the opera Dei are not an independent source of knowledge of God, and the oracula Dei are the spectacles by which chaos is transformed into cosmos. But the oracula Dei are not independent either, for they are confirmed by the creation around man. In both God reveals Himself to man who is unable to know Him correctly apart from His initiating revelation.

11. The Study of Nature: A Means of Knowing God

With this background, what conclusions can we draw with regard to Calvin's theology of nature? And how does that thinking provide a stimulus for the development of science? In answer to the first question ' it would seem that for Calvin and his followers, the study of nature has two functions: it is a means of knowing God and it is a means of glorifying God. Let us examine each of these elements. First, Calvin was concerned about the false ideas about God which were current in his time. He asserted that a study of nature and creation would correct these errors, for it required that man ask the right questions:

What is God? Men who pose this question are merely toying with idle speculations. It is far better for us to inquire, "What is his nature?" and to know what is consistent with his nature. What good is it to profess with Epicurus some sort of God who has cast aside the care of the world only to amuse himself in idleness? What help is it, to know a God with whom we have nothing to do?25

The "right questions" help us avoid the erroneous speculations of philosophers and lead us to a proper understanding of the doctrine of Creation, one which requires a God who is both a Provider and a Planner. Unregenerate men and men without Scripture as a guide fail to see God as Creator, and the result is

It is clear, therefore, that nature is a gift of God, providing the believer with a means of knowing better the nature of God. But to say that Creation is a gift of God has further implications. It means that it has an intrinsic value.

superstition. Rather than apprehending God as He offers Himself, they "measure him by the yardstick of their own carnal stupidity, and neglect sound investigation; thus out of curiosity they fly off into empty speculations."26 If regenerate man, on the other hand, investigates nature using the spectacles of the Scriptures, then knowledge concerning the nature of God can be deduced. Such knowledge edifies the church and the believer, and it corrects error which has developed through superstition and tradition. These points are made repeatedly by Calvin, including in his commentary on Isaiah 40:2-22, and his Institutes, I.v.9, which he titles "We ought not to rack our brains about God; but rather, we should contemplate him in his works." In this latter source he says:

Consequently, we know the most perfect way of seeking God, and the most suitable order, is not for us to attempt with bold curiosity to penetrate to the investigation of his essence, which we ought more to adore than meticulously to search out, but for us to contemplate him in his works whereby he renders himself near and familiar to us, and in some manner communicates himself.... It is also fitting, therefore, for us to pursue this particular search for God, which may so hold our mental powers, suspended in wonderment as at the same time to stir us deeply.27

And in Institutes 1. xiv. 1, be says:

Since the notion of God as the mind of the universe (in the philosophers' eyes, a most acceptable description) is ephemeral, it is important for us to know him more intimately, lest we always waver in doubt. Tberef ore it was his will that the history of Creation be made manifest, in order that the faith of the church, resting upon this, might seek no other God but him who was put forth by Moses as the Maker and Founder of the universe.28

It is clear, therefore, that nature is a gift of God, providing the believer with a means of knowing better the nature of God. But to say that Creation is a gift of God has further implications. It means that it has an intrinsic value. On the one hand such a view distinguishes itself from Luther's by insisting on the constancy of creation, and on the other hand it places a positive value on this world. Luther followed the more pessimistic views of Chrysostom, who held that nature was implicated in man's sin. George Huntson Williams compares in detail the Lutheran and Calvinist positions regarding nature in his "Christian Attitudes Toward Nature" and quotes Luther as saying: "The whole world degenerates and grows worse every day. All creatures, yea, even the sun and the moon, have put on sack cloth."29 The nature of a science which investigated a degenerating, unstable cosmos would be different from that of one which viewed its subject as constant, stable, and orderly. A. Kuyper maintains that in the absence of this latter viewpoint,

Science is unable to go beyond mere conjectures, and only when there is faith in the organic interconnection of the Universe will there be also a possibility for science to ascend from the empirical investigation of the special phenomena to the general, and from the general to the law which rules over it, and from that law to the principle, which is dominant over all. The data, which are absolutely indispensable for all higher science, are at hand only under this supposition.30

