Friday, September 6, 2013

John Calvin and the Natural World by Davis Young

One of the clearest and persistent voices of Scriptural fidelity and Protestant orthodoxy has to be John Calvin. He was someone addicted to the sufficiency and authority of Scripture and spent a great portion of his life opening the Scriptures for any who would listen. His works live on past his physical demise and, though demonized by many, he is one of the lasting voices of the Reformation and still has much to teach the Church, even on contemporary issues.

Calvin had an extremely positive attitude towards scientific endeavors in and of themselves. Calvin rejected a “solo scriptura” attitude that saw Scripture as the only source of knowledge and the only authority. He spoke harshly against those who purposefully remained ignorant and applauded that ignorance as somehow virtuous. Calvin definitely affirmed Scripture as the ultimate authority but did so in a manner that showed that all truth is God’s truth, including the sciences.

But clearly, for Calvin, science was not an end to itself. Science existed as a means to worship and honor God. We are created and called to worship the one true God and everything we do should lead us in that direction. “The man in whom there is no knowledge of God, whatever other learning he may otherwise possess, is empty, and even the very sciences and the arts, which are good in themselves, are emptied of significance when they lack this basis.”

Young’s work looks at Calvin’s interaction with multiple topics of science including: the heavens, the age of the earth, global flood, the weather, living things, origins, medicine, the natural world, how Scripture relates to things of nature, and many other topics. Some of the interactions are explicit, some implicit based on things said and how Calvin approached other topics.

One of the highlights of the book is the way it ties Calvin’s principal of accommodation and how this principle relates to the believer in dealing with areas of science that may seem contradictory to Scripture. Calvin’s principal of accommodation, which is not novel to Calvin but can be traced back well into Church history, argues that God, being God, has to condescend to humans in order to relate to us in any way. This is Him accommodating our limitations in order for us to be able to relate to Him in any way. Like a parent “babbling” to a child, God has to stoop down to our level in order to relate to us and us to Him.
A huge part of understanding a text properly is to see the context of the writing. This includes the time something was written, the purpose of writing, the author and the audience. This is important when dealing with scientific issues and the Scriptures. We need to be aware and mindful that God accommodated His revelation in order that the audience would be able to receive it. It is unfair to expect God to write in 21st century scientific language when dealing with an ancient, pre-Science, audience and it is equally unfair to be dogmatic about certain things based on writings to an ancient, pre-science, people. So when we read Moses’ writings, we need to understand that God was speaking to a specific audience and He did so in a manner that they would understand.

Another point to take from Davis’ work is to see that Calvin, as all of us should be, was willing to be proven wrong. Recognizing that all truth is God’s truth, Calvin had no desire to simply be proven correct, he wanted to know truth. He was willing to be proven wrong, even if it meant he would have to reexamine many things. “There is no worse plague than when men are so drunk with their belief in their little learning that they boldly reject everything contrary to their opinion.” This is an attitude that would serve the Church and the Christian very well in a world of growing knowledge and seemingly waning faith. 

Young’s book makes some intriguing claims. I am by no means a Calvin scholar so I cannot testify to the veracity of certain claims made by Young, but I will say that this was an enjoyable and easy read and would benefit anyone interested in science and faith and how one of the giants of Protestant Christian thought approached such issues.