Monday, May 12, 2008

Calvin on Science

In another forum, one dedicated to Christianity and science, I got into a debate over biblical inerrancy. In case you don’t know, I affirm inerrancy in the original manuscripts, and am in agreement with the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy. Those with whom I was arguing are pro-science Christians, who take a more relaxed view of scripture, namely that it is reliable in matters of faith but not inerrant in the sense that modern evangelicals use.

That’s fine. I understand there are different views.

A question arose as to what the Reformers believed. John Calvin was mentioned, and it was claimed that he corrected Moses’ errant cosmology. This was offered as proof that Calvin did not hold to a Chicago style view of scriptural inerrancy.

The conclusion may be correct, but the argument is wrong.

It is useful to look at Calvin’s so-called correction for two reasons. One is to demonstrate that it has no bearing on the question of biblical inerrancy. The other is to show that Calvin had a marvelous attitude toward science.

The verse in question is a familiar one from the Genesis creation account:
And God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars. (Gen. 1:16)
Now it is interesting that a Christian should set this up as a scientific error that Calvin will then correct. When I discuss scientific error in the bible with non-believers, they will bring up cud-chewing rabbits, bad values for π, misclassified bats and a few more well-known “errors” (all of which have satisfactory explanations.) Not one has ever brought up Gen 1:16. Why not? Because I think that even atheistic biblical critics sense that there is no error here. Moses is not claiming that the actual dimensions of the moon are greater than that of the stars. He is saying that as light sources in the night sky, the moon is by far the dominant.

Yet to make his case that Calvin did not view scripture as inerrant, a Christian in this debate wants to claim either (a) this verse is in error and Calvin corrected it or (2) at least Calvin thought it was in error and was willing to correct it.

The second possibility is the more charitable. So we turn to Calvin and ask, what exactly did he write about this passage? The answer is readily available in his commentary on Genesis 1.

Calvin opens his discussion of the sixteenth verse with:
I have said, that Moses does not here subtly descant, as a philosopher, on the secrets of nature, as may be seen in these words. First, he assigns a place in the expanse of heaven to the planets and stars; but astronomers make a distinction of spheres, and, at the same time, teach that the fixed stars have their proper place in the firmament. Moses makes two great luminaries; but astronomers prove, 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. Here lies the difference; 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.
Let me paraphrase and you can decide if you read Calvin as I do.

Calvin is writing that Moses is not performing the detailed work of a scientist, but rather writing in ordinary language. At no point does he argue that Moses is wrong, but rather that Moses is simply describing what you see when you gaze upon the sky.

What is interesting, of course, is that Calvin had some new information. Astronomers had deduced that Saturn was in fact bigger than the moon. But Calvin (good man) doesn’t use this to demonstrate biblical error, but to argue for the compatibility of science and the bible.

Calvin did not take a fundamentalist approach: Pointy headed scientists be damned, Genesis 1:16 says the moon is bigger, and that’s good enough for me! Nor did he take an AIG or ICR approach: the apparent bigness of Saturn is an illusion due to the fact that the speed of light and the Gravitational constant G have changed over time for the purposes of testing those who would trust modern science and to provide income for those who would write niche-industry pseudo-science books.

No, Calvin treats the science with respect. In this first blurb he has pointed out their discovery and accepts unquestioningly: astronomy has now demonstrated that Saturn is bigger than the moon.

Things get even better in the next section:
Nevertheless, this study [Astronomy] is not to be reprobated, nor this science to be condemned, because some frantic persons are wont boldly to reject whatever is unknown to them. For astronomy is not only pleasant, but also very useful to be known: it cannot be denied that this art unfolds the admirable wisdom of God. Wherefore, as ingenious men are to be honored who have expended useful labor on this subject, so they who have leisure and capacity ought not to neglect this kind of exercise.
Bravo! Calvin is quite clear that science is a noble activity that brings glory to God. Christians that view science as an enemy would do well to ponder Calvin’s words.

From this reading, I see no indication that Calvin believed Moses was in error. I see only the explanation that what Moses wrote correct in the sense he meant it and we are to take it. But if there is any lingering question, Calvin puts it to rest:
There is therefore no reason why janglers (harsh critics) should deride the unskillfulness of Moses in making the moon the second luminary; for he does not call us up into heaven, he only proposes things which lie open before our eyes. Let the astronomers possess their more exalted knowledge; but, in the meantime, they who perceive by the moon the splendor of night, are convicted by its use of perverse ingratitude unless they acknowledge the beneficence of God.
Calvin rocks.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous12:05 PM

    We understand that the cycle of the seasons we experience is because of the tilt in the earths axis and that the earth revovles around the sun once a year. The season determines the type of weather experienced on a day to day basis. Wind patterns are determined seasonally and instigated by the fact that the earth is rotating on its axis. The rise and fall of the tides are caused by the rotation of the earth and its relationship to the gravitational effect of the moon. We know too, that the relationship between the earth and sun, speed of revolutions, speed of rotation, degree of axis tilt are intricately fine tuned so that life as we experience it is possible.
    All this knowledge was introduced with a new understanding of the universe by Copernicus who published his heliocentric theory in 1543. This theory was highly controversial at the time and was denounced by the church as heresy. John Calvin lived in the period of history that was ignorant in the areas of astonomy, biology, medicine and chemistry. A number of times in his writings Calvin refers to the movement and course of the sun thus indicating his holding to the Ptolemic view of the universe which has the earth motionless at the centre around which the rest of the universe moves. Calvin is quoted as saying "The sun though varying in its course every diurnal revolution, returns annually to the same point. The planets, in their wanderings, maintain their respective positions. How could the earth hang suspended in the air if it were not upheld by Gods hand? By what mans could it maintain itself unmoved, while the heavens are in constant, rapid motion, if its divine maker did not fix and establish it?"
    My question is did Calvin's ignorant understanding of how the universe worked result in an erronous understanding of Gods involvement and control over the universe? If the earth was motionless at the center of the universe and the sun moved around it, how did the distinct seasons occur? What caused the movement and direction of the wind? What caused the tides? etc etc. In his state of ignorance and believing in God, his only explanation would have been to give cause and control of such basic natural events to God. The core of Calvins theological belief system, the "sovereignty of God" is based on incorrect inferences. These led to wrong assumptions about God and His "providence" and "governance" of creation and then to the misinterpretation of scripture because of this erroneous interlectual bias.
    This thinking has led theologians to say things like this quote from RC Sproul in When Worlds Collide - Where is God? "a crucial part of ones world view is the question of how God relates to this planet, that is how God relates to mankind and nature...
    ... when an apple falls to the ground from a tree branch, we explain this action as being the result of the "law" of gravity. Gravity is seen as a force that operates completely by its own power, utterly independent of the power and sovereignty of God. This is a Godless view of nature, where nature usurps the role of the creator and governor of the universe... is clear that how we understand God will determine how we unerstand nature."
    This quote is an example of how Calvins assumptions have halted the correct understanding of God and His creation. Didn't God create fruit trees so that when the fruit was at it peak ripeness it no longer needed the sustainance of the tree and so "let go" with gravity doing the rest? Surely God is not involved with the process of every ripe friut falling. He ceated it to happen with out Him.
    Did Calvin's ignorant understanding of creation lead to a system of belief that was acceptable in its day but contradicts how we now know God has made our incedible universe to work.
    I wonder how Calvin would have explained a rainbow as it wasn't until 100 years after his death that Newton, with a prism discoverd the light spectrum?