Calvin, according to Williams, held to the Augustinian view of nature. Nature must retain its essential goodness if it is to be a revelation of God and evidence of God's goodness. Moreover, if God's nature does not change, creation must remain constant. Calvin's conclusion after examining the alternative tradition is "Notwithstanding I say that it is the same earth which was created in the beginning. "31 Moreover, in addition to viewing the character of creation positively, Calvin taught that it was both acceptable and expedient for men to be actively involved in the study of this world. In his commentary on Genesis 2:8 he says:

For Moses has no other design than to teach man that he was formed by God, with this condition, that he should have dominion over the earth, from which be might gather fruit, and thus learn by daily experience that the world was subject unto him.... But some one may say, that to interpret this of celestial bliss is more skilful. I answer, since the eternal inheritance of man is in heaven, it is truly right that we should tend thither-, yet must we fix our foot on earth long enough to enable us to consider the abode which God requires man to use for a time. 32

And in the Institutes he states similarly:

If we must simply pass through this world, there is no doubt we ought to use its good things in so far as they help rather than hinder our course ....Let this he our principle: that the use of God's gifts is not wrongly directed when it is referred to that end to which the Author himself created and destined them for us, since he created them for our good, not for our ruin. Accordingly, no one will hold to a straighter path than he who diligently looks to this end.33

While the context of this passage implies the use of elements within Creation, the overall thrust would allow the interpretation that all of Creation, which is meant to reveal God, should be studied carefully, since that is in part the end to which God destined it for man. The implications of such a view are many, but they will be examined in more detail when we discuss the study of nature as a means of glorifying God.

One final point should be made with regard to man's seeking to know God through the study of nature, and this point has already been alluded to before. Reason has its limits, and, as Ernst Troeltsch says so well, for

The God- Who revealed Himself in His Word is the same God Who revealed Himself in His Works, and the God Who is discovered by reason and a study of His Works must be consistent with the God Who has spoken clearly in His Word.

"Calvin, God is irrational in the sense that He is not to be measured by the standards of human reason and logic."34 Specifically Calvin says:

For even though our eyes, in whatever direction they may turn, are compelled to gaze upon God's works, yet we see how changeable is our attention, and how swiftly are dissipated any godly thoughts that may touch us. Here also, until human reason is subjected to the obedience of faith and learns to cultivate that quiet to which the sanctification of the seventh day invites us, it grumbles, as if such proceedings were foreign to God's power35 [Italics added]

It is clear that for Calvin, reason should serve faith. It becomes a means of understanding what faith reveals, and hence in practical terms it must be subjected to the authority of Scripture. Methodologically, therefore, that data of experience and the conclusions of reason are never isolated from knowledge gained through the oracula Dei. The God Who revealed Himself in His Word is the same God Who revealed Himself in His Works, and the God Who is discovered by reason and a study of His Works must be consistent with the God Who has spoken clearly in His Word. If one's senses or reason lead to contrary conclusions, then the Word remains the authority, and senses and reason must be corrected. On the other hand, senses and reason can illuminate and confirm the Word by increasing man's understanding of Creation and hence his knowledge of the Creator.

III. The Study of Nature: A Means of Glorifying God.

Thus far we have looked at the study of nature as a means of knowing God. Let us now turn our attention to the second function which the study of nature has in reformed theology, namely as a means of glorifying God. if the first task of man is to know God, then the second task is to glorify Him. Calvin emphasizes this point when he states: "Now the great thing is this: we are consecrated and dedicated to God in order that we may thereafter think, speak, meditate, and do, nothing except to his glory. For a sacred thing may not be applied to profane uses without marked injury to him."36

It is at this point that another element of Calvin's teachings converges with his doctrine of Creation, namely his view of the Church and its function. Troeltsch says, on this point, the following:

To Calvin the Church is not merely an organ of salvation which provides the objective means of grace, from which everything else should develop as a logical result, and from the standpoint of which the ungodliness of the world must be supported in patience and humility. The organ of salvation ought rather at the same time provide the means of sanctification; it ought to prove itself effective in the Christianizing of the community, by placing the whole range of life under the control of Christian regulations and Christian purposes.37 [Italics added]

