Sunday, December 6, 2009

Calvin and the Natural Sciences by Alister E. McGrath

The origins of modern natural science are complex and controversial. For instance, Lewis S. Feuer has argued vigorously that modern science was the direct result of a 'hedonist-libertarian spirit'. Theories which attempt to explain the remarkable development of the natural sciences in terms of one single controlling factor are, however, ambitious and generally unconvincing. It is clear that a number of contributing factors are implicated; one of those is unquestionably religious, and related to John Calvin.

There is a large body of sociological research, stretching back more than a century, which demonstrates that there are consistent differences between the abilities of the Protestant and Roman Catholic traditions within Christianity to produce first-class natural scientists. These differences, which span a wide range of countries, can be summarized thus: Protestants seem to be much better at fostering natural sciences than Roman Catholics. In his major study of the foreign membership of the Parisian Academie des Sciences over the period 1666-1883, Alphonse de Candolle found that Protestants far outnumbered Roman Catholics. On the basis of population, de Candolle estimated that 60 percent of that membership should have been Roman Catholic, and 40 per cent Protestant; the actual figures turned out to be 18.2 percent and 81.9 per cent. Although Calvinists were considerably in the minority in the southern Netherlands during the sixteenth century, the vast majority of the region's natural scientists were drawn from this constituency. The early membership of the Royal Society of London was dominated by Puritans. As survey after survey indicates, both the physical and biological sciences were dominated by Calvinists during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. This remarkable observation clearly requires some sort of explanation.

Calvin may be regarded as making two major contributions to this debate. At one level, he positively encouraged the scientific study of nature; at the other, he removed a major obstacle to the development of that study. His first contribution is specifically linked with his stress on the orderliness of creation; both the physical world and the human body testify to the wisdom and character of God.

In order that no one might be excluded from the means of obtaining happiness, God has been pleased, not only to place in our minds the seeds of religion of which we have already spoken, but to make known his perfection in the whole structure of the universe, and daily place himself in our view, in such a manner that we cannot open our eyes without being compelled to observe him...Hence the author of the Letter to the Hebrews elegantly describes the visible world as images of the invisible, the elegant structure of the world serving as a kind of mirror in which we may see God, who is otherwise invisible...To prove his remarkable wisdom, both the heavens and the earth present us with countless proofs- not just those more advanced proofs which astronomy, medicine and all the other natural sciences are designed to illustrate, but proofs which force themselves on the attention of the most illiterate peasant, who cannot open his eyes without seeing them. (Institutes I.v.1-2) .

Calvin thus commends both astronomy and medicine- indeed, he even confesses to being slightly jealous of them- in that they are able to probe more deeply into the natural world, and thus uncover further evidence of the orderliness of the creation and the wisdom of its creator. ( The idea that Calvin rubbished Copernicus is a complete myth). It may thus be argued that Calvin gave a fundamental religious impulse and legitimization to the scientific investigation of nature, in that it was seen as a means of discerning the wise hand of God in creation, thus enhancing both belief in his existence and the respect in which he was held. This is born out by the influential Calvinist statement of faith, the Confesso Belgica ( 1561), the researches of Perry Miller into the worldview of the American Puritans and in the letters of Isaac Newton e.g. 'when I wrote my treatise about our system, I had an eye on such principles as might work with considering men for the belief of a Deity; and nothing can rejoice me more than to find it useful for that purpose." There are unambiguous hints here of Calvin's reference to the universe as a "theatre of the glory of God", in which humans are an appreciative audience (Institutes

Calvin's second contribution may be regarded as eliminating a major obstacle to the development of the natural sciences- biblical literalism. This emancipation of scientific observation took place at two distinct levels: first, in the declaration that the subject matter of scripture is not the natural structure of the world, but God's self-revelation and redemption, as concentrated in Jesus Christ; second, in the insistence upon the accommodating character of biblical language. We shall consider both these points individually.

Calvin indicates (although he is not totally consistent in this respect) that the Bible is to be regarded as primarily concerned with the knowledge of Jesus Christ. It is not to be treated as an astronomical, geographical or biological textbook. Perhaps the clearest statement of this principle is to be found in a paragraph added in 1543 to Calvin's preface to Pierre Olivetan's translation of the New Testament (1534): the whole point of scripture is to bring us knowledge of Jesus Christ- and having come to know him (and all this implies), we should come to a halt, and not expect to learn more (Corpos Reformatorum 9:815). Scripture provides us with spectacles, through which we may view the world as God's creation and self-expression; it does not, and was never intended to, provide us with an infallible repository of astronomical and medical information (Institutes The natural sciences are thus effectively emancipated from theological restrictions.

On 4 June 1539, Luther commented caustically upon Copernicus' theory- to be published in 1543- that the earth revolved around the sun: did not scripture insist that the contrary was the case? And so the heliocentric theory of the solar system received a somewhat curt dismissal. Such crude biblical literalism appears to have been typical of the German reformer. In his controversy with Zwingli over the meaning of the famous words spoken by Jesus over the bread at the last supper- "this is my body" (Mathew 26:26) Luther insisted that the word "is" could only be interpreted as "is literally identical to". This struck Zwingli as a religious and linguistic absurdity, totally insensitive to the various levels at which language operated. In this case, "is" mean "signifies".

