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Ted Davis
 on November 02, 2017

Did John Calvin Make God a Liar?

Calvin, along with other theologians, believed that God accommodated to human error in some passages of scripture. Does this make Calvin a threat to biblical authority?

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“Portrait of Young John Calvin”, Bibliothèque de Genève (image source).

Last time, we examined a common Young-earth creationist claim: if the earth is billions of years old, then God is a liar. That is just one specific instance of the general YEC tendency to dismiss other views with accusations of a “lying” God. In many cases, that approach glosses over legitimate questions about interpreting biblical references to nature that arise naturally from the text. Many such passages were discussed by great theologians long before the acceptance of long ages in the history of nature, when virtually all Christian scholars believed in a “young” earth, and we find a considerable range of interpretive opinion among them. Some of the most instructive examples come from the greatest theologian of the sixteenth century, John Calvin.

The Waters Above the Firmament

Let’s begin with the second day of creation (Genesis 1:6-8):

And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament: and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day.

A fascinating interpretive question concerns the “waters above the firmament.” What were/are they? A generation ago, creationist Henry Morris famously said, “this corresponds to nothing in the present world.” He thought it referred to “a vast blanket of invisible water vapor, translucent to the light from the stars but productive of a marvelous greenhouse effect which maintained mild temperatures from pole to pole, thus preventing air-mass circulations and the resultant rainfall (Gen. 2:5).” This “great canopy of vapor” later condensed and collapsed to produce much of the water for Noah’s Flood—an idea that most creationists later abandoned. (Quoting The Modern Creation Trilogy, vol. 1, p. 20, and vol. 3, p. 138)

This wonderful woodcut of God examining his work of creation, from the workshop of Martin Luther’s disciple Lucas Cranach the Elder, faces the opening page of Genesis in the first edition (1534) of Luther’s German translation of the complete Bible. (image source)

For millennia, Christian scholars have held various other ideas about the waters. For example, Basil of Caesarea, one of the greatest Patristic theologians, devoted significant attention to this question in his third homily on Genesis. Basil believed that Genesis 1:1 (“In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth”) teaches that God made “the heaven” first, and that the “heaven” mentioned on day two must be another heaven containing the stars. Thus, the “waters above the firmament” must be above the starry heaven but beneath the original heaven, making three separate entities above the spherical earth, consistent with Paul’s reference to a man who was carried up into the “third heaven” (2 Cor. 12:2). This contradicted Aristotle’s teaching of the existence of just one heaven (containing the stars), but Basil went with the Bible alone, refusing to follow earlier commentators who had interpreted the waters allegorically.

Calvin’s approach twelve hundred years later in his Commentary on Genesis differs remarkably. Unlike Basil, Calvin did not believe in a vast sea above the stars. Instead, he has this to offer:

Moses describes the special use of this expanse [firmament], to divide the waters from the waters—from which word arises a great difficulty. For it appears opposed to common sense, and quite incredible, that there should be waters above the heaven. Hence, some [authors] resort to allegory, and philosophize concerning angels; but [this is] quite beside the purpose. For, to my mind, this is a certain principle: nothing is treated of here, except the visible form of the world. He who would learn astronomy and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere. Here the Spirit of God would teach all men without exception; and therefore what [Pope] Gregory declares falsely and in vain respecting statues and pictures is truly applicable to the history of the creation, namely, that it is the book of the unlearned. The things, therefore, which he relates, serve as the garniture of that theater which he places before our eyes. Whence I conclude, that the “waters” here meant are such as the rude and unlearned may perceive. The assertion of some, that they embrace by faith what they have read concerning the waters above the heavens, notwithstanding their ignorance respecting them, is not in accordance with the design of Moses.[1]

In other words, don’t look for scientifically accurate descriptions of nature in Genesis—Moses wrote to an ignorant audience for other purposes. I gather that Henry Morris would not have agreed with Calvin’s attitude.

The Relative Sizes of Heavenly Bodies

Calvin said similar things in commenting on the fourth day of creation (Genesis 1:14-19). In his opinion, it would be a mistake to speak literally of the Sun and the Moon as “the greater light” and “the lesser light.” Where “Moses makes two great luminaries,” the astronomers have shown “by conclusive reasons that the star of Saturn, which on account of its great distance, appears the least of all, is greater than the moon.” No problem, says Calvin, since “Moses wrote in a popular style things which without instruction, all ordinary persons, endued with common sense, are able to understand; but astronomers investigate with great labor whatever the sagacity of the human mind can comprehend.” Indeed, “Had he [Moses] spoken of things generally unknown, the uneducated might have pleaded in excuse that such subjects were beyond their capacity.” Though the astronomers know better, Moses “adapts his discourse to common usage.”

In other words, Moses appealed to the understanding of the ordinary, unlearned person, and did not concern himself with scientific accuracy—which would only confuse his audience.

David and Snake Charming

A third example comes from Calvin’s comments on Psalm 58: 4-5, where the Psalmist compares the wicked to a snake: “ Their poison is like the poison of a serpent: they are like the deaf adder that stoppeth her ear; Which will not hearken to the voice of charmers, charming never so wisely.” This text presented a challenge to Calvin, since he did not believe in the efficacy of snake charming. As with the previous texts, however, he appealed once again to the classical principle of accommodation. In his view, “David here borrows his comparison from a popular and prevailing error, and is to be merely supposed as saying, that no kind of serpent was imbued with greater craft than his enemies, not even the species (if such there were) which guards itself against enchantment.”

In each instance, notice how Calvin tries to understand a biblical text in light of the best knowledge of his day, and how sensitive he is to the problems facing interpreters in post-biblical times, in cases when our understanding of nature has changed. He understood that biblical passages were written by ancient authors (such as Moses and David), writing to an ancient audience under divine inspiration. He knew that they got some scientific details wrong—and that this was beside the point.

Calvin’s approach is very similar to the one taken by evangelical Biblical scholar Paul Seely in a thorough article published in 1991 about the firmament and the water above it. In a response published by Answers in Genesis creationist apologist James Patrick Holding flatly accused him of being an “ally” of the “enemies of Christ.” Because Seely holds “that the Bible makes scientific errors,” Holding believes that he “giv[es] ammunition to sceptics and others who want to destroy the Bible,” making Seely “more dangerous to Christians than atheists.”[2]

What exactly did Seely say to draw Holding’s ire? In a second part of his article (cited below), Seely wrote, “We need simply to see with Warfield that divine inspiration does not bestow omniscience, and hence God has sometimes allowed his inspired penmen to advert to the scientific concepts of their own day.” Holding disagreed, saying, “Seely confuses adaptation to human finitude with accommodation to human error — the former does not entail the latter.” Fair enough, but if he’s going to castigate Seely for thinking that the divine author of Scripture sometimes accommodates to human error, then he should also castigate Calvin for doing exactly the same thing! I wonder if AiG’s audience would approve of such a rhetorical strategy.

Holding’s concerns about how “accommodation” is used are not entirely wrong—it all depends on making appropriate use of what we know from non-biblical sources. As I often tell my students, the principle of accommodation does not come with a built-in “OFF” switch. Like any other tool in the hermeneutical box, it needs to be applied carefully, not just invoked uncritically to justify any conclusion one wishes to draw. In my opinion as an historian of Christianity and science who has studied a great many examples of Christian writers employing accommodation, Seely applied it very carefully. So did Calvin. They both concluded that God sometimes accommodates to human error. Was Calvin also more dangerous to Christians than atheists?

About the author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.