Troeltsch goes on to say that Calvin regarded "everything as commanded and permitted which can serve the glory of God-and by that he means that the Church is to be set up, maintained, and kept pure as a community of saints closely connected with the State and with Society."38 Such a viewpoint requires an active involvement in this world on the part of believers, and it also breaks down the historic distinction between sacred and secular, doctrine and deed, piety and practicality. Two passages in Troeltsch are particularly relevant at this point:

He ... rejects a faith that is based merely on dogma and authority, and discards all ideas of sacramentarian magic; he also teaches that the new life must spring from faith. But since to him the central point of religion is not the blessedness of the creature, but the Glory of God, so also the glorification of God in action is the real test of individual personal reality in religion .... In conflict and in labour the individual takes up the task of sanctification of the world, always with the certainty, however, that he will not lose himself in the life of the world; ... he is free to give all his attention to the effort to mould the world and society according to the Will of God. His duty ... is not to preserve the "new creation" in its intimacy with God, but to reveal it.39

A little further on, Troeltsch continues:

In Calvin's mind God cannot reveal Himself solely in purity of doctrine; He must also manifest His active and creative nature as an energy of will.... The "pure doctrine" is not an end in itself, but, just as faith is the presupposition of right action, so also pure doctrine is only a presupposition and a means to some further end .... This explains why Calvinism, with its severe logic and its acceptance of the culture of Western Europe, maintains a far higher intellectual standard than Lutheranism, and yet lays far less emphasis on doctrine and on system .... God, he teaches, gave us reason to aid us in our work in the world, and for the glory of God. Thus the keenest and the most cultivated intellect, and the clearest formulation of doctrine, are only of use as tools for purposes which are above the grasp of the intellect and as a preparation for action.40

Such activity, since done to manifest God's glory, is a divine task, no matter what the nature of the work. Farming, for example, was called "celestial agriculture, " and provided, according to Charles Webster, "an ideal opportunity to work with God and to abide by the apostle's admonition to take the fullest advantage of the power of grace (2 Cor. 6:1).""l Moreover, the study of nature provided man with increased capacity to subdue it, to have dominion over it, and thus to extend the Scriptural mandate. By doing that, the believer validated the Word and brought glory to the RedeemerCreator. No matter what one's vocation, therefore, one is called to glorify God through it, and the study of nature is as glorifying to Him as is the preaching of His Word.

Another way in which the study of nature leads to the glory of God is in the discovery of how to use the gifts God has given to men. Calvin taught that the natural qualities of things "demonstrate sufficiently to what end and extent we may enjoy them."42 He amplifies this point by stating:

Let this be our principle: that the use of God's gifts is not wrongly directed when it is referred to that end to which the Author himself created and destined them for us, since he created them for our good, not for our ruin. Accordingly, no one will hold to a straighter path than he who diligently looks to this end.43

Calvin then laid the groundwork for a stewardship of Creation by discussing the proper use of it-avoiding narrow-minded frugality and immoderate indulgence. The study of nature teaches the purpose of the elements of Creation and thus their proper utilization. Webster comments on how such a view was incorporated into early English Puritan science and concludes with these

Calvin then laid the groundwork for a stewardship of Creation by discussing the proper use of it-avoiding narrow-minded frugality and immoderate indulgence.

words: "[I]nvestigations conducted into secondary causes, and with utilitarian ends in mind, would incur no risk of transgression, but instead glorify God, and restore man's dominion over nature."44 The utilitarian character of Calvinism is a well documented and accepted point, but it must be made clear that it differs from the utilitarian philosophies of the Enlightenment. The study of nature takes a very pragmatic, utilitarian bent, but all is for the glory of God. Moreover, not only does the study of nature lead to a stewardship, or proper use, of it, but also the study of nature allows men to use the differing gifts God has given them in their vocations, thus glorifying Him. Indeed, Calvin's major section on men I s callings, or vocations, is the final portion of the chapter dealing with the proper use of God's gifts of nature (Book 111. x. 1-6). He says there, "It is enough if we know that the Lord's calling is in everything the beginning and foundation of welldoing."45 Such a view of vocation further breaks down the distinction between sacred and secular activities, for the laborer who follows his calling is glorifying God as much as is the man who preaches or who pastors the congregation. Stewardship begins with using rightly God's gifts to the individual through his calling, continues by discovering the proper use of His gifts of Creation, and is motivated by "the sense of responsibility and of the obligation to render personal service under the Lordship of Christ."46 That is the essential character of glorifying God in a practical way.