Calvin, on the other hand, developed a sophisticated theory of 'accommodation'. God, in revealing himself to us, has accommodated himself to our levels of understanding and our innate preference for pictorial means of conceiving him. God reveals himself, not as he is in himself, but in forms adapted to our human capacity. Thus scripture speaks of God having arms, a mouth, and so on- but these are just vivid and memorable metaphors, ideally suited to our intellectual capacities. God reveals himself in ways suitable to the abilities and situations of those to who the revelation was originally made. Thus the biblical stories of the creation and Fall (Genesis 1-3) are accommodated to the abilities and horizons of a relatively simple and unsophisticated people, they are not intended to be taken as literal representations of reality (Corpos Reformatorum 23.9-10, 17-18, 20-3).

Since the nineteenth century, religion and science have often seemed to be locked in mortal combat within western culture. Some writers have suggested that this reflects an excessive influence of Calvin upon western Christianity.* Yet, paradoxically, it is precisely on account of Calvin having had too little influence upon his later followers. The infamous Scopes Trial (1925), centering upon the allegedly non-biblical character of the theory of evolution, bears witness to the inadequacies of a crudely literal interpretation of the Genesis creation accounts. Yet for Calvin, even the idea of the 'six days of creation' was a divine accommodation to the human cognitive abilities, it was not to be taken as literally true (OC 23:18). Had Calvin had a greater influence over his contemporary followers, perhaps one of the central aspects of modern western [more specifically: American culture-JS)- the notion of a tension between religion and science- would have been averted. The entire evolutionary debate would have taken a radically different course.

This, however, is to speculate on what might have happened; our concern is to analyse what did happen. It is evident that there is a fundamental religious impulse to the rapid expansion of the natural sciences in the sixteenth century and beyond, and that this can be put down, at least in part, to the ideas and influence of John Calvin.


  1. "A Life of John Calvin; A Study in the Shaping of Western Culture" by Alister E. McGrath, professor of Historical Theology at Oxford University; Blackwell Publishing, 1990. I originally purchased this book in order to discover why, as briefly mentioned by McGrath in a lecture, Lenin was such an admirer of John Calvin. This passage helps, as well as the fact of Calvin's influence in Geneva despite the fact that he was never a citizen with the right to vote in that City, and the manner in which he spread his doctrine using ministers specially trained for the task sent into France on a clandestine basis. Not to neglect the fact that Calvin remains to this day the most prolific writer in the history of the world, publishing endlessly even in his own time.

  2. * For example, fault for the Salem Witch Trials is often laid at the doorstep of New England's Calvinist Divines and Magistrates. It is true that many of them did participate but it is also true that they later came to regret their actions, concluding that it had all been a delusion and subsequently worked to discourage future persecutions. At any rate, New England had far fewer "witch-burnings" than occurred in Europe which persisted in some areas such as Scotland well into the 18th century. Neither were their tortures and executions as unrelentingly blood-thirsty as those in Spain or France.

  3. Terry Eagleston addresses the lame debate "intelligent design vs evolution" in the following fashion:

    God for Christian theology is not a mega-manufacturer. he is rather what sustains all things in being by his love, and would still be this even if the world had no beginning. Creation is not about getting things off the ground. Rather, God is the reason why there is something rather than nothing, the condition of possibility of any entity whatsoever. Not being any sort of entity himself, however, he is not to be reckoned up alongside these things, any more than my envy and my left foot constitute a pair of objects. God and the universe do not make two. In an act of Judaic iconoclasm, we are forbidden to make graven images of this nonentity because the only image of him is human beings. There is a document that records God's endless, dispiriting struggle with organized religion, known as the Bible. God the creator is not a celestial engineer at work on a superbly rational design that will impress his research grant body no end, but an artist, and an aesthete to boot, who made the world with no functional end in view but simply for the love and delight of it.

    Or, as one might say in more theological language, for the hell of it. He made it as a gift, superfluity, and gratuitous gesture- out of nothing, rather than out of grim necessity. In fact, for Christian theology there is no necessity to the world at all, and God may have long ago regretted succumbing to the sentimental impulse which inspired him to throw it off in the first place. He created it out of love, not need. There was nothing in it for him. The Creation is the original acte gratuit. The doctrine that the world was made out of nothing is meant to alert us to the mind-blowing contingency of the cosmos- the fact that like a modernist work of art it might just as well never happened, and like most thoughtful men and women is perpetually overshadowed by the possibility of its own nonexistence. Creation "out of nothing" is not testimony to how devilishly clever God is, dispensing as he can with even the most rudimentary raw materials, but to the fact that the world is not the inevitable culmination of some prior process, the upshot of some inexorable chain of cause and effect. Any such preceding chain of causality would have to be part of the world, and so could not count as the origin of it. Because there is no necessity about the cosmos, we cannot deduce the laws which govern it from a priori principle, but need instead to look at how it actually works. This is the task of science. There is thus a curious connection between the doctrine of creation out of nothing and the professional life of Richard Dawkins. Without God, Dawkins would be out of a job. It it thus particularly churlish of him to call the existence of his employer into question.