Picking up Calvin’s Institutes after a short (ahem) pause, we move from the doctrine of God to the doctrine of creation, in chapters 14 and 15 of Book I. What is striking here is that, in this relatively short treatment of the subject (38 pages), almost half (17 pages) is devoted to the topic of angels and devils. Meanwhile, of the remaining 19 pages, the 14 pages of chapter 15 are devoted to the human soul and its faculties. Why might there be so little about the rest of God’s creation?
Calvin seems not to be particularly interested in the non-human creation for its own sake. True, he will have us ‘not be ashamed to take pious delight in the works of God open and manifest in this most beautiful theater’ (I.xiv.20). But the reason he can describe this as ‘holy meditation’ is that we are able to ‘contemplate in all creatures, as in mirrors, those immense riches of [God’s] wisdom, justice, goodness, and power’ (I.xiv.21). Calvin’s view of creation is anthropocentric: he says that God ‘created all things for man’s sake’ (I.xiv.22). (For example, the reason God created in six days, rather than in an instant, was to show us that he ‘was concerned for us even before we were born’ [I.xiv.22].) But are God’s creatures no more than ‘mirrors’ through which we may behold something of the glory of God?
The discussion of body and soul in chapter 15 is similarly disparaging of the physical side of creation. Calvin describes the soul as the ‘nobler part’ of a human being, and speaks in terms of the soul ultimately being ‘freed from the prison house of the body’ (I.xv.2). Perhaps, charitably, Calvin has in mind our bodies in their fallen condition? But he seems not to make that clear. I wonder whether Calvin, along with his contemporaries, was too greatly influenced by Plato? (‘Of [the philosophers] hardly one, except Plato, has rightly affirmed [the soul’s] immortal substance’ [I.xv.6].) And perhaps Calvin, suffering from continual poor health, was personally less inclined than many of us are to view bodily existence as a blessing? Nonetheless, I didn’t find these sections to be the most edifying parts of the chapters on creation.
The sections on angels and devils, on the other hand, are very encouraging. CS Lewis spoke about people tending to fall into the error either of being too interested in devils, or of disbelieving in their existence. I suppose the same is true of angels. In our day and age, I’m sure we speak too little of angels and devils (well, most of us do). But in Calvin’s time, maybe the opposite was true?
Two things stand out in Calvin’s approach:
1. It is scriptural. He repeatedly speaks against ‘empty speculations’ and resolves ‘not to speak, or guess, or even to seek to know, concerning obscure matters anything except what has been imparted to us by God’s Word’ (I.xiv.4).
2. It is pastoral. Calvin is constantly milking the Scriptures for practical encouragement.
But Scripture strongly insists upon teaching us what could most effectively make for our consolation and the strengthening of our faith: namely, that angels are dispensers and administrators of God’s beneficence toward us (I.xiv.6).
Likewise, we are told about the devils in order that we may be prepared and strengthened for the fight:
All that Scripture teaches concerning devils aims at arousing us to take precaution against their stratagems and contrivances, and also to make us equip ourselves with those weapons which are strong and powerful enough to vanquish these most powerful foes (I.xiv.13).
I’m expecting this scriptural and pastoral approach to continue into the next chapters, on the doctrine of God’s providence.