What is not mentioned as much in studies of Calvinism, however, is that man can glorify God in nonpractical ways. The study of nature, by increasing man's understanding of the way in which it functions, increases his appreciation of the Creator and builds faith (cf. Institutes I.xiv. 1). But while such a study may increase one's knowledge of God, it is inadequate if it does not lead to the aesthetic enjoyment of both the Creator and His Creation. Accompanying the instructions cited above to use God's gifts for the purposes for which they were created are the following comments:

Now if we ponder to what end God created food, we shall find that he meant not only to provide for necessity but also for delight and good cheer .... In grasses, trees, and fruits, apart from their various uses, there is beauty of appearance and pleasantness of odor [cf. Gen. 2:91. For if this were not true, the prophet would not have reckoned them among the benefits of God, "that wine gladdens the heart of man, and oil makes his face shine" [Ps. 104:15p.]. Scripture would not have reminded us repeatedly, in commending his kindness, that he gave all such things to men. And the natural qualities themselves of things demonstrate sufficiently to what end and extent we may enjoy them. Has the Lord clothed the flowers with the great beauty that greets our eyes, the sweetness of smell that is wafted upon our nostrils,and yet will it be unlawful for our eyes to be affected by that beauty, or our senses of smell by the sweetness of that odor? What? Did he not so distinguish colors as to make some more lovely than others? What? Did he not endow gold and silver, ivory and marble, with a loveliness that renders them more precious than other metals or stones. Did he not, in short, render many things attractive to us, apart from their necessary use?47

If this passage is not sufficient proof of Calvin's recognition of the value of the aesthetic component of life, the following sentence which introduces the next section should dispel all doubts: "Away, then, with that inhuman philosophy which, while conceding only a necessary use of creatures, not only malignantly deprives us of the lawful fruit of God's beneficence but cannot be practiced unless it robs a man of all his senses and degrades him to a block.48 The study of nature should expand man's awareness of Creation, and increased understanding should produce an appreciation of the intricacies of the work and an awe of the Maker. Moreover, it should provide the observer with more data to enjoy and to marvel at. These in turn should provoke greater adoration of the Creator, and hence direct man to glorify the One Who made all things for man's benefit and pleasure.

IV. The Character of the Science Based on Calvin's Thought

Thus far we have tried to show that Calvin's theology required an approach to nature which favored its disciplined investigation. We have seen that Creation is a means of God's self-revelation to the man of faith, and through its study, man is able to know God better and thus glorify Him as He should be praised and enjoyed. If the analysis thus far is valid, then we should be able to see certain results in the science which proceeded from this base. Let us therefore turn to some of those results and see bow they were an outgrowth of Calvin's theology of nature.

First, the introduction of the Scriptures as the standard by which all propositions were to be judged produced a changed view as to the authority of classical writers. Leroy Nixon in his John Calvin's Teachings on Human Reason points out that

There are two stock phrases which occur dozens of times in Calvin's commentaries and sermons. In the phrase "Philosophers say" the P is always capitalized. "The philosophers" is a standard medieval expression for Aristotle and his followers. It was used by Maimonides as early as 1175. When Maimonides thoroughly agreed, he used the name, "Aristotle;" when he disagreed, he dubbed the Aristotelians with the epithet "the philosophers." Calvin adopted this mannerism, occasionally even in the Institutes. In Calvin's other epithet, "all the Sophists of the Sorbonne," the initial S in "Sophists" is likewise always capitalized. Kidd has noted that during this period the sebolasties were commonly referred to as sophists.49

Nature must retain its essential goodness if it is to be a revelation of God and evidence of God's goodness. Moreover, if God's nature does not change, creation must remain constant.

