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Jonathan Master (PhD, University of Aberdeen) is professor of theology and dean of the School of Divinity at Cairn University. He is also director of Cairn’s Center for University Studies. Dr. Master serves as executive editor of Place for Truth and is co-chair of the Princeton Regional Conference on Reformed Theology.

Article by Yaroslav Viazovski

Calvin and Philosophy

September 8, 2015 •

John Calvin was eclectic in his approach to philosophy. That is, he could pick and choose what parts of a given philosophical system to accept, reject or ignore.

But there was no question whether he would use philosophical ideas or not. The employment of philosophy was inevitable and necessary. A responsible theologian deliberately chooses philosophical presuppositions for himself. If he does not, the presuppositions will choose him. The Bible does not provide us with a full-blown world-view which would include scientific understanding of natural phenomena and philosophical presuppositions about reality. Calvin derived these either directly from reading philosophical works or from the general intellectual culture of his age.

The following three examples will illustrate the fact that Calvin neither shunned philosophy nor was a slave to it. At the same time we will see that philosophical ideas could be both helpful and harmful.

Cicero and Sensus Divinitatis

The idea of an innate sense of God (Latin sensus divinitatis) plays an important role in Calvin’s epistemology. Every human being, according to Calvin, is born with a knowledge that God exists and that men and women are accountable to him. The existence of sensus is proved by the fact that all tribes, no mater how primitive, have the concept of divine. But sin corrupted human mind, distorted the sensus, and men and women see anything but true God in nature.

Calvin borrowed the language, if not the concept itself, of sensus divinitatis from Cicero’s work On the Nature of Gods. This book is one of the earliest expressions of the argument from universal consent for existence of God. Cicero writes: ‘The crux of the matter is known to all men everywhere. From their birth it is inscribed upon their minds that gods exist.’ Calvin explicitly refers to Cicero’s book in Institutes, I.3.

Calvin learned the concept of innate knowledge of God from Paul, from the first two chapters of Romans. Cicero helped him to express Paul’s teaching in more precise form.

Plato and Soul

Plato famously described body as a prison-house of human soul. We constantly hear the echo of this platonic language in Calvin. However while Calvin was a dualist and believed in soul as a distinct and immortal part of human being he did not accept Plato’s aversion to physical. For Calvin, incarnation and resurrection prove that material world is a good creation of God and that this world is exactly the place where God meets us. In this respect Calvin was in stark opposition to Plato who taught that only the flight of the soul from the body and the physical realm to the upper immaterial world of ideas can bring true knowledge of God.

Calvin was careful enough to accept only a part of Plato’s teaching about soul. Yet, he unfortunately made the division of human being into mortal body and immortal soul the starting point of his anthropology. He, then, interpreted the biblical idea of the image of God by means of the philosophical idea of the soul. He located the image of God only in the soul denying this privilege to the body. This made the body less valuable than the soul, the human being was divided into two unequal parts.

Aristotle and Cosmology

While the first two examples are classic it is a less known fact that Calvin followed Aristotle’s cosmology. For example, he accepted Aristotelian version of geocentrism: the earth is fixed in the center, the sun, the moon and the stars are attached to spheres which rotate around the earth. In the light of this some of Calvin’s comments on Genesis 1 become intelligible. Note the expressions “the circuit of the world,” “the circle”:

…the light was so created as to be interchanged with darkness. But it may be asked, whether light and darkness succeeded each other in turn through the whole circuit of the world; or whether the darkness occupied one half of the circle, while light shone in the other. (Comm. Gen 1:3; cf. Gen 1:16; Josh 10:12, 13; Is 38:8 etc.; especially see Comm. on Ps 19:4)

Calvin also accepted Aristotle’s theory of four elements and their natural places. The four elements are earth, water, air and fire. Because of their density the earth must be at the bottom, then comes water. The air must be above the water and finally the fire is above the air. Calvin refused to interpret “waters above the firmament” in Gen 1:6 literally because it contradicted Aristotelian physics of four elements and their natural places therefore he interpreted them as clouds. Calvin hesitated to ascribe luminous character to the moon in spite of the fact that Moses called it a luminary. He took a middle ground. Again, note the expression “the element of fire:”

That it [the moon] is, as the astronomers assert, an opaque body, I allow to be true, while I deny it to be a dark body. For, first, since it is placed above the element of fire, it must of necessity be a fiery body. Hence it follows, that it is also luminous. (Comm. Gen 1:15)

We see Calvin applying Aristotelian theory of the four elements to interpretation of the Bible.

In this brief article I could only mention some relations of Calvin to philosophy. I recommend for further reading Calvin and Classical Philosophy by Charles Partee, John Calvin’s Ideas by Paul Helm, John Calvin and the Natural World by Davis Young, ‘Calvin, Copernicus and Castellio’ by Christopher Kaiser.

Yaroslav Viazovski (Ph.D. University of Aberdeen, M.A.R. Reformed Theological Seminary) is a pastor of a Reformed Baptist church in Minsk, Belarus, as well as the head of Gospel and Reformation Publishing House which specializes in translation and distribution of Reformed literature in Russian language. He is also trying to start a Reformed seminary in his home country Belarus.

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