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John Calvin on the Literal Meaning of Genesis

The great Protestant reformer John Calvin clearly held to a literal six-day creation in the recent past. In his commentary on Genesis published in 1554, he strenuously rejected the allegorical methods of the early church father Origen, which he said resulted in the meaning of Scripture being “indiscriminately interpreted” and “mangled.” Calvin also sought to reverse the Augustinian view that the creation had occurred instantaneously and was only conveyed narratively in Genesis as filling six days in order to accommodate limited human minds. It “is too violent a cavil to contend that Moses distributes the work which God perfected at once into six days, for the mere purpose of conveying instruction,” Calvin wrote. “Let us rather conclude that God himself took the space of six days, for the purpose of accommodating his works to the capacity of men.” Although “one moment is as a thousand years” for God, and although God had no “need of this succession of time,” he nevertheless spent six literal days creating the world so “that he might engage us in the contemplation of his works.”
Some readers (e.g. Peter M. van Bemmelen in a 2001 article in Andrews University Seminary Studies entitled “Divine Accommodation and Biblical Creation”) have gone no farther than statements such as these to assert that Calvin’s importance for contemporary debates over faith and science is his unequivocal affirmation of a biblical literalism thoroughly consistent with twentieth century young earth creationism. Careful readers of Calvin’s commentary on Genesis will find, however, that he held far more complex, intriguing, and modern-sounding views on Genesis and scientific reasoning than some literalists might allow.
“That Shapeless and Confused Mass that was the Fountain of the Whole World”
Calvin believed that all of matter was created by God on the first day of creation, but that the plants and animals were not created ex nihilo. They were in fact formed by God from a welter of pre-existing materials and so were organically and materially related both to each other and to the created universe as a whole. Those who insisted on completely distinct creations out of nothing on each of the days within the creation week were engaged in intellectual sophistry in Calvin’s view. “Those who assert that the fishes were created from nothing because the waters were in no way sufficient or suitable for their production are nevertheless resorting to rationalization,” he wrote, “for the fact would remain that the material of which they were made existed before…I therefore do not restrict the creation here spoken of [that is, of the fish and birds] to the work of the fifth day but rather suppose it to refer to that shapeless and confused mass that was in effect the fountain of the whole world.”
Calvin’s language is difficult but he appears to have rejected the idea that the word “creation” in Genesis can only describe events and not processes. He seems to have held a kind of hyper-accelerated emergent view of what happened during the creation week. God “created the great creatures of the sea and other fishes–not that the beginning of their creation is to be reckoned from the moment in which they received their form but because of the universal matter that was made out of nothing. So with respect to species, form only was added to them; but creation is nevertheless a term truly used respecting both the whole and the parts.” The reason God created the animals using “material from the earth” was not “because he needed it, but in order that he might combine the separate parts of the world with the universe itself.”
While declaring that the creatures were formed by God not ex nihilo but out of “that shapeless and confused mass” that was “the fountain of the whole world”, Calvin nevertheless made absolutely clear that the imparting of life to matter was a supernatural miracle and not a naturalistically explainable event. “From where does a dead element gain life? This is in this respect a miracle as great as if God had begun to create out of nothing those things that he commanded to proceed from the earth.”
“Moses Adapts Himself to the Ordinary View”
What might Calvin say, then, about highly literalistic interpretations of Genesis today in the light of modern scientific evidences for a very old earth and common ancestry across diverse species? Some clue is perhaps given by Calvin in his interpretation of Genesis 1:16. Calvin’s concern was to make clear that the language of “greater” and “lesser” lights in Genesis in no way conflicted with contemporary astronomical calculations that showed that seemingly small stars and planets such as Saturn were actually much greater in size than the “great” light of the moon ordained by God to “govern the night.” Calvin’s approach to the problem is simple: the words of Genesis 1:16 are not to be taken literally. The great reformer’s clearest statement on the relationship between the scientific evidence of his own day and the literal meanings of Genesis is as follows:
“..Moses described in popular style what all ordinary men without training and education perceive with their ordinary senses. Astronomers, on the other hand, investigate with great labor whatever the keenness of man’s intellect is able to discover. Such study is certainly not to be disapproved, nor science condemned with the insolence of some fanatics who habitually reject whatever is unknown to them…
“Moses did not wish to keep us from such study when he omitted the scientific details. But since he had been appointed a guide of unlearned men rather than of the learned, he could not fulfill his duty except by coming down to their level. If he had spoken of matters unknown to the crowd, the unlearned could say that his teaching was over their heads. In fact, when the spirit of God opens a common school for all, it is not strange that he chooses to teach especially what can be understood by all.
“When the astronomer seeks the true size of stars and finds the moon smaller than Saturn, he gives us specialized knowledge. But the eye sees things differently, and Moses adapts himself to the ordinary view.
“God has stretched out his hand to us to give us the splendor of the sun and moon to enjoy. Great would be our ingratitude if we shut our eyes to this experience of beauty! There is no reason why clever men should jeer at Moses’ ignorance. He is not explaining the heavens to us but is describing what is before our eyes. Let the astronomers possess their own deeper knowledge. Meanwhile, those who see the nightly splendor of the moon are possessed by perverse ingratitude if they do not recognize the goodness of God.”
Source: John Calvin, Genesis (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001).

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