Calvin's doctrine of the Fall requires that he hold in question the opinions of all men and measure their reasoning against revelation. Aristotle, the philosophers, and the scholastics might be correct in some things, but they were to be judged on the basis of Scriptural truths, and that which was false was to be rejected. This meant, in part, that learning was moved from the classroom and textbooks to a direct study of nature. Hooykaas discusses this point in terms of the " priesthood of all believers" concept, and says this:

This [the priesthood of all believers] implied the right, and even the duty, for those who had the talents, to study Scripture without depending on the authority of tradition and hierarchy, together with the right and the duty to study the other book written by God, the book of nature, without regard to the authority of the fathers of natural philosophy. The Huguenot Palissy was derided because he, a man "without letters" (that is, ignorant of Greek and Latin), had dared to contradict the view of the ancients, who held that minerals grow like plants. A scholar, introduced under the name of "Theorique", asks him in which book he has read his new opinion, and he retorts that he got his knowledge through the anatomy of nature and not by reading books: "I have had no other book but heaven and earth, which is known to everybody, and it has been given to every man to know and to read this beautiful book."50

Yet the authority of Scripture did not create a "Biblical Science" as it did a "Biblical Theology." Again, Hooykaas clarifies this point when he writes:

There was, of course, the temptation, especially for those who wanted to substitute a purely biblical theology for a theology based on Aristotelian principles, to found science too on a biblical instead of an Aristotelian basis. And this biblical foundation often meant that not only a general evaluation of the world was sought in the Bible but also concrete data about its structure. .However, the idea of setting up a "biblical" natural science found no general acceptance among the adherents of the Reformation. The idea was rejected by such influential writers as Barons and Francis Bacon, Kepler and Wilkins .... In general, the "biblicism" of the Reformed Christians was not concerned with scientific topics, and in seeking the data of science solely in the book of creation, they followed the examples of one of their main teachers, John Calvin.51

The result was a return to the study of nature, by direct observation and manipulation (or experimentation). At the same time, it was expected that the Holy Spirit would lead the student of nature to recognize truth which had been formerly discovered. The student was thus allowed to observe, freed of the shackles of tradition, but at the same time permitted to utilize those "truths" which were consistent with Scriptural revelation. Moreover, as Hooykaas indicated, the concept of the priesthood of all believers implied a duty for all who had the talent to observe and to learn from nature to exegete its text in the same manner as those who had the ability to explain the Word were obligated to perform their services-both for God's glory and for the sake of the community of believers.

The rejection of tradition as authority and the egalitarian character of Calvinism as exhibited in the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers bad an impact on a very important philosophical concept which had strongly influenced science, namely the concept of the Great Chain of Being.52 Based upon classical Greek ontology, especially Aristotle's, and developed by Anselm and Thomas Aquinas, all of creation was ranged in a hierarchy of being ranging from divine, angelic, and human, on down to the simplest matter. Eugene M. Klaaren claims that Calvin rejected this view, and supports that claim in various ways."53 First of all, Calvin did not maintain the essence-existence distinction of Aquinas, and so the Thomistic distinction between primary and secondary causation and a scale of causes was absent in Calvin. But more central to Calvin's rejection of the chain of being was his "conviction that all creation was egalitarian because of its ultimate dependence upon God's power."54 Several passages in the Institutes show that Calvin did not view the angels as intermediaries between God and man (e.g., 11.12.1), and because they were dependent upon the Creator for their existence in the same way as man, they were no higher (nor lower) than humans. Similar logic forced the rejection of the total hierarchical system. By freeing the student of nature from the confines of this pattern of thinking, reformed theology created an atmosphere in which physical or biological, not ontological, relationships could be explored.

