Calvin on Genesis 1 as an Accommodation to the Ordinary Custom of Men

John Calvin

How are we to understand the two famous Creation narratives in Genesis 1-2, considering the scientific knowledge we have of the cosmos today? If we were to read Genesis 1-2 as a straight forward scientific account, we'd come to conclude that the Sun is the greatest luminary in the cosmos, and that the Moon is the second greatest, and both of these luminaries exceeding all the stars in the universe? Is such a literal torchering of the text necessary when exegeting Genesis? John Calvin says of course not! 

RSV Genesis 1:16, "And God made the two great lights, the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night; he made the stars also."

In a provocative, famous and illuminating selection of John Calvin's commentary, we encounter Calvin's extremely helpful approach to Genesis 1-2. I've quoted this at length below with some [...] omissions, and the most interesting words in bold below. 

Calvin concludes that we should not conclude that the Moon is greater than Saturn based on Genesis 1:14-16, and he believed that Moses, whom he considered the author of Genesis, to be cognizant that Saturn was a greater celestial body than the Moon -- despite how a literal reading of Genesis 1:16 conclude it wasn't. The justification is that Genesis 1-2 is an accommodation to the the understanding of the "ordinary custom of men" of the time of Moses. Calvin says that it would be inappropriate to disclose advanced scientific facts to people who could never understand it. The Scriptures intend to reveal the truth of Creation in a way, as such, that the Ancient Near East man would understand it. For example, when teaching our children, it is more appropriate to describe the sun as rising and setting, rather than tell our little ones the intricacies of the Copernican model or Kepler's Laws, or Einstein's Theory of Relativity -- no one teaches their children this way! Calvin is so bold to say that if brute facts or raw scientific data were presented to those Ancient Near East people to whom he wrote, that they would be justified in rejecting the Doctrine of Creation by objecting that they were unable to understand what was revealed. Calvin writes, "Had he spoken of things generally unknown, the uneducated might have pleaded in excuse that such subjects were beyond their capacity."

Calvin then goes to respond to the astronomer of his age, that criticizes Moses for accommodation of his description of Creation in the vernacular of the flawed cosmology of the ancient near east. Calvin says that this accommodation in no way prohibits or limits scientific inquiry into the true nature of the world, or should it be used to prohibit investigation into the nature of the world, and should be known as explaining creation in the categories that were known by Moses' audience. Calvin writes, "Nevertheless, this study 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." 

And Calvin further proves that Genesis 1-2 is an accommodation, apophatically, by saying that if Moses had intended to reveal scientific knowledge about the origins of the cosmos that had hitherto Moses's day been unknown, then those astronomers and cultural despisers in Calvin's day would have been justified in their criticism of Genesis 1-2's claims. But however since all that was written in Genesis 1-2 is in accords with other Ancient Near East cosmological origin sagas, then Genesis escapes this criticism! Calvin writes, "Had he spoken of things generally unknown, the uneducated might have pleaded in excuse that such subjects were beyond their capacity." 

Overall, I find Calvin's method incredibly helpful even today, especially among all the cultural controversies regarding Darwinism and Evolution in general. It is interesting that Calvin affirmed a six-day creation, however, it wasn't a rigid and literal hermeneutic that required him to come to this conclusion, but as B.B. Warfield described Calvin's method as a "prima facie chronology of the Biblical narrative" and also, "He enjoyed a joke hugely, with that open-mouthed laugh which, as one of his biographers phrases it, belonged to the men of the sixteenth century." Let us understand Genesis as revealing Creation by critical accommodation of the Ancient Near East cosmologies and the critical pillaging of those stories as a Father teaches his children, and in Genesis, find it revealing a story of creation that is the most helpful from the perspective of someone in Ancient Mesopotamia, and not someone from 21st century academia. 

14. [...] Let them be for signs It must be remembered, that Moses does not speak with philosophical acuteness on occult mysteries, but relates those things which are everywhere observed, even by the uncultivated, and which are in common use. [...] But since it is manifest that Moses does not depart from the ordinary custom of men, I desist from a longer discussion. [...]

15. Let them be for lights It is well again to repeat what I have said before, that it is not here philosophically discussed, how great the sun is in the heaven, and how great, or how little, is the moon; but how much light comes to us from them.71 For Moses here addresses himself to our senses, that the knowledge of the gifts of God which we enjoy may not glide away. Therefore, in order to apprehend the meaning of Moses, it is to no purpose to soar above the heavens; let us only open our eyes to behold this light which God enkindles for us in the earth. By this method (as I have before observed) the dishonesty of those men is sufficiently rebuked, who censure Moses for not speaking with greater exactness. For as it became a theologian, he had respect to us rather than to the stars. Nor, in truth, was he ignorant of the fact, that the moon had not sufficient brightness to enlighten the earth, unless it borrowed from the sun; but he deemed it enough to declare what we all may plainly perceive, that the moon is a dispenser of light to us. That it 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; but seeing that it has not light sufficient to penetrate to us, it borrows what is wanting from the sun. He calls it a lesser light by comparison; because the portion of light which it emits to us is small compared with the infinite splendor of the sun.72 

16. The greater light I have said, that Moses does not here subtilely 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. Nevertheless, this study 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. Nor did Moses truly wish to withdraw us from this pursuit in omitting such things as are peculiar to the art; but because he was ordained a teacher as well of the unlearned and rude as of the learned, he could not otherwise fulfill his office than by descending to this grosser method of instruction. Had he spoken of things generally unknown, the uneducated might have pleaded in excuse that such subjects were beyond their capacity. Lastly since the Spirit of God here opens a common school for all, it is not surprising that he should chiefly choose those subjects which would be intelligible to all. If the astronomer inquires respecting the actual dimensions of the stars, he will find the moon to be less than Saturn; but this is something abstruse, for to the sight it appears differently. Moses, therefore, rather adapts his discourse to common usage. For since the Lord stretches forth, as it were, his hand to us in causing us to enjoy the brightness of the sun and moon, how great would be our ingratitude were we to close our eyes against our own experience? There is therefore no reason why janglers should deride the unskilfulness 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.

~ John Calvin, "Commentary on Genesis Vol. 1" (see 1:14-16),

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