According to John Calvin, Ignoring Science is an Act of Sloth
Calvin believed that science and reason were universal gifts; to neglect the discoveries of non-Christians simply because of their lack of faith is, according to Calvin, to be guilty of “sloth.”
John Calvin is almost universally recognized as one of the most significant Christian theologians in history. His voluminous thoughts on God’s sovereignty and majesty have inspired generations of theologians, and a panoply of modern Christian movements claim him as their theological inspiration. As I’m writing this, I can see Calvin College across the street in Grand Rapids, MI. I don’t personally claim to be a “Calvinist”, but I have high respect for Calvin’s insistence on God’s dominion over all things, and it’s not hard to trace an admirable intellectual legacy among his followers.
Calvin is often quoted as support for various perspectives on Genesis. But trying to pin Calvin as an adherent to geocentrism or young-earth creationism or even evolutionary creationism is profoundly missing the point. Calvin, like every other theologian in history, should be understood in light of his times. As Loren Haarsma wrote on Wednesday, scientific discoveries lead us to ask new theological questions. What Calvin would have said about origins given the massive evidence for common descent is impossible to say. But his own words give us an excellent framework to evaluate the evidence from the perspective of Christian faith. More specifically, Calvin clearly believed that science and reason were universal gifts to mankind, and non-Christians were just as capable of discovering scientific truth as Christians. To neglect the discoveries of non-Christians simply because of their lack of faith is, according to Calvin, to be guilty of “sloth.”
Below are five selections from The Institutes of the Christian Religion, Calvin’s best-known treatise on Christian theology. The quotes were compiled by pastor Mario A. Russo. Following the quotations is a short reflection by Russo.
From a general survey of the human race, it appears that one of the essential properties of our nature is reason, which distinguishes us from the lower animals, just as these by means of sense are distinguished from inanimate objects. For although some individuals are born without reason, that defect does not impair the general kindness of God, but rather serves to remind us, that whatever we retain ought justly to be ascribed to the Divine indulgence.1
We see that there has been implanted in the human mind a certain desire of investigating truth, to which it never would aspire unless some relish for truth antecedently existed. There is, therefore, now, in the human mind, discernment to this extent, that it is naturally influenced by the love of truth, the neglect of which in the lower animals is a proof of their gross and irrational nature… Moreover, let us not forget that there are most excellent blessings, which the Divine Spirit dispenses to whom he will for the common benefit of mankind.2
Therefore, in reading profane authors, the admirable light of truth displayed in them should remind us, that the human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its Creator. If we reflect that the Spirit of God is the only fountain of truth, we will be careful, as we would avoid offering insult to him, not to reject or condemn truth wherever it appears. In despising the gifts, we insult the Giver.3
Therefore, since it is manifest that men whom the Scriptures term natural, are so acute and clear-sighted in the investigation of inferior things, their example should teach us how many gifts the Lord has left in possession of human nature, notwithstanding of its having been despoiled of the true good.4
What shall we say of the mathematical sciences? Shall we deem them to be the dreams of madmen? Nay, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without the highest admiration; an admiration which their excellence will not allow us to withhold… But if the Lord has been pleased to assist us by the work and ministry of the ungodly in physics, dialectics, mathematics, and other similar sciences, let us avail ourselves of it, lest, by neglecting the gifts of God spontaneously offered to us, we be justly punished for our sloth.5
Concluding Thoughts by Mario A. Russo
If rational thought and a capacity to discover truth are not exclusively Christian traits, but are characteristics endowed by God to all people regardless of religious preference, then the Church has much to gain from listening to, engaging with, and embracing all scientists. Science and faith do not stand in conflict with each other. Rather, as Calvin believed, the two inform each other. In the words of Abraham Kuyper,
…Our best Calvinistic Confessions speak of two means whereby we know God, viz., the Scriptures and Nature. And still more remarkable it is that Calvin, instead of simply treating Nature as an accessorial item as so many Theologians were inclined to do, was accustomed to compare the Scriptures to a pair of spectacles, enabling us to decipher again the divine Thoughts, written by God’s Hand in the book of Nature… Thus vanished every dread possibility that he who occupied himself with nature was wasting his capacities in pursuit of vain and idle things.6
All scientific fields are gold mines of truth whose depths are waiting to be plumbed. All scientific fields have already yielded much truth that has proven beneficial for the church as well as society. There is so much more to be explored and learned. Christians would do well to use science to better understand our Creator and the world that he has made.
About the authors
Mario A. Russo
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