But if it is true, as we said earlier, that all who had talent had a duty to serve the community, then the community in turn had a duty to help all develop their talents. The result was a move toward universal education. Webster describes the view and priority given education in this way:

Pre-occupation with the deficiencies of the senses and reason, awareness of the inherent defects of the cultural inheritance, and appreciation of the degree of labour required for correction induced a sharpened awareness of the difficulties of education. At the same time it was realised that childhood and youth were God's gift to each generation, constituting a perpetual challenge to man to redeem his state of corruption. Each new mind was a tabula rasa; every child was as impressionable as wax .... Education was seen as a battleground, on which society's education mechanisms were tested against the impinging forces of evil. Through education, the Kingdom of God came within the reach of each generation, but failure to exploit its potentialities had perpetuated man's ruinous condition. Education was accordingly both a source of hope and a reminder of human inadequacy....Belief in the impending millennium prompted the Puritans to redouble their educational efforts, so that the ground might be prepared for the Great Instauration. In the final age the barriers to knowledge would be removed, but only after dedicated individual effort, and the total utilisation of human resources, would God grant his full Light of Wisdom.55

Practically, this resulted in a drastic revision of education, and by the middle of the 17th century, new educational objectives were to be found among many of the Puritans in England. Sciences were to be founded on Baconian axioms; ideas and systems were to be evaluated according to merit, not authority; manual experience and laboratory experimentation were to be preferred over disputational and library learning, with chemistry serving as the model for the empirical sciences; and Galenic medicine was to be rejected and Paracelsian medicine incorporated, since the latter would promote a more systematic study of diseases.56 Moreover, this education was to be in the vernacular, reducing even more the authoritive influence of the ancients and promoting the dispersal of knowledge throughout the community. In this regard, Webster says:

The study of nature should expand man s awareness of Creation, and increased understanding should produce an appreciation of the intricacies of the work and an awe of the Maker.


By a reversal of the priorities of traditional education, languages would be acquired only where relevant to an increased understanding of the natural world. The foundation of knowledge would be the solid learning of science and mathematics, conducted in the vernacular .... Thus the process of education would lead naturally into vocational life, each member of the community being equipped for public service conducted out of a sense of religious obligation.57

Hence the benefits of the increased educational emphasis within the Reformed tradition were quickly appropriated by society at large.

The emphasis on practical public service, even in the sciences, can be seen in the outline of science subjects taught at the highest level in the Reformed Schools in England in the early 1700's. The students learned agriculture (building on earlier studies in husbandry); natural history, and the histories of meteors and minerals; architecture, engineering, fortification, fireworks, weapons, military discipline, and navigation; mathematics, including optics and accounting; medicine, including chemistry and pharmacy; and surgery, including dressings and ointments.58 Such a curriculum illustrates the active this-world emphasis of Reformed pietism, which contrasts greatly with the more aesthetic, passive, other-world pietism of both the Catholic and the Lutheran traditions. It also demonstrates the emphasis placed on observationally based sciences rather than the more speculative ones.

The final result which can be seen in the sciences built upon Calvin's theology of nature occurred when a philosophy developed which was divorced from the theology. The orderliness and stability of nature demanded a Creator, but without the theology which insisted upon the providential character of the Maker. there was a shift to deism and mechanism. The value which Calvin placed on the creation as a gift of God led, with the theology removed, to materialism. And whereas Calvin required that reason be submitted to the revelation of Scripture, those who rejected the theological roots elevated reason, with the resulting forms of rationalism as the outcome. The scientific study of nature was no longer a duty of men who sought to know the Creator and to glorify and enjoy Him, but it was now the pursuit of those who sought knowledge for its own sake, or who wished to control and subdue nature for their own benefit. The philosophy which was to predominate by the end of the 17th century was indeed an outgrowth of Reformed theology, but it was cut off from those roots, and it would therefore have been viewed by Calvin as a heresy in need of reform.


1Charles Coulston Gillispie. The Edge of Objectivity. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973. pp. 114-115.

2Robert K. Merton. "The Puritan Spur to Science" in The Sociology of Science. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1973. pp. 228-253.

3Gillispie, p. 115.

4 R. Hooykaas. Religion and the Rise of Modem Science. Grand Rapids,
Michigan: Wrn. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1972.

5John Calvin. The Institutes of the Christian Religion. Trans. Ford Lewis Battles. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960. p. lxxi.

6John Calvin. Commentary on the Book of Psalm, Vol. I. Trans. James Anderson. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1949. p. 309.

