John Calvin and Creation as a Theater of God’s Glory

When it comes to creation, the Reformed tradition has a less than praiseworthy reputation. A small taste of this can be found in criticism of John Calvin: from the desacralization of the medieval sense of nature pinned on Calvin (1), his theologizing of a “clastrophobic universe” (2), to his to his persistent negative view of materiality (3), and accusations of hatred of the flesh (4)—not to mention the criticism leveled at his theological descendants—the theological world generally agrees that Reformed theology is malformed in its understanding of creation.

To be honest, I‘ve wondered if there isn’t something innately wrong with Reformed theology in this area, if the criticisms leveled at Calvin and his followers do indeed hit the mark. But now—after a few enthusiastic guides have taken me back to Calvin, I’m feeling a bit more hopeful.

In his book Ravished by Beauty, Belden Lane examines Calvin and Jonathan Edwards to reveal their theology of creation, particularly its beauty. His concern is ecological: he asks whether there can be found in Reformed spirituality the resources for an attentive, humble stewardship of creation. In his examination of Calvin’s theology, he focuses on Calvin’s metaphor of the world as the “theater of God’s glory.” Calvin uses this metaphor to convey the wonder, awe, and astonishment that creation evokes, and ought to evoke.

W. David O. Taylor also looks at this metaphor in his book The Theater of God’s Glory. While Taylor’s specific focus is on the worship and liturgy of the church, Taylor uses the positive creation theology of Calvin to make his argument. He has no lack of material to work with. Here are some of the quotes he gives from Calvin:

”We see, indeed, the world with our eyes, we tread the earth with our feet, we tread innumerable kinds of God’s works with our hands, we inhale a sweet and pleasant fragrance from herbs and flowers, we enjoy boundless benefits; but in those very things of which we obtain some knowledge, there dwells such an immensity of divine power, goodness, and wisdom, as absorbs all our senses.” – Commentary on Genesis

“It is no small honor that God for our sake has so magnificently adorned the world, in order that we may not only be spectators of this beauteous theater, but also enjoy the multiplied abundance and variety of good things which are presented to us in it.” – Commentary on Psalm 104

”In respect of his essence, God undoubtedly dwells in light that is inaccessible; but as he irradiates the whole world by his splendor, this is the garment in which he, who is hidden in himself, appears in a manner visible to us…that we may enjoy the sight of him, he must come forth to view with his clothing; that is to say, we must cast our eyes upon the very beautiful fabric of the world in which he wishes to be seen by us, and not be too curious and rash in searching into his secret essence.” – Commentary on Psalm 104

This last quote, Taylor argues, demonstrates Calvin’s conviction that we must seek God in and through his creation, not above it. We cannot bypass creation to get to more secretive knowledge of God; God has chosen the creation as the means by which he reveals himself.

Julie Canlis also explore Calvin’s doctrine of creation within her book Calvin’s Ladder. Her argument focuses on the language of participation and ascent in Calvin’s theology. She shows how Calvin moves away from Plotinus, Denys, and Aquinas (all with different articulations of the relationship between creator and created) to a focus on Christ’s mediation of creation. Rather than a natural theology that perceives God and creation as independent, Calvin insisted that God is ceaselessly present to his creation (4). Canlis demonstrates that Calvin believed the world to be both the “trysting place” between God and humanity, as well as the “sphere of koinonia” or communion, “that is not away from materiality but a deepened experience of communion within it” (5).

In one sermon, Calvin says, “There are two things we must properly consider. One, that we have beginning and life through this Word. The other, that we are sustained through Him—and not only we, but all the world.” Canlis argues that Calvin’s theology “introduces an intimacy between Creator and creation in that a person—the Mediator—has bound himself to the ongoing life of the world. Even in the Garden of Eden, Adam received life not from God simpliciter but from Christ” (6). The Spirit, too, is active, Calvin says, “For it is the Spirit who, everywhere diffused, sustains all things, causes them to grow, and quickens them in heaven and in earth…transfusing into all things his energy, and breathing into them essence, life, and movement…” (7).

I could give many more examples and claims from Taylor, Lane, and Canlis that bring out the truly rapturous way that Calvin spoke about creation. There is no doubt that he found the creation to be worthy of our attention and delight, and the locus of God’s active, sustaining work through Christ and in the Spirit.

Why, then, such a terrible reputation? And in my own experience, why the neglect of this aspect of Calvin’s theology?

Canlis and Taylor both articulate reasons within Calvin’s own theology that this is the case. One of Canlis’s observations is that “Calvin’s talk of Christ’s flesh as ‘channel’ can give the impression that the blessings we receive are channeled from a higher place, betraying—ever so slightly—an inclination to shy away from the material realm as the genuine realm of salvation history. The implications are that God is here not acting as man but through a man” (8). This comment, while focused on the humanity of Christ, has implications for creation, as Christology has implications for how creation is understood—is physical matter good? Bad? A concession? A necessary evil?

Canlis also notes that Calvin’s metaphor of ladder for the sacraments muddies the water in terms of how to think of the physical: “The ambiguity hidden in Calvin’s image of the ladder…is that a ladder leads one to another place. What is not clear from Calvin’s language is whether the physical truly participates in the spiritual, or whether the physical leads one away from itself and up to the spiritual” (9).

This ambiguity of the material world is noted by Taylor as well—although, when it comes to the worship and liturgy of the church, Taylor shows that Calvin is overwhelmingly pessimistic. While Calvin sings the praises of the beauty and glory of God revealed through creation, he denigrates the material within the context of worship: “Here the material creation is seen as an especial temptation to distort the true worship of God and as a lesser vehicle by which the faithful offer their praises to God” (10). Taylor argues that Calvin demonstrates an “anxiety over the capacity of physical things to mislead the worship of the faithful in idolatrous or superstitious ways” (11).

I wonder about this contradiction. In my own experience, Reformed theology tends to emphasise doctrines of worship more than creation, so if Calvin is overwhelmingly negative in that area, it makes sense that his negativity towards and suspicion of created things would dominate his followers’ understanding of physical matter. His doxological joy over the created world, meanwhile, is neglected and forgotten.

In his book, Taylor offers a way forward for a Reformed understanding of the material elements of worship and liturgy that moves out of Calvin’s positive creation theology. Are there also resources in Calvin’s creation theology to move us towards an ethic of creation stewardship that not only rejoices in but also cares for the goodness of the material creation? I think so.

(1) Pierce, Monica Schapp. Calvin, the Spirit and the Earth, p. 5.
(2) Ibid.
(3) Taylor, W. David O. The Theater of God’s Glory.
(3) Ibid.
(4) Canlis, Julie. Calvin’s Ladder.
(5) Ibid.
(6) Ibid.
(7) Institutes I.13.14, qtd in Canlis.
(8) Canlis.
(9) Ibid.
(10) Taylor.
(11) Ibid.