7Calvin. Psalms. p. 309.

8Calvin. Institutes. I.xiv.2. pp. 161-162.

9Calvm. Institutes. I.xiv.2. pp. 161-162.

10Calvin. Institutes. I.xvi.I. p. 197.

11Calvin. Institutes. 1.xvi.l. p. 197.

12 Calvin. Institutes. I.v.6. p. 58.

13Calvin. Institutes. I.xv.2. p. 186.

14John Calvin. Commentaries on the First Book of Moses Called Genesis, Vol. I. Trans. John King. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1948, p. 96.

15Calvin. Institutes. I.xv.3. p. 188.
16Calvin. Institutes. I.xv.4. p. 189.

17Calvin. Institutes. II.ii.12. p. 271.

18Calvin. Institutes. II.ii.15, pp. 273-274.

19Calvin. Institutes. Translator's footnote to III.vii.4. p. 694.

Thomas Henry Louis Parker. Calvin's Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. Rev. ed. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdman's Publishing Company, 1959. pp. 48-51.

21Calvin. Institutes. Lvi. I. pp. 69-70.

22Calvin. Institutes.,2. p. 71.

23Parker. Calvin's Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. pp. 48-49.

24Parker. Calvin's Doctrine of the Knowledge of God. p. 50.

25Calvin. Institutes. I.ii.2. p. 41.

Calvin. Institutes. I.iv. I. p. 47.

Calvin. Institutes. I.v.9. pp. 61-62.

28Calvin. Institutes. I.xiv.21. pp. 159-160.

George Huntson Williams. "Christian Attitudes Toward Nature." Christian Scholar's Review. Vol. 11, No. I (Fall, 1971)12-13.

30Abraham Kuyper. Calvinism: Six Stone Foundation Lectures. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdman's Publishing Company, 1943. pp. 115-116.

31Williams. "Christian Attitudes Toward Nature." pp. 12-13. 

32Calvin. Genesis. pp. 114-115. 

33CalvinInstitutes. III. x. 1,2, pp. 719-720. 

34Ernst Troeltsch. The Social Teaching of the Christian Church, Vol. 2. Trans. Olive Wyon. New York: The MacMillan Company, 1949. p. 589. 

35Calvin. Institutes. I.xiv.2. p. 161. 

36Calvin. Institutes. III.vii.2. p. 690.

37Troeltsch. The Social Teaching of the Christian Church. p. 591.

38Troeltsch. The Social Teaching of the Christian Church. p. 599.

39Troeltsch. The Social Teaching of the Christian Church. pp. 587-588. 

40Troeltsch. The Social Teaching of the Christian Church. pp. 588-589. 

41Charles Webster. The Great Instauration: Science, Medicine,- and Reform-1626-1660. New York: Holmes and Meier Pub., 1975. p. 1.01.

42Calvin. Institutes. III.x.2. p. 721. 

43Calvin's Institutes. III.x.2. p. 720. 

44Webster. The Great Instauration. p. 22. 

45Calvin's. Institutes. III.x.6. p. 724.

46Troeltsch. The Social Teaching of the Christian Church. pp. 589-590. 

47Calvin. Institutes. III.x.2. pp. 720-721. 

48Calvin. Institutes. III.x.3. p. 721. 

49Leroy Nixon. John Calvin's Teachings on Human Reason. New York: Exposition Press, 1963. p. 7. 

Hooykaas. Religion and the Rise of Modern Science. p. 109.

51Hooykaas, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science. pp. 116-117. 

52Readers unfamiliar with this concept should see Arthur 0. Lovejoy. The Great Chain of Being: A History of an Idea. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1978. 

53Eugene M. Klaaren. Religious origins of Modern Science. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdman's Publishing Co., 1977. Cf. pp. 30, 40, 203. 

54Klaaren. Religious Origins of Modern Science. p. 40.

55Webster. The Great Instauration. pp. 100-101. 

56Based upon the analysis of Webster. The Great Instauration. p. 202. 

57Webster. The Great Instauration. p. 107. 

58Webster. The Great Instauration. pp. 215-216.